just finished your second book on John Cassavetes, a director whose films
you at first found impossible to sit through. Is watching film a skill
that can be learned?
RC: I better believe that it
is something that you can learn and something that can be taught! Because
that's my jobhelping students learn how to see and think in new
ways. That's what all teachers doin math, physics, economics, or
the arts. They show students new ways of thinkingnot just new names
and dates and factsbut whole new ways of understanding. And it's
what art does too. It teaches us new ways of knowing, new ways of thinking
about our lives. That's what all real learning consists of. But, of course,
that takes a lot of effort, and, being human, we resist that sort of learning.
We want to remain in our old habitual grooves.
That's why the work of a genuinely
original artist like Cassavetes is almost always doomed to be misunderstoodat
least initially. He shakes us out of our complacencies. He, at least initially,
confuses and disorients us. We're always more comfortable with what we
have seen before. That is why Hollywood is so successful. It never really
challenges us. It never gives us anything truly new or different. Year
in and year out it merely recycles old myths, clichÈs, stereotypes, story-telling
You said you stormed out of
his work the first time you saw it. What made you go back and watch Faces
RC: It's part of the nature
of art that it sticks in your craw. It may frustrate you, or bewilder
you, but it stays with you. Cassavetes reached into me in some deep emotional
way so that I couldn't get rid of him by simply dismissing him. I went
back to Faces again and again, and only by the third of fourth
time did I manage to sit through it. And suddenly I realized that I had
this incredible experienceeven as I had struggled not to
He's an in-your-face kind of
filmmaker. Michelangelo Antonioni once described Hollywood movies as being
nowhere, talking to no one, about nothing. They always seem to take
place on some fantasy island, full of beautiful people, where nothing
important is ever really at stake. Cassavetes' movies are not set somewhere
else. His hell doesn't have other people in it. His characters are us.
That's why once his work gets its hooks in you, once you let it into your
life, it's hard to get off the hook without coming to grips with it.
I've heard it said that last
year's films were more intelligent: The Piano, Shadowlands,
Remains of the Day? Do you agree?
RC: We're all so hungry. We're
starving for something intelligent. And that makes us so grateful, so
overly grateful, when something just a little bit above the average comes
alonga Piano, a Schindler's List. They only seem intelligent,
by comparison to the absolute idiocy of the rest of what's out there.
Does that sound too depressing?
I'm really not negative. Every year, I see one or two unbelievable, amazing
works. There are artistic masterworks being created in film in
America every year! There are some astonishing artists out there. The
problem is that almost nobody ever hears of them. Even most of the film
professors I know are unaware of them. They have very small budgets, take
out no ads in newspapers, and are almost entirely ignored by reviewers.
So I'm afraid I'm a bit less grateful to Steven Spielberg that the American
critical establishment appears to be. He may play the Hollywood pop/schlock/kitsch
game a little better than average, but there's a whole other game out
there being played by real cinematic artists, even if very few people
seem to be aware of it.
Is it the duty of art not to
imitate life, but to ask us to experience something new through art?
RC: If my students learn only
one thing from me, I hope it is that art is not set somewhere off to one
side of life! It is not an escapist entertainment, a refuge from our daily
problems, a time-out from real life. It is a way of exploring
and ultimately understanding the most difficult and complex experiences
we have every day.
The duty of art is to question
everything. To try to understand everything. The reason art exists is
to allow us to examine everything about our emotions, our beliefs, our
relationships with others, our culture. The great works ask every possible
question about who we are, where we come from, where we are going. Art
is the most complex and serious form of thinking about life that has ever
Unfortunately, almost everybody
wants their art to be simpler than that. Over the past ten years or so,
the function of art has been under assault from both the political left
and the right. The left (under the flags of feminism, Marxism, and various
forms of ideological analysis) wants to turn art into a kind of Affirmative
Action program for promoting progressive social agendas. The right (under
the banners of traditionalism, neo-conservatism, and values education)
wants to use works of art to teach moral and political values. Needless
to say, I have nothing against values or desirable social agendas in and
of themselves, but the problem is that neither side can deal with the
complexities of genuine artistic expression. Both sides want to make art
into something easier than what it really is.
