loss of the soul
Valuing groups and forgetting individuals
here for best printing of text
The last time we spoke you focused on the business side of publishing.
Today I'd like to talk about the academic side. How does your writing
fare with students and professors? Is it academically in fashion?
Carney: That's the best way
I've ever heard academia described. Thanks. I love it!
Interviewer: I'm confused.
What do you mean?
Carney: All I mean is that
your question understands something that took me years to learn. I'm so
slow. I used to think great academic writing was about presenting radically
new ideas and ways of understanding, but I finally realized that originality
actually gets you into trouble. What is taught in the classroom, what
is quoted in articles, what is cited in lectures is almost entirely determined
by what's intellectually in or out of style. There are no fashion slaves
like professors. Even Paris changes its hemlines every year. It takes
a decade for a professor to come to grips with a new idea. A professional
society like the Society for Cinema Studies [the leading academic film
organization in America] is a guild, a club, a rule-bound organization.
You might as well be back in the sixteenth century. The point is not
to say anything really original or different, but to make your ideas fit
into a discursive system that already exists—meaning to write
footnotes to other people's footnotes. Move over Maimonides. Get outta'
here, Thomas Kuhn. It's not about having fresh insights. It's not
about new ways of thinking and feeling about art. It's about using the
same buzz words and theoretical constructs that everybody else uses. You're
supposed to take a trendy, meaningless, worn-out concept—like the
male gaze or diversity or othernessand
apply it to a new text in a slightly different way. But not too different!
And don't you ever question the term or the structure of understanding
itself! It's like playing tennis. You're allowed to put a certain amount
of spin on the ball, but don't dare suggest that the lines
are in the wrong place. What is it William James said? What most professors
call thinking is just reshuffling their prejudices. Well, that's a pretty
good explanation of what delivering a paper at the SCS or publishing an
article in Cinema Journal is about.
I guess you could see the answer
to your question coming ten miles off. No, my work isn't in fashion, and
I don't ever want it to be, because that would mean it would be out of
fashion twenty years from now. God save me from fashionacademic or popular.
Interviewer: Can you be
more detailed about why it is out of step?
Carney: My writing violates
a lot of academic assumptions. Firstknowledge in our universities is
intellectually compartmentalized. Film is on one department; painting
in another; literature in a third; philosophy somewhere else. My books
mix them all up. I talk about Capra's figures in terms of Sargent's explorations
of self-representation, and Eakins' paintings in terms of pragmatic philosophy.
Students and teachers don't want that. They don't want discussions of
other art. If they are in film, all they know and care about is movies.
I also treat film as a high culture expression while most writers treat
it as a form of popular culture. They have lost the concept of what real
art, in the high culture sense, is and does. We live in a culture of reduced
expectations, and even critics have scaled back their vision of what art
Interviewer: Anything else?
Carney: Well, there's my interest
in inner life—a concept which seems to elude a lot of academics.
A lot of my writing is about imaginative eventsfor a character
in a work and a viewer of it—tiny emotional and intellectual shifts of
position, flickers of understanding, tonal flutters, microscopic adjustments
of feeling and relationship. That's not the politically correct place
to bein the academy or out of it.
Our multiculturalist era has
sold its soul to an externalized conception of experience. You
are your race, your class, your ideology, your socio-economic status,
your ethnic background, your generic sexual identity. The insides of experience
disappear. Artists, works of art, and characters and situations become
their outsides. It's one of the great intellectual and cultural
losses of our time. We have lost our soulsin a far more frightening
way than the Faust story imagines. We deny that they exist. I find this
understanding of experience really scary, but I have to say most students
and professors I talk to have a hard time even seeing it, since it's everywhere.
They are like fish trying to see the water.
