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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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Prof. Carney,

I had written some time ago, asking for some suggested reading, and was happy to see the list you generously assembled and posted on the letters page. Ive subsequently been trying to work through as many of the works as I can. I also found your syllabi to be equally good signposts towards further explorations. One class in particular: the short stories of Hawthorne, James 1898-1910 shorts, Welty, and Oates. James stories have been especially difficult hard to wrap the mind around, strenuous to keep up with, completely compelling nonetheless. I just had to ask: do you have any notes, an outline, even just a few of the right questions to ask which you may have prepared for teaching the class that are still kicking around on your hard drive, and which you might be willing to share or post on your letters page? I'm just looking for a few good ideas on negotiating my way through material that is to be frank too slippery and elusive to navigate effectively without the proper tools. I Don't know if asking about divulging the contents of such materials is a gross breach of etiquette in the professorial world, but I thought Id run the risk.

Thanks again for the excellent suggestions and for taking the time to read this letter.


Ray Carney replies:

Dear Jonathan,

Thanks for the kind words, but what you are asking is really impossible for me to do. Each of my courses meets between 50 and 70 hours in a single semester. It takes that amount of time for me to move a small group of students toward even a little bit of understanding so that they can continue to learn on their own after the course is over. There is no short-cut. No simple, quick way. That's an American curse to believe that life can be speeded up. That experience can be imparted quickly. That learning, weight-loss, or a real estate fortune can be achieved in 90 days or less.

I talk about this in my Whats Wrong with Film Courses packet. And in a sense, all of my writing is an answer to your question. All I can recommend is that you read what Ive written. Not the web site postings (mere summaries all), but the books I sell on the site or that you can acquire in bookstores. But still it will take time. It will be hard. That's the way all real growth and development is. You know that, I am sure. So forgive me for saying it again.


Prof. Carney,

[Omitted material.] I continue to study your essays online, and watch some of the films you've written about. The minute I think I'm grasping a concept or idea, I realize that I really don't know what's going on. I'm honestly not sure on how to write or shoot a film anymore. I would really like to talk with you over the phone, if that's at all possible. Is there a good day and time?

Thanks again for your patience in reading my constant emails.

Rhett Lewis

Ray Carney replies:

Please see the reply to the preceding letter.

Dear Professor Carney,

Still saving up before ordering the three books/packets I asked for quotes on before (On Film, On Art, etc.)

I got the boxed set by Criterion and I'm happy that I finally got to watch the films. The docu could have been much worse, but yes, it was bad. It shouldn't even be called a docu. More like a tribute AVP. The worse parts for me where every time those quotes would fade in in-between clips. I mean, they were meaningful, but frigging out of place. Those quotes became hokey in the context of what Cass was about. It came to a point I would cringe every time the quotes faded in. And not cringe in the way Casss films make me cringe. Cringe in an omigod, this is just poop! He winked at Apollo or whatever, then the canned applause at the end. Urrrggghhhh.

A concerned friend told me I may have become unhealthily obsessed with Cassavetes. (Obsessed, yep, unhealthily, no) The friend wishes that I could have really met him in person so Id be so turned off by the real him. I tell the friend, well, if I can learn to love certain people in my life who are so exasperating that I want to throw them out of a five story window, then I could have certainly learned to love the real Cass given time. Hearing his voice in the audio interviews and seeing him clown with George Sims in the French tv docu was a great comfort.

If it means anything Professor Carney, thanks for all the hard work you put into it for all the true lovers of his films out there.

But damn, if only they were more open, we couldve had all the films with multiple versions, not just five, with your sensible voice on commentary, and words in packet, and the real docus.

In connection with your article on the sorry state of Cassavetes film prints and the SUCKO treatment they get from video companies (The horrible, not raw or rough, just sloppy audio on the old FACES and A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE DVDs) and the even SUCKIER INDIFFERENCE they get from people who have been charged to take care of them, are the films in the Criterion the REAL DEAL. I mean, they arent like Opening Night with reels projected in the wrong order right? Or A Woman Under the Influence (The Remix Version)? Are they the ones JC made and screened? Or at least the closest ones?

