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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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Leola Harlow, Ray Carney, and the hat from <i>Husbands</i>.  Cindy Conti is on the right.A note from Ray Carney: I reprint the following exchange not only as food for thought, but, more importantly, as comic relief from the multiple excruciations alluded to on the preceding three or four pages of the Mailbag. I often wonder "what is wrong with me" that when people like the writer below start to ask me questions, I inevitably launch into a lecture about why they are asking those questions and not other ones!!! Doomed, doomed, doomed. Why do I bother? What gets into me? I'm convinced that the person I am writing to (or talking with) most of the time has no idea what I am talking about, and that I am just spitting against the wind and wasting my breath. Stupid, stupid, stupid. What devil makes me do it, anyway? What monkey gets into me? What madness.... Well, whatever ... So I hereby print the following email exchange with a high school student (and, trust me, I have written hundreds of similar ones to others, month after month, year after year!) as a bit of self-mockery at my own expense. File under F for "farce." -- R.C.

Hi Mr. Ray Carney, I'm XXXX from XXXX High School and I'm doing a (XXXX project) on Marilyn Monroe for my senior year in high school. I noticed that you are a director of a film studies program and a professor of film & american studies. Knowing that I was wondering if you could take the time out to answer 15 questions I have about Marilyn Monroe or let me know anything else you know about her. If you can do this please let me know, here are the 15 questions:

1) Did Marilyn Monroe have something going on with J.F.K?

Break free of tabloid concerns! When you get older, you'll see that things like this don't matter. That they are distractions. And even now I assume you can see that this question is no different from gossiping about the "bad girl" in school. Gossip is a sin. Don't give in to it. Look at Marilyn's life in a richer, more complex way.

2) What do you think about Marilyn Monroe?

A sweet, gentle, doomed genius of an actress. A sad, vulnerable, doomed person.

3) What do you think she did to influence so many people around the world?

Well, there's the gossip-factor (see number 1), and the beauty factor (equally trivial), but she influences me because she was so open and vulnerable as a person.

4) Do you think Monroe's death was an actual suicide?

Suicide is an imprecise term. Another tabloid term and concept. We "kill ourselves" in so many ways, directly and indirectly, consciously and unconsciously, deliberately and accidentally. Perhaps she took too many pills on a certain night, after drinking too much. But who couldn't have done that? Life is full of pain and cruelty. She certainly had her share. Suicide makes it sound so lurid. Think of her final hours as an effort to numb the pain of her life.

5) Why do you think she is still relevant today?

She was not a T-shirt photo. She was not an Andy Warhol silk-screened image. She was not a marketing ploy. She was not a cultural icon. She didn't do those things. Other people did them. They don't tell us things about her; they tell us things about them. She's was an artist, an actress, a human being. (Albeit a human heaped and overwhelmed by what people tried to do to her, by what marketers tried to transform her into.) Look not at what others did to her, but at what she left behind. For starters, look at Some Like It Hot. Look at The Misfits. Then look at her other movies. They are why she will always be relevant to anyone who cares about the story of the soul, not the history of marketing and commerce.

6) Do you think Marilyn could have been murdered by someone?

You keep veering into gossip and slander and melodrama. Why do you do this to your own imagination of possibility? But you're not alone of course. It's a tempting, and very American tendency. Fight it. Rise above it. Purify your heart. Why do you prefer to believe in the power of the CIA or the FBI to hurt her, when you could instead study the power of her own emotions to destroy her? The first thing is boring. The second is a place of truth, where most of life is lived.

7) If Marilyn was still alive today, what could you see her doing career wise?

Like the joke about Babe Ruth's and Ted Williams' batting averages nowadays in baseball, she'd be pretty old by now for a career. I hope she would have had ten babies and fifty grandkids and have retired twenty years ago to rock on the porch and hold them all.

8) Why do you think her image is still used on accessories?

Because we have a needy, greedy culture that tries to turn life into trash, and the soul into dollars. It's a horror. Write about that. Don't just consume it and accept it.

9) Does Marilyn Monroe have an influence on you?

Re-read my responses to questions 2 through 5.

10) How do you think Marilyn Monroe's career reflects on her as a person?

Her life is in her work as an actress. See my response to 5.

