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Non-contemplative Art
Thinking in Time, Space, and the Body

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In his new book,
The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies (published in paperback by Cambridge University Press), Boston University Professor of American Studies and Film Ray Carney takes the reader behind the scenes to watch the maverick independent at work: writing his scripts, rehearsing his actors, blocking their movements, shooting his scenes, and editing them. The iconoclastic, interdisciplinary study challenges many accepted notions in film history and aesthetics. In the excerpt that follows, which is taken from the final chapter, Professor Carney treats Cassavetes' filmmaking as a form of thought, and argues that his work offers new ways of thinking about thinking.

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....There is a final reason that none of Cassavetes' films was considered for admission into the artistic canon during his lifetime: Almost without exception, American filmmakers and critics take for granted that art is essentially a Faustian enterprise – a display of intellectual power, control, and mastery. They assume that a work's greatness is traceable to its ability to limit, shape, and organize what the viewer sees, hears, knows, and feels in each shot. In a word, their conception of artistic performance is virtuosic. Leaf through the pages of the standard film textbooks and what you will find is an implicit equation of virtuosity and greatness that extends to every aspect of a film's creation: from the writer's ability to create "revelatory" dialogue; to the director's, cameraman's, and lighting supervisor's ability to use lighting, framing, camera angles, and movements to manipulate what the viewer knows and feels; to the editor's and musical supervisor's ability to orchestrate the pacing and dramatic intensity of events down to the last beat.

Once one buys into this value system it's not hard to see why Citizen Kane, Psycho, Blood Simple, Blue Velvet, Manhattan, and Dressed to Kill are regarded as artistic masterworks. Filmmaking within the virtuoso tradition is essentially a celebration of knowing, and these films create worlds in which everyone and everything of importance can be known. The screenwriters, actors, crew, director, and the viewers all participate in a community of psychological, emotional, and intellectual understanding. Indeed, a large part of the critical and commercial appeal of such works is that they allow the viewer and reviewer to feel that they become part of this cult of complete and perfect knowledge, as they move, in the course of the film, from confusion to clarity, from doubt to certainty, from being "out" to being "in."

No set of values could be more opposed to Cassavetes' belief about either the process of living or the function of art. For him making a film was not a display of power and prowess, but was rather an act of humility. It did not involve virtuosic arrangement and masterful organization, but patient exploration and tentative discovery. As he often said, for his actors, his crew, his viewers, and himself, filmmaking was a matter of asking questions to which you didn't know the answers and holding yourself tenderly open, ready to come across new questions at any moment. The work that resulted was an admission of what you didn't know and might never be able to understand. It was not about moving from confusion to clarity – for the actor, the director, or the viewer. Getting lost was the goal – being forced to break your old habits and understandings, giving up your old forms of complacency. The way to wisdom was through not-knowing. The master plot of Cassavetes' work – for himself, his actors, his characters, and his viewers – is an antivirtuosic one: moving out of positions of power and control and into places of fear and uncertainty. That is why the narratives themselves are almost always about going out of control. To allow yourself to let go was the first step in learning anything. Everything else was what Cassavetes called "doing tricks" and "playing games" with expression.

What is wrong with knowingness is that it removes us from the stimulating turmoil of experience. It separates the individual from the scrambling confusion of living because it figures a set of understandings worked out in advance of or apart from the experience. For Cassavetes, thought was not something that was done separate from, or that allowed you to rise above the turbulence of experience, but rather was the process of hacking a path through an experience as it happens. Another way of putting that is to say that, for Cassavetes, filmmaking was not something that followed the living or analyzed the living; it was the living. The styles of Hitchcock, Welles, DePalma, and Lynch tell us that they use film to present ideas and feelings that they have already worked out. They do their living and thinking, and when they reach a certain point of clarity and resolution, they summarize it in their work. That is why they can story-board their scenes and decide on their camera angles before they ever walk onto the set. They use the filmmaking process to push preselected buttons, to paint by numbers. That is not what filmmaking was for Cassavetes. Every camera movement or refocusing, every cut in his work tells us that for him making a film was a way of wondering about an experience while you were having it, not of reflecting on it from a distance. Filmmaking was exploring.

Rather than art being a mirror held up to nature that gives back a pale, partial, or distorted reflection of life, in this vision of it, art becomes life itself – life lived at its most intense, interesting, and engaged. Henry James and Balzac never lived more excitingly and alertly than when they sat in a room writing, and Cassavetes never lived more sensitively or passionately than when he was making his movies. As he rewrote his scripts, darted about on his sets blocking out actions, or compared trial assemblies in the Movieola, he was having experiences with the highest degree of complexity that he could ever attain. In the filmmaking, he launched himself on an adventure of discovery more thrilling, forward moving, and excitingly exploratory than even those experienced by the characters within his films.

