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Ray Carney's The Films of John Cassavetes

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The Boston Globe "A Cinematic Maverick"

Over the past ten years, in a torrent of essays, articles, and interviews, Ray Carney has established himself as one of America's most brilliant and merciless critics of the American film establishment in all of its crass commercialism – from the producers and directors who package "star vehicles" to maximize profitability, to the distributors and exhibitors who see to it that the same ten titles play at every multiplex from coast to coast, to the television, radio, and print journalists who all too often function as mindless extensions of the studio ad campaigns. His sharpest barbs, however, have been reserved for the academic critics and university film programs that give Hollywood the sheen of intellectual legitimacy by bringing its celebrities into the classroom and its movies into the curriculum.

Of course, we've heard much the same thing in the past decade from neo-conservative image-phobes like Allan Bloom, William Bennett, and Hilton Kramer, all of whom apparently equate the rise of the movies with the fall of Western civilization. But what makes Carney's critique completely different from theirs is that Carney, a professor of American studies and film at Boston University, does not despise movies. His complaint, in fact, is not that film reviewers, critics, and college teachers take movies too seriously, but that they don't take them seriously enough. In Carney's view, if they really cared about the art of film, they wouldn't waste their time being trash collectors in the ghetto of pop culture genre studies.

Yet being a nay-sayer is too easy. The hard thing is to show how do it right, to say what you would put in place of what you are criticizing. That is why it is a special event, every few years or so, when Carney publishes a book that illustrates what film study and analysis can be at their most visionary and inspiring. Carney is clearly a born teacher, and here as in his four previous film books his vast learning (which takes in a wide range of American art and philosophy) and his obvious love for his subject seem almost enough to win figures like Bloom, Bennett, and Kramer to the cause of film study.

Every page of The Films of John Cassavetes is informed by the passion of a man on a mission to change the way movies are thought and written about. Carney has an extraordinarily exalted view of the function of cinematic art. Film is, for him, neither escapist entertainment and recreation (as many journalistic reviewers regard it) nor an intricate stylistic game played off to one side of life (as most film professors treat it), but a way of exploring the most important and complex aspects of the human experience. What he writes about Cassavetes' work here summarizes his approach to all of the films he cares most deeply about: "[Cassavetes'] films explore new human emotions, new conceptions of personality, new possibilities of human relationship. He explores new ways of being in the world, not merely new formal 'moves.' His films are not walled off in an artistic never-never land of stylistic inbreeding and cross-referencing. Cassavetes gives us films that tell us about life and aspire to help us to live it."

While most film scholars are haggling over the date when deep focus photography was invented or how many shots are employed in the shower sequence of Psycho, Carney roves over the entire history of American film – from Griffith and Capra, to Welles and Hitchcock, to Kubrick, Altman, and Allen – and addresses ultimate questions of meaning and value. One of the most exciting aspects of this book is the impression it conveys that absolutely everything is open to reappraisal and revaluation. In a series of extended analyses, Carney takes up many of the canonical figures in American film history and offers stunningly new and controversial reinterpretations of their work. Orson Welles's Citizen Kane is criticized for its "rhetorical tendentiousness" and stylistic flamboyance, and judged to be an example of "kitsch modernism." Hitchcock is taken to task for the "shallow mystifications," emotional manipulativeness, and denial of physicality in his films. Even Robert Altman, currently the darling of many contemporary critics, is knocked for the superciliousness, snideness, cynicism, and negativity of his work.

Cassavetes, the no-budget, maverick independent, is the book's heart and soul. In his characteristically iconoclastic way, Carney argues that Cassavetes was the greatest genius of recent cinema, and unapologetically positions his films (which include Shadows, Faces, Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, and Love Streams) alongside the work of many of the most important nineteenth- and twentieth-century American writers, artists, musicians, and philosophers. Not the least innovative aspect of Carney's writing is the degree to which it is radically interdisciplinary, and he sketches a series of strikingly original (yet persuasive) connections between Cassavetes' work and that of other American artists and thinkers: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James, John Singer Sargent and Willem De Kooning, William James and John Dewey, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, George Balanchine and Paul Taylor. Since Cassavetes' achievement is still virtually ignored by academic film scholars, Carney is undoubtedly aware of the apparent outrageousness of the claims and connections he is urging. But I'm sure that is one of the reasons he wrote the book. His goal has always been to overturn academic apple-carts, to rock institutional boats, to gore intellectual sacred cows.

