This is a bit lengthy, but something I've wanted to share
with you for a long time:
I'd like to share something with you something that I experienced
with Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration.
I got my VHS copy from Amazon in 2002. I had been looking
for a way to get a copy of that film two year prior for I
guess at the time the wrong reasons: hype, blah-blah, use
of digital video, Dogme 95, blah-blah, tight script, incredible
acting, dark subject matter, blah-blah
Sadly, I had sort of spoiled it by reading online a little
bit about the film's storyline, but that still didn't prepare
me for the experience of watching the film ... How my emotions
and thoughts changed and shifted from one scene to the next,
how I couldn't pin down most of the "characters",
how my laughter at certain moments was what my friend calls
"life laughter" since you it is as you write "from
the shock of recognizing something true", and the most
baffling of all to me at the time, emotional-wise, how could
a film make me feel sorry for Helge (the patriarch who molested
his twin children Christian and Linda). That I would feel
sympathy for this man who had committed these horrible acts
of betrayal towards his children as his youngest son Michael
was drunkenly beating him up.
In any other movie (and this kind of subject matter is staple
for most of our Philippine melodramas), I'd be cheering along
with audience with every slap and kick of Michael on Helge's
face and gut. But I couldn't. I just couldn't ... And that
final speech at the dinner table was just heartbreaking ...
I've shown the film to many other people and have had some
interesting and unique reactions. (I would say that because
of its deceptively familar storyline and characters and narrative
presentation, that most people of different backgrounds or
age groups from college level to middle age that I've shown
it to find it more "accessible" or can "ride
on" compared to when I try to screen What Happened Was
or some of Cass's more difficult work. But its style of course
bludgeons them into submission and sensitivity that they don't
understand right away. Just like I did.) Some people have
told me that they felt like the film was pulling them back
and forth, side to side, every which way. One said that she
didn't know anymore who was telling the truth. Another lay
on my bed for several minutes just quiet, overwhelmed by his
feelings ... The two most interesting reactions came from
when I showed it to my film appre! ciation class (I taught
for one semester at our State University). I told my students
to go take their bathroom breaks and to buy food (the class
was from 9 am to 12 noon), since I didn't want them to miss
anything from the film. And like the cruel person that I am,
I sprang the film on them without any background information
or warning. Thirty minutes into the film, the food on their
plates remained untouched. By the end, one half of the class
was dead quiet and the other half was violently arguing whether
it was "proper" for Michael to have beat up his
I'll save the most interesting reaction for last: my dad said,
after seeing it, "they're ganging up on the father!"
The incest and sexual abuse I know now is the just the jump-off
point and not what the film is really "about".
It took almost three years and dozens of repeat viewings to
understand why the film has those particular effects on people
... To be able to stir such emotional responsiveness and sensitivity
I must admit, I've borrowed some of your ideas from your FACES
chapter (The Films of John Cassavetes), particularly on the
film's style keeping the audience totally open, and particularly
on editing since I perceive that Vinterberg is operating in
a similar vein, but one that he dug up himself. (Not in a
copycat manner.) I'll get to the editing later.
Structure and Style had a lot to do with it I realized. On
structure: why does the revelation about the incest and sexual
abuse happen a third into the film? Not at the beginning,
Not in the middle, not at the end (like some revelation or
solution to a mystery being revealed.)
This revelation coming after the first third, I realized,
is necesarry for that first third of the film, the structure
and the style working towards - as you wrote of FACES - leaving
the audience completely open to possibility.
are left completely open to possibility by everything from
the performances, the camerawork, the scripting, and the editing,
I'd like to first tackle the editing since it's one of the
things that we notice right away. Vinterberg here practices
something similar but different to FACES non-judgemental editing
(as you wrote). This is illustrated particularly in the sequence
with the siblings in the three different rooms (Christian
with Pia the maid, Michael and his wife Mette and Helene with
Lars the concierge.) In most films, the use of parallel editing
would be to compare the relationships between the three couples,
but here, Vinterberg uses editing in a different manner.
Again, as you wrote in FACES, at the point where the audience
is about to make a mental conclusion about one couple's situation,
Vinterberg makes his cut and we are shifted to another couple's
point of view causing us to begin the formulation of another
conclusion and again at the point of reaching the scene's
point, he makes the another cut shifting us to the other couple
and so on ...
