Before we started taping, you were telling me about the difficulty of
getting good prints of Cassavetes' films. Can you say more about that?
Carney: The situation for both
prints and videos is pretty bad. Even when a print or video of a film
is available, it is usually hacked up, with missing footage. But since
the films are not that familiar to most people, no one seems to notice.
It's like the time I went to a screening of Opening Night and the
reels were shown in the wrong order and I was apparently the only person
in the theater who realized it. When I went back to tell the projectionist,
he said that since the Cassavetes narratives were pretty confused
anyway, he had thought that the movie just began in the middle of a scene!
In a similar vein, no one notices
or complains about the print situation. If a Cassavetes film looks awful,
they just assume that that's the way Cassavetes shot it. Every time I
come across another American Film Institute, Library of Congress, or UCLA
restoration project devoted to group of trashy Hollywood movies, another
fifty thousand dollars spent to bring us new prints of King Kong
or The Gunfight at the OK Corral or something else of that caliber,
I want to call them up and tell them maybe they should be working on finding
and restoring the missing footage in Husbands and Minnie and
Moskowitz or getting rid of the changed soundtracks in A Woman
Under the Influence and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. (Click here to hear the audio of twelve minutes that were cut at the end of the singing scene and the beginning of the men's room scene in Husbands.)
The issue goes beyond Cassavetes.
It comes down to a question of how Hollywood continues to set the priorities
of even prestige film institutions in America. The express mission of
the AFI and the Library of Congress is to preserve and foster the appreciation
of the art of film, but art is the last thing on their minds.
It's the same old story as everywhere else in film. The whole system is
polluted by Hollywood values. Money talks and celebrities call the shots.
The UCLA, the AFI, and the Library of Congress are in bed with the studios
for funding and support. Their advisory boards are packed with Hollywood
directors and producers. And their fundraising events are organized around
celebrity appearances. Is it any surprise that they devote most of their
budget and manpower to sucking up to movie stars, fat cat Hollywood producers,
and the studios they work forand to restoring and preserving stupid
Hollywood movies? Or that they almost never do anything for real art?
The last Library of Congress restoration list I saw had Bride of Frankenstein
on it, but not a single art film that cries out for restoration.
Interviewer: Name an art
film that the AFI should restore and hasn't.
I'll name a hundred. How about Barbara Loden's Wanda? All the prints
are pink. How about Charles Burnett's The Horse or My Brother's
Wedding? The Horse has major vinegar damage. How about Robert
Kramer's Milestones? He told me a few years before his death that
he didn't think there was a single satisfactory print left in the world.
How about John Korty's Funnyman and Riverrun? How about
Mark Rappaport's Mozart in Love? How about Gregg Araki's early
workTwo Lonely People and the other nonsynch ones. I forget
the titles. How about a variorum print of Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky
with the rejected outtakes? How about the long print of Cassavetes' Faces
I recently discovered? How about variorum prints of Husbands, Gloria,
Minnie and Moskowitz, and Love Streams with the rejected outtakesdozens
of amazing scenes that never made it into the final cut. You can buy CDs
with Eric Clapton's, Elvis's, or Armstrong's alternate takes during recording
sessions and DVD's with outtakes from Star Wars, so why can't someone
issue one or two DVDs with some of the million and a half feet of footage
that Cassavetes shot for Husbands but that were never included
in the final print? That would be spending American Film Institute money
a heck of a lot better than hosting a glitzy awards ceremony for one more
Hollywood movie star. The footage from Husbands and Minnie and
Moskowitz is in the Columbia and Universal vaults gathering dust,
but no one cares.
Interviewer: That gets us
back to the topic. Can you describe the video and film situation for Cassavetes'
films, movie by movie?
Carney: I'd be glad to. I get
so many questions about this subject via email that it will be nice to
be able to refer people to this interview and not have to write so many
individual responses in the future. If you don't mind, I'll give you the
full historical picture going back to the nineteen seventies and eighties
when Cassavetes was still alive, because there are so many lessons to
be learned about the attitudes of the companies that handle prints and
video releases, and because so much of what took place in Cassavetes'
lifetime is still going on in terms of more recent independent films.
