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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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Just got done arguing with a guy about ways of knowing. He was very "factual" in his understanding of art and so forth. I sent him your last reply to an email I sent, about the 3 forms of learning, but I don't know if it will do much good, as wonderful as the response was.

Hope everything is going well.

I am one semester away from graduation. In Film Theory class we discussed "Stagecoach" and its "narratology" and its "binary oppositions" including but not limited to the conflict of "wilderness vs. civilization" and "domesticity vs. rugged individualism". (Didn't I do this stuff in 5th grade? I really think I did.)

I'm sending you a letter snail mail, you should get it soon. Cash the goodies inside. Keep up the good fight.


Ray Carney replies:

Darren, See my reply to the previous letter. Don't waste your time arguing with anyone.... Do something creative.... Help an artist.... or be one... or just volunteer to feed the homeless.... anything is better than trying to persuade blockheads... You will never find a place free of them. They are everywhere. Even my own university has plenty them to go around. So, in short, I know whereof I speak......!

Dear Prof. Carney,

This is Stephen Bender writing you again. We've corresponded sporadically over the years concerning work I've done on Cassavetes on my website, thanks in large measure to your excellent research.

Well, I've come back to him again and I wanted to share it with you.


Stephen Bender

San Francisco

Human Frailty in America & the Suffocation of the Public Sphere

February 15th, 2005

Some "Wild Teens" Never Grow Up

One-fourth of American women are raped; another quarter must endure the uninvited hatred some jackal on the make. This is the most elemental level at which most of the bad starts: with the fact that human beings have not moved far enough away from their bestial origins. But we live in the "greatest democracy," the patriot bleats, hoping against hope. Sorry, we don't; it's not even close.

"C** F*** the Whore" corporate advertising helps things along. Be all you can be, Wholesome Virgin Cheerleader. Satisfy a man without being a slut. Is he really that into you? Keep asking a question that can never have a definitive answer. Trust no one but yourself and stars on the movie screen. Fight through Uncle Molester. Divorce is a barrel of laughs. This is a concealed and yet obvious horror show that could easily be expanded upon.

"C** F*** the Whore" corporate advertising helps things along. Be all you can be, Football Hero Soldier Boy. Nail chicks so that you can feel better about your empty self. Take your cues from and embrace that which hurts you the most; or kills you. Trust no one but the leader and the stars on the movie screen. Strangle your own instincts, intellect and dreams before anyone finds out. Divorce is a barrel of laughs. "Definition of serious: blah, blah, blah."

The father of American independent film, John Cassavetes, made these observations: "The problem has become, 'What's the problem?' In this country, people die at twenty-one. They die emotionally at twenty-one. Maybe even younger, now. The films are expressive of a culture that has had the possibility of attaining material fulfillment while at the same time finding itself unable to accomplish the simple business of conducting human lives. We have been sold a bill of goods as a substitute for life. What is needed is a reassurance in human emotions; a reevaluation of our emotional capacities."

This self-satisfied male illusion a "feminazi-dominated" culture lies like road-kill, along with so many other dreams American. These self-negating female illusions-I'm not pretty or smart enough-lie strewn across the fruited plain like so much debris in the wind. Just keep chasing your tail or, even better Chase Freedom.

As William S. Burroughs once said: "Thanks for the American Dream: to vulgarize and falsify till the bare lies shine through."

Detachment is a Vocab Word for Life

Watching this pinched, inward-turned hatred unfold can make you sick. If you don't know enough to fight it, or fight the urge to help those too far down in it, you can degenerate mentally and physically. It gets to you, if you pay attention. That's why most people don't follow remote abstractions like politics, economics and war. Detachment is a vocab word for life.

This isn't about stupid nihilistic or, God forbid, repugnant "ironic" detachment. But rather, it relates to a certain psychological distance. It's necessary when dealing with the muck, and those wallowing in it.

They're not "bad" people, of course, those wallowing in it. We all have to muddle, there's no escape. After all, their actions are conditioned by genetics, family and society. And yet, all that on a self-preservation level is in the end no excuse. Why give yourself and ulcer? Let them have it; they've often enough earned it.

