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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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Hi Ray,

Hope the new year's going well for you.

I just read this wonderful two-part essay on writing and reading by the British author Zadie Smith. Of course she's not just talking about writing. Thought you might be interested.,,1988887,00.html,,1993767,00.html



A note from Ray Carney:

As regular readers of the site already know, I regard Paul Taylor as one of the greatest living American artists, and the dance company he founded and runs, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, as one of the great treasures of American art. For those who are interested and live in or near the New York area, I wanted to mention that every spring the Paul Taylor Dance Company performs at City Center (55th Steet and 7th Avenue) for two or three weeks at the end of February or the beginning of March. This year's season is scheduled for March 2-18, 2007. (I myself always make it a point to attend and will be going to several performances in the final week.) I encourage anyone who wants to know more about Taylor or his company to visit his MySpace page by clicking here. See you at City Center in March!

Subject: John Cassavetes (hint?)

Dear Ray:

I have been watching this 3 hour 25 minute video of a man named Michael Tsarion who spoke some time either in late December 2006 or early this month (January 2007).  Every so often, he'll make a point that, I believe, will resonate with you. If you start at 3 hours 17 minutes and 00 seconds, he makes a super important point.  Sorry to infuse your inbox with this stuff.... he just has says some powerful things that could be used in your classes.

Should you watch it, let me know what you think of this.

Peace and love,

Eric Sazer

Eric is a former student of Ray Carney's.

Carney's reply follows:


Thanks very much, but I can't access video files on my computer. Too old and creaky. It dates back to 1996! (I just took the motherboard out since I was having problems with it and had to replace some chips that were defective and while doing it checked the manufacturing date stamped on it.) Yikes. Yes, it's really that old. Neanderthal in computer years. So it won't stream video or do much of anything except allow me to type my books into it. But I like antiques and my car is even older. You get to be good friends with things you live with that long. Older is always better than newer. You should see my turntable and vinyl record collection. (I vow to be the last person on the planet without a cellphone, an iPod, or a Blackberry.)

I don't have money to buy a new computer right now, but I'm saving my pennies, so maybe some day in the future I can look at the url you sent. Needless to say, I appreciate the info. I'll post the link on the site for others to consult. Thanks very much.

You're so good to stay in touch all these years after graduation. I remember those days like they were yesterday. And you're right to keep your priorities (spiritual priorities, I mean) in order. The world and its values don't matter. Truth is elsewhere. Life is elsewhere. Meaning is elsewhere. They are sure not in newspapers, magazines, television, or corporate board rooms. Get thee behind me, Satan.

Warmest best wishes,

Ray Carney

A note from Ray Carney: I receive at least one request a week to do an interview with someone. Often more than one a week. Sometimes the requests are from print journalists, sometimes from television newscasters, sometimes from students in journalism courses. I turn almost all of them down, often writing a lengthy explanation of the reasons why. The two following requests happened to arrive on the same day. They were both sitting in my email Inbox today. I thought I would share my responses with visitors to the site. The response to the second request, in particular, touches on issues that I feel everyone who gives interviews and every journalist (or student journalist) who requests them should take to heart. How I wish they would. --RC

Hello Dr. Carney, My name is XXXXXX XXXXXX, and I am a Studies in Cinema and Media Culture major at the University of Minnesota. I'm currently in my final semester, and I am doing research for my Honors Thesis on the relationship between film studies and working in the film industry. I am wondering if you will allow me to interview you for my thesis; I would love to hear your opinion on this topic, and would consider it a very valuable resource for film studies majors here at the University of Minnesota. If you would be interested in helping me, please let me know by responding to this e-mail. I would really appreciate the chance to talk to you about my topic and your program. Thank you for your time; I hope to hear from you soon!



RC replies:

Sorry. I feel I have nothing particular to say about this topic that I haven't already said in my previous writing and interviews. You should read (and feel free to quote from) my "Why Art Matters," "Necessary Experiences," "What's Wrong with ..."  and the interview I did that appears in Your Life is a Movie. All of these texts are available for purchase on my web site. (Click here to go to the Bookstore.) Any interview I gave you would only repeat this material, wasting both your time and mine, and repeat it in a less satisfactory form than it is in my writing.

