is a visual medium that defeats the communication of complex ideas.
here for best printing of text
Have you ever thought about bringing your ideas to a larger audience via
television? Couldn't you program a television history of film that was
focused on artistic values and treated the form seriously?
yeah, get me on Bill Maher. That will help his ratings! But seriously,
I have thought about it. I discussed the idea of hosting a show
where I screen movies and talk about them with two producers, one in London
and one in Boston. But problems always arise. The institution and the
form resist this kind of serious inquiry.
Can you say more about that?
Carney: Television is a visual
medium that defeats the communication of complex ideas. I learned that
when I did the Beat show for the Whitney. There was a lot of TV coverage.
People used to come up to me and say I saw you on the tube last
night. You were great. I'd ask them to tell me one thing I said.
They'd reply: I don't remember, but I loved your tie. That
sums up the effect pretty well. Like my old marching band teacher used
to say, It don't matter how you play. All people remember is whether
you marched in a straight line.
Anytime I've been involved
with the planning and production of a television program, I have been
let down by the glibness of the production. A few years ago I worked as
an advisor to the American Cinema series that the New York
Center for Visual History produced and the Annenberg School released.
It was on PBS a couple years later. Every single time I proposed doing
something complex or said something complex in an on-camera interview,
I was told it assumed too much knowledge of film on the part of the viewer,
referred to things outside of the scope of the program, or took too long
to explain, and the idea was vetoed or the statement edited out. When
I saw it, I thought the series was really quite dreadful.
My problem is that I am too
interested in education! I'm a professor, after all. As I've already explained
in terms of the classroom, merely showing a bunch of indie and foreign
art films is not sufficient. You need a whole support system to bring
the viewer along with you. You need to present the films in a particular
sequence, introducing each of them, discussing them after the screening,
using highlights and clips to make points, dealing with potential misunderstandings
and simplifications. I've never met a TV producer willing to make that
kind of commitment to educating his audience. In my youth, PBS used to
be called ETV, educational TV. I gather they hated that label and fought
hard to shake it. But I never understood what was wrong with it. I would
like to restore it to being as demanding and exciting as a real classroom,
with real intellectual challenges and demands. No Ken Burns movies allowed.
Interviewer: How about some
young film reviewer bucking the system and changing iton television
Carney: Television producing
and magazine editorship are like the tenure system at most universities.
The system weeds out people who are really original; it suspects anyone
who is too different from anyone else. The institutional constraints on
mainstream reviewing are incredible. If you consistently told the truth
about Hollywood movies or the Academy Awards hoopla or America's cult
of celebrity, you'd be fired for being negative, elitist,
and out of touch with your readers. Your editor would be all
over you for not covering the big storiesreviews of blockbusters
and celebrity interviews. The tougher and more truth-telling your approach,
the more doomed you'd be. On top of that, your pieces would have to be
written above the level of the understanding of a sixth-grader. Newspapers
don't want insight, they want glibnessand, of course, celebrity
interviews and Academy Award hoopla to keep readers happy.
Some of my film students think
they can ju-jitsu the system. But the system is not stupid. It's triviality
is not accidental. The goal is not to rock the boat, shake up the existing
order of things, or change anything. If you started to ask hard questions
of the people you interviewedlike why they acted in such crummy
moviesthe Hollywood publicists would keep you from getting any more
interviews. You'd be blackballed. It's happened to lots of interviewers.
If you wrote virulently negative reviews of a studio's entire release
schedule, they'd pull their ads or try to penalize your paper in some
way. Every reviewer knows that going in, and most of them speak honestly
in private about how the studios pay their salaries, commercially speaking.
Like Ebert, they will include in a few reviews of non-studio films as
sops to their sense of intellectual integrity and viewers who are interested
in such things, but they know enough not to do too many at any one time,
and not to bite the hand that feeds them. Reviewers make all sorts of
internal calculations about what they can and cannot say and how far they
can go at a given moment.
Interviewer: You're not
saying that there is some kind of conspiracy to give favorable reviews
to Hollywood movies and keep art films out?
Carney: Not at all. It's not
a plot; it's just laziness and stupidity and the normal human impulse
to go along with the crowd and not ask more searching questions about
what matters and what doesn't. My problem is less with the journalists
than with the system. Journalists are just what they arereporters
who are pressured to write under deadline, without the opportunity to
do adequate research. You know the saying–love the sinner, but
hate the sin. Most journalists have no secret agendas. They are trying
good job. But they are so inundated with Hollywood PR and their taste
has been so programmed by mainstream entertainment and other journalists'
praise of it that they simply can't think straight. Or see what is really
important. We live in a PR world. Look at the Krispy Kream donut phenomenon.