This is thought at its fastest and most acute (and as my cross-references throughout this book have been meant to suggest, thought fully as profound and complex as what one encounters in Emerson's and William James' philosophical writing), but we need a new definition to do it justice. Living in the shadow of Plato, all of our thinking about thinking is tainted with a contemplative bias. In the Platonic view, thought is something that we do when we are not experiencing life. It is an intermission from responding to events. It happens in our heads, not in our bodies. It is theoretical and intellectual, not active and practical. It is rigorous, systematic, and consistent, not playful, experimental, and revisionary. Our thinking about art is similarly biased – favoring the distancing effects of contemplation over the involvements of action, the stabilities of explanation over the turbulence of experience, the essences of epistemology over the flowing movements of history. Cassavetes reversed these valuations and practiced a different kind of thought – thought not as a meditative step backward from the chaos of action and event, but as a plunge into it; thought not as something static and detached from experience, but as engaged and on the move; thought not as a time-out from the pressures and limitations of experience, but as a path of performance through them. This is thought unsupported by (and unfettered by) system and theory and regularity; thought as a state of abandonment to the pursuit of an impulse; thought allowing for continuous shifts and revisions of course.

When Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were jamming together, they were thinking this way – not deliberating in advance of the act, not reflecting on it from a distance, not meditatively rising above the pressures of the performance – but thinking in deed and action. Their thought was the activity of negotiating both sensory and theoretical pressures and constraints, of performing with them and against them, and of shaping a continuously adjusted path of advance along them. In this non-Platonic model, the engagements of action replace the disengagements of contemplation as a way of moving through life.

In these creative circumstances, the nature of meaning itself changes. Whereas the Faustian filmmaker sets out to display an intellectual and emotional superiority to experience, to bend it to make a series of predetermined "points," in Cassavetes' vision of art, there is no argument, meaning, or point to prove. There is only exploring and moving on, with no end to the process of experiencing, and no goal to reach. That is why he was indifferent to his films as finished products. As he often said, the films didn't matter. What mattered was the doing, the learning, the scrambling, the growing, the discoveries along the way. The work itself (as a series of characters, blockings, camera angles, and editorial choices) was only the tracks left behind as the artist moved through a set of challenging, stimulating experiences. It was the historical record of a series of choices. What this entire book has been devoted to demonstrating is that, to the most alert viewing, that is what the films become again – not bodies of codified knowledge, not a series of views, messages, or statements about experience, but examples of the experiences themselves.

This is film not as about thought, or as documenting the conclusions thought has arrived at, but as an act of thought in itself – as a great jazz or dance performance is an act of thought. And like a lucky recording of one of Louis Armstrong's or Charlie Parker's more exultant solos, the film stands not as a statement about something, but as a moving illustration of thought in action – thought at its most brilliant and exciting, happening in the present tense. The films are captured records of courses of events – experiences of living intensely, responding rapidly, and feeling your way in the dark. They are enactments of what it is like to live at the highest pitch of awareness, at a level of engagement and responsiveness that we rarely reach in our lives. To a viewer agile enough to keep up with their twists and turns, they become inspiring examples of some of the most exciting, demanding paths that can be taken through experience. It's as if Cassavetes hacked his way through a jungle of experiences and we were left studying the moving record of the trail his movements left behind. That is to say, the films are records of movements, not presentations of positions. They display meanings in motion that stay in motion. They offer a vision of a new form of truth – truth not as a place of rest, truth not as a conclusion arrived at, but as a path of performance within and against a series of ever-shifting resistances. Cassavetes' films don't yield up meaning as a product, but offer inspiring examples of the energy, intelligence, and emotional agility it takes to have experiences of the most meaningful sort.

Cassavetes' supreme accomplishment is that as a viewer watches his films he actively participates in the same process of exploring, learning, wondering, and changing his mind that the filmmaker did in making them. If we are nimble and strong enough, we move through these experiences the way we move through life at our best. The films themselves are the closest thing to life lived at its most intense; they allow us the experience of fresh, growing, changing experiences. That is why, in the end, we remember them only to be able to forget them. We go to them only to leave them behind by moving beyond them in our own experience. They bring us back to life.....

Excerpted from: "Meanings in Motion: New Forms of Knowledge," The Boston Book Review, Volume 1, number 2 (Winter 1994), p. 36; adapted from Ray Carney's The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

To read more of Ray Carney's views on film and film criticism, see the Films of John Cassavetes, Films of Mike Leigh, and Independent Vision sections.

This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing. To obtain the complete text of this piece as well as the complet texts of many pieces that are not included on the web site, 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.