The Films of John Cassavetes echoes with the cadences of Emerson, one of Carney's most resonant intellectual sounding boards. As I turned the pages, almost holding my breath at moments, startled by the depth, power, and unexpectedness of the argument, emotionally suspended between exhilaration and fear, I found myself remembering one of my own favorite Emerson quotes: "Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk."


The San Francisco Review of Books  
"Any reader of [The Films of John Cassavetes] will be driven to reassess any notion they have ever held about the cinema.... Carney invites us to be as emotionally open as Cassavetes' figures and snap out of the Hollywood-induced trance of critical detachment in order to clear the space between heart and mind."

Newport This Week  
"[The Films of John Cassavetes] digs deeper into the soul of works by the late John Cassavetes than anyone ever has, and it offers a challenging, interdisciplinary approach to analyzing film form and text.... [The Films of John Cassavetes] will, no doubt, also please the inquisitive movie buff who seeks a well-rounded analysis of a provocative body of work that has left an indelible mark on the American film scene."

Carole Zucker in Film Quarterly  
"Shortly after the death of John Cassavetes in 1989, I organized a panel in his honor at an upcoming Society for Cinema Studies conference. To my chagrin, the call for papers elicited only three responses – one from noted Cassavetes scholar Ray Carney. The incident is emblematic of the way Cassavetes has been elided from the film studies canon, for reasons that have as much to do with the nature of Cassavetes' films as with the present constitution and leanings of the film studies community.... As an unrepentant auteurist, Carney asserts [in his book] that Cassavetes "is not only one of the most important artists of the twentieth-century, but that the originality of his work was what doomed it to critical misunderstanding." Carney views Cassavetes in adversarial relationship to what he calls the "visionary/symbolic" film. By this he means films which foster fixed, detached, intellectual ways of knowing.... The characters...have an essentially contemplative relationship and existence...."

David Sterritt in The Christian Science Monitor 
"Carney's approach to Cassavetes is shaped by the depth and discipline of scholarly analysis, and also by the out-and-out enthusiasm of a movie-lover writing about some of his favorite pictures."

The following scholarly review of my Cambridge University Press critical study of Cassavetes’ life and work indicates the academic marginalization of his work that existed as recently as 1996. As far as the academy was concerned, seven years after his death, Cassavetes was still an almost unknown director:

A book review by Wheeler Winston Dixon, Professor of Film at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, published in The Journal of Film and Video, vol. 48 (Spring/Summer 1996), pp. 88-94.

Carney, Ray. The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism and the Movies (New York and London: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

John Cassavetes’ work as an actor in such films as The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Fury (1978), and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is well known, along with his numerous appearances on television series of the 1950s and ‘60s. What is less known is that Cassavetes, from 1957 on, was far more interested in the work he could accomplish as a director than as an actor.

It was as a director that Cassavetes felt he accomplished his most important work; as an actor, he would appear in almost anything that would help him pay the bills to support his art, because the Hollywood studios were unremittingly hostile to his directorial vision. Ray Carney’s The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism and the Movies is a long-overdue tribute to this great artist, whose works have been generally neglected by both the critics and the public. Meticulously researched and superbly detailed and indexed, the book emerges as a deeply personal and warmly engaging study of the filmmaker as an artist.

Before his death in 1989, Cassavetes directed a series of memorable films on shoestring budgets, starting with Shadows (shot in 1957 and released in 1958, then completely reshot and re-released in 1989) and continuing on with Faces (shot in 1965; released in 1968), Husbands (shot in 1969; released in 1970), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), A Woman Under the Influence (shot in 1972; released in 1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (shot and released in 1976, then recut and re-released in 1978 “in a completely reedited” version [(Carney 314]), and Love Streams (shot in 1983, released in 1984).

Carney argues that, as a body of work, Cassavetes’ completely “independent” films (as opposed to Too Late Blues, A Child is Waiting, and even Gloria [1980], to my mind the most interesting of his “studio system” films) “participate in a previously unrecognized form of pragmatic American modernism that, in its ebullient affirmation of life, not only goes against the world-weariness and despair of many twentieth-century works of art” but further, precisely because of their unconventional structure and content, resist “the assumptions and methods of most contemporary [film] criticism” (i) which emphasizes formalist concerns over humanist ones.

The author cites the directorial style of Welles, De Palma (who directed Cassavetes in The Fury), Hitchcock, Capra, Coppola, Griffith, and others as mechanisms of control and stylistic elegance, as opposed to the “pseudocumentary” (77) approach employed by Cassavetes, which used rough, hand-held camera work, directly recorded sound, available or minimal lighting, and meditational editing that lingered on the characters long after the tension of a conventional “scene” was dissolved.

