For Joe Rubin
We like to say that the Internet allows us to explore "new forms." The Internet doesn't allow anything. It forces. YouTube’s length limitations mean that I’ve had to upload Nicholas Ray’s The Janitor as two six minute halves. Instead of looking at this as an interruption, a hiccup, the Internet’s equivalent of a reel change, it’s better to see it as an arbitrary cleaving: two videos have been created from one movie. Ray, of course, can survive any division. The troubled history of many of his productions isn’t a tragedy, but a testament. You could fire Nicholas Ray, but you couldn’t exorcize him from the movie. He ends up haunting whatever scenes of Wind Across the Everglades he didn't direct. Like Orson Welles, who could be cut and recut but could never be cut out. The reason they hold so much fascination as filmmakers, as figures, is because they didn't need total control for the films to be theirs.
Part 1: Le Coq et Le Clergyman
May 1973, 16mm, post-synced sound, a little West German money, a small studio in Amsterdam. One man, aptly named Max Fischer, handling both the camera and the editing table. The Janitor was shot as the 12th of a baker's dozen (or, even better, devil's dozen) of fantasies for the Wet Dreams anthology film. Nicholas Ray plays himself as two characters: a priest out of Bataille and a janitor out of Beckett. The priest is a preacher and a moralizer. Of course moralizers and the “deviants” they preach against have the same obsessions: sex and death. And sex and death are there in the priest's room, which is decorated with funeral parlor wallpaper and a rickety brothel bed. His thick-browed daughter pulls the stockings up over his skinny legs. Meanwhile, the bare-footed janitor bumbles around a sound stage like a bawdy silent comedian. His stage name could be Larry Semen.
Their voice is a French baritone that sounds like it's narrating even when delivering dialogue. The sort of voice that turns anyone engaging it into a talking point instead of an equal. The sound is as authoritative as the images are noisy. There's a jitter to the picture, a reminder that movies are made possible by electricity and that every shot can be made to spark.
Part 2: Ray vs. Ray
Whatever we dream about, we ultimately dream about ourselves. The wet dream, the abstract sexual desire, is a desire for ourselves, for some idea of others that exists only in our minds. The janitor dreams the priest. The priest is too caught up in his fervor to take note of his own incest. The janitor stops shitting just long enough to destroy him. The somebody who hallucinates his power against the nobody who can take an ultimately suicidal action.
The division created by the need to split up the film into two halves gives us two videos with different approaches. The first part becomes about the body as seen from a distance. The director's body as a marionette. The second part is self-expression in the most literal sense, a film that speaks through images of its director’s beautifully craggy face. Here the body is a fancy way for transporting the head. And there's something monumental about the human face. It's more of a landscape than the body. The mountain of Ray's nose, the ravine of his mouth, the forest of his hair. So whereas in the first half, the priest and the janitor are characters, here they become figures; the first half is a story, and the second is a myth.
Myths aren't to be confused with parables. Parables have morals; myths illustrate some vague and inarticulatable power. As long as films get made, every one of them is gonna be about filmmaking. So every mythic film is about the film myth. The idea of the movies, something popular and incredibly beautiful. And to Ray, if cinema can't be a salvation, it can be a testimony. If success is impossible, one should strive to make an honest record of failure. If there can't be a victory, there can be a struggle, even if it's only the struggle of the director against him or herself.