This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's www.Cassavetes.com on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.

This page contains an excerpt from an interview with Ray Carney. In the selection below, he discusses teaching film in the university classroom. The complete interview is available in a new packet titled What’s Wrong with Film Teaching, Criticism, and Reviewing—And How to Do It Right, which covers many other topics, inside and outside of the classroom. For more information about Ray Carney's writing on independent film, including information about how to obtain the complete text of this interview or two other packets in which he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of a writer, and the path of the artist, click here.

For those who want to learn more about this subject: To read excerpts from an interview where Ray Carney talks about the hazards of intellectualism in film study and how to "think without ideas," click here. To read a lengthy essay about the ways common cinematic styles of presentation "de-realize" experience, click here. And to read a brief exchange with a site reader about this issue, click here.

The Danger of Ideas and Abstractions ––

How They Stop the Motion and Falsely Clarify Artistic Experiences

Interviewer: [An excerpt from a longer interview. Prof. Carney has just used several terms – “thinking without ideas,” “the temporality of truth” and “the flow of energies” – that puzzled the interviewer. She asks him to explain what he means by them.]

Carney: …. The traces left behind by the movements of a complex consciousness engaged in challenging, difficult acts of expression. I was watching a tape of Barefoot in the Park the other night with some friends and I could see them, feel them, even in a work that simple.

Interviewer: Feel what????

Carney: The breathing of Neil Simon’s mind. The pulse-beats of the work’s heart. The somersaults of its soul. A series of line-by-line, moment by moment imaginative expansions and contractions, statements, conjectures, speculations, second-thoughts, changes of mind, additions, adjustments, course corrections. Watching with some degree of attention and awareness is like swimming in a shifting current with an undertow and waves crashing and breaking all over you.

That’s what I teach. I give swimming lessons. It takes a while for some students to get the hang of it—and a few never learn to negotiate the currents, sink to the bottom, and are never heard from again—but for the ones who get into it, it can be thrilling and scary, and make you laugh out loud at how exciting and dangerous the whole thing is—and how amazingly well your artist guide ahead of you pulls it off. Navigating those coruscating currents is far more interesting than going in search of the romantic and sexual clichés the Cultural Studies types are obsessed with. But of course the experience I am having is much harder to describe than theirs—which is why I am using these wacky metaphors!

And I’m not talking about The Sacrifice; this is Barefoot in the Park! But you can see it even in Neil Simon’s work. Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was, Cassavetes’ Faces, Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet are quantum leaps beyond that. Watching them is like ocean kayaking—in a hurricane! Why anyone would want to turn these off-balance balletic thrills into the tediousness of “minority role models,” “gender stereotypes,” and “the male gaze,” or to pin characters down to “psychology” and “motivation” is beyond me.

Interviewer: What’s wrong with talking about motivation and psychology?

Carney: I’ve spent ten years writing about this, so the best answer is to refer you to my Leigh book or something else I’ve written. These psychological concepts straighten out the wiggles. They homogenize and average the disparities. They normalize the weirdness. They take time out of process. They clarify the mystery. They turn experiences into understandings.

Heck, using the notion of “character” itself is a limiting way to approach a novel, a play, or a film. Cassavetes’ work is much larger and less coherent than such a term implies. But I don’t mean to imply that this is unique to Cassavetes’. So is James’. And Faulkner’s. And Shakespeare’s. And Milton’s.

Interviewer: What do you mean?

Carney: I mean there is this surging heaving ocean of waves and currents, and the water has a few bubbles in it that we call “Nick,” “Mabel,” “Dr. Zepp.” To think of them in terms of a few psychological traits is a hopeless reduction of what the artist presents. A work of art is not a window on reality. It is more like a house of mirrors or an echo chamber. Characters are not people! They are part of an artist’s compositional resources, two different colors on his palette, two aspects of a vision. In Sargent’s Mrs. Fiske Warren and her daughter Rachel, the two figures are not a particular mother and a daughter, but two visions of selfhood. In the Daughters of Edward DeBoit, the five girls—I count the dolly as the first one—are five versions of girlhood. In Opening Night, each of the female characters is an alternative version of each of the others. That’s how works of art work. Not as representations, but as comparisons and contrasts. I go into this at length in the Leigh book. Characters are not people. They are semiotic functions.

Interviewer: Can you explain that more simply.

Carney: Think of it this way. Characters are not snapshots of people in the world; but cross–sections of an artist’s brain. They are not slices of life, but versions of a single vision of life. That’s why every James character has more in common with every other James character than he or she does with any Dickens or Shakespeare character. Isabel Archer, Ralph Touchett, and Gilbert Osmond are biopsies of James’s brain organization. And Maggie Verver, Prince Amerigo, and Charlotte Stant are biopsies of a recognizably identical brain at a later stage of development. They are not depictions but expressions, dramatically compared and contrasted expressions.

