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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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A Note from Ray Carney:

October 2005

I received a letter and two discs in the mail recently from someone I had never heard from before, Jay Duplass. The letter mentioned my Cassavetes on Cassavetes book as being an inspiration to him in his work, and the disks contained a feature, The Puffy Chair, and four shorts, "The Intervention," "Scrabble/Scrapple," "This is John," and "The New Brad." As usual, I added the package and note to the heap of disks and tapes in my living room. I had a spare moment last Saturday night. It was late in the evening. I happened to pick the topmost package and put in the DVD of The Puffy Chair. All I can say is "wow." Wow. I have now looked at all four shorts as well as the feature, and Jay and his brother Mark Duplass, who co-wrote and co-produced these films, have instantly become two of my favorite filmmakers, and the actress they work with in the feature and three of the shorts has instantly become one of my favorite actors. Wow. And double wow. I recommend their work to one and all. It is simply astonishing.

Two things make their work so amazing. First, the acting is at the level of a Cassavetes or Noonan film (even in the shorts--particularly the first two I listed above, "The Intervention" and "Scrabble/Scrapple"). That's almost unprecedented in my experience. Flickers, flutters, flows of emotion ripple back and forth between the characters at the speed of light. Shades, colors, timbers of feeling that change second by second, without stopping. "The Intervention" is a group film and a viewer watches six or seven faces at once or one by one as a bombshell explodes. "Scrabble/Scrapple" is a two person film and underneath a banal boardgame, a war takes place. It is all in the acting. In the tones of voice. In gestures and movements. In the eyes and faces. It is genius-level acting and genius-level filmmaking.

Second, the work of the Duplass brothers isn't afraid to be intense. I have seen too many movies where everyone stays "cool," where everyone is nice, where everyone is afraid to cry or scream. The Duplass brothers raise the temperature emotionally. If I have a recurrent issue with the dozens of "slacker/twenty-something" movies I've seen, it is that nothing hurts deeply enough, no one cries desperately enough, no one is in love painfully enough, no one fights viciously enough, none of the arguments is serious enough---in a word, that these other films don't show the real hurt, the real anguish, the real excruciations of real love. Everything is always a bit "lite." A bit jokey. A bit too friendly. A bit too polite and nice and kind and thoughtful.

What sets The Puffy Chair, "The Intervention," and "Scrabble/Scrapple" apart from the crowd is that the actors, the characters, and the stories are deadly serious in an emotional vein -- serious about love, serious about human relationships, serious about life. In The Puffy Chair, Josh and Emily's relationship really hurts. The characters are in real pain. Josh's and Rhett's relationship really hurts. The film really hurts.

Of course it's also funny in parts. I don't mean to deny that. But thank God for the seriousness. Thank God for the pain. The real truth of the real pain. Thank God for Mark and Jay Duplass.

Click here to read a brief appreciation of their work.

A response from Jay Duplass:


I don't really know what to say, except thank you...

For whatever it's worth, I spent my 20's making really bad movies (I'm 32 now). They had no life, and they were full of shit.

Part of me not giving up on filmmaking was my editor, Jay Deuby, giving me Cassavetes on Cassavetes as a birthday gift when I turned 29. Cassavetes, as you may have guessed, is one of my heroes. It was my bible for about a year. It inspired me to just keep making films, and eventually, to take a chance and make movies about our problems, turning the camera on ourselves, literally.... We hoped it'd be enough, and for you, obviously it is, which makes me very happy.

Also, for whatever it's worth, I generally don't enjoy books written about film, but Cassavetes on Cassavetes blew my mind, and strangely, is the last book about film I've read. After I read it, I felt like I was either going to think about films or just make them. So now, we're making them.

I'm so honored that you watched our film, enjoyed it, and are writing about it. It makes me feel like there's magic in the world, when things like this come full circle (for me at least).

