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There has been an open thread in the last twenty or so pages of the Mailbag around the topic of "Why are recent American films, even independent films -- whether of the big-budget variety like Sean Penn's Into the Wild, or of the little-budget type like Caveh Zahedi's I am a Sex Addict and Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know -- not emotionally deeper, more searching, and more insightful? Why do almost none of them compare with contemporary European art films -- the works of Abbas Kiarostami, Bela Tarr, Mike Leigh, and Lars von Trier, for example? Why are the American films stylistically so tame, so conservative, so mainstream in their understanding and presentation of experience? Why do recent American independent films not even compare favorably with earlier American independent films like Barbara Loden's Wanda, Mark Rappaport's Scenic Route, Robert Kramer's Milestones, and Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky? Why are they so narcissistic, navel-staring, and limited in their vision of life?" This thread begins on Mailbag page 55 near the bottom and Mailbag page 67 at the top, and continues intermittently from that point up to the present on almost ever other page up through page 90. Magnus Eik, who lives in Norway, recently wrote me adding some thoughts to the mix. I invite responses from other readers. I will publish the most interesting. -- R.C.

Subject: My follow-up on -artists not thinking with their own brains

Firstly, I think their lack of experience, both in life and in art is one of the reasons why these works aren't as profound as older indie or European work. Look at Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood. It's a good work, but there's too much conventionality in it, it's too romantic. The Tarkovsky we will know from later works such as Mirror and The Sacrifice only peeks out every now and then (the scene with the old man and the rooster in the ruined village). In my mind he was a deeper artist with wider knowledge and much freer expressions when he made Andrei Rublev.

Secondly, I think they have made a mistake in limiting themselves so much to acting. They should add more to the mix. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie doesn't only consist of Gazzara's, Cassel's and Carey's performances. It also uses the strange lighting and shadows in the club. It uses the make-up and songs chosen. It uses unusual editing. It has a very confusing plot-line and it doesn't stop to explain what is going on. It uses the texture of the gangers' faces. Similar observations could be made of others' works. Look at the horses, the bottles, the sheets, the floors and the hair in Tarkovsky's. Look at the way he pans over landscapes and at the people walking in and out of shots. Look at the unusual people and buildings we meet in Wanda. Listen to Vig's music in Tarr's films and look at what is going on when it is playing. Look at how patient Tarr is both when he is watching Futaki packing his things and when he is watching the others tearing up their furniture so the gypsies won't be able to use them. Notice the lighting in Dreyer etc.

None of these things should attempt to convey realism, at least in the way that I think of the word. They enlarge the experience. There is now more to pay attention to than an actress' face. There is more texture, more contrast, more subtlety, more sounds, more taste, more thoughts, less room for the same old stuff.

Magnus Eik

PS. I very recently watched (Randy Walker and Jennifer Shainin's) Apart From That and I think it does much of what I am talking about and much more. (A note from Ray Carney: See my brief consideration of it in the independent film festival I curated for Harvard. Click here to go there and then click on the link to Mailbag page 69 at that point to read additional material.) I was speechless, didn't know what to think or feel at times. I also saw Mikey and Nicky. (A note from Ray Carney: This film, and Cassavetes' performance in it, is discussed in my Cassavetes on Cassavetes book.) Wow, I knew about those sides of Cassavetes' personality but the way he acts it out it was completely different. Thinking back on it I also remember what can be done in acting. What is John able to do in that movie which actors in recent movies haven't been able to? Hmm, food for thought.

PPS. My initial comment wasn't really aimed at movies like The Puffy Chair, but at the works of people who actually try to copy Hollywood from top to
toe, never considering the possibility of film as exploration. "Gen Y"-films, while limited, have taken a big imaginative leap ahead of these films.

This just in from Mike Akel:

I just wanted to let you know that CHALK is now out on DVD! TO BUY A COPY CLICK HERE.

Mike Akel
Someday Soon Productions

A note from Ray Carney: To read a blurb I wrote about Chalk, when I programmed it for the Harvard Film Archive, click here, and click on the two other links below the description of the film to read an exchange between Ray Carney and Mike Ackel and an interview with Mike Akel. -- R.C.

