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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: thanks for continuing to be my teacher
I'm so glad that you keep up the website. I live in Athens, Ohio, and the local theater occasionally runs what they call an "art" series, which is usually a bunch of mirimax/best-foreign-film crap. But last week something called "Junebug" appeared. It must have been the next day that I was on the website, and your most recently posted e-mail was an exchange between you and the director of the film. So I went to see it.
Let me give you the proper context. Junebug was the third film of the current art series. The first was Broken Flowers. "Thank God," I thought after the movie was over, "that Jarmusch has finally returned to drama. May he never make another Samurai/Gangster film." Next came Grizzly Man. It was encouraging to see that Herzog is still capable of some insight and profundity after the tedium and relentless mediocrity of Indestructible (if I got right the name of that movie about Tim Roth and the Nazis). And then Junebug came along and blew them away. How does one dance on the edge of cliché for the entire length of the movie without ever once slipping into sentimentality or resorting to irony? That must be genius. Thank you so much for bringing this film to my attention. Now, if only I could figure out a way to see Puffy Chairs...
In addition to calling my attention to great art (I've also started reading Welty and Oates), your writing in general really helps to keep me going. There's just so much bullshit out there, so many people making a career out of saying nothing about unimportant schlock. And now I'm competing with those people for jobs and publications. It's really frustrating to be an academic who beleives in art as experience. I have no allies. I'm sure you know all about this, but I'm just learning that there are basically two kinds of academics: Po-Mo/deconstructionist/cultural studies debunkers and traditionalists who have to find the symbolism in everything. When I try to explain that my position is not with or against either of those two, I may as well be speaking Swahili.
But I'm going on and on. Let me just stop at thank you for doing criticism the right way.
p.s. I'm glad to see that Dave's advice regading Wong Kar-Wai paid off. You might also try Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-Liang, Jafar Panahi and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, if you haven't seen them already.
Ray Carney replies:
Thanks, Dan. Good to hear from you! I remember your student days. They were at one of the most interesting points in the Film Studies program. I'm going to post your letter since it has so many good recommendations in it that people will benefit by. Keep going your own way. That's the only way to go. And don't believe a word you read in the newspapers. I mean in terms of reviews. How trapped the reviewers are. And they don't even know it. (Or they couldn't possibly live with themselves.)
Tony Scott (A.O. Scott of the New York Times) was at an event here the other night and I alluded to some of the shortcomings and limitations of American film reviewing, the form and style of it. You know what I mean (and Scott clearly knew what I meant): That the reviews were written after the reviewer saw the film only once, that he or she had to write the review in haste with no time to reflect on what had been seen, that the review had to confine itself to a single film, that the review couldn't invoke any complex ideas or presume any knowledge on the part of the reader, that the review couldn't even presume that the reader had seen the film (meaning that most of it had to be plot summary), that the review was limited to a few hundred words in length, that the content had to be obvious and invariably trivial since you didn't know how much your readers knew, that the only films reviewed were those in current release, that a film couldn't get a review unless it already had a distributor, etc. etc. etc. And then I asked him what he would change if he were in a "parallel universe" where writing about film for the Times could be done any way he wanted. If the whole reviewing system could be completely reformulated along new lines. Blue sky dreams of making the system better. What would he change? And you know what he said? I almost fell off my chair. He'd change nothing. He liked it just the way it was! What does it say when the lead reviewer at the leading newspaper in America doesn't even imagine that there is room for improvement? And he's one of the smart ones, the good ones, the best and the brightest ones. And a really nice guy too. But none of that changes the fact that he is trapped inside the system and doesn't even realize it. Talk about not thinking outside the box. There are so many ways the reviewing system could be improved. I could rattle off a dozen right now. If only one visionary came along, I'm convinced the whole system could be changed. 'Cause it would only take one person of stature to change it and all the others would fall in line behind. That's the way all systems of thought are. All corporate forms of expression. It just takes one thinker to turn the whole system inside out. If only. If only. But there you are. As of now, we get the reviewers we deserve, and we get the films we deserve.
