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A note from Ray Carney: I post the following observations from a good friend and a battle-scarred veteran of the film festival and film programming circuit. His comments are largely in response to my "Modest Proposal" on page 97 of the Mailbag, where I suggest that young filmmakers should give serious thought to switching into another art form than film, because film is just too commercially compromised, too corrupted by business values, too frustrating and limiting as an art. The writer raises many extremely important (and troubling) questions about the way film is treated and regarded in our culture. Let's call a spade a spade: The film programming, publicity, reviewing, and festival circuit programming and award-process is a disgrace, and the film education business in our universities is hardly any better since it basically devotes its energies to persuading students to struggle and compete to get into the world the letter-writer describes. I invite reader responses.
And to read a corroborative anecdote about the silliness of film festival judging and prizes, read the letter a major American independent filmmaker wrote me about his experience with Rajendra Roy, now the head of the Museum of Modern Art Film Department, at an important American film festival. I reprinted excepts from it toward the bottom of Mailbag page 72 (accessible via the blue page number menus at the top and bottom of each Mailbag page). I should add two points: First, that in an effort to protect the filmmaker's anonymity in the letter on page 72, I removed several other festival "horror stories" he told in the same letter, because they would have given away his identity.And the second point is that I have received dozens of other similar accounts from other filmmakers about other film festivals. (See the reply I make to the letter on page 72.) -- R.C.
We’ve known each other for a long time. More than ten years now. You’ve been a great inspiration to me, helping me understand certain things about what I’ve been doing over the past few years. It’s been a fruitful relationship, for me certainly. You helped me get my first job in ‘the business’ by allowing me to jump on your coattails and work as a researcher on one of your books. After that I asked the same publisher if I could write my own book, and now, eight years, five books and seven films later, I find myself writing to explain What’s Going On.
In short: I’m getting out.
I’ve had enough of film. It’s just too depressing. Of course I’ll probably continue watching about as many films as I do these days (a couple a month, if I’m ‘lucky’), but as far as making ’em, I’m now working – already very fruitfully – in other directions.
The reasons for this decision are, perhaps, long and complicated. But I’m going to try and explain some of them briefly without boring your socks off.
It’s been a long time coming, but the kicker was an experience this past summer at a documentary festival in England. It turns out my tenth circle of Hell is the documentary film festival, with all those festival programmers, journalists, producers, hangers-on and TV executives. The pumping heart of Hell? The ‘pitch session,’ that grotesque gladiatorial event where sometimes decent, honest and free-thinking men and women are humiliated by forcing to squeeze their ideas into a conceptual box that appeals only to the lowest common denominator. Who are the people who run such events? For God’s sake, get a real job. And you filmmakers, why would you – who apparently have something you want to say, to Express to the World – want to impress people you wouldn’t otherwise pay to wax your car? Why strive for the affirmation of fools and charlatans? Money? That’s no reason at all.
I suppose this freak show would be just about acceptable if the films I saw at festivals these days were at all decent, or even good. But they’re not. Very little of any interest. At the screenings earlier this year I would look around as the lights came up, listen to the roaring applause, see the filmmaker swagger to the front of the auditorium and talk, in the most tedious way, about how, why, when. And I would wonder, “Am I the only one who sees this for what it really is?” Some of the most lauded films I saw really were wretched. That said, it’s no surprise they’d been plucked from other festivals where they had won awards, or have since won awards.
Aside: I’ve been on festival juries. Sometimes the jury members don’t turn up until half-way into the festival. They watch all the films they’ve missed on DVD, not on the big screen, if they watch them at all. By the end of the festival the jury members are so exhausted or frustrated at the poor quality of work they’ve been forced to sit through that they’ll give the award to anything just so they can get out of that horrible room, walk away from these atrocious people, and continue drinking (at the festival’s expense, of course). Most of the time the award seems to be given to the least worst film. The moral of the story: not winning an award at a festivals means only one thing. It doesn’t mean your film isn’t any good. It certainly doesn’t mean the other films around at that moment are better than yours. All it means is that you didn’t win an award at that particular festival. Same goes for not getting into a festival, which really is all about who you know, not about how good or otherwise your film is. But then hopefully all filmmakers out there know this by now. ‘In the absence of the real thing, we accept the substitute.’
Forgive me for quoting from Satan’s book but an interesting article entitled ‘Rising Film Festival Stress’ was published in Variety a few days ago. All you need is this paragraph:
Competition among film fests has always been sharp, but it’s become cutthroat as fests proliferate, with literally thousands of them vying for world premieres, stars and, crucially, sponsors. If the films are good, it’s almost a bonus.
What a surprise! I think filmmakers should boycott festivals (not just those that screen exclusively non-fictions). After all, most really aren’t about films at all. Go to your average festival party (God forbid, though sometimes it’s just not possible to avoid such things without insulting your hosts) and for every hundred people there’ll be five filmmakers. All these other people there certainly don’t care one iota about film, beyond how the industry can act as a conduit to really bad parties. Never forget: ‘95 per cent of everything is rubbish.’
