I want to switch from the talking about the university to the mass media.
What is your opinion of the coverage of film?
Carney: Well the good news
is the media respond much more quickly to new ideas than professors do.
The bad news is they are usually stupid ideasor no ideas. In terms
of film they tend to chase intellectual fire engines to a smoky brush
fire on the edge of town. Think back on the films that got the most massive
mega-media coverage in the past three decades: Lawrence of Arabia, The
Devil in Miss Jones, The Godfather movies, Clockwork
Orange, Last Tango
in Paris, The Last Temptation of Christ, Malcolm X, Do
the Right Thing,
Blue Velvet, JFK, Schindler's List, Natural
Born Killers, the Star Wars saga. The list doesn't exactly inspire confidence. They are the greatest
expression of the human spirit in the second half of the twentieth-century?
The same principle governs
film coverage that governs what gets on the front page: If it bleeds,
it leads. The media respond to tawdry subject matter, sensationalism,
hype, and controversy. In film, if you deal with a trendy social issue,
a sensitive topic, a sexy subject, or offend some group and
get picketed, you've got it made. On top of everything else, all but a
handful of the thousand or more magazine, radio, and television reviewers
are completely captive to the spewings of Hollywood publicists and press
agents who create factitious, irrelevant journalistic hooks
to get silly movies onto the entertainment news radar screen.
Interviewer: Why is that?
Carney: We live in a culture
of publicity. An uprooted, lonely culture, where people don't have deep
historical and social roots, deep personal convictions, or established
values. The consequence is that they take their values not from their
families or religious beliefs or from looking into their own hearts and
souls, but on the basis of what other people are interested in. What's
hot. What's new and exciting. What's on TV tonight.
Journalists are part of that
cultural shallowness and trendiness. That's why a journalist's idea of
research is to read press releases and take his lead from
what other journalists have written. An editor's idea of a topic worth
covering is a topic that has just been covered in some other forumon
television, radio, magazine, or newspaper. American journalism is a vast
recycling operation. Once a topic appears in a major outletin the
New York Times, say, or in Time magazine or on Oprahit will make
its way through the entire alimentary system excreted by one organ, reconsumed
by the next, and reprocessed and repackaged one more time, to be reconsumed
by the next one in the food chain. You see it if you watch TV for a week.
Two thirds of what appears in every magazine or newspaper or evening news
show is just a repackaging of something that the editor or reporter found
somewhere else. There's this unending race to keep up with each other
and avoid missing the Next Big Thing. In terms of film the result is predictable:
Once a film or star or event gets covered by Entertainment Tonight, it's
a lock that it'll be picked up by everyone, everywhere else, and covered
at length, in exhaustive detail in every newspaper and television station
On the other hand, if you simply
make a good, strong, interesting, original film without a fashionable
media hook, forget it. You don't stand a chance of being interviewed
by The Times or being mentioned on All Things Considered. Substance is
hard for journalists to see. Trends are easier to follow.
The heart sinks at the triviality
of what constitutes news in America. There is lots of talk
about how things have changed after 9/11, but I just don't see it. All
that has happened is that 9/11 and its consequences have been tabloidized
and melodramatized just the way Gary Conduit and JonBenet Ramsey were
before 9/11. Journalists are still trying to beat each other to the punch
with the next soap opera angle or scare tactic. Look at the front page
of any newspaper or the CNN website on any day of the week. Where are
the really important events of the century? Where is sulfur and carbon
dioxide emissions and global warming? Where is world poverty? Where is
the energy crisis? Where is the population situation? Where is a consideration
of America's relation to the third-worldthe issues that are the
cause of the 9/11 events? Oh, those things get a think piece on the editorial
page once a month. But day after day the drumbeat is about the sniper
that stalked Baltimore. Before that it was about Elvis' birthday. And
before that it was the O.J. Simpson trial or some other celebrity circus.
Forget our devilish alliances with dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait;
after 9/11 the really big story was the clearing of the World Trade Center
site or the design of the memorialas if that ultimately mattered.
That's what we define as news.
Well, that's the journalistic
world that film coverage takes place in. Is it any wonder the Arts
pages never mention art, but focus on Summer Movies or Star
Wars movies or Sequels or some other piece of idiocy?
