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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: Greetings to Ray

Dear Ray,

This is a greeting from Hungary.
And thanks for your works.
It helps keeping the Spirit of true filmmaking in us.

Though my movie is Hungary's Official Entry for the Academy this year, it is Hungary's choice, and I don't think that's going to be the Academy's as well. I owe too much to Cass' and my movie is as far from mainstream as it is close-to-life (both very much). Some quotes attached here show how much it is a character-driven movie, if you have a minute.

This year I began teaching at a University in Hungary (No Bordwell, neither Thompson:) but I'd like to use your works and website as very useful sources. So you'll spread your wings in Hungary :)

When we'll have the DVD edition of ISKA'S JOURNEY, I'd like to present you a copy.
What else?
Have I told you 'Thanks'?

Csaba Bollók



A moving, human and relevant film, reminiscent of Ken Loach, it impresses through the magnetism of its central character and the depth of commitment to its subject.’ Peter Hames, London Film Festival

Iska’s Journey contains a central performance by young girl Maria Varga that is worthy of study by any actor.’ Jeremy Irons

‘Iska’s Journey – a courageous and very, very important film. The emotions this film causes are unspeakable. Philina Schmidt, Berlinale

Iska´s Journey certainly left a huge mark on the viewers of the International Film Festival Festroia. This is a film based on a true story and the true heroes of this story play the roles of themselves. They play and they show us all the little things that their life consists of; their real everyday life. Maybe this is the reason why you get a feeling that this is a documentary-feature film; the reason why you get a feeling that you are actually peering at somebody's life from a secret hidden corner. This is a story that could happen anywhere. This is a story that astonishes you with its honesty and realism. This is a story that will impress you with its dramatics like no other film ever . Salome Kikaleishvili, FIPRESCI JURY

‘A masterpiece.’ Hungarian Quarterly

With her button nose, generous freckles and wise eyes, Iska (Maria Varga) looks for all the world like a cross between "Paper Moon"-era Tatum O'Neal and Kevin Corcoran as Disney's Toby Tyler…Her performance is at once innately dignified and terrifyingly vulnerable.’ Eddie Cockrell, Variety


I'd be honored to be presented with a copy of your film. Please send it to the following private address since it will be more secure than if you mail it to the university. Too many things are stolen or misplaced there..... (deleted material)......

I like your joke about not being David Bordwell or Kristin Thompson -- or not using their writing, if that is what you mean. That's an unfair advantage! That one thing will make your classes better than most of the ones in America. What fashion-slaves American film professors are..... Jargon and obscure teminology substituting for insight....

You have my permission to use my web site all you want in your classes. And you and your students have my permission to print out whatever you want to discuss.

Keep working for truth and deep morality (beyond mere good and evil). And, though I hope you do win a stupid Academy Award, it doesn't really matter--except financially. Don't ever take prizes seriously. Mohammed and Buddha never won any. And we know what happened to Jesus. The world hasn't changed much since then. The prizes for truth-telling are awarded in eternity.

Sincere best wishes,


P.S. Looking over the quotes you sent me, I have to say that the Variety quote says so much about American film reviewing in comparison with the rest of the world. What's wrong with my country? Why is everything -- from politics to film reviewing -- so trivialized? Turned into cuteness and "personality?" How did America become so stupid? Or is it only American journalism? No answer expected!

A note from Ray Carney: The following letter was written in response to the email exchange printed, in heavily redacted form, on the bottom of Mailbag page 117 (use the blue menus at the top bottom of this page to go there). It is by American independent filmmaker Tom Russell, and takes the side of the filmmaker I was debating with (who is identified only as XXXX) in the exchange on page 117, taking issue with my argument that American independent film is emotionally immature.