11) Do you think the Kennedy's had anything to do with her death?

Ah..... See my response to 6.

12) What do you think about the new dead celebrity bill governor Arnold Schwarzenegger passed?

I know nothing about it. I hope it allows them to stay dead. And that it stops the papparazzi from killing the ones who are alive now. I hope it eases the cultural pressure that is placed on the famous or successful.

13) How would you define Marilyn Monroe?

See my response to 2.

14) How do you think her childhood shaped her as a person?

I don't know anything about her childhood, but her adulthood tells me everything I need to know about her.

15) Do you think her marriages had any type of bad affect on her in life? (misspelling: should be "effect")

I think many men (and many women friends as well) tried to help her, but it's hard to help someone who can't accept your help. That's the nature of life. Blaming things on others is almost always a conceptual mistake. Don't try to blame anyone. If there are problems in her life, your life, or my life, they are almost always of our own creation.

If you can follow through with answering these questions that would be great and I would really appriciate your opinion about her. Thank you very much. (A note from RC: another misspelling: remember that when you write your college application, the only thing people will have to judge you on is your spelling, your syntax, and your powers of thought -- the categories and forms of understanding that you employ to sort your experience and knowledge. Work on them all. And work, work, work to understand the systems of cultural programming that can limit your thinking -- concepts like gossip and blame and the attraction to the melodramatic and lurid and violent. They are all intellectual traps. They will prevent your growth.)

Keep exploring and growing intellectually.

All best wishes,


From: "Bruce Kehler"
Subject: Morality in the 21st century

Professor Carney -

I have thought many times about writing you, but have withheld because I felt bad that you receive so many e-mails from people taking up your time. I won't dwell on it, but please assume the usual kind comments that people write about your writing and your courageous website.

My main question for writing is based on conflicting thoughts with which I have been wrestling. I am very disgusted by the I'm okay, you're okay definition of life and beliefs that is pervasive in our culture today. The whole notion that all creations are equal and all point of views are okay seems so limiting in the spiritual sense. However, I am also a firm believer in allowing experience to continue freely without passing basic moral judgments on it - You write a lot about this and I agree with you that we should not stop experience by labeling or fitting it into some ideological box. And I also understand, at least intellectually (although sometimes spiritually), the difference between real art, and kitsch. But sometimes I find myself railing on about why some things are bad and some art worthless and the creators wasting their time etc. and I wonder if what I am doing is just as bad as the people simplistically judging experience and yet I can't accept that there is no difference between art and schlock. So where, why is it okay to pass strict judgments on art and not on experience. Obviously art provides us with insight and experiences that are wonderful so there is a difference. This is starting to sound like a Dear Abby letter so i should probably stop.

I also want to recommend if you do not know about him a wonderful young filmmaker named Jared Skagen. I saw a film of his at a festival. I have no idea how to contact him or to see his film, but try and see it if you can. It has all the zaniness of an interesting piece. It is something of a roller coaster or a bungee jump - he throws you off a cliff and you up and down and then you are there, dangling trying to make sense of all the different things you just endured and all is left in the air.

Again, thank you for all you do. You are a great encouragement to so many people.

- Bruce

RC replies: I get many letters even more strongly stated than yours that object to the fact that I have opinions and dare to express them, that object to the fact that I say some things are worth damning to hell. It's a generational thing I sometimes think. The young were told "not to judge" (which can be a good thing if it's about being tolerant and open-minded and receptive), but they misunderstood or misapplied the lesson. Life is short. We must make choices of what is good and bad, interesting and boring, worth spending time (or our lives) on or a waste of time (or our lives). And we continually do make choices. Of who we date or marry, who we want to be friends with and hang out with, who we want to have repair our cars, which movies we will go to and which we will skip. I am a major advocate of freedom of choice and freedom of expression, but that does not mean that some choices and some expressions are not better or worse than others. That's life. I express my opinions right and left, on every page of this site, but you and anyone else who reads what I write are perfectly free to reject them or refuse to ever read any more of them by skipping the site entirely. That's life. I only fear two things: First, the refusal to choose -- what I would call the "I'm OK, you're OK" view of life. That's immorality. That's insanity. That's a waste of your life. Everything is NOT ok. A lot is wrong. A lot is messed up. And I fear the condemnation of -- and sometimes (as I have experienced in my own life) the attempt to silence or censor alternative points of view. Too much of life and truth is censored by the media. Too much of life and truth is censored by corporations. Too much of life and truth is censored by the language police and the forces of political correctness. We need to hear strongly expressed, and divergent and controversial, points of view. The only way to improve the world (and its expressons, its emotions, its thoughts, and its love) is to identify the problems --- and then of course to set to work dealing with them. All best wishes. -- R.C

