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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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Good morning Dr. Carney,

I have finally seen Charles Kiselyak's "A Constant Forge(ry)". It had some pretty good bits to it but overall I thought it was an overlong rambling session by people who would never say anything against Cassavetes on record. How many different ways can you say a guy was great in 3 hours? The film made almost no attempt to expose any of Cassavetes frailties, any of his imperfect humanity beyond the amazing creative virility. Goldoni and Noonan were the only ones who began to scratch the surface a little. I'll bet they had more to say that was ultimately edited out.

John Yanez

Ray Carney replies:

Readers who would like to know more about Prof. Carney's response to Charles Kiselyak's Constant Forge(ry), should look at this page.

Re: Enjoyed your critique of puzzle films

Mr. Carney,

In all of this vastness, we are one of only 27,000 (according to the Verdants).  Oh, miracle of miracles.  One bright pearl. Rejoice at the good fortune. And work for change.
In all of this vastness, we are one of only 27,000 (according to the Verdants). Oh, miracle of miracles. One bright pearl. Rejoice at the good fortune. And work for change.

While looking for discussions on "Waking Life," I stumbled across the critique you had written about how puzzle films were a sign of how accepted cultural norms were sliding away from celebrating the purity of conscious awareness and towards the celebration of minute snippets of cleverness, missing the forest for the trees. As you might imagine, I rather enjoyed your essay - it echoed many of the same sentiments, feelings and observations I had been accumulating about the progression of popular culture through my lifetime, and the concepts you presented also expanded upon and solidified my hunches about the sources of my feelings of cultural alienation as well.

Part of the reason why I had been drawn to watching "Waking Life" was because, over the past few months, I've been doing a great deal of soul searching, hoping to put more meat to the experiences I've lived through and granting them a confluence of meaning. While parsing through my own reflections has proven fulfilling, I've also been scouring the internet, searching for alternative memes, hoping to find additional food for thought.

One of the few webpages that I've found especially useful is one published by a person (or group) (hopingly jokingly) claiming to be the reincarnation of Abelard of Le Pallet. Many of the ideas published on this webpage I've found to be incredibly useful in stimulating me to think of human decision-making phenomena from entirely new perspectives, broadening the spotlight of my search for meaning.

I wanted to bring this webpage to your attention because, when I read your article, I was struck by how many of the concepts you had woven into your writing I had run into earlier while reading this webpage! Ideas such as "fuzzy logic" (fuzzy categories), zen impermanance, and the continuous "smoky" nature of reality and the human experience; these ideas, I had earlier found them on the following thought-provoking webpage:

Since I think I have a lot to gain by reading your essays and thinking about your ideas, and since I will be reading more of your webpage in the upcoming days, I wanted to offer you something in return. I hope you find the time to read the page, and doubly hope that you would find it interesting enough to discuss your opinion of the ideas contained therein with me (since I feel I would have something to gain from such a discussion!). If you find it interesting and want to talk about it, please let me know.

-Kris Teng
Cornell University, '04

Photo by Mark Backus / Summer 2005Ray Carney replies:


Very interesting. Thanks. As a philosophy student (in my undergrad. salad days), I appreciate the "anti-Aristotelean" argument, but I would broaden it. It's not merely language that is the problem (as that page argues) but the structure of the human mind, and of consciousness in particular. An attack on (verbal) language that stays within and is conducted within verbal language cannot escape the limits of verbal language, which is to say, escape the structures of consciousness that imprison it. That is why Elihu Dogen Zenji's approach is so critical. And why alternative (and non-verbal!) "languages" (viz. of music, dance, drama, painting, film, etc.) are necessary. The music of Bach, the painting of Rembrandt, the filmmaking of Tarkovsky point the way out of the cage. They can't take us out, but they can point the path. And there are, of course, other ways as well. Mind-altering drugs -- like total unconditioned romantic love and ecstatic states of religious adoration and the care of a mother for a newborn child (if you don't mind me calling them drugs) -- can also alter our consciousnesses in radical ways and potentially free us from the categorical me-thou, subject-object, yin-yang, valley-echo, true-false constraints our minds normally operate under. Of course late capitalist civilization does everything it can to persuade us to "grow up" and "become responsible" and to "mature" out of these states of freedom. The world and our self-centered identities are at war with the truth.

