Subj: the path of the artist?
you for taking the time to read this letter. It means a great
deal to me.
a student of film and have been writing movies since I was
fifteen. I've accumulated a lot of paper. Now at twenty-five
I have all that paper collecting dust, written in longhand,
unread by anyone. All rough drafts.
become a great admirer of the work of John Cassavetes and
In the course of reading your book "Cassavetes on Cassavetes,"
have become an admirer of yours.
is this: In your experience, in this world we live in, how
is an artist to become an artist? There are so many pressures
I feel: The pressure of having to tell emotional lies in my
stories and my absolute inability to do so. For that matter,
I am unable to even rewrite or show my work.
Mr. Cassavetes, I find it hopeful that a man such as him struggled
with insecurity. I am now feeling the pressure of the world
demanding that I assimilate. I feel perhaps that if my spirit
is in such doubt, then I should just...give up. Is that what
it is to be an artist, or is there room for someone like me?
Do all artists struggle in this way and what is to be done?
you so very much for having taken the time to read this and
I look forward to any response you might offer.
John answered your question best and briefest:
Film what you are. Not what you want to be or think you could
be. What you are is good enough. Translation: Film the pressures
you feel. Film your doubts. Film your smallness. Film your
ideals. Film your despairs. Film you dreams. Film their impossibility.
Film the way the world tries to make you "assimilate."
Film how ridiculous this is. Film the lies you tell, but how
you hate yourself for telling them. Film your desire to be
true, but your need to be liked. Film your fears. Film your
discouragements. Film your refusal to give in to them. Film
your hopes and visions. Film your uncertainties about them.
don't you dare have a word of any of this DIRECTLY in your
work. Don't have speeches about it. Don't have debates about
it. Show how it plays itself out in the smallest acts and
events. Show how it makes your personality what it is. Show
how it affects your relations with friends, lovers, strangers,
family. Show, don't tell. Make it real, not abstract. Shun
theory and ideas, embrace reality and tangibility.
you need inspiration from other art look at Tarkovsky's The
Sacrifice and Stalker. Look at Mike Leigh's
Bleak Moments, Meantime, High Hopes,
and Life is Sweet. Look at Cassavetes' Faces
and Shadows. Look at Kiarostami's Taste of Cherries.
Look at Robert Kramer's Milestones. Look at Ozu's
Late Spring. Listen to Mozart's Haydn quartets or
Bach's St. Matthew Passion or Goldberg Variations or Beethoven's
Opus 131 quartet. They all do what I am describing.
The moral? Don't give up. And, above all,
don't give in to the world. The world is nothing compared
to one person's power. Look at Emily Dickinson, Picasso, Hawthorne,
and Balanchine. Look at Bin Laden. Look at Mother Teresa.
Look at Saint Theresa. Look at Hitler. Look at Einstein. Look
at Harry Wu. Look at Robert Hawke. Look at Karl Marx. Look
at Edward Teller. Look at Jesus and Buddha. Everything ever
done (for truth or for deceit, for power or for kindness,
in love or in hate) was started by one person. Each of the
works of art I named was created by one person refusing to
give in, refusing to cut his or her dreams to fit the world's
it's approaching midnight and, to quote Tony from A Woman
Under the Influence: that's the best I can do. Or maybe
it would be better to quote Mabel: You can do anything.
You can do that. But yes, it's also true that, as Dante put
it, the "path of the artist" is a "pathless
wood." That makes it scary and hard but it's also what
makes it worth going down.
I just had a couple
thoughts about the whole Shadows situation I thought I might
share with you, just for kicks. Hope I'm not bothering you,
just tell me if I am.
You've said on your website that journalists, publishers,
and film critics haven't shown any interest in investigating
the Shadows situation because they are kowtowing to a movie
star. Which I'm sure is partly true. However there might be
another reason for your troubles, and it extends back to Cassavetes's
own struggles with his films: they simply aren't interested!
I've talked with several people about Cassavetes: film buffs,
students, even teaching assistants and professors and very
few of them have seen a Cassavetes film, let alone most of
his work, or Shadows in particular. When I asked one TA what
he thought of Cassavetes, he replied, "Oh, he's great!"
When I asked him what films he'd seen, he said he'd seen clips
from Faces and Woman Under the Influence. CLIPS!
Cassavetes is slowly becoming a fashionable topic in film
study and I have no doubt that professors and film scholars
won't ignore his films for very much longer, at least while
the buzz lasts. But it seems pretty dense and immature to
regard someone as a great filmmaker just because someone told
you he was. I did that back in third grade when my teacher
told me that Monet, Picasso, Rembrandt, and DaVinci are great
artists. Now that I'm grown up, I can formulate my own ideas.