Another aside: People ask me, “Don’t you like anything?” Actually most proclaim: “You don’t like anything!” Nonsense. Fact is, I love many things (including some films) with passion and joy and a wondrous crippling lack of comprehension. Fact is, I want everything I see and hear and feel to rip me apart and confuse the hell out of me. Of course when this doesn’t happen – which is almost always – I get disappointed. These days, more upset than disappointed.
Find me a festival programmer who announces, one year, that he is suspending his festival because there aren’t enough good films to fill the schedule, and I’d jump at the chance to screen my work there. By then, of course, it’ll be too late.
Final aside: this particular UK festival ran three days. The organizers wanted as much press as possible. Fortunately (for them) the whole thing was sponsored by a major UK newspaper, which obviously felt obliged to run articles and reviews. They picked as their major review, to run on day two of the festival, the most anodyne film going, an award winner that had already played at big festivals and that they felt ‘safe’ telling everyone was the best thing since sliced bread. God forbid they would choose to write about a film that premiered at the festival, one that hadn’t already been affirmed by the rancid community of critics and festivals programmers.
Just as crucial as the festival experience has been in helping me make this turn away from film, something else has emerged in the last few months. It turns out that, for better or worse, I can do pretty much everything when it comes to my own little documentaries. I can conceive the thing, track interview subjects down, film them, record the sound, find the story, edit it. Doubtless a lot of people wouldn’t think much of my level of craft, but that’s not the point. The point is that I’m totally unable to engage with the financial side of filmmaking. As soon as people ask me how am I going to get this or that film out there? What about distribution? Which festivals will I send it to? etc. I just shut down. It’s almost a physiological reaction. I am simply unable to engage with such things. This year I suddenly realized that if as a filmmaker, if you’re going to get anywhere in this business, it’s impossible not to engage with the mode of production such creative acts are necessarily rooted in. There’s just no way to avoid it. To think you can move deeper and deeper inside the film industry, at any level, and to avoid thinking about money, is an indulgence. Fact is I can’t move any further in the world of film without having to engage with that side of myself I so dislike (to say nothing of the fact that I’m terribly bad at it, totally incompetent). I’ll probably continue making small films now and then, but don’t have any intention of screening them to anyone. I’ll make them, watch them once, then put them on a shelf. That’s fine with me.
Perhaps I should be able to walk through the valley of death fearing no evil. Shouldn’t my own self-confidence in my work sustain me? Perhaps… But why should I jump into such cesspools? I’m lucky in that I’m very happy to indulge my interest in film by writing about it now and then, but as far as making films, I can take or leave it.
“Sour graps!” I hear you cry. Nah, this ain’t sour grapes. I’m lucky in that I’ve never been a frustrated filmmaker. I’ve done pretty much everything I ever wanted to accomplish with film. I’ve never not had the resources to do precisely what I’ve wanted to do. (In fact, the organizers of the festival I’ve talked about here actually gave me a lot of money last year to make a film.) I’ve traveled the world many times over with my films. And ninety per cent of all the reviews I’ve read of my books and films have been overwhelmingly positive. I think the film I finished last year, which was seen at festivals around the world, is something I’ll be proud of for a long time to come. But it’s time to call a duck a duck: I don’t like the people. I don’t want to be associated in any way with them. To screen one of my films at a festival is to condone the entire structure and working practices of these institutions. I don’t want to be associated in any way with the vast majority of boring, superficial and craft-less films that every year come flooding out of home computer systems, which bring the entire medium into disrepute. And I don’t like the working within the production model which, as I say, at a certain point becomes unavoidable.
For me, there are simply more important things that need to be done. Film is dead. Long live film.
Anyway, I don’t know if any of the above will make sense to anyone. Ignore everything I’ve written here. Don’t listen to anyone when they say you can’t do something a certain way, and listen to them only half the time when they tell you to do it their way. Be fearful of nothing, don’t take criticism of your work personally, and don’t doubt your abilities (plenty of other people are going to do that for you). Be invaluable to those around you. Keep your friends close, and enemies closer. Even if Ray Carney doesn’t like a film, it doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to like it. Money is cowardly and stupid. It doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing: chase what you want otherwise it’ll go away. Nothing worth anything comes easy. Beware of experts. Know your tools. Don’t spend time, invest it. “Never stop fighting until the fight is done.” Work only on those projects that make you bolt out of bed in the morning (or, better still, the middle of the night). If not now, when? Learn it all on the job. The tortoise often wins the race. Don’t use ‘myself’ when ‘me’ will do just fine. Do it right or not at all. ‘Be sand, not oil in the machinery of the world.’ Don’t say it if you don't mean it. ‘Independence’ is a state of mind (enjoy the abyss). Get more exercise. And don’t quit those piano lessons.
I’m signing off now.
Let's have dinner when I get to Boston next week.
