Nonconceptual, Nonintellectual Relations to Experience
The Limits of Metaphoric and Ideological Understanding
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work, life isn't framed.
goes against the grain of the dominant expressive tradition in American
film, which is visionary modes of thinking and feeling. But this is apparently
a difficult concept to take inI say that since every reviewer who
has ever written about my work has misunderstood itso let me re-visit
an illustration I used in my Cambridge book. Thematically, The Killing
of a Chinese Bookie has a lot in common with Citizen Kane.
Both movies are about loners who build artificial worlds, and who, in
the course of their films, move into them and wall themselves off from
emotional contact with others. If you operate at an abstract enough level,
they are the same movie. But that's where the similarity ends.
Cassavetes offers an entirely
different form of knowledge from Wellesin too many respects
to list, but let me touch on a few of its differences. First, note the
difference in clarity. The meanings in Kane are simple, obvious,
and clear-cut. Right on the surface. They tumble into your lap in the
movie theater. When Kane is dwarfed by the size of his livingroom
or physically at a distance from his wife, we know what it means. It's
clear and simple. The experiences in Bookie never attain this degree
of clarity. They are mysterious, multivalent, and elusive. What does it
mean when the bookie shakes his head, squints his eyes, and
mutters something the moment before he is shot? What does it mean when
Cosmo goes through with the hit or when Flo, the gangster played by Tim
Carey, does not? How does Cosmo really feel about Rachel or her mother?
It's not only that these things are not clear in a specific scene, but
they aren't clear even after the film is overor after you've seen
it a second or third time. You have to keep thinking about them, wondering
about them. They are not like movie experiences. They have
the opacity, the multivalence of life.
If you ask what the difference
in clarity is traceable to, it comes down to the different level of the
presentation in the two forms of filmmaking. Kane operates at the
level of intellectual abstractions, while Cassavetes stays in the
realm of sensory particulars and bodily expressions. The difference
makes all the difference in the world. The meanings in most other American
filmthere are very few exceptionsare fundamentally conceptual;
while the meanings in Cassavetes' work are perceptual. This is
what, in my other writing, I've called the pragmatic turn
in Cassavetes' work.
Kane again. Almost all of the expressive force of the film is communicated
by generalized, metaphoric statementsin shot after shot,
scene after scene. Virtually every camera movement, prop, framing, lighting
and sound effect is metaphorically meaningful. The result is to
encourage a conceptual relationship to on-screen events. This is the dominant
tradition in American art film. In fact, in many critics' minds, it's
the definition of art film. The other day I read an essay in the New
York Review of Books about Spielberg's A.I. in which the critic
unpacked the film's metaphors and general concepts, and clearly took his
success at doing it as evidence of the importance of the movie. That was
his definition of a great filma film that was organized around metaphors
and general concepts that you could do this to. The only problem was that
he completely failed to subject his own set of assumptions about the nature
of meaning to critical scrutiny. He failed to see how limited and specialized
the kind of meanings he detected and explicated were. He failed to see
how abstract they were. How mental they were. How they take the
form of ideas.
We have whole movies made now
where everything and everyone in them is an idea. Look at Lynch's
work. Or Kubrick's. Or Stone's. There's no behavior there. There's nothing
real. The people, events, scenes are metaphors. And a whole generation
of critics has been created who are expert at unpacking these metaphors.
Sounds great, eh? The only problem is that the world drops out when we
have such an abstract relation to it. The particularity, the tangibility,
the specificity of experience disappear. It's really a sickness, but we're
too close to it to see it. In a hundred years it will be seen to be one
of the defining qualities of twentieth-century art-and life.
The meanings in Cassavetes'
work are fundamentally different. They are not abstract but concrete;
not mental but practical; not intellectual but worldly. They do not float
Platonically above the ordinary world, but reside within the changeable
particularity of specific bodies, voices, spaces, and pacings. With the
fewest of exceptions, they are not figured metaphorically, but embodied
and enacted. They exist in space and timein a sprawling,
shifting, perceptual field that resists being translated into an abstract
conceptual system. Though he was never inclined to describe the difference
theoretically, Cassavetes touched on it when he commented that the shorthand
presentation of other films contrasted with his own films' longhand.