Reading (and by reading I mean deeply pondering, thinking about what you read, slowly and carefully and gradually) is becoming a lost art. Everyone wants to talk, talk, talk, write emails and get quick responses, press the flesh, visit me in my office, surf the internet and see how many citations Google brings up. But no one (or only a precious few) is willing to go to the library and take the time to actually read the books that are sitting there gathering dust. You are denying yourself so much if you don't read. You are denying  yourself real knowledge, real growth, real discovery. Truth is not in an interview with a celebrity. Truth is not in the flash of a fancy phrase in an email. Truth is not indexed by Google.

Please, I implore you, now and forever, to read, read, read. (And if you do, you will find the answers to your questions, I promise you. Far deeper answers, expressed with far more nuance than I could give you in a three-paragraph email response or a ten-minute telephone conversation.) Get my books and the books of others on this subject, and read, read, read.

Best wishes,

Ray Carney

The second letter from the same email Inbox:

Professor Carney,

My name is YYYY YYYYYY. I am a junior at Boston University where I am majoring in journalism. I am writing an article for a class about film festivals, film critique and specifically the Sundance Film Festival. Do you have the opportunity to speak with me about any of the previously stated topics? I am available by phone at YYY-YYY-YYYY or through email at Thank you for your time.



RC replies:
I receive at least one request of this sort per week and am posting this letter on the site for the information of any other journalism students thinking of making a similar request.

You should read my writing. This interview idea is fallacious when you are dealing with someone who has written books that touch on these subjects. It is why journalists do such a poor job of covering things. Interviews are for pinning down deceitful politicians. Interviews are for getting opinions from illiterate, inarticulate celebrities. Interviews are for getting quick and dirty information from victims of emergencies. Interviews are not for presenting and exploring complex ideas. An interview is a terrible way to do that. Interviews are for Philistines. Not for intellectuals. Not for the exchange of important information and perspectives.

Think about what an interview is. Think of how it makes serious things casual and flippant. If you want to know how an opera singer sings, you should listen to a performance, not ask him or her to sing a few notes into your tape recorder. If you want to know what a painter paints like, you should go to a gallery and study his or her paintings--you should spend time over them, not ask for a jotting on a napkin while you are sitting there. If you want to know  what a writer thinks, you should read his or her essays and books and articles, and ponder them, slowly and carefully, not ask him for an interview. This desire for an interview is just a fad, a fashion. And its shallowness would be detected instantly if it were not for the pervasiveness of the slipshod shabby disgracefulness of American journalism.

Of course, it's not really about me anyway. I'm not talking about me and you. If you want to know about film festivals and about Sundance, there are dozens of books and hundreds of essays on this subject. Read them. Read at least three books and ten or fifteen essays  on the subject. Do your research. Take notes as you read the books. Write your agreements or disagreements in the margins. Don't try to take a shortcut by interviewing the authors and asking them to "summarize" their views on this subject. You are just insulting them. You are telling them you don't take the subject seriously enough to actually read about it. I don't care how many people you aspire to interview or how "high ranking" they are. You are wasting your time--and theirs and, ultimately, your reader's. An hour-long interview with Geoffrey Gilmore, the director of the Sundance Film Festival, is not worth one page in any of the best books that have been written about Sundance. Gilmore is not that smart in any case, and anything he said would just be self-serving. Why in the world would you want to interview him -- or me? Do your homework. Research the subject. Don't think you can do it on the cheap if you can only find the right person to talk to. Don't try to do anything on the cheap. It's an American vice. It's what's wrong with our culture. Do it the hard way. Do it the slow way. That's the only way you'll ever do it right.

Your reply may be that none of this was your decision, that this was just an assignment given to you by one of your journalism teachers. If that is the case, so much the worse. It means that he or she understands nothing about excellence or quality. It means that he or she understands nothing about excellence in journalism. It means that he or she is part of the problem of American journalism, part of the superficiality of the American media system.

As far as doing "what your are told" goes--Do you want to be a "good soldier"? Do you want to go through life "just following orders?" Today they are the orders of your teachers. Tomorrow (if you are so lucky -- or damned--as to become a professional journalist) they will be the orders of your editor. If so, when are you ever going to do things right, rather than just do what you are told to do? Will it be easier to tell your editor about the stupidity of an interview assignment he wants you to get (probably with some bubble-brained celebrity or equally shallow politician) once your job is on the line? Once you have a family and a mortgage to pay? Life does not get easier in this respect. It gets harder. When are you going to do things the right way if you can't start now? When are you going to begin to buck the tide of mediocrity and mendacity?