A note from RC: The following writer alludes to my "modest proposal" essay at the bottom of page 97 of the Mailbag. (And by the way, did anyone out there get the allusion to Jonathan Swift in the title of that piece or the closely related and quite similar "Auto Mechanics" piece? I had hoped it was obvious. Let them eat cake!) --R.C.

Subject: probably not a modest enough response

Prof. Carney,

.... Anyhow, this email is just an excuse to write to you and say hello. So, mostly just for fun, here is my response to your modest proposal:

It feels so ridiculous to cower in front of the unwritten page: it is so much smaller than a person! But the large canvas, the financial difficulties, the social impasses of the movie set are much bigger, I can imagine to cower in front of these feels much more appropriate!

I think the key to getting people to want to write instead of direct is to have more people doing the work you do: making the nuances of the page discernible to a greater extent (or perhaps I'm in a minority to feel this deficiency in myself). Apart from this aesthetic depth, I think it is critical to notice the authority language often has over the images we encounter so frequently (anything from ideology (Democrat/Republican, etc.) to print on advertisements to scroll bars on news screens) and that perhaps a greater interest in language itself as an artistic medium separate from the image would make it seem less natural to take these ubiquitous maneuverings for granted. But of the two, I think the first point it more important to me, if we can realize the silo-size of the page, we won't be so discouraged to have our intimidation greet it!

Also, though I'm not a writer or a filmmaker, I can see it being true what Fellini said about the director being the artist most protected by ritual.

In response to your challenge about what makes art important, another quote by Fellini completely addresses my feelings about it: "I believe that art is the most successful attempt to instill in mankind the need to have a religious feeling." If our heads are not turned that way, so few things catch our curiosity in that direction the way art can; personally, I think art encourages us to wonder and that that breed of wonder can help develop our sense for compassion.

I'm grateful for your website (though I do worry about becoming too attached to it!), because it gives me the feeling that to work in this direction is not as lonely a venture as it can seem at times.
I hope you are well,


From: "Lucas Sabean"

Subject: MET

Had an incredible day at the Met today. Purple haze all through my brain...(a natural high that is) They re-organized the entire 18th-19th European section, which re-opened today. They brought the Sargents and some Eakins to that section as well, also the Picasso blues. I really like how they have reorganized. More bang per square foot. Monet, Degas, Pissaro, Klimt, Matisse, Czesanne all opened up for me today. Incredible Manet portraits! It was joyous. I was able to begin seeing them with heart, I nearly broke down in tears. Doorways everywhere! The Wyndham sisters painting by Sargent is unreal!!! Much better placement and lighting too. Of course, I did my regular Rembrandt visit. We are becoming good friends. Wow, can't wait to go back again. Just when you doubt whether it is all real it comes back with an even stronger force. Gassho,


"Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk Category:" I was at a cocktail party the other day when someone started talking about a young independent filmmaker they knew who, a couple years ago, had been working on a documentary about the life and travels of Christopher McCandless, the "Alexander Supertramp" of Jon Krakauer's book and Sean Penn's movie, around the same time that Penn had been filming his feature "Into the Wild," which presents a fictionalized (and highly sentimentalized) account of McCandless's life and death. When I expressed surprise that I had never heard of the documentary, the person I was talking with (who knew the documentary filmmaker personally) said that that wasn't really a surprise and then proceeded to tell me a horror story about why the documentary disappeared from view -- and almost didn't get completed before that. It seems that once Penn and his filmmaking associates discovered that the other filmmaker (someone without the financial resources, lawyers, or studio backing Penn and his production had) was working on a similar project, Penn and the producers, lawyers, and studio publicists who work for him set out systematically to harass, threaten, and (in the end) suppress the documentary, apparently convinced that it would cut into their theatrical bookings or invalidate their film by raising questions about McCandless that Penn's (really pretty weak) movie avoided. The person I was talking to described several "strong-arm" tactics intended to intimidate or threaten the documentary filmmaker while he was making his movie (since the two fimmakers' paths crossed several times while they were each shooting their films), and told me about at least one cancelled theatrical booking of the documentary that Penn or people who worked for him were directly responsible for.

