This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's www.Cassavetes.com on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.
A note from Ray Carney: This page continues the discussion already launched on page 67 of the Mailbag (accessible via the blue page number menus at the top and bottom of this page). I have been inundated by responses from young artists and viewers, and am posting the most interesting, original, and provocative. I will continue this thread as long as there is interest in it, so I would encourage other visitors to the site to begin reading on page 67 of the Mailbag and to weigh in with their own understandings and perspectives. I will publish other responses that I think are worth sharing with site visitors. -- R.C.
Subject: the independent filmmakers dilemma
Ever since your posted e-mail conversation with the young artist puzzled by your reaction to a new independent film called Hannah Take the Stairs, I have taken to thinking about the dilemma facing independent film artists today: how to share a creative and unique vision cinematically with the world. Although I have not seen the film in question, and so cannot react specifically to that example, I do share somewhat the same frustrations your reader has with today's offering of independent works and artists. Even while watching the artists both you and I and other readers of your site admire (Buljalski, Duplass Brothers, Zahedi, etc.) I can't help but feel that their films fall just short of Greatness with a capital G, the sort of stature that, in my mind, cinematic geniuses such as Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer (among others) have achieved. These are the true artistic geniuses of film, but where are such geniuses today? (Easy answer: they are in other countries, not America, but that's another argument entirely). Is it an inability to grapple with the larger and more important issues in the world on a global level, or the inability to get past the emotional and spiritual immaturity of twenty-something life, as your reader suggests? It's possible, but these things don't distract me.
No. The thing these young American filmmakers lack is a solid, distinct, unique, and expressive sense of personal artistic style. A reason for making a film. Most young people decide to make a film simply because they like movies; a failing. There must be a distinct and decisive reason that one must absolutely and undeniably express oneself in the cinematic medium, that what one has to say cannot be said in words, or written at length in a play or novel, or be manifested in a painting or sculpture, or be funneled into a concerto or sonata or whatever else. To make a film, one must have the impression, have come to the realization, have failed to see any other alternative to the fact that the cinematic medium is the absolutely sure and only way they can possibly express what it is they have to say. If that filmmaker can tell someone what sort of film they have made, why they have made it, and what they were trying to say while making it, then they haven't used the medium to its full true artistic capacity. Film is about discovering how to speak the unspeakable. If you can say what your film is in a sentence or two, then you have created a logline. You should make movies for Hollywood.
A literary example. Before William Faulkner wrote fiction, he attempted art (pen-and-ink drawings which he published in his school newspaper) and poetry. His poetry, although not lacking in interesting bits of imagery and phrasing, was far too derivative and even somewhat embarrassing. It took him three or four volumes of poetry, several essays, a handful of drawings, several short stories and three novels before he realized that he could fully utilize, present, and establish his ethos and personal vision through the medium of prose fiction. So he wrote The Sound and the Fury, a novel that achieves greatness not through story, character, plot devices, or social commentary (although it has some great demonstrations of all of those things), but rather achieves greatness by being the sole and unique vision of a gifted artist who has finally found the way in which he could get others to see through his eyes. Faulkner said the germ of the idea for the novel came from a single image he had in his mind. Thus the birth of the novel can be ordered as such: an image came to his mind, and it made him feel a certain way, and he discovered that he wanted to make others feel that same way, see the same image, and not just see it, but really see it, not through their eyes, but through the pondering, wondering gaze of the artist himself. It is that he was successful in this that makes the novel an artistic masterpiece.
Faulkner was able to accomplish this feat through the use of style, something many of the young independents lack, even the "good" ones. Which is why, until they begin to reject standards of cinematic form and the conventions of traditional storytelling, they will always fall short of Faulknerian greatness. Or Shakespearean. Or Ozu-ian. Or Rembrandt-ian. Pick one or supply your own example. (You yourself might prefer "Jamesian.") ;)
De Sica used the camera and his sense of photographic composition and mise-en-scene to create a masterpiece out of Bicycle Thieves. Ozu used his sense of image, space, and pacing to create a masterpiece out of Tokyo Story. Dreyer used his sense of camera movement and framing and sound to create a masterpiece out of Ordet. Each of these filmmakers made the films the way they did because it was the only way to make it. The only way these filmmakers could get their intended audiences to see through their eyes was to film it through their eyes.
(On that subject, why do the independent filmmakers of today insist on using Hollywood techniques to express their personal vision? Is shot-reverse-shot really the way you see a conversation? Is three point lighting really the way you focus on others? Is obeying the 180 degree line something you abide by in your own life? Do you need an establishing shot at all times to tell you where you are? I'm being facetious, of course, speaking in just the strict visual sense, but it's a start for filmmakers -true film lovers-who want to begin to express things their way, not Hollywood's.)