Neil Postman had it right: We are entertaining ourselves to death. Maybe
that's why September 11th hit people so hard. Television actually aired
two hours of reality that wasn't taking place far-away in Beirut. That's
so unprecedented that it scared the shit out of most Americans. But just
wait until we run out of oil in 2040 or coal in 2090. That should make
the news when it happens. But no reason to rush the coverage, I guess.
But I digress....!
Interviewer: It would be
best if you tried to stay on the subject of film. I am trying to follow
your argument. Are you suggesting that the films you named a while ago
got a lot of media coverage chiefly because they were backed by corporate
Carney: Not necessary. That
is one way to get massive press coverage, but not the only way. Another
is to create the illusion that your movie is not just a movie but an event
in the Harry Potter way. That also takes a lot of money. A cheaper way
is to make your movie look like an extension of the newspaper or the evening
news. That can be done on a tiny budget. And the newspapers will eat it
up, because your movie will now be treated as news rather
Interviewer: What do you
mean by that?
Carney: Make your film deal
with some hot social issue or topic. Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg
and Spike Lee do this all the time. When it comes to art, reporters don't
know what to look for, so they rely on journalistic standards of importance.
They apply the same standards of relevance to movies that they do to events
in the world to decide whether to cover them. Most of the films that get
big media coverage get it on the basis of their journalistic content.
They are about important issues or themes or subjects.
Of course that has nothing to do with their artistic value, but journalists
don't have any other way to judge a work of art.
The fallacy of this is obvious
is you switch to another art. It's as if the New York Times favored shows
at the Met that included historical paintings or paintings that dealt
with important people or social movements. The merely personal works of
Sargent or Eakins or Rembrandt wouldn't deserve a major review. Most of
English literature wouldn't make the cut either. Paradise Lost is the
only great poem in English ever written about an important eventand
the reason it is great is that is isn't really about the event!
The stupidity of film coverage
is compounded by the journalistic fixation on popularity and financial
success. If something makes a lot of money or is popular, it's thought
of as being more important than if it is unknown or a financial failure.
They measure art works the same way they measure something on the stock
market. That's backwards, since great art is, almost by definition, almost
never popular or financially successful. Once you have internalized those
Wall Street values, you guarantee that Hollywood gets all the attention.
Then there's the quest after
newness. I occasionally program film retrospectives for Boston
movie theaters, and just as regularly hear that the Boston Globe won't
be covering the event, because those films were already reviewed
a few years ago when they were first released. The say there is
no room. Then you look and the next week's issues of the paper contain
ten or fifteen stupid reviews of ten or fifteen stupid new Hollywood releases.
Then there is something I call
the newspaper wars. The silly, vain ways that newspapers compete
with each other. They want to beat other outlets to the story, so they
can have an exclusive. To hell with the importance of the
story. What it really comes down to is issues of turf and territoriality.
Like children in a sandbox. I once made the mistake of writing an article
on a group of films for The Phoenix, which is one of the Boston
Globe's rivals on arts coverage. It was made very clear to me that
The Globe would not be covering the subject or talking to me about it,
since I had worked for the enemy.
These stupid journalistic policies
and rivalries have lots of real, important consequences. Specialty programmers
at museums and archives simply can't afford to present events that the
local paper is not going to cover, for fear that too few people will attend.
I can't tell you how many times I've been told by programmers Well,
I think that's a great idea, but you know so-and-so won't cover iteither
because he doesn't like those kinds of films or because he already covered
something like that recentlyso we can't do it. It would be commercially
too risky. They generally add that if some reporter I know can guarantee
coverage, or if I can personally get an article into the paper, everything
would be different. Shows are actually booked or cancelled as a result
of whether the paper will regard it as being newsworthy. Lots
of films don't make the cut.
Interviewer: But it is called
the newspaper. It's supposed to report news.
