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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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Subject: Cassavetes, Website, Thanks

Professor Carney,

My name is Dan Marker and I'm an aspiring filmmaker doubling as an English major in my last year of college right now. I soon hope to get a job and make enough money to fund a feature length film. I'm a fan of your website and I've read and reread several of your articles. It's inspiring to see someone who shares similar tastes and enthusiasms. It's incredibly rare to find someone who takes art seriously these days.

I wanted to thank you for your Cassavetes on Cassavetes book. I rented it from my school library and ordered it online the same day. I needed a lifetime copy of my own. I also wanted to thank you for recommending other filmmakers I might have not have ever seen. I'm probably one of the few people who proudly own The Wife and What Happened Was...

I also had a quick question. I've read through all your posted syllabi and emails to make sure you hadn't already answered this question. I think I have a firm grasp of your film tastes but there are several authors that I would love to know your opinion on. My focus in school is 20th Century literature and I share your admiration of a lot of writers but I was wondering what you thought about a few writers that you haven't mentioned. You've spoken about Joyce before but I got the impression that you were not a fan. Is this true? How about Pynchon, DeLillo, Gaddis, Wallace, or Raymond Carver? I am guessing that you wouldn't be too much of a fan of Post-Modernism but perhaps I'm being presumptuous. I ask these questions because I agree with your film tastes most of the time and was just wondering about your literary tastes. I'm going to pick up some Henry James novels (I've only read Daisy Miller which didn't knock my socks off) and Alice Munro based on your suggestions.

Thanks for your time,


Ray Carney replies:

Beware of rankings. Top ten lists. Bests of. Worsts of. The ten best list. The ten worst list. That's thinking like a journalist. Like a reviewer. In other words, an idiot. Which is better Brandenberg 3 or 5? Which is greater Bach or Beethoven? Is Pynchon a better writer than Gaddis? Is Carver better than Munro? What would that mean? It's not a "Best of the Times." It's not a Top Ten List. Life and art are about differences.

That said, there are fads and fashions, and I generally try to stay clear of all of them. As I said to a critic who once told me that my writing didn't deal with "hot" or fashionable themes and trends: "I never want to be in style. That way I stand a chance of never going out of style. What is hot will inevitably--ten minutes or two decades later--be cold. What is trendy is doomed to be untrendy in a 100 years. Save the bandwagon for a parade."

You express interest in postmodern literature. In my view, pomo lit is generally "lit lite." It's stunts, games, tricks. It's easy, free associations. It's a high wire trapeze act. All glitz and glitter, drum rolls and flourishes, but no real sense of life as it's lived.

But the authors you name are not postmodern to me. They are high modern in the extreme. The land of Eliot and Joyce and Pound. They all are part of "the literature of difficulty." (My own term.) Nothing wrong with that. Pynchon is fine. Gaddis is fine. But make some room for the "easiness" of Welty. And the humanity of Oates's short stories of the past decade. And the beautiful wonders of Alice Munro. And the simplicity of Elizabeth Bishop. The ones on my list tend not to be "difficult" in the same way Pynchon and Joyce and company are. They are not "high tech." They are not fancy. They do not do anything tricky. They are low-tech, ordinary, plain-spoken writers. Like Lawrence and Frost, they will never be as fashionable as Eliot and Pound and Joyce. Their difficulty is not on the surface but in the depths. Their difficulty is the difficulty of life, not of art.

Read my "Puzzle films" in the "Necessary Experiences" packet for an insight on the film side. Read my "What's Wrong with...." packet. Both have a lot on this subject. The difference between easy difficulty and real difficulty. The difference between mystification and real mystery. The difference between Citizen Kane and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Something that is not puzzling or challenging on the surface can actually be the really challenging (and really rewarding) work. The puzzles of style are easily solved. The puzzles of life are bottomless and profound. Munro, Welty, Hawthorne, James, etc. give us the difficulties of living, not of writing.

Better yet, better than reading me I mean, just read the authors I teach in my literature courses.


Hi Ray (if I may),

I'm a graduate student of philosophy at the University of Toronto. You could say that I'm a film lover rather than a film goer: given the menu, I'd rather stay at home watching some classic than pollute my mind with the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Note that I say "classic" not because there aren't good films made today, but because they are not easily accessible. But you know this already.

I'd like to order a copy of 'Why Art Matters'. Could you please indicate the shipping costs to Toronto, Canada? If there are alternatives, please just quote the cheapest one. Cassavetes got it exactly right when he said that "energy burst out of your writing." Keep up the excellent work, Ray. We need you to energize the independent film movement. Or, for that matter, art in general.You are truly an inspiration.