I'll start with the video situation
in Cassavetes' lifetime. Releases of feature films on VHS had become pretty
widespread by the late nineteen-seventies, but because of the non-studio
origin of much of Cassavetes' work, only four of his films, ones he did
for studios, came out on video when he was aliveToo Late Blues,
Child Is Waiting, Gloria, and Love Streams. Since
they were Hollywood co-productions, three of the four are pretty bad,
but that points up the first lesson: When a film is produced by a studio
it is almost guaranteed to come out on video, but when it is made outside
of the system, that's not necessarily the case. The studios have deals
where playing in a local movie theater is only the first step in an extended
releasing process. The film is first shown theatrically in the United
States; then shown theatrically in Europe and the rest of the world; then
broadcast on American and European television; and finally released on
tape and DVD in the United States and abroad. Virtually every studio film
is guaranteed the complete treatment; but with an independent film, each
of these steps must be separately arranged and negotiated, so that there
is a real question as to whether a particular independent film will play
on television or come out on video at all. If the film was not a box office
hit at the time of its releasewhich is the case with most decent
indie filmsand doesn't seem likely to turn a big profit in video
sales, there is likely to be no video release at all. It's why you can
get John Korty's The Ewok Adventure on video, but not any of his
That was Cassavetes' situation
with his best work, the five independent films he made on his own: Shadows,
Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a
Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night. In the late 1970s and early
1980s, he couldn't have paid anyone to bring these films out on video.
They looked like a terrible investment. That is the situation even now
with films like Wanda and My Brother's Wedding. Or Mike
Leigh's early work.
But for an indie film to have
studio backing can be a mixed blessing. The good side is that it means
the film is almost guaranteed to have a video release. The bad side is
that, since the video is part of a larger release package, the filmmaker
has very little input into the quality of the video or the scale of the
The video release of Cassavetes'
Love Streams, the most interesting film of the ones that came out
on video in his own day, illustrates that. Since it was co-produced by
Canon Pictures, it was released on video. That's a plus. But the downside
was the producers didn't like the fact that the original film had a 141-running
time so they retaliated by doing a tiny release of only five hundred video
copies and by cutting 19 minutes without telling Cassavetes. You know
the Groucho Marx joke? The food in that restaurant is terrible and the
portions are too small. Well, it's hard to say which was more discouragingthe
tininess of the release or the fact that what was released was a cut print.
If you can believe it, the
story gets even worse after that. Canon went out of business a few years
later, so the only video release Love Streams ever got was the
one back in 1985. The only way to get a video of Love Streams nowadays
is to go on Ebay and buy one of the old, cut, used VHS cassettes.
The print situation for Love
Streams is equally discouraging. When Canon went under, their
library was sold to MGM/UA, and the elements of the film were lost.
So until they
are found, no one is able to make new prints. The few prints that are
still around from 17 years ago are gradually wearing outgetting
ever more scratched and spliced.
In a few years, there will
be neither prints to screen nor cassettes to viewnot even cut ones.
Love Streams is an obvious candidate for a restoration project,
but since there is no money to be made on the dealeither by a studio
or by Cassavetes' estateis it any surprise that no one is doing
Interviewer: What do you
mean by money to be made?
Carney: I mean that most of
the restoration projects the Library of Congress or UCLA or similar places
undertake originate because there is some financial interest on the part
of someone who is doing the recommending. In the case of Cassavetes films,
a guy named Al Ruban is the business manager, and he is not interested
in doing something that doesn't have the prospect of paying him a commission
at some future point. Restoring Love Streams and locating the outtakes
of Minnie and Moskowitz, Husbands, and Gloria fall
into that category.
Since Love Streams was
owned by Canon to start with, and is now owned by MGM/UA, Ruban doesn't
stand to make anything by lobbying anyone to create a new print, since
he won't make any money from the final result. So as far as I can tell,
he doesn't care if the film disappears.
I talk to him a lot and the
financial basis of his perspective is always an eye-opener for me. I never
think in those terms; I am always thinking in terms of the artistic value
of something; he has no interest in art; he never thinks in any terms
other than financial. I learned the lesson ten or more years ago when
I once called him and told him about some old prints of the films that
collectors had offered to sell to me. He told me if he got his hands on
any of them, he would destroy them, different footage or not. He was afraid
alternate versions would cut into his current rentals or depreciate the
value of the prints he controlled.
I just went though this one
more time about a year ago with the long print of Faces I discovered.
When Ruban learned of it, he wrote me a formal letter insisting that I
suppress the discovery, neither announcing it nor screening the film.