Carney: That's the wrong way
to decide what art gets reviewed. It's equivalent to saying that the Globe won't be reviewing a Hopper show at the Museum of Fine Arts because some
of the paintings were already reviewed in some other show five or ten
years before. It's just one more example of the way Hollywood has polluted
reviewers' brains. A reviewer would see the fallacy of not covering a
show of painting or sculpture or music a second time because the presumption
is that there is always something new to learn from those other arts,
but since it's just a movie, they can't see why in the world it would
merit a second look or a second opinion.
Pauline Kael actually used
to brag that she never saw a movie twice. The implication was that if
you had to see it twice to understand it, it was a failure. That logic
self-confirmingly defines out of existence any and every intelligent film
ever made. Any artistic work worth its salt has to be seen twice or ten
or a hundred times to be understood. That's not my opinion; that's a given.
The news-hound journalists have it backwards. If they were really interested
in real news, the important spiritual news, as Ezra Pound put it
the news that stays news, they should abandon the endless quest for the
next big thing and start reviewing old movies. The older the better. The
effect of applying news standards to a work of art has almost
comical consequences. Once in a while a really worthy film or filmmaker
will briefly make the A-listthe way Mark Rappaport has with some
of his recent workbut it is invariably for the wrong reasons. Rappaport
has been making amazing works for twenty-five years, then is finally discovered
because his eighth or ninth film can conveniently be hung on some gender-politics
Interviewer: But aren't
editors and producers constantly on the lookout for interesting new work?
Carney: In theory. But you
have to understand who is making these decisions. The editors commissioning
pieces for the leading magazines and the television and radio producers
for the interview shows are not specialists in film. They have never even
heard of most of the major American filmmakers of the past forty years.
And they certainly have not seen their work. All they know is what they
read in trade papers, on the wire services, or see on TV. And those outlets
are controlled by the Hollywood publicists.
results are predictable. Oliver Stone and Spike Lee get on Charlie Rose
and Fresh Air and Todd
Haynes and Su Friedrich don't. Look through the pages of even so-called intellectual magazines
and journals like The Nation, Mother Jones, Partisan
Review, The New
Republic, The London Review of Books,
Utne Reader, or The New Yorker. I'll bet you money you can't
find a single mention of Bruce Conner, Su Friedrich, or Jay Rosenblatt
in the complete
run of all of them. Three of the most important living filmmakers! Heck,
I don't think you could find a mention of Paul Morrissey or Cassavetes
or Robert Kramer or Mark Rappaport or any major filmmaker of the past
thirty years. But you'll find dozens of articles about Spielberg and
and Stone. Look at a few years of The New York Review of BooksAmerica's
most important large circulation intellectual journal. Compare the depth
of its coverage of books and political issues with the simplicity of
it runs about movies.
[A postscript: As confirmation
of my remarks, as I was checking this interview for publication a new
issue of The New York Review of Books just arrived in my mailbox. It is
a journal that might, in a given year, only find space for five or six
film reviews. Guess what film made the cut and is featured on the cover
of June 13, 2002 issue? Spiderman. Need I say more? RC]
The literary editors of the
magazines I have named don't know there even is a problem. They don't
realize how shabby and uninformed the pieces they publish are. All they
know is that writers like Philip Lopate, David Thomson, or Roger Ebert
are in demand, meet deadlines, and provide lively copy. And another middlebrow
piece gets into print, where Hollywood defines the limits of the cinematic
Interviewer: What do you
mean defines the limits of the imagination?
Carney: I mean that our culture
takes the word of people who are paid to write about movies, and paid
to write a certain quota of their reviews about Hollywood releases as
if they were neutral, objective, high-minded seekers after truth. But
they aren't. Journalists do not survey film from on high. They are highly
biased and limited in their perspective. They mouth the Hollywood point
of view. They are part of the PR apparatuseven when they think they
are rebelling against it.
Interviewer: Explain that.
Carney: Well, even to give
a movie like Austin Powers a bad review is to be part of the promotional
system for the film. Imaginatively speaking, it's a zero-sum game. For
every column-inch or television minute devoted to Hollywood PR, that's
so much time or space denied to the coverage of artistic work. Television
and magazines are not intellectual supermarkets. They are fast-food restaurants
serving a very limited, pre-selected menu that is calculated to appeal
to the maximum number of mainstream viewers. They are not reporting on
the universe of film. They filter out ninety-nine percent of what is out
there and only let what fits their preconceived notions get through. They
are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Interviewer: How about if
a filmmaker sent her movie on video to Roger Ebert or Leonard Maltin or
someone like that and got him interested in the film? Wouldn't that be
a way of breaking through the wall of indifference? Ebert could write
something about the movieeither in a review or just as a paragraph
the filmmaker could use to promote the film with other reviewers.