Please stay tuned. I have not yet had a chance to talk to the documentary filmmaker myself. But when I do, I will give his first-person account of what really happened. Sean Penn, if you are reading this, I invite your response too. Tell me your side of what happened. Are your much-vaunted ideals about free expression and the importance of independent filmmaking only a one-way street for YOU to go down -- are they only a marketing ploy? Do you practice what your preach? Or do you revert to being a hardball capitalist like everybody else when you feel threatened? I promise to print your reply unedited, in its entirety. -- Ray Carney

Hi Prof Carney,

It's been awhile, haven't thought to drop you a line for some time. Hope all is well and you're keeping up the good fight.

I recently "finished" my first digital feature ("Pieces") and mailed you a dvd copy, but just wanted to say that I'm tackling a re-edit right now that will improve the thing, and so if you haven't seen it yet (I know how busy you are and how much mail you get), maybe hold off and wait until I can get you the final FINAL cut (insert smiley face here).

Anyhow, I was reading Repetition by Kierkegaard the other day, and stumbled across something I thought you'd appreciate (it kinda sounds like some of your writing on Leigh), where K. goes off on a tangent using theatrical farce as a metaphor for the idea of using repetition of human experience to enrich our thought processes and, essentially, our lives:

"...we do not know whether to laugh or to cry, and the whole effect depends on the observer's mood... every general esthetic category runs aground on farce; nor does farce succeed in producing a uniformity of mood in the more cultured audience. Because it's impact depends largely on self-activity and the viewer's improvisation, the particular individuality comes to assert himself in a very individual way and in his enjoyment is emancipated from all esthetic obligations to admire, to laugh, to be moved, etc, in a traditional way. For a cultured person, seeing a farce is similar to playing the lottery, except that one does not have the annoyance of winning money. But that kind of uncertainty will not do for the general theater-going public, which therefore ignores farce or snobbishly disdains it, all the worse for itself. A proper theater public generally has a certain restricted earnestness; it wishes to be -- or at least fancies that it is -- ennobled and educated in the theater. It wishes to have had -- or at least fancies that it has had -- a rare artistic enjoyment; it wishes, as soon as it has read the poster, to be able to know in advance what is going to happen that evening. Such unanimity cannot be found at a farce, for the same farce can produce very different impressions, and, strangely enough, it may so happen that the one time it made the least impression it was performed best. Thus a person cannot rely on his neighbor and the man across the street and the statements in the newspaper to determine whether he has enjoyed himself or not. The individual has to decide that matter for himself, and as yet scant success has attended any reviewer's prescription of an etiquette for a cultured theater public seeing a farce... [which] can produce the most unpredictable mood, and therefore a person can never be sure whether he has conducted himself in the theater as a worthy member of society who has laughed and cried at the appropriate places."

Wishing you the best health this beautiful Christmas season,

Sean Corbett

RC replies: Tonal irresolution is one of the greatest achievements in art. Popular film (works like "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," for example) always keeps us in the clear and tells us how to respond. Kierkegaard's understanding of farce is different from my own, but he makes an important point that I agree with. I was reading Anna Karenina the other day and thinking about this very thing: about how different Tolstoy's writing was from what appears in most movies and television shows. It makes us work to understand it. It keeps us guessing. It forces us into places of conflicted feeling, places of complexity that television and Hollywood are afraid to go to. -- R.C.

Subject: JC & the creative process


Your new book (click here to read about it) sounds wonderful and fascinating. Can't wait to read it! How great that you're using JC as a model for a better and more complete understanding of how the creative process works. Your audience should reach far beyond filmmakers.

