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Subj: the path of the artist?
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. It means a great deal to me.
I am 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.
I have 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.
My question 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.
As with 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?
I thank you so very much for having taken the time to read this and I look forward to any response you might offer.
Ray Carney replies:
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.
But 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.
If 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 molds.
But 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.
Subject: shadows and cassavetes
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 same?
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.
Ray Carney replies:
I 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.
My 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.
I 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.
In 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.
So 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.
And 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?
But 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 my life.
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 the "other 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,
Ray Carney replies:
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.
P.S. 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 Cinema
Ray Carney replies:
Thanks 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.
As 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.)
So 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 right now.
P.S. 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.
Subject: amazing packages
I'm greatly enjoying the
three volumes of writings on film and film criticism you mailed out.
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/
Ray Carney replies:
Thanks 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 things.
I agree with your Russian friend. And appreciate your sense of humor too.
Let me know about the Tavernier result.
And please forgive the haste and brevity of this reply. No rest for the wicked.
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 of them.
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
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 time.
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 one life.
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 many others.
I 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 already.