There must be a reason to make a film. Being a cinephile is not a reason. Tell the story you want to tell, with the characters you want to create and love, but tell it your way. If that means, like Faulkner, rejecting one medium in favor of another, so be it (he half-jokingly considered himself a "failed poet" over "successful novelist."). If you cannot express yourself personally and uniquely in a film, if you cannot find a way to say what is fomenting and boiling in the back of your mind and heart in cinematic form, then write a novel, or play an instrument, or volunteer at a non-profit organization, or do anything other than make a film. It would be better than wasting a lot of time, money and energy on something that you were never fit to do.
Anyway, some thoughts.
P.S. I don't mean, of course, that I would like to see young filmmakers go to the other extreme and become all visual flash and cinematic cleverness (in other words, don't be a Tarantino). The flashy, style-over-substance filmmakers are using style to say nothing. The style of the film should always be the means to the ends, not the ends themselves. Filmmakers like this don't have any ambitions to say anything important, they just want to be film festival darlings.
P.P.S..... Thanks for the, as always, stimulating discussion topics!
A note from Ray Carney: Michael Brett sent a response to the above posting about cinematic style. It makes an important point. Style is not just style. Style is a reflection of the complexity of what we are attempting to say. Style is our vision of life. The simple style of some of these films is a sign that they are saying simple things, that they are not being daring enough. Brett argues that the "naturalism" of these films is a safe style, a received and conventional style of presentation, a style that doesn't take enough chances. That means that the filmmaker has nothing really new to say. When the filmmaker attempts more, attempts to say more, to communicate more complexly, to speak more originally, more daringly, and more bravely, Brett's point is that the style of his or her work will have to become more complex and original, more daring and brave, less conventional and safe, less like the style of other films, less like Hollywood style. It is an important point, and one that is possibly illustrated by the originality of Brett's own writing style. Michael's point ties in with the one the one that Darren makes in the preceding letter, when he talks about the stylistic conventionality of most recent indie films and implicitly contrasts it with the radicalism of Cassavetes', Ozu's, and Bresson's styles. The sheer strangeness of their work is an expression of the freshness and individualism of their vision. -- R.C.
the style of the films i think will become more ambitious when the feelings that need to be expressed by that style become more ambitious and that can only happen by stepping outside of your comfort zone and putting yourself into potentially troubling situations. the danger is that success comes and stagnates. one thing we all agree on is that you do learn from failure. anyway naturalism sucks as a strategy for anything, for acting or for art for life...it's severely limited and not necessarily natural at all...i mean even in chekhov the characters go to extremes at times...blowing your brains out is pretty extreme. the problem is it's a pretty safe bet, naturalism, cause at least people can't accuse you of being unreal...but what if dreyer had thought making a film about the passion of joan of arc was pretentious and overly ambitious...marnie is no mabel longhetti...it's not to say she's not interesting but she's no mabel her emotional range is nowhere even close...what's that saying in baseball you can always run in for the ball it's harder to run back...something like that...it'd be really freeing to just see someone try and go all fucking out for a change...
michael brett sheinheit
A note from Ray Carney: I received the following request in the mail and wanted to post it as a courtesy to the filmmaker; however, I have not viewed the film, and therefore cannot personally recommend it. The film opens on Friday, April 13th at the Landmark Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, and the Regal/Edwards Westpark 8, 3755 Alton Parkway, Irvine.
I'd invite readers from Los Angeles to write me and tell me whether it is worth seeing or not, and why they think so. Is this film just another "thriller" or, is it more than that? I will post the most thoughtful responses as part of the ongoing discussion of the questions posed in the above letter and on the previous page: What makes a movie matter--or not? And can art ultimately enrich our lives and deepen our understandings--and how does it do this, or fail to do it? (See the preceding page of the Mailbag and above on this page for statements by me and others on this subject.) --R.C.
Subject: Nothing happens until something moves -Albert Einstein
From: Andrea Arnold
My dear friends,
This is a shameless but gentle note to those of you in the US and those of you with friends in the US to let you know that Red Road opens today.
As you probably know the opening weekend is important to all films and it being Friday the 13th and a small film it will need all its friends.
I know most of you have seen it but if there is anyone you can recommend it to, here is a review someone just send me from The LA Times to give them an idea.
Hope life is good for all of you,
Excerpts for the review in the Los Angeles Times
A gripping story from voyeur's view.
