We Can’t Go Home Again

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Recently I watched two films back to back that seemingly have very little in common. Upon a superficial examination these two films appear to only contrast one another. The first was made in the seventies as a reactionary portrait of the United States during the social unrest of the early seventies, executed with the kind of “underground film” aesthetic that could only be easily described as a Paul Morrissey film assembled by Stan Brakhage. The second film is French, and makes every effort to employ the surrealist film tactics of Jean Vigo, Jean Cocteau and Jean Epstein to deconstruct the novelistic conventions typical in narrative film of the fifties, epitomizing the lettrist movement. Despite these contextual and aesthetic dissimilarities, these two films both achieve a dissociative examination of the cinematographic langue, deconstructing the modes by which the audience reads an image in film by filling the frame with smaller frames, whose relativity to one another is neither circumstantial nor contextual and predicated by the accompanying soundtrack or entirely invented by the audience as an attempt to link these images via a coherent association (compositionally, aesthetically, or simply via content).

The first film I have alluded to is Nicolas Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again (1971). Produced as an extravagant student film based around Ray’s literal proposition that filmmaking by nature is a communal act, a proposition carried well beyond the production of the film and into the personal lives of the students who contributed to it. Therefore, though the film is not singularly the result of Ray’s authorship, it will be treated as such in this essay for simplicity’s sake, though it cannot be argued that Ray himself was not the principle guiding force behind the film.

Regardless of the legitimate authorship of We Can’t Go Home Again, it’s true significance resides in the film’s technical approach to montage. As the film appeared at its premiere at Cannes in 1971 the film ran 87 minutes. During those 87 minutes the film fills the primary frame, with an aspect ratio of 16:9, with a series of smaller frames which function as units within a larger composition (that of which I have referred to as the primary frame). These units are composed of various narratives shot on a variety of film stocks and are arranged in a seemingly random fashion, devoid of any compositional or contextual unification. The dissimilarities in the narrative content of these units prevents a unifying narrative from directing the audience’s understanding of the images, subverting their expectations and assumptions, forcing the audience instead to interpret the film as it appears as a whole in the primary frame and as an anthropological recording of a single year in the history of the United States. The thematic connection is a presumptive one then. One can assume that the socio-political upheaval of the early seventies recorded in We Can’t Go Home Again is reflected in the deconstructive approach of aligning dissociative units within a single primary frame. Therefore in form and content We Can’t Go Home Again is able to epitomize the anti thesis to the formal understanding of the cinematographic langue. By negating it’s direct employment in the film’s montage yet attaining it’s essential effects by another means suggests, on behalf of Ray and his students, that other cinematic languages must be invented to articulate new directions in socio-political growth on a nationalist level predicated by advents in technological achievement pertaining to the medium itself.

The second film is Marc O.’s Closed Vision (1954), whose importance here is strictly that it alludes to the modes by which We Can’t Go Home Again would be able to subvert the critical assumptions of the cinematographic langue. Closed Vision itself is a far cry from We Can’t Go Home Again, and presents itself as a muddled compilation of aesthetic approaches to film. Firstly, a series of title cards make reference to the endorsement of the film by the surrealist Jean Cocteau, which isn’t surprising when one takes into account Marc O.’s allegiance to the lettrist movement. Following Cocteau’s endorsement, more title cards follow that inform the audience of two intentions of the film. Firstly, that the film may aid in the development of human psychological studies, the second that the film is a co-production between the French and the Americans. The intention of these title cards is to legitimize the film and to provide an intellectual justification for the film. However, each card manages to contradict the last, confusing the context of the film and its relation to its audience. Likewise, a majority of the body of the film contains the lyrical stream of consciousness narrative similar to that which defined the films of the early surrealists and Dadaists, though in this instance Marc O. contrasts his loose narrative with a disjointed soundtrack whose primary purpose is to manufacture the illusion that Closed Vision does indeed simulate the effects of actual stream of consciousness.

The important portion of Closed Vision to my argument occurs early on, and lasts only briefly, and is stylistically quite different from the bulk of the film. The contents of this section are precise and more highly articulate, despite the fact that the section appears utilizing the same basic unit structure of We Can’t Go Home Again. The difference is that Marc O.’s film negates a direct confrontation with the cinematographic langue by restricting the content of his units to still images on a much larger collage (a concept adapted by the filmmaker from the Rythmus films of Hans Richter and the formal experiments of Marcel Duchamp in the twenties). This collage (composed of roughly cut out images from different magazines) appears in wide shot, revealing all of it’s many pictures as individual units. Then, Marc O. moves his camera in on single sections of the bigger collage, emphasizing single units. Thus, Marc O.’s film provides a sort of blueprint for the mechanisms with which Ray would conduct his own deconstruction of cinematic linguistics.

The most striking element that links these two films is that any similarity is entirely unintentional. It is unlikely Nicolas Ray ever encountered Marc O.’s film, as it is just as unlikely that Marc O. ever intended to suggest the cinematic possibilities of We Can’t Go Home Again. What’s strange is that Ray’s effective call for a new cinematic language never found a more mainstream expression and only regressed back into the cinematic avant-garde. In fact, the kind of cinematic expression that defines We Can’t Go Home Again and makes it such a singular viewing experience can be found more readily today in video art and installations.

Consider Dieter Roth’s Solo Screens installation of 1997. Roth replaces Ray’s primary frame reference point with an equally fixed and alternately flexible perspective, space. However, while within a space, a spectator can navigate freely. This freedom of movement simulates, to varying degrees, those instances when only a single unit appears in the primary frame during Ray’s film. But unlike Ray, Roth’s units are more clearly defined, manifested as a series of televisions in an aluminum showcase. It is in this way that Roth removes the role Ray played in the production of his film as primary director and editor, replacing those roles and the necessity for such roles by dissecting the cinematographic langue all together, allowing the spectator to dictate the content of his or her own subjective primary frame. Similar effects have been achieved in other video installations, thus grounding the new cinematic language outside of conventional filmmaking as it is popularly thought of and grounding it in the vernacular of gallery art. Some other primary instances are Elija-Liisa Ahtila’s Consolation Service (1999) and Darren Almond’s Traction (1999). This singular evolution is therefore clearly indicative of the growth of cinematic language, as it has always been suggested by the avant-garde, has been growing beyond the theoretical confines of the standardized tools and mechanisms of both formal and traditional movie making and the modes of its spectatorship.