Please give some thought to the values that are being inculcated by any journalism course that places such importance on reading, conducting, or writing-up interviews. Ask that the reason for doing an interview be discussed in class. Ask the teacher to address it as an issue. Ask that the class discuss how interviews dumb things down. Ask that the class discuss how celebrity worship and celebrity suck-up underpin most interview situations. Ask that the class discuss how much less information is contained in an interview than in an essay. Please give some thought to the genuine importance of the profession you aspire to enter, and the genuine shabbiness of its practices. Give some thought to the flash and trash that passes for information and analysis in the media. Give some thought to the need to be first with the news. Give some thought to the focus on action (preferably of the violent or lurid sort) and the downplaying of history and ideas in American journalism. Give some thought to the effects of journalists not taking (and not being given--and not protesting the fact that they are not given) the time to really read and think about a subject in depth, slowly and carefully, but having to produce on incredibly short deadlines. Give some thought to how doing work in a shallow, slipshod way can be a form of immorality. Give some thought to how journalists bear a lot of responsibility for the problems in the world today. Give some thought to how they themselves (and not just the politicians and businessmen) have a lot of blood on their hands.

The insatiable appetite for interviews with a lot of nobodies, who end up saying nothing about anything important is a large part of the problem of what's wrong with journalism today. But it is only part. There is a lot more wrong. A lot. Think about why young people have stopped reading newspapers. Journalists would convince you it is the young people's problem, something wrong with the younger generation. I'm not so sure. Maybe the young people are right. Maybe our newspapers are a joke. Maybe they do tell us nothing that we don't already know. And you can, if you quote me, remove the "maybe" from the last three sentences.

All warmest best wishes.



Subject: an Inquiry


I am a big fan of your writing, theories, and your website, and while i agree (more accurately, I find it hard to disagree) with what you have to say, often I feel as if your more polarizing opinions sometimes may do a disservice to the search for truth in film. I can understand that you want to sway some of the emphasis and attention from the normal paradigm of thought regarding films and filmmaking, but it seems to me that you are sometimes a bit dismissive about certain directors and films, and either gloss over or de-emphasize the shortcomings or failings in the directors and films you praise. This is understandable, of course, as there is so much garbage out there regarding most of the films you harshly criticize, and often so little for those you champion, but if we're headed toward truth, wouldn't a more rounded reading be in order?

I have read your Cassavetes on Cassavetes, and think that in it you presented a very well-rounded and thorough investigation of Cassavetes the man and filmmaker, but when it comes to dissecting his films, you tend to overlook the sometimes mis-firings or indulgences in favor of the larger, overall beneficial and important picture. Again, while i think this is fine, both because I believe Cassavetes strong points far outweigh his failings, and because there is so little out there on Cassavetes that shouting his praises is a dire necessity, I think think that your handling of some of the more traditionally canonical directors is sometimes not nearly as fair. Though I agree with most of your points on Hitchcock, is there nothing to be gained from his films? I realize you never explicitly come out and say that there isn't, and often times offer up the disclaimer 'whatever their other strengths', but i'd be interested to hear your take on the 'strengths' sometime.

I have inlcuded here a passage by the film critic Matt Zoller Seitz from his website “The House Next Door” at In it he offers a pretty good idea of what I'm talking about (particularly the last line which was the inspiration for this e-mail) using Spielberg as a reference point (reacting to a piece by J. Hoberman that was decidedly anti- Spielberg). If you have no interest in this line of films and filmmakers, and no energy for debating them when so much has and is being said already, and while so many other important filmmakers are being neglected, then I suppose there's nothing else to be said, but I think it's a worthwhile enterprise, nonetheless:

"I used to agree that Spielberg is one of those directors whose films demonstrate more engagement with movies than with life, but 22 years after The Color Purple and the emergence of the so-called "serious" Spielberg (as if Duel, Close Encounters and E.T. weren't as serious as, say, A Knife in the Water, Pinocchio and Night of the Hunter?) we're still dealing with this weird resistance to the idea that a popular director can be technically proficient, mostly faithful to conventions, and interested in pleasing and exciting the audience, AND also serious, original, politically and culturally engaged, and ultimately too complicated politically to pigeonhole. And lest I forget, that same director can be brilliant and awful, cloying and sincere, genuinely upsetting and mechanically cruel, sometimes in the same movie. This either/or approach isn't just reductive, it's a dead end. (Armond White's the flip side of it; for him, Spielberg can do no wrong, and even the things about Spielberg that would drive just about anyone crazy are rationalized away as misunderstood aspects of his genius.) Circling back around, though, Hitchcock was absolutely a director about whom one could say, "He knows more of movies than of life, and perhaps cares more for movies than for life," and yet Psycho and Vertigo and even North by Northwest, while overwhelmingly artificial, Movie-Movie creations, have plenty to tell us about life, as seen through movies! (Again, either/or gets us further away from the truth, I think.)"