A spellbinding, intelligent thriller that takes its time to get where it's going but is well worth the trip, "Red Road" is the feature debut of British filmmaker Andrea Arnold, who won an Oscar for her short film "Wasp." Part of the Advance Party Concept, a new project from some of the folks who brought us the minimalist Dogma 95, the film is a gritty tour of Glasgow's projects via the all-seeing City Eye surveillance system.
In an Orwellian scheme of closed-circuit television cameras throughout the city, images are beamed to a control center filled with video monitors observed by operators who alert the police to anything that seems amiss.
Jackie, the film's protagonist, works as an operator, watching the large bank of monitors, alternately bemused and intrigued by the mundane transactions that appear.
It's an act of sanctioned voyeurism, and occasionally she witnesses a crime or gets an unexpurgated view of people having sex. From her remote perch she sees the gamut of life and death interactions.....
Jackie is played with bravura simplicity by Katie Dickie, a Scottish TV actor making her film debut. Dickie bears a passing resemblance to a young Helen Mirren and shares her ability to shape a performance through her eyes.....
The Advance Party Concept plans two more films with different writers and directors using the same four primary characters, played by the same actors. Aside from a starting point in Scotland and basic character traits, the writers may take the scripts in any direction. It's an unusual idea, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out, but Arnold has certainly set the bar high for the other filmmakers.
The film will screen with English subtitles to help with the, at times, heavy Scottish accents.
"Red Road." Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.
The following letter about the state of the art of American independent film is from a former student of mine, Dan Jones, who is currently completing his Ph.D. See the top of the preceding Mailbag page, page 67 (accessible via the blue page number links at the top and bottom of this page), and the material at the top of this page, for the beginning of this thread. I invite other readers to send their responses to the question in Dan Jones's subject line, or their disagreements with the judgment implied by the question: Are American independent films immature or not? And why or why not? --R.C.
Subject: why are american films immature?
I thought I would chime in. "Being a cinephile is not a reason [to make movies]." Indeed. That's the first thing they should tell when you start film school. Filmmakers should post that on their wall, their notebooks, their fridge, whatever. I just watched Nolan's Prestige last night, thinking I could enjoy some vacuous entertainment along the lines of Batman Begins. Instead it was pretentious and silly, quasi art house nonsense like Memento. Nolan is a great an example as any of those hot young Solondz, Coppola, PT Anderson, Mendez, Shamalyan types to show what is wrong with our movies. It occurred to me about half way through Prestige that Nolan had seen Tarkovsky's Zerkalo and thought to himself, "this film just needs some intrigue and romance, and it would be great! This film style can really work in the service of a compelling story." Very obnoxious movie! I swear off mainstream movies every time I watch something by one of those directors, but I always end up going back, as if "staying current" with the mainstream I argue against is a necessity.
But I am heading in the wrong direction here. I wanted to add a piece to the conversation. Being a cinephile is not a reason to write about movies either. A colleague of mine approached me about this recently, lamenting a conversation he had just had with another colleague that he thought the revival of cinephillia would be a good thing, while she argued that it was better to subject movies to all the theories of the day. The strang binaries people use to divide their worlds always surprise me. Does it follow from my distrust of critical theory, that I would embrace film buffery? Not in my mind. Surely one can be interested in film art without loving movies. Just like, as Darren suggests, the artist makes movies, because that's the medium with which he or she can work, I think I write about movies, because I am better at viewing them and then explaining them than other arts. My God, how we need movie critics who don't love movies!
And we could use some good critics to tackle the works of the young filmmakers that are loosely the subject of this conversation. I believe I'm coming back to a point I made in an earlier letter to you: we may not be living in the time of the American Tarkovsky or the American Ozu; we may be living across the ocean from Kiarostami, Sokurov and Angelopoulos; but we have plenty of filmmakers here that are worth our attention. We would do well to celebrate their works, because if we don't, the A.O. Scotts and Roger Eberts of the world are going to push them out of the picture to make room for more Nolans.
Also the age disparity seems worth noting. The young Americans aren't on par with Tarkovsky and Ozu, but neither were Tarkovsky and Ozu when they started. Give it time.
Anyway, as I'm finishing up my dis on Tarkovsky, it is my duty to relate everyhting to him, so here are a couple quotes for artists and critics alike. In Temp di Viaggo, Tarkovsky says that the most important bit of advice he has for young filmmakers is, "You should belong to cinema; it should not belong to you."
And from Sculpting in Time: "There are too many temptations on every side: stereotypes, preconceptions, commonplaces, artistic ideas other than one's own. And really it's so easy to shoot a scene beautifully, for effect, for acclaim, but you only have to take one step in that direction and you are lost."