I'm not sure if you'll get a kick out of this, but I figure it's worth relating... When I got your email, I shouted to my editor (whom I'm staying with in LA this week), "Holy shit, Ray Carney wrote me an email!" And when I read the contents, it made my day... Probably my month. I'll never forget it.

Thanks again so much, and I will keep you posted on the distribution game.


Ray Carney replies:

I love the concept in your second paragraph. To make films with life. So easy to say, so hard to do. Most films have none. They are dead and everything in them is dead. Dead characters. Canned experiences. Like canned food. Processed and packed to kill whatever life they might have had. I think in fact most film schools teach people only how to make the dead kind of movie, the kind where things fit into the can. The lighting, the blocking, the focusing and the framing are all devoted to killing life. The acting, the flares of emotion in your work, bring the viewer and the film and everything in it back to life. They break the mold. They explode the container. They won't be put in a can.

Can I put your reply into the Mailbag section of my site? It might help other young filmmakers not to give up. And that's what it's all about. Keeping going in the face of infinite resistance, infinite indifference, infinite ignorance.



You can definitely use my reply. I sometimes teach classes, and lots of times stop in at high schools when film festivals ask me to, and it's the main thing I recommend over and over again. Just keeping making stuff, and try not to think about it too much. This is actually a lesson my brother taught me, because my brain is my worst enemy. So high volume, and also making art at a low enough price to enable yourself to F___ up and then do it again. I think that people subscribe to a myth that you're either a filmmaker or not. But the reality is it's a complex set of skills that enables you to make a good movie, and I think that it takes time to develop them. And then finally, I always encourage them to honestly think about themselves, their personalities, their lives, and what's unique about them and consequently what they might have to offer the world. All that thought really, though, is an afterthought to making more movies, so that you make enough accidents to come up with something real, and unique, and beyond thought.

Thank you so much Ray. This is so wonderful to have your support.

All our best,

Jay Mark and Katie

A Note from Ray Carney:

I normally don't read the junk mail I receive, let alone post excerpts from it on this site, but today's U.S. postal mail delivery brought such an interesting solicitation from Poetry Magazine that I wanted to quote three things from it. By the way, if you aren't already familiar with the magazine, I highly recommend it. It's terrific. (To find out more, go to their web site at:

Here are three quotes that were in the letter, all worth thinking about. (Change the words "poems" and "poetry" in the first two to "films" or "art" and the meaning stays the same.)

The first is by William Carlos Williams:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

The second is by Christian Wiman, the magazine's editor:

Let us remember that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.

The final is by A. E. Stallings, and based on a statement attributed to Martin Luther:

Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,
The booze and the neon and Saturday night,
The swaying in darkness, the lovers like spoons?
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes?
Does he hum them to while away sad afternoons
And the long, lonesome Sundays? Or sing them for spite?
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,
The booze and the neon and Saturday night?

Dear Professor Carney

I graduated from BU in 2002. And took several classes with you which changed the way I understood, interpreted and thought about film. Your American Independent Film class was one for the most influential classes I ever had and one of the most valuable classes I had while in the Film program. After graduating from BU I worked on a few independent features in New York but then landed a gig teaching English in Japan which I took. Japan proved to be a place that inspired in me a wealth of ideas and after some time, yes even a medical trial in Kagoshima, a luck break at a dog track I managed to start production on my first feature. As the writer, director, producer, editor and cinematographer even a boom operator and yes kraft services, having done all this in Japan in a foreign tongue and having completed this dream I emerge stronger and wiser and smoking quite a bit but cutting back I promise.