On the collection: who are these guys they picked to write about the films? In basketball language, would any of them make the starting five on your roster to play for team Cassavetes?

Based on the article of that Kent Jones guy, art as truth telling is apparently not self evident. Quoting from his The War at Home, Diehard Cassavetes devotees do him no favors when they buy into his own pronouncements, and claim that his methods allow him greater purchase on the truth (whatever that is) than other filmmakers. The whatever that is reads pretty cynical in tone to me.

I further quote My films are the truth, he once said during a personal appearance with a filmmaker of my acquaintance. Needless to say, my acquaintance was more than a little put off. Yet such pretentiousness is easily forgiven in a man like Cassavetes, just as it's easy to make allowances for the pomposity contained within Bressons book of maxims. When you consider how far against the grain they both went, it's understandable that they would accord their own idiosyncratic working methods the status of scientific breakthroughs or archeological finds.

Theres that word again pretentiousness. Heres something I wrote about pretentiousness before: At some level or another, all artists are pretentious, but the final proof is in their work. But then again, Ive only heard mostly critics use that word to describe artists.

Like you wrote before, it's like sports figures, like politicians, we expect them to be gods, not human beings. Yes, they have greater responsibilities, but my god, they put on their pants one leg at a time like all of us. They pee. They do number two.

I have to admit, it wasnt to me though. It wasnt self evident. Art as truth telling. I thought art was about making pretty pictures back then. Boy was I wrong. (Like I wrote before, you fought FACES tooth and nail, I fought you tooth and nail and guts before).

It's apt that Jones uses Bresson and Cassavetes as examples of two filmmakers with almost singular methods that became their own unique way of creating. Their methods Don't give them exclusivity on truth. I agree with him on that. But Id argue that their methods, their process and their films contain deeper and more meaningful truths than the other filmmakers Jones mentioned (Hitchcock for one). Like you said, if we must make value judgments (hard to do in the everyones all right culture), I tell folks that on spirituality, on the soul, most other filmmakers who touch on it are to a kindergarten Sunday school reading assignment while Bresson is to the writings of people like St. Augustine and St. ! Teresa of Avila.

With regards to the horrible row between you and Ms. Rowlands, Mr. Ruban (two R's!), I've only read your side. I haven't read or heard theirs, and I'd certainly like to. Just to hear how they can justify the whole thing. I saw your Trojan Horse in the French tv docu in disc 2 of FACES. I could not believe how they can sit there and deny or stay silent on the whole thing (money and lots of lawyers will help do that as you wrote) while the very person who is the reason any of this exists, saying through his own lips on film, on digital, in the video they endorsed that the first version of SHADOWS does exist and that he has not been suppressing it.

And to top it all off theres Ms. Rowlands in the hotel room, sitting on the bed, like the ever obedient wife, listening to her husband admit to the existence of a film that she almost forty years later is trying to deny exists and yet at the same time is also trying to confiscate and destroy the only known existing print of this unexisting film. Weve heard of selective hearing, but theres also selective memory and selective morality.

Oh well, God guide them. I hope things work out somehow.

Be well sir. God bless you and keep you safe.

Thank you.

Will write again soon.

Stay true,

JP Carpio

PS - How can Criterion justify Armageddon on their list of titles?

Ray Carney replies:


You have to understand the reason for Kent Joness remarks to understand them. They are a dig at me. That's all that's going on. Hes attacked my work before, and is just continuing the attack. In this case, when he says we shouldn't take Cassavetes words serious, he just wants to deflate the Cass on Cass book I put together. You have to understand the personal side to understand the remark. Unfortunately, that's the way critics are: jealous, petty, rivalrous, competitive. It's his problem. And his fondness for Hitchcock speaks for itself. But hes really a just a journalist in my view. Not a deep thinker. Accepts received notions.

