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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:

A former student of Prof. Carney's, Dan Jones, responded to the article by Steppling and Walsh. (Click here to read the letter in the Mailbag where the URL is given and Ray Carney is asked his opinion of it.) Prof. Carney encourages other readers to weigh in with their opinions. He will post the most interesting. Dan Jones also submitted a list of "great living filmmakers." (Click here and here to read other lists submitted by readers.)


I just read the conversation between John Steppling and David Walsh. I don't get it. There aren't any good movies any more, because there is nothing good in this world to inspire the artist?

It's the kind of understanding of art that leads people to think that the accomplishments of Rembrandt, De Hooch and Vermeer result not from their individual genius, but from the demand of the new merchant class for portraits and genre pictures. You'll never see the great art all around you, if you keep looking through this lens. Of course I agree that our culture doesn't promote the appreciation of art, but as far as I can tell, it never has. That doesn't mean there are any less great artists than there ever were, it just means they are still at the margins as most great Western artists have been for the past 500 years.

Recently I have been compiling a list of living filmmakers to oppose the notion that "cinema is dead," or "there are no good movies anymore" or whatever. It's fairly long, and it gets longer every time I see something new that blows me away. The point of my little list is not just that things aren't as bad as they say, but that the situation is actually just the opposite and better than they say. Look at my list. Sure some of the folks on it are getting older and won't be making films for much longer. Yes, some of them have fallen over the edge of seeking a balance between creativity and commercial success. Yet, all in all it looks to me like the cinema is flourishing in our time at a level unprecedented in its short history. Tsai Ming-Liang, Wong Kar-Wai, Abbas Kiarostami and Aleksandr Sokurov are, to my mind, among the great geniuses in the history of cinema, and they are all still in their prime, churning out a movie every year or two. Why should we ask for more than that?

Maybe I have had a little too much coffee this morning.

Best wishes,

Dan Jones

The List:

Theo Angelopoulos
Chantal Akerman
Abbas Kiarostami
Mohsen Makmahlbaf
Dardenne Brothers
Pedro Almodovar
Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Zhang Yimou
Ousman Sembene
Idrissa Sissako
Edward Yang
Wong Kar-Wai
Jim Jarmusch
Lars Von Trier
Harmony Korine
Werner Herzog
Alexander Sokurov
Jafar Panahi
Tsai Ming-Liang
Su Friedrich
Jay Rosenblatt
Bela Tarr
Takeshi Kitano
Hayao Miyazaki
Kim Ki-Duk
Guy Maddin
Claud Sautet
Claire Denis
Olivier Assayas
Atom Egoyan
Mike Leigh
David O. Russell
Ken Loach
Charles Burnett
Gillian Armstrong
Chris Marker
Bill Greaves
Phil Morrison
Caveh Zahedi
Greg Watkins
Arnaud Desplechin
Denys Arcand
Jean-Luc Godard
Steve Buscemi
Richard Linklater (when he's not pandering)
Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Alexander Rogozhkin
Ira Sachs
Hal Hartley
Eric Rohmer
Ermano Olmi
Tengiz Abuladze
Jacques Rivette


Prof. Carney:

John gives the word psychic a whole new meaning ...

... relating a Cassavetes screening anecdote ...

Before I screened OPENING NIGHT for my girlfriend Yvette, I gave her a brief backgrounder on the film.

Nothing of course as to give the film away or breed some preconceived notions, just a simple synopsis.

Then Yve asks the question, "Does she win?"

I answer with a smile, "Just watch the film."

She repeats the question again, "But does she win?"

I just smile.

We watch OPENING NIGHT ...

... You should have seen the look on Yve's face when Myrtle Gordon asks the question referring to her character Virginia, "Does she win or does she lose?"

... hay naku (oh my) John .... how do you know, how do you know ...


J.P. Carpio

RC replies:

JP, thanks for the laugh. But you don't know the half of it. John actually used to "tell people's fortunes." He did it all the time--to me, to friends of his, to strangers. I am not making this up! He loved being the carnival showman. He loved playing the mysterioso "predictor!" He loved looking at you through his eyebrows and pretending he knew something about you that you yourself didn't!