He was afraid it would cut into bookings of the release print. Can you
imagine this in any other art? It was as if Picasso's successors wanted
to destroy his sketches in order to drive up the price of his paintings.
Or Valerie Eliot wanted to shred T.S. Eliot's notebooks because they could
cut into the sales of The Wasteland. That's the view of the man
who administers the Cassavetes' films.
Interviewer: You've covered
Love Streams and Faces. What is the print and video situation
of the rest of Cassavetes' work?
Carney: As I said, since most
of Cassavetes' best work wasn't plugged into studio video release deals,
videos of Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence,
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Nightthe
films Cassavetes owned right down to the negativesonly came out
after his death. There are some general lessons to be learned there too.
Interviewer: What happened?
What are the lessons?
Carney: Well, the main one
is how money and art don't go together. How selling a work of art to the
highest bidder is not necessarily doing what is best for it. The video
releaser needs to care about what they are doing and to have corporate
values that match those of the works they are releasing. The problem at
this point was that there was no one to look out for the artistic side
of Cassavetes' work. The films rights were simply sold to the highest
bidder. And a comedy of errors ensued.
Shortly after Cassavetes' death,
Ruban put out the word that the video rights to Shadows, Faces,
A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,
and Opening Night were available to the highest bidder. After a
year or two of inquiries and negotiations from a variety of entities,
the Disney Corporation bought the video license. This is back in 1993
or 1994, if I remember correctly. Buena Vista, their art film branch,
was looking to upgrade their image with some highbrow offerings and Cassavetes
became the main highbrow offering. Since Disney is this enormous corporation,
they offered an enormous amount of money up front for the rights, but
it was the worst possible mismatch of interests. Disney understood nothing
about the audience for or appeal of Cassavetes' work and bungled the release
by trying to do the same thing they would do with the video release of
one of their mainstream productions.
The whole release was unbelievably
surreal and absurd. I was in touch with the publicists throughout the
processin fact I sent them tons of material to help promote the
films, at my own expense mind you; they never even returned any of itand
I saw it all happening first-hand. They thought strictly in terms of enormous
sales volume and massive media coverage. The plan was to issue between
thirty and a hundred thousand copies of the three color films (A Woman
Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening
Night), and twenty to fifty thousand of the two black-and-white ones
(Shadows and Faces).
By the way, when I spoke with
the Buena Vista publicists, they actually talked in those terms. [Doing
a voice:] There are the color films.... We're going to bring them
out first.... Color is more appealing and can bring in sales.... Then
once the momentum builds we'll switch to the black-and-white films....
Don't say I said so, but what awful photography!.... That's why
we are doing the color films first... Maybe someday Shadows and
Faces can be colorized, but no point in talking about that now....
But we think we can suck people in if we start off strong with A Woman
Under the Influence... I just wish it were more a upbeat movie.
I'll skip the gory details,
and simply say that the marketing mavens were in for the surprise of their
lives. They discovered that Cassavetes simpy couldn't be sold the way
they The Lion King was. Three months later, Woman, which
Buena Vista had brought out first and thought of as the flagship to head
up the entire release, had sold fewer than 1000 cassettes. Disney was
shocked. It was rude awakening to art film reality. It may have been the
worst sales they had ever seen for anything they had ever issued. High-level
meetings were held. They abandoned the release, never issued the other
films. and sold off the rights.
In the six or seven years since
then the story has been repeated over and over again. The video rights
have been sublicensed from one corporation to another, followed each time
by an abortive release, poor sales, and an ensuing sale to the next corporation.
Fox Lorber bought the rights to the two black and white movies.
The color ones have been passed from hand to hand, most recently
to Pioneer who bungled their chance just like all the others had. In terms
of two studio films, Columbia came out with a video release of Husbands
about two or three years ago, and Anchor Bay came out with Minnie and
Now that DVDs have cut the
cost of video production down to something like fifteen cents a copy,
there is new hope of making a dollar from a new round of corporate vultures.
A few years ago, Pioneer did a DVD release of the five major films and
a year or two after that, Anchor Bay brought out some of the other films
on DVD. But the problem is that neither of them cares any more about the
actual movies than the previous licensees did. They are still just trying
to make a buck.
I can tell the Pioneer story
from hand experienceI had lots of conversations with the people
involvedso I assure you that I am not misstating their motives.