Thank you for your time, and again, I think you are a wonderful and invaluable resource in the world of art and art criticism, and have nothing but respect for your opinions. Thank you dearly, if for nothing else (and, indeed, for everything else), for Cassavetes on Cassavetes.

Brett G.


RC replies:


I sincerely appreciate the kind words about my work, and, to show my respect, I am printing your entire letter unchanged and unedited to give you a chance to make your point for my readers; but I would respond that what you and Matt Zoller Seitz are saying misconstrues and misunderstands  what I am doing. I completely deny that I am engaging in an artificial, unnecessary, and false categorization of films into "either-or" categories--what's "in" and what's "out," what's "right" and what's "wrong." I don't talk that way, and I don't think that way. What is at stake is a slow, deliberative process of value judgment, a matter of assessing and comparing artistic excellence. I am a critic, teacher, and writer whose job is to celebrate and attempt to understand various forms of artistic excellence and spiritual value. I am personally not really interested in a work's popularity, its budget, its box office potential, or its pop culture resonances. I am interested in studying and celebrating and calling peoples' attention to the best that has been thought and said by artists throughout the ages, the greatest achievements of the human spirit, the supreme artistic expressions of all time. It is absolutely essential that I make judgments about which works I should write and lecture about and direct my students' attention to and which works I can safely remain silent about. Life is short. There is not sufficient time to do everything. Choices are necessary. And,  beyond that, every choice is also an exclusion of something else. Every time a professor announces a course on Hitchcock's films, it is one more time that he or she will NOT be teaching a course on Bresson or Cassavetes, Renoir or DeSica, Dreyer or Kiarostami, Rappaport or Chaplin. Every time a student enrolls in a course on Hitchcock is dozens of hours spent NOT viewing and NOT thinking about work by someone else.

Now Hitchcock clearly needs no defenders. His champions are legion. He is almost universally regarded as one of the greatest geniuses of the art form. His work is taught in hundreds of American college courses to thousands or tens of thousands of students every year. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of books and essays devoted to the importance of his work, discussing every shot, every character, every editing decision.

And I have viewed those films and thought long and hard about them. I have torn them apart and studied them. (Yes, for years and years,I even taught them in film classes, to force myself to look at them carefully and to be forced to formulate my opinions about them.) I have done the research, reading many essays and books about his work. (I included a book by David Sterritt about Hitchcock in the book series I edited for Cambridge University Press.) But, when all is said and done, in the end, I find I disagree with those "Hitchcock is a cinematic master....Hitchcock is one of the great artists of the medium" value judgements. (Just as I disagree with similarly superlative and hyperbolic value judgments about many other "canonical" Hollywood directors, including John Ford, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, the Coen Brothers, Oliver Stone, Woody Allen, and dozens of others taught to college students every year.) I think the books and essays are shallow. I think the teachers who admire the work and teach it every year are shallow. I think Hitchcock's films are shallow. More than that, I find both Hitchcock's work and the writing about it, extremely troubling. His work and the adulation of it is a manifestation of a sickness in our culture and a perversion in our aesthetic judgment. On top of everything else, I am convinced that the cult of Hitchcock has had extremely unfortunate consequences in terms of what it has done to American filmmaking. By holding his work up as an example to imitate, teachers have turned out a generation of empty stylistic virtuosos whose knowledge of filmic devices is a mile wide and understanding and appreciation of life is an inch deep. We have created a generation of little Hitchcocks with as little interest in and knowledge of life as his own.

It would be too boring for me to rehearse the reasons I have given for these judgments. Though they have made me persona non grata with many professors and critics (my views have been much objected to and at times even ridiculed and mocked, including by colleagues I currently teach with), I have not been shy about articulating them. I have not suppressed them. I have cited chapter and verse for my conclusions for decades. I have presented my ideas in classes I teach, in public lectures, in interviews, on this web site (use the search engine to search on the word "kitsch"), and in books and essays.