They offered recognition knowledge while he offered acquaintance
knowledgequick knowledge to his slow.
Cassavetes doesn't tell you
about an experience, but forces you to undergo the experience
itself. This is what I have called the functional aspect of
his work. It isn't merely descriptive; it does things to
a viewer. The films make many of the same demands on the viewer that they
make on their characters. Like the characters, a viewer must stay alive
in the moment by constantly adjusting, correcting, and changing his responses
to a shifting series of particular perceptual events. The abstraction
of stylistic and metaphoric expression in the other sort of film lets
the viewer coast above the raw experience, processing it more coolly and
intellectually, while Cassavetes forces him to live through it, perceptually
and cognitively negotiating its twists and turns, watching changing facial
expressions, listening to shifting tones of voice, paying attention to
bodies in motiononly slowly, tentatively arriving at conclusions
that invariably must be revised in the light of subsequent events. It's
very close to the experience of life at its best. Life at its most excitingmy
life, for example, not when I'm in a boring faculty meeting but when I'm
in a classroomhappens too fast to be understood and too complexly
to be analyzed. It defeats abstract stances. You can't hold it at arm's
length intellectually. Cassavetes gets something like that into his films.
There are occasional moments
in the films that might seem to be exceptions, moments when a general
metaphor or pattern briefly surfaceslike the mask image
in Shadowsbut Cassavetes' brilliance is that patterns no
sooner emerge than he disrupts them. If Ben is wearing a mask
in one scene, he shows himself vulnerable and sensitive in the next. The
films break their own forms, continuously swerving away from systematic
modes of understanding, preventing scenes from sinking into fixed meanings,
and characters from congealing into static relationships. Every viewer
feels this going on in the way scenes and characters keep surprising us
with unexpected behaviors or events. It's what makes watching the movies
both so exciting and so demanding. Characters won't remain within type
and their relationships, behaviors, and tones keep violating our expectations.
The result is scenes that don't
have the clarity of ideas but the turbulence of experiences.
Why do we want to get ideas from works of art anyway? Experiencing
is a far richer, more exciting way of encountering life than understanding.
It is a stunningly original form of cinematic presentation, but most critics
not only can't seem to grasp its difference, but keep trying to turn Cassavetes
into the other kind of filmmakersearching for the sort of metaphors,
abstractions, and generalized patterns the other sort of movie contains.
Since Cassavetes' death, the French have embraced his work, turning out
study after study; unfortunately, almost killing it in the process. French
criticism has always been biased toward abstract understandings, and to
read a French essay on Cassavetes is to have him turned into the precisely
the kind of intellectual filmmaker he hated. The kind he resisted being.
As you explain in the
Cassavetes on Cassavetes book, he was not an intellectual.
Right. But let me explain
it a different way. You might say the problem with most film criticism,
French or American, is that it turns movies into knowledge. This means
this. That means that. Now, there is knowledge in Cassavetesknowledge
of the differences between men and women, knowledge about how we play
roles and wear masks, knowledge about how afraid we are of losing control
and listening to our emotions. But when I am watching Cassavetes work
I am getting something way beyond knowledge. I am having experiences that
tune my eyes, ears, and brain; that test my emotional reflexes, my capacities
of response; that challenge me. I am living in a particularly heightened,
sensitized, super-alert, super-aware way. And that is what is left out
of intellectual approaches to the films. That is what metaphors and symbols
and every other kind of sociological, political, and ideological meaningfulness
don't get within a mile of.
I had an experience last night
that was a little like the one in a Cassavetes movie. I go out in the
evenings and ride my bike. I was going down this deserted country road
when all of a sudden I heard this roar coming from God knows where. The
sound was loud but like it was everywhere and nowhere at once. All of
my thinking processes stopped. For a few seconds I was in this exceptionally
heightened state of awareness. Then I noticed a train zooming along a
set of railroad tracks that ran close to the road. The confusion went
away as suddenly as it had started. I suddenly understood where the sound
had been coming from, what it was. For the rest of my bike ride I kept
thinking about that moment of confusion. It was such a rich place to be
in emotionally and intellectually. Because I was denied understanding,
I had to respond in another way. But once I understood where the roaring
sound was coming from, once I could categorize it, I was no longer as
alive, as alert, as active emotionally. Knowledge kills experiencing.
