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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: The following replies arrived in response to the work-in-progress essay at the bottom of the preceding Mailbag page (page 97, accessible via the blue page number menus at the top and bottom of each Mailbag page). -- R.C.

Subject: foregoing film

You hit the nail on the head with your latest post about being a writer instead of a filmmaker. My film degree was mostly wasted, as far as my art goes. Sure, it got me a job, but it certainly didn't help me overcome the incredible obstacles and hardships of actually making a feature-length independent work (something that has yet to be realized - if ever). But I laughed when I read that post because I happen to be writing nothing but prose for the time being, having pretty much given up on scripts. I am currently 62,000 words deep into my first novel. It is huge, it is scary, it is probably immature, but I don't care, I can't stop writing it. I simply "adapted" an old feature script I wrote and I was surprised when I realized that this is the way I should've written it in the first place: as a patchwork of character point-of-view, stream-of-consciousness narrations, style and tone, narrative voice, not a hodgepodge of stupid scenes that all jumble together by act three. Good riddance to script formatting. Good riddance to trying to find financing to shoot it. Good riddance to actors flaking out on the shoot when their work schedules conflict. Writing a novel is incredibly liberating (scary and liberating). Your readers and students should know that!

Darren Pardee

Ray Carney at the Sydney Film Festival

RC replies:

Bravo, Darren!

Thanks for being brave enough to admit what you have written. So many young artists bend themselves double in contortions trying to fit their ideas into a three-act, 110-page "screenplay,"and then (even more contortedly) trying to find the right actors and equipment or funding to realize their vision, when they could do it all -- and do it all so much easier and faster -- if they wrote it out as a story or a novel. But somehow it never occurs to them. (It's the cultural brainwashing I talk about --all that stupid propoganda about "the power of the image" and the importance of "visual culture." Like most other things in Time or Newsweek or The New Yorker, it's baloney; it's hokum; it's stupid; it's wrong.)

I can't describe the writing process better than you do in your letter. Writing is both "scary" and "liberating." You know, as difficult as it is to make a film, there's actually something comforting about declaring yourself a "filmmaker." First, it gives you permission to delay, to defer, to put off the creative moment -- it gives you permission NOT to really DO anything, until you get all these other (non-artistic) things done. You can spend all of your time talking about your work. You can convince yourself that you are waiting for your ship to come in, for that great aunt to die and leave you ten thousand dollars to buy equipment. You can forever put off the challenge that way. Beyond that, claiming you are a filmmaker allows you to run away from yourself. After all, filmmaking is a collaborative art. You can surround yourself with a group of people you can depend on to accomplish your work -- a group that 1) allows you to blame THEM (not yourself) for any problems you may have realizing your vision and 2) allows you to feel that you are not alone in the creative struggle. You can always feel that you are working as a TEAM on a GROUP project. And what is the result? You are never really tested as a person. It's like being part of a club. It's not about you and your soul; it's a group effort.

That's bosh. That's not real art. And that's what's different about writing. That's what I meant when I recommended it. Actually sitting down and writing a novel or a story or a play "calls your bluff." If you can't do it, if you keep putting it off, if you do it and it stinks, you have no one to blame but yourself. You have no excuses and no shoulders to cry on if you can't do it or if you meet with problems -- and you have no one else to bail you out if you paint yourself into a corner or make mistakes. Writing precipitates the ultimate existential crisis: Can you do it or can't you? Are you bullshitting or aren't you? Who are you fooling with all your big talk? How good are you? You sit alone in a room with a tablet and have nothing and no one to shift the blame onto. It's you or nothing at all. It's what you have in you and nothing else that matters.

That's one of the reasons writing is not only a great art form, but a great soul-builder. It's put up or shut up. But what joys, what larks, what challenges, what discoveries it offers for the soul and the heart and the mind.

If you ever doubt that, or get discouraged, or it seems impossible to do it, Darren, read Joyce Carol Oates's "Is Laugher Contagious?" or "The Undesirable Table" or "We Were So Worried About You" or "Summer Sweat" or "Physical" or "American Abroad" or "The Goose Girl." Or read Alice Munro's "The Moons of Jupiter" or "Walker Brothers Cowboy" or "A Real Life" or "Chaddeleys and Flemings" or "Dulse." They will show you, if you need convincing, that even ten pages are enough to capture a whole world, a whole universe of human relations. None of these short stories runs more than 20 pages, but in that space, Munro or Oates sat down and, in a day, a week, a month (whatever it took to write each of these amazing stories) did more than ten feature films are able to do. I mean that: more than ten feature films. But they did it the hard way: alone, without the crutch (or excuse) of needing expensive equipment, and without the support (or impediment) of committee decision-making. That's real art. That's real soul-building. That's real deep-diving exploring.

Go, man, go! Keep going, Darren. It matters. And remember what Marianne Moore said: Unless I fill the waste basket with my cross-outs and discards and re-writes, I am working too superficially. (Well, maybe she didn't say that, but it sounds better if I put the words in her mouth than my own!)

Dig deep. Mine for diamonds and gold.

Ray Carney

Dear Professor,

Lots of interesting material on 97, lots to chew on. Your final piece is shocking advice, sure to get intense reactions! One thing surprises me though, you saying that " not to be powerful. It is not to be at the center of twenty-first century culture. It is not to influence multitudes. It is to be irrelevant. It is to waste your time and your life...." How do you reconcile this statement with your earlier comments re: soul-building? Doesn't the thing that truly matters in the end become what you set out to achieve and why you chose to spend your time in this way? Did you learn your soul lessons from the experience? If so, there is no waste of time. If you did it solely to earn money and fame or for any other empty reason, and learn nothing of value from the experience on a soul level, only then would I say you have wasted your time. If your goal is to communicate your uniqueness to others, then the probability of reaching a greater audience is far greater through writing, as you suggest, not film.

And one comment (in relation to your comment on p. 96 - "...a few courageous and principled individuals can make an enormous difference through their words and actions..."): Regardless of what artistic form you choose to express yourself, the measure of your art's greatness may not necessarily be in the number of people who experience it. Your work may only need influence one person on a soul level to change the world in a significant way. To that one right person, your work can cause such a fundamental cataclysm in how they see and relate to the world that they will never be the same.

Thanks, and happy Turkey Day! I'm thankful for you and your work!

John Corander

RC replies:


Let me be clear: I still completely believe in the validity and self-sufficiency of what you call "soul building." That can be done with no following, no audience, and no publicity at all. It stands on its own. I have said that before and I continue stand by it, and I felt that there is no need to repeat it in my statement on page 97. But I am not dealing with that issue in the mini-essay on page 97. I am replying to the view I have heard hundreds of times from students and other young filmmakers that the reason they are in film and are not working in some other medium or form of expression is that "film is the great twentieth-century art form," that "images are more powerful than words," that "the Shakespeare of the present would be a filmmaker not a dramatist," and comparable statements. That is their justification for becoming filmmakers, that is why they have chosen this art, even if they do not know it -- that is to say, even if they don't say these words, they have internalized the view represented by them. Raised on television and the movies, they have (even unconsciously) come to the conclusion that "the visual media" are the great modern modes of human expression. Raised not to read, raised not to respect the power of the word, they look to images to save them and to express their deepest experiences.

This view is not confined to film students. I have heard it from many film department faculty members and have read it in the work of many media critics and reviewers -- namely that we live in a "era of visual literacy" in which "the image is more powerful than the word" and in which "future knowledge will be presented in visual forms," forms "more powerful and influential than books." (Indeed, only last week, with the launch of Amazon's Kindle, I heard several media commentators blithely speculating about the demise of the book altogether. They already were officiating at its funeral, and talking about how it had shrunk in importance in the era of mass media. The novel would, in one commentator's view, potentially go the way of the "poem" -- becoming something only a small, specialized coterie reads and cares about.)

That is the mistaken notion my deliberately polemical and consciously provocative piece is meant to address and rebut.