And it's not just the Times, alas. I told the Times reviewing story to a highly-placed film professional over the weekend, and he matched it with a similar one from his recent experience. I quote part of his email to me:
"It is so frustrating that so many smart people compromise when it comes to film. I met XXXX (he gave the name of a major film reviewer for a major publication) in Toronto this year and he was envious that I was on my way to a Hou Hsiao Hsien film while he was going to interview Johnny Depp. When I asked him why he couldn't see the films that he wanted to see, he gave the standard My Lai response - 'I have to follow my (editor's) orders.' And these are the critics who supposedly occupy positions of power! Nothing new to you."
There are exceptions of course, but they are damn rare. At the same event the other night, the great Renata Adler was sitting to Tony Scott's left. She worked as a film reviewer for the Times for a year (back in the late sixties) and quit out of frustration at the silliness, the triviality, the stupidity, the shallowness of what she was expected to do on a daily or weekly basis. She wouldn't continue to play good soldier. She's also famous for a wonderful hatchet murder of Pauline Kael, her colleague at the time at the New Yorker. She was very brave to write it. It's so amazing that the go along-get along system couldn't buy her soul, even when the target was someone she worked with on the same magazine. That's real courage--and principles.
Anyway, like Zelmo, and like John, and like every "indie" artist, writer, and thinker: "I go on. I go on." I'm constantly taking flak for stuff on the site. At Boston U. and elsewhere. For my views and opinions. Truth-telling scares people. It threatens their views of their own importance. They don't like what they read. Burn the books (though they don't call it that and imagine that they are so different from that) is always the first response. The "entertain ourselves to death" attitude is always more prevalent (and more fashionable) than the desire to look reality in the eye. Reality scares them. Whether they see it on my site or have me point it out to them in their lives.
Subject: Yeah, sure, dude
Thought I'd share with you a forum posting I wrote in response to a poster's link to your little screed to the next generation of American Film Makers. Who I'm sure were panting for your advice.
"I don't know who this guy (Prof. Carney) is, but I doubt he's as important to the film world as he seems to think. MY bullshit detector goes off when somebody seems to think the only good films were made 70 years ago in France.
And hey, his admonition to film who you are (and can't you just all the ticket sales and oscars Spielberg would have won for making a movie about his own petty problems instead of the Holocaust) seems to clash with his idea of "film what you don't know"... and ignores something very real. Young American filmakers do not live in a world in which B&W french films have much influence on reality. They are working in a milieu of current film conventions and outlooks. It might be HIM who lives in a secret island of unreal people in another time and space... namely a whole sixties-type adoration for French filmakers (who, every single one of them, admitted to influence by and admiration for Hollywood)
He says: "Movies like Pulp Fiction, L.A. Confidential, and Wild Things represent a button-pushing sense of art where the only goal is to force the viewer to jump through a set of pre-programmed emotional hoops."
This is a remarkably messed-up statement. His idea that making a film should be a personal journey to understand one's own problems is absurd. Why should anybody pay to make that, why pay to see it?
What he seems to be overlooking here is something called "the audience". Shouldn't THEY have a stake in all this?
He says to forget visuals and just go for the gut. Well you can do that just fine in a book or song. Movies are essentially about seeing something better than you can imagine yourself.
His ideas that films all should be small, personal explorations with heavy thought content and complexities of concept (this is what he considers "adult") and without plots where there is no mood music and nothing is explained is a total crock of shit. He wants all films to be esoteric art films.
His final exhortation about doing all this crap to "tell the truth" brings out a Hollywood line..."You can't handle the truth". A film is not the truth, it's an elaborate lie. Running around shooting with no script is not really "verite", it's just a clumsier lie."
Ray Carney replies:
This is a parody and gross misunderstanding of what I am saying, but I reprint it not only to be fair to my critics, but to show to readers of this site as a sample of the sort of email I get on a daily basis. It's hard to know where to reply. There are so many errors here. I never say to "forget the visuals." In fact I'd say I put more emphasis on them than someone who cooks up their film from a recipe book based on establishing shots, shot-reverse-shots, and all that over film school hockum. I don't say to "run around shooting with no script." I don't say that films should have complex concepts.
