don't teach content. I teach ways of knowing.
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I want to continue our discussion about college teaching. You seem to
have problems with the way film is taught.
Academic film study is an embarrassment. The intellectual shallowness
and mediocrity of undergraduate film courses is tolerated only because
they are enrollment builders. If the English department can pack 200 people
into a film survey, it subsidizes smaller classes in Shakespeare and Milton
and Faulkner. Most students take film courses just because they are light
reading. A break from the rest of their “real” courses. When I started
happened at Middlebury Collegeand
picked up the course another professor had run for years I found out that
the football coach had platooned in the entire team since the course was
a known easy A or B. I discovered it only because some of the jocks were
dumb enough to complain to me that the way I taught the course was making
more demands than the previous teacher, and that the coach wasn’t happy
what does that tell you about film courses? The grading is easy. Jargonizing
replaces real intellectual content. As the football team illustrates,
the whole attitude toward the course is wrong. It's a vacation from real
thinking. That's why I sometimes tell my most talented undergraduates
to major in something else and take a few film courses on the side. They
can easily get up film on their own.
Isn't that a contradiction to what you have devoted yourself to doing
for a living?
No. It's a fulfillment of it. I have devoted my life to serious intellectual
inquiry. And I am telling them to devote their lives to it. And if film
courses aren’t serious or demanding, they should get out of them and do
something more important with their brains.
Are you saying that they should not ever watch films or that they should
teach themselves film?
The second. And it's not that hard to do. There’s really not that much
to master. The entire field is only about eighty years old. There are
fifty or a hundred works of genius and another couple hundred interesting
but less important works. You could see most of them in a few years of
video viewing and going to film archive screenings. You still have to
do that anyway, even if you major in film at most universities since the
films taught in most film courses are not
the great masterworksbut
the schlock and junk of pop culture. Go through the syllabi and count
the masterpieces. You won't find many in most courses. So you'll almost
always learn more by doing it on your own and reading Shakespeare or James
in an English course. And, by the way, the fewer books of academic film
criticism you read, the better off you'll be in terms of avoiding shortcuts
You actually tell students to major in something else?
I don't want to cause students to have an identity crisis or have to start
over at the beginning once they have invested a lot of time in a film
major, so I don't say it to many of them. But in my office hours I have
occasionally tactfully suggested it to some of my best students who are
in a position to benefit from the advice. Say a very talented sophomore
comes in and expresses dissatisfaction with the intellectual depth of
the film courses she is taking. Why shouldn't I agree with her and suggest
that she might get more out of an English or Art major? I'm giving her
good advice. I'm not hired to be a salesman for any program, thank goodness.
My job is to tell the truth.
comes up again when juniors and seniors ask me about going on to grad
school in film. I caution them that most of their class work at NYU or
UCLA or Columbia will involve looking at a lot of junky movies and learning
a few German, French, and Russian terms to give what they are doing a
patina of intellectual legitimacy. Comp lit or English lit or American
literature and art programs usually allow film to be a component of graduate
work, and those kinds of programs give students so much more in addition
to film that it seems foolish to limit themselvesparticularly
if they are very sensitive and smartby
enrolling in a program that is exclusively film.
You can't know
film if all you know is film. The arts are all onejust
different ways of saying the same thingsand
the more you know about other arts, the more you can understand any one
of them. It's a little like language study. If the only language you speak
is English, you can't really understand how diction and syntax work. If
you speak and understand several forms of art-speech, you will understand
much more about each individual form. That's why even in the film courses
I teach, I show my students paintings to help them understand the frame
composition, or play music or dance pieces to help them understand principles
of temporal organization.
On top of everything
else, there is always the issue of getting a job at the end of grad school.
It keeps me up at night. The system is so unfair to the smartest ones.