As I say, on the preceding page, these people -- from students to scholars to media commentators -- have, in effect, been brainwashed by the mass media to believe in a myth created by the mass media to heighten its (in my view, fairly low) status: a myth about the importance and cultural centrality of the mass media. In a word, they have been deceived; they have been lied to. The truth is that the mass media (from journalism to public relations to mass audience filmmaking) are NOT the greatest and most important forms of contemporary expression. Anyone who aspires to go into film, to become a writer-director-filmmaker MUST grapple with this fact -- with the fact that anyone who attempts to do anything REALLY serious, REALLY important in film in America is almost guaranteed to be culturally marginalized and made "irrelevant." And, in the light of that recognition, they would do well to reconsider what they are doing becoming filmmakers, when they could avoid being marginalized, and could wield far greater and more serious cultural power as writers of short stories, novels, and plays.

A filmmaker who hasn't worked through and mastered that unpleasant truth is in for a rude awakening. I hope that is a helpful clarification. To revert to your "soul-building" metaphor: My argument is that that can be done in writing even faster, better, and more deeply than in film. So why the bias among students and young artists against writing or other non-visual forms of expression? Why the feeling that film is the best or only important way to build your soul? Why this trendy, fashionable enslavement to film and the media as the overwhelmingly important art forms of our era?

That is one of my main points. (My other points have to do with the recalcitrance of the medium of filmmaking in itself and with the compromises forced on a collaborative, commercial art form, but I will not repeat them here.)

I continue to invite reader response and comment.


Subject: Re: A Modest Proposal

Dear Ray,

I just finished reading through page 97 of your "Mailbag." What a fascinating mix of letters! I was particularly struck by your "modest proposal." I would like to build on it, if I may, through examples from my own life as well as some observations.

I spent my teenage years in San Francisco in the late '60s and early '70s. Being a kid was a lot different then. We didn't have schedules imposed on us by overbearing adults. We came home from school and did what we did. There were lots of garage bands. Many of us wrote, or drew or both. Everyone had a Super 8 movie camera around and we made lots of films. Most of it just goofing but some of it was actually interesting. The point is that no one had a reason NOT to do something. We just got on with it.

It was a fascinating time. There was no file sharing so you actually had to go over to someone's house to hear their records. I was the first kid I know who had the Beatle's White Album because my father knew a promoter who gave me a copy. You couldn't get into our apartment for kids for several weeks - all listening to the music. There were no videotapes or DVDs but there were cinemas. Like the Times which was just a few blocks from where I lived in North Beach. They had a different double feature every day for a buck. Everything from Chaplin to Antonioni. I practically lived there. Also nearby was the Canyon Cinema Coop . The San Francisco Art Institute had regular screenings of student work. And there were cinemas all over the city which would have retrospectives of everything imaginable.

It was how I was introduced to the films of De Sica, Bergman, early Hitchcock, Ozu, Fellini, Lang (I still remember seeing "Testament of Doctor Mabuse" for the first time at "The Nocturnal Dream Show" which also featured occasional performances by "The Cockettes," a uniquely San Francisco experience), Godard, Bunuel and so many others. I can't tell you how many photographers of a "certain age" I've know over the years who decided to follow their muse because they saw Antonioni's "Blow Up" when they were young.

I'm sure this was an experience that one could find in New York or Chicago or any other city of size in the country. The thing is that one could access these films - in actual cinemas - fairly easily. Sure, you had to wait until someone decided to show them - but they did. And there you were, with 40 or 50 like-minded people making these wonderful discoveries. Which invariably led to conversations over cappuccinos (yes, we had those before Starbucks) about what we had just seen.

And film seemed to exist in a continuum - sure, there was James Bond and "Sound of Music" and "Our Man Flint" - but you could also see a film like "5 Easy Pieces" in your local theater and feel like the torch was still lit and burning brightly.

This isn't intended to be a trip down memory lane. Clearly things aren't like that anymore. Perhaps in some way the web can provide community - even if only a pale reflection - in a form we haven't seen in a long while.

For all the new technology, and the new ways of distribution art still comes down to the same thing: an individual with a vision and a burning need to realize it. The problem is that film making in particular lends itself to a unique form of artistic procrastination - the need to "assemble" all the important parts before the actual creation can begin. And because film making is so complex this is an excuse one can use forever - allowing the procrastinator to wear the title of "filmmaker" without ever having actually made a film.

I have no truck with people who do this. Artists are artists because they have to be. I've known many artists who lead tormented lives and envy those who have normal jobs and lives, as I'm sure have you. So anyone who is waiting to create something because they don't have their 35mm adapter or they need a different microphone or they're just waiting until the new Panasonic MegaZap 3000 comes out either has nothing to say or is, apropos of an earlier communication, squandering their life.

If you have to create, you work with the tools you have. If the only tools you have are a pencil and a pad of paper - you write. Do you know any filmmakers who don't write? I'm sure there are some but I don't know them. Writing is a wonderful way to experiment with ideas, to play with relationships and people, to experience creating a world using only the imagination. There's no gear required, no actors, no locations. Nothing to separate the creator from the creation.

Even in my darkest ad days I wrote. I've always loved to write. I do many other things as well - earn a living, take care of my son, work on more technically involved art - but I always come back to writing. I write what I like when it occurs to me. Here are a few examples:

And one I wrote when my wife was pregnant:

I'm not suggesting that these stories are great literature. They are not. But they have given me the opportunity to play with ideas that intrigue me.

Another thing I like about writing is that it allows one to keep the artistic fires burning between other projects. One can't always be out shooting movies. Apart from anything else, whether or not one is independently wealthy it's expensive - financially, emotionally and intellectually - even in today's world of affordable technology. Writing, I think, allows one to keep the artistic sensibility tuned and strong and ready to go to work. And most of all, it allows one to CREATE wherever and whenever - and that is what it's all about.

An artist is a creator. An artist makes things. Sometimes they are movies. Sometimes they are short stories or novels or poems. Or music or drawings or... the list goes on. John Lennon was a musician. He also wrote and drew. Was he as good at those things as he was at being a musician? It doesn't matter. The point is that he did it. The ideas need expression. When one doesn't give them form, after a while they go away. And it is devilishly hard to get them to come back.

So yes, write. For an artist the act of creation is the act of becoming. The more one creates, the more one becomes. The artist who does not create is a tragic figure indeed. Like a child who is stillborn.

Thanks for allowing me to ramble, Ray. I hope you can make some sense out of all this.



Subject: Your Modest Proposal

Dear Prof. Carney:

Tom Russell here. I was kicking around your site again for the first time in a long while, and I came across your Modest Proposal, that DIY filmmakers try their hand at writing instead. And that got me thinking about the other arts, and about the appeal of filmmaking to me. (I'll try to be brief.)

It's true that the all the arts are interrelated, that they all dance together and share a lot of common ground. But the thing that makes each art form unique are the qualities that one art form possesses that another does not. A painting can evoke mood and thought, but since it tends to be one piece existing in space, its impact is very concentrated and it's not really as good a form for a journey, be it emotional, intellectual, et cetera.

Music, on the other hand, moves through time, and over the course of a piece can take the listener into many strange new places deep inside themselves. Both these forms can make you think, can make you feel, can touch you and love you and hurt you, but they do it in very different ways.

One is not necessarily superior to another in general terms, just as a haiku is not inferior, in theory, to a hundred sonnets. (And, granted, the only thing absolute when talking about artforms is that there are no absolutes: paintings can be huge and dwarf the viewer, while musical compositions can be just a few scant notes long.)

The written word, in all its myriad forms, is good at many things. Precise writing can be extremely evocative, a sentence can be revealing or oblique or in earnest. A novelist can plunge deep into someone's thoughts for hundreds of words; trying to get a similiar effect in film is frankly uncinematic.

But words will always exist in exact form. While there might be myriad shadings to a sentence like "It was a dark and stormy night", those words will always be the same and never change. But a flash of lightning, a rumble of thunder, the pitter-patter of rain against a man's face, can mean a thousand different things. The meaning is never tied down and so with film you have the same sort of multivariate expression you get with a painting or music.