Why can't scholars or even students and film buffs do the
Cassavetes's films are extremely rough and difficult. Tough
to sit through! Most people I've talked to who have seen a
Cassavetes film don't seem to like the films that much. Yet
they'll canonize him because they read somewhere in Film Quarterly
or Cineaste or even on your website that he deserves it.
So then: Shadows. An alternate version of the film, and not
just a different cut, but almost an entirely different film,
a separate entity. "Who cares?" say the scholars.
"I don't 'get' his films anyway."
And then the movie star thing, of course, which I think you
are very right about.
Anyway, just some scatterbrained thoughts. Hope you have an
enjoyable break (if you get one). Good luck with everything.
agree. Welcome to America. Land of Entertainment Tonight.
In fact, I've often said the same thing. The Cassavetes worship
IS (as you call it) "fashion." In other words, almost
all lip service. The IFP and Denver Film Festival "John
Cassavetes" Awards are given by people who haven't seen
the films to people who haven't seen the films. Cassavetes
is a brand name. Nothing more. That's America.
own departmental colleagues haven't seen most of his films
(and aren't interesting in seeing them). And they are no different
from their peers. Most American film professors haven't seen
more than a couple or three of his movies, at most. And that
may have been years ago, when they were students.
actually had a funny experience in that regard a while back
when I visited UCLA. I was sitting there with the Chair and
couple of the senior professors and they were thanking me
for coming to show some Cassavetes' works and run a few events
when I made the mistake of asking them which films they liked
the most. The awkward pause that ensued told me all I needed
to know in answer. They couldn't remember any of the titles
well enough to answer my question! Talk about being embarrassed.
Me, I mean! They didn't give a hang. I felt like a complete
jerk for having put them on the spot. And these were film
professors at America's premiere film school.
the same vein, I know of two men writing biographies about
Cassavetes right now who are in for a big shock when their
books are finally finished (which will be years from now).
They think they'll be rich and famous. Will they be surprised
when their books come out and no one notices. Welcome to America.
you're right about the journalists, of course. They are even
lower than the professors, somewhere down in the entertainment
slime. That's what it is to be a reviewer. Of course, they
aren't interested in one of the most important discoveries
in the past fifty years of film. If it were a couple hours
of lost I Love Lucy or Seinfeld episodes,
it would be different of course.
I wish I could share your optimism about it changing. But
JC's been dead for fifteen years already. What makes you think
it will ever change?
these things matter only if you measure things commercially,
by dollars and cents and popularity. I'm in it for other reasons.
And so are you.
Re: Thanks for
everything, Prof. Carney
Your work is so
inspirational and encouraging, sometimes I feel like I'm the
only person in the world who thought The Godfather sucked.
I am 21 and diligently
avoiding going to college. I am interested in filmmaking,
but perhaps far in the future, after I've gone out and learned
something about the world!
I became interested
in Cassavetes a few years ago and after watching his films
bought two of your books (Cassavetes on Cassavetes and The
Films of John Cassavetes). Cassavetes on Cassavetes is such
a masterpiece and I consider it an invaluable guide to living
I discovered Mike
Leigh through your website, which is such an amazing resource.
I have seen almost all of his films now and I treasure every
one of them, the early ones especially. How does he know so
much about me, my parents, my friends, and everyone I've ever
met? His love and compassion are really spectacular.
I also really enjoy
movies" list on your site and have found so many
wonderful and adventurous films that I probably would have
never heard of otherwise.
It means so much
to me to know the work of someone like you, and I really admire
your passion and uncompromising dedication. You're like a
less crazy John Cassavetes!
Thanks for everything,
You sound like
an extraordinary person. The rarest and most important kind
of person. An independent thinker.
And it sounds like
you are already beyond what most film programs could teach
you. They are engines of mediocrity, machines for conformity,
cookie cutter molds for seeing and doing things the same way.
They teach people to make films from recipes. To connect the
dots. To follow the leader.
Hold onto your
independence as long as you can--out of school or in. It's
a hard struggle, but worth it. All you have to give is yourself.
Your own unique individuality. Don't ever give that away.
I take the "less crazy" comment as a compliment,
but I have to say, given our crazy world, apparent craziness
is an expression of sanity. As they say, if everyone is running
wildly, crazily off the cliff in one direction, someone simply
standing still looks to everyone else like he is running crazily
in the opposite direction!
I can't tell you
how much I enjoy your books on the work of John Cassavettes.
But I really enjoy your work on independent film in general.
I know you've supported the work of Jon Jost and Rick Schmidt.
How about a book on those two filmmakers? They seem to be
similiar in some ways. I guess they both straddle avant garde
and independent narrative traditions.
Off Off Hollywood
for the suggestion. I've shown Jost's and Schmidt's work in
my courses and brought both as guests to Boston University.