Been reading your Capra book some more the last few days. Finally got to your fifteenth chapter-- your analysis of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. I'm been excited and inspired by the fourteen previous chapters, but your writing about this particular film were particularly resonant (perhaps because it's the film of Capra's of which I am the most familiar). My appreciation and admiration for it has deepened a hundred if not a thousand-fold. You managed to express a lot of the things I love about the film but was unable to do so-- for example, the constant breaking/fissuring of the narrative structure. (A note from Ray Carney: Click here to open a window and access a series of links that contain excerpts from the book Tom Russell is discussing, Ray Carney's American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra, or to find out more about it, including reading critical reviews of it.)

It got me thinking about your recent discussion re: the "shallowness" of many recent young filmmakers. How all their films are about romance and ennui and playing games. How they don't engage socially, how they don't represent social systems and relationships with the same depth as, say, Mike Leigh.

The thing is, for most people in their twenties, life is about romance, ennui, and playing games, about hanging out. They're expressing the life they know.

Looking at two of Capra's films, at AMERICAN MADNESS and WONDERFUL LIFE, in both films you have someone in the banking & loans business, a married man, someone with responsibility. But the difference between the two characters is night and day; it's not just that Huston's banker can navigate dangerous social systems while George Bailey is trapped by them. The very image of what it means to be a married man with responsibilities is completely different in the two films. In AMERICAN MADNESS, it's fun-- a kid's idea of being an adult. While in WONDERFUL LIFE, Capra's vision is mature and sobering.

I'm not calling Capra a kid and neither am I extending that to the young filmmakers, some of whom I consider to be my friends, to whose work we're alluding. I'm just saying that it takes a little life experience for artists to be ready to grasp with the deeper issues. I was recently talking to (an American independent filmmaker) .... about his films and the lack of, for lack of a better word, cruelty in them. And while I won't share exactly or all of what he said out of respect for the privacy of our correspondence, I do feel comfortable in relating that he said there are a lot of filmmakers who traverse that material, and not so many that pay attention to what's right under their nose.

And, you know what? Sometimes that is enough. I don't see it as a defect of their filmmaking; rather, it's what makes their filmmaking interesting and unique. (The filmmaker I was talking to) and a couple of others have a certain touch, something that's identifiably "them"-- a "voice" if you want to use the old cliche. And while I'm not saying they should do the same thing over and over again (and I don't think they would do that, either; I've seen leaps-and-bounds between one film and the next for these filmmakers) I am saying that they have to keep true to that voice.

One can't ask Capra to make LORD OF THE RINGS and one can't ask Carl Theo Dreyer to make BRINGING UP BABY. Yes, yes, granted, those are genres, but they're also styles, they're also sensibilities. And in this day of homogenized sensibilities, in which a lot of twenty-something filmmakers are all making crappy horror movies, it's so wonderful to have artists that young who actually have something to say, that have a vision.

Maybe that vision will one day be more socially-engaged, and maybe it won't. Whichever direction it moves in, though, I think they're going to make interesting and lasting works of art.


Ray Carney replied:

Thanks for the response. Very very smart and good, but I still have my reservations about many of these films. Not just about the work of XXXX, but about almost all American independent filmmaking from the past ten or fifteen years. In response to your argument I have to say..... yes and no. Yes--OK, these guys are young and their characters are young and puppy love is what they know and care about and what their characters care about.

But no--they are not sooo young that they can use that excuse for not seeing further. It might work in a high school film festival, but many of these filmmakers are in their thirties, even mid or late thirties. We die or retire at 60, so they have lived half their lives. And at 35 they should care about more than adolescent love and romance and hanging out.

But I want to be clear, all the more since even the filmmaker I was communicating with didn't seem to understand my point. I am NOT saying that filmmakers should have to include politics and mortgages and children, NOR am I saying that they have to have scenes about social problems. ("Bank runs" in your example from Capra.) That's not what I'm saying. I am saying that their view even of love and romance is IMMATURE, ADOLESCENT, TOO SIMPLE. Their characters are naive. Their groups are too "friendly." (Maybe this is what you were saying to your filmmaker friend.) There is no understanding of how much more complicated people are than their "good intentions" indicate. THAT'S what I want to be included. Not politics. Not sociology. Not world affairs. Not marriages and families and children and mortgages. I just want more than a "high school" view of people.