RC replies: Thanks for the observations. I only have time for a hasty response: I agree with you about the mediocrity of the level of judgment at most film festivals -- both in terms of what is screened, what receives prizes, and what garners attention from releasers and distributors. But I would expand your critique to add that one of the things that has most impeded the maturation of film as an art form in America is the mediocrity of judgment across the board in every area of cinematic commentary and appreciation. In other words, the problem is not limited to film festivals and special screening events, but is built into the entire reviewing system (what is printed in newspapers and magazines, and broadcast on television and radio), the releasing system (what plays in our movie theaters and is subsequently distributed on video), and the entire "commentary system" (who is asked to talk about film by the media and the shallowness and trendiness of their values).
In short, I can think of no other serious area of human creativity and inquiry in which the commentary and decision-making process is so dominated by -- and distorted by -- the interests of two of the lowest forms of life in our culture: businessmen and journalists. Since businessmen are an easy target, let me focus on the journalists. Why in the world should they sit on film festival juries? Why should National Public Radio interview them about their views of the latest Coen brothers movie? Why should Charlie Rose sit Tony Scott and David Denby and Janet Maslin around a table and ask them to discuss "the year's best movies?" With the fewest of exceptions, American film reviewers are individuals who have no advanced degree in film, have never studied the history of the art in depth, and have not even seen many of the great masterpieces -- let alone shown themselves capable of appreciating them. Would this happen in any other area of the social sciences and humanities? If Terry Gross or Charlie Rose wanted to interview someone about a breakthrough in biology, a new idea in philosophy, or the importance of a new economic theory, they would never ask a journalist what he or she thought of it or what it meant. They would ask a professor or a specialist in the field. They would ask a credentialed expert. But when they want to know what movies to send their viewers to, they ask journalists, reviewers, people who write for newspapers, people who appear on TV or the radio for a living! (Journalists just LOVE to interview other journalists. It saves so many misunderstandings, since they all inhabit the same middle-brow Joe-six-pack imaginative world.)
There is much more to say, but that sums up the shallowness that runs through the entire system. The tail wags the dog. The festivals invite journalists to participate so that they can count on the free publicity of having them write about film festival events and then the journalists themselves become the stars of the show. They themselves determine what works within the festival are reviewed, what works are promoted, and what works will get attention from distributors. The journalists sit on the film festival selection committees, they comprise the judging boards, and they make most of the awards ceremony determinations. Then the same incestuous relationship continues throughout the releasing process. Journalists are asked to write the DVD pack-in booklets for video releases in an effort to enlist their support in the reviewing process and then, most weirdly of all, are asked by scholarly publishers to write film books about subjects they have reviewed. It's the reporter as celebrity used to promote an event or sell a product. A name that appears in the newspaper is a name, even if it's only the name of the reporter who reviewed the movie, and film publishers are as desperate to get books penned by "celebrities" as film festivals are to get the "celebrity" reviewer on their awards committee. If you think I'm exaggerating, look at David Thompson's, Jonathan Rosenbaum's, Kenneth Turan's, Richard Roeper's, and Roger Ebert's academic backgrounds. And then look at who has judged festivals and written the DVD pack-in booklets for Criterion and other major video releasers. Journalists whose only credentials (and, often their only knowledge base) come from the fact that they were hired by newspapers to review current movies are being treated by the cultural arbiters and opinion-shapers as the world's scholarly experts on the subject of art film. (I leave out the professional conflict of interest of someone participating in an event they are writing about -- something journalists are big at decrying when it applies to someone else, but seem able to overlook when it applies to themselves.) But there is just too too much to say.... A system that is already corrupted from top to bottom by commercial values is additionally debased by the middle-brow values of the reviewers who participate in and evaluate it at every level.
Thanks for the contribution.
P.S. A note for site readers: Enter "film festival" or "Charlie Rose" -- in quote marks -- in the site search engine to read more thoughts on this subject.
Aaron Katz's Quiet City is one of the films I programmed at Harvard last summer. (Click here to read my description of it in the Harvard Film Archive calendar.) I recently wrote an essay about it for the upcoming DVD release of the film. (If anyone is interested in reading it, the essay is scheduled to be posted on the web site of Filmmaker Magazine in the near future.) To supplement what I myself wrote about the film, I'm including a note from a site reader who had a chance to view an advance copy of the DVD. Her appreciation is very beautiful, very deep, and very true. I'd note that she also ties Katz's film in with my comments to Michael O'Leary on page 99 of the Mailbag about the importance of solitude and silence. -- R.C.
Dear Prof. Carney,
Just a few random thoughts for you on Quiet City, read whenever, I know you're busy.
To me, the film was about creating open spaces of quiet and solitude so that awareness and understanding could grow. I was struck by the power of presence. A person can be simply present in the right spirit, and that is enough for small miracles to occur. That is what Charlie did for Jamie. It was on a soul level. And when the connection and awareness is made, the miracle that develops is trust. Charlie showed me the right environment for that to occur, one of kindness, gentleness and compassion. Offering the gift of presence. The quiet and solitude allowed these things to be noticed. Still waters run deep, and our society too quickly dismisses introverts as being abnormal, somehow defective. A shallow and superficial extrovert would have never had the patience to allow this type of inner relationship to bloom.