Interviewer: I've read an
essay where you call this a sociological understanding of
Carney: Right. I wrote a few
pieces for Partisan Review and The Journal of American StudiesI
remember one was a review of a dictionary of literary criticism published
at John Hopkins and another was a review of the work of David Jameswhere
I went into detail about the difference between social science and artistic
understandings of experience. My Leigh book has a lot about it also. But
the only academic response I've seen has been bewilderment.
Interviewer: Has that come
out in conversations with professors?
Carney: I can tell how puzzled
they are from what they write about my work. There was this comical review
of my Leigh book last year from a British professor named John Hill. I
sort of felt sorry for him. He was clearly in over his head, unable to
understand my approach. He alludes to his confusion in the review. He
says that he picked up the book convinced he already knew what Leigh was
all about. Leigh was a social satirist-in other words, someone who dealt
with externals in what I call a sociological way. Then he read a few chapters,
and his jaw dropped because I never mentioned any of that, but instead
talked about all these tonal shifts in the moods of scenes, these changes
of relationship between characters, and these emotional adjustments between
the viewer and what is in the film. He said he was so baffled by what
I was saying that he went back and watched one of the films again to make
sure I was talking about the same movie.
I was in stitches reading the
review. He was Antony and I was Cleopatra. I completely boggled him! Maybe
Prof. Unrath and Lola-Lola would be a better comparison, since what I
did to Leigh was not only bewildering but slightly scandalous. My writing
gets that sort of response a lot of the time.
* * *
Carney: Can I say one more
thing about the social studies approach? I'm convinced that one of the
reasons that Cassavetes' work has not caught on with American academics
is precisely that you can't do the John Hill thing with it. It's hard
to treat the films as social critiques. They resist that sort of understanding.
Interviewer: Can you explain
Carney: It's similar to what
I said about Leigh. You can subject a Cassavetes movie to social analysis,
but it doesn't take you very far or its gets you tangled up in contradictions.
Faces won't yield to that approach. Shadows won't. Love
I'm always being reminded of
that at screening events I run. People try to understand Shadows
chiefly as a racial drama and get all tangled up ideologically by the
failure of the characters and events to map themselves correctly.
To my surprise, something similar happened recently at a Love Streams
screening. I conducted a Q and A, and a professor stood up and made a
statement contrasting Robert Harmon and Sarah Lawson's wealth (as indicated
by Robert's tuxedos, big house, and fancy car, and Sarah's shop-till-you-drop
consumerism, designer clothes, and jet-set travels) with Albie's family's
social and financial position (tiny house, cheap clothes, beat-up car,
need to take temp jobs to make money, etc.). He used the contrast to offer
generalizations about what Cassavetes was trying to tell us about the
social and ideological stratification of Los Angeles.
What's wrong with that?
Carney: It leaves out too much
of what's in the movie. He and I had not seen the same movie. His generalizations
left out all the interesting momentsall these amazing conversations
between Robert and other characters. They are not about the outsides
of life (money, cars, houses, power), but the insides (souls, spiritual
states, subtle emotional states of openness or closure). On top of that
that once you start mapping the characters on a financial grid, you get
tangled up in all sorts of other crazy issueslike, for example,
why the ideological oppositions suddenly collapse at the end, when Robert
is paired off with Margaret and Sarah with Ken.
Or you have to deal with all
sorts of irrelevant issues. Think of the other films. If you start focusing
on the fact that Mabel and Nick Longhetti are working class or that Minnie
is a middle-class WASP and works in a museum and Seymour a working class
Jew who parks cars, you are changing the experience in fundamental ways.
Economics is not the real subject of Minnie and Moskowitzno
more than it is in It Happened One Night.
Social class, gender, race,
ideology, etc. are never determinative in Cassavetes' work. Class and
other social factors are just devices to create certain kinds of drama.
They are a creaky wooden scaffold for Cassavetes to stand on while he
builds the interactional cathedral. They allow him to get places emotionally,
to paint frescos that he could not get to without the scaffold, but they
are not the cathedral. The same goes for Leigh.
* * *
Interviewer: I think I understand.
