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Ray Carney's Mailbag -- This section of the site contains letters written to Prof. Carney by students and artists, announcements of news, events, and screenings, and miscellaneous observations about life and art by Ray Carney. Letters and notices submitted by readers are in black. Prof. Carney's responses, observations, and recommendations are in blue. Note that Prof. Carney receives many more letters and announcements than he can possibly include on the site. The material on these pages has been selected as being that which will be the most interesting, inspiring, useful, or informative to site readers. Click on the first page (via the links at the top or bottom of the page) to read an explanation of this material, why it is being posted, and how this relatively small selection was made from among the tens of thousands of messages Prof. Carney has received.

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Subject: I barely exist- can that even be a film?

Hi Ray. I discovered your site about a month ago, and your writing has seriously taken up 90% of my free time. Your writing has replaced a lot of school work and movie watching at the moment (for better or worse).

Let me be brief, since you get plenty of flattery anyway. I've isolated myself from people for various reasons over the past year- literally abandoning my friends and not talking to them anymore. I don't know why. I often spend my free time walking around parks or woods aimlessly, and occasionally I see other lone people and I want to say things to them, but I don't.

Cassavetes has shown that isolation is best shown through people interacting. But that's not my only experience, and I want to make a short film about a person abandoning their friends on their birthday and walking around a big empty park, passing by strangers and saying nothing, showing no emotions. And that's it. But I feel like this has been made before by someone else, and probably better, and probably not as literal. But I did these things! I just did them for no reason. Now, I'm afraid if I transcribe my boring, empty life to the screen, people will think it's me asking them to cry for me. I don't want them to. I just want to figure out why the hell I do what I do, but I don't want someone walking in a big empty park to be thought of as a heavy handed metaphor for loneliness. It's more than that.

I'm not sure what I'm asking. Perhaps I just need some words of encouragement or discouragement. There's no way you can see in my head and tell me if the idea sucks or not. I'm not afraid of failing, but I am afraid of not seeing something more. Am I just settling on the most blatant, easy part of my life surface wise? Should I be digging deeper? Should I film what happens after I reunite with my friends? Or is filming this going to be the actual excavation?

I'd be flattered and humbled if you even read this far. You are a busy man. But like all of us young people with silly dreams, I am in a constant state of confusion and chaos! I haven't slept in nearly a day, for example. I am gritty! And "edgy"!

Thanks for reading my drivel,

John P

P.S. My "American Independent Film" teacher showed us an awful film called Lars and the Real Girl instead of works by Jon Jost, writing him off as "too avant-garde" and something we wouldn't like. Half my class seemed to like Lars over an earlier screening of A Woman Under the Influence. Top that off with the fact that my professor had a conversation on her cell phone- in the classroom- during the screening for Lars. I'd thought you'd love to hear this horror story.

RC replies:

Subject: Encouraging words, expedient practices (as one of my teachers used to say)


Thanks for the kind words (and the sad story in your P.S.). And never lose sight of the fact that your teacher (the one in the P.S.) is sadder and more pathetic and more hopeless and more lost than anything you say about yourself or your life or your birthday. She is a real loser, and she has already lost her soul -- or let the culture buy it without her even realizing it. (And you can quote me on that.)

Your Life is a Movie coverAs you realize, I can't tell you what to film or whether your film will be worth making, obviously. Life is not the big things. Life is not the events. Life is not ideas about life. Life is second by second, detail by detail. Mood by mood. Flicker by flicker. And that's what will make your film worth watching or worth walking out on. Not some general idea about life. If you understand this, and capture it in your film, it will not be boring or empty.