Everything was done the quickest and cheapest way. They told me that when
I tried to get them to do it better. They didn't want to waste time locating
decent prints, so the ones they used for their transfers were scratched
and beat up. The transfers were done with a television aspect-ratio that
cut the sides off the 35mm images because it was cheaper. And the DVDs
were so cheaply produced that they lack almost all functionality, like
forward or backward scanning or access by running time.
I spent hours making phone
calls and writing letters to try to persuade them to do things correctlyto
have the prints transferred in the correct aspect ratio with letterboxing
where necessary; to include both the long and the short versions of The
Killing of a Chinese Bookie; to include detailed program notes and
credits lists in the packages; to have second audio track commentaries;
etc. But I got nowhere. No one was willing to spend a dollar more than
they had to and the release was a travesty.
The Pioneer disks were so pathetic
that about a year ago Film Comment voted them one of the ten worst
DVDs sets of the decade or something like that. The sales were again terrible,
and a few months ago, Pioneer let their license lapse so that as far as
I know, nobody has the rights to A Woman Under the Influence, The
Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night at present.
That means that once the tiny pressing of Pioneer DVDs is gone, there
won't be any more, at least until the next company dreams that it can
get rich quick by picking Cassavetes' bones.
But we should give thanks that
at least Pioneer included the entire film in their releases. The Anchor
Bay and Columbia videos were re-mixed and cut.
Interviewer: What do you
Carney: It took them thirty
years to do it, but in 2000, Columbia finally released a video of Husbands.
I bought a copy and sat down to watch it. It has eleven minutes cut out
of the middle. All of the versions of Minnie and Moskowitzboth
video and filmhave a scene missing near the beginning. The Anchor
Bay release of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie videos has a remixed
soundtrack. The soundtrack of A Woman Under the Influence has been
Interviewer: Can you describe
the missing scenes in more detail?
Carney: Sure. In Husbands,
it's the end of Leola Harlow sceneincluding all of Red Cullers'
singing Brother, can you spare a dime? and Brooklyn – and
the beginning of the scene with Falk and Cassavetes in the bathroom.
Minnie and Moskowitz, it's one where, after he gets thrown out
of the bar, Seymour goes home with Irish and spends the night in the
brick basement apartment.
Interviewer: Are these changes
or omissions mentioned on the tape or DVD cases?
Carney: Are you kidding? On
the contrary. The companies have done everything they can to conceal them
and mislead purchasers. The sleeve and label of the Husbands video
gives the running time of the uncut film, 140 minutes. There's eleven
minutes less tape on the cassette than the box says on the outside, but
the only way anyone can tell that the footage is missing is by playing
the entire film and checking the running time on your VCR when it's over.
Or by being familiar enough with the movie to notice the cuts while it
is playing, which is how I noticed them.
The reason these companies
get away with it is that very few people know the films well enough to
detect the missing scenes or the changed soundtracks. In fact, as far
as I can tell, I'm apparently the only one who has noticed any of these
changes. I've never seen anyone else mention them. I mentioned them in
my Cassavetes on Cassavetes book in hopes of rallying support from
film buffs. But here we are almost two years later, and not one curator
or preservationist has called me to ask about any of the things I described
in the book. It's not an encouraging situation. Imagine the hue and cry
if someone issued a tape of Kane with a re-mixed soundtrack or
eleven minutes missing. It helps you appreciate how marginalized Cassavetes'
work still is, even at this late date.
Interviewer: Do these missing
scenes still exist?
Carney: If they had been destroyed
I wouldn't be so critical of the slipshod way the prints and videos lack
them. Up until around 1990 all of the prints of Husbands I ever
saw had the missing eleven minutes. They were taken out after Cassavetes'
death when they struck new prints for retrospectives. The soundtrack of
A Woman Under the Influence wasn't altered until after his death
Interviewer: You talk very
passionately about the subject, but why don't you personally do something
Carney: Give me a break. Let's
do a reality check. My name is not Steve Buscemi or Stanley Tucci. I am
not a movie star. I am not a producer. I am not a director. I don't work
for a studio or a film archive. I get no support from anyone to do this
kind of thingno grants, no clerical support, no budget for phone
calls, nothing. You should see my long distance bill! But even if I had
a secretary, I don't have time to track down the negatives or mag tracks.