What's more, film requires no adverbs: the actor's tone of voice and twitch of an eye are far more subtle than any writer's clumsy attempts to capture such minute detail.

And again, I'm not saying that this makes prose inferior to film or vice-versa, just that they're better at different things with some overlap. Great authors don't try to describe every facial twitch: they find other ways to burrow their work into the brains of their audience.

Personally, I've done considerable work both in prose and film. And music for that matter. And video games.

As I've often heard actors when discussing the difference between the stage and the screen, the two forms re-energize one another. It's been three years between my last film and the one I'm finishing up; in the mean time, I was writing and composing and programming. (And running for office. Word of advice: if you're social anxious, don't run for office.)

In the end though, if I had to choose one, I'd choose filmmaking because it's a collaborative one. Filmmakers don't work with images and sounds or even sculpt in time; filmmakers work with people, with life, with souls! And afterwards, that film is a Living Thing with an intelligence and personality all its own.

Socially anxious I may be, I greatly enjoy working with other people on a film-- something I wouldn't be able to do (and in fact would not be able to stand!) working in prose. I like the spontaniety of it, and I like shaping something from that process. Writing words is too solitary.

I still enjoy doing it, though, and I still do it between films.

My point isn't that your advice is wrong, per se, but that for many people I know, the appeal of filmmaking is the "shackles" of all "the limitations and cumbersomeness of equipment and filmmaking methods, cameras, sets, costumes, lighting problems, sound issues, and multiple set-ups that break every conversation into tiny pieces."

Or, to put it in completely and irredeemably dirty terms, writing is a bit like masturbation and filmmaking is a bit like sex. There are certain things masturbation can do well-- really well!-- but there's a certain appeal to sex with another actual person (or, to really carry the metaphor far, persons) that even the greatest masturbation can't match.

Is filmmaking more expensive? Yes. But is it prohibitively so? The film my wife and I are wrapping up cost us a grand total of $400.*

[*-- We bought a camera some years ago, and so we don't count it in the production costs of every film we make. If we counted it in this one, that would bring it up to around $2500 total, which is still not insurmountable.]

The point is, even if we're out a little bit of money and no one ever sees it but us-- we've done it and we've enjoyed doing it. And I don't think that makes it or us "irrelevant", or that it's a waste of our time and money and effort.

It's not a waste because it has meaning for us, because the experience of it was worth the trouble. I mean, throwing a big party or going for a weekend drive or having a big wedding doesn't change the world, and no one else in the world might ever know about it-- but it still counts, it's still relevant and it's still worth experiencing.

Joe Swanberg once told me that he makes movies because he loves making movies. And I got to hand it to him-- when I was feeling doubtful and irrelevant and pointless and worthless, those words meant an awful lot and got me and my wife back into filmmaking. We make films because we love doing it, and at $300-400 a pop we can afford to do it.

If someone else ever sees it, that's great. If we can make some money from it, hey, that's even better. But if not, ah well.

Life isn't about being important or having your name remembered. There are thousands, millions, billions! of names that will be lost to the mindless teeth of history: fathers, plumbers, retirees tending to a small backyard garden. But they're all relevant.

In the end, and in the words of a great man, "All that matters is the love we give to those in the fifty-foot circle around us." Even art takes second place to that.

And I want to add before I close that while I feel fairly strongly about all the seemingly-contradictory notions and opinions expressed herein, I don't feel so strongly about any of them that I embrace them with polemic fervor. These words of mine are meant to continue and add to the discussion, not to end it. All these things are true and all of them are wrong, in their own way.

Best Wishes,

Tom Russell


And I'd like to add one more thing: the main reason why I do much of anything, besides because I like to do it, is because the work of art itself gives me pleasure if it's any good. When I'm old and decrepit, I can read some of my fiction, play one of my games, watch one of my movies. And I can smile because I have a sense of accomplishment.

Art is both eternal and transient. Maybe someday the unseen films of some lifelong frustrated failed filmmaker will come to light, and then he won't be a failure anymore. Or maybe someday people will forget who Alfred Hitchcock is (hell, they've already forgot Anatole Litvak and King Vidor!), and his films will be lost for all time. Even great works of art don't always endure, but are rather lost to time and decay. Success is the least important reason to try and make something.

Tom Russell

Tom--See my reply to John's letter higher up on this page. It addresses some of your points, many of which I agree with of course. Best wishes to you -- R.C.

Dear Prof. Carney,

I wanted to comment on your statement on Mailbag page 98 (see higher up on this page) that "images are more powerful than words" and that "..raised on television and the movies, they (film students) have ... come to the conclusion that "the visual media" are the great modern modes of human expression. Raised not to read, raised not to respect the power of the word, they look to images to save them and to express their deepest experiences."

You're really onto something here. I've been thinking about this a lot. There really is something about the power of images and the readiness of young people in our culture to accept images as their way of understanding life. They vote for politicians on the basis of images. They buy products (Ipods, Iphones, computers, and clothing) on the basis of images. They pick their girlfriends and boyfriends on the basis of images. They choose their music on the basis of images. They dress on the basis of images. And it's all superficial. It's a trivial way of understanding. Words are so much deeper. Words tell us things that images never can.

What scares me the most about the shift in emphasis to the power of images is that images have great potential for brainwashing and manipulation, as well as abuse by those in power. Look at political ads, re: Dukakis's Willie Horton and Kerry's "swift-boating" canards. They lost the elections because of images. It is very difficult to overcome falsehoods that are couched in the form of images, even after lies are revealed, but extremely effective in swaying voters. Look at soft-porn being used to sell "Hardy's" hamburgers. What does a sexy, scantily-clad blonde provocatively crawling on her hands and knees and ripping a bite out of a hamburger have to do with a hamburger? While I'm at it, I might as well mention sex sells, that's why. And not to mention the fact that subliminal messages can be implanted within the film frames that go undetected by the conscious mind but are absorbed by the subconscious mind. I wouldn't be at all surprised that some of that is going on in our culture and our commercials we're bombarded with non-stop every second of every day even though it's highly unethical. Do we even have business ethics anymore? Visual images (hidden or not) are powerful forces that can be and are used to manipulate people. I trust very little I see any more. I'd be interested in hearing what Arthur Vibert or some of your filmmakers have to say about the use and/or abuse of the power of images.

Let me visualize my own images! At least I can trust the purity of that experience. Oh, and did I tell you? I also strenuously object to being emotionally manipulated by music and sound effects! And the adman's or newscaster's "voice" calculated to achieve maximum effect, etc. Give me a book any day of the week, that way I only have one possible level of manipulation to deal with.

Joan Micropolis

P.S. It was a liberal arts education in psychology and sociology that taught me how to be critical of advertising and skeptical of manipulation by the media, politicians, etc.. I will be forever grateful to my professors for arming me with the education to be able to think for myself, and to recognize when someone is trying to take that intellectual freedom away from me. What are our universities for if not for that? What would we be without the ability to think critically and speak out about what's wrong about the world to make it a better place?

RC replies: Thank you, Joan. I couldn't have said it better. And yet this shift away from a verbal to a visual presentation of experience is what film schools and media scholars are uncritically praising! We need to have courses in our television and film programs that CRITIQUE images. We need more courses that study the lamentable intellectual consequences of the diminishment of the power of the word in contemporary culture. I call on the teachers in my own department of film and televison to do this. I call on the teachers in the journalism and mass communication and public relations departments in my college to do this. How many courses we have extolling, elevating, celebrating the power of the image -- and how few that understand and communicate the danger, the loss of understanding, the simplification that image culture embodies. Thank you, Joan, for your contribution to the debate about the abuse of the celebration of media culture in the university and elsewhere. Filmmakers beware!