The moral imperative to "help" the wallowers must be cut off at a certain, and yet indeterminable point. This becomes all the more necessary when "love" comes into it. As my favorite satirical book, You are Worthless a ruthless, and yet hurt humane, skewering of stupid self-help books-reveals the following. "Love is simply a chemical reaction in the brain that indicates a potential mate has been found. It is not magical or special."

This is something a joke. And yet it isn't entirely. If you believe in Darwin and cognitive psychology anyway. Love is another great mystery of life. It can be a form of mental illness the highest highs, the lowest lows as a recent book entitled Love Sick by Dr. Frank Tallis argued persuasively. It can also be that which makes us most vulnerable, most empathetic, most human.

The wallowers can sometimes lie like a rug and with a smile. They do the two-step psychological flip: devoted one day, crass betrayer the next. Serious matters are brought up obliquely, sometimes in the context of (what else?) a "joke."

The untrained psychologist does not realize the depth of the gregarious animal's loneliness and desperation. And so, the goof continues unabated. And so, the old resentments, which we all have, are never properly and healthily aired. And so it goes.

Cassavetes again: "Life is a series of events to avert being exposed as a fool. But in the effort to do this we make even bigger fools of ourselves. Most of us like to think we know how to handle life, but, actually, we are ignorant emotionally. We have to learn not to be so hard on ourselves. I'm obsessed with the idea that people are human and have fallacies, and that those embarrassing fallacies are better out in the open. That way we don't waste time covering up. I see life as a struggle, and the real romance is in not walking away from it. The point is to struggle to explore avenues of understanding to the greatest extent possible. That is a great mystery of life."

Then, there is the matter of guilt when it comes to misplaced love for a wallower. One knows well that transgressions have been made. Unthinking or throw-away remarks cut deeper than one imagines. It is endemic to human interaction-we are all alone on a fundamental level as autonomous, idiosyncratic beings. Play the perceived role of Sisyphus: enjoy Coke, as well as destroying yourself.

Dead Souls & the Society of the Spectacle

The above kind of fuctness spreads like an oil slick across the terrain of American social psychology. This is a land where "individualism" is lauded, while "individuality" is reviled. In the American context, these two oft mixed up-and yet utterly distinct-terms can be roughly translated respectively as follows: economic "selfishness" and personal "uniqueness."

If one diverges from clichs and patterns of social interaction, the costs can be high. It doesn't matter which social setting one is in. It runs the gamut from the fundamentalist Christians to the anarchists. The gregarious animal wants reassurance and familiarity, not having his or her "non-logical compartments" disturbed by a divergent point of view. That can harm his or her self-image; that must be protected at all cost.

The unique individual sometimes misapplies his or her ego to social interaction. "This doesn't bug me, why should you complain?" This too is a myopic and sometimes fatal flaw. The selfish practitioner of individualism can't understand notes struck beyond his or her register. He or she may not even be interested even in trying to found out in any event.

The daymares are the best. The human desire for "self-display" is strong. Most people, when they talk at you, which is what most do, want to tell you all about the details of their lives. Sometimes this is boring, even as it is "nice." Sometimes it is fascinating, and then it's "nicer." It only becomes a problem when the too frequent realization dawns: this is a one way street.

The selfish animal is infrequently interested in listening. If one is lucky, maybe they hear you. Maybe. The unique personality already knows what he or she thinks, so why bother pushing it over and over; that's boring. One always learns the most by listening and letting things take their course, the way a psychiatrist would.

I'm not talking about the wallowers here. They can actually give back something while they're taking. No, this mess has to do with "well-adjusted" people particularly the "successful" performers of individualism, who are anything but.

They can't wait to thrust their tedious careerist details at whatever audience. That's because, in their false world, most people are "too busy" to get about paying them their precious attention.

Reciprocity contra the Self

Reciprocity, now there's another vocab word for life. It's not that the ordinary American isn't capable or curious about engaging deeply in human matters. In rural and working class America , such things are delightfully, if sometimes disconcertingly, surface. It's more a function of the lack of social experience-and hence skill-for those "educated" only in instrumental reason, not the deep experience of human interaction.

