Film Festival Fallacy
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a string of questions about the hundreds of interviews he conducted researching
his Cassavetes on Cassavetes book.] Forgive me if I say that I
think there's a mistaken premise in this whole line of questioning. It's
the notion that if only Gena Rowlands or Seymour Cassel or Ben Gazzara
or someone else who knew Cassavetes personally would talk freely and at
length about him and his work, Cassavetes' films will be opened to us.
I call it the film festival fallacythe idea that if you want to really,
really understand a movie you should ask the stars or crew members about
it. That if you can get them to introduce the movie or come up afterwards
and discuss it in a Q-and-A, you have thrown light on it.
Interviewer: I don't understand.
What's the fallacy?
Carney: Proust talks about
it in his Contre Sainte-Beuve essaythat just because
someone was married to an artist, or went out drinking with him, or, in
this case, acted in a movie he made, they have some special, deep insight
into the artist or his work. It's just not true. Gena Rowlands or Seymour
Cassel or Ben Gazzara can contribute facts and memories of events. They
can contribute their own personal knowledge of Cassavetes the man. I don't
want to put those things down. They are of some value. But it is limited.
And Gena's or Ben's or Seymour's knowledge of the films as works of
artor their understanding of what parts of Cassavetes' heart
and soul they came from, of the deep creative struggle of editing them
and creating meaning, of how they connect with his life, and how we should
understand themis no better than anyone else's.
Interviewer: How can you
say that? That seems ridiculous. Those people were there when the films
were being made. They saw it all happen.
Carney: I can say it on the
basis of a lot of experience talking with them! As well as a little bit
of knowledge of how art is created. The sitter doesn't necessarily understand
what Sargent is doing to them, doing with themjust because they
were there when the painting was painted. In fact the sitter may be the
last to understand. Even if Sargent kept up a stream of patter while he
created the painting. The patter is not the art. You may be right there,
but you can't see what is going on inside. A crew member or actor who
was on the set of Cassavetes' films can contribute certain facts and memories
of events that have some interest, but that person does not necessarily
have a deep insight into the meaning of the work that they are helping
to create. No more than my students and teaching assistants necessarily
understand what I am doing in a course just because they are in it. My
students and TAs can report facts and events from the course. They can
report what I said. But just because they were in the room when something
happened, or because they knew me personally, they don't necessarily have
anything particularly valuable or deep to say. And that's just teaching.
The creation of a work of art is an even deeper, murkier kettle of fish.
Proust's way of putting it
is to say that the person the world knows and the artist are different
people. That's not to say that the person and artist are different, but
the person the world knows is different from the artist who creates.
Henry James has a wonderful short story about this called The Private
Life. Emily Dickinson puts it her way: The soul selects its
own society. Not society's society. That's what makes
Charlie Rose and James Lipton and the Sundance Channel intros and Premiere
magazine and Peter Bogdanovich's comedy routines and impersonations irrelevant.
Q-and-A's turn movies into chit-chat and gossip and anecdotes. Who cares?
You might as well save yourself the trip and stay home and watch Entertainment
Tonight. Chit-chat and gossip about Picasso's lovers have nothing
to do with how he painted his paintings. They don't touch the place art
Interviewer: But how can
you say this? Your Cassavetes on Cassavetes book is a series of
anecdotes and stories. How can you say you are not interested in them?
Carney: I hope it's not just
a series of anecdotes. I am not really interested in facts or events.
I am not interested in gossip. None of that matters. That stuff is just
an accident of life. It could all have been different. I am interested
in soul. That's what everything in the book is about. The facts are just
a way to sketch the shape of Cassavetes' soul at any given moment. That's
what Entertainment Tonight is not interested in and incapable of
doing in any event.
But I don't have to appeal
to some theory about artistic creation. I can appeal to experience. I've
spent days with Seymour Cassel. Weeks. He understands Chet and Moskowitz
and the films they are in less well than a perceptive viewer. He
is too close to the characters, too close to the experiences, to see what
Cassavetes is doing with them. It's not a sign of the seriousness of our
interest, but of the immaturity of film culture, that we are so hung up
on celebrity interviews.
Interviewer: So you're saying
we have to ask Sargent himself what his paintings mean? Or Cassavetes
about his films?
Carney: No. That's not what
I am saying. It's true that Sargent is probably a much more reliable reporter
of many of the meanings of his work than his sitter is. And that undoubtedly
Cassavetes understood infinitely more about his work than the actors or
crew members on the shoots did. But even the artist is usually too close
to his own work to see it clearly. Think of how your boyfriend or girlfriend
behaves and expresses themselves. Think of how they can get on your nerves
or tickle your funny bone. Think of how you almost certainly understand
things about them that they doesn't understand about themselves. They
may understand a little of what they are, but they are too close to themselves
to hear their own tones of voice, to understand what their fears or anxieties
Well, in a similar vein, a
viewer can see a similarity between Cassavetes and little Phil in Gloria
that Cassavetes himself might not have understood or intended. A viewer
can see parts of Cassavetes' personality in the subject and editing of
Shadows that Cassavetes might not have realized were therehis
chutzpah, his need to impress, his desire to shock. If we're really sensitive
to what it offers, the films tell us a lot more than the movie stars in
the Q-and-A ever talk about. A lot more even than the director can. They
speak from a deeper place. That's where the critic comes in. That's where
I come in. That's why there are headnotes in the Cassavetes on Cassavetes
book. They are about Cassavetes' soulsomething Seymour Cassel would be
the last person to be able to describe.
This page contains
an excerpt from an interview with Ray Carney. In the selection above,
he discusses the fascination with celebrity interviews. The complete
interview this is taken from is available in a new packet titled What's
Wrong with Film Teaching, Criticism, and Reviewing–And How to Do
which covers many other topics. For more information about Ray Carney's
writing on independent film, including information about how to
the complete text of this interview and two other packets of interviews
in which he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life
a writer, and the path of the artist, click