P.S. (in response to yours!): Yes, yes, yes to your P.S.. And one more reason to study literature and drama and writing and other arts -- rather than spend your college years learning how to load a camera and light a scene! You will be getting a liberal education that can teach you to think critically, historically, contextually. America would be transformed tomorrow if the population suddenly learned how to think. (Heck, many academics in my acquaintance haven't mastered THAT skill. Ask me about it over a beer some day.) Critical thinking is central to democratic decision-making, and is at the heart of fighting the simplification and sentimentalization of the "image culture." You go, girl! Keep thinking critically.

A note from Ray Carney: I invite additional responses to the piece on the bottom of Mailbag 97 from other readers. The following letter takes up another topic.

A note from Ray Carney: The following letter points out an important problem about most college screenwriting classes. These courses mimic the "factory production" methods of the Hollywood studios and miss the opportunities that a filmmaker like Rob Nilsson shows are possible when the writing, the acting, and the directing are enmeshed. They mimic the values of commercial filmmaking (three-act structure, backgrounding, clarity, conflict and resolution, and all of the other nonsense) and largely ignore genuinely artistic values and forms of expression. (See the first paragraph of the final reply on Mailbag page 96 for a related thought.) Since this letter is from a current Boston University film student, I have withheld her name to avoid retribution or any other negative consequences.-- R.C.

Subject: Thanks

Hi Prof. Carney,

It was good to see you again at the Rob Nilsson screenings. You know, if it wasn't for your mentioning him on the site, I probably would never have heard of him. Thanks. So much for appreciation of real independent filmmakers these days.

Nilsson's films really intrigue me because of the deep connection between the "script" and the film itself. What I mean is, he works directly and intimately with his actors with complete creative control from start to finish.

In my screenwriting class, I feel a complete disconnect between the script I'm writing and the potential film. Everything is treated like words on a page and then of course, in reality, so many scripts just get sold off to some director and they no longer belong to the person who came up with the idea in the first place! It's pretty frustrating because then in production classes we're not guided or practicing how to come up with a creative idea at all. That's just left to our own devices while we focus on avoiding jump cuts, lighting, focus, etc. A complete disconnect!

I think I mentioned earlier that I'm interested in documentaries as what I want to work in, but I'm not going to limit myself. Hopefully I'll get the chance to see Nilsson's Direct Action process.

Thanks again for recommending interesting filmmakers. I believe HFA (the Harvard Film Archive) is going to have a free screening of an Ozu film soon and I'm sure I'll be blown away by that as well.

Take care,

(name withheld)

A note from Ray Carney: And now for something completely different department: A different perspective on art and life:

Subject: i dislike this crap

i dislike this crap

michael bay's transformers isn't any less profound than Gertrud and julien donkey-boy. There is better music in "Dragon Quest IV" than in any tarkovsky movie

film culture is a bunch of snobs. i hate them all.... Film critics are a bunch of cold fish. They only find their love and emotions on the big screen. Their handshakes are icy. I hate them. They don't understand the beauty in movies like Liquid Sky or Thief of Bagdad or just at the store in the mall, they have to find beauty when it's 2D on film. Even if it's on digital video, if it's on Youtube, oh no, something impure and unholy about that! a billion creative things on youtube uploaded everybody, but it's not good because it's not celluloid and it's not by an important artist that is french, jewish, black or a woman. . I hate them all. They are all the same. They have no taste. ,They have no understand. All film critics are crap. So is Werner Herzog. He has no talent and never did. He stole his first movie camera and made that shit Aguirre the wrath of god which is overrated. I have over a dozen of his movies on DVD and they stink. Fassbinder is overrated too.

Matthew Dickinson

A letter from a reader who has identified herself to me in past emails as a pianist, but the questions she asks apply to all arts. I withhold her name at her request. I invite reader responses and will publish the most thoughtful. - R.C.

Subject: Question re: form


I have a few questions for you regarding form, stemming from Arthur Vibert's comments to you about the predictability of the three-act structure, the "hero's journey" in film. You can apply my question to any of the arts. A while back, you were kind enough to give me feedback on my poetry. You said that once you set up a certain form at the beginning, you, as the author, were entering into a "contract" of sorts with your reader. An expectation that you would adhere to that form throughout your work. Blank verse would remain blank verse, iambic pentameter would remain iambic pentameter, etc. throughout. If you break that contract with the reader, the reader feels violated. Yet one can remain perfectly true to the form, and be absent of any drama.

I also recall taking a class years ago in short story writing. My teacher talked about the importance of foreshadowing. Some elements didn't lead to anything, and were simply to give the story "flair," while others pointed to what was coming. So that the reader would feel satisfied when a certain thing inevitably occurred based on what led up to it. Learning this "trick" was vital to good writing. Ever since I learned that trick, I could predict the outcome of any movie. And, like Arthur, discovered that mainstream movies became boring once I knew what the form was, eg. drama, comedy, thriller, etc.

My questions for you: How does an artist know when he or she has gone too far with blurring the lines of their chosen form? Is this based on an inner knowingness of what "works," and what doesn't? Is this like holding a beat for that extra pause without breaking the rhythm? Creating exhilaration and anticipation rather than a feeling of betrayal and disappointment? A Paul Taylor dancer flying in a great leap into the arms of another, a Pavorotti extending his " vin-cer-o" till your heart almost breaks with longing, an Art Tatum playing riff after riff on the keyboard till Fats Waller exclaimed that surely God was in the house? At what point does artistic (or poetic or dramatic) license break down within a form? And when does a work of art break free completely to become a new form, eg. jazz? It seems to me that without any "blur" or tension, any work is too predictable and boring. You've mentioned peering into the abyss several times on your site, I guess in thinking about it, that would be my test, and my answer to my own question. A work of art is anything that allows me to enter that other dimension, to peer into the great abyss, the unknown, if only for a brief moment. That moment must have its own integrity within the work. It has to be true within the creation, yet still not be manipulative in any way. It must create a sense of awe and wonder. Ah, I suppose now I'm back to a certain sense of predictable in its own integrity, yet not predictable at the same time. Surfing the flux, the blur. Is this what you mean by the pragmatic aesthetic? Or am I misunderstanding it?

Or to put it in a slightly different way: How long do you hold the closing note of the Moonlight Sonata? Can this be learned or is it something that only the performer can know -- when is that right moment to let go? What elevates that letting go to artistry? Is it about creating the drama? The not-knowingness of what will happen and when?

"Mystical mumbo-jumbo department" Every time I think I am exaggerating the sad state of academic film appreciation in America, someone sends me something that exceeds my direst and most dyspeptic vision. As a case in point, the following course description arrived in my email in-box a few minutes ago: a chance to spend an entire semester studying "one of the greatest achievements in the history of film" in the N.Y.U. Cinema Studies program. And I'm sure students are fighting to get in. A snapshot in the year 2007 of a new generation of "visual stylistics" professors and "Hitchcock-wannabe" filmmakers in the making. -- R.C.

Advanced Seminar: Vertigo

H72.0700 Seminar 4 Credits
Instructor(s): Richard Allen

This seminar will provide the opportunity for advanced undergraduates to study an individual film in great depth. Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) is widely perceived as one of the greatest achievements in the history of film. It has had an enormous influence on the work of other film-makers as well as being the subject of countless critical articles. The seminar will approach Vertigo in several ways: By examining the cultural origins of Vertigo as a work in the romantic idiom through study of the work of romantic poets such as John Keats, Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, and writings of the fin de siecle such as Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray; by examining the film in relationship to Hitchcock's oeuvre as whole, but with particular attention to Rebecca (1940) (and the influence of du Maurier), and Rear Window (1954); through close study of the forms and structures of the text, including its transformation of the source novel by Boileau and Narcejac, D'Entre les Morts; and by examining the influence of Vertigo on films ranging from Jordan's The Crying Game and De Palma's Body Double, to Lynch's Blue Velvet. Course requirements will be a group project of close film analysis and a final, longer research paper.