That's what Cassavetes knew. That's what he does in his scenes. He gets
you out of your mind. Do you understand?
This way of experiencing
is not about ideas. It's the opposite of ideas. It takes place before
ideas form. It may generate ideas, but they come later. This kind of experience
is about getting into the very roots of perception, before ideas
organize it. When I am watching Faces or A Woman Under the Influence,
I feel like I am seeing the world under a microscope. I am given powers.
Not knowledge. Power. My brain is being adjusted to notice things
in a different, more intense, more rapid way than it normally functions.
The experience of the train before I knew it was a train used to happen
to me all the time when I watched Balanchine's ballets when he was still
in charge of mounting them. You were in this world where there was more
going on at every moment than could be understood. Tarkovsky knew about
it. It's that moment in The Sacrifice when the jet that you don't
know is a jet flies over.
All great art is about getting
beyond knowledge in this way. The knowledge the art provides is the lesser
part of it. Read Henry James's The Sacred Fount. Read Proust's
Recherche. Your brain is dazzled by the length of the sentences,
the looping references and unexpected connections, the uncanny tonesProust
in particular is screamingly funny even at the most serious moments. You
don't know how to react. Or listen to Bach. It's about having your mental
processes shifted into completely unnatural, hyper-aware, nonintellectual
modes of functioning.
Why do you call it unnatural?
I don't mean perverse or
pointless or useless. Quite the contrary. These are the highest, most
useful, most valuable experiences we can have. But they are unnatural
in the sense that they very seldom occur on their ownin nature as
it were. We have to be pushed into these ways of being. Great art is the
best pusher we have. Of course, life can also push us. There are experiences
you have in lifewhen you are intensely in love and doing something
very important with your lover; when you are sad and suffering; when you
are caught off-guard in the middle of a family tragedywhere the
same thing happens. But they are rare.
The one thing the two sets
of experiences have in commonthe peak experiences of art and of
lifeis that they depend on some sort of breakdown. We are trapped
in clichés most of our lives. We are dead. We don't really experience
things. We just experience the ideas of the thingsnot the real experience
of what they look and feel like, but just the dead, repetitive, empty
meaning of them. It's what D.H. Lawrence calls mistaking a parasol with
painted sun, moon, and stars for the real sky and stars. But then, if
we are luckythough it always feels scary when it happensLawrence
says something comes along and tears a gash in our parasols and we get
a glimpse of reality. The real sun, moon, and stars. That's the place
of experiences happening outside of thoughts and ideas. The place that
climactic events in life get us to. That's the place of real, deep, complex
perception outside of all of our schemes for knowing. And that's what
art gets us to also. Bach, James, Proust, Cassavetes, Lawrence, and a
Of course, what Cassavetes
is doing is a lot harder for him to do than it is for me to describe.
Some of my students think they can make a Cassavetes movie by carrying
a handheld camera into a room and starting filming in the middle of a
conversation. That's not what Cassavetes is about. He is about capturing
identities, expressions, and experiences that have the flowingness, density,
and irreducibility of the greatest, most upsetting, most enlightening
experiences in life.
Is it awkward for you as a scholar and critic to write about films that
Cassavetes' films defy
some kinds of critical scrutiny, but open themselves to others. After
all, I published a book-length critical study of his work with Cambridge!
But it's the essence of artistic appreciation that you have to allow each
work to teach you how to appreciate it. You don't simply wheel in your
all-purpose critical tool-kit and go to work on it with the tools and
methods you used on the last work. Rembrandt asks for certain forms of
attention and Stuart Davis asks for entirely different ones. That's what's
wrong with critics who go on a hunt for metaphors or symbols in Cassavetes.