Rick Linklater is a good buddy of mine, by the way. I had a pre-release screening of Waking Life for my students at Boston U., and he came to class to talk with them about it. But there are many other films and filmmakers, needless to say, that go even further in this direction.

Thanks for the stimulating thoughts and kind words.


Dear Prof. Carney,

I have been thinking about what you fight against. And about your being attacked simply for doing what you do, for doing what scholars and historians do. (Click here and here and here to go to three pages that document some of the treatment of Carney by Gena Rowlands, Al Ruban, and Seymour Cassel.) You're not a film-as-entertainment critic, but everyone seems to treat you like you are! They just don't get it. But you already know that. I started thinking about how you are attacking sacred cows... cash cows at that ... and found this great article "Killing Sacred Calves."

It's religious in nature, but spiritual truths remain spiritual truths wherever you find them. Good food for thought. You are in the "business of cow displacement..." What an apt phrase...

Also, sacred cow = a tightly held belief with which one is identified. Questioning the belief will be seen as questioning the holder of the belief and taken as a personal attack. Oftentimes, the more the sacred cow is at odds with reality, the more ferociously the believer will cling to it.

Western civilization's most sacred cow - the market.

Lastly, a quote I found - "Abbie Hoffman gave the best reason for attacking sacred cows: they 'make the tastiest hamburgers,' he said."

Keep fighting the good fight against those sacred cows... And for fun, here is something to play with - cow-tipping. Have you heard of that? Maybe an urban legend, but story has it that rural pranksters sneak up on sleeping cows and "tip" them over. Hmmm, maybe you can catch Al Ruban and Gena Rowlands napping ...

Yes, you teach your students to attack sacred cows or at least tip them over - and kill the sacred calves before they grow up...

George Woodard

Ray Carney replies:

Your Life is a Movie coverThanks, George, for the blasphemously sacred thoughts! I like the metaphor. I'm also interested in tipping over apple carts, rocking boats, and goring pet oxes.

I have a big long interview in a book that is coming out this fall (Your Life is a Movie, edited by Don Thompson and Nicholas Rombes) where I talk about doing that. (Click here to read about the book on Amazon.)

The world needs a little shaking up. But it always fights you to the death when you do it. I guess that's proof that it needs to be done.

About cow tipping Al and Gena when they are napping, though, I just don't know. My dad used to use an old Navy saying to refer to people like them: "Rust never sleeps."

But of course (as you know) my goal is not merely to fight and to knock down. It's creative. The only reason you tear down is to build something better on that spot. You prune the dead branches to make room for new growth. To make the flowers bloom in the spring. To help build a new world, a better, more caring one than the one we were born into.


I was reading Peter Bogdanovich's book on actors he has known, including his glowing reflections on Cassavetes, and thought of you. So I visited your site again and started reading. I was particularly fascinated by your comments on puzzle films. (Click here to read that page.) I enjoyed the heck out of many of the movies you mentioned, but can't say I disagree with your commentary.

One thing I've noticed about the highly praised filmmakers of the past 10 or 15 years is that there is nothing really personal about their work. Tarantino and PT Anderson, two wildly overpraised directors, have made movies whose worldview seems to come from other movies. Tarantino doesn't seem to deny this, and perhaps that's why I enjoy his movies. PT Anderson's work leaves me cold, though. I look at his films and there is nothing real about them. The characters are people who don't exist, the dialogue is wooden, and his style looks like he spent far too many hours watching Altman and Scorsese.

Is it possible that we spend so much time experiencing mass culture we truly have no life to call our own and draw upon?

Rob Mattheu

Ray Carney replies:

Thanks. See the distinction I make between "group" and "private" experience in my commentary on the Star Wars phenomenon. Going to church is different from going to a football game. Or should be. Listening to Mozart is different from watching television. It's easy to lose track of the small little voice of the self in our world of surfaces, styles, and sociological understandings.


P.S. Peter B. and his book are full of you know what. When will we get our fill of celebrity worship and Hollywood air kissing?

A brief exchange between Ray Carney and a major American independent filmmaker about art and commerce. I have removed the filmmaker's name and anonymized his story in other ways to protect his identity. Beyond that, please note that I am only printing brief excerpts from our exchange, but I think they raise important issues:


In (city) at the moment, doing q&a's with (film title) at the (name of) theater, folks there are very nice & we had an encouraging turnout last night. Hard to tell, throughout all this distribution monkey business, what works & what doesn't. Did nicely in Boston & New York, though, of course, (name of major big theater) has yet to pay us a cent & who knows if they ever will, but the uphill battle has steepened since-- (Name of city) was particularly gruesome...