Best wishes,


"It's a safe guess that anyone who's called a dissident in their own society is probably an honest person."
Noam Chomsky

Subject: Mark Rappaport, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Russell, and Life in General

Prof. Carney,

Tom Russell here. The last several months have been by turns unbearable and exhilarating, and I'd like to tell you a little bit about it. I've spent most of the last year trying to do two quixotic things: getting my movie into a festival, and getting a second job. Concerning the latter: I don't have a college education, any marketable skills, or any job history besides eight years behind the circulation desk of the local library.

In my bleakest moments, I would say to myself, well, I've got my wife, who I love, and that's what counts. I have a large number of books I'm obstensiably supposed to reading but am actually neglecting. Films, certainly. And writing-- and filmmaking. I can enjoy sunsets though I prefer overcast days. Not exactly financially stable, but not drowning just yet either. On the other hand, it's easier to love and provide for your wife when you're actually providing, easier to read a book or watch a film when you have working electricity. All those external things don't count as much as *living*, a job doesn't count as much as *living*, but we live in an external world and it's easier to live when you've got food on the table.

Anyway, a hell of a year on that front, and then, viola! like magic! exactly a year after I started looking, I got a job. A job that pays twelve dollars an hour, which I can work in addition to the library job. Now I'm bringing home close to fifteen hundred dollars a month, which isn't great, but is a lot more than six to seven hundred a month. We're saving and occassionally splurging, and more importantly, the job isn't an office job, it isn't mindless drone work, it isn't any of the things that I would hate to be doing but would have gladly accepted if it meant I could be a "man".

I am a paid companion/support staff for a man my own age who has severe, low-functioning autism. I can't really say much about him as a result of that being against the law, not even so much as his name, but I can say that the experience has been incredible, more scarring and more revelatory than any film ever could be. He cannot speak, he does not make a sound except to laugh, and his emotions turn on a dime, his emotions are so pure: there is no mixture, no ambivilance: he is a human being writ large, he is a dynamo of personality. The intensity of his emotions, of his happiness and his anger are incredible.

I have never seen such anger in my life!

I have seen malevolence, I have seen cruelty, but I never seen anger like this, anger that is not cruel or motivated by jealousy but anger that--just--plain--is. I've never experience such violence, before, either. With his fingers-- not his fingernails, they were cut as a precaution-- he broke the skin of my arm, and blood poured down in sheets, covered my arm, and I was dizzy and practically in shock but you know what? The whole thing was exhilerating. Exhilerating!

My job is not to be his babysitter, and not even exactly to be his friend, but to respond to him, to try and engage him when he feels like being engaged. My job is, essentially, to be a better human being and to try and learn from it. If I survive it, it'll be incredible.

The other quixotic quest, as I mentioned, was to get my movie into a festival. Try and sell it maybe. I dunno. Just get people to watch it, anyway. But no festival has bit so far. (Thanks again, by the way, for recommending indieWIRE; though I haven't gotten into anything, it gave me more realistic venues to try than the big ones.)

It's a story that would be sad if it wasn't so predictable, and I knew I had a better chance of winning the Michigan State Lottery (we've been trying that, too. :-P ). My movie's too "mainstream", whatever the hell that means, for the underground festivals who turn up their noses at me because I'm not extreme enough, I'm not daring enough, I'm not provocative or controversial. I have no real formal style and seek clarity above all things. To an extent, though: I don't like characters speaking like they're in a movie. I don't like all the connections and motives to be clear and in fact keep them obscure at times. I also ellide the events that are less important in terms of character (but perhaps more important in terms of plot).

It's a very low-key movie, a "little movie", about people doing people stuff. (My wife, who is much better at taglines than I am, calls it "a movie where life happens", and that is fairly accurate.) It's also slow. I admit that freely. I shot it to be slow, wrote it to be slow, edited it to be slow. I like slow movies. "Underground" "indie" "extreme cinema" doesn't.

(Though, that's funny: underground cinema used to be pretty well defined by its lack of movement and energy. Just got my hands on Rappaport's Casual Relations, by the way. I didn't click with all of that, but some of the humour was exactly my sensibility. The shot with the car radio was golden. Absolutely golden. And I wouldn't have found this movie if not for you. Thank you, Ray.)

And the mainstream festivals: well, who's in my movie? No one? Oh. It's awful slow, especially without a name actor. Grrr. It's all bullshit, and I knew it from the start, but you got to play the game, don't you? If you want anyone to see it, whether you make a penny or not, you've got to play the game.