Or the ones who attempt to read ideological positions out
of the films. They have a one-size-fits-all method, when they should have
a different method for every work. There is no right method,
but an infinity of specific methods, each adapted to that filmBresson
viewed one way; Tarkovsky another. That's what a great work of art is:
a new way of knowing, different from the old way. But these
critics can't let go of their old forms of understanding. They think if
it worked with the last movie it will work with the next.
All of Cassavetes' work is
a plea that we stay in the flow of the moment and not rigidify our feelings
by turning them into ideas. It's already there in his first film, Shadows.
The problem each of the characters faces is that they try to live up to
ideas of what they think they should be. Benny wants to be cool,
Hughie wants to be good, Lelia wants to be independent.
The masterplot of Cassavetes' work always involves breaking down abstract
stancesin both the characters and the viewers.
It seems almost impossible
for some viewers to understand this basic point. All our training goes
against it. We're so brainy. We live in such an intellectual culture.
Most of us are so out of touch with our emotions, and so unaccustomed
to paying attention to what is really there in front of us. We insist
on turning experience into ideas. We look at everything so abstractly
that we no longer really see it. We only see what it represents.
It drives me crazy in the film
courses I teach! I show Tom Noonan's What Happened Was... and try
to get the students to stay inside the perceptual experienceto really,
really pay close attention to the shifting facial expressions, the changing
body language, the tonal glissadesand so few of them can do it.
Especially the boys. Some of the girls are a little better at actually
watching the faces and listening to the voices. But it's hard to get them
to do this.....
Why is there the gender
difference do you think?
It's not really surprising.
Men's imaginations are visual and women's are verbal. It's why men look
at Playboy and women read Harlequin romances. It's why men play
video games or watch sports while women talk in the kitchen or on the
telephone. In fact, I've often thought the image-addled focus of film
studyall that overemphasis on camera movements, light and shadow,
and visual symbolswas attributable to it being a male dominated
field. We need more female critics to re-center film study on voices and
But whatever the case, most
of my students, most of the timeeven many of the girls since they
have learned that this is the thing to doare busy trying to leave
the flowing vocal stuff behind in order to latch onto an abstraction,
a generalization about the relationship of the characters. I tell them
they are so much more intellectual than I am! I just want to watch the
movie more alertly and intensely each time; they want to turn it into
ideasideas that will spare them having to deal with the second-by-second
demands of the perceptual experience.
My students' favorite evasions
are the same as the French critics'one group wants to read expressive
meanings out of the camera work and lighting; another wants to study the
ideological underpinnings of the film or the sociological meaning of the
characters' lives; and the third goes in search of symbolic or metaphoric
meanings hidden somewhere in the props or events. That third choice is
such a popular one they must teach it in high school! I'll give you an
example from Faces. Three minutes into the movie, Freddie and Richard
tumble out of a bar called The Loser's Club. That just happens
to be the place that Cassavetes, always dependent on the kindness of strangers,
was able to film the bar scene in. Every single time I show that scene,
someone raises his hand and says, Did you see? The sign shows us
they're losers! As bad as that is, the professors are worse. Whole
movies are turned into sociological position papers. Faces and
Love Streams are said to be about the emptiness of the lives
of the rich and famous in Los Angeles. That's supposed to be profound?
Or the professors make the
same metaphoric move my students do. I remember hearing a professor comment
on a scene near the end of A Woman Under the Influence by saying
that when Nick puts a Band-Aid on Mabel's cut wrists, it's a metaphor
for how men don't understand the depths of women's problems. Get it? That's
supposed to be something? Great. Now you don't actually have to watch
the movie Cassavetes made. You can just cruise through attaching other
abstract tinker-toy pieces to that one, until you've made a whole interpretive
skyscraper out of Tinker Toys!