Love Bell Diamond. And Last Chance. And
Morgan's Cake. And Rembrandt Laughing.
to writing about them: I already have written a book that
covers a lot of the major indie films and filmmakers, but
haven't had time to get it published yet. I am busy with many
other books and projects. (Look at the Discoveries
section of the site to learn more about some of them.)
Rushing into print with something is just not the be-all and
end-all of my life, particularly given the re-writing hassles
it involves. (I'm not sure if you realize it but most academic
publishers won't publish something unless it is approved by
a group of other film professors who invariably want things
dumbed down to coincide with their own ideas or tricked out
with a lot of fashionable jargon and theory and footnotes
so that it will resemble other currently fashionable work.
That's called "peer review." And it's the only way
a book gets published by a university press, which is where
I'd be publishing.)
your answer is that I'll publish the indie book in the near
future, but I'm too busy with other books and other projects
(and making some amazing discoveries) to be jumping through
all those hoops with the indie book right at the moment. Being
in a big hurry to publish something is foolish anyway. In
the final account, a good writer writes a book for the same
reason a good artist creates his or her works: to understand
things, not to get them published or talked about. So for
a while, just call me Emily Dickinson. I will publish the
indie book sometime in the next year or two, but only after
I've published a couple other books that I am tied up with
If you'll allow me a friendly quibble, I'd suggest avoiding
thinking with categories like "avant garde" and
"narrative." They are conceptual dead-ends, false
concepts, unproductive distinctions. They are just the sort
of terms these professors would make me use, of course. I
teach both kinds of films and make no distinction between
them. Just as I teach documentaries and fiction films and
make no distinction between them. If that sounds confusing,
it's not. It's actually a breakthrough to a better way of
thinking about form.
I'm greatly enjoying
the three volumes of writings on film and film criticism you
mailed out. (Why
Art Matters, Necessary Experiences, and What's Wrong with
..... ) A good friend of mine, Marina Sonkina - a Russian
academic who relocated to Canada - agrees completely about
your views on the limitations of the cultural studies approach
to things and on the importance of great art/artists, as do
I (tho' I'm pretty indoctrinated in cultural studies analyses
and spend more time digging for the deeper meaning in crap
than digesting the deep meaning in work that's, uhh, deeply
meaningful; One thing to say for the cultural studies approach,
it does manage to make the crap more interesting; plus it
makes life so much easier, since you don't actually have to
make the effort to read/understand challenging works of art
- you can just apply the same theoretical formulae to bottom-feeder
entertainments and feel like you're doing something significant).
Anyhow, thank you very much, and know that I'm actually reading
what you've sent, too! Love the inscriptions. I'll also be
hungrily exploring the filmmakers you mention - I know and
love Noonan's stuff, especially THE WIFE, and have seen some
of the work of other filmmakers you give praise to, like Jost,
but a lot of names were completely unknown to me.
On a side note: I decided to do my homework and check to see
if that really was a heretofore unremarked Cassavetes cameo
in Tavernier's ROUND MIDNIGHT, so I have a copy on order,
and will get back to you if I was right. I may not have been.
Visit Al's blog at http://alienatedinvancouver.blogspot.com/
for the kind words! Glad the stuff made it out of the country.
I never know about customs. They seem to stop only the good
agree with your Russian friend. And appreciate your sense
of humor too.
me know about the Tavernier result.
please forgive the haste and brevity of this reply. No rest
for the wicked.
site & brief question
I like the site and your books, etc. But I'll make this brief.
Could you give me a list of films *within* the mainstream
that you think have some value?
Before you start typing a "Lists are useless" sentence,
I'll explain why:
It seems to me that part of cinema's advantage over other
arts is its populism. But it's also its downfall that many
films, a number of the ones you champion, are very difficult
to find. I've only been able to find the slightest number
You champion Frank Capra as a "studio indie." Surely
he is not the only valuable studio filmmaker?
I doubt that you'd like Howard Hawks or people like that,
but what about Samuel Fuller? Or Robert Wise? Or Robert Rossen?
You don't talk very much about foreign directors. How do
you feel about Kurosawa (who said Cassavetes was his favorite
filmmaker), Kieslowski, Antonioni, Visconti, Truffaut (who
Tarkovsky said was his favorite French
filmmaker), Murnau, Vigo, Bela Tarr, Hou, Tsai, Makmahlbaf?
What about modern directors like the Dardenne brothers or
Jan Svankmajer or Claire Denis or Maurice Pialat? Werner Herzog?
What about actors? Are the only good actors the unknowns
that Robert Bresson uses, or can a trained thespian be any
good? Is Derek Jacobi a good actor? Lili Taylor? Paul Newman
in something like "Nobody's Fool"? What about Robert
Duvall? Didn't Cassavetes send Duvall a letter telling him
how much he admired him? (What about "The Apostle"?
What about Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade"?)