And, as far as I can tell, I stand entirely alone in saying this. I have never heard a member of the film faculty at UCLA, USC, NYU, Columbia, Wisconsin, or Emory say what I am saying. And you are suggesting that I should not say it? You want to silence the only person who represents this position? You are suggesting that value judgments that are the product of years of studying the limitations of Hitchcock's work are merely a kind of knee-jerk application of an "either-or" sorting of filmmakers into two opposed categories: Gods and Devils? Geniuses and fools? That is a complete misrepresentation of what I have been saying. I am not doing that.

And, since you apparently attribute the view to me, I might add that what I am arguing also has nothing to do with an "engagement with movies more than life," which you seem to attribute to me. I'm not sure what that would mean, but it certainly is not what is wrong with Hitchcock (or Spielberg). What is wrong, what is troubling to me about both filmmakers is the quality and nature of their engagements with life.

They are both makers of "fake art"--what is sometimes called "kitsch." It is the kind of expression that seems terribly "relevant" (in a way Dreyer or Cassavetes may not appear to be) and terrifically "powerful" (in a way that Bresson or Tarkovsky don't appear to be), and that eminently appeals to middlebrow viewers (and middlebrow cultural commentators like Charlie Rose and Terry Gross and the kind of middlebrow writers who review film for most newspapers). That's what kitsch does. It appeals to middlebrows. That's not unique to film, and it's not news in terms of art history. Every era is replete with instances of middle-brow distortions and misappropriations of artistic values. There are hundreds of examples across the centuries of genius-level art (by Mozart, Beethoven, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, etc.) that was neglected (or laughed at) by the middle-class, while the mainstream of the public (and most of the self-appointed cultural spokesmen for public virtue and good taste) panted after fashionable mediocrity. After middle-brow art. That's all that's going on now. The embourgeoisment of criticism. It happens all the time in art history. The triumph of the middle-brow. Read a biography of Beethoven or Emily Dickinson. Read a book about French Impressionism. Read Henry James's late letters. This sort of mistake takes place constantly in art commentary. Artists become popular for all sorts of bogus reasons that seem eminently defensible at the time. A movie about the Holocaust or World War II--My god, who would dare criticize a movie about one of those things? Spielberg knows what to make movies about to appeal to well-meaning middle-class viewers' emotional weaknesses. The real artists never seem able to play that game. Poor silly Tarkovsky was such a fool he never mastered the trick of being "relevant." He was always making movies about things the middle-class didn't seem to care about. What a jerk he was. He sure missed his chance.

But still I wonder why you and Matt Zoller Seitz feel  such an overwhelming need to defend "pop culture" works like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Why this need to defend self-avowed "entertainment"? Don't you see what entertainment does to us and to our culture? Don't you see how we are "entertaining ourselves to death" (as Neil Postman put it)? Forgive me if I say that you really need to think about this subject more deeply. To be charitable, I'll say that it is not really your fault: You and Setiz have been mislead by your teachers. You have not seen what pop culture does to the world and to the people who create and consume it. You really need to ponder the function of pop culture to sedate and distract the members of a democracy and keep them from paying attention to and asking questions about other, more important things that are going on in their lives -- culturally, politically, emotionally, and imaginatively.

Above all, I am puzzled why you and Seitz feel that you need to come to the defense of Spielberg and Hitchcock, two figures who already have so many academic and scholarly and critical defenders? Wouldn't your time be better spent defending someone who actually needs your help? There are many great artists who are desperate for champions. Why don't you try to help them, to save their work from misappreciation? Why don't you write emails to the faculty members at UCLA and NYU who teach and write about Hitchcock and Spielberg and John Ford and Orson Welles year after year after year, and ask them why they can never find a single opportunity to celebrate and teach and write about Cassavetes' films? Why don't you write them and ask why they are not singing the praises of Tarkovsy's work and teaching courses about his films? Or screening and commenting on Bill Viola's work? Or Tom Noonan's? Or Mark Rappaport's? Or Robert Kramer's?

That is what I am doing with my work. I am attempting to celebrate, to defend, to call attention to the work of the neglected, the forgotten, the overlooked artists.There are lots of filmmakers out there, living and dead, who need defenders. Hitchcock and Spielberg are not among them.

All sincere best wishes,


A postscript from Ray Carney: I encourage visitors to the site to weigh in with their own responses to Brett's letter or my reply. I will publish the best ones on the site.



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