This whole thing made worse
by the sociological obsession of our culture, where everything is understood
in terms of generalized social significances. It's Joseph Campbell gone
amuck. You know how he starts with an Indian boy hunting foxes at night,
then suddenly everything means something more abstract and cosmic. That's
what critics do to movies. They don't turn them into initiation rituals
and the cosmic omphalos, but they do something similar: events, actions,
characters, and settings are systematically made to mean more general
things. That may sound like it's innocuous, but when you start translating
artistic experiences into sociological or ideological abstractions, the
physicality and temporality drops out. We lose the world. I wrote a hundred-page
essay about this, so I'll just summarize by saying that the ways of knowing
that I am most interested in are not general, grand, abstract, static,
and symbolicbut the opposite: temporal, tangible, in process, slipping,
sliding, tentative, small. You know what the deep problem is? Our attempt
to turn experiences into meanings. Meaning is the real enemy. Meaning
stops the movement. Meaning freezes the flow. As I've said so often before,
we have to find some way to think without thoughts. But based on the responses
I've gotten, I'm not sure there's a single person out there who understands
what I am saying.
Is that essay in print?
It's in a book about modernism
edited by a guy named Townsend Ludington. Let me go further than I already
have. I am describing a cultural problem that goes way beyond filmmaking
and film criticism. The joy, the importance, the meaning of the particular
has been lost. Systematic knowledge takes its place. An interest in regularity,
predictability, and pattern replaces awareness of the unique and particular.
It's everywhere. We live in an age of generic qualities and generalizations.
Specificsof voice, appearance, texture, tonedrop out. Look
at the internet. Look at email. Look at the news and the newspapers. Look
at soap operas and prime-time sitcoms. Everyone and every expression is
a type, a representativewhich means that no one and nothing is individual,
unique, precious. Everything is allegorical. It stands for something else.
It's the triumph of the generic, the impersonal, the static, the faceless,
the toneless. Moral judgments are the worst form of this. Since psychology
is the form morality currently takes in our culture, I include psychological
judgments in the generalization. Psychology kills experience by categorizing
it. By limitingly understanding it. Of course this situation wasn't created
by the internet or television. I was reading the Preface to Henry James'
The American Scene yesterday, and he talks about it. And before
that, Hawthorne wrote about it. Art like Cassavetes' and Noonan's and
James's and Hawthorne's is an attempt to re-capture the force of the particular,
the momentary, the temporally flowing and fugitive.
I was just down in New York,
watching a new play of Tom Noonan's [What the Hell's Your Problem?].
I stayed with him in his apartment and he comp'd me in to four performances.
It was one more demonstration of what I have just said. It's a mock-therapy
session where various people get up and tell the stories of their messed-up
lives. The actors presented a series of monologues that created an amazingly
jittery experience where nothing stops movingthe mood jumps from
farce to tragedy, from braggadocio to introspectionand where the
tone is pitched at an unresolved point halfway between the demented to
the serious. The audience didn't know what to make of it. I sat there
each evening bewildered, shocked, destroyed by the shifts and changes,
laughing one beat hushed into silence the next. It was dazzling. Meanwhile
everyone else watching it glared at me for not taking it seriously.
While I was responding to the flickers, they were responding to the meaning.
Sometimes I think the professors
need to go back to school and learn how art works. Metaphors, symbols,
images are the most primitive way of making artistic meaning. That's why
I call them the high school way. When you're fifteen and someone points
out a phallic symbol, I guess that's some kind of revelation. Wow. You
discover that art speaks in these symbolic ways that the newspaper doesn't.
But it's as if everyone stops at that stage, and doesn't go on to all
of the more complex ways that art speech functions: The incredibly subtle
use of tones to adjust how we understand things. The structural
ingenuities that control when we know things and how much we know.
The management of the distance we are from the experience and the degree
of sympathy we have toward figures in it. The echo-chamber comparisons
and contrasts of situations and characters in the house of mirrors that
is a work of art, etc., etc. They seem completely ignorant of these other,
far more complex ways of meaning. Instead they stay with the obvious,
unsubtle, unimportant symbolic values.
Cassavetes makes meanings in
much more complex, slipping, sliding ways. That's why he's hard to watch,
hard to understand, how to fit into our accepted categories. That's not
a flaw. That's his genius. And that's what my workon his films,
Mike Leigh's, Dreyer's, Capra's, Noonan's, etc. etc.is all about.
But it goes against the grain of our culture.