Carney: It doesn't work that
way. Ebert or any of the leading reviewersany of the people who
are on TV or who write for USA Today, Time, Newsweek, or any other big
magazinewon't mention your film unless it is already in national
release. They justify the policy by saying that there is no point in reviewing
something that readers or viewers can't get to see. But of course it's
a self-fulfilling prophecy. The only movies that fulfill the reviewers'
requirementthat open in five or ten or a hundred citiesare
mainstream Hollywood films. The fringe indie works are effectively screened
out of the reviewing process. The reviewers have adopted a policy that
is biased toward covering Hollywood product and against indie work. The
studios might as well be paying their salaries, and in a certain sense
they are. No editor in America has ever thought of challenging the Hollywood
hegemony. Open up Time magazine next week if you don't believe me. The
reviews are only for mainstream movies. It's completely de-coupled from
quality. The reviewer ends up helping those who don't need help, and ignoring
everyone who does.
The indie filmmaker is confronted
with the classic how does an inexperienced waitress get experience?
problem. No American reviewer will review your work until it has opened,
but the indie is the one person in the system who can't persuade a group
of theaters to book it until it has been favorably reviewed.
Interviewer: But the idea
that the movie has to be in a certain number of cities to justify coverage
in a national media outlet makes sense.
Carney: Not to me. The art
critics cover shows of paintings that are in a museum in only one city.
The dance critics cover performances that not only occur only in one city,
but generally occur only once or twice, and usually are over by the time
the review appears. Film critics should review important movies not only
if they are only in one theater, but even if they are in no theater nowhere!
Of course to appreciate why you should do that, you have to break out
of the two thumbs up definition of film criticism.
Interviewer: What do you
Carney: I mean that the root
of the problem is that every film reviewer I know defines his job incorrectly.
Without realizing it, they have all internalized the Hollywood value system.
They define reviewing completely cynically as a form of advertising. The
function of a film review is no different from the function of a car review.
It tells you whether you should or should not buy a particular product.
Like a cereal ad, the film critic gives you facts about the movie so you
know whether you'll like it or not. It's not criticism. It's the logic
of salesmanship, and once you have internalized it, the rest follows.
It would make no sense to review a film that was not playing in ten or
a hundred cities. You'd be sending people to buy something
(or warning them not to buy it) that they couldn't find anyway. And there
would be no point in doing that. But that's not what reviewing is about.
That's not the function of criticism. That's the function of advertising.
Right now Roger Ebert does function as a celebrity endorser. He's the
George Foreman of cinema. Only instead of selling mufflers and grilling
machines, Ebert sells tickets to The Matrix or Men in Black. That justifies
his policy of timing his endorsements of products so that the endorsement
appears only once the product is actually available on the store shelves.
But criticism is not about recommending or not recommending something.
Or that's only it's most trivial, unimportant function.
Interviewer: What is its
Carney: It's about understanding
our lives and the ways we express ourselves at this moment in history.
That's why it's valuable to read a piece in Time about Joel Shapiro's
sculptures even if they are only being presented in one city. That's why
it's valuable to read a piece about what happened at the New York City
Ballet after Peter Martins took over, even if you don't live in New York.
That's why it would be valuable to read an essay about Tom Noonan's contribution
to American film even if his film is not playing in a local mall. You'll
see the other two essays. Unfortunately you'll never see the third one.
We need to break reviewing away from the Hollywood advertising model and
return it to being a form of criticism. Otherwise the reviewer is just
an adjunct to the ad campaign/action figure/Happy Meal budget. Which is
what virtually every reviewer in America is!
What's weird is that other
journalistic reviewers understand this. It's only the film reviewers who
are so polluted by Hollywood that they can't get their minds around it.