My favorite paragraph is paragraph two. You ask the perfect complex questions for us all to struggle with, that we all struggle with when we try to create art. I'm looking forward to your answers. And just rereading through them above several times, you have me wondering if I can make choices to benefit my expressions, eg "empower" it with my life experience rather than "limit" it... I may not create the "highest art," but I can still strive to use the most of what I have - genetically, biographically, culturally, or emotionally - to express the uniqueness that is me in the best and fullest sense as I build my soul.

Your life's work. I know I will love it... and that it will be as AMAZING as you are! What a great gift you are giving to the world. You should be a very proud papa of your newest baby.

Alice Williams

RC: Thanks for the kind words. I've never thought of it that way, but my work IS a kind of "baby," to me. That's in fact what I think I was expressing to an artist friend in an email the other day, without actually using the concept. I wrote him: "You want to hear something weird, something totally demented? -- I mainly wish that the threat was more against me bodily, than against my work. Somehow the threat against the site and against the distribution of my writing is actually worse to me than a threat to cut off my finger or my hand would be. Do you know what I mean? Like if they could destroy your films (not to compare my writing to your art), burn them up in the yard, negatives, and mag tracks and all, so that nothing survived, it would actually be worse than destroying you, killing you. Or is this crazy? Am I nuts!!!???? Well, I guess I am. Sometimes I think it takes a little bit of nuttiness to keep going in the world we live in." -- R.C.


Love your challenge questions for Sean Penn. (See the "Talking the Talk, Walking the Walk" note in blue several screens above this point on the page.) I hope he responds, I would like to hear his side of the story too to see if he is walking his talk, and if not, how he defends his position.

By the way, I've been noticing recently the increasing number of "name" actors and actresses acting in purportedly "independent" films. I'm curious. Are "independent" films becoming more commercialized and taken over behind the scenes by more monied interests to attract big box-office names? Are the actors and actresses simply posing as independents or has that term lost its meaning? And is this trend related in any way to the "Sundance" phenomenon, what started out as independent films became commercial films posing as independents (or am I misunderstanding Sundance's evolution)?

Forgive my frustration and rhetorical question, but why does everything starting out pure in concept end up corrupted? (Nothing gold can stay, I guess. Is that just the nature of life and man on this planet?)

I also love the new Mailbag Highlights "Most Popular Topics" button in the left menu. I was clicking around and read your "What the heck is independent cinema?" It's so hard to find films like you describe on p. 96 films that are spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, and morally independent. A tall order in today's world. So a big thanks for your viewing recommendations, NOT brought to me by Miramax or Dreamworks. I think you're the only one I know who is truly independent and whose judgment I trust, you haven't steered me wrong yet. YOU walk the talk. Keep fighting the good fight, I pray the people you work with see what value your mailbag has for your countless students worldwide. Let us know if we can put in a good word on your behalf. Your letters would be sorely missed.



RC replies: Thanks! You're right about "indie film," of course. It now takes quote marks. It's become a corporate brand name. A registered trademark. How else does "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" get onto the Independent Spirit Awards list? (See the complete list of nominees toward the bottom of Mailbag page 98.) Bleached, stone-washed blue jeans. Roughness as mannerism. Imitations of imitations of imitations, ten thousand miles from the nearest reality.

By the way, I LOVE your allusion to good old Bobbie Frost, one of the greats, now up there with Mozart and Bach and Wordsworth and Rembrandt and James and Shakespeare and Balanchine -- or more likely being recycled along with all the rest of them in the endless soul-shuffling of repeated being on the way to radiance and Godhead .... And for the benefit of my readers who don't know it already, I'll print his tiny, tiny little apercu. Everyone in the whole world should memorize it and study it. It can help. It's not depressing. It's not negative. The point is that even if the gold may not stay, at least we have it for an hour, a bud, a glimpse of day. And of course the poem itself is pure gold. It brings the gold back again in words and ideas, if not in sunrises and leaf buds and unfallen Edens. -- RC

Nothing Gold Can Stay
by Robert Frost.

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

A Christmas message came in from a frequent site reader and contributor. She told me it was prompted by the Christmas message I posted on the site a year or two ago (See Mailbag page 51, accessible via the blue page number menus at the top and bottom of this page.) I invite other readers to submit their own "Christmas lists" and "Christmas wishes." I will post the most interesting. --R.C.