Hey Ray

....I just read your post on learning how to read (see the preceding Mailbag page, accessible from the blue page menus at the top and bottom of the page) and it was exactly the kind of thing I needed to read before heading into my literature class tomorrow. Me and the professor are constantly butting heads. Whenever we get to read something more interesting like Chekhov's The Darling or Jewett's A White Heron, he completely simplifies, dilutes or ignores everything that was so carefully put into the work. Can you believe that we're reading Stephen King stories? And I have to present one of them! We read so much garbage that I really can't believe it. Have you read The Demon Lover? That's the kind of thing we study. I don't understand how this kind of thing happens. Whenever I try to get a point in, he cuts me off and gets unnecessarily defensive. And his "discussions" consist of filling in the blanks of the points he wants to make. He's so sure of his understandings of the stories and about everything that he doesn't want a new perspective or something that doesn't match up with his preexisting understanding. I can't see anything being improved upon this semester, but it helps to know that there are other ways of understanding being represented out there.

(name withheld)

RC replies: Take my word for it, if you knew what I know, NOTHING would surprise you; and, indeed, nothing does surprise me. A lot of students would be surprised to learn that their professors got "Cs" in their own classes as undergrads or grad students. Or that, even if they got better grades than that, they were taught all these stupid ways of reading by their professors. Once I became a professor myself, I learned a lot of stuff that I would have never guessed when I was a student. By coincidence, I was just talking to a student in my office about this subject. She had complaints similar to yours about some of the courses she was taking in my College. Well, live and learn. I'll bet doctors and lawyers have the same kind of stories to tell about other doctors and lawyers. Heck, I just realized: look who we elect President in this country. And who he appoints as Vice President and Secretary of Defense, et cetera. Only a fool would believe that just because someone is a teacher (or an elected official) he or she MUST know what they are doing. All the evidence is against it. But keep going in your own direction. The secret of life is not to let this sort of thing get you down or stop you from trying to change the world. As they say: Be the change you want to happen. Get a Ph.D. (like I did) or an M.D. or an L.L.D. or run for office and do it the RIGHT way for a change!!! --R.C.

I loved the piece on reading Shakespeare on page 91. I only wish I could take a Shakespeare class with you and get to hack and chop my way though this other way of reading you mention. Do you recommend Harold Bloom's "how to read and why" by the way? I've seen this title and thought it might be worth investing in time-wise.

And the tango thing just turned my stomach as a follow-up! As if there wasn't a greater violence to be done to something as visceral as DANCE, they had to tack on a brainy-abstract 'purpose' to it. Sheesh. Keep up the letters page! Its a constant source of nourishment and energy!

Matthew Weiss

RC replies:

Quick response: Rabbi Bloom is not the answer. He doesn't understand the nature of linguistic experience that I describe. He never understood it. His mind is devoted to teasing out (i.e. inventing) "themes" and "types" and "issues" and the equivalent to what Northop Frye called "topoi," as ways of attempting to expand the importance of the works he describes. His writing in the 1960s and 1970s did that in one way (the "anxiety of influence," etc.), and his more recent writing does it in another way (Bradleyan character analysis). But, in either case, then and now, his readings stand still. He is a connect-the-dots critic who finds (i.e. makes) static intellectual patterns; not someone who, in the Poirier way, surfs breaking waves of energy. Bloom's great poets and playwrights are "thinkers" not "doers." That sums it up. (Though, to avoid misunderstanding, I should add that I also believe in artists as thinkers, but in a much more complex, temporally engaged way than Bloom understands. The artist is not a formulator of "thoughts" in the Bloom way, but a flowing expression of the shifting activity of thinking, experiencing, and feeling -- on the move, in flux, in process and revision.) Bloom's current status as eminence gris for the New Yorker crowd is an expression of the fashion system, not the wisdom system. He did a lot of damage to Ph.D.s of my generation, and he continues doing it to more recent students. People always prefer ideas and theories to activities and movements; they prefer statements of knowledge to exercises of energy and power. Static forms are much easier to deal with and write about than moving forces. It's the way our brains work. And it's what great literature (and music and dance) exists to shake up.