Another thing I've thought about on reflection, is how with the loss of one sense, our bodies we have the amazing ability to compensate with the other four senses, eg blindness is compensated by heightened a more highly acute sense of touch and hearing. It seemed to me that the loss of distraction and even words allowed a deeper awareness of another being on a soul level to occur. Almost like creating a meditative space absent of distraction, that allows energy to flow through unencumbered. The relationship between Charlie and Jamie, to me, had much to do with vulnerability and the flow of energy through kindness and gentleness.
I also thought it was beautiful how sleeping and showering were used to develop the relationship rather than physical, sexual activity. Sleeping and showering showed total vulnerability and trust, unadorned lack of self-consciousness and covering up. Defenses were down so soul connections could be made. Even though they had just met, a space had been created to make these intensely personal activities safe with no fear of violation.
Anyway, I'm sure I'll have more thoughts since I'm still thinking about the film, but thought I'd pass on a few. QC really made an impression on me in a deep way. Quiet and solitude are not only, as you say (a note from RC: the writer is alluding to my comments about the need for quiet and solitude on Mailbag page 99) the paths to truth (along with kindness, gentleness and compassion to my way of thinking), but the way to solving many of the world's problems. If only we could learn to create those kinds of spaces with each other and make the world a safe place for all of us to grow and bloom - and be accepted for who we are.
Ha! Who knows? Maybe the evils of materialism and commercialism could be solved by creating a race of introverts. As long as I can check out a book from the public library, I have need of nothing else.
Subject: The Election Primaries
From: magnus eik
Pretty short question, hopefully a good answer: What candidate are you supporting, and why?
Magnus, Wow. How's life in Sweden -- or wherever you are? Sorry , I forget.
Your question strikes me as incredibly bizarre, since I have so little trust in American politicians and so little faith in the American electoral system. Want to hear a secret? Don't tell anyone. (I once told this to a class of students and a few of them almost fell off their chairs.) I haven't voted in an American presidential election for decades. It's a joke. It's a waste of time. It's like choosing between what's on ABC or CBS on a given night. What's to choose? Why would I choose to watch (or vote for) either?
Of course, it's proof of the stupidity and cravenness of the American media that no one dares to admit this. The TV networks and magazines and newspapers keep the merry show rolling along, since it is in the interest of viewer-ratings that no one reveals the fraudulence, the silliness, of it all.
But to try to answer your question: If I voted this time round, it would probably be either for John Edwards or Dennis Kucinich, but, as far as I can tell, neither stands a chance to be nominated. Let alone elected. So there you go. Why should I bother? Why should I hold my nose and vote for Hillary? America needs radical change -- but she's clearly not going to make it. I'd love to see a woman president (a president who wasn't powered by testosterone and given to pissing contests with Iran and Korea and Russia), but why should I vote for Hillary just because I prefer a woman? Why isn't Joyce Carol Oates running? Why isn't Elaine May? Why didn't Molly Ivens, Ann Richards, or Barbara Jordan run for President before they died? It would have been an honor to have been able to have voted for any of them. But not for Hillary.
There's a larger issue, of course. I'm just not sure that anyone -- man, woman, or child -- can really make much of a difference. The power and money system is rigged to prevent it. If we lived in a different world, maybe I could get more lathered up about supporting a Democrat, any Democrat, whoever it might be, but given the world we live in -- the culture of contemporary America I mean -- the question of who you vote for for President strikes me as just another exercise in false consciousness -- just another childish illusion of freedom that Americans subscribe to to keep them from realizing what a sham their democracy is. America's problems are so much worse, so much deeper than anything the President can affect that it hardly matters who is in the White House. We need complete inner transformation. We need a change in consciousness. And that will not come from the top. It has to occur in each of our hearts -- person by person, day by day. The culture of greed, selfishness, and mediocrity will not change one jot just because someone different is siting behind the desk in the Oval Office.
Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison
And you can be sure American journalists will be the last to report any of the real problems. Look at the idiotic "horse-race" treatment of the primaries, even on NPR and the "MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour" (or whatever it is now called). Who's up, who's down, who's got what in terms of spin and donations and backing? Yep, those are the things that matter. Yesterday, I heard a 10-minute report on NPR's "All Things Considered" about which candidate's Christmas advertising was the most entertaining or the most objectionable. And that's the best of American journalism! That's friggin National Public Radio. Yippee. The postmodern dream has come true. We woke up to find that all of life was really not about reality but form and style. The political news has become a matter of reporting "style points," as if the reporter were grading Olympic diving, or the Superbowl half-time show -- not helping citizens decide the fate of the nation, the future of foreign policy, the state of the climate for the next 1000 years. Discussions of "style" have replaced considerations of content, so that Hillary's bags under her eyes or Huckabee's sweaters are more important to journalists, and get more column inches than the number of body bags being shipped back from Iraq. Entertainment Tonight has won. The "entertainment" sensibility has leached over (my metaphor is deliberately taken from the cesspool and septic tank) from film and TV -- from Hollywood movies and prime-time television -- and sloshed into the news coverage on the radio, in the newspapers, and in all of the other formerly "hard" or "serious" media. Commercial pressures on legitimate journalism created by the stupid internet have only added to the problem. Reporters aspire to be popular, witty, funny, and entertaining in order hold onto their audiences. They turn themselves into stars and personalities. They want to be (and their editors apparently tell them to be) entertainers! Zippy, funny, touching, sweet. Tim Russert trying to be cute, funny, witty, and clever and and Katie Couric trying to be warm, fuzzy, and "personal" replace Walter Cronkite, James Reston, and Izzy Stone searching for the story, digging, digging, digging for the elusive reality buried under the press release. American journalism and American entertainment have become indistinguishable. Where is the impassioned journalism on that subject? (Well, there is a little: See the note from good Robert McChesney I posted near the bottom of this page.)