In my own personal case, if I told him something, he would tell me what would then happen. I used to laugh at him, up until one particular time, very close to the time of his death. A year or two before I think it was. I was changing jobs. A big change. Uprooting my life. Selling all my possessions. Moving from one city to another. I told him how excited I was. He looked sternly at me and told me (something like): "You shouldn't take it. I don't see you staying there (i.e at the new job) long. You will only be there a short time. You will leave and find your real destiny at the job after that." I just laughed. I thought it was a hoot. I thought it was ridiculous and absurd. He knew nothing about the job I was taking beyond the bare facts I had told him, which involved telling him how excited I was about it and how I was banking everything on it. When he looked at me and told me it wouldn't last, I thought he was out of his mind. Who was he to tell me I was making a mistake? What did he know? Who did he think he was?

Well, guess what? Less than a year after I went off to take the new job, I quit. I received a better offer, and went to a better job. It was only after I moved 2,000 miles away from the first job that one afternoon I remembered his words. He had been right. How in the world did he know? What were the odds? Psychic? Yes. Damn straight.


P.S. And if you want to know another side of it: I am absolutely, I mean totally, convinced he predicted his own death in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Remember the film was made twelve years before he died. But study Cosmo's drama. Study his wound. Study his situation. It's JC's life and work and death too. Twelve years before he died. Psychic? Yes. Damn straight.

Subject: a pleasant surprise

Hi Ray:

Several weeks ago a young student of mine demanded that I watch The Boondock Saints. I obliged. The film itself didn't impress me but the backstory involving Troy Duffy caught my attention and motivated me to rent Overnight from Netflix. It was a pleasant surprise to see you in the film, bemused (I assume) by Duffy's unconventional approach to classroom mentorship (his tirade about film studies is a highlight in the film). I tried to read your expressions but I couldn't deduce if you were content to allow someone who had been whored and gored by Hollywood to vent in your classroom. What were you thinking that day when you crossed paths with Mr. Duffy? Are you an advocate of The Boondock Saints (truly a grassroots indie), or were you being indulgent with a local celebrity?


Dr. Larry Knapp

RC replies:


Thanks for the note. I responded to earlier questions about Troy Duffy's appearance in my classroom and his movie on pages 10 and 24 of the Mailbag. You can click at the top or bottom of this page to go there.


Subject: rantings, questions, and thanks

Prof Carney,

First off, thank you thank you thank you for all your writing and talks and efforts in general to champion truth and integrity in cinema. Cass On Cass and the website are my frequent filling stations when the reservoir of enthusiasm runs low.

Due to my constantly referencing you, a friend and creative partner suggested, when I poured out my heart to him last, "you should ask Carney". So, knowing you are a very busy man, I hazard this messy (and unanswerable) question: having devoted almost the entirety of my life post high school to cinema, working horrible night shift and manual labour jobs to pay for short films, coming to Europe

(from Canada, believing our movies were more European than North American, whatever that means), starting a production company, making a digital feature from the money I earned as tips at a (brutal) 5 Star Hotel in London, meeting a girl, falling in love, deciding to get married, and realizing that we (myself and 4 other filmmaker partners, otherwise known as "the entire crew on every movie we make") have nothing to show for it except experiences and memories (which are fantastic) and some attempts at art (some of which are okay)... what is the responsible thing to do now? The wonderful, lovely woman is scared that we will not be able to eat because of my need to make films, knowing that I just can't compromise and try to push "commercial" stuff to possibly grab some cash. Even doing freelance work on other sets, or using some of the equipment we've purchased to do post things here and there, most of it doesn't make jack squat for the amount of time and effort it requires, and nearly all the projects that come along seem to be just cheaper versions of that commercial junk I am trying so hard to avoid. Being from the former Soviet Union, my fiancee has an inherent fear of ending up dirt poor, and yet admits that our lives would be indelibly richer if we pursued the creation of art together (she's getting a degree in Music Technology).