There are very few pure film jobs to start with, just a handful each year,
and the better the student is, meaning if he or she has really fresh ideas
and approaches, the harder it will be to get one of them. Film departments
are more gerrymandered with special interest one-issue-candidates than
the Philadelphia City Council. You have your feminists, your third-worldists,
your formalists, your queer theory person, and so on. And none of them
has very much interest in or awareness of art. As I said before, they
might as well be teaching sociology. That's where a Ph.D. in film studies
will land you, if you are so lucky as to get a job at all. It's not worth
So I tell them
to study something else and learn the film part on the side. Not only
are there more jobs if you get a degree from an English department, but
if you teach in an English department youll be less ideologically constrained
by your colleagues. When you teach a film course you'll be pretty much
left alone to do whatever you want.
But doesn't that kind of thinking go against your principle that students
should not tailor their academic work around career considerations?
not what I'm saying. I'm saying that film study is a shallow, intellectually
insubstantial field, but that even students who know that use the career
argument to justify getting an advanced degree in film, because they think
they need it to get a teaching job. What I am telling them is that the
career argument is fallacious. They won't be able to get a meaningful
job at the end of the process. So why not major in something with more
depth, with a greater body of interesting work that you can learn more
from? It will be far more personally enriching to spend a few years reading
Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Eudora Welty, and Stanley Elkin than looking
at a bunch of Hollywood movies. And even if you
don't get a teaching job in the end, knowing how to read literature and
think about art can enrich the rest of your life.
The last thing you said touches on something that I have wanted to ask
you about for a long time now because it puzzles me but keeps coming up.
It's that when you talk about studying art, you are generally not talking
about studying the history of it or the cultural side, but about encountering
a work of art in some sort of special way. You frequently say things like
“we have to learn how to look” or “how to read.” That's what I would like
you to say more about. Let me add that the conceptual problem I have with
that is that reading a book or looking at a movie would seem to me to
be the most natural thing in the worldlike
walking or talking. We have read books and looked at movies all of our
what is there to learn? In other
words, I can understand studying literature or film to learn the history
of the field, but when you say “knowing how to read literature or look
at film can enrich your life,” I just don't follow.
question. Let me take a stab at answering it by mentioning a letter I
read by Henry James the other day in which he was trying to account for
the fact that so few people seemed to be able to understand or appreciate
his novels. I think the one that he was talking about was The
Awkward Age, but it doesn’t really matter. He talked about the decline
of the ability to pay attention, the loss of the capability to focus on
and work through the challenge of his sentences. He said readers apparently
could only hear what screamed “look at me” and what asked only a few seconds
of their time to get the message and that his writing did not plug into
those ways of knowing. Well, if James felt that way in London of 1898,
imagine what he would be saying now when everyone from London to Los Angeles
is bombarded with the thirty-second commercial screams, MTV rapid-fire
editing, late-breaking news bulletins, and infomercial awful acting around
What does that have to do with it?
saying that James was right. We have lostor
ability to pay attention in certain ways, especially in the kinds of attention
that great art requires. In my courses I teach people how to pay attention.
I don't teach history or sociology or cultural studies. I don't teach
dates, names, eventsbut
forms of attention. I teach
students how to pay extremely close attention to events they couldn't
even see when they started the course. I teach ways of knowing. Ways of
seeing. Ways of thinking and feeling. Those are the actual titles of some
of courses I have taught in the past. Note the plural. There is no one right way to do know or pay attention. No single method of watching
a film, any more than there is a best way to make one. There are many
ways. Every work of art embodies its own unique special ways of knowing.
Every work asks us to approach it in its own way, and teaches us how to
understand it. Like a person.
Can you be more specific about what you tell students?
really. Because it isn't in the telling. I can’t do in words what takes
a semester to happen in a classroom. Actually it usually takes longer
than that. A lot of the best undergraduates write me a year or two after
they graduate and tell me they are finally beginning to understand what
we were doing in class. I can’t teach you ways of knowing by describing
it. If I could, I might as well cancel my classes and hand out a summary
sheet. It would save everybody a lot of time and trouble. I am not teaching
ideas or abstractions. I take students on a voyage. I give them experiences
that re-wire their brains. I know that sounds funny or weird, but I mean
it literally. They really have to build new neural pathways, new capacities
of responsiveness. Not new theories or terms or abstractionsbut
new capacities of responsiveness. The goal is to see and feel differently
at the end of the process. I don't teach ideas. I teach a skill. My teaching
Carney: I know
it can be hard to understand because I was just trying to explain this
to a part-time teacher I hired to teach in the fall. It was for a
course called Understanding Film that I myself taught
for almost ten years. He was asking me how I taught it when I had it.