P.S. Saw a decent documentary the other day that touched on the idiocy of Washington politics and the superficiality of American journalism: Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's "An Unreasonable Man," an overview of the life and work of Ralph Nader and his two recent campaigns for the presidency as an independent. Now there's a candidate you can believe in! (And one that the journalists, predictably enough, refused to cover.)
Christmas gift recommendation: Tell your girlfriend or boyfriend that you'd like a copy of Steve Martin's just published Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life as a Christmas present. Or give him or her a copy and borrow it back from them when they are done reading it! It's a wonderful book. Stand-up comedy is one of the major contemporary arts, and Martin is one of the greatest living comedians (along with George Carlin and Eddie Murphy), and is a deep, thoughtful student of the art. His book has stories, insights, and observations that all artists (and all appreciators of art) will learn from. I highly recommend it. -- R.C.
A note from Ray Carney: As I've mentioned before on this site, I recently curated the Rob Nilsson complete 9@Night premiere screening at the Harvard Film Archive. (Click here to read a description of the films and the event.) The response from those who attended was really quite extraordinary, and it is still coming in almost a month later. As one more testimony, Rob just sent me a copy of the following note he received from an important filmmaker who attended the screenings. Though Rob did not send it to me to be posted on the site (he is entirely too modest and self-effacing for that), I have decided to reprint it below, in hopes that it will bring additional recognition to Rob's extraordinary lifetime cinematic achievement.
As a filmmaker himself, the writer also offers deeply perceptive insights into the delusive blandishments of the "style system" of mainstream cinema (e.g. when he notes that "most viewers are deeply trained in their viewing tastes to a much larger degree than they are willing to admit"). When was the last time you read a film review that pointed out such an obvious truth? When was the last time a film professor discussed such an obvious truth with his or her students? If we would free our imaginations, we desperately need to break free from the cultural and artistic brainwashing -- but I don't look to most film schools or most film reviewers to point the way out. They are part of the problem, not the solution. -- R.C.
I just got back from the Cairo film festival, saw your email.....I have to say seeing Nine at Night in the HFA cinema was the closest thing I have experienced to another unforgettable evening , namely watching 13 hours of Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz non stop. You have created a second Mount Everest of the cinema. Both experiences drew me into a world that I believed was real, a world populated by three dimensional human beings, and yet simultaneously a world that I know only exists in the heart of the director. Watching your films, I kept making references to American literary classics, The Grapes of Wrath, Moby Dick, Walt Whitman, this has something to do with the way your characters are quintessentially American, yet completely outside the world of the entertainment industry, so I connect them more to American literature. Your films defy all the conventions of the American entertainment industry, to the degree that I think even viewers well versed in art house cinema, independent cinema, European cinema, can't find any of the predictable references that make cinema pleasurable to their palates. Part of the commercial success of a mediocre film like Atonement is the predictable pleasure of just watching Kyra Knightely, or looking at the lighting on the gleaming silver at the predictable posh dinner table. When you take all these fake pleasures out of cinema (pleasures that probably have more to do with fashion photography and soft lighting techniques acquired while shooting product ads) I think most viewers including the most sophisticated are simply lost. And this is because most viewers are deeply trained in their viewing tastes to a much larger degree than they are willing to admit, so watching a homeless man in a wheel chair carried across the desert is just too real, too unpleasant for most viewers, because most viewers regardless of their intelligence have been trained to see the impoverished and the homeless as unacceptable topics, too downbeat, not entertaining, therefore they shouldn't be invited to sit at the posh dinner table. And also tastes have changed, I wonder if films like The Bicycle Thief or The Four Hundred Blows were made this year, would they even find a distributor? Your films are going to stay with me, I'm glad they exist, and I want to see more. To me they give me so much optimism, they refuse to tread the well worn paths of the cinema, where the traffic lights and the road signs are well maintained. I find the characters in your films full of American optimism and determination. It's as if Peckinpah's wild West is still alive and well in San Francisco. As a matter of fact I could easily see Peckinpah playing a part in one of your films. I enjoy our friendship, it was great to see you here in Cambridge. Looking forward to the next time and the next place.
The following is in response to my statement higher up on the page about the illusion that the United States is a genuine representative democracy. -- R.C.