I don't want you to give me some reason for why my thinking
is wrong. I'm just asking for you to add to your list of recommendations,
except taking into account films that are possible to be seen.
Not all of us have the luxury of living in big American cities.
I've been able to order some movies from Ebay, for instance
(I've even bought pirated movies by the likes of Chantal Akerman),
but Frank Capra is just about the only person you mention
who can be watched by everyone in the world. There must be
some others, even if they're not Shakespeare. Just honest,
good, quality filmmakers. Right? Thanks. I appreciate your
Ray Carney replies:
If you call that a "brief question,"
I'd run in terror from a long one from you!
You labor under a misunderstanding.
Many, many, many "mainstream films"
are wonderful. I don't put them down. I don't denigrate them
wholesale. I put down the cult of Hitchcock and Welles and
Tarantino and the Coen brothers and a few others. First, because
a director like Alfred H. is not really as interesting or
deep as the critics say he is; second, because of the whole
"cult" aspect of the following. It represents uncritical
adulation and fosters the wrong sorts of critical values that
end up misvaluing other works and directors. (E.g. do a search
on the site for "cultural studies," "pop culture,"
"trash," "metaphor," "puzzle"
or "mystery" or "suspense" or "clarity"
or "sfumato" and you'll see some of my analysis
of the failures of these incorrect critical values.)
I'd rather bless than curse. I do bless
more than curse. You just haven't read my books I think. My
web site is more of the polemical me. The books celebrate
and love and adore many things, many actors, many directors.
But I can't write about them all. I'm only one person with
I love many of the filmmakers you name.
Yeah, Bela Tar. Yeah, Visconti. Yeah, Murnau. I love Jacques
Rivette. I love Jean Renoir. I love DeSica. I love Jean Vigo.
I love Harmony Korine. I love Chaplin. I love Keaton. I love
Preston Stuges. I love Billy Wilder. I love Chantel Ackerman.
I love Ingmar Bergman. I love Robert Bresson. I love Yasujiro
Ozu. I love Federico Fellini. I love Roberto Rossellini. I
love Carl Dreyer. And too many others. Etc. Etc.
I love the acting of Robert Duvall.
I love Bette Davis. I love Joan Crawford. I love Crispin Glover.
I love Nick Cage. I love Chris Walken. I love Gena Rowlands.
I love Ben Gazzara. I love Philip Seymour Hoffmann. I love
Humphrey Bogart. I love Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I
love Gene Kelly. I love Sean Penn. I love Jerry Lewis. I love
Ingrid Bergman. I love Marlene Deitrich. Etc. Etc. And too
love Rebel without a Cause. I love Mr. Smith
Goes to Washington. I love Casablanca. I love
Now, Voyager. I love The Earrings of Madame D....
I love Dark Victory. I love Vincent, Francois,
Paul, et les Autres. I love Place in the Sun.
I love An American in Paris. I love Swingtime.
I love Top Hat. I love Intermezzo. And too
many others. Etc. Etc.
I teach many of these works in my courses.
I tell students about them. I show clips from them when I
want to expain things about indie films.
But most of these people and works
have their champions. Why should I waste my life being a voice
in the chorus? I'd rather point out what others don't know,
haven't seen, don't admire, or truly appreciate the genius
of: Leigh's Meantime and Bleak Moments,
John Korty's Crazy Quilt, Riverrun, and
Funnyman, Barbara Loden's Wanda, Elaine
May's Mikey and Nicky, Claudia Weil's Girlfriends,
Robert Kramer's Ice and Milestones, Paul
Morrissey's Flesh and Trash, Milton Moses Ginsbergs'
Coming Apart, Peter Hall's The Homecoming,
Midsummer Night's Dream, Olivier's Uncle Vanya,
Engels' Weddings and Babies and Lovers and Lollipops,
Shabib's The Chicken Chronicles, Clarke's Portrait
of Jason, Penn's Indian Runner, Vince Gallo's
Buffalo 66, and a thousand others --- ranging all
over, from the work of John Cassavetes to John Korty to Andrew
Bujalski to Mark Rappaport to Jay Rosenblatt to Su Friedrich
to Mike Leigh.
But who cares about my list or lists?
Go exploring!!! Make your own list!!!! You already have!
P.S. And do you see that your difficulty
getting the indie or alternative works proves the need for
me to sing their praises? They are difficult to get because
viewers, reviewers, and releasers haven't heard of them or
don't think they will sell enough to justify a video release.
So you can't criticize me for trying to solve the very problem
you describe: the unavailability of those works. I am trying
to make them more available! And the only way I can do that
is to sing, sing, sing (as Benny Goodman puts it) their praises
from every rooftop I can. If I spent my time writing about
the virtues of The Palm Beach Story, Bette Davis's
acting or Michaelangelo Antonioni's directing, I would be
wasting it. And wasting my life. People know those things