Boston Globe "A Cinematic Maverick"
Over the past ten years,
in a torrent of essays, articles, and interviews, Ray Carney
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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."
|"[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."
Zucker in Film Quarterly
|"Shortly after the death
of John Cassavetes in 1989, I organized a panel in his honor at
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
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....
characters...have an essentially contemplative relationship and existence...."
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."
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
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 , 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
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
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,
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
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
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
quest for contentless stylishness, charm, and elegance
without itself playing the same game in its visual and
. . . 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.
* * *
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."
|"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."
|"I have been involved
in cinema for nearly 15 years. In that time I have not placed
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
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
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
were constantly at the center – and not the emphasis on great
camera set-ups, or brilliant lighting. Carney gives us the critical
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
in this area. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is
serious about independent filmmaking."
|"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
|"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
filmmaking methods. Each sentence paves new inroads to understanding
Cassavetes as one of the great artists of the twentieth century.
have learned more about acting, editing, and writing from Carney's
brilliant analysis of Cassavetes' most important films than
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
just the apparent topic of Cassavetes' films."
|"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)!"
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
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,
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."
from Sydney, New South Wales Australia
* * *
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.... "
* * *
Ray Carney's Autoportraits (Cahiers du Cinema)
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