Carney: Good. It's hard to
get this through to the John Hills who expect something so much less from
works of art. Most film professors are so committed to ideological readings,
that if you offer them something elsein my mind, a more complex
and slippery understanding of experienceall they hear is gibberish.
It really puzzled me for a long time why it was so hard to explain it
One way I explain the problem
to myself is to say that while I'm interested in unique, non-repeatable
individual experience, they care less about people as individuals, than
as culturally defined group representatives. Their position has always
seemed paradoxical on the face of it to mesince why would someone
care so much about an aggregate if they didn't care intensely about the
individuals who make it up? It doesn't make sense. But that seems to be
part of their value system. Another way I explain the difference to myself
is to say that while they are doing history or sociology, I am doing ontology.
There's a place for both approaches
of coursebut the problem is that they don't seem to have a clue
as to why I would want to do something different from what they are doingor
to appreciate how limited their sociological approach is,
how much of the inside of human experience it leaves out.
Interviewer: When you say
they, I take it you are referring to more than the professor
who slammed your Leigh book in that review.
Carney: [Laughing:] They
are everywhere. It's a friggin' movement! But not always hostile or sarcastic
the way the Hill guy was. Sometimes the response is really quite touching.
I remember this senior professor taking me off to the side, very confidentially
and kindly, ten or fifteen years ago when I was just a young buck, after
I had given a talk on The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, telling
me that my approach was flawed in that I failed to understand that the
film was a generalized cultural expression of post-Vietnam anomie and
post-Watergate skepticism. Guess he thought I was too young to remember
the seventies. He meant it in the kindest possible way, as a bit of fatherly
advice that could help my career and improve my work. I bit my tongue
and smiled and nodded and thanked him, but I could hardly believe my ears.
I was stunned. He had missed everything I was trying to say about Cassavetes'
Interviewer: What do you
Carney: Well, what I thought
I was doing was offering an alternative to the cultural studies
bag of tricks. But he clearly thought I just didn't know how to do it
the cultural studies way, and needed a little guidance. It made me realize
how hard it was to get people to look outside the box they were trapped
Interviewer: What's the
difference in terms of the film?
Carney: Well, once you drop
Cosmo and Cassavetes into the Cultural Studies acid bath, they're gone.
Dissolved, liquefied, melted into a series of pre-existing, impersonal,
ideological structures. Conceptions replace perceptions. All of Bookie
is goneall of the weird, tortuous slowness, darkness, digressiveness
of the cinematic experience. What was dark becomes light. What was puzzling
becomes clear. The digressions now have a point! Everything in the movie
that resisted interpretation because of its irreducible concreteness and
tangibility suddenly becomes interpretable because it is made representative,
abstract, generic! The movie is not strange and mysterious any more! [Switching
into a gangster voice:] It's Nixon and Watergate, doncha' see?
[New voice-of someone confessing to a crime he didn't commit (?)] Ah,
yes, I see. I suddenly remember. It's coming back. It's all so easy and
clear now. Where do I sign?
That professor wanted me to
kill Cosmo a second time. To collaborate with the gangsters in treating
him as a cultural representative, a semiotic function. [Gangster voice
again:] Get 'em to sign a form-17 and a form-223, then get 'da bum
I'm sorry if I am going on
and on. But can I say one more thing about this whole approach?
No problem. I'm enjoying the impersonations!
Carney: Sorry to disappoint
you. I don't think I have any more in me. All I wanted to add is that
a side-effect of the historical or cultural studies approach is that value
judgmentsquestions of ultimate valuedrop out. That's another
way I'm out of step with the professors. I believe criticism is ultimately
evaluativesometimes explicitly, but always implicitly. Sociology
is limited to being descriptive. The cultural studies critic may
judge the society that the work represents and reveals,
but does not judge the work itself, which is why no film or television
show is too banal, too ridiculous, too programmatic to waste students'
I'm committed to a different
notion of criticismone in which students weigh and evaluate the differences
between what mass-culture expression can do and what individual utterance
can. Every time we look at a film together, I want them to ask life or
death questions about it: What is the value of this work? Does it really
matter? Will it still matter in a thousand years? If so, how and why?