And if none of this makes sense, read Henry James's The Sacred Fount. It's a textbook presentation of Poirier's sliding, shifting forms of awareness. James dissolves the characters so that it is impossible to treat them as if they were anything other than epiphenomena of consciousness. He melts the experiences and understandings till they ooze and flow before our eyes. It's a three-day pass to the Water World I describe on the preceding Mailbag page. Gushers, geysers, and waterslides galore! What larks!! What a thrilling, inspiring vision of life and art!!! -- R.C.

Subject: Frownland

Hey Ray:

How have you been doing? Over the summer, you were making frequent appearances in my dreams. Don't worry...nothing erotic. You were merely there as a mentor, appareled in fancy bow-ties, guiding me through the spiritual process (whatever process of millions that may be).

So, it appears that you know my elementary school friend, Ronnie Bronstein. I went to his website where his email was listed and then sent him an email. Seconds later, I received a failed delivery status notification. Would you have another email address for him? Should you be uncomfortable sending me his email, you could just forward this email to him.

Cheers mate,
Eric Sazer

Dear Eric,

Ah, Frownland, the film that got the most emotional responses (not all positive of course) at the Harvard screenings. (See my brief discussion of it in the Havard festival listings at this link. And search on the name of the film using the site's search engine for other comments about it.) I was just talking to a student in my office about that. Everybody wants art to be fun, pleasant, entertaining, enjoyable. Where in the world did they get that idea? What lunacy. It would do no good if that's all it was. It would be Ken Burns. All change is emotional. We need to be interrupted, upset, disturbed, disrupted out of our routines. And Ronnie does that. Bravo for him.

I can't imagine why you got the bounce and why he wouldn't want you or anyone else to write him. So unless he asks me to take it off the site, I don't mind giving out his email. Try his first name (ronnie) and last name (bronstein) written without any spaces at That should do the trick. (I give it that way so that the spambots don't pick it up and plague him the way they plague me!!! Yikes and double yikes. As Maxine Andrews of The Andrews Sisters puts it, "Ah, they vex me; they vex me!")



Some news about Larry Kent's work that I share with interested readers:

Subject: Re: Larry Kent films from Canada

Hello again, Professor Carney -- just wanted to update you, that Larry Kent's first film, from 1962, is now doing the festival circuit, with a premiere in Toronto, and playing Vancouver International this week. It then travels down to the North West Film Forum in Seattle where Larry has been chosen as the filmmaker of the year to highlight. They will be showing Larry's first two films, Hastings Street and The Bitter Ash (1963). They are wishing to bring his latest, The Hamster Cage, down to screen in the new year.

I will be shipping you a screener of Hastings Street. Please note that this film was only completed this year because they lost all sound when they filmed it 45 years ago, and thus we had to create a full sound-scape for the film (there was also no shooting script to go off of, so we had to determine the dialogue through old notes, lip-reading and guess-work -- so there are a few synch issues). Most interesting, however, is that the same actors that were in Hastings Street appear in The Hamster Cage -- a full 45 years later, at the beginning and nearing the end of some wildly successful careers. Alan Scarfe, for instance, was 17 in Hastings Street, then went on to be a major force at Stratford for years.

All the best,
Robert French

Subject: learning to read

I liked your latest anecdote about your teacher. (See Mailbag page 91, accessible via the page number menus at the top and bottom of this page.) He reminds me of my own experiences with one teacher in college (of course it had to be in the English Dept, not the Film Dept., right?), a very wise man by the name of Peter Weltner. The consensus from most of the younger or first year students was that he had "opinions" and that his "opinions" of how to approach the texts shouldn't be pushed on them, the students, if they had other "interpretations". His mantra for essays and discussions was "Use nothing but the text." He taught Shakespeare as well, along with American fiction and poetry. We studied words, syntax, rhythms, measures (we often did prose scansion). The way the words and sentences flow one to the other (or don't flow), the way emphases were given to certain words over others and how words and phrases were constantly in a state of flux throughout the work. That is what we focused on: how the language itself brought us the experience, not the plot, characters, historical details, or cultural-studies interpretations. In our class discussions, whenever a student used the words symbol, symbolizes, stands for, represents, I could see poor Peter visibly wince. The most rewarding classes I took in college were his. If I didn't feel like I'd gotten so ripped off with my film degree, I'd say his classes alone were worth the tuition.