Of course I told him that the goal was not to imitate me. How he taught
it was up to him. I said I picked smart people, people I knew and trusted,
to teach a course. And let them teach their
way. I told him that he should teach out of his own interests and
passions. But he kept asking how I had taught the course, so we had
interesting conversation about it.
I told him
I wasn’t interested in teaching film history, or genre study, or the history
of the indie movement, or institutional facts about Hollywood
or technological changes in film production methods. I wasn’t interested
in teaching students facts about the life of a director. Or discussing
his or her body of work. I almost never discussed a film in generalities
or abstractions. I almost never wrote dates or names on the blackboard.
If a student needed that, she could get it out of a book.
I told him
I taught students how to see. How to hear. How to feel. You couldn't get
that out of a textbook. I taught modes of perceptionwhat
to look at, what to listen for, ways of thinking about it.
But what needs to be taught? If you keep your eyes open, you see what
is in front of you. If you pay attention, you hear what is on the soundtrack.
no. It's the opposite. We see and hear everything through pre-existing
habits. Kenneth Burke called them terministic screens. Most of my students
can’t see or hear a thing when they step into the classroom. Or I should
say what they see and hear is wrong. They are like the people who go to
a play and applaud the scenery or the costumes. They are looking in the
wrong places, looking in the wrong ways.
What do you mean?
think of someone going to the ballet or modern dance. I go to a lot of
dance performances, and there are very few people who can see what is
going on in front of them. They get excited over the height of the jumps.
Or the speed of the leg movements. Their viewing habits are from the Olympics.
They miss all of the dancing.
That’s a contradiction. The dancing is right in front of them. They are seeing it. They aren’t missing it.
they are not really seeing it. I just mentioned the Olympics. You have
to learn how to see even that. You are not born able to see it. Everybody
has had the experience of watching a skating or diving or gymnastic performance
on TV and then hearing Bart Conner or Kristi Yamaguchi comment on it.
That the timing was off in this part, or that someone’s body was bent
when it should have been straightand
you realize you didn't even see
what she is talking aboutthe
thing that that skater or diver did or didn't do. I don't mean you didn't
notice it. You didn't see
it. That perception did not register on your retina or go into your
brain. It's not that you had blinked at the wrong instant or weren’t looking
in the right place. You were looking but you didn't experience it. E.H.
Gombrich talks about this in terms of the myth of the innocent eye. Hubel
and Weisel talk about it in terms of neuronal structures in the retina
and brain. The judge or the expert commentator has changed his or her
capacities of sense perception with years of looking and noticing. Why
should we expect a work of art to be less complex or subtle than a double
axel or a routine on the parallel bars? Bach’s brain was different than
yours or mine. That’s what I teach: re-wiring your brainseeing,
hearing, noticing in specially heightened ways. Since they don't have
the advantages Bach had, most people have to be taught. How to see. What
to see. How to hear. What to hear. I’m not teaching ideas. They are easy
to learn and uselesssince
they leave our ways of knowing untouched. I’m changing my student's modes
of perception. I do brain surgery in class. The changes are slow and incremental.
But they are possible. And it can't be learned abstractly. You can't read
a book about it. It doesn't happen that way.
But there are books on Olympic sports and on ballet.
my point is that reading most of them would be just as useless in doing
this as reading most books about film! You would learn the history of
the ballet or the sport. You would learn the names of the particular performers,
or companies and choreographers. You might even learn the names of a few
steps or positions by looking at pictures. But it would hardly help your
actual seeing process at all.
I can see why the history and biography part mightn’t help, but why wouldn’t
looking at pictures of steps or positions? Or, in terms of film, why wouldn’t
reading a discussion of film noir lightingor
looking at a photograph of it? Or John Ford’s landscapes?
there is a fundamental difference between abstractions and ideas and perceptions
and experiences. They are totally different types of information. They
are stored in totally different parts of the brain. Not only are the steps
or positions as they are actually happening not going to be exactly like
the pictures in the books, but they are coming so rapidly and changing
into other steps and positions so quickly that you could never get to
a point of enjoying and understanding ballet or diving that way. Static
images are different from dynamic experiences. If you studied dance or
diving photographs, all you would ever be able to do is pick out some
frozen moment out of time. But since dance is in time, doing that would
be actually a step backward. You’d be de-temporalizing the experience.