Both sides want to reduce it
to story-book maxims. But we can't pull portable, excerptable meanings
out of works of art in the way they try to. The experiences in works of
art resist having handles put on them in this way. Neither the left nor
the right seems to understand the first thing about how art really works,
how complex and slippery its meanings are. (It's fitting that William
Bennett would illustrate his ideas about values-education by recently
compiling a child's story-book anthology. His ideas about how art communicates
fall apart if you try to apply them to anything more complex than a children's
You criticize traditional filmmakers
such as Welles and Hitchcock for manipulating the viewer, telling us what
to think with mood music, camera angles, and dramatic lighting. You credit
Cassavetes with making us partners in the meaning-making process. But
isn't film by its very nature manipulative? After all, Cassavetes does
decide where to point the camera.
RC: Any work of art can only
show you part of life, part of experience. But there are ways of exercising
that power of selectivity that complicate our responses. And there are
ways that simplify our responses. Most American films have reveled in
the art of simplification.
What is more offensive to you?
Bad films, or bad critics who praise them?
RC: I'm in danger of becoming
a complete bore on the subject of critics and reviewers. In my opinion,
the state of journalistic criticism in this country is appalling. I've
written eight or ten articles attacking the critical establishment in
America [including a 1986 New Republic cover story attacking New
York Times critic Vincent Canby]. The problem is that 99 times out
of 100 reviewers are more or less just extensions of the publicity machinery
of the films they are reviewing. It becomes very hard to tell where the
press release ends and the review begins. If critics don't exercise completely
independent and free judgment about the works they review, then I don't
know what the function of a critic is.
Sometimes I think that if there
were simply a moratorium on journalistic reviewing for a year or two,
the level of appreciation of American films would improve markedly. If
you could just silence the Gene Shalits, Gene Siskels, and Roger Ebertsif
we could just ask them to please be quiet, if we could just send them
on vacation for a year, things would improve on their own. I figure the
average viewer, if left to his or her own devices, would have a more sophisticated
understanding of films and exercise more independent judgment than most
the journalists do. But then again, I think the same thing about foreign
policy, the defense budget, and Whitewater!
In a 1993 interview with Visions
magazine, you said: A film that you can understand on a first viewing
is probably not worth watching.
RC: I've never understood this
desire to have things instantly accessible and intelligible. We don't
expect to walk into a museum and understand the paintings at first glance.
We don't expect to sit down with Henry James' The Golden Bowl and
understand it on a first reading. We don't expect to sit through Stravinsky's
Symphony in C and get it at one listening. (Really,
we don't expect to get it at all in the way the movies allow
us to take in meanings with a glance.)
Well, I don't expect the films
that interest me to be any more obvious than a Picasso painting or a Balanchine
ballet. I think reviewers have put us in this frame of mind. If a movie
is somehow difficult or challenging, it's regarded as a defect. It would
be better if it were more accessible, so it could reach more people. But
that's the logic of politics and advertising, not of art. I don't want
my films to be simpler and more obvious, any more than I want my friends
to be simpler and more obvious. I don't want either of them merely to
give me back my own ideas. I want them to challenge me, to move me to
new places, to help me to see and feel in new ways. I want to learn from
them, and that's always going to painful or difficult or take work. I
want to have my life changedin however small or large a wayby
knowing them. Anything else is a waste of my time, and my life.
Excerpted from At
the Other Movies with Ray Carney: An Interview with Peggy Lamb,
Boston University Today, May 8, 1994.
a 1994 Interview with David Sterritt
for The Christian
How did you come to write the
I've been interested in Cassavetes'
work for a long time, ever since I walked into a screening of A Woman
Under the Influence. I didn't even know who Cassavetes was at the
time, but when it was over, I left the theater, went off onto a side street
and up a hill into a nearby vacant lot, raised my hands in the air, and
whooped out loudthat the hand of man could have created something
so beautiful and profound, and that I had lived to see it.
This is my second book on Cassavetes.
The earlier one was published about ten years ago and is now out of print.
After Cassavetes' death in 1989, I organized a number of retrospectives
of his work at film festivals in Europe and America and had the chance
to talk with most of the people who had worked with him over the years.
