christopher funderburg


Despite their reputations, some films and filmmakers just don't do it for Funderburg and Cribbs. This series, Second Chances, follows their attempts to find greatness where they've previously failed to see it; to actively make an effort to appreciate esteemed artworks for which they currently have a distaste (or feel indifference). They'll give cult favorites like Let the Right One In another shot and dig deep in the filmographies of beloved auteurs whose appeal baffles them (like Nicholas Ray) - and with a little luck, maybe they'll even end up as newly-minted fans...

<< click here for Nicholas Ray: Part II>>

<< click here for Nicholas Ray: Part III >>

<< click here for Nicholas Ray: Part IV>>


The subject: Nicholas Ray

Initial Resistance:
When I was in high school, I pursued my informal educational in le cinema in what I imagine is a fairly typical way: by retracing the medium's steps in reverse, following a chain of references from the current world of movies backwards into cinema's history. I started with a harmless enough mainstream-ish, easily accessible "art" film (or an "indie" film as they were known in the 90's): in this case Kevin Smith's Clerks – a raunchy B&W comedy perfect for pretentious 14-year olds. In interviews, Smith constantly mentioned Hal Hartley's Trust as a major influence, so I ventured a slight step farther into the past and got a hold of a copy of that enjoyably eccentric film. Trust led me to Godard in general (critics and skeptics of Hartley derided his aesthetic as sub-par Godard-biting) and Pierrot le Fou in specific. From there, I sought out Johnny Guitar, a movie referenced in Pierrot by Belmondo's desolate character (and, as I learned, a favorite film of the former Cahiers du Cinema critics-turned-filmmakers, including Godard).

So, as an eager teenager, I rented Johnny Guitar and Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious for a little double feature of Cahiers-approved, stylized Hollywood Westerns. Rancho Notorious coming from the director of M, Metropolis and Fury was shocking enough in its own right, but the complete blandness of Johnny Guitar caught me even more off balance: there was just nothing interesting about it, other than a mild air of grotesquery generated by Joan Crawford's always unsettling screen-presence. The plot was melodramatic and, to my adolescent mind, more than a bit boring. It was talky, but too floridly stilted for the dialog to really grab me. It would not be unfair to describe much of pseudo-poetic interludes as "cheesy" and the purported excesses of production design as "mild." It left me entirely cold.

To this day, I have only seen two Nicholas Ray films: Johnny Guitar and the culturally ubiquitous Rebel without a Cause. I didn't find the latter film to be all that remarkable either: just about my only reaction was surprise in finding out that James Dean's character was actually a bit of nerdlinger. All this time, I thought that film was supposed to be about a guy who epitomizes outlaw cool, a dangerously delinquent hooligan who plays by his own rules; instead, I got the tale of a neurotic, sullen wiener who has trouble with the ladies. He might be cinema's cleanest example of wimpy teen-angst. I came in expecting an essential link in the evolution of hip and was instead once again greeted with "cheesy."

So, Nick Ray's brand of melodrama got filed away in my mind as something not particularly interesting. As a rule, Hollywood in the 40's and 50's is not my thing, so I rarely crossed paths with Ray from there on out – to a certain extent, I actively avoided his movies, passing up several opportunities to see cardinal films like They Live by Night, Bitter Victory and In a Lonely Place. The fact that lesser known films like Wind Across the Everglades, Party Girl and Hot Blood look genuinely terrible made it easy to completely stay away.

Reason for reassessment:
"Le cinema, c'est Nicholas Ray," according to Godard. As I mentioned before, you can't tell the story of the Nouvelle Vague
** without Nick Ray and, for certain, you can't tell the story le cinema without paying special notice to what’s probably the most influential film movement of all time. The Nouvelle Vague's philosophical influence is pretty much inescapable – their terms have defined how audiences ingest cinema for so long, that to a certain extent, it's impossible to seriously discuss film without appropriating at least some of their critical language and approach. These next few paragraphs are going to be a long (seeming) digression about the Cahiers critics, but bear with me: my desire to give Nicholas Ray another shot is completely intertwined with my feelings on those dudes. For God's sake, Truffaut issued the explicit challenge: "One can argue against Hawks and for Ray - or the other way around; one can condemn Big Sky in the name of Johnny Guitar or accept them both. But anyone who rejects either should never go to the movies again, never see any more films. Such people will never recognize inspiration, poetic intuition, or a framed picture, a shot, an idea, a good film, or even cinema itself."

The Cahiers critics were not only exceptionally vocal about their tastes and influences, they were rabid partisans who actively sought to influence the future of the medium through their aggressive advocacy of what they considered to be the canon. Deeply self-conscious of cinema’s history, perhaps more than any other film movement, they sought to fuse the past with their future: their films and criticism were simultaneously obsessed with looking forward and looking back. It would not be stretch to say that for Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Rohmer and Chabrol that looking back was a way of looking forward – it was just as important to them to actively control the canon as it was to make their own ground-breaking films. Through their selection of films and filmmakers for the canon, they were attempting to locate and secure their place therein as well: there is direct link between the reputations of Nicholas Ray's work and their work.

(continued on page 2 of "Second Chances: Nicholas Ray")

* Pierrot also led me to the work of Sam Fuller, another Cahiers-beloved auteur whom initially left me cold. I didn't see White Dog, Shock Corridor, Pick-Up on South Street or The Big Red One until much later on and, even now, I have my reservations about the cigar-chomping Renaissance man.

** Although the movement originally referred to an incredibly large swath of French filmmakers that got their start in the 1960's, I'll use it here in reference to the five Cahiers du Cinema critics who were part of that larger wave of independently-backed French filmmakers who eschewed the Union-bound studio system already in place.

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