Now, I know I've read before where you kind of made a joke about becoming a professor, because it's a job that gives you some free time, a liveable wage, and access to students and facilities. With no post-secondary myself (save film school... but THAT'S a whole other nightmare), I'm trying to find a plan whereby I could work at a somewhat useful and not toally soul-destroying job, and still make time/money to continue writing/directing my own features. I just want to love my wife and family, and make films until I cannot see nor hear nor stand anymore.

So that's a mouthful. Do you have any suggestions? Are the chances of artistic support any greater in Europe than they are in North America? Because financing in Hollywood seems to be about making the biggest bucks possible with the least amount of creative effort, but state/organization funding (in Canada, UK, etc) seems to be about the hottest liberal topics intending to shock. If one doesn't fit at either end of the spectrum, how the hell can one survive and practice one's art?

I hope this letter finds you well.

God Bless,

Sean Corbett

RC replies:

Thanks, Sean. We live in a commercial culture where things are measured monetarily. That's just a fact. However unfortunate it may be. We live in a screwed up world with screwed up values. Life is about experiences, feelings, insights, connections with others, not (what our culture calls) "success," "popularity," "making it," "getting ahead," or any of the other depraved values of late capitalism.

So anyone who is thoughtful and caring will find themselves at odds with that culture, or at least out of step with it. That's all that you are experiencing. Millions of other caring people have the same experience.

I have no magic solution for your predicament, except to say that you have to learn to measure success or failure in other ways. I have many book manuscripts that will never be published. And even if they were published, they will never make money for me. But so what? What you call the "fantastic experiences and memories" are what it is about. They are what build your soul. They are what life is for. Of course, we can't completely tune out the larger (hateful) culture. Since you live in that culture, I know you still have to pay the rent and put food on the table. There is no getting around that. (And Europe is not the answer.)

Advice? All I can say is to pay the rent and put food on the table the best way you can, but save a place and time for the real work of life, the important work that the culture doesn't support economically: looking and listening to works of art, reading, reading, reading, thinking and noticing, and recording some part of your impressions and feelings in any way you can (by making films, keeping a diary, writings essays and jottings, playing an instrument, or whatever helps to build your soul).

I wish you well. And you will do well, as long as you don't let the market--the commercial system, the misleading measurements of success and failure in terms of money, power, and status--define your goals and needs and satisfactions. You will have lived a great and important life as long as you succeed in making a little time every day devoted to the care and growth of your soul. That's all that matters.


P.S. I invite readers of the site to chime in with their own responses to your letter. I will post the most interesting responses I receive.

A note from Ray Carney:

I've recently been re-reading the work of George Eliot (née Mary Ann Evans). I'm working through Scenes of Clerical Life currently, but wanted to recommend all of her novels to anyone looking for deep, spiritually satisfying experiences. Eliot is the historian of ordinary people, doing ordinary things, living ordinary lives, who shows us how extraordinary the inner world, the life of the spirit, can be. Like all of the greatest artists, she has an astonishing ability to see the imaginative riches in the most mundane situations, and an amazing capacity to sympathize with -- and love -- even with the most flawed and limited characters. (Alice Munro, a contemporary short story writer, has the same ability and might be said to be following in Eliot's footsteps.) In addition to Scenes of Clerical Life, I highly recommend The Mill on the Floss, Romola, Middlemarch, Felix Holt the Radical, and practically everything else Eliot wrote. (By the way, her essays are pretty astonishing too. Try "Worldliness and Other-Worldliness: The Poet Young" for one of the sharpest and most perceptive visions of the functions of art ever committed to writing.) Her work is all in paperback and should be available in any decently stocked bookstore.



Ray Carney wrote a program note for the theatrical adaptation of Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire, created by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, which played in Amsterdam, Belgium, and the Netherlands in October and November 2006, and will be presented at Harvard University's Loeb Drama Center by the American Repertory Theater from November 25 through December 17, 2006. Click here to read his essay about the film and the dramatic production. You may leave comments about the film or the production on a special blog that has been set up by the American Repertory Theater for this purpose.



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