Another thing your letter shows me is that you understand that life has layers. Even when we think it is flat, it is not. Even when we think we are empty, we are having experiences by the bushel load. You can be walking in an empty park doing nothing, but also be seeing yourself walking, and can be wondering why you are doing it, or what it means, or whether it is just "boring and empty." That's a lot going on. You can also be feeling sorry for yourself and hating yourself for feeling sorry for yourself at the same time. You can also (I am sure) laugh at yourself some of the time in this kind of situation. Or you can be totally wrapped up in yourself, but also suddenly see a flock of pigeons you've startled take off, and suddenly be taken out of yourself. You can see their magic and beauty, even as you feel your loneliness. Or you can be feeling sorry for yourself but also look at a homeless guy sleeping on the sidewalk and feel how much luckier you are than he is. It's a complex life. Even when "nothing is happening" life can still be very full, very layered, very complex, very interesting. You follow my logic, I'm sure. I'm just saying that even "doing nothing" is full of emotional wiggles and zig-zags. It is not just doing nothing. And it can be both sad and funny at the same time, both narcissistic and concerned with others, both empty and full of inner events....

Your film has been made thousands of times before. Only never by Hollywood, of course. Many indie films have very little "action." Their events are internal. Look at Ronnie Bronstein's Frownland. Look at Mary Bronstein's Yeast. Look at Jim Jarmusch's Permanent Vacation and Stranger than Paradise. Look at Chantel Akerman's Jeanne Diehlmann. Look at Robert Bresson's Four Nights of a Dreamer. Look at Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker. Look at Kelly Reichardt's amazing Old Joy (one of the greatest films of the decade). But that is no reason not to make it again, differently, personally, uniquely, from your perspective. But it must capture the full complexity of the "doing nothing-being nothing" experience. Don't let ideas simplify it. As an idea the experience is boring, but as a life lived it is thrilling. But that is because as an idea it has no context, no past, no history; but as you live your life, you have all of those things. Since films can't a photograph a character's thoughts and feelings directly, the way they represent emotional complexity is to parcel the different moods, attitudes, and feelings into different characters and have them interact with each other or have them have some passing relation with each other. That's why Ronnie Bronstein inserts the roommate into his film. It's why Kelly Reichardt begins and ends Old Joy in totally different places than the rest of the film is set in. It's why many films use more than one character to show us about one character. Not for "realism" in the stupid Hollywood way, but because the contrast of two people's ways of being and talking and acting creates complexities. Structure, comparison, contrast, organization (not just randomness and sequentiality and one thing after another) are the artist's way of getting the real complexity of lived, felt experience into a work.

Ray Carney in Melbourne Australia

Or you could write this out as a story. Why insist on making a film? Don't limit yourself by thinking only in terms of photographing it. See my comments on earlier pages on the site about not being limited to filmmaking to present drama (e.g. see the essay titled "A Modest Proposal: Reflections on the cultural hype about the glamour and importance of being a filmmaker and how film schools take advantage of it for financial gain" on Mailbag page 97 -- click here to open a window to read it  -- and the responses from readers on subsequent pages 98, 99, 100) where I talk about how writing can be a crucial tool for discovery and how filmmakers cripple themselves by limiting themselves to cinematic expressions--for more about that. Making a film is actually too easy, too slack, too relaxed, too cheap a way of rendering experience. Turning your experience into words, sentences, paragraphs will force you to wrestle with what you want to express more than walking around with a camera does. It's the old late-nineteenth century "painting versus photography" issue. When you have to create the experience stroke by stroke (word by word) like a painter you force yourself to see and realize things that you don't when you just push a button like a photographer. And you aren't limited to what you can stage or photograph. Words can go anywhere. They can describe anything. They can capture consciousness that a camera can never photograph. Read Beckett's Murphy. Or his Molloy. Read James's "The Beast in the Jungle" (a story, if there ever was one, about nothing -- about doing and being nothing). Read Joyce Carol Oates's "Is Laughter Contagious" and "The Undesirable Table" and "We were so Worried about You." Read Hawthorne's "The Ambitious Guest." They will show you the places words can take you, if they are twisted and tortured into new meanings. Writing out your experience can test your ideas in ways that shooting them with a camera never will. Don't be taken in by the cultural hype about the importance of filmmaking. Don't let film schools brainwash you. The greatest art now being created is NOT being made by filmmakers, but by writers and artists working in non-cinematic forms of expression.