***

For this unconventional approach, Cassavetes paid dearly. During the director’s lifetime, his eight most personal films (Shadows, Faces, Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, Chinese Bookie, Opening Night [shot in 1977, released in 1978, then withdrawn and released in 1991], and Love Streams) were ruthlessly marginalized by poor distribution and phantom availability in 16mm or video formats. Even now, Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, and Love Streams are unavailable on videotape (28). None is available on laser disc.

This inadequate distribution insured that the films would never reach the public at large; confined to “art house” openings in major metropolitan centers, Cassavetes’ films were never given the chance to attain any kind of commercial success. But, then again, given their problematic structure and subject matter, did Cassavetes ever have a hope of reaching a general audience? As the director himself observed, “All my life I’ve fought against clarity – all those stupid definitive answers. . . . I won’t call [my work] entertainment. It’s exploring. It’s asking questions of people” (184). He realized that certain people would like a more conventional form [in cinema], much like the gangster picture . . . they like it ‘canned.’ It’s easy for them. They prefer that because they can catch onto the meanings and keep ahead of the movie. But that’s boring. I won’t make shorthand films. . . . I want to shake [the audience] up and get them out of those quick, manufactured truths (282).

***

This responsive, humanly chaotic visual style is directly at odds with conventional cinematic framing, giving the viewer of Cassavetes’ films “unbalanced relationships, mercurial movements, unformulated experiences slopping over the edges of the frame, bubbling over the intellectual containers, breaking the forms that deliver them to us” (91). Resolutely noncommercial and anti-narrativistic in the best sense, Faces is nothing so much as a working out of Cassavetes’ view of human fallibility as a visual as well as a situation/social dilemma. the characters in Faces are grandiose and theatrical, yet they are one with the audience, so ordinary and unexceptional that we embrace them out of a common bond of shared experience.

***

In [Minnie and Moskowitz], as in his other works, Cassavetes asks his audience continually to revise their interpretation of both the events and the characters they are watching on the screen and, above all, never to become complacent viewers of the human experience. According to Carney, this unwillingness to rely upon cinematic convention sealed Cassavetes’ commercial doom . . . the supreme challenge of his work is directed at the viewer. [His audiences must] keep tearing up each of the understandings that emerge in the course of the film in order to remain fresh. Like the characters, we must open ourselves to a state of not-knowing (138).

Carney argues that this open-endedness, this lack of solid ground, is a fact of existence of the human experience. Yet nearly a century of cinematic practice has trained us to accept only the knowable, to follow a certain trajectory, to have faith in certain patterns of narration, to believe that events will move to a certain, predictable closure. This reliance on the moment, this willingness to embrace the inexpressible, to allow for the constant shifts in tone that make up, as Cassavetes puts it, the “life . . . [of] men and women” (139), also alienates a good number of professional critics in their responses to his work. If a situation can’t be trusted, then who’s to say that any resolution of a scene is more reliable than any other?

That’s just Carney's point here – there is no solid ground, there is no ultimate authority. Life continually moves away from its mooring, seeks new paths, refuses to do what we expect (and/or desire) of it. Only in the movies can we escape to a predictable narrative “logic.” Nor does Cassavetes’ visual style call attention to itself in an attempt to concretize and stabilize the narratives he allows to unfold. As the author states:

According to Carney, most avant-garde films don’t arouse the degree of resistance from a viewer or a critic that Cassavetes’ work does because they implicitly marginalize their own insights. They stylistically contain the dangers dramatized; they do not release them into life. Their assaults are formal, their fragmentations are stylistic, their disorientations are intellectual. Cassavetes moves avant-garde imaginative disruptions off of the screen and into the world (134).

Carney demonstrates that for Cassavetes, it is not the practice of distanciational cinematic technical devices that is the hallmark of his work – it is his embrace of the erupting and unexpected narrative shifts of existence, told in a self-effacing, nonpyrotechnical style, that holds the viewer.

***

Carney compares The Killing of a Chinese Bookie with Citizen Kane, but points out a critical difference between the two films and the aesthetic premises of the two directors:

Unlike Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie criticizes PR forms of human relationship without collapsing into PR forms of presentation. . . . It shows the fatuousness of Cosmo’s quest for contentless stylishness, charm, and elegance without itself playing the same game in its visual and acoustic effects. . . . Welles’s work is organized around a contradiction. He was guilty of the very thing he indicts in his protagonist. He was in love with stylistic razzle-dazzle. He was captive to rhetorical flourish and grandiosity. [Cassavetes] in contrast gives us an art devoid of gorgeousness and forms of acting that reject melodramatic enlargements. . . . He creates an art that repudiates stylistic virtuosity and special effects.” (230-31).