Distribution possibilities for (other film) looking fairly bleak at the moment ... the prospect makes me a bit nauseated as the distribution work gives me very little pleasure & I'm much prefer to pawn it off on someone else (even if they're going to fuck it up even worse than we do), but if we gotta do it we'll do it, & maybe learn from our mistakes on this run...

Hope all's very well w/ you--

(Name withheld)

Ray Carney replies (an excerpt from a longer reply):

Subject: Art and commerce, business as usual

Sorry "the biz" is so wearing. Everyone thought Cassavetes CHOSE the indie distribution route. As if he prefered to shill his own works. In fact (as my Cassavetes on Cassavetes book attempts to point out) he only reluctantly embarked upon it as the last desperate resort for films that he couldn't otherwise get out the door. America eats its young and its young-at-heart artists by forcing them to become businessmen (and -women) of art, selling, selling, selling, when they should be off creating. Where is Pope Julius when we need him? Where is Bill Gates? Where is the National Endowment?



Well today I'm feeling optimistic, though this is a result of biorhythms really more than any legitimate cause for optimism...Money stuff all extremely nervewracking--I've started working part time in (name of business) which of course comes nowhere near to covering rent etc--though obviously I could be putting better effort into remedying that, I should indeed probably be hustling a lot harder to try to find teaching work...Is somewhere on the long priority list now...

> Where is Pope Julius when we
> need him? Where
> is Bill Gates? Where is the National Endowment?

Well Bill Gates anyhow is throwing money at all sorts of stuff, isn't he? African debt relief, U.S. public education, things like that? The world seems to have all sorts of very enormous problems & I do keep thinking that a lack of support of independent cinema is a pretty obscure one. And I suspect it's more a cultural issue than a financial one, really--interesting films SHOULD be able to compete in the marketplace, because they're simply better--but the public doesn't want them, and philanthropic support at best could only put a tiny dent in that indifference, right? And isn't that the real problem? But again, doesn't it stem from much, much bigger problems?...Which brings me back to my recurring fantasy of going to work for Jimmy Carter, or some other affable do-gooder, I don't know if I'd actually enjoy it or be of much use, but the notion compels me...


Subject: confusing movies and life

Hi Prof. Carney,

I've been pondering why people fall for Al Ruban's libels against you and your work. And why they take Gena seriously at film festivals as she tells her funny stories and presents her "happy face" version of her life with Cassavettes and her fantasy versions of her life with him and about how the films were made. (Click here and here to read examples of what the letter writer is referring to.)

A few thoughts back from my undergraduate psychology study days: People are more likely to vote for someone if they recognize their name. (How stupid is that????) And we tend to like people who are like us - lots of $$$$$$$$ are spent to make us identify with celebrities and recognize their names. Familiarity breeds association of positive attributes, not contempt, to images being sold to the undiscriminating public. People believe Gena because they identify with her in some way. They think they know her. They think she's their friend. For the past twenty years she has played sentimental roles in HBO and Showtime movies, and people think that she is those characters, that she is a soft, sentimental, kind-hearted person. They confuse her with the characters she plays, when in fact, if anyone looks at the way she has treated you, she is obviously very different from the characters she plays. She is tough and hard and argumentative. But they can't see that. Her charm covers it up. She's an actress. What do people expect, she's good at turning on the charm!

It's like wanting to vote for Jimmy Stewart for Senator on the basis of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Or Ronald Regan for President on the basis of his acting performances. That's not far from the truth. Look at how Dubya got into the White House... It has become the American Way. The man behind the screen pulling the levers to make everyone think he is Wizard of Oz. The special effects prove it, don't they? Has nothing to do with reality and the truth. It's all a fiction... it's all spin.

And history and scholarship is where it all comes out in the wash... That's what you do. It's not about fictions and spin. It may not be pretty. It may reveal that people have told lies. It's a search for truth. Difficult, challenging, contrary truth that may offend someone's fantasies or disappoint their rose colored visions of things. The facts not the myths.

