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In the material below, 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 here.

Beyond Abstraction—
Nonconceptual, Nonintellectual Relations to Experience
The Limits of Metaphoric and Ideological Understanding

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In Cassavetes' work, life isn't framed.

Cassavetes' work 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 in—I say that since every reviewer who has ever written about my work has misunderstood it—so 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 Welles—in 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 over—or 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 film—there are very few exceptions—are 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.

Consider Kane again. Almost all of the expressive force of the film is communicated by generalized, metaphoric statements—in 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 film—a 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 time—in 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 knowledge—quick 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 motion—only 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 exciting—my life, for example, not when I'm in a boring faculty meeting but when I'm in a classroom—happens 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 surfaces—like the “mask” image in Shadows—but 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 filmmaker—searching 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 Cassavetes—knowledge 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?

Yes.

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 tones—Proust 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 own—in 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 life—when 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 tragedy—where the same thing happens. But they are rare.

The one thing the two sets of experiences have in common—the peak experiences of art and of life—is 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 things—not 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 lucky—though it always feels scary when it happens—Lawrence 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 zillion others.

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 defy definitions?

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 film—Bresson 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 stances—in 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 experience—to really, really pay close attention to the shifting facial expressions, the changing body language, the tonal glissades—and 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 study—all that overemphasis on camera movements, light and shadow, and visual symbols—was attributable to it being a male dominated field. We need more female critics to re-center film study on voices and faces.

But whatever the case, most of my students, most of the time—even many of the girls since they have learned that this is the thing to do—are 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 ideas—ideas 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 symbolic—but 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. Specifics—of voice, appearance, texture, tone—drop 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 representative—which 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 moving—the mood jumps from farce to tragedy, from braggadocio to introspection—and 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 work—on 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 language—all 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 thinking—which 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 interesting.

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 that—some kind of fib or white lie—as 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 scene—they 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 “intentions”—in both film and literature—is 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 exciting—and 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 easy—and too distant from our own lives. If Mabel matters at all, it is because she is us here and now—not someone else, not a psychological “case” or “syndrome.” I tell them they need to find a harder path through the film—a 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 meanings—hidden social implications and abstract ideological and psychological systems of understanding—the “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 art—you 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 out—but the art is the most important part!

The limitation of the sociological or ideological approach is that it focuses on external relations—of 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 one—a 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 it—you know, about the fraudulence of yuppie poseurs and the nobility of the lower classes—and 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 woodshed—not 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 them—and 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 meaning.

Why do you think critics do it?

Everyone does it. It's a result of how our brains work—or 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 here.

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Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.