The result is a film that is dark, murky, and altogether harrowing, a view of life as a series of lies, manipulation, frauds, and tawdry spectacles. At 135 minutes in its first version (1976), and even at a reduced 108 minutes in Cassavetes’ 1978 recut, the world of Chinese Bookie is one of unrelenting nightmare, the embrace of tinsel and flash as the emptiness that lies behind the creation of packaged performance, Cosmo’s world is unendurable, except that by documenting it, Cassavetes has forced us to witness that which is simultaneously fascinating and appalling – the death of humanism created for mass consumption.

***

As Carney demonstrates, Cassavetes showed us the multivalent possibilities of existence as we are forced to live them on a daily basis, without resorting to tricky camera moves or self-conscious editing, without following predictable narrative scenarios, instinctively eschewing the easy way out. Cassavetes’ work exists beyond the boundaries imposed by conventional narrative cinema – it even exists beyond the supposed freedom of the avant-garde.

At its best, Cassavetes’ cinema is raw, unvarnished, and deeply positive. If we can just see things pragmatically (as the title of Ray Carney’s book suggests), then perhaps we can live without delusion. Cassavetes’ deeply undervalued films are the personal testament of a director who paid for his art with his body (as an actor) and who compromised his artistic integrity. He emerges in The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism and the Movies as one of the most important and essential American directors the cinema has given us; certainly the films he directed constitute a cultural legacy of which any creative artist would justifiably be proud.

© Wheeler Winston Dixon and The Journal of Film and Video. Copyright 1996. All rights reserved by the copyright holders.

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What young filmmakers and students have said about Ray Carney's The Films of John Cassavetes

"This book changed my life. It wasn't a pretty experience, either. I argued with it. I dismissed it. I fought it tooth and nail. But in the end, reading this book and seeing the films it discusses represented the single most important educational, emotional, and artistic experience I've ever had. I tell you, the thing is a mental a-bomb. I broke down. It literally caused me a crisis of the faith regarding everything that I thought I knew or held dear about filmmaking, and maybe even the world. I lost friends. Not only does this book chronicle in deep, loving detail the films, working methods, and world-view of one of the most important (yet underappreciated) filmmakers in American cinematic history, it is a manifesto, articulating and illustrating an entirely original and brain re-wiring theory of flimmaking, present in the films of John Cassavetes; a theory at odds with 99% of the films EVER MADE. Everything you though you knew is suspect in the glaring light of Ray Carney's prose. Forget Citizen Kane. Forget Casablanca. Forget Vertigo. They're like fingerpaintings next to a Picasso. Neither lightweight nor academically verbose for its own sake, Carney's tone is as friendly as if he were chatting with you over a beer, yet what he says is nothing short of revolutionary. It was simple: I was blown away. Finding precedent for Cassavetes' work in the long-standing American Romantic tradition of Walt Whitman, Emerson, William James, John Dewey and others, Carney's book gives film its proper due as the greatest 20th century artform. An artform, it suggests, still in its infancy. What Cassavetes' films did to me was simple and profound – they showed me a new way to experience the world. A new attitude. A new awareness. Carney did the same thing, articulating those ways, and celebrating them with the reader. I read a lot of film books, but this is the beat-up, dog-eared one I go back to time and time again. No plain-Jane film text is as insightful or inspirational. Read it and you will never be the same again. I wasn't."
—Matthew Langdon (Mlw8330@aol.com)

"I'd like to corroborate Matthew Langdon's review (above this one). I had the advantage of having Ray Carney as a professor at Boston University. By some stroke of genius (probably by administrative accident), all entering film students were required to take a survey course from him on film art before taking anything else. Carney started with warhorses like Hitchcock's "Psycho" and made the roomful of us (vocally) do exercises during the screening that exposed the highly polished but rather ridiculously superficial artifice of the "classic film". We all thought he was crazy. Here was this man -- that one friend described as a combination of Andy Warhol and Orville Reddenbacher -- unsubtly undermining a number of the most globally revered films! He then paraded a host of highly experimental films (many from the library of Congress that practically noone outside of a Carney class has ever or will ever see) before us that were appallingly difficult and often downright confrontational. It's pretty safe to say that practically none of us really "got it" until long after that semester, possibly years. At some point I did. Carney loves film just like we all do, however he had recognized something that we (and, most likely, you, too) had not, that film can be so much more than anything we had imagined (or yet been exposed to). That's largely what he wanted to show us in this class. Film is still a nascent art, highly immature in scope and depth. So far, Cassavetes -- one of the EASIER filmmakers Carney introduced us to -- is one of the handful of film artists that has done something deeply new with the form since its inception. If you develop an interest in Cassavetes, you will find this book essential, and you will return to it after every screening."
—Martin Doudoroff