This type of shock editing has seen similar use in horror
and suspense films, but here instead of leaving us with just
a fright or a shock, Vinterberg leaves us with a stimulating
pattern of thought and feeling. He asks us to jump start our
dormant and passive thoughts and emotions. We are kept on
our toes, the best place thoughts and feelings should be.
And what is the point of all this internal gymnastics?
Like Cassavetes before him, Vinterberg is in the service of
a moral vision: to keep the audience open to the experience
of life. To strip or to ask us to question our pre-conceived
notions. To ask us to understand and empathize instead of
condemn and judge.
The film's narrative structure also lends itself to this vision.
Despite the hype, the one of the Dogme 95 rules helped contribute
to this: the film must happen in the here and now. No
spatial or temporal tricks are allowed. As pointed out
by one of my friends, the use of a flashback (majority of
other films would have probably used a flashback) would have
greatly affected our perception of Helge. And just the same,
placing a scene at the beginning showing Helge or making a
mystery of who abused the twins would have greatly affected
our perception of Helge.
Through the first third, we get to know, as in life, the people
involved. It takes time to get people involved. An example
I would like to deal with from the first third is Michael.
The youngest of the siblings, he appears to be the most emotionally
volatile and violent (funny that in a way he resembles Gary
Oldman in that respect), a character given to stereotypical
behavior in most films, but he surprises us here with his
sudden turns of feeling, his sudden changes of emotion that
the scripting and performance are able to turn him towards.
Two examples illustrate this from the first third. The first
example is when he shows up with Christian at the hotel desk
to talk with Lars the concierge. First his tone is condescending
being the "son of the owner" at getting a room for
him and his brother, then it suddenly ! shifts to embarrassment
after Lars reveals that Helge has not invited him (the power
continuum shifts here as Lars takes control), then Michael
bursts into irritation and near anger to cover up his early
embarrassment and to try to bully Lars back into submission,
then he settles into mortification after Christian steps in
to keep the peace between them. Michael has gone through three
or four different emotional tones in one scene alone.
The second example is a combination of camerawork, editing
and performance during the three siblings room sequence. Michael
is anxious looking for his black shoes for his dad's formal
dinner. He asks Mette where they are. She looks through the
bag. His tone is dominating and impatient. She informs him
that she left them behind. He throws a tantrum. He tries to
bully Mette into driving two hours back to their house to
get his black shoes for the formal dinner. They get into heated
argument that degenerates into a screaming match. (The camerawork
has reached a feverish pace of panning back and forth at this
point.) The scene cuts to another couple. When it cuts back
to them, Michael is half-embarrassed, and half-remorseful
over what happened. He asks her timidly if they can lie down.
He unbuttons his shirt. The scene cuts to another couple.
When it cuts back to them. Michael (in his briefs) sits on
one side of the bed. Mette's overalls fall to the floor, she
sits on the other side of the bed in her shirt and panties.
They sit there in awkward silence before she asks him to come
over. Everything comes together in this sequence where we
are left, if not unable to make a conclusion, forced to keep
changing it ...
... And then there is Christian, the "hero"? Our
protagonist full of flaws. The "victim'? But what realize
only much later on is what irritates and endears himself to
us at the same time are his deep flaws ...
By the time the revelation of the abuse comes during the first
dinner speech it is already too late. Just as you wrote of
Richard, Freddie and Jeannie, by the time we learn of what
Helge did and what this family is like, it is too late. They,
the Klingenfeld-Hansens have already entrenched themselves
into our minds and hearts as individuals and we can no longer
dismiss them as general concepts.
is much easier to judge and despise the idea of someone rather
than the actual person. If Helge had been given to us as concept,
"the dominating patriarch turned child rapist",
he would be much "easier" to deal with. But as a
person, someone who might even be our own father, we cannot
blot him out as easily.
Just as I asked myself and my students, "You can't hate
him, can you?"
Actually, the question of whether or not Helge did abuse the
twins becomes secondary at some point because as any jaded
film buff might figure out by the first third, Linda's note
holds the answer. So the film isn't even about that "truth".
So why then bother going through all this?
It's one example of film that illustrates "it's not the
destination, but the journey there." Again, in the process
of watching the film and going through the experiences, we
are being molded and shaped to hopefully become more open
and sensitive to life and other people no matter how dark
things may seem ...
That's all for now. There's so much more I want to write.
I suddenly realize that I want to write a piece on the film.
(Pardon if the style resembles yours a lot, haven't really
found my own yet, and the piece is unfinished and crude.)