Fare onward voyager. The most important thing is that you don't give up your specialness, your independent view, your differences. The world tries to make each of us fit in and conform. Don't do it. It's a deal with the devil. Only you can give your gift to the world. Keep giving it in life and in art.

RC is inviting submissions from artists who wish to be considered for two week solo exhibitions on

In 2009 will be hosting an ambitious series of solo shows from established and emerging artists working with the moving image. We would like to allocate 3 of these shows to artists who respond to a series of three open calls for entries. You must have a body of work consisting of at least 10 moving image pieces that are ready for exhibition and which run no longer than ten minutes (although we are happy to consider excerpts from longer pieces). We will consider all forms of moving image work and welcome submissions from artists working at any stage of their careers, of all nationalities.

The first selected artist will have a two week online show early in 2009 and be part of our external events programme which will be toured to galleries and institutions internationally.

Deadline: 10th December 2008.

Please submit examples of work (accompanied by a submission form, downloadable from as Quicktime files or on mini DV to:
2nd Floor Princess House
50 - 60 Eastcastle Street

Another book recommendation: At the suggestion of a site regular, I recently came across the  following book, which I want to recommend. It is available in an inexpensive paperback edition, and should also be in the collection of any middle-sized library. It was published two or three years ago: John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Perkins is not a professional writer and his book is not particularly well-written or well-documented and researched, but what makes it important is that it tells a first-person, personal story of his experiences participating in a program of corruption and malfeasance funded at the highest levels of the United States government. Perkins was employed by a subcontractor (funded by the CIA, NSA, a division of the Department of Defense, or another "black budget" government agency) to bribe, threaten, and subvert democratic decision-making in foreign countries to further American economic and business interests. The book is not well-written. Perkins's writing is flat; his prose is weak and repetitious; his story is not suspenseful and gripping in the Carl Bernstein way (Bernstein, the friend of the rich and powerful, who never dares to publish anything that would ever jeopardize his relationship with or access to the high-level movers and shakers); but it has the ring of truth -- frightening, discouraging, shocking truth. This book is not part of the paranoid rant that the Bush administration was personally responsible for the events of 9/11; but in some respects it is more shocking than that claim. It suggests that there has been a systematic set of policies in place for most of the post-World War II era in which the United States government (via a web of independent agents and subcontractors like the one Perkins worked for) has participated in a program of assassinations, governmental coups, and the systematic corruption of foreign governments and businesses. If Perkins were the only one saying this, we could possibly dismiss it as the ravings of a self-promoter or fool. But there is, at this point in American history, just too much evidence that, however limited his own personal view of and involvement in these activities, Perkins was part of a vast, well-funded system that is still in place and still as busy as ever at its work of subversion and corruption. Americans are so naive, so trusting of their government's fundamental goodness and truthfulness. It's time for a reality-check, a wake-up call. (But, of course, very few professional journalists, and certainly none at the Carl Bernstein level of self-importance, would risk their careers and reputations by pursuing this or similar stories. So much for the independence and courage of the "fourth estate." That is another American myth that needs to be debunked.) This country has a lot of blood on its hands, but woe to him who dares say so. Don't worry about it. Go back to reading Film Comment and MovieMaker and to enjoying the contentless thrills, the safe danger, the "being nowhere, saying nothing" of the Coen brothers' cinematic rollercoasters.  -- R.C.

This just came in from indie filmmaker Raymund Cruz who lives in the Philippines. Thanks, Raymund! -- R.C.

Subject: Bresson..

Bresson sits down in an interview for L'Argent.

Here, he talks about his cinema.



The Meaning of Life


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© Text Copyright 2008 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.