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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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Dear Mr. Carney:
You might not remember this, but somewhere around August of 2001 you
a bundle of your Cassavetes books. I read and loved them, and I wanted
review them for New York Press, and even argued for a cover story. But
because of the timing of certain world events, the newspaper had little
space available for the sort of big piece I wanted to do, or even a
straight-up book review. Plus, my editors were not enthusiastic about
Cassavetes anyway (a regrettably common response in these hip-and-current
days). They humored me by promising to indulge me at some future date,
after a couple of months the old journalism Catch-22 kicked in and they
me the books had been around too long and the hook was gone, so forget
Why am I taking up your precious holiday time with such a depressing
anecdote? Because I wanted you to know that your writing affected my
ways that go beyond journalism.
As you might already know
from reading my stuff, I invoke Cassavetes' name
every chance I get, and have made it a minor mission to situate Cassavetes
within the Neorealist tradition and show how his influence resonates
cinema and TV. Your writing encouraged me to revisit Cassavetes' work
the work of filmmakers clearly influenced by him (Steve Buscemi, for
instance), strengthening and deepening my interest. In 2003, when the
York Film Critics Circle did its annual series at the Museum of the Moving
Image in Queens, I selected "Shadows" and introduced it at
After reading and re-reading "Shadows," "The Adventure
of Insecurity," " Cassavetes on Cassavetes" and "The Films of John Cassavetes," I
understood him in a new way, both as an artist and as a private citizen.
More significantly, your account of Cassavetes' artistic and financial
struggles, and the general optimism with which he faced life, inspired
get off my ass and try, in some modest way, to continue his tradition,
least engage with it directly, beyond writing movie reviews that invoked
The culmination of this fascination was my decision to make a 90-minute
feature, titled HOME. It's an ensemble comedy-drama set entirely in one
house, following a dozen characters through a party over the course of
eight hours. Without slavishly imitating Cassavetes, I tried to employ
principles and lessons drawn from Cassavetes' early movies, particularly
idea of growing the drama in direct, sustained collaboration with the
incorporating their suggestions and script revisions and writing new
to explore ideas that came about during rehearsal or during shooting.
did a lot of meticulously scripted, storyboarded sequences shot in a
classical Hollywood style (I tried to steal from Orson Welles and John
Frankenheimer whenever possible). But we also did some riffs and experiments
the master might have enjoyed (though not entirely approved of), including
sustained improvisations (60 to 90 minutes in length) during which we
the entire house, packed it with characters and had roving camera crews
from room to room, doing documentary-style, spontaneous coverage of small
moments that had been outlined in advance (with some dialogue) but not
The result is a very odd mix
of party movie, hothouse drama, romantic comedy
and dream film. I don't have any illusions about its commercial prospects.
The cast is a mix of disciplined professionals and rough-edged nonactors
drawn from my neighborhood. It is clearly a first film by artists who
still discovering their voice. There's almost no exposition and it's
decentralized ensemble picture that's more about physical behavior than
plot, kind of like a zoo with people, a fact that will probably alienate
viewers who like having themes laid out buffet-style. Most damaging,
commercial standpoint, I have no sexy or exciting backstory to tell to
reporters, I shot the movie with fairly primitive equipment and there's
nobody in the cast you've heard of, except maybe for leading lady Nicol
Zanzarella, who was in the little seen but well-reviewed 2000 indie drama "
Too Much Sleep." Sundance and Slamdance rejected us, which I expected.
However, Cinequest loved the movie (it had to pass muster with three
all of whom gave it a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10) and will program it in
Emerging Mavericks/New Visions" section of the 2005 festival. The
Dallas Video Festival has promised us a slot as well.
We've submitted to other significant festivals, including Boston, South
Southwest and Tribeca, but haven't heard yay or nay yet. It's going to
uphill struggle because HOME is a movie that takes you gently by the
instead of grabbing you by the throat, and big festivals seem more
interested in the latter than the former. But we all put a lot of thought
and feeling into the movie, and the love comes through onscreen. I am
confident that sooner or later, HOME will be discovered and embraced.
I would like to send you a DVD of the movie if you can spare the time
look at it. I have no idea if you'll like it or not. Either way I would
like to hear your thoughts, and whatever your verdict, I thought you
at least see physical evidence that your scholarship and criticism inspired
someone you've never met. This movie surely would not have come into
existence without two real-world influences: my friend and mentor, the
John Frankenheimer, who believed in my potential as a filmmaker, and
own scholarship on Cassavetes, which I treated as inspirational literature
Thanks for taking the time to read this.
