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
Thanks again for the excellent suggestions and for taking the time
to read this letter.
Ray Carney replies:
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.
[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.
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
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
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.
write again soon.
PS - How can Criterion justify Armageddon on their list of titles?
Ray Carney replies:
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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,
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
, 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.
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!