I work for a living. I have a job teaching in a university. Places like
the Library of Congress, UCLA, and the AFI have staffers whose job description
is to do this sort of thing. When I call or email places like the
AFI or Sundance Institute, they won't even reply to me. I'm nobody in
the minds of these folks. They are too busy responding to movie star or
producer requests to care about or answer questions from people like me.
I do as much as I can. I've
phoned and emailed UCLA's preservation department and told a lot of this
to Ross Lipman. I've told it to Pat Loughney and Rosemary Hanes at the
Library of Congress. I've talked to Al Ruban about it. Over the years,
I pleaded, threatened, and argued with the heads of Buena Vista Video
Releasing, Pioneer Special Projects, and Anchor Baytrying to persuade
them to do the right thing. I can't personally distribute the films myselfthough
I've thought about it!
Interviewer: I didn't mean
to question your personal integrity.
Carney: Thanks. Sorry to get
steamed up. But this really matters to me. To answer your question: The
missing material is not impossible to get. It would just takes a little
time and effort. I have seen prints of Husbands up till a few years
ago that have the missing eleven minutes. I have seen prints of The
Killing of a Chinese Bookie and A Woman Under the Influence that
have the correct sound tracks. But the problem is that the people in power
don't care enough to locate and use the correct material when the videos
are made or new prints struck. If you want to know the truth, it's really
Ruban's job to do this sort of quality control, but the lesson is that
you can't leave it to the producers and money men. They just don't care
about the right things.
You can't blame the lab technicians
or preservationists. They are just doing what they are told to do, and
usually can't see the big picture and don't realize what is going on.
When I discovered the eleven missing minutes in Husbands, I called
up the technician in charge of the Columbia video release, only to discover
that he didn't even know that the reel was missing. The problem is with
the people in positions of authority, who not only aren't interested in
looking for the missing material, but are interested in concealing the
omissions. A Woman Under the Influence is an illustration of that.
Interviewer: What do you
Carney: Well, when I talked
to Al Ruban about it, he was perfectly aware of what was going on. He
told me that the original elements of Woman were destroyed in a warehouse fire sometime after Cassavetes' deathI think it was in London in
the early 1990sand that he re-mixed the soundtrack himself that
will be used for all future prints. In other words, all prints that were
struck from the early 1990s on have a cobbled together soundtrack that
is different from the one Cassavetes released. But Ruban's not going to
mention any of this in public, since all he sees is a potential loss of
rentals if questions are raised about the status of the new prints. Valid
questions in my opinion. Questions that need to be raised.
Interviewer: Well, the one
thing you have to say in favor of Pioneer's release is that they commissioned
you to write program notes!
Carney: [Groaning.] Ugh! Yes,
I contributed little essays for the Pioneer laserdisc and DVD releases
of Cassavetes. But commissioned is not the right word. Do you want to
know how those notes got there?
Carney: You have to go back
to approximately three or four years ago. It all started when a student
of mine told me that he seen on their web site that Pioneer was about
to release five of Cassavetes' films on video. They were due out on laserdisc
and DVD in a matter of weeks. That was the first I had heard of it. So
I got on the phone the next day and spent a couple hours calling various
offices of Pioneer Electronics on the West Coast, tracking down the offices
of Pioneer Special Projects. It turned out a guy named Jim McGowan was
in charge of everything. I asked what they were including in terms of
essays or booklets or films credits anything else. I was dying to know
who was doing it for them, all the more since I would have been the natural
person to have been asked. The reply stunned me. They said there were
no plans to include anything but the bare DVD or laserdisc. They hadn't
even thought of doing anything.
What came out of that conversation
and a couple subsequent ones was that the reason they weren't doing a
booklet or flier was not because of financial stringency (in fact, Pioneer
told me they were rolling in money for the Cassavetes project because
the profits from some other release of theirs, Beauty and the Beast
or whatever it was, were so large)but simply because finding someone
to write essays was just too much hassle, and they didn't see why it mattered
anyway. I told them that they had to include something, and volunteered
to do it myself. Best of all from their perspective I told them I would
do it on any schedule they named so that they could still meet their release
deadline no matter how soon it was. Well, I wrote five essays in something
like the next five days. That's the only reason there are essays in those
DVDs. It wasn't Pioneer's idea. I practically had to twist their arms
to persuade them to do it. I had to make them an offer they couldn't possibly
The same point is negatively
illustrated by an almost identical conversation I had with the head of
Anchor Bay. It was a year or two after the Pioneer release, but otherwise
just about the same situation. I heard of the upcoming release of Minnie
and Moskowitz by accident, called up the head of Anchor Bay, a guy
named William Lustig, and offered him a free essay and credits list and
quotes by Cassavetes to include in his DVD box. Just like Pioneer, at
first he resisted, saying he was on an impossibly short deadline and couldn't
hold the project up. But I was persistent and he gave in in the end. That
was on a Friday afternoon. I stayed up for the next two days and nights
writing the material, and emailed it all to him on Monday morning. The
story ends differently than the Pioneer one though. When the video came
out, I discovered he never used any of what I sent him.