But I don't have the heart (or time) to bother with any more of this. I'll leave it for readers of this site to sort out the fallacies, the half-truths, the distortions. Words are easy to get tripped up in. Ideas are even more confusing. And, as I've said many times, new or different ideas seem to threaten some people. The fear of new ideas links Muslim terrorists, right-wing commentators, and the current administration in Washington. Sometimes it's hard to tell them apart, intellectually speaking.
But what really puzzles me is why these sorts of writers feel that they have to defend a bunch of millionaire businessmen (Spielberg, Tarantino, Stone, Lucas, and the rest). It's like defending Bill Gates or George Bush. They don't need your defense, guys. They're already on top of the heap. They're the man. Da bomb. Why bother leaping to their defense and attacking all the little guys, the low budget indies? What's in it for you? I just don't get it. Has our culture brainwashed the masses to this extent? Don't answer that. The box office figures already do. And it's pretty sad.
I don't know if you read The New Yorker, but they had a profile this week about
Steve Buscemi and mentioned that he's a huge Cass fan. He apparently saw a
retrospective of his at the Museum of Modern Art (were you there then?) and ran
out to watch all of his movies soon after. This was all during a time when he
was trying to write/make his own movie ('Trees Lounge'). Anyway - just figured
I'd point that out to you in case you wanted to give it a look!
I also recently saw Andrew Bujalski's 'Funny Ha Ha'. What a movie. I don't think I
have ever seen a movie that I started out hating for 3/4 of it and then walked
away thinking it was fantastic. Marnie could be any one of my
twenty-something, 'what the hell am I doing with my life?' friends. Really a
great character study kind of movie...she's so aimless and so ambiguous
sometimes. It really shows that no one's got it all figured out...and how
Ray Carney replies:
Steve B. is a really great guy. Nice. Smart. Fun. And a great taste in film to
boot. A rare combination!
I was just reading an excerpt from your writings
about the art film world's rejection of Cassavetes.
"As he often said, for his actors, his crew, his
viewers, and himself, filmmaking was a matter of
asking questions to which you didn't know the answers
and holding yourself tenderly open, ready to come
across new questions at any moment. The work that
resulted was an admission of what you didn't know and
might never be able to understand. It was not about
moving from confusion to clarity – for the actor, the
director, or the viewer. Getting lost was the goal –
being forced to break your old habits and
understandings, giving up your old forms of
complacency. The way to wisdom was through
I personally have always responded to Cassavetes' works
as actually therapeutic actions given to the viewer to
respond to either with resistance or a frightened
curiosity or a timid recognition of the possibility of
compassion. Having said that I started watching his
films after a psychological breakdown/breakthrough and
at a time when I was commencing therapy. For me his
films are so incredible because they show the trauma
of others' and self-rejection and at the same time the
possibility for change - I think this experience is
only realised because the people surrounding him were
also intoxicated by the possibility of opening
themselves up to the most terrified and previously
rejected parts of themselves. I know this has probably
been written before but I am looking into training in
person-centred or possibly psychosynthesis
psychotherapy and am struck that both of these stress
the value of not-knowing and of moving toward and
valuing doubt/fear/and the loneliness or despair of
shame. This is why for me his films are of an entirely
different nature to almost any other films I have
seen. I have seen some films that are so compassionate
that they affect me also (Nil By Mouth), (Dead Man
Walking) but they don't have this sense of the
immediate experiencing of those feelings and
sub-personalities at the edge of one's/the actors'
awareness. I am ashamed now to say that I haven't read
many of your books but am really heartened and
inspired by what I read from which I took the excerpt
above. Interestingly though I've just started
recording music with a friend at home. I initially
began recording extremely personal songs about my
breakdown and really detailed pieces about the
discovery of the most terrified/ashamed parts of
myself. I have now stopped doing this though as I
realize it is too much for very much
stunted/intimidated parts like this to be exposed. It
occurred to me, especially in light of his comments
after making 'Woman', that his compulsion to open
himself up, caused too much pain to John on some level
for him to cope with.
I am sorry to write a fairly self-indulgent email to
you as I know you are incredibly busy. I would be
fascinated to hear from you about your feelings about
Cassavetes' work though, especially as you interviewed
him and interacted with him quite a lot.
Lastly I am really happy that there is someone out there within an academic structure and who is not
involved in psychotherapy etc, who is really promoting
the value of Cassavetes and others' incredible work.