Read the automobile reviewers. They review models that no one in the entire
readership of the newspaper will ever buy. Specialized, one-of-a-kind,
hand-made cars. They review car shows in Detroit, a thousand miles away
from their readership. They do it because they don't want to limit themselves
to being two thumbs up or down consumer reporters. They do it because
they know that even rare, non commercial, experimental vehicles have something
to tell us about the ones we normally buy. I just want the film reviewers
to treat their job as seriously as the car show reviewers. Tell me what
Tom Noonan is thinking and feeling this year. Or what Mike Leigh is. It
doesn't matter if their movies aren't playing anywhere. Or won't be released
for ten years. What they have been feeling for the last twelve months
is more important news than most of what is on the front page in the same
Interviewer: What would
happen if you sat down with a few of these producers and editors and told
them what you've told mepointing out the importance of breaking
reviewing free from the advertising mentality and covering specialized,
limited release, non-studio work?
Carney: I have said this to
reviewers over the years, but they can't get outside the advertising model
of reviewing enough to understand it. When I ask them to cover real indie
filmnot the Miramax, studio-promoted knock-off kind-they tell me
how little power they have to make or break a film. It's not me,
Ray. It's the viewers. They say that the fact that a film is playing
in a 100 or a 1000 theaters at once and has a thirty to fifty million
dollar advertising campaign behind it makes it critic proof.
But that's just another kind
of cynicism. They can sleep easy by telling themselves that they have
no real power. But if that is true, it is all the more reason they should
completely break free from the advertising model of promoting big box
office works. By their own logic, Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks films don't
need a review and their review won't matterso why write about them
at all. At around that point and they generally tell me that they are
already doing everything they can possibly do. At this point in the argument,
every single journalist I've ever talked tofrom Roger Ebert at the
top to the lowliest weekly shopper's guide reviewer hack at the bottomtells
me that his paper is really an exception to my strictures. That, although
he agrees with me about all the rest of the media's Hollywood addlement,
it doesn't apply to him and his work. Every single one feels that. So
there's clearly not going to be a lot of soul-searching after I have spoken
As far as the reporters and
editors for the big circulation media gothe Time and USA
and Charlie Rose and Fresh Air producersI don't live in New York
and go to the same dinner parties. So I've never talked to them. I probably
couldn't get a lunch with most of them. But if I did, I doubt they would
take me seriously. They'd probably write me off as some sort of special
interest crank. The Rupert Pupkin of the indie movement.
Interviewer: Why wouldn't
Carney: They aren't film critics.
They haven't seen these other films. They are completely indocrinated
by Hollywood notions of entertainment filmmkingwhich pseudo-indies
like Oliver Stone conform to. Beyond that, it's only human to assume that
something you have never heard of can't be that important. I encounter
that all the time. I often complain to journalists about how unknown many
of the great indie filmmakerspresent and paststill are. The
editor or producer invariably asks me for a few names. And when I say
Morris Engel and Barbara Loden and Paul Morrissey and John Korty from
the past or Caveh Zahedi and Jay Rosenblatt and Tom Noonan in the present
generation, I can see their eyes glaze over right in front of me. They
don't say it, but I can watch them thinking it: Oh, a bunch of names
I never heard of. They can't really be that important.
But you want to know what's
even more discouraging? Once in a while an eager beaver producer or reporter
will ask if I can send him a tape or two to look at. This picks up on
what I told you about how you can't give someone a film education in one
easy lesson. I used to think that would do itputting a tape or two
into their hands would convince thembut it generally has the opposite
effect. When I give them Human Remains or Sink or Swim or Scenic
that's the last I ever hear from them! I know what they are thinking:
They aren't real movies! They aren't entertaining.
They are artsy.
It's that stupid assumption
that if it's a movie, it should look like Hollywood, and the even stupider
one that everyone is qualified to be a critic. That everyone's opinion
is as valid as everyone else's, so that everyone functions as a self-appointed
expert, as if film were no more complex than baseball or politics. It
really shows contempt for the art. If these reporters were writing on
something they really respectedsay, economics or football, and Alan
Greenspan or Bill Parcells told them something that violated their common
sense understanding of the field, they would ponder it, study it, think
about it. But when it comes to movies, if I tell them they are writing
about the wrong filmmakers or that they have let the Hollywood publicists
skew their values, and that they are trapped in childish entertainment
notions, they just think I'm a nut. Or a professor.
