Ray of Light

in 27th Torino Film Festival

by Dinko Tucakovic

The Nicholas Ray Retrospective at the 27th Torino Film Festival

“… and the cinema is Nicholas Ray.” Jean-Luc Godard

There is something almost self-destructive in the policy of a festival to have such immense retrospectives of cinema giants Nicholas Ray and Nagisa Oshima, alongside tributes to Francis Ford Coppola and Emir Kusturica. These programs could cast a giant shadow over the competition program of contemporary debut films, creating a situation in which the sidebar seems more important than a main dish. But it is certainly a wise investment in the future of the festival which bravely balances glamour, social criticism, film history and experiment. One might compare it to a buffet of champagne and sausages, caviar and beer. However, the result was sold out screenings of the competition and retrospectives alike.

The Nicholas Ray retrospective was by any standard the most complete ever. Ray is not just one more American director, script writer and actor. In his films he explored the theme of an outsider in conflict with society. Indirectly, this was also his personal story. Ray was the most accomplished of Hollywood directors in balancing modernist tendencies with the poetics of American cinema. His influence on European filmmakers, inaugurated with the French New Wave, continues today.

Ray was born in Wisconsin and appeared on the American leftist theatre scene in the early thirties. He collaborated with Frank Lloyd Wright, Clifford Odets, Charles and Peter Seeger and John Houseman.

Ray’s first feature They Live by Night (1948) is one of the best film debuts ever. He worked (and was friends) with Humphrey Bogart, who gave one of his best performances in In a Lonely Place (1950). During the witch hunt of the Red Scare era Ray was protected by the authority of Howard Hughes. He became world-renowned with his film Rebel without a Cause (1955), which promoted young James Dean to stardom and turned him into an icon of nonconformity for the young. His operatic western Johnny Guitar (1954) was a cult film for French New Wave directors. Later Ray continued his career in Europe with the producer Samuel Bronston who wanted to make a new Hollywood in Spain. During the sixties Ray’s filmmaking vocation was interrupted and he unsuccessfully tried to realize various projects in several European countries. Ray died in 1979, during the shooting of Lightning over Water which he directed with Wim Wenders.

The lesser known episode of his several visits to Yugoslavia during 1963-66 and his attempt to make The Doctor and the Devils, based on a Dylan Thomas script, remains a black hole in all his biographies, and also in the anthology of his autobiographical fragments and lectures I was Interrupted, edited by his widow Susan Schwarz Ray, who was his main promoter.

This is a first in the series of events, planned and organized by The Nicholas Ray Foundation in honor of Ray’s centenary (1911- 2011). Susan Ray is the president of the board of directors, and son Timothy Ray is vice president. The board of advisors includes such authorities as directors and admirers Jim Jarmusch and Philip Kaufman and film historians and critics Bernard Eisenshitz and Jonathan Rosenbaum.

“I would like to help create a new concept of film as a living, continuously breathing thing, so you see the molecules of thought and emotion and experience working all the time, and in a kind of wonderful disorder that permits the audience to participate in creating its own order and drawing their own conclusions from what they experience …” Such is the vision and legacy of Nicolas Ray.

The chemistry of Torino’s directors, Gianni Amelio and Alberto Barbera, juggling future and past, created this year’s edition of TFF as one continuous highlight. One might say that playing On Dangerous Ground they managed to make the 27th Torino Film Festival Bigger Than Life. And that is what film festivals should be all about.

Edited by Yael Shuv