Though I cringe at the silly inclusion of Fred Astaire's daughter in the proceedings (an all too typical unscholarly ploy to drum up publicity and audience interest), the following conference may still be of interest. -- R.C.

Subject: Fred Astaire Conference

Dear Dr. Carney,

It gives us great pleasure to advise you of an exciting forthcoming event at Oxford University--a three-day conference devoted to the lifetime artistic achievement of Fred Astaire.

A website explaining the scope and objectives of the Conference in greater detail is available at

The conference will take place June 21 through 24, 2008. It is intended to permit a serious and comprehensive analysis of Astaire's immense contribution to the advancement of the performing arts in the twentieth century (but also to be a lot of fun). Fred Astaire's daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie, has graciously agreed to participate. Other distinguished speakers at the Conference will include John Mueller, Larry Billman, and Ken Barnes.

We would be most grateful if you could circulate this announcement within your department and forward it to anyone else you think may be interested. We also will be very pleased to provide any additional information you may desire, including our flyer (but we've found that as an attachment it tends to snag in filters).

Truly yours,
Chris Bamberger
Kathleen Riley

Dear Prof. Carney,

First off I want to say how excited I am to attend the school you teach at. I've been visiting your website periodically since I met you very briefly at your HFA (Harvard Film Archive, Independent Film) series last summer (it's been going at a bit of an exponential rate, with a big surge last oct/nov). You are an invaluable voice to a community that has been brainwashed and desperately needs you. It's so refreshing to see film criticism that doesn't rely on empty superlatives like "masterpiece" and "classic" for the entirety of the piece. You have awakened me to feelings I was not fully aware of and could not express, and exposed me to new ideas I await to explore.

Anyways, I'm writing to you after reading your essay on aesthetic pragmatism (the one that discusses casablanca/psycho/rules of the game). You articulate your argument so eloquently, describing exactly what makes watching a Cassavetes more richer experience than a film that nurses the viewer along, employing editing techniques, camera angles, and falsely-revealing dialogue to make a point that the viewer is told to accept. (We are TOLD that Kane's relationship with his wife deteriorates when we see them in the same shot at the dinner table, and then they appear in separate shots, their dialogue interspersed with cutting.) I'm curious though, once you remove these artifices, what becomes of the "language of film" we were told about in our film classes? Many artists like to be able to pinpoint exactly why a work of art needs to be of the kind that it is - why does this novel NEED to be a novel, and why does this film NEED to be a film? The most common response to these questions would be, "look at the words and the use of the english language," or "look at it's use of the the camera to tell a story." Is the language of film by definition exploitive? What is the "language" of a pragmatist work? Are there defining stylistic characteristics to a film that grants freedom to the viewer, allowing them to "skate the surfaces of reality"? Surely there must be more than a "rawness," or however appealing that quality may be to those of us who are tired seeing polished, readymade Hollywood blockbusters. Peripherally, I suppose this question is my best answer to the question you recently posed in your mailbag - artists have to love art (right?), and filmmakers love the language of film, however they choose to speak that language.

I hope that I could meet with you sometime in the near future to chat- up; I e-mailed you a few weeks ago inquiring about your upcoming lit- adap. class; unfortunately I still have some requirements I have to get out of the way that interfere with your three courses (though there's always next year, or if the planets align, the summer, perhaps?).




Come see me in my office hours! The language of film can be many things, many different ways of speaking, and it is open-ended, undefined, not finished, and always being re-invented. It is not necessary about flashy camerawork and Hitchcockian stylistics. Look at the great films (not Vertigo and Rear Window and Blue Velvet and Body Double-- the films celebrated and taught to the next generation of students in the N.Y.U. seminar I give the description of above -- what junk those movies are -- but the really great films) and they are, for us here and now, the language of film. As to the search for an "essentially cinematic" language or for what is uniquely "filmic" about film -- that is a fallacy. There is no such thing. Just as there is no such quality to drama or dance or painting or sculpture. It was an attempt by film scholars back in the 1960s and 1970s to legitimize their poor-relation, ghetto-dwelling art. They made up the "cinematic" quality. It's a logical fallacy, no matter how many film teachers are still laboring under it.

- R.C.

Subject: Love Streams

Hey-Happy thanksgiving. I got to see a lot of films this week. I saw "Love streams" at BAM on Monday. Fairly well attended screening. What do you make of the young bearded man sitting next to a laughing John at end of the film? Who is that guy supposed to be? Jesus? His next incarnation? Shakespeare? So weird! Maybe I remembered the film differently from BU. Wasn't he waving doobye at the end of the film in the version you showed us. I really loved the film, but need to see it several more times before I feel like I can write anything about it. The same goes for Haynes' "I'm not there". I saw the first screening at Film Forum on Wednesday at 1 PM. Lines around the block. I guess the fact that the topic is Bob Dylan makes the film appealing for New Yorkers. I loved the movie and am excited to see it again. Lots of interestingly crafted sceens. He really is a genuis filmmaker. It is hard to put into words, but he creates thes moments that are just perfect somehow in design and Cate Blanchet is rather remarkable in her role. The same day I also got to see Crispin Glover in person at the IFC present his film "It is fine. Everything is fine" along with readings from eight of his books (William Blake meets Bruce Conner). The movie threw me for a loop. I didn't know how to react to the main character who one can barely understand, but it totally won me over and I think there are some profound secrets buried in there. His Q & A was great after the film and only made me like Glover even more. I hope he makes many more films, which it sounds like he is doing. And lastly, a guilty pleasure, I went to Beowulf 3D and I have to admit I love 3D--what cool possiblities. Hope you had a nice thanksgiving,


Raymund Cruz wrote a response to my posting on page 97. I share it with site readers to illustrate a point I make often: We are not alone. Each of us is working in his or her own way to find and express it our personal truths. It is an uphill struggle, but the only one that really matters. -- R.C.

Prof. Ray,

Thank you for such an motivating response. If God just gave me days off from work and relocated me to Boston for a day, I would have been the first in line (sleeping and starving) for that seminar. I appreciate your thoughtfulness for sharing your enthusiasm. Despite being late at night, I called my girlfriend to tell her the news about your email. Excitement is too weak of a word to describe it.

As for Rob Nilsson, I admire him as a filmmaker. I have read his site and I was fascinated with his Direct Action Cinema Manifesto. I think that it is as groundbreaking as the Dogme95 of Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. I ordered his films online since I can't find it here. I do hope that Asian filmmakers become aware of such a manifesto. I have posted it at my multiply site, as well as some of your articles. There have been great feedbacks from Filmmakers and I quickly promoted your site. John Jost came here, I believe in 2004. At that time, I was still too intoxicated by the so called "art" films & I had no idea who he was. Oh well, if only...
I will definitely hunt down that book. I will travel the World Wide Web seeking the Map of acting. :) I must say that the films in your viewing recommendation page (A note from Ray Carney: See the blue ticket icon in the left margin.) have been wonderful. Imagine, THE PUFFY CHAIR made me weep so hard. I swear to God, I had the intentions of calling my ex girlfriend and apologizing to her. These dam brilliant movies and its psychological effect. Now, I have been telling people to watch THE PUFFY CHAIR. I wonder what they will say to me after hehe! I have since contacted the Duplass brothers, thanking them for such a film. I realized that all you need are 3 people and a basic digicam to make a masterpiece. And that single sentence is more profound than some of the lessons taught in film schools. Hehe :)

I'm still trying to discover truth in a deeper level. After reading your articles and talking to artists like JP, truth has never been such a stranger to me. It is my joy, frustration, failure and (I wish) my guide to producing art. Sometimes in any journey, there will always be this one pit stop that will change everything. I guess that this could be it. I hypothesize sometimes that this voyage has made me lose my hair at the tender age of 22. Hehe! But at the end, all the strands of hair lost will be worth it. :)

I do want to visit you someday. You have served as an inspiration to me. With my visit, I will bring along one or two films from my fellow Filipino filmmakers. We are trying to revive the "Neo Realist" movement. We call it the Real Time Mode (The name isn't original, but what the hell hehe!) I'll also email to you soon the module we use. It is pretty amazing. Our teacher, Bing Lao, has commuted terms from science, philosophy, etc. into the narrative language. This you gotta see for your amusement. Just don't tell anybody that I sent you a copy. They will slaughter me alive. :)

I really appreciate your respond to my email. Your words are like the pulse that beat my artist heart. I will continue to browse your website. Thanks and Godbless.