But basically thanks, even though you said web pages suck,
your web pages, the Cass books (The Film of JC, Cass on Cass)
were the best film school for me. They were a great guide
in my coming into my own understanding of the Celebration.
And yes, understanding great works of art take time ... The
difference between that statement before and actually experiencing
something like it is also completely different.
Subject: Why Art
Matters: A collection of essays, interviews, and lectures
on life and art
This is payment for a re-purchase of Why Art Matters: A collection
of essays, interviews, and lectures on life and art. I first
bought this collection as an undergraduate film student. It
was the most inspirational thing I ever read. I since went
to graduate school for film production, lent it, and never
got it back, and I need it again to try to remind me what
it was like to at one time be an artist. Thank you for being
the one person that I can connect with out here.
Associate Producer for Extreme Makeover
Ray Carney replies:
Illegitium non carborundum
Thanks for the kind words. Made my day.
a show you are part of.... Well, keep on trucking. And keep
the faith. I've had my own crosses to bear in the past year,
so there's times I have to read my own words to keep believing!
The world wants to beat it out of us. But I refuse. I refuse
to let them!!!
crazy busy with term papers and grades right now, but shall
get to mail this next Monday probably so you should have it
by the end of the week.
When the day started,
I didn't expect to be writing you. Last night, I saw "Shadows"
by John Cassavetes. I was so impressed and amazed by it that
I did a web search about him today and came upon your site.
When I read all of the "stuff" (for lack of a better
word) that has been going on with you and his widow...wow.
I never knew or imagined. Anyway, I have three questions for
First, on amazon.com,
it says the DVD of "Faces" that was released in
the Cassavetes Box Set includes 17 minutes of opening footage
not seen before. I don't understand why Ms. Rowland would
allow this to be shown when she didn't want the footage you
found of "Faces" to be shown or the first edit of
"Shadows" to be shown?
Second, why would
Ms. Rowland's allow your essay to be included on the back
and insert of the "Shadows" DVD which states there
was an earlier version of "Shadows" which she claims
does not exist?
And third, I read
an online review of "Shadows" which states the original
"Shadows" was a movie about racism and the longer
version that was released was not about racism. After viewing
"Shadows", I feel that while the longer version
is not explicitly about racism it is still an integral part
of the film. Was this person trying to say that the first
version was entirely about racism?
Thank You very
much for your time. Before last night, John Cassavetes was
a tribute song done by the band Le Tigre. I had never gotten
the chance to see any of his films. Now, I want to know as
much about the man as I can.
to be brief, but I am inundated by emails from all over the
world, each expecting personal answers.
answer: All of your questions are answered in my writing.
Buy the books--from the site or elsewhere. But some of the
books are available only on the site (Necessary Experiences,
What's Wrong...., and Why Art Matters, for
example). Read the books.
short answer (but still brief):
1) Gena Rowlands and Al Ruban kicked and screamed and resisted
releasing both any of Faces and any of the alternate
cut of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (and of course
the first version of Shadows too). I fought for the
inclusion of all three. But I, via producer Johanna Schiller
and boss Peter Becker, did persuade them that they were shooting
themselves in the foot with their obduracy. That they were
wrong, stupid, foolish. After months of persuasion, they finally
saw the light in part and including the 17 min. of Faces
and the other version of Bookie were the compromises
they agreed to. They never would agree to including the first
version of Shadows. I took a bullet in the end for
all of it. But I did the right thing. Neither of the other
films' (Faces and Bookie) alternate material
would be in the set at all if I hadn't pushed for months.
I can't understand your question. My writing on Shadows
is NOT included in the Criterion DVD. (I do have a set of
essays on another DVD set about Cassavetes done years ago
by Pioneer but that is a different matter.) Nor was the voice-over
commentary I spent weeks writing and three days recording
in a sound studio. Gena threw that overboard when she made
me walk the plank. The voice-over was removed and all references
to it having been done were suppressed. You won't find a whisper
of any of it -- or of my considerable involvement -- in the
box set, the publicity, or the reviews. It's a little like
the way the old Communist and Fascist regimes worked. Rowlands
re-wrote history by forcing Criterion to remove references
to anything that didn't tell the story her way. All references
to the voice-over work I did and to every other aspect of
my massive input into the DVD set were removed by Criterion.
That's the way real censorship works. When you don't like
something, it ceases to have ever existed.