Completing my first feature film has been a task that has certainly taken some years off my life. I am writing to inform you that my first feature film "Niji no shita ni" (Under The Rainbow) had it's world premiere at the 28th Mill Valley Film Festival in California. The theater was packed and I had family and friends in attendance, it was a beautiful evening. I am writing to thank all of you for your support along the way in the making of this film. "Niji no shita ni" is most currently being considered for sundance 2006 as as well as the San Francisco Asian American Internation Film Festival amongst others. I would like you to please take a moment at look at the brief synopsis and review of my film at or go directly to the mill valley film festival website at and find my name in a directors search or locate the film by country (Japan). The film was received with lots of praise and words of encouragement, really this has been a wonderful moment in my life and I wish to share it with you for you all help me in some way on this long process that is filmmaking. I am writing to ask you for your most recent address so that I may send you a screener of the DVD as well as saying hello because I know it has been sometime since we last spoke, as you know I have been entirely devoted to this film and though my time and energy has been solely on this project I have not forgotten the special people who came into my life and became friends with while in Japan and in the United States. I've attached the poster of the film for you to see and hope you get a chance to go to the festival website and read about "niji no shita ni". Ray, I hope this letter finds you well and I want you to know that I am thankful for having encountered such a passionate and knowledgable professor.

With all my heart,


An excerpt from a note written to me by a friend about another film that may be worth watching:

Dear Ray,

I saw "Shop Girl" (based on Steve Martin's novella, which from what I understand was based on a true event in his life?) and while I was disappointed and frustrated by it in many ways (WHY does Hollywood insist on trying to sell me a happy ending when I derive so much pleasure and comfort from the TRUTH???) I do think it's worth seeing because there are a few exquisite moments, and it is quite loving and tender towards its characters...a film that attempts to be truthful about love (until the last third) and sometimes reveals important things about men's emotional lives. I liked that. But it could have been so much more than it was, all the ingredients were there but they did the Hollywood thing instead...and despite her good effort and acting talent, Claire Daines is still presented as a male fantasy more than a completely real person. Perhaps more frustrating than its worth!

I recently came across the following statement by Peter Coyote and want to reprint it here. San Francisco-based Rob Nilsson has been laboring tirelessly and brilliantly in the American cinematic vineyards for almost forty years and it's high time the importance of his work (which includes the award-winning Signal Seven and Heat and Sunlight as well as the more recent "Nine at Night" series) was acknowledged and honored in his native land. Like many other American independent artists, his films are better known in Paris, Tokyo, and Copenhagen than in New York and Los Angeles. So much the worse for America. It's a sad reflection on American film reviewing and theater and festival programming. If you haven't discovered them already, I highly recommend Nilsson and his films, and enthusiastically agree with Coyote's assessment.

"If there were any justice in the world, Rob Nilsson's actors from the Tenderloin Group would be as widely recognized and hailed as any of the current crop of nobodies gracing the pages of People and US magazine. In Rob's new film, NEED, the latest in Rob's nine-picture series, the performances are every bit as bold, daring, unremittingly true and startling as they have been in all the others. Do whatever you have to do to see these films and these actors. Done for less money than the "perk packages" some stars receive they are gritty, true and moving. But, if there were any justice in the world John Cassavetes would still be alive and recognizing Rob Nilsson as his long-lost heir."

Peter Coyote

Hi Ray,

Very much appreciate your putting the Coyote quote up on your site. It means a lot to me.

And here's another quotation from Karen Black who attended both screenings of NEED at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Makes me feel someone actually sees what I've been up to.

Hope you're squaring off with the academic Fascists. When I think about this country and what to value these days, I come up with only my daughter, friends, some good bakeries, brew pubs and an occasional amazing meal from a foreign tradition. The Arts are full of entitlement junkies, pop poseurs and out and out charlatans. I'd like to be a Liberal, but that's impossible given the absurdity of most of their chatter. I certainly can't be a Conservative. I'll be dead soon enough without that. So maybe I'm just a Dissenter, or with Conrad Aiken, "a yea sayer with nothing to say yea to."

Yet I say "yea" to the occasional film which rises to the level of honesty and a search for "the way things seem to be." But when was the last one? Hard to remember. Oh yes, I was very moved by Mike Leigh's VERA DRAKE. What a terrible wasteland we've fostered with the determination to make art a handmaiden of politics. I was a reluctant warrior 25 years ago, but I saw through it even then. Pointing out injustice is to put a finger on your own heart. Look next door. Watch the squirrels. It's the nature of things. Then comes Art to give you some sort of reason to feel. Along with your daughter, a brew pub, sex, passionate friends and the untrammeled universe no mind could ever comprehend... let alone create.