For an example of a film that does this and doesn't go near politics and sociology, look at Mike Leigh's Bleak Moments or --even better-- his Abigail's Party or Meantime. All three are brilliant visions of how messed up, how complex, how amazingly weird human personality is. That's what I don't see in more than a handful of American indie movies. And if you don't have that view by the time you are 30, I don't think you'll ever have it. You'll remain an immature artist with immature understandings of life's complexity. You'll go to your grave thinking it's about adolescent love and romance. You'll be a Cheever character, or a Spielberg character, no matter how many children or wives you have, or include in your movies.

Too harsh? I think not. Tarkovsky at 35 had made Andrei Rublev, Cassavetes at 35 had made Faces, Picasso at 35 was doing totally "mature" paintings, Mozart at 35 was writing amazingly emotionally complex concertos.... all of them at that age included towers of Babel of complexities, evil, tortured motives, messed up intentions in their work. That's a large part of what the world is. And what human interactions are. Not puppy love and group hugs and hurt feelings.

Tell me where I'm wrong. I want to hear it. Your letter is terrific, but I think it lets these guys off too easily. An artist's goal is to go into the hard, messy, complex places of life. Not to hide out at home or with your friends where tenderness and kindness rule......


Tom Russell replied:

Subject: A Certain Tendency of the Recent Low-Budget American Independent Cinema


Since I received your e-mail late last night/early this morning, I've been living with your words in my head. I went to bed but was unable to sleep; I went to work but was unable to be particularly productive. I've spent all this time, whether I wanted to or not, mulling your argument over and trying to formulate some sort of coherent response.

I have, quite frankly, failed miserably at this but if you'll excuse something slightly more scattershot, I'd like to offer some random thoughts about this.


I'd like to start by clarifying something in my last letter. More than once I referred to the possibility that my contemporaries might become more socially-engaged. But I did not mean it in the sense that their films would become political or sociological or that they would tackle social issues or problems. I meant "socially-engaged" more in the sense that operates as the opposite number of the kind of solipsism that is sometimes palpable among younger filmmakers. That they might get "outside" themselves a bit without losing their own personal ideas, feelings, and "touch".

There is a certain homogenized quality to the characters and dialogue in many recent low-budget independent films. While vocal mannerisms hardly equates a characterization (look at how many different meanings Cassavetes gets out of "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers"!), it's harder to refute charges of solipsism of the kind Amy Taubin leveled at the "mumblecore" crowd when many of the characters in a given film speak with the same helter-skelter sense of rhythm, the same abundance of verbal placeholders (um, like, y'know).

And this might be less because of any deficit in craft in the creators of these films and more a matter of background and life experience. My general impression is that a number of these filmmakers either employ improvisation to a large degree or that they draw heavily from the lives around them and the life they themselves have lived. They are representing life as they know it.

Now, how do I say this without getting myself in trouble?...

I think, to a large degree, their lives have been comfortable. Most of these filmmakers are highly-educated and have been to good colleges, if not to film school. They have a large support network of friends and family. They started making films out of college and, with a few exceptions, haven't had to work a real nine-to-five. And I don't think they've experienced much by way of real honest-to-God completely humiliating failure.

You said to XXXX that everyone in these indie films are "too normal, too well-meaning, too nice", that it doesn't reflect your experience of life. It doesn't reflect mine, either. In all the sweeping generalizations I made in the preceding paragraph, my life has taken a completely different path. I didn't get to go to college. I'm stuck in a low-paying and in many ways demeaning municipal job. And I've failed. Oh, Lord, have I failed.

But that's my life, my experience, and I think my films reflect that. Their films, on the other hand, reflect their experiences, reflect their lives. Just as Cassavetes's films reflect his. And, really, what more can we ask of an artist?