About the Criterion copies: the answer is that NO, THESE ARE NOT THE VERSIONS RELEASED, OR THE COMPLETE VERSIONS. E.g. Woman Under the Influence was originally 154 minutes, but six or seven minutes were cut out of all releases about six months later and that is the print Criterion includes. The soundtrack is the 1990s remix soundtrack. Not the release one. Etc. Etc. But again I am the only person on the planet apparently who knows or cares about this. Certainly Rowlands and Ruban and the Cassavetes estate don't seem to care or notice. While Kent Jones is busy objecting to my Cass on Cass book, he should instead have been noting things like this. But what do you expect? A journalist wants to be able to interview Gena. Someone like KJ would never risk telling the truth about the prints. It might alienate her.

Hope you are feeling great soon. Forgive the brevity. Many emails to respond to.


Dear Professor Carney,

No middle ground with this guy it seems. Genius? Or Manipulative Huckster? Critics and audiences either love or hate his films (I love em). I note that most of the critics and reviewers in the U.S. either dismiss or totally diss his films.

I've seen Medea, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville (Breaking I feel is his greatest work so far, but Dancer is also pretty darn good, Medea was a transition between his work now and earlier more controlled work Zentropa and Element of Crime but I haven't seen them yet. Dogville just plain disappointed me, but maybe I need to see it more than once.)

Anyway, to keep things short, I read a reply in your letters section with you mentioning that you're on the lookout for a good DVD copy of Dancer in the Dark.

FYI I thought I'd like to share with you this little tidbit regarding the DVD copy. I have the New Line Platinum Version and the extra features have the usual audio commentary, plus the 100 Camera docus, etc. But I discovered that it's a sanitized version...

A few years back, I was able to catch a screening of a DVD brought by a Danish friend (who actually looks like an older Von Trier).

This Danish DVD had things the New Line version doesn't have. More candid stuff. It included probably the most "useless" audio commentary ever done by a filmmaker because it sounded like Von Trier clowning around with his sound guy and camera guy where they would slip in and out of concentration where they wouldn't be even talking about the film anymore. It was funny to listen to it though. More personal. Von Trier was more human simultaneously praising the genius of Bjork's performance and at the same time cursing her out (their much publicized feuding during the production). Like in the scene where she lies on bed waiting to take the 107 steps to the gallows. He points out her hand twitching involuntarily. He says something like, "My god she's fantastic. Look at her hand ... but that bitch. He also talks more candidly about feeling that they could have made an even greater film, but oh well ... problems with Bjork...

It also includes a docu which shows the progress the shoot and the few/several days Bjork completely disappeared/walked out. Catherine Deneuve sitting at her table having lunch, not saying a word, but you see it in her face and eyes, completely pissed off at the turn of events. Von Trier and the crew half-joking that if Bjork doesn't come back they would continue shooting and one of them would wear one of the face masks they had made from a mold of her face (probably was used for the Selma dummy during the hanging shot) ...

Just thought you'd like to know.

Stay true,


Dear Professor:

Hope things are finding you better these days...

I got the rights optioned to a neat true story about a guy who stands up on principle to his giant, corporate bank. Funny, inspiring, and I hope, relevant with the nearly complete corporatization of what's left of the USA .

I'm going to adapt the story and then get the thing made somehow.

Thanks for holding the line and bucking us all up a bit,


Timothy Sullivan

Ray Carney replies:

Thanks for the good, kind, true thoughts.

I appreciate them. And need them. Things feel a bit bleak and hard, particularly with Gena Rowlands suing me over the Shadows find and probably having to lose my house to defend myself from her lawyers. And then there is Criterion!!!! At Gena R's beckoning, they removed my name and credits from their entire Cassavetes disk box set. Illegally. Immorally. Shabbily. I did more than 300 hours of work over eight months and they erased my contribution and credit from the face of the earth.

But what else is new? As Zelmo Swift says: I go on. I go on.

