May 25, 2011

Lightning Over Water

Nicholas Ray was one of the few true bad boy directors that worked in the strict confines of the Hollywood studio system. Nick Ray directed Rebel Without a Cause (1955) – arguably the greatest and most influential teen angst film ever made – so, one could say that the Hollywood auteur invented the “too cool for school” model for misunderstood American youth . Ray also directed the subversive western Johnny Guitar (1954), a film that features Joan Crawford playing a cowgirl who can fight with the most brutal of cowboys, thus one could argue the director was a nominal feminist of sorts. Like most great directors, Ray’s talents started to dwindle as he entered his not so sparkling golden years. Due to being a lifelong drug addict and alcoholic, Ray started to find himself being rejected by the strictly business businessmen of tinstletown during the early 1960s. In fact, Ray collapsed on the set of his film 55 Days of Peking (1963) while intoxicated; no doubt one of the most embarrassing things that could happen to a serious filmmaker. If one thing stayed consistent in Nicholas Ray’s life (besides constant intoxication), it was his ability to fit in with and influence younger generations of filmmakers and actors. Ray is known for being extra considerate to the stars of Rebel Without a Cause, even allowing James Dean to give much creative input in the direction of the film (some have argued that Dean actually directed the film). In 1970, Ray met and smoked weed with the equally eccentric Dennis Hooper (who had a small role in Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause) during a Grateful Dead concert at the Fillmore East in Manhattan, NYC. At the time, Hopper was putting the finishing touches on his cinematic bomb The Last Movie (1971). Not long after the concert, Hopper landed Nicholas Ray a film studies professor job at SUNY Binghamton University in upstate New York. Just as he did with Hopper, Ray had no qualms about smoking weed with his film students. In fact, Ray and his students can be seen sharing a joint together in the director’s last work We Can’t Go Home Again; a film that the filmmaker worked on for about a decade, but never officially completed (although rough drafts of the work were screened at various film festivals). In the documentary Lightning Over Water (1980), German director Wim Wenders captured Ray’s remaining days on earth.

Seeing as I am a fan of both Wim Wenders and Nicholas Ray's films, I expected Lightning Over Water to be a an oh-so rare work where two different directors from two different generations and two different worlds come together for a special moment in cinema history. Instead, Lightning Over Waters was one of the most painful and unrewarding films that I have had the displeasure of seeing. Basically, the documentary is about an arrogant young auteur who coldly documents the depressing deterioration of a once virile and rebellious filmmaker. Ray may have smoked pot and guzzled booze well into his senior years, but in Lightning Over Water he can barely even string together a simple and articulate sentence. During the beginning of this quasi-documentary, Wenders oddly states to mentally and physically gray Ray, “I thought I’d find myself attracted to your weakness and suffering.” Indeed, it does seem like Wenders is deriving pleasure from Ray’s mental and physical decline throughout Lightning Over Water. Although Lightning Over Water is a documentary, many of the scenes seem rather staged and horribly contrived, as if Wenders was attempting to make a minimalistic melodrama, but neglected to include a cohesive plot. If there is one elment about the film that is truly authentic, its Ray’s delirium and dementia-ridden-like behavior. At one point in the documentary, Ray states, “Jesus Christ, I’m sick!”, yet it still seem as if he can’t completely understand what is happening to him. I am sure that Ray’s lifelong hedonistic pursuits had worn his health to nil, though he still seems like the typical kind of elderly person that you can easily find at a full-care nursing home. Anyone who has ever watched a grandparent lose their health knows that it is not the most pleasant event to witness. If Wender’s manages to do anything right with Lightning Over Water, it is documenting the all-encompassing melancholy and misery that often accompanies old age. I seriously doubt that the majority of serious cinephiles (be they fans of Ray and/or Wenders or not) while find any redeeming qualities - whether it aesthetically, thematically, or historically - in the entirety of the film. Despite being packed with gloom and hopeless despair, Lightning Over Water also manages to be extremely banal and quite the struggle to get through. The fact that the film – a highly intimate and extremely serious work – was screened out of competition at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival just goes to show how horrible of a film it really is. After all, if Lightning Over Water was at least half-way decent, the judges probably would have given it honorary critical acclaim due its seemingly human portrayal of a once highly influential filmmaker. Wenders even failed to make the documentary a worthy tribute to Nicholas Ray’s filmmaking career. Lightning Over Water does feature a couple snippets from Ray’s large body of work, nevertheless, these scenes are completely bombarded and ultimately eclipsed by the filmmaker’s stark geriatric degeneration; making it seem as if his entire filmmaking career was solely in vain. Although a lot filmmaker’s experience a wane in artistic prowess as they reach old age, few filmmakers have concluded their career with a project that is as repellent and uncomplimentary as Lightning Over Water.

 Nicholas Ray and James Dean

I am not one who tends to label films exploitative, however, Lightning Over Water is blatantly so. For Wim Wenders to claim that Nicholas Ray was a great friend seems a little more than dishonest. In a perfect world, Ray’s career would have ended with the successful completion and critical acclaim of We Can’t Go Home Again, but instead, his life concluded with the deplorable and disposable abortion Lightning Over Water. Of course, it will be superlatively obvious to most viewers that Wenders' self-satisfied sadism bleeds throughout the entire documentary. For most of Lightning Over Water, Wim Wenders looks like a wimpy prick full of pretention and anal retention as he creepily and somewhat fiendishly lurks around the mostly oblivious Nicholas Ray. Near the conclusion of Lightning Over Water, Wenders forces Ray to call the cut of the film. Ray – being in an overt state of confusion – somewhat agitatedly, yet appropriately, responds with, “I am sick and you’re making me sick………..ok I’m finished.”  It should also be noted that Lighting Over Water was directed and narrated in a manner comparable to a Werner Herzog documentary; minus character and spirit.  Whereas Herzog's documentaries are know for being quite empathetic and respectful in their portrayal of (often peculiar) subjects, Lightning Over Water offers an impudently aloof and aweless depiction of Nicholas Ray.   Although I have enjoyed some of Wim Wenders' films in the past (Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas), I would be lying if I did not admit my newfound disdain for the obnoxious German auteur. Maybe if Wenders is lucky, some young and obscenely arrogant up-and-coming filmmaker will document his remaining days on his deathbed in a manner as vulgar as his putrid portraiture of Ray in Lightning Over Water.  Near the beginning of the documentary, Wenders mentions the budget he has to work with for an upcoming film; to which Nick Ray responds with, "For 1% of that, I could make………………….. lightning over water."  Unfortunately, Wim Wenders was the one that made Lightning Over Water; a film less appealing than cute piglets being led to their slaughter.

-Ty E

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