Many among the middle and upper classes in America are stunted in this regard. You dare not reveal, or someone might think you're weird. If one doesn't take self-protective care, the bourgeois attention hogs will stomp one down with their self-satisfied crow's foot.

Many Americans are hungry. Not literally, except of course, for those existing in the rainbow coalition of "losers." They want to belong to something in a "culture," and I use that term loosely, which isn't moored to anything of substance.

We're too young to know what we're doing in America , that's why we're drifting toward fundamentalism in religion, economics and politics. And yet this collection of nouveaux riche New Kids on the Block is running the world. It's the same old story with the same old ending: despotism.

So Cassavetes: "I like to feel pain through what really causes pain. I don't want to frighten people by showing them tragedy. I've never seen an exploding helicopter, I've never seen anybody go and blow somebody's head off. So why should I make films about them? But I have seen people destroy themselves in the smallest possible way. I've seen people withdraw. I've seen people hide behind political ideas, behind dope, behind the sexual revolution, behind fascism, behind hypocrisy, and I've myself done all these things. In our films what we are saying is so gentle. It's gentleness. We have problems, terrible problems, but our problems are human problems."

Of course, we once had something worthy of being called an authentic culture in this country; then dawned the "Century of the Self. (hy)" Marketing and advertising propaganda largely replaced non-mediated social interaction and community. Gilded gated prisons from sea to shining sea keep the "Wreaks and the Wrecks" of Vonnegut's Player Piano out of sight and out of mind.

The rise of the superficial mass consumption society, referred to in some circles as the "Golden Age of Capitalism" (1950-1973), put that which was deeply human in us to sleep. "Affluenza" some people call it. Many Americans haven't much of an idea what it means to be a "successful" human being. They sure used to, and one can only hope that they will again.

Fortunately, we can turn to our own artists and geniuses for clues. Emerson, among countless others, (hy Biography) outlines the way to living an authentic, "successful" life. "To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."

But we forgot too much of this, even if we never really lived it in the first place. We had an inkling of what "solidarity" meant. This erasure of memory makes for a gaping lack, a yawning void in the dark heart of America . It can't be evaded; it is almost everywhere. Sometimes, no one can turn you around except for yourself. You have to find some idiosyncratic reason to justify your existence. Some people find this in God, which is fine. God is a tool like any other. "He" can be used for good or ill.

A Long Day's Journey into Night

How did it feel, you 54 million Kerry voters, to know that George Bush rode a flume of blood that spewed from New York to Washington to Kabul to Baghdad to reelection? At home, he ran on quite a record, didn't he now? He overcame a lousy economy, budget deficits till the cows come home, and the abolition of the estate tax for rich people. He founded an Orwellian surveillance state about which Honecker's Stasi or Ceaucescu's Securitate could only have had wet dreams. And, he turned out nine million more voters than in 2000.

The American public did awaken somewhat from its six election cycle slumber. Voter turnout in 2004 was the highest since 1968; what a cherry year that was. But it wasn't enough; we turned out just three million more voters than the Gore-Nader combo. Kerry was a horrible candidate, even if he had been, at one time, a man of some considerable principle. But he became too cowardly or too cowed by failed advisors, Bob Shrum prominently, to show any courage to the great, hungry unwashed. Just. Like. Gore.

Philosophical and political liberalism's decline (an abiding and widespread belief in the "open society" and the "public sphere"), during the last three decades, has left a void in American politics and social psychology. Most of the elite no longer believe in any thing like truly functioning democracy-to the extent that they ever did-and the public appears to have followed suit (at least insofar as elections are concerned.) And yet, hope springs eternal-or else there's no reason to get out of bed in the morning.

And so, thanks to the abandonment of humane values in American society, now the whole country gets messed with Texas. The reactionary segment of the economic elite and its Frankenstein monster foot soldiers now dominate all branches of government-for the first time in American history. And 2004 confirmed this Pyrrhic victory for "values" and "the American way."