Does it compromise itself in any way? Does it soften and temporize and
try to please? Is it captive to cultural clichés? How does it compare
with the simplifications and sentimentalizations and banalizations of
popular culture and Hollywood film? Are its insights and understandings
trivial or profound? Does it reveal truths we need to hear? Do we agree
with it? Does it take us through experiences that transform us in some
I want the study of art to
be personal and moral and engaged. That means, above all, that it's not
about someone else, somewhere else, doing something else. It's about us.
It's about changing us. I take art as seriously as I take life. In art
or in life, I don't want to waste my time with mediocrity and superficiality
and sillinesswhich is what most movies shown in film courses are. That's
why I almost never show the sort of junk you see in most other film courses,
and on the rare occasions I do, it is only to use it to tease out a contrast
with the other kind of work. Of course, this is heresy to most film professors.
Interviewer: Why do you
Carney: Because I curate the
Prado, but they run the Norman Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth, and Jeff Koons
side shows! Step right up, ladies and gentlemen....
Most film professors don't
have any interest in art or understanding of the incredibly complex ways
art can work on our minds and emotions. They don't have any category to
contrast mass-culture expression with. They have no values beyond those
embodied by assembly-line mass production systems of creation and consumptionor
the sociological study of such systems. The notions of extraordinary,
challenging, complex expression that I am devoted to, simply don't exist
in their imaginative universe.
Interviewer: Can you explain
what you mean by art?
Carney: There really is too
much to say, and I have already said most of this many times overin
reviews, in interviews, in the new preface to the Wesleyan edition of
my Capra book, in my Mike Leigh book, in all my work on Cassavetes. But
for someone who looks at a film in the cultural studies way, my books
might as well be written in a foreign language about a foreign
languageart-speech!-that they don't even know exists. And that they
certainly can't understand.
Interviewer: By art-speech
you mean style don't you? You practice stylistic criticism.
Carney: That's a limiting way
of putting it. It makes it sound as if the style of a work were something
added to it, as if there could be content that pre-exists style. The content
is the style. The work is its form. There is nothing else. Remember
the Robert Frost story about the man quizzing the woman who said the world
was resting on a tortoise. The man smiled and asked what is the tortoise
resting on? The woman said another tortoise and don't patronize me: It's
tortoises all the way down. Well, it's form all the way down. There can
be no content that is not contained. No consciousness separate from expressionin
specific forms and styles.
Interviewer: Can you explain
that again, please?
Carney: Let me try one more
way. Cultural studies critics treat a work of art like a newspaperor
a window. They look right through it. And what do they see? Cultural archetypes,
stereotypical gender roles, power structuresmale-dominated, Western-centered,
of courseand oodles of other completely predictable things. But,
as far as I am concerned, to do that to Cassavetes or Leigh is like using
a Monet painting to study botany. Or a Sargent to document Edwardian haberdashery.
These critics do it because they think they are making the work more important,
by freighting it with grand social significances, but they are actually
trivializing it. A great work of art releases energies much more complex
and subtle and slippery and important than the mechanical archetypes and
metaphors they find in it. I am interested in those energies.
This page contains
a brief excerpt from a lengthy interview with Ray Carney. In the selection
above, he talks about the limitations of cultural studies approaches to
film. (Other related discussions appear in this and the Mike Leigh section
of the site.) The complete interview is available in a new packet titled
What's Wrong with Film Teaching, Criticism, and ReviewingAnd How
to Do It Right. For more information about Ray Carney's writing on
independent film, including information about how to obtain this interview
and two other packets of interviews in which he gives his views on film,
criticism, teaching, the life of a writer, and the path of the artist,