That's why I don't think I'm "letting these guys off too easy". There are, to paraphrase you quoting James, many windows in the house of fiction-in the house of art. I say let Andrew Bujalski be Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg be Joe Swanberg and Tom Russell be Tom Russell and Nick Cassavetes be Nick Cassavetes and John Cassavetes be John Cassavetes and Ray Carney be Ray Carney.

Now, that being said, let me address another facet of your argument-that the understandings of life in these films are too simple, naïve, adolescent, or immature. While I might see your point generally-and that got me thinking about some solipsistic and sheltered tendencies in some of these recent independent films-when I look at things specifically, I have to respectfully disagree.

Look at the beach scene in Swanberg's film LOL. Joe's character is on his phone with a friend while his girlfriend flirts with a random beach guy. "So, check it out," Joe says to his friend. "The coolest thing is happening right now. I'm sitting on a beach and Ada is thirty feet away talking to this dude. It's this fucking dude with a sleeveless shirt and cargo pants. She's just doing it to piss me off. She's failing to make me mad which is then making her even more mad. I guess if I keep pushing it maybe she'll go home with him tonight." Ada waves to him, and he waves back, still on the phone.

Maybe I'm too easily astonished, but that, to me, is a complex character and a complex moment. He's not naïve or dominated by good intentions. In many ways, I think the characters in LOL especially are crippled by a sense of irony-the characters never seem to be inside themselves or genuinely comfortable but always intensely aware of how ridiculous they're being, how passive-aggressive, always self-overhearing. Later in that same film Joe's character (Tim) is practically dragged from his computer by Ada into bed, and we get this exchange:

TIM: Hey, were you wanting to have sex tonight?
ADA: Yeah.
TIM: Could you give me like twenty minutes? (he smiles)
ADA: Are you serious?
TIM: Well... no.

When he smiles, it's because he knows how ridiculous he's being, and how, in a very real way, his desire jeopardizes perhaps not only tonight's chances for nookie but his relationship in general. He knows this, he's completely aware of it, and yet he still does it.

To me, that is a complex understanding of PEOPLE and their multivalence of conflicting motives and pressures. And I see such complexity and subtlety in the films of many other of my contemporaries. Look at, for example, the two party scenes at the center of Mutual Appreciation. Look at the tension and anger that flares up early on in that same film when Lawrence doesn't quite understand the Cool People's Inclusive Club. In fact, the last time I saw it, I was especially struck by how Lawrence often doesn't quite understand or get Alan or Ellie; the gulf there is palpable but admirably understated. There's also the scenes in which Ellie addresses the shallow surface nature of conversations with Alan-how they can never talk about anything real except his music-and she points up how creepy it is that Lawrence is so calm when she tells him about the moment Alan and Ellie shared. Both those examples, in a way, function as criticism of the tendencies of recent independent films to not go deeper and to avoid confrontation and extremes.

So, for me, I think there's a very deep and, just as importantly, highly unique understanding of human beings on display in the work of all of these filmmakers. I think the way in which they treat their subject matter does exhibit some depth and maturity. (When I think immaturity, I think of something like Juno.)

Now, the subject matter itself-ennui and romance-does, I think, leave a little something to be desired. But I think with those subjects, as limiting as they are, these filmmakers have shown a great deal of understanding of not only the subjects themselves, but of the dance of personality and identity. As for when and if they'll move on to subjects that are a bit more ambitious and less limiting-

Well, I think that is, again, a matter of life experience. Not of time spent on the earth, but of how that time is spent. Of the people we meet, the love we give, the things we lose and struggle with. As they live a little more life, they'll be able to bring more of it into their films.

My argument, I guess, in summary, is that I think a deeper understanding of life IS there. It's not a drop of insight but gallons of it. They just need a good-sized tub to put it in, and right now they've got a bucket.

And while Mozart might have been grappling with tortured motives and extremes by the time he was thirty-five, by the time he was thirty-five he was also dying. I think the latter generally helps with the former. :- )


And something else I can't quite find a place for in the above argument but that I feel needs saying, once again addressing the idea of the people being too nice. You once said (and I'm paraphrasing here, so please forgive me if I'm misremembering) that great art teaches us about how to be better people, better lovers, better friends. If that's true, most great art teaches us by negative example-by showing us how not to behave and the folly of not listening, not understanding, not sympathizing, not forgiving.

