Lightning over Water

Lightning over Water
January 17th 2024

“It’s more about going home than anything I’ve ever seen,” Wim Wenders intones to a supine Nicholas Ray outside an auditorium full of students watching The Lusty Men (1952), a film which tells the story of a washed up rodeo star enticing a younger cowhand out of his married life and into competition. In a wrenching early scene, the older man (Robert Mitchum), returns to his childhood home, long since repossessed, where the owner aims a shotgun at him. The shrunken, eyepatched Ray, listening to a younger idolater, cannot help but recall the geriatric star of Peter Bogdonavich’s Directed by John Ford (1970). He rebuts: “What does it mean to go back home?”

Lightning over Water (1980) is the film made by some fraught combination of Ray and Wenders in the elder director’s waning days, as he slowly succumbed to the cancer that would claim his life before editing could be completed. Taking a break from the troubled Zoetrope production of Hammett (1982), Wenders flew to New York at Ray’s behest to stay at his apartment and help him make his final film. The resulting mess interweaves documentary and fiction, film and video formats, vaguely defined authorial perspectives, and about half a dozen unrealized plots. Among those are a stage adaptation of King Lear, a scenario involving Ray’s character from The American Friend (1977), and a performance from Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy.”.

Final words are hard to devise. Film is life as film is death for Ray—the inverse of Godard’s “the cinema is Nicholas Ray” maxim. But with each of these sketches' failed bids for cohesion, the notion of Ray’s death as a homecoming is only further problematized. Serge Daney pointed out that Ray’s and Wenders’s bond is one of the many mentor-mentee, father-son relationships that pervade Ray’s filmography. Lightning over Water is the strangest link in a long chain stretching through Bigger than Life (1956) and The Lusty Men, of films in which the elder generation clings to its dominion over the younger one. This generational conflict is as much the subject as the author of Lightning over Water. Whereas Wenders, on a limited break from his Hollywood career, seeks to gently shift Ray toward a tying of threads; Ray's every instinct seems bent away from reconciliation in this final statement. The doubt and fury underpinning his concept of home lead him perpetually out the door, away from the easy tribute offered by Wenders, throwing shit at the wall and spiraling outward as in his other final film, the aptly titled multi-projector epic We Can't Go Home Again (1973). It’s difficult to pass a torch still sparking in so many different directions.

Throughout his career, Ray fought studios for control, and Lightning over Water is fascinating in the same way as much of his late work: rife with lacunae, the product of obstinacy and forced compromise. Its loose ends remain to be connected in the mind of the overyearning cinephile, like Wenders, who appears genuinely tortured by the task. A completed version of We Can’t Go Home Again didn’t premiere until 2013, after it was re-edited by Susan Ray, the director’s widow. Wenders shot his ending for Lightning over Water after Ray’s passing in June 1979. The film’s last images are its most beautiful, showing a ship carrying Ray’s ashes setting out to sea, but there’s a false note, as if a period was appended to a poem mid-line. It’s understandable that Wenders would want to pay his friend this last tribute; it’s also telling that he could only do it once Ray had departed the frame.

Lightning over Water screens tonight at the Museum of Modern Art as part of “To Save and Project: The 20th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation.”