Subject: Voting and such....
enjoyed your response to Magnus on the voting issue. Here's some more food for thought:
Never mind democracy: Reject the romantic (and fatuous) notion that everyone can run for President if they really tried or that anyone could win: To become President in the United States you have to be part of a very small and elite group. You have to have a high education from a highly reputable school such as Harvard or Yale. You have to have money, lots of it. You have to have rich friends. You have to toe the line on the issues, so as not to alienate wealthy constituents. You have to have the support of large corporations. Etc. Is this really a true democracy?
Case in point: Bolivia. The 2005 elections saw the first indigenous head of state elected when Evo Morales won the presidency. He was supported solely by the people, HIS people. He won after severe civil unrest that actually caused the congress to push up the 2007 elections to 2005. He had become a hero in the eyes of the indigenous peoples of Bolivia and they turned out in record numbers to vote him into office. THAT right there is true democracy. The REAL people of the country made their choice, their voices were heard, the vote count was uncontroversial. Could you imagine if something like that ever happened here? A silly question, because of course it couldn't, since Bolivia obviously has a truer form of democracy than ours. And a greater number of indigenous peoples!
This is a candidate, by the way, that prompted U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha to warn, "As a representative of the United States, I want to remind the Bolivian electorate that if you elect those who want Bolivia to become a major cocaine exporter again, this will endanger the future of U.S. assistance to Bolivia." Fortunately, the people of Bolivia did not see this as a threat so much as they hoped it would be a promise that the U.S. wouldn't back out on! Rocha's comment demonstrates the true United States attitude toward democracy: The people can vote for whoever they want.....as long as we agree with the choice!
God bless the good old USA.
A note from Ray Carney: On the preceding Mailbag page 99, I trace the rough outlines of a David-and-Goliath story, a story about corporate power and celebrity pressure being applied to silence or minimize the impact of the voice of an independent filmmaker. To reprise: Young independent filmmaker Ron Lamothe set out to make a documentary based on the life of Christopher McCandless, the college graduate who hiked into the Alaskan outback never to return. Lamothe had the bad luck (and bad timing) of attempting to make his movie at almost the same instant that Sean Penn was making his fictional film, "Into the Wild," based on the identical events. In the course of Lamothe making his film (titled "The Call of the Wild" after the Jack London story, which McCandless was personally fond of) and attempting to screen it on the film festival circuit in the fall of 2007, he had interactions with Jon Krakauer, the author of the book that Penn's movie is based on, and with members of Penn's production company (including a very well-known and powerful producer) that were not pretty. Both put obstacles in Lamothe's path, and Krakauer, through his lawyers, has attempted to prevent Lamothe's film from being screened. I recently tracked down Lamothe and confirmed the rough outline of the story.
On page 99, I invited Penn to tell his side of the story. I hereby invite any film journalists who are reading this to contact Lamothe and pursue the story on their own. (NPR's Melissa Block and Nightline's producers already passed on it in favor of uncritical promotions of Penn's film and Krakauer's book when "Into the Wild" was released.) Lamothe's story deserves attention, because it repeats itself over and over again in contemporary America -- a story of how money and power (as exerted by movie stars, celebrity authors, and big budget motion picture production companies) effectively censor or control what the public can see and hear; a story of how journalism has become a vehicle to serve money and power, rather than to expose the corruptions they foster. It is a David and Goliath story of how, as long as you have the right lawyers and a highly paid corporate PR staff, you can, in effect, control the story of American film -- as well as pretty much everything else. (Though it's of limited value, I'd note Ron Lamothe has a somewhat guarded and sanitized account of a few of the events on his web site at this link and some of the associated pages. He, of course, has to be careful what he says in order to avoid further legal or distribution problems. But that's precisely the problem. What happened to freedom of speech in America? What happened to journalists taking the side of the underdog and not simply printing the press release issued by a corporation or a celebrity?) -- R.C.
Subject: George Bailey lassos the moon
Just saw It's a Wonderful Life at the Brattle. Don't think I had seen it on the big screen since I was in college. I had forgotten what a difference it makes to see it the way it was meant to be seen.
Trying to figure out what makes me (or anyone for that matter) cry at the end and at other points as well in this film. Something about the gap between the dream or as you would say the vision and the reality; something about the wish for an ideal America maybe; about the yearning for a mix of safety and danger, adventure and domesticity, the magic to be found in the quotidian if we pay attention, I don't know exactly but I do know that it is a movie that doesn't allow for cynicism that carries the spirit of the possibility of human kindness, of the regenerative power of love in all it's varieties without disavowing or minimizing the realities of sex, avarice, self sacrifice, frustration and cruelty. It somehow throws you back on yourself but I don't know exactly how or why. Guess I should read your book huh?
Subject: Much have I travelled in the realms of gold.....
I know. Isn't the ending amazing?