RC replies:

Subject: Titanic

Darren --

Hail to Professor Weltner! It's why I sometimes tell the best students (who often come into my office with similar complaints about their film courses) to change their majors to the study of another art. But, as you know, the triumph of the social sciences is pretty complete in the American university. It's hard to get away from cultural studies forms of inquiry, sociological and psychological methods of analysis, and the reduction of narrative works and the characters within them to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ideology -- even in the English or Art Department (though courses in music and dance are just a tad safer from such reductive forms of analysis). So it's every man for himself. Now hear this: All hands on deck; man the intellectual lifeboats -- women, children, and the disabled first. The ship is going down pretty rapidly from leaks just about everywhere.

-- R.C.

This in from the New York Film Festival -- a mixed bag of works, but a couple worth watching.

We are proud to be hosting the 11th Annual Views from the Avant-Garde as part of the New York Film Festival. Please forward the enclosed information to any staff, members, patrons, or others who might be interested in the program. For tickets and further information, please visit

Thanks so much,

Lincoln Center Press Office

This arrived from Mike Gibisser, the writer-director of one of the films I programmed for the Harvard Film Archive Independent Film Festival last summer, Finally, Lillian and Dan. (Click here to read my program note and go to Mailbag pages 64 and 67 to read thoughts about film from Gibisser.) -- R.C.

Subject: been thinking about you


I hope the subject line doesn't frighten you, especially with the recent mention of your consistent presence in someone's dreams over the summer (A note from Ray Carney: Mike comically alludes to a letter a screen or two above this one on this same page) - but alas, it is true, and it is because of a filmmaker named Alexander Kluge.

I was introduced to his work in a class I am taking with the context of an "essay" film, but some of his earlier work (not to imply you are diametically opposed to an essay film) seems like something you might like. Also a collaboratory film he made with Fassbinder and some other filmmakers called - "Germany in Autumn." It deals with the social climate that arose in Germany in response to the kidnapping of Hanns Martin Schleyer, and the subsequent escalation of violence. Its way, though, is very human (or I found it to be very human) and I wanted to send it your say. Some of his earlier work is a bit aggressive - a graphic scene involving an abortion in "the Female Patriot" or "woman patriot" caused quite a rift in class.

Wondering if you were aware of him, and what you thought. Also, I'm attaching an interview with him - says some really good things about revitalizing the way in which films were produced in Germany at the time, and how he saw it as a mistake that they didn't attempt to simultaneously revamp the distribution system. They were making all of these small, challenging works and still had to get the big theaters to play them!

Hope you are well, Ray. Bests. Talk soon,


Subject: touching bases; quick question

Hi Ray - It's Scott Berman, a Cassavetes comrade, just checking in from Copenhagen. FYI, some months ago, I floated the idea of a first/last film screening of Shadows and Love Streams with your contact at the Danish Film Institute. He liked the idea, but I haven't heard more or been in touch with him for some months.

On another topic, I see your mention of a new Cassavetes discovery - I eagerly look forward to its announcement.

I have a quick question for you: I see on amazon that some merchants are offering Love Streams "new" on VHS. I'd love a new copy (as a backup in case something happens to my old one), but would you know if such "new" ones are just knock-offs or low quality copies or what?

In any event, my best wishes to you. I hope you will let me know the next time you find yourself in Copenhagen or Scandinavia.

Sincerely, Scott

RC replies:

Hi, Scott. Of course I remember you -- but how many "friends" I have whom I've never met! Nice to hear from you. Yes, I have several unannounced Cassavetes discoveries, including an autobiographical film written and directed by him that no one knows about, and some other equally interesting stuff. There's always material to be found if you look hard enough and are persistent enough. Look at how they keep making new discoveries about Shakespeare's or Mozart's or Bach's lives and works even hundreds of years later. Let me know if the Danish Film Institute ever shows serious interest. I like a guy over there named Claus Kjaer (if I'm not misspelling it.) He's invited me to do things in the past and is a good all-around fellow.