Respond to this if you feel like it,
hi prof. carney,
this is david chien. from los angeles. i wrote to you
a few months ago with that review of caveh's recent
film. how are you doing? i've been meaning to call
your office or write (via snail mail, since i've not
written any actual letter in a long while).
haven't been able to e-mail you. i've been busy with a
new job i got, tutoring junior-high students in a book
club. pays well, and the work is more fulfilling that
being a button-pusher at some awful production company
internship. there has been a lot of things on my mind
that i wish i could discuss with you (re: films,
books, current events, etc.), but i fear it would've
become an overbearing e-mail.
the reason i am contacting you is because i was
wondering what your office hours are like next january
when the new semester at boston university begins?
i ask because i am going to be visiting boston in
mid-to-late january. i'm talking a long-overdue trip
throughout some areas in new york, jersey, and parts
of new england. hence, i figured boston would be along
the route, and i thought to myself that i would be the
fool if i passed up an opportunity to stop by your
office hours just to chat. you've been a pretty strong
influence on me. and not just with film. i truly feel
that i look at life and my personal relationships in a
very different light based on your writing and the
various things you've posted on your site. i am
forever grateful to your observations. there aren't a
lot of fellas like you out there.
anyway, since i'm in the process of scheduling
tentative times i'll be in and out of different
cities, i'd love to know what your class
schedules/office hours were like. i'd be honored to
attend and listen in on one of your lectures.
especially since i've been deprived of honest,
worthwhile lectures (having been at the usc films
school for four years).
let me know, i really appreciate it.
ps: tomorrow afternoon i'll be in hollywood attending
a screening of "mutual appreciation." i've seen it
already. i got a copy of it from andrew. he told me
he'll be there at the screening. i loved the movie.
it's the ying to "funny ha ha's" yang.
he actually might be someone else i could visit while
in the boston vicinity. i should bring it up to him.
Ray Carney replies:
Good to hear from you. I get lots of requests to visit my classes and in fact
there are two or three long term auditors who have come over the years and
audited many classes back to back, sometimes for years. (Hi Mitch. Hi Lydia. Hi
Matt.) There was one fellow who even drove here all the way from the West Coast
and lived in his pickup truck for a semester while he sat in on what I taught
(Hi Chris.) And before him was a guy whose name I forget who followed me around
everywhere for about a year. The year before, a critic came from Belgium to study with me. (Hi Nicola!) And then there are plenty of one- or two-timers,
excuse the phrase, including faculty members from my own or other universities
who are interested in something in particular and come for a class or two. I
only mind if it becomes distracting to the students. It's about them, after all.
My classes are usually twenty-five or fewer students, and largely
discussion-based, so at any one time it would be disruptive if a large number of
outsiders were present or participating.
The other thing is that sometimes outsiders can spoil it for the students by"knowing too much" and saying something in a discussion that gives away
information I am trying to let the students discover on their own. That has
happened in the past.
To see the schedule you should check the final pages of the "Syllabi" section of
the site (if I haven't forgotten to post them!). Anyway, you are welcome to
come. Tuesday and Thursday mornings would probably be best this spring. Check
the BU web site for when the term begins. It's usually the second or third week
in January. And bear in mind another thing: sometimes a good chunk of a
particular class might be devoted to a screening. That is a litle unpredictable,
since I go with the flow of the class's interests and needs and often change the
schedule as we go along.
Concerning office hours, it might or might not work, depending. I often get busy
with regular students asking questions and meeting with me and I never want to
take the time away from them. But you could try and we could see if it worked
out. Office hours are also on the syllabi pages.
None of this is posted yet for the spring, but check back and you can make your
plans accordingly. I hope this doesn't seem to be too discouraging, but keep in
mind that I have hundreds of claims on my time. Once in a while an auditor or
visitor (often a so-called "VIP" from another country) has been annoyed with me
that I am not free to meet them for lunch or supper or spend a lot of time
talking to them or something like that, but they just have to keep in mind that
my schedule is very very packed and that there are many claims on my attention.
I hope the visit works out, and you should definitely look up Andrew B. He's a
really really really sweet guy. (And is teaching in our production program
starting this spring.)
