Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Janitor (Nicholas Ray, 1974)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

Nicholas Ray's contribution to the Wet Dreams anthology film, entitled "The Janitor," is a deconstruction of Nicholas Ray the symbol through the symbolic destruction of Nicholas Ray the man. Ray himself plays two of the film's three chief parts, those of a priest speaking to a teenage congregation and a janitor who toils in a movie studio that becomes increasingly connected to the priest's story through broken diegesis and metacinema. And through it all, the film adheres to the softcore theme behind the overall project.

The first striking aspect of the film is Ray's face. With his untamed hair, eye patch, lined face and perilous, craggy chasm of a mouth, Ray looks like Dionysus in decline, a hard-living hero now dessicated by self-abuse. That brand of self-abuse finds its way into the film's main form of self-abuse, and the swirling torrent of religiosity, sexual ecstasy, guilt and self-hatred that springs forth from this collision makes "The Janitor" an unexpected triumph. Unless you were watching this to get off, in which case the film is a horrendous failure.

The contrast between the janitor and priest suggests that one is the fever dream vision of the other. As the janitor dances playfully around the studio as he sweeps, the faraway priest has his young daughter pull up his stockings before he goes out to address his teenage following. There, he rants against Moses' commandment "Thou shalt not commit adultery," his screed flowing in and out of coherence as occasional returns to the janitor show the man happily toiling away, lost in his own head.

Back with the congregation, the priest's words have such an overpowering effect that the teenagers begin to engage in an orgy, much to his consternation. "Stop!" he begs. "I still have plenty of things to tell you!" If the film's ragged assembly suggests a fight with his own cinematic proclivities, the sight of a visibly bemused Ray trying to calm his eroticized disciples works as a skewed look at his second career as a teacher, perhaps exposing his fears that he had not imparted what he wished onto his pupils.

The aesthetic experiments go even deeper. Post-sync sound turns the audio mix into a hodgepode of the skittering recorded sounds of clattering objects and hiss and the overdubbed speech of a French baritone with a voice so deep and ponderous that the separately recorded speech divorces from the diegetic world until it becomes dialogue and omniscience to bridge the two distinct scenarios. In effect, both the audio and visuals embody a duality in their construction, distinct halves not so much in opposition as all-out war, thrown at each other like atoms in a collider until they smash together and fuse. Ray long used this approach with character, most notably in the rival soldiers of Bitter Victory and the conservationist/poacher duo in Wind Across the Everglades; here, however, he uses the make-up of film itself.

By the end of the segment's 14 nigh-impenetrable minutes, Ray has covered such topics as religious guilt, the spirituality of the orgasm (and the sexual bliss of the spirit), incest and the structural elements of cinema. The daydream at last becomes a movie, and an enraged janitor pulls a rifle from a closet and fires into his own looming image, an act of meta-suicide that seems the oddly logical endpoint of Ray's corpus of self-annihilating icon erection and deconstruction. Though Ray would continue to tweak the previous year's experiment We Can't Go Home Again and make the part-doc Lightning Over Water with Wim Wenders, "The Janitor" is an unexpected yet curiously satisfying summary of one of the cinema's greatest voices.

1 comment:

  1. Great write up, Jake! Excellent insight on the preacher's admonition the audience stop and listen because he has more to say. It's nice more than one person wrote about this little vignette; I get the impression some Ray fans find his life so messy that they need to subsume some details, and "The Janitor" is one of those details.