They told me some amazing stories. One reason I wrote the book was simply
to let others hear some of the war stories from those who had been down
in the trenches with him. And then Sam and Larry Shaw gave me some absolutely
astonishing behind-the-scenes photographs to use as illustrations.
Would you describe the book
as criticism or intellectual biography?
I don't know how I'd describe
it. I have detailed critical discussions of six of the films, but in the
largest sense, it is an attempt to explore the mysteries of the creative
process, to understand where these wonderful, strange movies came from.
I was stalking demons. And maybe I snared a few, but that's for the reader
Your contention, expressed
in the first sentence of your introduction, is that Cassavetes was one
of the greatest artists of the century, ranking with Picasso, Stravinsky,
and Balanchine. If that is the case, how do you account for the fact that
his work is still so unknown to the average, or even the considerably
above average, viewer?
Well, you have to consider
how films get known. Cassavetes made small-scale independent movies. The
advertising budget for the average studio picture is three or four times
what his entire production budget was. And as far as radio, television,
and newspaper coverage goes, something I call the Nightline rule
applies: movies tend to get discussed to the extent that they lend themselves
to journalistic debate. Filmmakers like Oliver Stone and Spike Lee are
almost guaranteed saturation coverage because every talk show in America
can organize a panel discussion about their work, while a genuine work
of art that doesn't plug into current events or mobilize any of the various
special interest groups that drive the world of journalism is doomed to
be ignored. If Henry James and Emily Dickinson were writing today, they
wouldn't get discussed on Fresh Air or All Things Considered
either. Their work isn't socially relevant enough, which just goes to
show how irrelevant social relevance is as a yardstick. It's only by
accident that genius is going to coincide with the fashionable journalistic
When I think of the movies
that do get discussed to deathfilms like Schindler's List,
Malcolm X, JFK, and PhiladelphiaI can hardly
believe anyone takes them seriously. Does anyone beyond the age of high
school actually learn anything from them? As far as I can tell,
people go to them precisely not to learn to grow, but to have their received
ideas reinforced. They want to have their prejudices confirmed, and to
be able to feel good about their virtuousness. We can congratulate ourselves
that we're not like most of the people in the moviewe're
not anti-Semitic, homophobic, racist, stupid or insensitive. But is
that what art is aboutconfirming our clichÈs, and patting ourselves
on the back? Cassavetes doesn't let us off the hook so easily. His hell
doesn't have only other people in it. He forces us to examine our
own livesto recognize the little lies we tell ourselves, our
petty emotional sellouts, our small infidelities. He tells us things we
probably don't want to know about ourselves.
Many viewers have had a hard
time with his films. Husbands and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
, for example, had large numbers of walk-outs, and elicited lots of complaints
Mainstream Hollywood movies
are easier on the viewer because they are organized melodramatically.
They have heroes and villains. Characters are presented with clear-cut
moral choices. They are given a series of actions to perform to achieve
their goals. Cassavetes didn't operate in the realm of melodrama. His
characters and scenes are never black and white. Their problems are not
clear-cut but fuzzy. His characters can have terrific intentions and still
hurt one another or betray themselves. I can understand why audiences
prefer the other kind of movie. People would rather be taken on a roller
coaster ride. They would rather be taken out of their own lives into a
realm of clarity and resolution. That's why they call it entertainment!
But great art goes the other way. It takes us deeper into our lives.
It forces us to look at the places we want to avoid: the points of uncertainty
Do you have an explanation
for why even so many serious critics and reviewers failed to recognize
the greatness of his work?
Well, some of them did! You
were one of the small number of reviewers to celebrate Cassavetes' achievement
during his lifetime. The recognition of great art is always a chancy proposition.
The greater the work, the greater the demands it's going to make on a
viewer, because the more likely it is going to violate the forms of stereotypical
thinking that even sophisticated critics rely on to navigate through a
complex experience. It's inevitable that works that push buttons and recycle
last year's emotional fashions are going to look better than works that
propose new ways of knowing. Cassavetes offers breathtakingly new
ways of understanding life, so it is not surprising that he should have
left most of the critics gaping. I should add that academic criticism
of the past couple decades seems especially unsuited to the appreciation
of works of artistic genius, so it's not that surprising that most film
professors still haven't discovered his work either.
is your assessment of the current state of academic criticism?