Keep punching!

Ray Carney replies:

Thanks Rob. Funny, funny coincidence that you would write today of all days. Dealing with some "academic issues" right now. Have to post a disclaimer on my BU Film Studies pages. (Click here to read it.) Don't mind doing it, since the wise ones will understand or already understood without being told. Don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind's blowing. But, as do your comments, it brings home the fear that people are consumed by.

Delighted to include KB's quote on the site alongside the other. And that too is another coincidence! Near the top of my Mailbag page 34 I have an exchange with Jay Duplass, where he and I meditate on the difference between films with and without "life" --in other words about the difference between the morbidity of Hollywood and the truthfulness of particular independent works -- in almost exactly the same sense that Karen Black intends. But I have to thank you for her quote. She describes the difference much better, much more clearly, and more passionately than either Jay or I do. Ah, if only one critic or reviewer in America understood what she, you, and I are talking about........ if only.......


Watching Rob Nilsson's film "'Need", I became aware that I was watching an entirely new kind of film. Shockingly new the way cinema verite was new in its time, the way "Easy Rider" was new, the way the impressionists were outcasts because no one had seen the world through a painter's eyes that way ever before. And new in the way that once these new forms of art were seen, nothing could ever be the same again.

One is not watching a scripted movie and so one doesn't watch actors doing their lines , achieving their emotions well, or very well, or not so well. We're just not watching actors at work. And one isn't watching an improvised movie. I've seen them and I've been in them. In an improvised film, one knows somehow that the actors feel a camera directed at them and that they'd better come up with something. We're watching them improvise.

In Rob Nilsson's work, there is no script, yet this is not really improvisation. So what is it? Well, it's life. We seem to be watching life unfolding as it will, without a prompted direction, without any given path.. As if we could, for these precious moments, stand inside the rooms and touch the very skin of these people, mark the walk they take to the window in the night. For Mr. Nilsson has created a technique that makes it possible that the stories can be inside the players and the players aren't playing, it seems. They are just living.

This is historic film making in the true sense of the word. Historic, because if everyone suddenly began to make movies the way Rob Nilsson makes them, Hollywood would vanish. The world of filmmaking would be an entirely different one. When something truly great is spawned, there is always the obvious question: why didn't anyone ever do this before!? And the sad answer may be that no one ever will.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to become invisible and follow an interesting stranger down the street and into his apartment, to be able to watch him and wait inside his room to find out more about him? Now you can. Great movies have changed: now they don't have to be dandified, orchestrated mirrors of life. With Rob Nilsson's work, they are life.

Karen Black,
Actress, Writer, Singer

A follow-up from indie filmmaker Rob Nilsson:

Read the ludicrous mea culpa, or I guess it's a youa culpa on your site. Yes, it's a joke... cruel, but much like those in American movies where nervous laughter reveals the zero in the hearts of duped audiences. Still, it is an eloquent testimony to the very purposes of art, that they should gather the shards of random inspiration and prove a weave and warp of the uncharted mind of the creator. How interestingly the BU folks support what you've done on your site. Only the Fascist mind thinks that Art is coherent, orderly and easily understood. No valuable experience of life or of art can be understood... only undergone. You've been there, promoting your blasphemies and they haven't had the sense to thank you.

Why? Because you distribute the bad news. That being that most of what people like and praise is mediocre. Do you think the mediocre like to hear that? No one wants to work to understand why something which looks rough and unpolished could actually be closer to the "way things seem to be." But or course we have to have a giggle now and then. Always dangerous to start believing our own stuff. Or if we do, we've got to move on from our dearest positions. Nothing stays true for long, not if we're growing.

Anyway, let's maintain. It's pretty simple. We have to go with what we see. The rest is what someone else sees.