Some of these recent American independents teach us, I think, by positive example. If other films show us why we should listen to people and respond to them lovingly, these films show us how to do so.

And all I'm saying is, isn't there room for both?


Hope some of the preceding made some kind of sense,


A note from Ray Carney: I think both of Tom's letters are wonderfully insightful and eloquently argued. What do site readers think? I continue to invite responses, reactions, and thoughts about this topic or this exchange. (Site visitors who want to review the entire thread of previous thoughts and comments on this subject are encouraged to click on the "Most Popular Topics" button in the left margin of this page and to follow the links in the first entry on the Mailbag Highlights page they will be taken to: "Enough with the praise for the young and the noble. Click here to read what's WRONG with American independent film.")

A major new indie label. I know some of the individuals involved, and highly recommend it. -- R.C.

Underground Film Veteran Launches Provocateur Pictures

(Los Angeles, CA) 2008 saw the launch of Provocateur Pictures, an independent DVD label for alternative cinema. Founded by curator and co-founder of Other Cinema Digital, Noel Lawrence, Provocateur aims to create a space for challenging and offbeat works to thrive within an increasingly competitive media marketplace.

"When Hollywood rejects your work, I'll screen it," says Lawrence. "When your film is called weird or subversive, I'll embrace it. I am interested in taking chances on the films that other distributors appreciate but decide against releasing because they are too deemed too risky. It is my belief that there is an audience for quality alternative cinema." Providing major backbone and backup, Provocateur has enlisted Microcinema International, to distribute its film catalog both in the retail and institutional sectors. Founded in 1996, Microcinema is a leading international rights manager, exhibitor, and specialty markets distributor of the "moving image arts."

"We are proud to be distributing Provocateur's releases," says Joel S. Bachar, Founder of Microcinema International. "Noel's vision and curatorial aesthetic is in perfect sync with our distribution efforts and his acquisitions will add significant value to our repertoire of unique and diverse titles."

Provocateur Pictures released its first title, Rob Nilsson's "Words For The Dying," in September, a revealing cinema verité portrait of the former Velvet Underground musician, John Cale, in creative collaboration with Brian Eno. Director Nilsson ("Northern Lights" - Camera d'Or, Cannes, "Heat and Sunlight" - Grand Jury Prize, Sundance) follows them to Moscow, London and Wales for the recording of a new album, "Words for the Dying", built around four Dylan Thomas poems.


Csaba Bollók, the Hungarian filmmaker / film teacher who wrote the letter that appears on the top of this page replied to the response I wrote him. I wanted to share his thoughts with site readers. (Note that the abbreviation "B'n'T" in the following note is his shorthand for the work of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, two of the most influential film theorists alive, the pernicious influence of whose work on film study -- and vision and understanding of filmmaking -- he and I exchanged jokes about in our first exchange.) It is particularly valuable for American filmmakers and writers to hear a view of film and film study that has not been polluted by the hegemony of Hollywood and warped by its pop culture value system (as even the work of Bordwell and Thompson has). Can anything escape that force field, that publicity juggernaut? That's exactly what I thought it was the job of intellectuals, critics, and reviewers to do -- to take the long view, to see things freshly and truly, to lever themselves outside the fads and fashions of their time and culture -- not merely to echo them in their work; but I guess I was misinformed. Foolish me. -- R.C.

Subject: Some Thoughts from Csaba

Dear Ray,

I was much impressed by your reply, you're very generous. So, we'll visit your sites, and read your writings with my students, for the benefit of future generations: to see clearly!

Yes, I mean I didn't want to use B'n'T in my lessons, though in Hungary, most of the media training is based on it, too.