On top of that, to say the obvious: Isabel and Maggie are not people but streams of words! Isabel and Maggie are sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. That is an incredibly complex thing to be—far more complex than a psychological depiction: an emotion, a motive, a mood, an intention. To summarize a character with a statement of his mood or to reduce a scene to a monotonic dramatic function is to erase its complexity. It irons out the tonal wrinkles, straightens the emotional twists and turns, reduces everything to a few feelings or attitudes. Psychological statements and understandings are traps and limitations. They eliminate the most interesting parts of life: the unpredictable wiggles and swerves that are the most fascinating aspects of the dramatic moment, the reason the scene exists. The very interest, the beauty of the character Cassavetes creates is that the self is dissolved, or say: proliferated outward into a coruscating cascade of shifting feelings, moods, vocal tones, facial expressions. That’s what’s wrong with thinking of Mabel as a “crazy housewife.” Cassavetes’ vision of Mabel is far more radical—and more mobile—than that.

Interviewer: But Mabel is mentally ill, isn’t she?

Carney: No. That’s a misreading of the text. A serious misreading!

Interviewer: Why? How can you say that? Her own husband says she is.

Carney: That’s his problem, not hers! There are so many things wrong with that approach that I’ll have to just list them very briefly:

First, Mabel is not mentally ill because saying that pushes her away from us. She is no longer us. You know I get about one email a week from a girl who writes me and talks about Mabel’s mental illness. You know what I tell them? I say: “Mabel is you or she’s nothing. If you categorize her as ‘other’ in any way—as different from you in any way—you are defusing the bomb that the film is. You are making it safe. You are putting Mabel in a galaxy a long time ago and far away.” A category like “mentally ill” makes Mabel too tame. She has a problem. So cure it. Divorce your husband. Stand up for yourself. Tell off the world. That makes the film too easy to swallow. It’s far more radical and more personal than that.

Second, a category like mental illness stands still. Mabel moves. This isn’t some esoteric doctrine. You feel it throughout Faces or A Woman Under the Influence or Love Streams. Everybody who watches those films feels it. You laugh at McCarthy, then you hate him, then you think he’s an OK kind of guy. Then you decide he’s pathetic. Then you admire his cleverness. He keeps changing.

To watch A Woman Under the Influence is to be immersed in an experience where four or five things are going on at once and constantly changing: four or five different characters visible at once; four or five or ten different, shifting tones in terms of their acting; four or five or ten or a hundred shifts of beats in terms of the structure of the scene. The camera and editing put you down in the middle of it all, moving and shifting around you with no signposts on where to look in the mastershot frame or which is the most important character or tone to pay attention to, or who to sympathize with or how to understand what is going on. You experience energies much larger than individual characters. The characters are really one epiphenomena of those larger energies.

Cassavetes and Noonan are jugglers and the characters are the balls they are juggling, but only a fool would try to analyze the chemical composition of the balls to understand the effect of the juggling act. That’s what it is like to play the “psychology” or “motivation” game on interesting characters. They aren’t real people after all. They are artifacts of the script and acting. We hypostasize their existence. It is a convenient fiction. But like atoms and fundamental particles, they don’t really exist. They are just markers for energy states that bring them into existence.

That’s what I mean by saying that when you are encountering Cassavetes or Noonan’s work in the richest, most complex way, you are navigating a heaving, surging, flowing ocean with all these waves and cross-currents and undertows. The problem is that some critic then steps in and scoops up a few gallons and freezes it into this and that “character” and this and that “meaning” and this and that “sexual role” and some “metaphor.” And it’s no longer the ocean any more, but a series of ice sculptures. There is some relationship between the critical observations and the work—between the terms and the energies—since they are both made out of the same water. But the one is all movement and the other is all stasis. Every psychological or sociological meaning we impose on What Happens Was is a scooping up, a stopping, a deadening, a narrowing, a limitation, a way of controlling something that is much more general and less controllable than that. Do you see what I mean? The critical methodology negates the energies the critic is supposed to be commemorating. My life’s work as a critic is to help people to learn how to stay in the waves and currents—not to resist and flee from them by taking refuge in ideas and abstractions.

Interviewer: A good bit of your work on Cassavetes is about how he breaks his films free from intellectual understandings.

Carney: Reading William James in grad school got me started thinking about what that might mean. A lot of what I am doing is indebted to him. Works of art can teach us to think in new ways—sensorily, temporally, without ideas and abstractions. Embodied truth. Temporal truth.

