RAY MEETS HELEN, which has just opened theatrically, is the first feature directed and written by Alan Rudolph in a decade-and-a-half. Its scenario, and its mood, are in line with Rudolph’s best earlier films. For instance, in some of its sharpest moments, RAY MEETS HELEN features secondary characters who pop into the story, speak clever and ironic lines, and then disappear. But at its core are its title characters. Ray and Helen are solitary lost souls who are floating through their lives and dealing with their issues. They meet, and at the center of the story is their evolving relationship. Is there an attraction here? Will it be mutual? Will it somehow last, or is it simply too late for any sort of meaningful connection?
And the bottom line here is: Are we all fated to pass through our lives by ourselves?
However, there is one difference between RAY MEETS HELEN and Rudolph’s other films, the best of which date from the 1980’s and ‘90’s. In these films, his central characters are in the primes of their lives. But here, they are aging, and RAY MEETS HELEN radiates a sense of the passage of time, a wistfulness that emerges from its maker’s core. According to Rudolph, what might have happened a long time ago can “seem like yesterday.” Plus, there is “nothing, where something used to be.”
Adding to the film’s almost surreal mood is that the actors playing Ray and Helen are themselves aging. Keith Carradine, a veteran Rudolph collaborator, stars as Ray, and Sondra Locke is Helen. Remember Sondra Locke? Her best-recalled performance is in her screen debut. That would be THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, from the Carson McCullers novel, which dates from 1968-- or, a half-century ago. Locke emerged with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. To date, this is the highlight of her screen career.
Now age-wise, the characters in RAY MEETS HELEN are directly linked to Alan Rudolph. His birth-year is 1943 and, even though his characters are not spring chickens, they are fashioned as reflections of life in 2018. With this in mind, RAY MEETS HELEN offers a sobering view of our contemporary culture. At its core is the point that we do not live in an automatically happy-ever-after world. For indeed, most of those who pass through Ray’s and Helen’s lives are not at all friendly. They are not helpful. Bureaucracy reigns, and true romantics are pitifully few.
One of Rudolph’s observations is that, today, to quote directly from the script, “cops, crooks, (and) companies” are “all out to get you” in this “wicked world.” This sentiment is taken directly from CHOOSE ME, released in 1984, which to my mind is Rudolph’s all-time-best film. So how much really has changed in the three-plus decades since CHOOSE ME? Has any aspect of our culture genuinely evolved and improved? This issue is dealt with in RAY MEETS HELEN and, to Rudolph’s view, the answer unfortunately is a pointed and powerful “NO!”
Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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