Look at how the shape of eyeglasses changes every couple years. Look
at the Pier One/Starbucks/Martini culture. No realm is exempt from it.
countercultural values are manipulated by advertising agencies and publicists.
Look at Jane magazine if you don't believe you can do that. Punks
buy CDs too. It takes incredible independence of intellect to buck
a pervasive publicity system–because it's ultimately a system of thought
control. If you are a journalist and aren't incredibly independent
energetic, the system is going to write your piece for you. That's true
of all of life. It's hard not to be swept up in the current. It's hard
to paddle in a different direction. Intentions have nothing to do with
Let me give you an example.
Two weeks ago I got an email from a reporter with a public radio show
called Studio 360. He said he was putting together a broadcast
about movies that deal with time, and could I help him by
recommending some titles and filmmakers, and doing an interview about
them? Well, to tell you the truth, my first thought was that the idea
of doing a thematic show was dumb. It reminded me of those boring literature
books we had in middle school that had sections called Animal poems,
Stories of faith and trust, and Family values.
Of course I didn't tell him that. I just thought how could I respond and
still get him to do something really interesting. So I wrote him something
about the force of cultural history and memory and desire and the pressure
of the past on our emotions, blah, blah, blah, recommended he focus on
the work of Mark Rappaport and Mark Daniels and Bruce Conner and Chris
Marker, and proceeded to contact the filmmakers to tell them to expect
him to be in touch with them.
Well, a few days later the
guy wrote back and said he had run the idea by his producer and the producer
nixed my list of works and said he should focus instead on Run Lola
Run, Memento, and Timecode. Now it's not hard to figure
out what happened in the interim. The reporter forwarded my email to his
producer, who didn't recognize any of the names or titles I recommended,
and substituted filmmakers and works he knew in their place. Since it
was NPR, he picked the kind of glitzy, pseudo-art, trick movies that NPR
listeners fall for. The kind pseudo-intellectuals like Charlie Rose and
Terry Gross take seriously. Last year it was Being John Malkovich,
the year before it was Happiness, the year before that it was L.A.
Confidential. This year I guess it's Run Lola Run and Memento.
Fake art every last one of them. Kitsch for the PBS crowd. Pretend danger
and edginess and originality. Jane magazine transposed to film.
It eliminates all of the really interesting films and figureslike
Rappaportwho aren't making flashy, gaudy, trick films. The reporter
invited me to talk about those films. That's the problem in a nutshell.
Interviewer: What did you
Carney: I turned him down,
and asked him not to contact me again unless he was interested in real
art. I know I was stupid to get so upset about it. When I told Rappaport
what happened (and apologized for wasting his time) he just said: Welcome
to the real world, Ray. He's experienced this sort of thing a lot
more than I have.
This kind of thing happens
so often that I repeatedly vow that I should stop responding to media
inquiries altogether. It's always a waste of time. Even on the rare times
that they let you talk about something that matters, they invariably hack
it up into sound bites so that you don't have more than thirty seconds
to formulate an intelligent idea. How would this interview look if you
limited all of my answers to three sentences or less?
Interviewer: Has the Studio
360 show aired?
Carney: I have no idea. I don't
even know if it is broadcast in Boston. Or what time or station it would
be on. I've never listened to it. Even one other time when I was interviewed
on it. I have better things to do. I can't be bothered wasting my time
listening to glitz.
Interviewer: But how can
you know what the show is like if you haven't heard it?
Carney: Because it's NPR. It's
completely predictable. A prep-school yuppie idea of culture. I don't
have to listen to it to know what it's like. That email reply, and the
list of films they wanted to cover, tells me everything I need to know.
Run. Lola, Run! What else is there to say? It's hip. It's with
it. It's cool, clever, knowing, and smartin the
dumb way. It's foreign too. [Doing a voice:] We love foreign films!
The show is a broadcast version of Vanity Fair. Or the Sundance
Institute. Or most of what is on PBS.
This isn't such a radical point.
It's pretty obvious. Look at what is on PBS week after week. Who's their
house filmmaker? Ken Burns! What does that tell you? Who is their house
interviewer? Charlie Rose. Who is interviewed on the Newshour?
Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, not Noam Chomsky and the editors of
The Nation. I'm not the first one to notice these things. Everyone
talks about it. Everywhere except on PBS!
Interviewer: Are there any
exceptions? Any good shows on PBS?
Carney: I don't watch enough
to know. But wait, there is one I've seen three or four times that I love.
It's called Theater Talk. In Boston it's relegated to some awful
time slot like Sunday at eleven PM or something like that, but it seems
to be a really interesting show.
Interviewer: But they need
to create entertaining shows to stay on the air, don't they? Everything
can't be highbrow.
Carney: Theater Talk is not highbrow. It strikes me as pretty lowbrow in fact. They talk a lot
about Broadway plays and the opinions of popular drama reviewers in New
York newspapers and magazines and stuff like that. But terms like highbrow
and lowbrow are meaningless. Let's call a spade a spade and just say some
shows are smart and some are dumb. And I don't think this dumbing down
is really a matter of ratings anyway; it's more a question of values.
Ken Burns gets a better time slot than Theater Talk because the
PBS producers feel that he is doing something more important since he
plays into all these popular myths of what matters culturallya whole
set of feminist, multicult, sociological beliefs about American democracy
and racial and sexual diversity. Clichés all. Theater Talk
doesn't seem to be equally important because it doesn't punch those fashionable
buttons. The producers are wrong, but they don't know it. So ultimately
we're talking about value judgments, not ratings. The two can be interconnected,
of course, since the viewers are often plugged into the same set of clichéd
value judgments that the producers are, but the starting point is the
Let me give you two more examples,
which show how this works when ratings have nothing to do with it. They
took place about a year apart, three or four years ago. They are pretty
similar. The first one was when a fellow wrote me and said he was putting
together a biographical dictionary and would I be the advisor for film?
The second was when I was asked to be on the editorial board for a film
dictionary. To make two long stories short, in both cases I argued for
something that would not just re-cycle Katz or Halliwell [two standard
film reference books], but would radically redraw the map of the past
fifty years of American film. I wanted both books to leave out the hacks
and put listings of real artists and works of film art in their place.
I pushed really hard for it. Lots of letters. Lots of phone calls. Well,
I probably don't need to tell you the outcome. Suffice it to say I now
have both books on my shelves and they look like every other biographical
dictionary and film reference book ever published. Long entries on Stanley
Kramer, nothing on Robert Kramer. Mention of A Fish Called Wanda,
no mention of Wanda. Big discussion of Spike Lee, no mention of
Charles Burnett or Billy Woodbury. We're not talking ratings. We're talking
values. Both were university presses. I was told people buying such a
book expected certain people and events to be covered in it,
and would be dismayed at finding unfamiliar names and titles
in their place.
Interviewer: So there is
no way out?
Carney: I really don't know.
I personally break away from the system in a peanutty way by writing books
and essays and grousing this way in interviews! But our culture is dominated
by other voices, so what I say doesn't make very much of a difference.
Interviewer: What do you
Carney: I mean who will ever
see this interview? I've been thinking about that. It will never be published
since it criticizes everyone who will be in charge of deciding whether
it should get into printfrom professors to editors to book publishers.
I can live with that or I wouldn't be giving it. I have no illusions about
changing the world. But don't get me wrong. I don't feel negatively about
this situation. It's actually wonderful.
Interviewer: How can that
Carney: Well think of it like
this. The world we live in, the public part of it at least, is organized
to value commercial things, things that make money, things connected with
rich, powerful, or famous people and successful, important enterprises.
Those are the people, things, and events that the culture pays attention
to. The ones that get on TV and radio, and into our newspapers and magazines.
But there is this whole other class of people and events that isn't connected
with money or power or celebrity. Cultural widows and orphans. Poor, lost
lambs. Little artistic babies that don't have anyone else to look out
for them. Since there's nothing in itno financial reward, no fame
or gloryvery few other people are able to do it. But since I have
a regular job as a teacher, I can afford to spend my free time this way.
That's really lucky. I get to take care of the things that the rest of
the culture doesn't value.
This page contains
an excerpt from an interview with Ray Carney. In the selection above,
he discusses PBS's confusion of kitsch with art. The complete interview
is available in a new packet titled What’s Wrong with Film Teaching,
Criticism, and ReviewingAnd 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