To learn how
to watch danceor
diving, you have to watch it. And watch it. And watch it. Preferably with
a very good teacher at your side saying, “Look at that. Look at that.
Look at that.” Over and over again. And then, very slowly you might start
to see things for yourself on your own. See them not as ideas but experiences.
Temporally. Changing. Shifting. Not standing still the way pictures in
books do. Or ideas do.
is about motion and change, ideas stand still. I think that’s one of the
reasons that stupid metaphoric and symbolic approaches to movies are so
popular. They appeal to the idea part of the brain, even as they betray
the temporality of the experience of the art.
So, as I’ve heard you say, you are bringing time back to film analysis?
But it's not just a temporal issue. Ideas block the view even at any one
instant. I go to museums a lot and forever end up behind or next to someone
standing in front of a painting but not really seeing it. They only see
some set of ideas their college art teacher told them. You know, some
girl telling her boyfriend: “This is Monet's water lilies painting. It's
impressionist. It's an attempt to show what the light really looked like
on the water at a certain moment. Monet was losing his vision by this
point too. See how fuzzy everything looks.” She is not even seeing the
painting. She is only seeing the ideas someone gave her. The vibrancy
of the colors. The tactile feel of the brush work. The size, the scale
of the canvas is left out. My goal is not to teach the students to think differently. Thinking is too late. You actually have to see
and hear things differently.
Can that be done?!
goes on all the time in a less directed way. Think of any interest or
hobby you’ve ever had. Think of learning to drive, and how after a few
months or years, you get into the rhythms and sounds and spatial feel
of a car so that you can sense the situation you are in. Think of learning
to sail or kayak, and how you start noticing currents and eddies and swells
and puffs. You not only react to the water and air differently, you see
and feel them differently. Think of cooking and how after you have
done it for a long time textures and colors and smells start to have very
that you can't necessarily verbalize. Your senses actually change. You
can see or hear or smell things you couldn't before. Something really
changes in the chemistry of your brain.
And none of
this can be willed. You can't force yourself to see differently any more
than you can force yourself to be more intelligent or more sensitive.
It's not volitional. It's not a matter of consciousness. It can't be acquired
abstractly, or else reading a book about it would be the same thing as
having these experiences. The changes occur by working through difficult,
challenging, experiences. You have to live through them. It isn't enough
to learn about them. And the more emotional the experience, the faster
the change. You have to do it; you have to let it do something to you.
And once these changes start to occur, you don't have to try to see in these ways, you see in these ways without even trying
That kind of
growth is very slow. Ideas are quick. That's why we prefer them. But all
changes that involve consciousness are shallow and short-lived. The illusion
of learning. Re-writing your neurons is glacial by comparison. It takes
a lot of time to change what you see and how you process it. But it’s
a deep, enduring change. I can't give you or anyone else the experience
by describing it abstractly since it doesn’t take place at the level of
Then how can you teach it?
who is really interested in this should just sit in on my classes. That’s
how I do it. The classroom is where all happens. I have auditors every
semester who come in to see how it is done. I do hundreds of in-class
whole sequence of programmed events. Too many to list. Many physical.
It's important to involve the body and the emotions.
I have students call out something every time there is a cut or a lighting
effect or every time a certain kind of shot appears on screen. I yell
things out while films are screening. I show short clips over and over
again and have the students catalogue the beats and tonal shifts. I give
them scripts and have them act out scenes they have not seen before, then
project the film version and have them compare what they have done with
what a professional actor or director does to the scene. It goes on and
on. After a few months they don't have to think about these things. They
see and hear differently.
Look at my
Leigh book or some of the chapters in my Cambridge Cassavetes book. Reading
them won’t re-wire your brain, but it will at least walk you through the
process of observing things in a slightly different way.
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 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