You know, even though I guess I'm the world's authority on Capra, I don't think I myself have ever seen It's a Wonderful Life (or many of his other movies) on other than TV. Wrote my Capra book at Middlebury that way... I just had to write it even if I couldn't see the films the right way, in the right circumstances, the way they were meant to be seen. Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do..... Shush.... Don't tell anyone!!!! : )
Coincidence though: I was out and came back last night around 10:30 and caught the final half hour on TV myself: from the tollhouse bridge scene and Pottersville to the end, and cried again. So TV is enough. Even with the damn commercials! You're so right about the power of the ending. What makes the whole film so powerful for me is that Capra finds a way to create three or more, actually maybe six or seven or eight, different movies, with completely different understandings and sets of feelings out of the same material. The only difference is how George Bailey imagines everything. What I mean is that the film keeps changing the meaning of the same buildings, events, people, and places -- depending on how George thinks and feels about them at a given moment. When George wants to go to college, the bank is a trap. Then once he is doing good things to keep Potter at bay, it's acceptable. Then when he wants to go on his honeymoon but can't, it's limiting again. Then when he decides to stay and make a family, it's satisfying. Then when the money is lost, the bank and his life become a frustrating nightmare. Then when he "dies" and experiences Pottersville and the cemetery and the Ma Bailey boarding house and Mary closing up the library scenes, everything shifts once more because it is re-imagined one more time. Then when he "returns to life," George (and Capra of course) re-imagines everything all over again -- the same people, places, and events that he had hated just minutes before -- now become joyous.
What makes me cry is the idea that it's all in our heads and up to our imaginations to make whatever we can make of it, and yet that power, that energy of transformation is still so hard to access. Does that make any sense? In the American Vision book, I talk about Harry's "To George Bailey, the richest man in town" toast at the end of the film in terms of Keats, because that was Keats' insight also: that the real realms of gold are always and only in the imagination. Not in Cortez's pocket plunder, but in Balboa's wild vision, in looking at the Pacific, silent upon a peak in Darien.........
That's the meaning of melodrama of course. That the imagination makes reality -- not the other way around. Melodrama is such a powerful form of expression. It reveals such deep truths. Capra was always treated as the Norman Rockwell of filmmakers, but he was actually the Puccini or Verdi. A very different thing. Aida in the tomb at the end where it is no longer a tomb but a temple to the heart and soul. She converts it. Verdi converts it. Capra converts it.... It's such a sublime but painful and difficult conversion. (See late Henry James for more on that subject!)
Love and holiday best wishes,
Subject: Mutual Appreciation
I saw Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation a few weeks ago and I must admit I was disappointed. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of good things about the film, it's better than anything coming out of Hollywood recently. All the performances are spot on and the characters and scenarios ring true, in particular the character of Alan. This charming, manipulative character is so well depicted.
But I didn't like the way I felt after watching the film. I felt a sense of smugness. I'd come to dislike Alan quite a bit by the end and found myself smugly enjoying the fact that Alan is a loser whose music career will never go anywhere. Tied in with that I was relieved that the relationship between Andrew Bujalski's character and his girlfriend had survived and found myself smugly enjoying the fact that Alan had failed to have much of an impact on their lives, that he had failed to manipulate anyone and that Ellie, although she may have had some attraction to Alan at first, had effectively rejected him. This made me kind of sick with myself but also with the film. I felt it had let itself down.
I also felt that the role of Bujalski's character Lawrence was very weak (I'm not referring To Bujalski's performance, which was very good, I mean the role of his character within the film.) Although you've got to admire Bujalski's courage for casting himself as a dull dog both in this and in Funny Ha Ha, I felt his character was a little too easy to symapthise with. He is a bit too much of a Jack Lemmon-type: solid and reliable but a bit of a wimp. The film isn't critical of him at all. This is fine in Funny Ha Ha, he only has a small role and the film is never about him, it's more about the way Marnie reacts to him and treats him. I know Bujalski isn't actually playing the same character in both films but they're in a similar vein. But in Mutual Appreciation he is a central character and the film never compells us to question him in any way, we are not compelled to say, for instance, Maybe he should stand up for himself instead of being stepped on all the time. The fact that his and Ellie's relationship has survived at the end didn't have any complications or ambiguities for me, I was just glad things worked out for him.
I didn't feel Funny Ha Ha was flawed in this way. I found it compelling how complex Marnie's character was and in its strongest scenes I found myself working to keep up with each character and what they must be feeling. It reminded me of A Woman Under The Influence, how the first time I watched it I found myself siding with Nick one second and totally baffled by him the next. Mutual Appreciation had scenes like this as well, the scene where Alan goes to Dennis' apartment after the gig was very well observed, but I still feel critical of the ending. It just instilled a sense of smugness and superiority over Alan.
Anyway I'd be interested to know what you think. If you feel I'm way off the mark come right out and tell me!