Interviewer: Temporal truth. Thinking without ideas. What do terms like that mean?

Carney: They are the difference between the experiences artists create and the ways critics understand them. Art makes meanings in space and time. Its meanings are tactile, temporal, slipping, sliding, provisional, contingent. I wrote about this in the Morris Dickstein book on pragmatism. I forget the title. [A note from RC: The book is called The Revival of Pragmatism, and it was published by Duke University Press.] Artists’ meanings are embodied. They exist in space and time, not outside of them the way philosophical meanings exist. But the problem is that critics come along and undo it all. They tack the meanings down. They turn them into ideas and abstractions. They clear them up. They disembody them. They stop their movement. My goal as a critic is not to undo the work, but to honor its achievement. Not to impose my own way of knowing on it, but to grapple with its ways of knowing.

Interviewer: Your writing, and I am thinking of the Leigh book in particular, is really big on describing shifts of tone and mood and feeling. Things that do not stand still like metaphors and ideas.

Carney: It’s really not some kind of conscious decision on my part. It’s just one of the things that interests me—in life and art. When I’m talking with someone I always hear the tones or feelings between the words. The actual words we say are usually the least important part of what we are saying. Most of it is in the tone. And how we are standing or sitting, or the expressions on our faces, or our gestures—all those exchanges of energy that take place even in the most ordinary conversation between two people. There are a million ways of saying “hello” or “goodbye.” I just see the same sorts of things when I watch a Noonan or Cassavetes or Leigh movie. That’s why I’m watching a totally different movie from the one John Hill is seeing. (Click on this link and this link for an explanation of the reference to John Hill.)

The funny thing is that almost everyone acknowledges this kind of subtlety and slipperiness in their lives. Even John Hill probably does—if you got him talking about his relation with his wife or his boss or his students. But then everyone dumbs down their responses when they are watching movies. When I’m in an interesting situation, say, in front of a classroom, all sorts of really subtle things are going on at once right in front of me. There is a wonderful complexity even in the simplest interaction with a student. I ask a question and get no answer. So I call on a particular student who has been having a hard time in the course. Maybe she wrinkles her nose at me for calling on her, maybe she pauses a second or two out of anxiety, maybe she sits up straighter, bristling because she feels I am picking on her, maybe she gives me an interrogatory glance that suggests shyness or tentativeness. Meanwhile, at the same time, I am giving her a whole panoply of facial expressions and gestures and bits of body language in response to hers—maybe to encourage her, maybe winkingly to acknowledge that I have played a trick on her by calling on her in particular, maybe smilingly to tease her into daring to say something unusual. There’s so much going on in ten seconds of silence with neither of us saying a word. My point is that we are used to that in life. That’s the world we live in every hour. It’s exciting. It’s challenging. It’s interesting. But we don’t make movies that complex.

I have lunch with lots of directors when they visit my class. They tell you how complex their life is, how frustrating their relation with an actress or a crew member was when they were filming a specific scene, how she was both cooperating yet resisting their leadership and direction, and how challenging the emotional situation of making some particular film was for them to deal with. And it’s so interesting and complex. Then I ask the director an interpretive question about a scene or a character, and he gives me a clichéd, stereotypical answer. What kind of nuttiness is this? The director accepts that his life is intricate and complex and filled with sliding, elusive, challenging interactions, but leaves that sort of complexity out of his work. Why would he do that? I sometimes tell them all they have to do to make great movie is get their scenes into the same complex places that their life was working on the movie. The meanings in life are not written in capital letters. The morality of life is not black–and–white. The interactions in life do not have clear–cut outcomes. The people the director knows are not “characters” motivated by italicized “intentions.” So why would he want to make a movie where everything was that way? I want movies that have meanings at least as slippery and subtle and elusive as my life.

This page contains an excerpt from an interview with Ray Carney. In the selection above, he discusses teaching film in the university classroom. The complete interview is available in a new packet titled What’s Wrong with Film Teaching, Criticism, and Reviewing—And How to Do It Right, which covers many other topics, inside and outside of the classroom. For more information about Ray Carney's writing on independent film, including information about how to obtain the complete text of this interview or two other packets in which he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of a writer, and the path of the artist, click here.

For those who want to learn more about this subject: To read excerpts from an interview where Ray Carney talks about the hazards of intellectualism in film study and how to "think without ideas," click here. To read a lengthy essay about the ways common cinematic styles of presentation "de-realize" experience, click here. And to read a brief exchange with a site reader about this issue, click here.

Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's www.Cassavetes.com on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.