The second quote in particular speaks to why our films are not quite as deep as we would like them to be.
R.C. responds: There is an interesting article in the current issue of Harper's Magazine where Cynthia Ozick argues much the same thing Jones does in his third paragraph. She says many of the problems with the superficiality of American literature and literary taste can be blamed on the reviewers. Specifically, she argues that flashy, word-spinning "reviewers" have replaced careful, intelligent "critics," and that short-form journalistic "reviewing" has replaced thoughtful, philosophical "criticism." In short, the celebration of razzle-dazzle and novelty and topicality have replaced caring about and asking questions about fundamental human values in art.
In fact, I said something very similar to this four or five years ago in an interview that is posted on the site. (Click here to read it.)
Tarkovsky's point at the end of Jones's letter is also worth pondering. It is too easy and tempting to seduce a viewer with "beauty" rather than "truth." Photographic beauty is easy to achieve in film. Too easy. Truth is harder to attain. Truth takes work. Beauty just takes a fog machine and fancy lighting. Beauty is always preferred over truth by viewers and reviewers, because beauty is sweet and consoling. Beauty is not threatening. Truth, in contrast, is disorienting. Truth is bewildering. Truth is upsetting. Truth is controversial. The result is that we have films that look like TV commercials. They are gorgeously lighted, beautifully photographed, marvelously orchestrated, cleverly plotted, entertainingly acted -- and THEY TELL US NOTHING THAT MATTERS. We learn nothing from them. We are not challenged by them. We are not educated by them. We are not inspired by them. We sit there, passive and weak, and the beautiful experience washes over us. That is not art. That is schlock, junk, pop culture, trash. Beauty must become the enemy. The quest for truth--difficulty, challenging, complex truth--is the reason to make a work of art. -- R.C.
A note from Ray Carney: Peter Watkins is one of the most important theorists of the function of the media in contemporary culture. I recommend his writing and his work. -- R.C.
Subject: Peter Watkins on DVD
Tom Russell here. Been a long time. Hope things are well with you.
I don't know if you ever got my DVD. I know it takes you a long time to get to things, so if you did receive it and just haven't had time to watch it, don't sweat it. If you didn't get it, I'll try to send you another one. (Or you could ask Andrew if you could borrow his copy.)
Just thought I'd let you know that a number of Peter Watkins's films are now available on DVD from New Yorker Home Video. The prints they used aren't exactly pristine or anything-- as is (sadly) usually the case with New Yorker-- but a good film is a good film, even if it's a sixteenth generation copy.
They've got Punishment Park, Edvard Munch, and The Gladiators, and probably a few others. I've only seen The Gladiators myself, and it didn't impress me very much personally; I kinda outgrew my fascination with Brecht and his alienation effect sometime ago.
Though I really dug Von Trier's Dogville, which is pretty damn Brechtian. I think the difference was the quality of the ideas and the strength of the writing/acting. Still, I've heard good things about some of Watkins's other films (like Punishment Park) and I'll probably give it a looksie should it find its way into my local library.
Anyway, wanted to let you know that, in case you wanted to update your list of Viewing Recommendations to reflect the DVD status. Again, I hope all is well with you and wish you the best. Let me know if you got that disc or not so I can send another.
"Personality is everything that's false in a human being."-- Sam Shepherd
Dear Mr. Carney
I write you this email for one purpose and one purpose only, to get a greater knowledge of film. I understand that you are an authority on the subject, and I am simply a young man that is trying to reach a higher level of understanding. Knowing that the only way for this to happen, would be to ask questions to people with answers.
First I will tell you a little background information. I am a recent Studio Arts graduate form the University of Massachusetts, Boston. I have lived in Boston my whole life. Mostly what I studied at school was Painting and Photography. I feel being an Art major versus a Film major has helped me a great deal with strategy, writing, visualizing, and just simply thinking outside of the box more. I took a handful of Film/Video courses as well, but it was not until my fourth year at UMB that I realized my real passion was film/video. I have always been interested in the movies. It just did not seem like something that was realistic to strive for at one point in my life. I never thought that I could make movies. I guess I always understood where they come from and how they are made, but I never thought that I had anything specific to say or that anyone would want to hear it. To make a long story short I got past that and have since decided that my goal is to create Films/Videos.
Some friends and I are going to begin doing some video work for BNN (Boston Neighborhood Network). They will supply us with all of the necessary tools to allow us to create whatever our desire is, allowing us complete artistic control. I have several ideas running through my brain. I have some feature length ideas, documentaries, shorts, and experimental ideas. I would like to put my best foot forward, seeing as this is an incredible opportunity. I do not want to screw around like I have with so many other things in the past. I am incredibly series about this.