All the best
|Photo of Ray Carney by Randy Walker, 2007|
RC replies: Thanks for the interesting observations. Many recent American works from Gen Z filmmakers share a common ethos, attitude toward life, feeling about experience and human relationships. Your task, if you define yourself as a critic, would be to articulate the exact qualities of this ethos and to talk about its function in these films and the potential limitations it places on their understanding of life. (Simply labeling them "mumblecore" in the Matt Dentler, Amy Taubin, Dennis Lim way, is definitely not what I mean.) Your task, if you define yourself as a filmmaker, would be to explore alternatives to, shortcomings of, and alternate interpretations of this ethos. That is what being an artist is about. It is not about simply buying into the culture's reigning value systems (the value systems of the twenty-something generation in this instance) but about asking questions about those values, exploring them, critiquing them, pushing them in new directions. It's an open question whether Bujalski or most of the other critically celebrated filmmakers in his generation are doing this. I have hope, and I am patient. It takes time for a filmmaker to live enough, to experience enough to see around the corner of his or her culture, to lever himself outside of it just a little, to dig deep enough into it to be able to talk about its limitations, its blindnesses, its evasions, its cliches, its cant-formulations, its fashionable stupidities. I am willing to give the fimmakers three or four films to make their cases; but I also have my doubts.
For a completely different kind of example, look at how much Jason Reitman's Juno leaves out. Ellen Page did a swell job with gestures and tones of voice; Diabolo Cody nailed the teenage slang and adult cant phrases dead; and the set decorator and costume designer got the walls, hairdos, posters, and T-shirts letter perfect. But the inside is missing. There are no real, no really deep, emotions or interactions as far as the eye can see. A high school girl gets pregnant and what we learn the most about is how her mother alters her jeans, how an ultrasound device works, and how other kids stare at her in school. Where is the inside? Where is the fear? Where is the crisis of confidence? Where is the romantic doubt and despair? Everything is letter perfect, except that Reitman and Cody forgot to include Juno MacDuff's (and Paulie Bleeker's) heart and soul. "....Oops, I knew there was something I was supposed to pick up on my way here...." (And don't say that comedy can't go into those places of the human heart: Look at Chaplin's City Lights, Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid, and John Korty's Crazy Quilt.)
See the last paragraph of the DVD pack-in essay I wrote about Aaron Katz's Quiet City for more thoughts about how a film can evade difficult issues. -- R.C.
An announcement of an important conference by one of the world's leading media critics -- R.C.
Many of my academic friends have inquired about the fourth National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis from June 6-8, 2008. It is going to be an extraordinary event with thousands of people from all 50 states, scores of nations and all walks of life.
There will also be an academic pre-conference on Thursday June 5 for scholars and students concerned with media and media policy. It is being organized by Amit Schejter from Penn State and is con-sponsored by Free Press and the Social Science Research Council along with the Institute for Information Policy at Penn State. Any scholar or student can attend and I urge you to do so. (There is funding to help pay for grad students to attend.)
There is also a call for proposals for the academic pre-conference. I attach it to this email. Please consider submitting a proposal. Also please send this call for proposals to other academics and grad students you know who might be interested is submitting a proposal or attending. And for my international friends, please note that international and comparative work is encouraged.
The deadline is January 25, 2008 to make a 500 word proposal so there is not a lot of time to spare....
Thanks much. I hope to see you in Minneapolis. From past experience I can safely say you will not be disappointed if you attend. In fact, it will more likely blow your mind.
Robert W. McChesney
Gutgsell Endowed Professor
DEPARTMENT OF COMMUNICATION
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
This just in from the good (and extremely accomplished) Arthur Vibert. For those who are not familiar with him and his work, I recommend reading an earlier letter he wrote that I posted on Mailbag page 88 (accessible via the blue page number menus at the top and bottom of each Mailbag page), searching on his name via the site engine to find other things by or about him, or visiting his personal web site: http://www.arthurvibert.com/.
Subject: Nolo illegitimus carborundum
I am perplexed by the attitude of the management at Boston University towards you and your work. Why are they trying to gag you? What is the point? Surely you are the primary reason why anyone would consider studying film at BU - the rest of the program appears to be a pretty standard run-of-the-mill approach to film studies.
I don't know you apart from our brief correspondence and what I've read on your site and books, but I would guess that you are someone with a strong point of view who is not shy about sharing it. This gets back to taking the hard road, of course. It's so much easier to fall in line with the "industry." You're probably inadvertently antagonizing some of your colleagues by making them feel guilty for being sheep toeing the corporate line and creating production assistants with fabulously expensive college educations and dreams of cinematic glory actually fated to spend the best part of their lives delivering Frappucinos to pompous overpaid corporate executives who justify their bloated salaries by causing to be created the same pre-digested corporate "entertainment" designed to be seen by as many 15-year-olds as possible.
And while it seems to me that it would make much more sense for these same colleagues to question what they are doing, it apparently seems easier to them to silence you so they can continue to delude generations of innocents into believing that working in the "Industry" actually matters without any pesky doubts about whether or not that is actually true.
Keep fighting the good fight, Ray. You're one of the people that matter. While I'm sure that this whole process has been painful and frustrating for you, what you are doing is important. Don't let them grind you down!
If there is anything I can do to help - write letters of support, for example - please let me know. I'll do whatever I can to help.
p.s. - I still owe you a Sock Puppet DVD. I've been doing some last minute revisions but with a little luck I'll have the DVD in your hands in a week or two.
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