Dear Santa,

I remember a Christmas many years ago when I was young and poor with a tiny baby to feed. No manger but a crib in a rundown apartment. Money was very hard to come by, and the only humble gift I asked for that Christmas was a hymnal. I wanted to sing to keep my spirits high through difficult times. Thank you for honoring my request and making my spirits soar, your gift brought me the miracle I needed, a joyful heart.

Today I have no wish for material things of any kind. My babe has grown and left to start a life with babes of her own. Instead, today, I simply dare to dream big dreams. I dream of a world that would encourage and allow me, or anyone, to be free to become a real light to the world in my own unique way. I dream for the perseverance to never stop trying, even when the path is hidden or dark or I have fallen down and become deeply discouraged. I dream of having the courage and clarity to value and embrace the beauty of others who are different from me. And for the courage to overcome obstacles that stand in my way of doing that. I dream of finding ways to live with others in a world of peace. To laugh, to cry, to sing, to dance, to hope, to dream together with all of the human race. To be connected with the energy of a great force for good that can change the world and save it before it perishes from misuse, greed and neglect. To make the world the best that it can be, a place that cherishes and defends life and freedom above all things. I realize, dear Santa, that today you are mostly a bringer of gadgets and trinkets and toys, and that you don't deal in these kinds of things. Trinkets won't bring the things I dream of, so you won't need to visit my house this year. But I know you believe in miracles, since you brought me one once. If you would be so good, simply send me a fond wish for a miracle: Let all that I dream of begin with me. Let me somehow make a difference. And next year, I promise I'll write again and let you know how I've done.



Ray Carney in Melbourne Australia

A note from Ray Carney: I wrote the following reply today to a journalist at a major media outlet who wanted me to talk about The Golden Compass. I print it here in the hope that other journalists may read it. -- R.C.

Dear XXXX:

Sorry, I don't think I have much to say on that subject (and your email is not that specific in any case). But I'm sure you'll be overwhelmed with eager contributors, ready, willing, and able to give you quotable quotes, since you represent such a major news organization and everyone is dying to get on the news -- for some reason I've never understood.

But please do let me know if you ever have a genuinely artistic question, I mean a question about genuine art (in film or otherwise). For future reference: I'm not big on stupid, mainstream, studio filmmaking. I find it total garbage and a waste of my time to view or to discuss. It's funny that I almost never get any interest from journalists on that subject -- or on the subject of films that I consider genuine art. It's all just chasing the latest cinematic ambulance as far as I can tell -- from the "afterschool special" topicality of Brokeback Mountain, to the kitsch/fake art" of the Coen brothers' latest monstrosity, to the newest dumbed-down Jane Austen adaptation, and on down the list of fifteen-minutes-of-fame fashions and trends, which apparently includes The Golden Compass for the next few fleeting instants. Trivia all. Silliness all. ...... Life is too short and I'm the wrong man for any of that.

Best wishes,

Ray Carney

My name is Michael O'Leary and I am a sophomore journalism major. I am writing a profile piece for my COM201 class about Ned Hinkel, Creative Director of the Brattle Film Foundation. My piece will be stressing Ned's desire to sustain the theater-going tradition. In as few or as many words as you would like to respond with, I'd like to know your thoughts on seeing films in theaters: Is seeing films in theaters important and should this tradition be sustained or do DVD and iPod viewings suffice? Thanks a lot! -Michael O'Leary

RC replies:

I'm strongly in favor of the movie theater experience. I alluded to this in a note to J.P. Carpio on page 87 of the Mailbag when I said that it doesn't matter that Tarkovsky's films have been uploaded to YouTube; they should NOT be viewed that way. It's the difference between deep involvement and shallow. To view a movie on an iPod or iPhone or on a computer monitor is a shallow mode of involvement, totally different from the experience in a theater. You are only half involved with what you are viewing, only half committed to the experience, half paying attention to it. On the other hand, to be in a dark room with no distractions, surrounded by, and imbued in the emotions and thoughts of 200 other people having the same experience at the same moment -- and make no mistake about it, their emotions and thoughts affect yours, their state of attention helps to focus yours -- is to have a deep involvement with what is on the screen.