I have been trying to read as much as possible, view as many first films as possible, and just learn as much as I can. I recently came across your web site on BU.edu and read some of your writings. Some I agreed with, others we differ in opinion. Just yesterday I began to read Rick Schmidt’s Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices; it had your Ten Anti Rule Rules. I have to say that I believe we are on the same page with most of your theory. I am now going to quote a few of your lines and try to express, as well as I can my belief in that specific quote.
“Dare to make a movie about yourself.” I agree with this line whole heartedly. In fact everything I write is myself, even when I create a character or a situation that has to do with someone I know I add more of myself than of that person. What better way to be honest and talk about what you know when you discuss yourself. We are all people and people can relate to honesty and very often people feel the same way I feel.
“…make it deeply true to your honest feelings and beliefs, your genuine doubts and uncertainties, your actual interests and fears. Dare to film what you really are, what you really feel, what you really see around you. Don’t be afraid of being too personal. Your most private emotions, most secret puzzlements, most idiosyncratic obsessions are the only legitimate subject of your art. That’s another lesson the masterworks teach us.” For one I go back to painting more often than I go back to film for inspiration.So much has been done with paint that has yet to be done with film; we can find the next great movement from a Picasso or a Duchamp. The way I began to write for film started off unintentionally. I began to write a journal because I was going through a hard time and the best way for me to get my thoughts and feelings out was to write them down and read them over so I could understand myself. This then transcended to other work I did with paint and photo. Anyways I began to see that I was creating stories, situations, voice over, scenes as much as I was talking about myself and the next natural progression was to put what I was going through at that time into a semi coherent screenplay.
“Your movies should help viewers see things in their lives that they did not realize before they went into it.” I am trying to accomplish this, but I will not know until I accomplish my goal.
“We need figures who are neither good nor bad, neither heroes nor villains, whose motives are impure and mixed. We need films where the drama is not premised on external conflicts, but on internal confusions and ambivalences.” I am finishing up a screenplay about more or less my family that is basically what you state right there. People being people, having trouble with being human.
There are several other quotes I have underlined and feel for their importance. (A note from Ray Carney: To read the complete text of my "Open Letter to Independent Filmmakers" click here. And to read other statements about how and how not to make a movie, click on the links at the top and bottom of the same page.) However, I have to begin to get ready for work. So I will leave you with some questions that I hope you could answer for me whenever you have some free time. The first is what would be some contemporary director’s works that you recommend viewing. You seem to have a strong sense of what you consider to be works of art versus the same old thing. I would like to find new people to view, if you would like to add in some of your all time favorites that would be great. Also if you know any web sites worth checking out for both information as well as possible internships within the field or job opportunities I would greatly appreciate it. I believe that the field I am trying to enter is incredibly hard to get your foot into the door. However, I feel if people see you are passionate about something and that you have drive then they will respond positively. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to creating some form of dialogue.
John Lloyd Skeffington
I appreciate the time and effort it took for you to write your letter to me, but I have to plead that I am too busy to give it the answer it deserves. My web site has answers to most of the questions you ask. Click on the "Viewing Recommendations" blue button in the left menu of most pages for lists of films submitted by site readers. Click on the "Syllabus" heading in the white marquee area at the top of the "About Ray Carney" pages to see what films I show in my courses. Read the last ten or twenty pages of my "Mailbag" section to see snapshot views and reviews of films from the past year or two.
I have answered the same career questions you ask many times over with other readers. They have told me their stories and I have told them mine. Read throughout the "Mailbag" for stories from readers about how they got into filmmaking. Click on this link to read my personal view about a career in the entertainment industry. Read page 57 of the Mailbag for a comical piece about working in Los Angeles.
There are more than 100,000 words of career advice and ideas on the site. I'm sure some of it will be of use.
All best wishes,
A note from Ray Carney: Many readers have been asking about the video clips from the first version of Shadows. They may be viewed by going to Mailbag page 60 (via the blue page number menus at the top or bottom of this page) and scrolling down to the middle of the page. The blue note at that point explains the situation in detail. Three clips are posted: an excerpt from the title sequence; a scene featuring Tony, Lelia, and David at the cocktail party; and a scene featuring Ben, Dennis, Tom, and David on the street. None of these scenes (and many others in the first version of Shadows) is present in the second version of the film. I would ask readers to please ask Gena Rowlands, at any of her public appearances, to drop her denial that "there is no first version of Shadows" and allow me to screen the film for the world. (Click here to read detailed suggestions on what can be done to attempt to persuade Rowlands to make the print available to the public.) -- R.C.