As to the racial themes in Shadows, see my Faber/Farrar
Cassavetes on Cassavetes and British Film Institute
Shadows books. They have much about this. The books
not the web site. As to whether the first version is more
"racial" than the second: No, it's not. Whoever
wrote that doesn't know what he/she is talking about. (Not
the only one I would put into this category.) There are many
many differences between the versions, many different scenes
and even different characters, too much to summarize here;
but one difference I can put into a few words is to say that
the first version is much more about the boys than the later
version and much more told from a male perspective. It throws
a lot of light on Husbands in this respect.
Dear Professor Carney,
How are you? I do hope you
are well. I hope you remember me...but I would understand if
you do not. I know that this
email probably appears out of nowhere to you.
I hope you don't mind hearing from an old student.
I was just thinking back to something I remember you saying
in class one day. I was in the midst of writing and there was a point
I was just staring off into space (writer's block).
I am living in Hong
Kong now and writer's block is a common occurence amidst the physical and mental clatter and congestion
that exists here on a non-stop basis.
I was feeling increasingly frustrated when what you
said one day in class suddenly came back to me.
You said, "Great art is always about love".
That phrase has been resonating ever since....and I
realize now that I am not sure I truly understand.
The more I think about it, the more I get a feeling
or sense of what you mean but I cannot clarify it into a concise
thought. Would you mind helping
me out a little? I know it
isn't easy to explain over email
and you are probably very busy...but I would appreciate it
so much if you could.
I really hope you understand how much your class and your
lectures helped me towards understanding film, art, and hopefully
more about life. I am just one student of many...but your influence
as a teacher was singularly important.
Ray Carney replies:
Of course I remember
you!!! Last May I even went to some dumb award presentation
where you had named me as a favorite teacher or something
in hopes of thanking you for it, but you stood me up. You
weren't there! : )
what I meant was to say that the greatest art is ultimately
positive, not negative. It loves rather than hates. It loves
its characters rather than sneers at them. It cares rather
than dismisses. So it's an act of
is something I said in an interview shortly after that class
that might clarify the thought. I was saying that certain
filmmakers don't love enough in their
work to be great artists:
Why do you
think there has been a trend of anti-sentimental films in
epilogue to my Leigh book talks about this. It's
a way of bursting the bubble, of revealing that the empress
is wearing a pushup bra. Black comedy surfaces when options
for truth-telling are blocked or frustrated. Society always
tries to paper over its imaginative San Andreas faults. One
of the jobs of an artist is to reveal the gaps and inconsistencies
in the cultural cover story. Artists have been doing this
for centuries. In the expansionist, optimistic, go-go Elizabethan
period - so much like our own Wall Street greed-crazed Reagan-Bush
years - Kyd and Marlowe wrote these
brilliant, dark, sardonic comedies - Tamburlaine,
The Jew of Malta, The Spanish Tragedy. That was in 1590.
At the height of the Eisenhower snooze-fest and the Kennedy-Camelot-preppie
touch football game, Kubrick made
Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove. In the peace-love-Woodstock
era, Altman and Penn unleashed Mash and Bonnie and
Clyde. Altman has been turning over Betsy Ross's stitching
and forcing us to look at the bad side for more than thirty
years. Someone has to do that from time to time.
Paul Thomas Anderson, Sam Mendez, and Neil LaBute
flourish because they tell us something we need to hear. America is a relentlessly upbeat, optimistic culture.
A sentimental culture with an immature view
of life. Look at how 9/11 affected us. That's
a sign of our immaturity. We see things in terms of black
and white, good and evil, us versus them. These filmmakers
correct our vision. They make the darkness visible.
They tell us
that the dominant culture is screening out reality. They tell
us that its mass-produced feel-good emotional costume jewelry
is junk. That Hollywood is devoted to systematic, life-denying acts
of repression. Magnolia, American Beauty,
Your Friends and Neighbors, and Happiness are purgatives.
Enemas to flush out the sentimental crap.
Their causticness, irony, and satire
are positive in this respect. They are the last refuge of
the truth-telling, caring heart in hiding - forced underground
by the happy-face fakery of American culture in the pre-9/11
But that doesn't mean these films are great works of art. I wouldn't say that of Marlowe's or Kyd's
plays either. Shakespeare was the great artist of their era
- because his art, like all great art, came out of love, trust,
and sympathy, not sarcasm, illusion-shattering, and cynicism.