But is the point clear? Do
you see how shabby both of these releases were? I had to call them up
and browbeat them into agreeing to allow me to give them something!
What does that tell you about their attitudes towards these films? Compare
it with the way even an ordinary Bach or Mozart CD is put together.
Interviewer: Why do you
think Anchor Bay didn't use what you sent?
Carney: God knows. It was good
stuff. Lively copy. Not at all academic. I know they received it since
I called to make sure after I sent it. And I talked to him on the phone
a few more times after that. But six months later, after the disk came
out and I discovered what I sent hadn't been used, he wouldn't accept
my calls any more. I tried a dozen times and never got through. Maybe
he was too embarrassed to talk to me. But I doubt it. My personal theory
is that he was never really convinced that the DVD of Minnie and Moskowitz
needed an essay in the first place. It's the Hollywood attitude [does
a voice:] What's your problem? It's just a friggin' movie, for God's
sake. I think it's possible he was just humoring me when I called
the first time. Maybe he gave me the crazy deadline thinking I couldn't
possibly send him the material I promised on such short notice and was
caught by surprise when I came through. Or maybe he changed his mind when
he realized including a pack-in essay and credits list and quotes and
photoswonderful unpublished photos!would add three or four
cents to the cost of each DVD.
Interviewer: I can't believe
that a few cents per disk would matter to someone doing an important independent
film project like this. The total budget must be in the tens of thousands
Carney: When someone's values
are as commercialized and debased as Lustig's and McGowan'swhen
you don't take what you are doing seriously and don't treat it with real
love and careyou wouldn't believe what people will do to save a
few pennies or avoid a little extra work. A man who is in it strictly
to make a profit is willing to do anything to save a few hundred dollars.
You see that everywhere. People are constantly cutting corners to save
a nickel on something they don't believe in, then wasting a thousand times
that amount on something that flatters their vanity and ego.
I found that out in these two
cases in other ways, since after all the rush I went through getting the
material together, both of these projects ended up being delayed months
past the original deadlines. In the case of Pioneer in particular I had
time to talk with many different people in dozens of phone calls about
what they were doing with the films. I gave them all sorts of advice on
how to improve the release and offered to help in lots of ways. But it
was clear from the start that they weren't interested even a tiny bit
in the quality of the disks, just in getting them out the door as fast
and cheap as possible.
Interviewer: A while ago
you mentioned two versions of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.
Can you talk about them? There seems to be a lot of confusion around them.
Carney: There's too much to
say. Cassavetes gave me film and video copies of both versions and let
me screen them in my classes at Middlebury and Stanford, so I've seen
both cuts a number of times. But, now that he's gone, I may be the only
person left that has!
I'm not kidding. I get a constant
stream of inquiries from highly placed European critics asking me about
the long version, which is very rarely screened, and which none of them
seems to have seen. The short version is more generally available. I tell
the story of how each of them came into existence in my Cassavetes
on Cassavetes book, but I'll give you a bare bones summary.
Here goes. The Killing of
a Chinese Bookie was filmed in July, August, and September 1975 and
edited that fall. The final edit ran 135 minutes. That was the American
release print that was screened in Los Angeles and New York in February
1976. The film was such a box office disaster, and treated so savagely
by the criticsif it wasn't simply ignoredthat Cassavetes pulled
it after about a week.
In late 1976 and early 1977,
Cassavetes filmed his next movie, Opening Night. It was screened
in December 1977. Unfortunately it bombed even worse at the box office
and with reviewers than Bookie had. Cassavetes pulled it from
circulation. At that point, he had made two movies in a row that virtually
no one had
had a chance to see, since he couldn't get distribution for them and
couldn't afford to keep playing them at his own expense.