There have been times when I've considered going to Boston University just to have you teach in person I imagine grand scenarios of telling you why you're wrong, and so forth. (If it wasn't for my lack of money and my reluctance to live in America , I'd seriously consider it.) I'm currently in university here in Winnipeg (the best thing is the library that has a few rarely available movies, like "Christo in Paris" and "The Connection" though, sadly, no "Portrait of Jason"), and you, like certain other "fanatics" like Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, and the (to you) dreaded Pauline Kael, sort of hover above me as critical guides, never trusting what I see unless it makes an impression on me personally (and even then, analyzing my own responses). I think that's in essence the greatness of your writing: it curls back at itself and says, "I believe this is true; but don't believe me what do YOU think?" That's why I think it's a flaw to regurgitate what you give the Carney stamp of approval. I personally think that you're often on the ball Cassavetes, Leigh, Dreyer, Loach, Tarkovsky, Kiarostami, Haynes, Jarmusch, Noonan, Berlinger & Sinofsky. But just as often (well, not JUST) I can't agree, even though I can see where you're coming from Merhige, Allison Anders, Capra.

For the film course I'm in I wrote about "Husbands," and of course the professor rejected my slightly angry, polemical tone (I admit to being influenced by your thoughts on him, which, while I agree with them almost 100%, is a mistake if I'M writing the paper; my own style is more breezy a la Kael, and that's just naturally true of my personality). Unfortunately, Cassavetes is about the only "serious" artist we're permitted to write on. For our next, I can write on one of my personal favorites, Truffaut, which I can't wait to do, but after him, the well has essentially run dry. (Odd that my English professor, a lively, spunky, sardonic woman, was more encouraging and responsive about my film references while writing about Greek tragedy.)

But anyway, keep it up. You, along with J. Hoberman (I'd say Jonathan Rosenbaum as well, but he's a little crusty for my taste), very much influence my teenage mind: there was a point in my life where I wanted to make films to impress people music, a whoosh, then someone getting their face stomped in. I can't believe I was so childish. While I haven't been able to make a film yet, it's largely based on your influence (and people like you) who show me that I can: it's the expression that matters, nothing else. It can be a home movie if the truth is there, and the truth can be manifested in any number of ways, specific to you. I personally look to the artists like Fassbinder, Haynes, Jenet, Jarman, and Visconti for honest and disparate film representations of the gay life, and it's people like you that show me that my view matters, too so long as it's self-critical, informed, and honest to me. (And while you can look to these artists for a certain inspiration, the great inspiration, in the end, is in how their revelations inspire you to open up your soul, not mimic the external moves of them opening theirs.)

PS: I couldn't think where else to include it, but it's important to me: I haven't decided what I want to do. Film is my prospective major, but do I want to spend the next four years telling myself, "Okay, my fellow classmates don't care, they think De Sica and Brakhage are idiotic bores, my professor doesn't get it, he wants to show 'The Thing' and 'Repulsion' as high examples of film art" (both movies I like, and which I would have no problem with, if he balanced it out with something that can teach me something new, like an Akerman I haven't seen, or a Charles Burnett movie, since none are available to me, or one of Kiarostami's movies about children, or the Mike Leigh movies that played on TV) and then, like Jim Jarmusch, unlearn the babble they taught me? There are other options I've considered based, I kid you not, on your influence it might sound corny and bleeding heart, but things like: teacher, nurse, even just a movie store clerk dedicated to making available the kinds of movies I don't get to see now (no credit card for EBay, you see). Anyway, thanks for the influence and support. (There are certain artists and writers, like Montgomery Clift battling his own neuroses, that can show you, hard as it is, it's cool to care.) Whenever I can't take it, you pop into my head and I think: emotional news.


Chance Taylor


Ray Carney replies:


Thanks for the heartfelt note. Just remember that negativity, warring with the system, fighting, etc. will get you nowhere. You know this, but keep it in mind. Work for positive values. If your profs don't "get it, then too bad. Don't let the bastards wear you down, or even engage with them in arguments, disagreements, etc. Just do good positive work. Find good films (on the net if necessary), look at them, celebrate them in your life and work (write about them and tell friends) and move onward. Don't look back. Don't hate. Don't curse. No regrets as a Billie Holiday song has it. Just go forward toward what you believe. And forgive the sermon!


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