The appreciation of great art
requires three things that seem to be increasingly uncommon in our universities:
First, a profound humility in the face of the work; second, a willingness
to engage oneself in a sustained act of attention, an intimate, personal
encounter with the most complex form of expression known to man; and third,
an acknowledgment that the artist might have things to tell us that we
don't already know.
Most contemporary academic
criticism is the opposite: It is not humble, but superior, skeptical,
smug, and knowing. The critical stance does not involve intimacy with
the text in all of its particularity, but flying 50,000 feet above it
in a realm of ideological abstractions, swooping down on it only occasionally,
for selected evidence to bolster a predetermined position. Most importantly,
it does not involve lovingly opening oneself to the work, learning
from it, but more often than not, debunking it: exposing its
so-called complicity with the reigning ideology, and, as far
as possible, reducing the work to its political, social, and material
Academic criticism is basically
a mirror of the rest of society. We live in an age of cynicism and doubt,
so its probably not that surprising that our criticism should be the same.
We live in an era in which the social sciences are triumphantin
which all of life is understood in terms of trends, averages, audiences,
and demographicsso it shouldn't be that surprising that most academic
criticism unconsciously imitates the social sciences. It has sold its
soul to our century's three idiot village explainerssociology, psychology,
and ideology. The only problem is that the greatest art is precisely what
won't be reduced to such terms. The most complex aspects of our
minds and feelings are not reducible to generic, impersonal, average
forms of understanding.
That's why most academic criticism
doesn't even deal with real art. It is most comfortable talking
about average expressions: kitsch and pop culture. Like the other social
scenes, it specializes in the study of average authors, average expressive
effects, and average viewers.
Genius will never be accounted
for by generic explanations and sociological causes. The slipping, sliding
complexities of art-speech are what are inevitably lost in the translation
to generalizations about race, class, and gender. Great art is the eccentric,
personal expression of uniqueand uniquely preciousstates of
In the book, you express reservations
about most of the major movements in contemporary criticism, including
popular culture studies, and feminist, Marxist, and Multicultural approaches
to art. Could you say why?
The problem with each of these
approaches is that it attempts to simplify or nail meanings down in one
way or another. Characters, events, and expressions are turned into types,
representatives, symbols of static, schematic, virtually allegorical understandings.
That's OK if you are dealing with Beavis and Butthead or a Spielberg
movie, but the greatest art can never be understood in such terms. Cassavetes
puts meanings in motion. His films dissolve static understandings. Noonan,
Zahedi, and Cassavetes capture spiritual and emotional states of streamingness,
presenting the feel of life as it's actually lived at its most complex
and exciting. It's a wild, propulsive race of experiences that will never
be reduced to big ideas, Citizen Kane symbols, pop-culture archetypes,
or ideological generalizations.
What is the current video situation
with Cassavetes' work?
In a word, it's a disgrace.
Even at this late date in the video revolution and five years after Cassavetes'
death, none of his films is available on videodisc, and five of his most
important movies (Shadows, Faces, Husbands, Minnie
and Moskowitz, and Love Streams) are unavailable on videotape
or disc. Apparently the owners of those works, Universal, Columbia, and
Buena Vista, don't think there is enough profit in it for them to bother
releasing them. It's a sad reminder that for all of the studios' big talk
around Academy Award time about their devotion to the art of film, what
they are mainly devoted to is the bottom linewhich is why the art
of film is in such a sad state in this country....
Excerpted (in an abridged
form) in: A New Look at John Cassavetes, The Christian
Science Monitor, Tuesday, May 10, 1994.
To read more about fads
and fashions in academic criticism, click on Multicultural Unawareness
in the Carney on Culture section, the essays Sargent and
Criticism and Eakins and Criticism in the Paintings
section, Day of Wrath: A Parable for Critics in
the Carl Dreyer section, Capra and Criticism in the
Frank Capra section, and all of the other pieces in this section.
only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing.
To obtain the complete text as well as the complete texts of many pieces
that are not included on the web site,