When kids tell me those artificial terms taken from that book, I simply ask them to quit and forget about them. Being a filmmaker, I believe 'Movie as an Art' is much more organic, and subject to change all the time, like a plant, it cannot be descripted strictly by terminus technicus. (RC: "technical terms.")

In making movies, we might arrive at a level, when what we produce - probably by God's grace, but only with a huge respect to the world of facts - is not art anymore, but simply, 'life'. Nor abstraction, neither reference to it. It is rare in cinema, but when it happens, we can experience 'life' in its manner of operation. Characters not only in their acting but in their 'presence'. At this point, certain scholarly terms are no longer able to interpret. It is insight, intuition, the secret knowledge of being silent about certain things. And how many scholars or critics cannot even see when this phenomenon (easily the aim and function of art) is 'there'! Many of them get disarmed at this point, and I guess, that is why B'n'T did not ever (dare to) write about John Cassavetes. Have they remembered the ancient Greeks, or at least Thoreau : philosophy is not knowing how to live but practicing it at the same time! Your approach is like that, and this is very rare. Tell me please if I'm stretching it too far! I'm no writer - philosopher just a filmmaker.

I guess you are much addressed by students filmmakers etc. so no problem about reply. Any accident happens with me (Oscar), I'll let you know.

Thanks for the address, DVD will go there once we have it.

All the best,


P.S. I just checked my B'n'T: ONE mention of Tarkovsky (1993 edition!) at the film footage stock! Haha! :) Csaba

A note from Ray Carney: I have a question for site readers (really, a problem for them to solve). Here is the background: I was recently asked by a friend and colleague to recommend names of a few speakers who might agree to come to the College where I teach to speak to faculty members and "inspire them" to entertain "new visions" of their disciplines. The idea would be to bring in a number of high-profile "visionary" writers, thinkers, or teachers who can shake-up faculty members, get them out of their ruts, and suggest new ways of thinking about their fields and teaching them to students.

My College has three departments. One is devoted to Mass Communications, Public Relations, and Advertising. Another department is devoted to Journalism. And the third is the department in which I teach: the Department of Film and Television. The idea would be to bring in one or more speakers to inspire, excite, and give a new vision for faculty in each of these fields of study.

Now here is the question (or the problem). When I thought about who might be invited to come and speak to the Journalism department, I came up with a fairly long list of names of innovative thinkers who could offer serious and potentially radical critiques of problems with how American journalism is conducted and how the education of journalism students might be improved. (Robert McChesney, Mark Danner, Frank Rich, Eric Alterman, and many other names came to mind.) When I thought about who might be invited to come and speak to the Mass Communication, Public Relations, and Advertising department, I came up with another list of exciting, innovative thinkers and theorists whom I thought might come to campus to offer faculty members a critique of these disciplines and a new and different vision of how to train students to prepare for them. (E.g. Stewart Ewen, Mark Crispin Miller, Todd Gitlin, Sheldon Rampton, John Stauber, and other names came to mind.) But -- and this is the problem or question for site readers to respond to -- when it came to my own department, the Department of Film and Television, which includes both production and criticism courses, I was hard pressed to think of a single genuinely "radical," innovative, revolutionary thinker or writer who might come in to offer a new vision of these fields, particularly of film criticism and film production, and a new understanding of how to teach their methods and values to the next generation of students.

It was upsetting to me that, even off the top of my head, I could think of ten important books that critique the culture of advertising and publicity and mass communications, and twenty or thirty important books that critique what journalists are doing and how they are doing it and what values are being communicated to them in school, and fifty that critique the way American television is done, but ..... couldn't think of a single title that deeply and systematically critiques what film professors, critics, and reviewers are doing. So that's the problem. That's what I am asking for help and advice about from site readers.