All best wishes,
Subject: C on C book exists in a much longer version
Dear Mr. Carney,
My heart skipped a beat when I read of the existence of a longer "C on C" in
your email response to Donal Foreman. Is it possible to purchase this
version through you directly, or your website?
Thank you so much,
P.S. Thanks to your website, yesterday afternoon, I saw "Mutual
Appreciation" at the AFI Fest and LOVED IT. Unfortunately, they only gave
Andrew Bujalski about 7-minutes for Q&A.
Ray Carney replies:
Glad to hear Andrew is making the rounds. Too bad we turn our artists into hustlers or make them turn themselves into them I should say. If the AFI just gave him the money they spent that month on lunches for visiting studio VIPs, Andrew could probably pay for his next movie. And, trust me, the studio excecutives could afford to pay for their own lunches.The seven minute Q and A doesn't surprise me either. I remember about five or six years ago, the Independent Feature Project Independent Spirit Awards ceremony asked Mike Leigh to be the "keynote" speaker. What a mistake that was! Rather than merely telling three stupid jokes in the Bill Murray/Ellen DeGeneres way, Leigh actually tried to give a real speech about what it meant to be an indie. It was organized alphabetically ("A is for...." "B is for..." etc.) They yanked him off around the letter E or F. I am not making this up. He never got even halfway. Samuel Jackson (the other M.C.) came out and pushed him off the podium. Moral: These guys want "names" but they don't really want them. They want Leigh and Bujalski, but don't get serious on them, or expect them to listen to you for more than seven minutes. And this is not the stupid Motion Picture Academy, this is the AFI and the IFP. If it was Whoopi or Tom Hanks, of course, the seven minute rule wouldn't apply. But it's only Mike Leigh or Andrew Bujalski. Get the bum out of here! He's wasting too much time.
About the two-volume Cassavetes on Cassavetes. (Click here and here to read about it.) Yes. It's real. It's not a myth. It's something like a half million words at this point. A half million! Isn't that ridiculous? It's the A to Z. But I only was allowed to get to E or F. It's two hours but I only am able to publish the seven minute version. It's Husbands and, like John did, I had to cut more than half of it.
Bad joke, I guess. It's everything I know in terms of John's life and art. Amazing stuff that isn't in the other text. Private stories about him. Secret events. Discussions of alternate versions of his works that no one knows about. Discussions of unmade projects, unpublished scripts, stories and prose by him.... the whole nine yards. It's the deepest I've ever dived. I went down so far I almost got the bends. But I found pearls, I'll tell you. I think it's astonishing. It's a dark inward voyage into the heart of darkness that is called being an artist in America.
But to answer your question: it's not available anywhere. Too expensive to print out and sell without a publisher backing it. Are you kidding? Get serious. We're talking 1300 single spaced typed pages! That's six or ten inches of paper thick.... That's more than even the French want to know!!!
A coincidence (but nothing is a coincidence really): I just told someone I was out with last night to put the manuscript in my coffin if it's not published by then. I'll take it with me to the other side! They'll appreciate it over there, even if no one wants it here. (And, believe me, I really don't mind if it's never published. I wrote it for myself. And had a hell of a great time doing it! An amazing time. Why else do we do anything?)
Is the first version of Shadows something that I could show here in Austin,
Texas informally in a non-profit format? It seems you should get some
credit for all your legwork in tracking this down, and the film could be
shared in an educational, not-for-profit scenario.
Ray Carney replies:
Thanks for the offer but I want to bring it out in a bigger way. JC deserves more than a hole and corner screening. He deserves a real premiere event. That's what he himself would have insisted on. If I were in this to make a fast buck, or to get my name in the papers, I'd just want to get it out and screened anywhere, but I am in this for eternity. For the long haul. For art. That means that I am patient. I am willing to wait until the world comes around. Even if it takes 100 years. (Click here to go to a place on the site that talks about the right sort of event. Or here to read about waiting for the right time and not being in a rush. Or here for another mention.)
A response to RC's reply from the same writer:
That deprives, year by year, many young, eager and unexpecting, artistic and intelligent kids the influence on their lives this film you know very well definitely would have.
Ray Carney replies:
I agree. Next time Gena Rowlands is on stage at an event, tell her that.
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