"I have been involved in cinema for nearly 15 years. In that time I have not placed much value in the books that have proclaimed to have such a strong knowledge on film theory and criticism. But there is one book that stands out for me. This book not only delves into the mind of one of America's most brilliant filmmaker's in the last 30 years, but also offers invaluable insight into the birth of the true independent cinema. Raymond Carney is considered the foremost authority on Cassavetes, and this work clearly shows his prowess in this area. Carney delves deep into the language and imagery of this great filmmaker, showing how his characters were constantly at the center – and not the emphasis on great camera set-ups, or brilliant lighting. Carney gives us the critical analysis that is so vitally needed. A great relief from the candy-coated Pauline Kaels, Vincent Canbys, and Roger Eberts who tend to get all the press in this area. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is serious about independent filmmaking."
—Christopher Brown (cbrown@designmedia.com)

"A vital and inescapable work of film criticism. One of the best books I've ever read about anything. A deeply resonant investigation into the life's work of American Cinema's greatest explorer. The book faces every major convention in film studies and with the deft precision of its argument turns each of them on its head; it challenges the reader to discover for themselves what film is ultimately capable of as an examination of our lives. Heretical, unorthodox, and superbly written. Carney is the strongest and the most imaginative film critic in the English language."
—Christopher Chase (chasecj@yahoo.com)

"The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism and the Movies by Ray Carney has fundamentally changed my relationship to art. The book begins with the most eloquent and precise shredding of current Hollywood filmmaking and then proceeds to give incredible insights into Cassavetes' filmmaking methods. Each sentence paves new inroads to understanding Cassavetes as one of the great artists of the twentieth century. I have learned more about acting, editing, and writing from Carney's brilliant analysis of Cassavetes' most important films than from any other book (filmmaking books included). This book is absolutely essential to anyone who is struggling with expressing our inner turmoil – as with all watershed works it teaches you about life much more than just the apparent topic of Cassavetes' films."
—Lucas Sabean (lsabean@bu.edu)

"Carney offers an utterly convincing critical analysis of the great artist's work. The author compares Cassavetes to Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Dewey in consciousness-shifting ways useful to anyone interested in media, culture, philosophy, and art. Now, Carney, the leading Cassavetes expert, MUST (I hope) offer the definitive biography of this great artist: clearly one of the most original, courageous, and mature American filmmakers. See Cassavetes' work on video (A Woman Under the Influence and Love Streams are absolutely wonderful; shockingly good), and then read this book. I heartily endorse it and sincerely hope for that definitive biography. Viva Cassavetes (and Carney)!"
—scott693@hotmail.com from Los Angeles, June 9, 1999

"I originally got this book (Films of John Cassavetes) and read the whole thing, before i had seen any of cassavetes movies. This is not a recommended route. I have now seen all of his films, except for Husbands, and i can't tell you how amazing i think the importance of this book is. I wonder what the ratio is between the people who disagree and agree with it's context, in respect to it's attitude towards American cinema. the book really does rewire your brain. The people who i am friends with, who are also interested in film are dumb founded when ever i casually undermine 2001 or Citizen Kane in a conversation. More importantly though, this book, like Cassavetes films, extends into life and actually opens you up to knew spiritual territory you didn't think about.

One last point: Does any one notice how suprisingly objective Carney is when he mentions his most hated film makers like Spielberg ?

Get this book. It may feel too intellectual, but it really isn't. If you think that then you are reading it too quickly and not thinking about what it's actually saying."

—beautiful_midnight400 from Sydney, New South Wales Australia

* * *

And, for a role-reversal, John Cassavetes on Ray Carney
(in a letter to him)

"Energy bursts out of your writing. I've been thinking about you. The unknown adventurer. Blasting forth through concrete. Blast them. Then love them. Then blast them again.... "

* * *

John Cassavetes: Autoportraits

On Ray Carney's Autoportraits (Cahiers du Cinema)
"A beautiful coffee-table sized book of b&w and color photographs of the Cassavetes' friends and family. Also an introduction by Ray Carney. Photos by Sam and Larry Shaw, and beautiful they are too. An expensive but essential book. Literally do anything to own this book....." (quoted from: The Unofficial John Cassavetes Page )

This page contains reviews and responses to Ray Carney's The Films of John Cassavetes. To learn how to obtain the book, please 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.