Once the dust had settled and
he had some free time, in mid-1978, he went back and re-edited Bookie.
His hope was that the new edit would make the movie more palatable and
that he could re-release it in late-1978 or early 1979. That is what is
now called the second, the 1978, version of the film.
What makes things interesting
is that the two prints are really quite different. The running time of
the second version was cut by almost half an hour, to 108 minutes, but
the re-edit is not merely a tightening or shortening, but a complete reconceptualization.
Cassavetes changes the beginning and ending scenes, adds several entirely
new scenes and characters (for example, a scene in the gangsters' headquarters
involving a urologist and his wife, and a conversation between Cosmo and
the gangsters in a coffee shop), and re-cuts many of the shared scenes
with different shot selections and different takes than were in the first
version. There are even little joke differences, like a picture
of Marlene Dietrich in the dressing room in the first version that is
not visible in the second. That may sound pretty trivial, but if you really
study the two versions back to back, as I have, the effect is absolutely
fascinating. As is the case with the two versions of Shadows or
Faces, or when you read the different drafts of Cassavetes' screenplays,
you can watch him re-thinking his movie, changing his understanding of
characters and events. It's like going behind the scenes, into the workshop
of the artist. You can watch Cassavetes' mind at work. You can, in effect,
sit next to him as he re-cuts on the Steenbeck.
Interviewer: Have you written
about the two versions?
Carney: Yes. But no American
film journal is interested in publishing what I wrote. Most American
scholars still aren't interested in Cassavetes. And something like this
is considered far too specialized a subject for people who in most
haven't seen either version. That was the case, by the way, with my work
on the two versions of Shadows also. I submitted an essay on
the two prints to the leading American scholarly film magazine, Cinema
Journalthe most brilliant piece that would ever have appeared
in those pages!but the editor told me they weren't interested.
It was too long and too detailed and too specialized, he told me.
they'd rather use their space to run another article about pop culture.
Such is the state of film scholarship in the U.S. Very few film
care about art. I have a long essay about the two prints of Faces
and the four or five screenplays Cassavetes gave me, but no one is interested
in that either.
Interviewer: I take it from
your remarks about the emails you get that the two versions of The
Killing of a Chinese Bookie are not out on video?
Carney: For reasons of economy,
all of the releasers, both in America and Europe, have chosen to transfer
only the short print. The 135-minute, 1976 version has never been released
on video. My own copy was a gift from Cassavetes. And since most of the
16mm and 35mm prints that are now in circulation are of the short version,
the 1976 print has achieved almost mythological status. Like the Abominable
Snowman or the Verdants!
Interviewer: Can't you persuade
anyone to bring out the long version on video?
Carney: That's what I have
been trying to persuade every video releaser to do for six or seven years
now! First Buena Vista then Fox Lorber then Anchor Bay and most recently
Pioneer. But all they see is the economics. It's all the stuff we've been
talking about. They'd rather save a dollar on the transfer process by
using the shorter print. Anyway, beyond a couple hundred Cassavetes fanatics,
of whom I am proud to admit I am onewho cares? Like a book editor
once said to me after rejecting a Cassavetes book proposal: If he
were Woody Allen, it would be different. Another project for the
Library of Congress! If I live so long. [Doing a voice:] It's not
Star Wars for God's sake! Come to think of it, maybe that's
not a joke. Maybe the Library of Congress is actually restoring Star
Wars! Reality always exceeded my capacities of irony.
Interviewer: We've talked
about the videos. How about the print situation beyond The Killing
of a Chinese Bookie?
Carney: Castle Hill in New
York has the 35mm and 16mm print rights for the U.S. Most of the prints
are in unbelievably bad shape.
Interviewer: Why is that?
Carney: People are fond of
systemic explanations, and there are some in this caselike the way
video releasing is driven by Hollywood values and commercial calculations;
but a lot of the problems with Cassavetes' work come down to personal
explanationsthe particular people who are in chargein this
case a guy named Julian Schlossberg.
Schlossberg runs Castle Hill
and owns North American distribution rights for Shadows, Faces,
A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,
and Opening Night. The prints of all of them are unbelievably awful.
He'd say that the films are old; but age is no excuse. If you set yourself
up as a distributor, one of the costs of doing business is to strike new
prints as the old ones wear out. Schlossberg cheaps it out and keeps renting
the same beat-up, old prints.