From someone bearing the same initials as you,

Raymund Cruz

Thanks to my student Suzy Quinn for passing on the list of nominees for the Independent Spirit Awards. A few gems. A few clunkers. It's a flawed list, a compromised list, the obvious product of committee-decision-making -- the contemporary quota system -- as if film awards were a form of affirmative action and equal opportunity employment. There are several amazing films from the past year that completely missed the boat and got left off the list. And there are many titles on the list that don't deserve to be. I invite readers to submit their own counter-lists. What five or six or so titles would make your own personal list? What five or six or so titles on this list should be drowned and forgotten? I'll publish the most interesting responses I receive. -- R.C.


BEST FEATURE (Award given to the Producer)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Jon Kilik

I'm Not There
Producers: Christine Vachon, John Sloss, John Goldwyn, James D. Stern

Producers: Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Mason Novick, Russell Smith

A Mighty Heart
Producers: Dede Gardner, Andrew Eaton, Brad Pitt

Paranoid Park
Producers: Neil Kopp, David Cress


Todd Haynes
I'm Not There

Tamara Jenkins
The Savages

Jason Reitman

Julian Schnabel
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Gus Van Sant
Paranoid Park

BEST FIRST FEATURE (Award given to the director and producer)

2 Days in Paris
Director: Julie Delpy
Producers: Julie Delpy, Christophe Mazodier, Thierry Potok

Great World of Sound
Director: Craig Zobel
Producers: Melissa Palmer, David Gordon Green, Richard Wright, Craig Zobel
(To read Ray Carney's description when he programmed the film for the Harvard Film Archive Independent Film Festival, click here.)

The Lookout
Director: Scott Frank
Producers: Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber, Laurence Mark, Walter Parkes

Rocket Science
Director: Jeffrey Blitz
Producers: Effie T. Brown, Sean Welch

Director: Rajnesh Domalpalli
Producer: Latha R. Domalapalli

JOHN CASSAVETES AWARD (Given to the best feature made for under $500,000; award given to the writer, director, and producer)

* Executive Producers are not listed.

August Evening
Writer/Directpr: Chris Eska
Producers: Connie Hill, Jason Wehling

Owl and the Sparrow
Writer/Director: Stephane Gauger
Producers: Nguyen Van Quan, Doan Nhat Nam, Stephane Gauger

The Pool
Director: Chris Smith
Producer: Kate Noble
Writer: Chris Smith & Randy Russell

Quiet City
Director: Aaron Katz
Producers: Brendan McFadden, Ben Stambler
Writers: Aaron Katz, Erin Fisher, Cris Lankenau
(To read Ray Carney's description when he programmed the film for the Harvard Film Archive Independent Film Festival, click here.)

Shotgun Stories
Writer/Director: Jeff Nichols
Producers: David Gordon Green, Lisa Muskat, Jeff Nichols


Ronald Harwood
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Tamara Jenkins
The Savages

Fred Parnes & Andrew Wagner
Starting Out in the Evening

Adrienne Shelly

Mike White
Year of the Dog


Jeffrey Blitz
Rocket Science

Zoe Cassavetes
Broken English

Diablo Cody

Kelly Masterson
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

John Orloff
A Mighty Heart


Angelina Jolie
A Mighty Heart

Sienna Miller

Ellen Page

Parker Posey
Broken English

Tang Wei
Lust, Caution


Pedro Castaneda
August Evening

Don Cheadle
Talk To Me

Philip Seymour Hoffman
The Savages

Frank Langella
Starting Out in the Evening

Tony Leung
Lust, Caution


Cate Blanchett
I'm Not There

Anna Kendrick
Rocket Science

Jennifer Jason Leigh
Margot at the Wedding

Tamara Podemski
Four Sheets to the Wind

Marisa Tomei
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead


Chiwetel Ejiofor
Talk To Me

Marcus Carl Franklin
I'm Not There

Kene Holliday
Great World of Sound

Irrfan Khan
The Namesake

Steve Zahn
Rescue Dawn


Mott Hupfel
The Savages

Janusz Kaminski
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Milton Kam

Mihai Malaimare, Jr.
Youth Without Youth

Rodrigo Prieto
Lust, Caution

BEST DOCUMENTARY (Award given to the director)

Crazy Love
Director: Dan Klores

Lake of Fire
Director: Tony Kaye

Manufactured Landscapes
Director: Jennifer Baichwal

The Monastery
Director: Pernille Rose Grønkjær

The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair
Directors: Petra Epperlein & Michael Tucker

BEST FOREIGN FILM (Award given to the director)

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Director: Cristian Mungiu

The Band's Visit
Director: Eran Kolirin

Lady Chatterley
Director: Pascale Ferran

Director: John Carney

Directors: Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi

(Given to one film's director, casting director and its ensemble cast)

I'm Not There
Director: Todd Haynes
Casting Director: Laura Rosenthal
Ensemble Cast: Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Bruce Greenwood

Another bit of news: Ronnie Bronstein's Frownland won a Gotham award. Click here to read the description I wrote when I played it at the Harvard Film Archive Independent Film Festival last summer, and follow the links on the page you are taken to to read an exchange in the Mailbag between Ray Carney and the writer-director of the film. Way to go, Ronnie! Congratulations! -- R.C.

A postscript added later: It was just brought to my attention that Ronald Bronstein has a fascinating interview with Aaron Collins in the FilmBuzz section of describing the resistance original and unconventional work always experiences. I recommend checking it out at this url.

And, of course, I can't resist excerpting a sentence in which Bronstein mentions the Harvard Film Archive events I curated in June and July 2007, and for which he was kind enough to provide his movie and come in at his own expense to hold a post-screening discussion with the audience. (And for the record, Frownland was the film MOST objected to, almost an armed rebellion, by some of the Harvard viewers last summer. But I love it, I love it, when that happens!! Shades of Sacre du printemps and Rules of the Game all over again.) To the barricades, my compatriots. Make no mistake about it: We shall overcome! Someday.... Someday.... -- R.C.

Aaron Collins in FlimBuzz: "After the fight in Vegas the film went to the Harvard Film Archives in a program co-curated by Ray Carney, the leading John Cassavetes scholar, who is described by Bronstein as a person "whose staunch commitment to film making that is not sucking off the teat of Hollywood or commercial concerns is staggering."

Subject: A follow up message

Sir Carney,
I forgot to mention that my friend did a write up about the "neo-realist" workshop. Check it out. Here is the link. Also in the site, Dino has been posting some of your words. He has consistently preached the true sense of Independent cinema (well based on your opinions of course : D)

Regarding the master class: I would love to have Mr. Rob Nilsson and Sir Mike Leigh come to the Philippines. Mike Leigh is known in this part of the world, so it would be a joy to have him here. On the other hand, Rob Nilsson would be a sigh of fresh air. I would be the happiest person in the auditorium if that event happens.

Your right about the Hollywood thing. Here in the Philippines, an art film is always associated with names like Tarantino and Scorsese. During one of our biggest film fest, Tarantino conducted a master class. You couldn't get a ticket a week from the event. I hope that the Filipinos do the same when BETTER directors come to town. It's time to make films that matter!

Keep in touch Prof Ray. God Bless.