Power on and don't look back!
Rob Nilsson

Just a quick note about Antonioni's re-release of "The Passenger".

I don't know if you have seen this film from 1975, but I was absolutely blown away!!! I put it up there with Tarkovsky's "Stalker" and "The Sacrifice" in telling the deep understories of the soul. A profound work of psychological and conscious states with one of the greatest last shots in any movie. I was riveted in my seat for the whole show. Anyway, if it plays in Boston or anywhere else where you can catch it, don't miss it.

All for now.

Take care,

Ray Carney replies:

I agree. It's great! That reminds me, I should teach an Antonioni course sometime.

Funny how styles, fashions, trends come and go and reputations rise or fall in a decade or two, even in terms of the greatest art. Antonioni was all the rage 35 years ago. You could hardly pick up a critical essay without seeing a mention of his work, an allusion to it, a comparison with it (the sort of critical popularity that eluded Cassavetes throughout his lifetime, and that Hitchcock had then and still has now), but I hardly hear his name mentioned anymore. But of course the films are just as great as they ever were. And The Passenger is among his greatest.

I think Jack Nicholson was the one who prevented it from being screened for a decade or two by buying up the rights to screen it and then suppressing it (a little like Gena wants to do with the first version of Shadows), but I'm glad to know it's back out there being seen.

- RC

Subject: Sorry to hear about the hell Rowlands is putting you through. It's not fair.

Hi Ray,

Been ages since we've spoken, but after finding out what's happened with the Criterion set, I wanted to send my sympathies.

I saw the box set in the shop a while ago, and while drooling over it, I notcied that your name was nowhere to be found. I thouht it was bizarre, but I didn't know of your original involvement, so didn't think anything of it - except for noting that it was really shitty that that other guy got to do the notes, as I felt his book was feeble at best.

Anyway, I'm only now discovering the truth and backstory as I go through your site. I hadn't checked your pages in a while, and wanted to see what was new. I'm sad to see all of the misery that Rowlands is giving you, especially as you've done so much to share Cassavetes' work with others. Your "Unknown Cassavetes" series was one of the best things I've ever been to, and I hope that someday you'll be able to make that DVD series a reality.

Thanks for getting the other version of "Chinese Bookie" on there. When you screened it, I felt so lucky to actually see it that I remember everything about that night, even where I parked.

All the best,
Craig MacNeil

P.S. Forgot to mention how deeply unfair to fans of JC's works that these various items are suppressed. My general hopes in life include the potential for seeing those alternate cuts of "Husbands" he made (if they exist; the missing reel from "Husbands", and any other lost gems.

Just wanted to mention that. Also, if there is any chance of getting copies of that Opening Night restaurant interivew, or The Cavett show, I would be thrilled. Even audi only of the restaurant interview - I've described it at length to my fellow Cassavetes-freaks, and their eyes get all misty when I tell them of the wonder of it.

Ray Carney replies:

Thanks, Craig. I remember you. And of course I remember the astonishing "Unknown JC" Harvard Film Archive event. Didn't it go on for something like three or four hours. What larks! I loved doing it. Most of those things came from my personal collection. I don't think anyone else has them. Remember the tape where John's mom (Katherine) says she wished her son had not become a director??!! And remember the two other clips of John working with actors? And, yes, the Cavett hijinx were great too. What a wild man he was. And that speech he gives in the restaurant I played a video of where he practically begs for people to take him seriously. So sad and wonderful at the same time. It was such a great evening. I was glad to do it and the audience loved it. You're right--I wanted to put all of that on the Criterion disks or issue it separately, but Gena and Al had the final say. Business is business, and they can't make money off of those sorts of things. Thanks for the cheering words. I appreciate them.


A Note from Ray Carney:

In response to questions I have been asked about the first version of Shadows and the status of Gena Rowlands's attempts to confiscate and suppress the film, I have recently posted a new section of the site entitled "Rowlands, Ruban, and the first version of Shadows: A compilation of frequently asked questions and answers." Click here to go there.

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