They already won dominating control in 2002 of the last governmental institution to hold out: Robert Byrd's beloved Senate. And they won it the way they won in 2004, by using fascist propaganda techniques. We were enticed into obeying the Strong Man, demonizing the disloyal opposition, and succumbing to scare-mongering hysteria by the creation of boogiemen: like Saddam and fags in love with probable peaceniks. As long as the unconscious American thinks that at least someone out there is beneath him, he doesn't have to look at himself.

William S. Burroughs once put the end of the American Century this way. At the poignant close of his "Thanksgiving Day Prayer" spoken word piece, he spoke sincerely about American idealism; believe it or not. He croaked: "Thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams."

BushCo understands the dark side of America much better than we do the light. A community in which individual relationships become broken beyond repair becomes a society in which democracy becomes broken beyond repair. We have no choice but to fight. But we must also have the courage to stare something right in the face. Namely: the terrifying likelihood that all that we caring Americans cherish may already be lost.

Ray Carney replies:

Stephen B:

It's late at night, almost midnight in fact, and I just stumbled onto your comments about Cassavetes and Faces on the American Idealism pages, but I just had to take a minute to say thanks. Thanks for mentioning my writing, but even more than that thanks for the deep, thoughtful, searching essay about Cassavetes.

It's so rare in film commentary to read a piece that goes so far beyond the customary clichs and banalities, a piece that isn't focused on box office and hype, but is an actual display of thought. A piece that is such a searching inquiry into us and our culture. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I have been writing about Cassavetes neigh these many years, but almost never come across a piece that takes film really seriously.

Thank you for doing that. And all best wishes on your site, which I'll have to check out in the next few days, but at an earlier hour! Feel free to link to my site ( if you ever are inclined to and I hope you don't mind if I end up putting a link to your site on my own.

All best wishes.

Ray Carney's response to a reader who sent a check with a fairly large contribution to the "Shadows defense fund."

What can I say but thanks for the kind and generous donation? It's so thoughtful and good of you. But I can't possibly keep it. So I am sending back the ripped-up check with this note. You are in good company, though. Years ago, near the end of his life, I sent John Cassavetes a similar donation and told him to put it toward making a new movie. He tore my check in half and mailed it back to me with a similar note. So you see we are now in the same boat and you have this letter just as I have John's earlier one as proof of your good intentions.

All best wishes,

Ray Carney

Hello Mr. Nilsson, Mr. Carney and Mr. Noonan.

My name is Shaun Katz. I am a 21 year old film maker from Sydney, Australia .

I am so pissed off with the current state of cinema. I find myself settling for less and less. It's actually quite depressing. If movies were women they would all be frigid or be whores or just plain ugly. They would have no warmth, no compassion, no sensitivity or empathy, no passion, integrity, intelligence or intensity. I'm also sick of film snobs who think they are so smart when they don't know a damn thing.

I have realized that I can learn no more from reading interviews or listening to audio commentaries. Everything I know about film making and everything you can learn are in the master works and in life, which go hand in hand. Everything I learned for myself in terms of skills was in Ray Carneys book Cassavetes on Cassavetes. I have nothing left but to forge ahead. I am a lonely artist waiting for film festivals to grace me with their invitations so I can feel on some level what I did will have an audience and a purpose.

I have questions though. Are there any recommended festivals to send my films?

How do I get around my parents constantly nagging me to make a piece of s*** that everyone will like? My dad told me the other day that my last film was completely incomprehensible, it wasn't entertainment, the story had no plot and it was s*** and obscure. I should have thanked him for the compliment. My parents are constantly on my case about me making more commercial films about chaps slipping on banana peels etc. I don't know what to say to them when they attack me and pull my movies down, I am not an articulate person and can't describe to them the guts of what I'm trying to do, or maybe I can but I am intimidated. If you have any words of wisdom please tell me? I have so many obligations to them - hey maybe I should make a film about it.

Anyway, please write back if you have any words of wisdom and don't say I've already got the answer!! :-)



PS Ray, I saw 'Trash' - Holy s***. I've never had a film do anything like that to me before.


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© Text Copyright 2006 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.