I'll spare you my Castle
Hill horror stories. There have been a lot of them. I used to rent
films all the time. Just the way I used to rent them before that directly
from Cassavetes. Suffice it to say that it has now gotten to the point
that I have started projecting DVDs. The image might be cut-down and
footage might be missing, but at least there are no missing reels,
emulsion scratches, or Scotch-tape splices.
Interviewer: So the problem
is that the prints are old and need to be replaced? That doesn't seem
hard to do. Or even very expensive. A few thousand dollars per print.
Carney: That's right. But even
then you never know what you are in for. It all comes down to the people
who do it and supervise it. I've already told you that the new prints
have missing scenes that prints as recent as ten years ago included. But
I'll give you an even more up-to-date example. In the fall of 2001, I
was doing a series of events with Gena Rowlands at the Virginia Film Festival.
They were showing a number of her movies with one of the main screenings
being A Woman Under the Influence. I expressed concern months in
advance about the quality of the prints that would be used, and was reassured
that a new print of A Woman Under the Influence was being struck
specially for the screening. It would be almost brand new. The Virginia
screening would be only the second time it had ever been projected. (It
was being shown at the Vancouver Film Festival two weeks earlier.) So
along comes the big event. Gena did her standard intro, then left the
building as she always does. I was to run the Q and A after the movie.
I stayed for the screening, excited to see the new print. Well, you wouldn't
have believed it. I was in shock. The movie was new alright, but both
the color and the sound were misprinted. The print was horrible. And this
was not a subtle thing. The misprinting was blatant. I'm not talking about
something due to the projection, but something in the print itself. I
would have stopped the screening if there was anything else to show the
audience. Or if I was actually in charge of things, rather than just being
the moderator for the post-screening discussion. I was glad Rowlands wasn't
there to see it. The print was so bad that all of the initial post-screening
questions were about it. Why was the color green in every other
shot and yellow in the reverse shots? Was that some kind of artistic effect
Cassavetes was going for? Why was the sound out-of-synch?
When their lips were moving but no sound was coming out was Cassavetes
trying to tell us that Nick and Mabel can't communicate? That was
the newly struck fall 2001 print! It is probably being screened somewhere
else right now. So that people can study the artiness of Cassavetes'
sound and photography.
Interviewer: How can that
have happened? The films are shown so rarely that it seems surprising
that no one would take more care to make sure the print was OK. You said
it had been shown in Vancouver already. Why hadn't anyone objected to
it when it was shown there?
Carney: That's my point! No
one knows they are seeing mutilated or defaced printswith Husbands,
with Minnie and Moskowitz, or with this film. The only conclusion
I can come to is that when this print was shown in Vancouver, people just
accepted the awfulness as what a Cassavetes film was! Most viewers are
incredibly trusting and as was the case with the screening of Opening
Night when the reels were shown in the wrong order, and the film is
unfamiliar, most audiences won't even realize that they are being cheated
of the experience Cassavetes worked so hard to create.
But if you are asking how
can it happen in the other sense, wellit's a clear case of
someone like Al Rubanwhose job is to supervise the quality of Cassavetes'
prints and screeningsnot doing what they are paid to do. No one
ever looked at that print after it was made and before it was shown. No
one at the lab. No one at the festival. And no one associated with Cassavetes'
Interviewer: Is there a
Carney: Money and indifference
always triumph if you let them. To paraphrase Cosmo's speech from the
final dressing room scene in The Killing of a Chinese Bookieand
he is clearly giving voice to John's own sentiments: It takes work to
do anything good. A lot of work. The world is constantly on the brink
of lapsing into meaninglessness and waste. Entropy continuously encroaches.
Every small achievement of order and beauty is pitched against endless
decompositions. The siren song of shoddiness and commercial compromise
always beckons, always threatens to degrade everything exceptional. Doing
anything valuable takes love and care. Nothing can replace them. And you
can't pay people to care. They just have to care.
This page contains
an excerpt from an interview with Ray Carney. In the selection above,
he discusses the print and video situation of Cassavetes' work. The complete
interview is available in a new packet titled What's Wrong with Film
Teaching, Criticism, and ReviewingAnd How to Do It Right, which
covers many other topics. For more information about Ray Carney's writing
on independent film, including information about how to obtain the complete
text of this interview and two other packets of interviews in which he
gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of a writer, and
the path of the artist, click