Interviewer: You seem to
have a problem with a movie being entertaining.....
Carney: It depends what you
mean by that word. If you mean something that is interesting, fascinating,
gripping because of its complex truthfulness, then I would argue that
I am not opposed to that kind of entertainment. Haynes and Bresson and
Tarkovsky are entertaining in that way. When I choose to read Henry James
rather than watch television in the evening, it's because I want to be
entertained much more than television can entertain me. But that is my
own personal definition of the word. Most peopleincluding all of
the reviewers I readmean something entirely different. They mean
some kind of machine-gun editing that mimics MTV and a breathless sequence
of plot events that mimics Hollywood movies. Those conventions involve
various forms of sensory assault, various kinds of artificial stimulation
that are the opposite of having an artistic experience.
Interviewer: What do you
mean by that?
Carney: The stimulations of
rapid fire editing and violent plot events defeat thought. They work you
over. They make you passive. Art is the opposite. It makes you active.
When I watch The Sacrifice or Safeor when I read Henry James's The
Sacred FountI am forced to become a responder, a creator, a makerpondering,
wondering, meditating, living though complex experiences complexly. I
am living as complexly as when I am experiencing events in my own life.
Tarkovsky and Haynes and James don't give me the Oliver Stone rush of
a cocaine high. They don't bludgeon me into emotional passivity like Spielberg.
They don't assault me with events the way a James Cameron movie does.
They wake me up and bring me to life and make me think and work to understand
what is going on. That's the kind of entertainment I love, but it's the
antithesis to the kind of entertainment Hollywood movies provide. I do
hate films that are entertaining in that way, because it's a way of preventing
them from mattering. Or having an effect on you that continues after the
movie is over. That kind of entertainment is a way of making sure that
a film stays irrelevant. It stays separate from you life.
Interviewer: How can you
tell the two kinds of entertainment apart?
Carney: I don't know how to
describe it any better than I already have. It's like the two ways a girl
can be seductive. One way is the Brittany Spears music video way, where
she plays directly to you, selling herself and her wares with a series
of codified, conventional seductive gestures and movements.
That's what Hollywood entertainment is. It's in your face, pushing at
you, telling you how to understand it, calculating how to flatter you
and play on your emotions. It's trivial. A set of clichés. A cartoon
The other way to be seductive
is like someone you meet at a party who is simply being herself. She may
seem to be the opposite of seductive on the surfaceshe may be difficult
to talk to; she may disagree with you; she may be shy or elusive or standoffish.
She is not trying to be seductive. She is not selling an emotion or an
image of herself. She is not simplifying herself to be anything in particular.
She is not smoothing herself down to be easy to understand or appreciate.
The first kind of seductiveness
may seem exciting at first, but it's boring after just a few seconds.
Because it's a lie. It's a simplification of what anyone really is. It's
a series of conventions. The second girl is much more interesting because
she is much more complex. She communicates a much more complex realitynot
a pareddown cartoon version of herself, but her whole complex selfeven
as it may resist your understanding of it, fight your appropriation of
it, and challenge your powers to keep up with it. But that's really interesting.
That's real seductionnot the shallow, teenage MTV version. That's
what real art does. That's what the greatest independent films do. Not
the Miramax, studio financed knock-offs, but real indie works. In not
trying to seduce you, in not dumbing themselves down to be appealing,
they are really seductive, really appealing, really entertaining in the
most complex way.
This page contains
an excerpt from a lengthy interview with Ray Carney. In the selection
above, he discusses film reviewing and the mass media. Note that many
other statements on this subject are available in other sections of this
site. The complete interview from which this excerpt is taken is available
in a new packet titled What's Wrong with Film Teaching, Criticism,
and ReviewingAnd How to Do It Right. For more information about
Ray Carney's writing on independent film, including information about
how to obtain this interview and two other packets of interviews in which
he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of a writer,
and the path of the artist,