Who cares what Gena and Al think? Just because they worked with Cassavetes doesn't mean that they were deep thinkers or great filmmakers. You don't see them making movies like JC's. They wouldn't know the first thing about it. What has either of them done without him? Has Ruban done anything? And Rowlands has made a bunch of sentimental TV movies. And when it comes to being critics or understanding what scholarship is about, they don't know the first thing about it. No thoughtful person would consider them to be experts on film-as-art criticism in ANY sense of the word. They are no different than any average Jane or John Doe on the street. Everyone has an opinion. Does that make them experts? I think not!!!!

Don't worry, the right people understand and appreciate what you do. You will win in the end, it just will take time. What you do will stand the test of time.

Jane Wheeler

The Japanese Edition of <em>Cassavetes on Cassavetes</em>Ray Carney replies:

You're right but I need to be reminded. I'm such an academic, that it's always so weird to me that in our "culture of celebrity" people do believe producers, directors, and movie if they had some deep inside view of the meaning of a movie, just because they showed up on the set for a couple months or wrote checks to finance it. I've seen it so many times. Look at the way film festival events are organized. Look at the press coverage. When Rowlands is at an event or has sent Ruban to represent her in her place (though she is often right there sitting beside him nodding her head as he says the dumbest things), people hang on every word like it was the gospel. They almost automatically believe that they have something important to say about Cassavetes' movies. You're right when you say that there is trust of, a love of the rich, famous, or powerful in our culture that is very very sick. The adulation of movie stars in particular is a real sickness in America.

Thanks for the thoughts and the support.



Saw one of the newest letter postings, (Note from Ray Carney: see two letters above this one) and can't resist a response.

The filmmaker who wrote you said: "...interesting films SHOULD be able to compete in the marketplace, because they're simply better--but the public doesn't want them..."

Since when is the public given a choice??? They don't know about most of the indie films, so they couldn't go see them or rent them if they tried. How could they possibly know they don't want them? And even if they went to a video store to rent them, they won't be able to find them! I tried recently to get some of the films you praise on the site. Batting average on your recommendations: zero. They aren't in the stores! (A Note from RC: Hundreds of recommendations are sprinkled throughout the site and my published writing, but for a quick look at a group of them, click here.)

Marketing creates the demand. And marketing determines the inventory in the video stores. I recall reading a biography of Eudora Welty saying she quit marketing because "It was too much like sticking pins into people to make them buy things they didn't need or really want..." I think Europeans are much more open to indie films because they are not subjected to the same marketing we are in the States to buy crap! Americans are manipulated to have maximum dollars extracted from their wallets for films that will make the highest profit... based on advertising dollars... and so on... and so on... and so on... name-brand recognition of movie superstars, name directors, and hot genres of films. People also respond to the herd mentality - what's trendy or "popular."

What's the answer? Call me crazy, but I think it has to be the one you recommend: The road not taken... The path of the artist.


P.S. I'm not writing this so you will publish it. Just my response to that letter. Certain things get my juices flowing... e.g. evil of advertising/marketing... : ) But don't get me started!!!!

A planet in trouble, and baby, it ain't the tsunamis and hurricanes we have to worry about.  It's not even the terrorists.  It's the leaders and opinion shapers.Ray Carney replies:

Well, I am publishing it anyway. Hope you don't mind! : ) You make some excellent points. John Kenneth Galbraith covered some of the same territory in his books (see, for example, The Affluent Society). He talked about how synthetic our so-called "desires" are. You're right: Advertising and marketing are cultural evils. They distort demand, create artificial "needs," and massively misallocate cultural, material, and emotional resources. I'm in a College of Communication that has a Department of Advertising full of Professors of Advertising who teach students how to do that and once they've learned how, awards them degrees to go off and practice their skills. It says a lot about how messed up our culture is when even our universities are participating in the warpage. Everyone is so worked up about whether "intelligent design" should be in the curriculum; where are the letters to The Times about teaching all these other things and suppressing the alternative point of view in the public relations and advertising curriculum? (Answer: It's culturally safer to attack someone who believes in God; it's far too risky to attack a professor of advertising.)


P.S. I just remembered something else, if you are interested. A nice tidy illustration and paradox rolled into one: Mark Rappaport's films represent the most brilliant cinematic deconstruction of this whole cultural realm of "artificial needs and feelings," even as, at the same time, they ironically illustrate the effect of the system. You won't find any of Rappaport's most important films in a video store, because they don't plug into the artificial marketing and advertising systems they critique. Talk about poetic justice.

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