It's the difference between reading a novel alone in a quiet room and reading the same novel in a Starbucks with people all around you or somewhere with music playing in the background or on a web site or on a Kindle electronic book. In those situations you have noise and distraction and movement all around you -- as when you are listening to music or reading a book while flying in an airplane or riding on the subway or sitting in a coffee shop. It's not the same kind of listening; it's not the same kind of reading as when one hundred percent of your attention is focused on the act of listening or reading. It's a shallow and superficial form of experience. Have you ever been in a museum and thought about why they don't play music in the background? Have you ever been in a museum and seen how distracting it is to have music playing in the background -- as some curators actually do for certain exhibits? Have you ever been looking at a painting and had to wait until someone stopped talking about it to really look at it, to see it, to penetrate and probe its secrets? It's the same thing.

People are afraid of quiet and solitude because they lack inner resources, but quiet and solitude are the path to truth. The curse of our culture is shallowness and superficiality. The curse of our culture is surfing -- intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. The curse of our culture is movement and distraction. The curse of our culture is multi-tasking and inattentiveness -- a little of this and a little of that. The curse of our culture is half-heartedness and "coolness" and easiness and relaxation. They are all ways of not really being present. They are all ways of not really being focused -- deeply involved in and profoundly attentive to our experiences. We need more deep diving. We need more focus. We need more passionate, intense involvement -- with books, with movies, with paintings, with our own lives. We need to live more intensely. We live too casually, too inattentively, too sloppily when we listen to music while we're doing something else or watch a movie in our living rooms while we eat a pizza. When we do that we are not really present in the moment.

That's the origin of church. That's the origin of most meditative practices. To allow us to really pay attention to only one thing. Not to divide our minds into parts and split our consciousnesses up. We need more deep experiences. We need to go to church and remain still and quiet for a long time to begin to hear our souls. The iPod and the internet and YouTube and the cellphone and the Kindle offer us lite, easy, relaxed, casual experiences. But that's the problem. We can lose our souls that way. The movie theater, the art museum, the concert hall are the last twenty-first-century churches. The world will be the less, our souls will be shallower, if the theaters, the museums, and the concert halls are replaced by web pages and downloads. We'll have entered the world of "Whatever....." We'll have given up the world of immersion for the world of distraction. That's why I fear for the future of our culture. --Ray Carney

"In my end is my beginning" (or "strictly for laughs") department: I started this page with a semi-comic piece, so I'll conclude with one. I wrote the following in reply to an email note from one of the most important living film critics and media theorists, who told me he had recently seen Nick Cassavetes' Alpha Dog and found himself "quite haunted by it." I omit the first paragraph of my response. The allusions in the final paragraph are to the university where he teaches and the most famous member of the faculty. -- R.C.

.... About Nick: I haven't seen the Alpha Dog. I could hardly sit through some of his earlier films and decided to limit the self-punishment, but he may have improved of course. Haunting is not a word I've associated with him in the past. Pandering is. When students used to ask me about the earlier work, my standard reply was "genius is not hereditary." Anecdote alert: Miramax hired me about ten years ago to do the "coming out party" for an earlier film by him, She's So Lovely. The whole nine yards: souvenir program, celebrity panel discussion at the Paris Theater (ah, the joys of Peter Bogdanovich who missed his true calling and should have devoted his life to comic "voices and impersonations"), and sidebar screening of a mini-festival of the dad's films (as is said of Brahms' first in terms of Beethoven's ninth: they were determined to treat Nick's movie as his father's "tenth").... and I was so flummoxed by my own inability to "rave" with the purchased degree of enthusiasm that I actually finked out on part of the job so as not to have to lie through my teeth in front of 1000s of people.

On the other hand, the dad's work IS genius, but (like Whitman's and Dickinson's and Melville's in their own day) of such an iconoclastic, unclassifiable, rebarbative sort that it still, yes even today, sticks in the craw of mainstream, respected reviewers. (David Denby or Anthony Lane or Tony Scott would still need a Heimlich after a few minutes of viewing. They totally choke on Cassavetes. And I don't mean he chokes them up.)

Well, someday may our paths cross. If I can ask a question back: How do you survive at XXX? Or is YYYY now retired? Sorry, forgive the black humor.




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