-- Raymund Cruz

Subject: mccarthy's the road

I forgot to mention, I just got through The Road on my McCarthy study. I enjoyed it. Almost thoroughly. The ending, I don't quite like. It puts a spark of hope there that I think undoes just about everything the whole novel sets up. It seemed tacked on. I don't know. I'll have to look at it more carefully when I do some writing on it, but that's just my initial gut reaction. It's the sort of ending that satisfies the Oprah book club crowd, I guess. But not me. The "hope" in humankind was suggested in the relationship of the boy and his father amidst all that horror and bleakness. A relationship we can juxtapose to the (sometimes explicit, but sometimes only presumed) violent behavior of the other inhabitants of that all-too-plausible future world. That was where the hope was, for me. When the father dies, that should've been it. It's not that I was hoping for a depressing ending, only that I was expecting it, and that half-hopeful ending (although still depressing) seemed like a bit of a cheat (echoes of buffalo 66). Not that there can't be other people like the father and boy, but. There probably shouldn't be. It doesn't seem like people like them would survive in that world. Darwin wouldn't favor them. They would've all been killed off long ago (or offed themselves, like the man's wife does). The "fittest" in that world would be the ones who were willing to resort to their basest most self-serving instincts to survive (as most of the other characters in the novel do). So the man and the boy sort of felt like, to me, the last of a dying species. So they should have stayed the last. Right? Wrong? Then again, I'm not a brilliant writer like McCarthy, so who am I to judge. More on all that in my journals I suppose!


P.S. Child of God, Suttree, Blood Meridian, and most of The Border Trilogy (especially The Crossing!!!!) were all certifiable masterpieces! Close readings coming soon to a journal near me.

Photo of Ray Carney by Randy Walker, 2007

"Howard Zinn Lives On Category" (a note from Ray Carney): I have to be a bit oblique about this to avoid retribution, but suffice it to say that I had a series of conversations with people I know today and they showed me two things that I had never imagined before. Stupid me.

The first was that you can actually miss your own life. In the conversation I described a set of experiences that they and I had lived through, encompassing the past four or five years. A set of very powerful (even traumatic) experiences that we had all lived through. And when I was done describing it, one of the people in the group said: "I don't understand a word you said. I have no idea what you were talking about." And the others or most of them at least, nodding, more or less agreed with the first speaker. It stopped me dead in my tracks for a second. They had not seen what I had. They had missed it -- because it was a little under the surface, a little hidden, a little secret. Because it involved things that did not necessarily impinge on their own lives, and affect their own destinies. I realized it was as if I had been talking to a group of Republicans about poverty in America, or the plight of third-world countries, or global warming. As long as it didn't affect them, here and now; as long as they had enough to eat tonight at supper; as long as they did not live on the street, they just didn't see what I had seen. They denied it. They fought it. They successfully resisted reality because it did not impinge on their lives and livelihoods. It was a deep lesson in human imperceptiveness, in (as I say) how you can miss your own life, your own experience.

I know I've mentioned Jonathan Glover's A Moral History of the Twentieth-Century several times earlier (see page 79 of the Mailbag, for one example), but it is worth mentioning again in this context. Glover talks about this same human ability simply to "not see" moral outrages that may be taking place all around the individual. The problem, I would emphasize (and Glover makes clear), is not merely a failure to take action against the moral outrage, but not even to perceive it as existing. The mind is very good at looking the other way, at blanking-out reality, when an individual is not directly and urgently affected by something. We put our heads in the sand and deny that there is anything wrong going on. Not to compare events that are not comparable, but Glover points out that this "blindness" was what made the Holocaust possible. Germans who had lived through those horrors (and, indeed, many Germans who committed them) later told their friends (or the Nuremberg investigators) that they were completely unaware of them having taken place: "I never knew what was really going on" (or a slight variation in the vein of: "I refuse to believe what you tell me was going on was really happening. I never saw a bit of it. It can't be true. You must be mistaken.") was the thing said by one individual after another, each of whom could have seen, if only he had opened his eyes. Hannah Arendt is another important theorist of this eyes-wide-shut situation. I recommend her books The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, and The Life of the Mind. (Click here to read a general overview of her work from an encyclopedia of philosophy, and pay particular attention to the discussion of what Arendt called "the loss of the world.")

The second lesson of the conversation was one in mob psychology and the fragility of freedom. I was having an extended conversation with the same group of people about the central importance of being able to express your unfettered, unlimited personal vision of life (and art), particularly to students in a university setting. I was suggesting, in various indirect and direct ways, in both words and examples, that while it was easy to allow someone to express something you agreed with, the meaning of freedom of thought was that you allowed someone to express something you vehemently disagreed with, something that threatened you or your value system. That was where the second revelation occurred. They couldn't get their minds around that. The only "free" expression they understood was the freedom to express what they already agreed with. When they disagreed with what you said, they wanted to stop you from saying it, because, in their view, saying something like that wasn't free expression, it was being "uncollegial." It was "not being a team player." It was "slander" and "libel." (Yes, they may have been professors but they sure don't use language very precisely.) It was violating the spirit of "community." It was "mistaken." It was "wrong." I couldn't make them see that if you only allowed someone (let's admit it: I am talking about myself, of course, and my expression of my own ideas on this site and in my other publications) the right to say something you agreed with, something you approved of as being "right" and "correct," you weren't really allowing free expression at all. You were censoring them. You were enforcing groupthink. You were enforcing conformity. You were forcing them to go along with the way things already are and with YOUR judgment of what was "right," "wrong," "correct," "proper," and "appropriate." The only test of (or illustration of) the free play of ideas in an intellectual setting was when you let someone express something you disagreed with, even something you passionately disagreed with, genuinely listening to them, hearing them out, taking what they said to heart, thinking about it, and responding to it, if you were so inclined. Stopping them from saying something you disagreed with, telling them they had no right to say it because you disagreed with it or decided was "wrong," wasn't free expression. It was mob rule; it was the tyranny of the majority. I couldn't believe that every single person in the room (at least no one dared to say otherwise), faculty members all, resisted the idea. It took me back to the comments I quoted from Norman Mailer a page or two ago in the Mailbag, about the appeal of fascism to the human psyche. Craving agreement, being threatened by disagreement, wanting to censor or penalize anyone who speaks apart from the tribe, is so deep-rooted in our tribal past that it was scary to see it all played out in a major metropolitan university in 2007, an institution (a university I mean) that has to be absolutely dedicated to the free play of ideas and expressions. Fascism is so near. Even in the contemporary American university.

Well, food for thought. For me at least. Where is John Stuart Mill when we need him? Get a copy of On Liberty and read it, if you have time. -- R.C.

P.S. Oh, I just thought of a more recent book that discusses the shortcomings of the modern "technocratic university" (and the technocratic mind) and the consequence of its evasion of worldly involvements and moral concerns: Cornel West's Democracy Matters. I highly recommend chapters 1, 2, 3, and 6, or the whole book, for that matter. Chapter 6, by the way, has a priceless description of a confrontation between West and Lawrence Summers, then President of Harvard, which encapsulates many of the problems within academia when faculty members or administrators renounce their ethical responsibilities and treat teaching and publishing as if they could be limited to being merely "academic" in their function.

The quotations that follow were sent to me by various readers in response to the preceding posting and other pages in the Mailbag describing my situation. They are meditations on the meaning of free expression and of the dangers of censorship, in all of the guises by which individuals attempt to rationalize, disguise, or justify their bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and intolerance. Fascism is closer than we think -- in the American corporation, the American educational system, and American culture. The thought-police are always ready to step in and control what you can say. I recommend pondering the implication of these statements. I'd also note that there is a relevant, related letter at the bottom of this page that was sent to me by a distinguished artist and is also worth reading. A number of faculty members, administrators, and students in my university would benefit from giving all of this material some thought. -- R.C.

* * *
This just in from a stalwart reader and supplier of quotes at other points on the site. Thank you, dear reader.

Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
-- Martin Luther King, Jr. ("Letter from Birmingham Jail" in "Why We Can't Wait", 1963.)

Courage is not defined by those who fought and did not fall, but by those who fought, fell and rose again.
-- Unknown.

God grant me the courage not to give up what I think is right, even though I think it is hopeless.
-- Chester W. Nimitz.

Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!
-- Benjamin Franklin.

My experience has been in a short 77 years... that in the end when you fight for a desperate cause and have good reasons to fight, you usually win.
-- Edward Teller.

Start doing the things you think should be done, and start being what you think society should become. Do you believe in free speech? Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it. Do you believe in an open society? Then act in the open. Do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely.
-- Adam Michnik.

Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.
-- Henry David Thoreau

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

A hero is one who knows how to hang on one minute longer.
-- Norwegian Proverb.

I don't want to die without scars.
-- Tyler Durden.

I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions.
-- Lillian Hellman.

A free society is a place where it's safe to be unpopular.
-- Adlai Stevenson.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one's definition of your life; define yourself.
-- Harvey Fierstein.

The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights, cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.
-- Ayn Rand.

History has demonstrated that the most notable winners usually encountered heartbreaking obstacles before they triumphed. They won because they refused to become discouraged by their defeats.
-- B. C. Forbes.

In Russia all tyrants believe poets to be their worst enemies.
-- Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

It is not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog.
-- Unknown.

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength while loving someone deeply gives you courage.
-- Lao Tzu.

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary."
-- John Milton,

Thank goodness for my faithful readers. (A note from Ray Carney): Another reader just sent me the following quotations to add to the list. They are about censorship, and some of them amaze me with their pertinence to the experiences and conversations I have recently had (which the reader who sent them to me could not, of course, be aware of). -- R.C.

As might be supposed I have not had the time, nor may I add the inclination to read through this book. I have, however, read pages 690 to 732...
Sir Archibald Bookin, Director of Public Prosecutions. The words with which he on December 29, 1922, banned James Joyce's 'Ulysses' from Britain.

Censorship in any form is the enemy of creativity, since it cuts off the life blood of creativity: ideas.
Allan Jenkins

Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second.
-- Phil Kerby

Dat veniam corvis, vexat censura columbas. - Censure acquits the raven, but pursues the dove.

Censorship of anything, at any time, in any place, on whatever pretense, has always been and always be the last resort of the boob and the bigot.
-- Eugene O'Neill

The censure of those who are opposed to us, is the highest commendation that can be given us.
-- Charles de Marguetel de Saint-Denis de Saint-Evremond

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will watch the watchers?)
-- Decimus Junius Juvenalis or JUVENAL Satires, II. 63

Censorship reflects an institution's lack of confidence in itself.
-- Potter Stewart, Justice of the United States Supreme Court

Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?
-- Stalin

"But wait, there's more" department: The following third set of quotes came in over the weekend from yet another reader. They are about the free play of ideas and the inevitable tendency of the intolerant to suppress ideas that they disagree with on the grounds that they are "dangerous," "destructive," "wrong," or "mistaken." Thank you, reader. -- R.C.

Freedom is not merely the opportunity to do as one pleases; neither is it merely the opportunity to choose between set alternatives. Freedom is, first of all, the chance to formulate the available choices, to argue over them -- and then, the opportunity to choose.
--C. Wright Mills

If you want to be free, there is but one way; it is to guarantee an equally full measure of liberty to all your neighbors. There is no other.
--Carl Shurz

The only way to make sure people you agree with can speak is to support the rights of people you don't agree with.
--Eleanor Holmes Norton

If we do not believe in freedom of speech for those we despise we do not believe in it at all.
-- Noam Chomsky

You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man's freedom. You can only be free if I am free.
-- Clarence Darrow

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.
Frederick Douglass

For those who stubbornly seek freedom, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination. These are easy to perceive in the totalitarian societies, much less so in the system of 'brainwashing under freedom' to which we are subjected and which all too often we serve as willing or unwitting instruments.
-- Noam Chomsky

There are two visions of America. One precedes our founding fathers and finds its roots in the harshness of our puritan past. It is very suspicious of freedom, uncomfortable with diversity, hostile to science, unfriendly to reason, contemptuous of personal autonomy. It sees America as a religious nation. It views patriotism as allegiance to God. It secretly adores coercion and conformity. Despite our constitution, despite the legacy of the Enlightenment, it appeals to millions of Americans and threatens our freedom.

The other vision finds its roots in the spirit of our founding revolution and in the leaders of this nation who embraced the age of reason. It loves freedom, encourages intellectual diversity, embraces science and affirms the dignity and rights of every individual. It sees America as a moral nation, neither completely religious nor completely secular. It defines patriotism as love of country and of the people who make it strong. It defends all citizens against unjust coercion and irrational conformity.

This second vision is our vision. It is the vision of a truly free society. We must be bold enough to proclaim it and strong enough to defend it against all its enemies.

-- Rabbi Sherwin Wine

A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.
-- Thomas Jefferson

Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.
-- Albert Einstein

History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid.
-- Dwight D. Eisenhower

So long as the people do not care to exercise their freedom, those who wish to tyrannize will do so; for tyrants are active and ardent, and will devote themselves in the name of any number of gods, religious and otherwise, to put shackles upon sleeping men.
-- Voltaire

Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.
-- William O. Douglas

Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.
-- Rosa Luxembourg

And one more batch of quotes came in a few days later from a site reader who is on the faculty of another university. He also sent two links. -- R.C.

By academic freedom I understand the right to search for truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true. This right implies also a duty: one must not conceal any part of what on has recognized to be true. It is evident that any restriction on academic freedom acts in such a way as to hamper the dissemination of knowledge among the people and thereby impedes national judgment and action.
-- Albert Einstein

Laws alone can not secure freedom of expression; in order that every man present his views without penalty there must be spirit of tolerance in the entire population.
-- Albert Einstein

As it is an ancient truth that freedom cannot be legislated into existence, so it is no less obvious that freedom cannot be censored into existence. And any who act as if freedom's defenses are to be found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America.
-- Dwight D. Eisenhower

There have been cases of censorship of my work all along. I have no problem with that. The more they try to censor me, the better the job is that I'm doing. It was Joseph Pulitzer's admonition that the job of a good journalist was to inflict woe upon the comfortable. That's one of the chores that I undertake.
-- Harlan Ellison

Every man 'in the development of his own personality' has the right to form his own beliefs and opinions. Hence, suppression of belief, opinion and expression is an affront to the dignity of man, a negation of man's essential nature.
-- "Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment" - Thomas Emerson

The two links the reader sent in illustrate that this may be a more wide-spread problem than the general public may be aware of. See this link on the use of the criticism of a faculty member's "collegiality" as a way of limiting or suppressing free expression. And this link for a list of academic institutions that have been censored in the past for violations of academic freedom.

I'll close with an excerpt from an email I received from an extremely distinguished film artist and faculty member who teaches at another university -- a different person from the individual who sent the quotes in the preceding section, someone who is a very distinguished film professor and a very important American artist. I don't post his words as an attempt at self-justification, but because they represent an independent perspective on the teaching of film in American universities, from a very wise and completely independent observer. (I have left off his name to protect him, but if I told it to you, you would see that I am not exaggerating the moral unimpeachability of his character and absolute independence of his point of view.) -- R.C.

.... isn't it obvious that your views threaten the match-stick edifices in which these folks live? If they were to allow themselves for a single moment to recognize the deep and clear-sighted wisdom of your words it would be to acknowledge the sham/shame of their ways, the snake-oil they've been peddling generations of eager and impressionable minds, telling the kids what they want to hear, when the point is to tell them what they don't want to hear. They want to be liked rather than respected. And most film schools are no more than mirrors of those Hollywood "dream factories" to which they aspire. Lure people into temporary and of course illusory worlds and anaesthetize them sufficiently that they don't mind your hand in their pockets, tuition or theater ticket, and, if you do it well enough, even if they someday realize they were had, they won't protest lest they have to publicly admit the years of their lives wasted on hucksterism and chimeras and empty thrills. Industries mired in Elmer Gantrys. I'm sorry the fight seems to only get harder with time ... but it is missionary work that you are doing....


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© Text Copyright 2007 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.