Of course, I can't say for certain what is being sold on eBay or Amazon in terms of Love Streams, but here is my best guess: The film did so poorly on its initial video release that Canon/MGM/UA were left with hundreds of unopened (unsold) copies in their warehouses. Nobody wanted to rent or buy them during Cassavetes' lifetime. Nobody! So they just sat there for years and years gathering dust. When the warehouse cleared out its unsold and unsellable inventory, they ended up in various third-party hands. The same old VHS copies that were made twenty-five years ago. Still sealed up with cellophane in their original boxes. Those are the copies that show up on the secondary market from time to time. They are decent VHS copies of the original 1983 print of the film as far as I know (I own several of them myself), but of course they are not up to the visual standard of recent high-tech digital video transfers. They date from 1985 or 1986, and are strictly analog. In sum, they are a bit scrappy in their visual and sound quality compared to what could be issued on DVD nowadays. But don't hold your breath for that. It is not going to happen any time soon, as far as I can tell. Gena Rowlands and Al Ruban could make a deal to make it happen any day of the week, but it would cost them a few bucks, and they are apparently not interested in doing anything that won't turn a guaranteed profit. (Nor was Criterion, which is why their Cassavetes set contained less than half of his directing work.) So a DVD release of Love Streams takes it on the chin. Moral: Commercial considerations rule in America, even when it comes to "art film."

All best wishes.

-- R.C.

Subject: Cassavetes


I recently saw HUSBANDS. I now think that there is perhaps some truth in Mike Leigh's statement that there is something tedious in Cassavetes' films. His films seem to be predicated on a presumption that chaos and self-indulgence are a good thing. Characters in his films are self-absorbed and self-focused. There seems to be very little awareness of the reality of other people, little real empathy. I think that Mike Leigh's films depict a more rounded world in that they present 'ordinary' lives and living. Cassavetes is coming from a place of chaos and trauma, but there is more to life than this. Take Leigh's HIGH HOPES or LIFE IS SWEET. Both those films show obsession and adolescent behavior, but they are more balanced in that they are able to show life lived with empathy, understanding, insight and love. Leigh's characters inhabit a relational world. Perhaps the biggest lack in Cassavetes is the understanding and importance of community. I would guess that the majority of those who are attracted to Cassavetes' films are themselves coming from a place of psychic chaos.


Peter Quinn

RC replies:


It may surprise you to hear it, but I agree with you -- in part! Husbands is a powerful lens into Cassavetes' psyche. And it IS narcissistic and ego-ridden. Cassavetes WAS tormented, plagued and, frequently, undone by his own willfulness, self-centeredness, and egoism -- what you call his lack of "empathy." This is the side of Cassavetes that a new book I wrote goes into in a lot of detail. It's an exploration of the soul of the artist, where I discuss how Cassavetes' "demons" shaped his art. But don't look for it in a bookstore. It hasn't been published. Sorry. As a demurrer: it is not fair to either Leigh or Cassavetes to pit them against each other, and expect Homer to be Virgil or Milton to be Shakespeare. They are just different, and vive la différence! That's the way art is. But your general point about Cassavetes is valuable and insightful and should be taken into account by anyone looking at or listening to the incense-burning that takes place on the Charles Kiselyak documentary or the hagiographic commentary on the Criterion disks. They are wrong -- superficial and trite and shallow. (Click here and here to read more of my thoughts about those and other projects. When you omit the demons, you lose sight of the artist.) -- R.C.

P.S. An afterthought: read my reply to the preceding letter (above this on the Mailbag page). The issue you are asking about is dealt with by the autobiographical film written and directed by Cassavetes that I found (but that, at least as of now, I can't announce or show because I am convinced that Gena would immediately sic her lawyers on me and attempt to confiscate, suppress, and possibly destroy it, as she has the first version of Shadows--something I just can't manage financially, since the other battle has already cost me more than I can afford). It is one of the most revealing and unabashedly autobiographical works Cassavetes ever made. It is a genuinely terrifying work, in which John presents both the manic, euphoric, zany side of himself and the troubled, tortured, "chaotic and self-indulgent" (to use your terms) side. That is what makes it so fascinating and important -- and revealing. But it may be a long time until I can go on tour with it. Alas......


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