-- Matt Zoller Seitz
Ray Carney replies:
The story in your first paragraph
is all too familiar. Unless I have missed it, the five or six Cassavetes
books I've written in the last
ten years, all of them, hold the world record of never having even been
mentioned in The New York Times, The Daily News, New York magazine, The
New Yorker, Time Out, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, or
any other major general interest American magazine or newspaper. Not
a single mention. May be some kind of record. And, year after year for
more than a decade, when I checked with people I knew at each place the
story was almost identical to the one you tell: Cassavetes was just not
important enough to merit a review, a survey, a feature piece, etc. "If
only the book were about Woody Allen or Oliver Stone it would be different.....
But it's an old, dead filmmaker after all....." I won't bore you
with the details. So, yes, the fate of independent American criticism
is not entirely different from the fate of independent American film.
(It's not entirely bad; it gives me sympathy with the filmmakers.)
word gets out anyway. And I am DELIGHTED that my work had such a salutary
effect on you. The secret of life is not to think about things, but to
do them! Good for you. Good for the world too.
As to looking at your DVD, I regret I can't promise much. I hold a full
time job. I have more than 400 other DVDs stacked on my coffee table
(and, to tell the truth, my rug, my floor, my bookshelves, etc.) waiting
to be viewed. I wish I could help every young or beginning filmmaker
in the world. But I really can make no promises. As the first paragraph
suggests, I can't even help myself!
So send it or not as you choose, but I would ask that you please expect
nothing definite in response. I have said that to dozens of others though,
and sure enough, four or five weeks after they send their work, they
write me (often with an edge of hostility in their tone) and ask why
I haven't written something about their films or given them a blurb to
use in advertising or whatever.... So don't put yourself in that position,
please. And if you have any better use for the DVD, send it to someone
But do believe that I wish you all the best. I even wish you success
(though the bitch goddess is often more of a curse than a blessing for
an artist). It's the work that matters, after all. We do it for ourselves
and for God and for truth and eternity. The journalist/reviewers will
never understand that and will never help to change that (unfortunately).
They live in a world where value is established by popularity and fame
and notoriety and trends and buzz. They don't question those depravities,
they merely accept them. Alas.
I wrote you an email a few months ago asking if I could send you some
of my work. I have yet to do so. I'm going to send something I'm truly
proud of rather than send mediocrity. Yet, I do appreciate your willingness
to write me a short email. Thank you.
After reading and pondering countless pages of your essays, I do have
one question for you. Are you a religious man? If so, part of what one
may I politely ask? I'm just trying to understand your roots and thinking
more. I hope I'm not being too personal.... I'm not trying to argue whatsoever.
Your essays are the most thought provoking pieces of text I've ever read.
I'm just trying to understand more I suppose. Can you direct me to an
essay that would help clear up some of my questions?
.... I too am very religious. The reason I say that is because Christ,
being perfect, often taught with parables so he could teach complex doctrine
in a more simple way. Now, with some films I've done, I've tried implementing
that same idea by using colors or objects to represent deeper meaning.
I know you don't agree with that, but this is how Christ taught.
Ray Carney replies:
Thanks for the kind words. I don't really know of any one particular
essay I can recommend though. Everything I believe is in everything I
I guess you
could say I'm a spiritual person—if spiritual means that I don't take
from our messed up culture—the world defined
by the sicko beliefs (and non-beliefs) of journalists and businessmen.
But to talk about religious practices, we would have to know each other
better. Don't take that as a discouraging response, please. It's only
that there are different realms: my web site is a very public form of
discourse and my spiritual activities are very private, very secret,
really very mysterious in fact. But of course the two realms are not
separate. They overlap and inform each other, as they should. (I have
a reply on the bottom of one of my letters pages to someone who asked
me about "sacred texts" that says something related to this.)
I have no prejudice
against any religion. Many paths exist, but they all go to the same places.
They are all headed in the same direction. But I have to say color symbolism
doesn't do much for me. My life is too snakey sinuous, too changeable
and slippery, too hard to hold onto, to stand still for a symbolic representation.
But I do agree with "parable" teaching. Every narrative is a
parable. It's not telling us what literally happened, but giving us a
way of understanding more complex truths by telling us a simpler story
about them. Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, Tarkovsky, and Kiarostami
are all writing parables. What's the Robert Frost line? "They hide
it so the wrong ones won't find out." Or something like that! : )
I've convinced the good people
at The New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles to do another Cassavetes double
feature. They'll be screening Faces and A Woman Under
the Influence on Jan. 28th and 29th. You may want to
add it to your "screenings" page. The link for the
schedule is below.
Also, I saw Andrew Bujalski's "Funny Ha Ha" (best
film I saw all that
year) in Northampton at the festival a couple of years
ago and thought of you. Turns out, you were the
reason it was screened there! Anyway, I'm sure you
know, but Andrew now has the film on DVD and you
should let you web viewers know!
Thanks for always responding so promptly to everything I've sent you.