The work of Altman, LaBute, Solondz,
and the others is too purely negative. It isn't enough to show what is wrong. You have to find a way
to affirm what is right, without denying what is. A lot of
their work is mean-spirited, ungenerous, spiritually stingy,
and emotionally closed. They take cheap shots. In other words,
they are afraid. Before they can be real artists they have
to risk more by loving more, or daring to tell us what they
love. That's dangerous for an artist.
It's always easier to mock and sneer, particularly if your
audience is people in their late teens and early twenties
because satire is what they are most comfortable with at that
There is more
on this on my web site at the following url
Best wishes to
you in Hong
Kong! Let me know if you are ever back in Boston.
Dear Professor Carney,
I recently discovered the genius of John Cassavetes while
taking a film course entitled "Images of Women in American
Film 1960-1990." I was blown away by A Woman Under
the Influence. Screening the film for the film club I
advise at Weymouth High School, where I teach, was one of the high points of my career. The kids also
were fascinated by the film, and a rabid discussion followed.
Subsequently, I began a quest to learn everything I could
about Cassavetes. I found your book, and also your website. In perusing
your website, I found your essay regarding the first print
of Shadows to be fascinating. I noted your comment
that anyone hoping to see the first version of this film needs
to sit in on one of your classes when you screen it, and was
wondering when you were next screening it, and if I might
impose upon you to sit in on your class to view the film.
Thank you for your scholarship and for your time.
Language Arts Department
Weymouth High School
Ray Carney replies:
Thanks John. That's a Greek name isn't it? Reminds me of the time I flew
Florida to speak to a Greek organization run by
a guy named John Pyros. The only
time in my experience any group of Greeks has shown the slightest
interest in Cassavetes. Strange, eh? Other ethnic groups are better at supporting "their
people." You know the groups I mean. Well, that's
my experience at least. So it's nice
to get an inquiry that is an exception.
to your question: I feel I've answered
it a gad-zillion times already: Yes, you are welcome to come
if I show it. But no, it won't be shown anytime in the near future in my classes. My
grad students (and most of the undergrads, who are--speaking
frankly--slightly more "hip" to "what's happening")
are just not interested in seeing it. I showed it last year
and half of them slept through the screening, or at least
didn't seem to give a darn. Conducting
a post-screening discussion was like pulling teeth. I honestly
believe that if I announced a course tomorrow on "Behind
the Scenes: John Cassavetes' creative process: the examples
of Shadows, Faces, Husbands, Woman
Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,
and Love Streams" (all films that I have four
or five screenplay versions of and/or multiple edits of in
my possession to share with the class and discuss), it would
not enroll enough students to be offered. The grad. students (and most undergrads, also) would rather
take courses in Tarantino, The Matrix, the Coen
brothers, Hong Kong cinema, film theory, Japanese anime, feminist
film ("Images of Women in Film"?!), Paul Thomas
Anderson, Wes Anderson, Star Wars -- or practically
anything other than Cassavetes. And my Dean would prefer that
too. Fashion slaves all. That's the
reality in which I live. I've resigned
myself to it. So no pulling teeth.
No Shadows first version screenings.
Sorry to be discouraging,
but them there's just the facts,
ma'am. As a fellow teacher (and "Film Club" advisor),
I'm sure you know the feeling. Sometimes
what matters most to you and me is completely irrelevant to
them. And to most of America. (I have yet to see a single report in the
mass American media on the discovery.)
All best wishes,
Hello, Mr. Carney:
My name is WJ Bookman, and most of
my life I'm concerned with what we call "cinema"
and everything related to it. I came upon your website and
read a few of your articles. Interesting. If I may, I would like to ask a question (and
I hope I'm not out-of-line), which it would be grateful
if you could answer: From reading your open letter
to the next generation of filmmakers, a question(s)came
up to mind, Does life equals cinema? Is cinema's role to
imitate life? What is the role of cinema?
Seeing that you have written a great
many books and that your thoughts and comments are published,
I would feel honored to get a response from you.
Thank you for your time.
Ray Carney replies:
I'm not sure what your question
means. Of course life isn't film. And film isn't life (which
is what I think you meant to ask). But film must capture
the truths, the experiences, the feelings of life. Or else
it might as well be chess. Which is what Spielberg, Stone,
and Coen brothers movies are. But film
doesn't capture the forces of life by merely imitating them,
by putting little versions of life up on screen. It is art
after all. It must find a way to translate life into shots,
sounds, sequences, movements, images. Read my book on Leigh.
My Cassavetes books too. They explain how art can capture
and represent life's energy, fluidity, and flow.