The mania for abstraction is
not confined to film studies. I taught a Henry James course last spring
and it was almost impossible to get the students to stay in the flow of
the languageall those intricate sentences, subtle witticisms, and
structural ingenuities that get us from one chapter to another. They weren't
interested. The words were something they just skimmed to find metaphors
or hidden meanings. They could hardly wait to leave the prickly complexities
of syntax and tone behind, so that they could have simple, smooth, round
abstractions to deal with.
It's like the way characters
in most movies actually tell you what they are thinking and feeling. I
just saw this movie called Signs where it happens all the way through.
But it's true of almost all Hollywood movies. How infantile. How absurd.
Life isn't like that. More often, it's the opposite of that. In life,
if you're in love with a girl, you don't risk telling her so. If a friend
takes you mountain climbing or white water kayaking and you get afraid,
you deny it. Even when men have heart attacks, doctors will tell you that
almost all of them cover it up. They hide it from their family. They wait
until the guests go home to call 911. That's the world Cassavetes and
Noonan capture. A world where no one merely says what is on his or her
mind. A world where you smile when you are hurt. And laugh when you are
insulted. That's why great movies use actors who can convey this sort
of complexity. Otherwise it might as well all be done like a documentary,
with a voice-over narration telling you what everyone is thinkingwhich
is what most Hollywood movies do. That's boring. It's too simple. It's
a lie about life. Everything in these movies is on the nose,
while expression in life is never that way. It's oblique, indirect, delayed,
confused, muddled. That's the greatness of life. That's what keeps it
Cassavetes does this all the
time. He does it so constantly that many viewers get confused. In Love
Streams, after the Robert Harmon tells Sarah that he needs to see
a lady about a house. Viewers will ask me after the screening why
he is seeing her about a house. I tell them that they are
just too used to direct expressions in film. They are used to their girlfriend
or boyfriend saying something like thatsome kind of fib or white
lieas an excuse to go see someone they don't want the other person
to know about, and they detect it instantly in life. But our movies are
so dumbed down, it astonishes us when a character shows even this degree
of complexity. In Cassavetes' Faces and Tom Noonan's The Wife,
the characters do this in virtually every scenethey talk for effect,
they say one thing but mean something else. You have to constantly ask
what they are really saying, what they are saying between the lines
or underneath their words. This seems so unusual in film, but it's everywhere
in life. Every interaction we have all day long, we say things different
from what we are really thinking. Why should it seem so unusual in a movie?
The critics conspire in the
simplification process by trying to trace everything back to simple inner
states. The attempt to describe characters psychologically, the search
for motives and intentionsin both film and
literatureis part of the same avoidance of the complexity of what
is really there. It flattens out the wiggles. It normalizes the weirdness.
It takes away the mystery, the sheer slowness and uncertainty of knowing.
The experience of a great work of art is so strange and demanding; the
characters so elusive; their behavior so undefined; the whole way we encounter
them so unpredictable and excitingand then the critic steps in and
makes it all so clear! This means this; that shows that she is
thinking that. Why do we want to simplify it?
Some of the girls in my classes
want to find evidence of sexual abuse in Mabel's relation with her father
late in the film or of wife-beating in her relation with Nick. Ah, yes,
that's why she brings a man home. That's why she can't communicate with
Mr. Jensen. What's wrong with that way of proceeding is that it makes
A Woman Under the Influence too easyand too distant from
our own lives. If Mabel matters at all, it is because she is us
here and nownot someone else, not a psychological case
or syndrome. I tell them they need to find a harder path through
the filma more painful, more personal, more intimate relationship
with Mabel. They need to see themselves in her, and until they do that,
they are taking an easy way out.
I call this quest for deep
meaningshidden social implications and abstract ideological and
psychological systems of understandingthe decoder ring
response to art. You go into a work looking to unveil secrets.
The real profundities in great films, like the profundities in life, are
superficial, right on the surface, in what you see and hear, second by
second. It's the depths that are trivial. If you can't deal with what
is really in front of you, if you can't handle the slipping, sliding complexity
of artyou simplify it by turning it into something else: sociology,
ideas, insights, thoughts.
By the way, I am not
saying that these works don't have meanings. They do, but their
meanings reside in and are a product of these incredibly complex superficial
events, which most critics weirdly seem devoted to getting beyond.