But I got tired of it, basically. I've spent the bigger part of this last year getting tired of trying to get my foot in the door, trying to get to some like-minded individual embedded deep within the system. The fact is, it would cost less to burn a bunch of DVDs and sell them to people than to burn a bunch of DVDs and send them to festival selection committees.

And so, somehow, I find myself in the distribution system. :-)

Part of me knows its sour grapes, but those grapes soured long ago, didn't they? I don't need to be telling you this; you know it, you've been saying it for a long time. And so, my quest becomes even more quixotic: I'm getting one of these "blog" things (not because I want to "blog" [curious word, both a verb and a noun], but because they're free and most webpages aren't) and a P. O. box, and I'm going to sell DVDs of the movie. I'm going to put a commentary track on it, because it's the next best thing to tagging along with a filmmaker, and I'm going to see what I can do. Maybe I make fifteen dollars, maybe I make a hundred fifty, maybe I make 1500.

I'm sending DVDs to various parts of the country (and, if I figure out this region encoding business/PAL conversion for VHS, to various parts of the world). Free copies. People watch them, share them with friends. If the friends like them, then the friends can buy a copy from me.

And I'm working with my wife on some various ideas for the next one, so I can start shooting end of this year, beginning of next. So I can sell another movie. I have a library. A brand name. If I can't wade in through the festival shit, I'll make my own bullshit. Maybe I never make a dime. But people are watching. Responding. And I have two jobs now anyway, and for the moment, that's enough.

And so, here I am, feeling more exhilerated than I have in months, and also more terrified. :-)

I'd like to send you a copy on DVD. Now, I know what you're going to say: you've got a stack of DVDs probably threatening to revolt and take over your house. That's fine. There's no rush. Watch it next month, watch it next year. Whenever you feel like it. I haven't asked before because, basically, I know you get a lot of this shit from people looking, just like I was most of this year, to find some way to beat the system. The system's unbeatable. Life isn't. Art isn't (though sometimes artists are). As Capra's Mr. Smith tells us (and also Billy Jack, have you seen Billy Jack Goes to Washington? Utterly bizarre! Certainly the strangest remake I can think of.): the only causes worth fighting for are the lost ones.

I don't want a way to beat the system. I don't want to get into a festival; submission fees are taking money out my pocket I could be using to take my wife to dinner, or to pay for gas.

The other reason I've been hesitant about asking you to look at it, is, basically, I don't know if you'd even like it, or respond to it. But maybe you will. I know you're not some narrow-minded idealogue, and, as you said in one of the letters pages, the stuff on your site is more the polemic you. But also I look at the movie and I see something so simple and mainstream in its appeal that I cannot imagine anyone not liking it. It's about people, and what's more appealing than that?

But I've gotten a lot of responses that weigh in on the negative/ambivalent side, and you know the funny thing? They're exactly the responses I expected from those persons. I knew my pal J. D. would say there's not enough music, that my buddy Petra would say there's a lot of dead air, that my sister would laugh at everything and et cetera, et cetera. In some cases, I think it just wasn't their kind of movie; in others, I think they'll come back to it in a few years and change their minds. I know if I had seen it when I was my sister's age, hell, if I had seen it when I was nineteen or twenty, that I would hate it, think it boring, think it didn't have a point.

And this is why I feel confident now in wanting to send you a copy: it takes a little bit of life experience, I think, for it to work. It takes patience and a little understanding of human nature. And really, when one stops and thinks about it, who would be a better possible audience than Ray Carney?

Again, watch it whenever you feel like it. A year from now, ten years from now. Whenever. And once you have, lend it to a friend you think will dig it.

And before I close this obscenely long letter, I just want to say thank you for pointing me in the direction of Joyce Carol Oates. You're right; some of these stories *are* like emotional rock-climbing. I especially like most of the stories in Sentimental Education; man oh man, she knows that men and women are different and she knows how they're different and why and she's on neither side and it's amazing. (In some of her later stories, she seems to tip more on the female side of the equation, which is all right if a little less balanced. Also, I miss the dense blocks of prose that characterize Queen of the Night and other stories from Sentimental.)