Two questions, the first practical, and the second theoretical:

1. Practically: Who are the "revolutionaries" and "visionaries" of film criticism and film education? Who is suggesting new ways of making films and new ways of doing film criticism? Who out there is offering a serious intellectual critique of the moral and cultural shallowness of almost all film criticism or of the triviality of most American filmmaking and most academic film production courses and curricula, and is offering a vision of film study and film education that goes beyond prevalent, customary understandings of the field? As I say, I can't think of a single professor, critic, or reviewer who could be invited to speak to my department on this subject, who could really offer a radical, thoughtful critique of the present, and articulate alternatives to the way things are currently done. I couldn't think of anyone who might come and speak to my department to shake things up and offer a fresh vision of filmmaking and film study for the future. Who am I overlooking? Who is doing this?

2. Theoretically: Even if we can agree on a name or two or three in answer to question number one, why is film education and film production the "odd man out" in this triumvirate? In other words, why are there so many books and lectures and articles in intellectual journals about problems with advertising and public relations and about the unfortunate influence those activities have on our culture; and so many books and lectures and articles about the deficiencies, shortcomings, and institutional failures of American journalism (print, broadcast, and web), and about their unfortunate effects on our culture and their threat to our democratic processes, and so many books about the inadequacies of television programming, and their dire cultural effects --- but so few about the equal or even greater problems with and cultural effects of American filmmaking and film education? Films reach at least as many people as advertising and journalism, but it seems that somehow no one is paying attention to their unfortunate influence on our imaginations, to their deplorable cultural effects -- or the deplorable effect of almost all film and television education, which more or less amounts to preparing another generation of students to imitate (or admire) past television and film works.

I solicit reader responses and will publish the best and most thoughtful one on the site. Where are the film visionaries? Where are the critics when we need them to do more than pan another stupid Hollywood movie -- when we need them to critique the problems with, and offer an alternative vision of, how film criticism is done, and how film is taught in our universities? -- R.C.

"The difference between a real work of art and a work of popular culture / mass culture" -- I received the following e-mail from a woman who was in three of my classes at Boston University in the past two years (most recently my Mike Leigh course, which she alludes to in her note). She wrote me about going to New York to see the current production of Anton Chekhov's Seagull. Her observations about Chekhov and the Seagull are extremely deep and insightful, but the greater importance of her note, to my mind, is as a reminder of how low our expectations for film have sunk. We don't even expect to have this kind of experience when we go to a movie, certainly not an American movie. When was the last time an American film -- Hollywood, independent, or other -- did this to you? When was the last time an American film even attempted to do this to a viewer? When was the last time it moved its audience to tears, cries of joy, and a standing ovation at the end? Why are we satisfied with so little from our films? I thank her from the bottom of my heart for her observations about Chekhov, and for reminding us what real art can do and why art matters--and also for reminding me and everyone else one more time how trivial, how silly, how reductive, how-beside-the-point all of the ever-so-fashionable forms of race, class, gender, and ideological critical analysis are in the presence of a work of genius. -- R.C.

Subject: why Art matters


Chekhov's Seagull in New York by way of London was one of the most amazing theatrical performances I have ever attended. Was in the first row and saw every subtle flicker of emotion pass across the faces and gestures of this remarkable ensemble- from the radiant Nina who flew onto the stage in the first act to the tears that she subsequently shed and which remained on her skin, to Masha's impassioned and over the top declaration to rip love out of her heart to the pathos and comedic performance of Sorin (who played the kind policeman in Vera Drake and the security guard in Naked.) I could have compassion for the narcissistic Arkadina ( Kristin Scott Thomas') as I watched how her hands both drew in and dismissed her tortured son Konstantin and I could feel both empathy and pity for his plight. What I admire about Chekhov is that he doesn't judge his characters; his writers and actors, his doctors and dreamers, his lovers and losers, his bored and stuck and love struck and cruel and hopeless and self indulged. He portrays the disappointments, the recriminations of both self and others in such a full and generous way. He captures the ambivalence that is fraught with every decision made and the way we talk past one another so expertly. This sweep of comedy and tragedy was dramatized in such a layered and unsentimental way that after three hours with this family that loved and suffered, laughed and tormented and endured together I rose in a standing ovation and wept along with an exhausted cast. I cant stop thinking about this experience.

(name withheld)


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