They claim to want to study works of art, but then can't wait to turn
them into something much simpler: sociological or psychological or cultural
studies documents. What is it Robert Frost says? Poetry is what is lost
in the translation. Well, they leave the art outbut the art is the
most important part!
The limitation of the sociological
or ideological approach is that it focuses on external relationsof
power, dominance, control; while many of the most interesting artists
are more interested in internal, emotional events. Sociological and historical
ways of knowing have become the dominant form of understanding in our
culture, and it's a lot easier to describe the outsides of life, than
the spiritual insides, so it's not surprising that this is the way most
films are understood.
I am interested in talking
about emotional and imaginative events, not economic or ideological ones.
But my position is clearly a minority onea minority of one, I sometimes
think. I'm forcibly made aware of it every time I publish a book. My Capra
book was an attempt to save his work from ideological critics who were
convinced they already knew what his films were about. I got nowhere with
that. Only last year, when my Mike Leigh book was published, I was locked
in a critical battle about it with a few British cultural studies professors.
The whole book was an effort to point out the ways in which they had underestimated
his work. I argued it was not really reducible to those tried and untrue
neo-Marxist notions that had repeatedly been applied to ityou know,
about the fraudulence of yuppie poseurs and the nobility of the lower
classesand that there was all this amazing interpersonal and emotional
stuff going on that no one had noticed. My whole goal was to show that
the films were far more interesting, more complex, more human than the
ideological analyses could take in. I wanted to show that the films offered
experiences more complex that the abstractions they wanted to read out
of them. But what was the result? I was taken out to the woodshednot
because I rocked their world, but because what I had done completely bewildered
them. It was completely incomprehensible. They couldn't make heads or
tails of it. They were so locked into their rigid, abstract ways of understanding
that they couldn't see anything that I was trying to show them. I was
like a man describing shades of lavender to people who were color-blind.
They looked at the same thing I was looking at but could only see big,
fat shapes with dark outlines around themand here I was idiotically
pointing out delicate tonal shifts and subtle compositional relations.
The silliness of most criticism
would be amusing if it weren't pathetic. Here is this marvelously slippery
experience boiling and surging in all of these amazingly intricate cross-currents
of energy, and everyone wants to freeze it into an ice cube of static
Why do you think critics do it?
Everyone does it. It's
a result of how our brains workor I should say it's a consequence
of the difference between how they work when we are experiencing something
and how they work when we are remembering it. While we are experiencing
something, we notice motion, change, shifts, adjustments. In a Noonan
or Cassavetes movie that's an amazingly complex and shifting series of
facial flickers, voice tones, gestures, and body movements. That's the
experience. But the problem is that when we think back on it, we stop
it. Experience is like a movie; but memory is like a photograph. It takes
the temporality away. In the process of remembering what we saw, we remove
the temporal movement, and turn the experience into abstractions, stances,
positions. That's just the way the brain works. We can't help it. So in
a sense my criticism is about trying to be faithful to the experience
and not letting the our memory of it falsify it.
William James wrote about this.
People love labels and abstractions. They are comforting precisely because
they stabilize experience. They pin it down. But my point is the same
as James'. That abstractions falsify experience. That conceptions betray
perceptions. That ideas remove time from life. The critics who turn a
work into symbols and metaphors and the viewers look for such things are
like the people who sit behind me at the ballet who applaud the scenery
or the height of a dancer's jumps. They are looking in the wrong place
for the wrong kind of importance. They are looking for meanings that will
spare them the work of experiencing. They want to take the butterfly flickers
in Cassavetes and stick a pin through them so they can pin them on their
intellectual corkboard. How is it D.H. Lawrence puts it? These are the
people who insist on nailing Jesus to the cross. They prefer him nailed
down as a symbol, because the living Jesus would be too scary to deal
with. They flee from the confusions of reality into the clarity of ideas....
In the material above, Ray Carney discusses a fundamental difference between Cassavetes' work and that of most other American filmmakers. For more information about Ray Carney's writing, including information about obtaining three packets in which he gives his views on aesthetics, independent film, criticism, teaching, the life of a writer, and the path of the artist, click