Regardless of personal feeling towards his work, there is no denying the brilliant craft of Nicholas Ray. He created influential pieces that have stuck with directors and artists for generations, Rebel Without a Cause is still cited for its flair and visual charm. Finding himself in his final days of life, riddled with death and disease, Ray comes to terms with the life he led, a tinge of regret in his voice as he and Wim Wenders direct us through Lightning Over Water, a blend of documentary and artistic fiction detailing Ray’s wish to create one final film, and the reality of his impossible goal.
Whether or not Lightning Over Water is a strict documentary or a work of relative fiction is up to the audience to decide. The camera shots and the dialogue delivery all smacks of fabrication, but at its core, there is room for a real story. Wenders and Ray work tirelessly to present a narrative blemished with fiction, but their stringent style is often too much to bear. They perform it well enough, but the incessant need to make this blend of reality and fakery is often heavy-handed and overambitious. Still, a bold endeavour to even try, one that offers bits of brilliance here or there. The mixture is present, not cocky but endearing, and not quite working either.
As painful and upsetting this may be, Lightning Over Water is not a lost cause. The brief moments of reality are poignant and touching. Ray describing the premise for his film and the questions Wenders puts to him about his project make for brief flutters of back-and-forth brilliance. Quickly moving beyond this, though, Wenders highlights his fears, rather than those of Ray. This narrative shies away from Ray for portions, playing with the guilt Wenders feels for his friend. Resolved rather quickly, it feels like a tangent, however earnest it may be. It slots between a terrifying acceleration of ill-health, and the pain it causes Ray’s loved ones.
Certainly uncomfortable to witness, but Lightning Over Water suffers too much from two directors attempting a pseudo-style of documentary making. The blend is uncoordinated, heartfelt and messy. In the moments of genuine realism, the direction of Ray and Wenders can be truly heart-wrenching. Seeing the man sit keenly, watching a performance on the stage, analysing the craft of the actor before him whilst puffing away on a cigarette, those natural moments provide more touching musings than anything of their fiction. Straight-shooting documentaries are ten-a-penny, and appreciating the adventure these two great directors set out to conquer is admirable, but their innovation falls on deaf ears, there will be no greater moment throughout than the realism, the final realisation that life has slipped through the fingers of a great innovator.