I have a question for you as you are one of the experts on how filmmakers
get screwed. I am aware of the irony and pathetic nature of this question.
few years ago I made a short film, which everyone complained that it
'short enough' LOL. I recently re-edited the film enough to make it
constitute as a new film altogether.
Now once it's shorter, I've gotten it on television etc. things have
to happen. Yay, right? The producer of the station even understood it.
I wanted to try to start approaching producers on getting a 35 mm transfer
and sending it to Cannes, Berlin, Venice, something unreasonably ambitious
like that. I really do feel I've created something great. Now is where
it gets embarrassing to ask you this. I am aware of the 'star' situation
and those sort of preferences in
the film festival circuit and as it turns out, the main actress (lead)
my film is in Queensland acting in a film with The Rock or one of those
idiots, and she is probably heading for fame ( her dad had one the lead
roles in Lord of the rings, that's how she got her break).
Should I wait for her to become famous before I start wasting time and
on this campaign of mine for a film print? Am I right about this situation?
Is that the way things are? I realize what a whore I must sound like,
am just tying to benefit from a bad situation that will never go away.
An opinion would be appreciated.
Got the Cass boxset. Cool. The Kiselyak doco sucked, particuarly the
bit where Lynn Carlyn is crapping on about how Cassavetes could see
into the soul.
Another quick question regarding Paul Morrissey. I have seen Heat (
thought it was alright, had it's moments) and I tuned out during Women
revolt which I hated. I was wondering about your opinion on Trash and
(which are incidently stocked in the gay porn section of my video store),
why are they special?
Keep well, don't judge me too harshly for my dumb ass question about
and festivals etc. I am aware of what it sounds like.
Ray Carney replies:
A quick and over hasty reply to your thoughtful note. (I'm swamped,
overwhelmed, drowning under emails. Please make allowances.)
reply to your question: No apology necessary. No problem. We all want
to be seen, read, viewed. It's Adam's dream. It's the quest for love.
It's our need for companionship. And here's my answer. Do it now. Do everything
now. Never put anything off. If you have to, or can benefit from it later,
if the PR situation changes subsequently, then do it again. But never
put things off. The secret of life is to do. And to do it now. Not later.
Now. The minute you think of it. If you wait, the emotion, the impulse,
the desire turns to ashes. Anytime you think of something, do it then.
Don't do it tomorrow. Go for it. Now. Always and forever now, now, now.
Anything else is your weakness, your procrastination, your doubts speaking.
The devil, the ego, the fear speaking. Be brave. Do it now.
But, apropos of your other comment: beware of being understood. Resist
it. Fight it. Try to be misunderstood. If you're lucky. It's a much better
place to be. That way you have a remote chance of holding onto your independent
soul. Staying free. Understanding is a trap, a dead end. Make your work
so wonderful it can't ever be understood. Or that the only way to understand
it is through love not ideas. Like life.
Just call me Yoda,
P.S. See Trash (first) and Flesh (later). Draw your own conclusions. I know Trash is a masterwork, but that's my opinion, not yours. My opinion
doesn't count. Your is the only one that matters to you. Decide what he
is for you. (And look at Spike of Bensonhurst and Forty Deuce too sometime.)
Subject: From a freshmen
Dear Mr Carney,
I am Tianzi from Singapore. Half a month ago, I received the acceptance
letter from Boston University. I have been admitted to the School of
Communication as an Early Decision applicant. And my intended major
is the Film course.
I have been to your website a few times. I feel much impressed and
inspired. May I ask you to suggest some ways to prepare for the course
on which I am going to embark? It is because that I am quite free these
days. Despite that I have to work as a part timer in the day, I always
have plenty of time in the evening.
Thank you very much!
Ray Carney replies:
Dear Cai Tianzi,
future freshman! Welcome aboard! Bon voyage!
A good question. My answer
would be to suggest you read the letter I write to incoming graduate
students. It has viewing suggestions and other
preparation ideas (including attempting to turn your thoughts into words
by keeping a journal). The letter appears on the "Boston U." page
in the "About Ray Carney" section of the site. (Click on the
button on the left of this page to go there.) Those are the best suggestions
I can offer both entering grad. students and freshmen. There is actually
not that much difference between the two situations. Incoming grad students
and incoming freshmen, I mean. Consciousness cannot precede expression
and consequently both groups are engaged in the same struggle for verbal
consciousness--a struggle that never ends. (I am still engaged in it
myself, even now.) And emotionally you're in the same place as an entering
grad student. At both stages in your life, both as a freshman and as
a beginning grad. student, you're the "low man on the totem pole," at
the bottom looking up. That may sound bad, but it's really the ideal
emotional place to be in order to open yourself up and begin a new kind
of learning. This new learning requires great humility and great effort,
but I can tell from your letter that you are capable of both. Go for
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