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
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
www.americanidealism.com, thanks in large measure to your excellent
Well, I've come back to him again and I wanted to share it with you.
Human Frailty in
& 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
"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
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?)
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
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
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
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
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
, 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
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
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
, 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
. 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
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
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
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:
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 (www.Cassavetes.com) 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.
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,
Hello Mr. Nilsson, Mr. Carney and Mr. Noonan.
My name is Shaun Katz. I am a 21 year old film maker from Sydney,
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
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.