Thank you for allowing me to monopolize your time,

Tom Russell

A note from Prof. Carney:

I post the above letter simply as a reality check about what the "real life" of an indie filmmaker (or any other genuine artist or craftsman) is like. No Hollywood glamour. No groupies. No features in the New York Times. No interviews by Charlie Rose. No press releases. No agents and no black-clad PR click-clacks shepherding you around. Just a lot of @*&!-ng hard work! And no end of it. Ever. But that's what making real art is really about. If it's glamorous, sexy, buzz-word laden, and talked about on "Entertainment Tonight," you know it's part of the style system. The flattery-system. The world of fantasy and falsity. It's not about telling the truth. It's not about doing what is really important. Tom--and all the other Tom, Dick, Harry, and Henriettas out there--you have my best wishes and high hopes. Don't worry about what the world says or thinks. Don't even pay attention to that. Just keep on doing what you are doing. Keep going! It matters.



Hope you are well. Thanks for the Junebug plug on your website. What a great new voice!! He reminds me of Leigh and Ozu. Wonderfully balanced characters. I feel like I have seen a lot of good new stuff lately, which has brought me a great deal of hope. I saw Herzog's Grizzly Man, which really threw me for a loop, it caught me off guard (which I love) and made me laugh and cry at the same time. I saw Jarmusch's Broken Flowers the other day, which I liked very much, but not a life changer...Have you seen Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know. I loved it, until Junebug it was my favorite of the year. It reminded me so much of A Little Stiff, but this was from a female point of view. I'm just starting my full edit on The Last Stand, the feature I shot with Frankie in Philly this summer. It was good to see all these films lately, especially Jarmusch (the master of structure, as you once said), because structure is all with film. I have great great footage, I just need to put it all together. I just discovered Jan Steen, that dutch painter who paints the wild dinner parties, with the kids standing in the cake drinking beer and the dog peeing in the corner. I see the film I'm making as in that vain. Rough beauty. The film is about Frankie's dad's fruit stand and all the wild life that occurs in and around it. I don't want to count my chickens before they hatch, but I think I'm on to something really great...What is new with you my friend. I hope you are well and your words on your site, especially the letters from artists are a constant encouragement. As always thank you.

Best wishes,

Ray Carney replies:

Great to hear from you, Lucas. Yes, Virginia, structure is everything, or almost everything. Balanchine taught me that. There was nothing to hold onto in his ballets but structure. The other half of art is style and texture. Mozart taught me that. The color of D-minor, the timbre of a reed, the feeling of a fugue. Most filmmakers don't understand either. They have this bogus notion that filmmaking is "story-telling." Heck, that's what one of the production professors you studied with told me was the "essence of filmmaking." He said filmmaking ultimately was just about telling a gripping story. I wanted to reply (but didn't): "Sorry. Wrong answer. Try again or I'll have to fail you."

Glad you're working. Work is the cure to all problems. The secret of life is to do. Thought is the devil. Consciousness I mean.

I like your Yeatsian "rough beauty" idea too. Pretty pictures are the devil's handiwork. Great minds think alike, I guess: I was just down in the city doing an interview for the Turner Broadcasting folks talking about the poetry of impurity and the ugliness of Hollywood idealization.

Make the most of the messes..... because it is all mess, all the way down to the final scaly tortoise crouching in the slime. Glorious dinosaur mess.

Keep going.


A note from Ray Carney:

To quote the young John Keats (from memory--forgive any errors): Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,/ And many goodly states and kingdoms seen/ Round many Western islands have I been,/ Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold./ Oft of one wide expanse have I been told....

About ten years ago, a student of mine, David Kang, recommended that I look at Wong Kar Wei's work. Call me dumb, but I hadn't heard of it up until the time David put me onto it. Long story short: I did and I haven't stopped looking since. A few days ago, I saw 2046. It was a Saturday evening screening and I sat in a 300-seat theater with no more than 15 other people (alas), and applauded all alone when the credits rolled at the end. I don't know whether 2046 is a movie or an opera, but whichever it is, I do know it is a masterpiece. A modern version of Turandot. Princesses in towers. Princes lined up to court her. Riddles being posed. Heads rolling at wrong answers. Well, actually, the inversion of all of that. Turandot inside-out. Turandot as a man. The princes as women. But totally operatic in its emotional enormity and extravagance. And brilliant and devastating. Nessun dorma. Vincero. Splendera!

You owe it to yourself to see not only this film, but all of Wong Kar Wei's work. There are only a few certifiable geniuses making films nowadays. (Abbas Kiarostami, Mark Rappaport, Lars Von Trier, and Mike Leigh are the names of some of the others.) Anyone who cares about the present or future of the art should make it a point to master the complete works of each of these artists. Wong Kar Wei's work too, of course. Give thanks such a director exists.

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© Text Copyright 2006 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.