and reviewers have a sacred trust as guardians of the public interest,
and they have betrayed it.
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What constitutes a serious film, in your view?
Carney: One with ideas.
Interviewer: But aren't
you opposed to abstract movies?
Carney: There are ways of expressing
ideas that are not abstract. Look at Sargent's or Eakins' painting. Look
at Picasso. Listen to Bach. By a movie with ideas, I don't mean a preachy
Stanley Kramer or Oliver Stone movie. I don't mean one like American
Beauty where the characters wear signs around their necks telling
you how messed up they are. I mean a movie that's about something.
One that has a point of view. One where the filmmaker shows us what he
or she thinks about life, what he has noticed, what he cares about. One
that helps us live. One that has something to tell us about our lives.
One that puts us through an experience that transforms or enriches or
chastens us in some way.
These movies are few and far
between. But journalists have completely lost this conception of moral
and social seriousness. Some of them confuse it with historical importanceas
if a movie needed a big theme to be serious. But more often they aren't
even looking for this kind of movie, wouldn't recognize it if they saw
it, and prefer anything else. The intellectual reviewers want a frivolous,
empty, game-playing movie. And the popular reviewers want an entertaining,
gripping, or romantic bedtime story.
Look at the films the newspaper
reviewers cover. The films they praise. Thrillers, romances, mysteries,
genre-movies, adventure movies. These movies don't show us anything
about life. They aren't about anythingexcept playing tricks with
movie genres and conventions! What is Pulp Fiction about? What
is L.A. Confidential about? What is Red Rock West or Blood
Simple about? What do you learn when you watch them? Nothing! What
do they teach us? Nothing! How do they change our understanding of ourselves?
They don't. They play games with narrative form. They do stylistic backflips.
They trick our expectations. They shock and tease us.
We're in an Alexandrine age
where style has replaced substance. The movies the reviewers hold up for
praise basically consist of a series of stunts and games and tricks. The
point is shock value and keeping the nonsense moving right along with
razzle-dazzle editing, sound, music, and special effects.
Instead of telling the truth
about the emptiness, the vapidity of the razzle-dazzle, reviewers have
bought into the whole thing. Rather than critiquing these movies' styles,
the reviewers imitate them. They have developed zippy, peppy writing styles
that do the same thing verbally that these films do formally and narratively.
Open any day's newspaper. Read the film reviews. I defy you to find one
idea, one insight into life, one truth, one sincere statement. What's
there instead? Jokesy metaphors. Wise-cracking word play. A witty ending
line. It tells you a lot about the implicit contempt the reviewers have
for what they are doing. It's all a goofball lark. A joke. A chance to
demonstrate how clever they are. The writing is more about them than the
film. Blame it on Pauline Kael.
Interviewer: Why do you
Carney: She started it. The
gushy breathlessness of her prose, her showoff metaphors, her revelry
in shock value, her celebration of mindless, visceral excitement is where
it all started. Most reviewers are still under her influence. Of course,
I know you can't really blame her for their excesses. What her influence
shows is that she tapped into a vein of campy cultural cynicism that was
waiting to be turned into a gusher of purple prose.
What is the most celebrated
cinematic form of the last decade of the twentieth-century and the first
decade of this one? The thriller. The suspense flick. Those are the films
that garner the most praise, particularly from so-called sophisticated
reviewers. But what is it to be a thriller? The form indicts itself. It's
the Enron of cinemaa form devoted to creating the illusion of substance
around nothingness. No truly intelligent movie relies on suspense or mystery
to hold a viewer's attention. Mystery and suspense are trivial, artificial
ways of creating interest. They tap into our reptilian brains. But does
anyone say this? No, they praise the pacing and editingthe mindless
excitement of it all, the way this thriller is slightly different from
that one, as if they were giving style points in an Olympic diving competition.
What Mandarins we have become.
The whole system is dedicated
to frivolousness. The level of discourse is so low, so debased, that when
Charlie Rose interviews the director and star of Silence of the Lambs
and The New York Times runs think piece features on
it, no one laughs. Then they plead that they don't have time or space
to cover some no-budget independent film. The very idea of taking film
seriouslyas if movies really mattered, mattered as
much as the stock market or mapping the genetic codebecomes unthinkable.
Interviewer: But, by your
own admission, most films are frivolous!
Carney: That's why it's all
the more important that reviewers have standards rather than collapsing
into the everything's horse manure attitude they currently
have. It's not hard to understand how they get the way they are. I can't
imagine a more depressing and demoralizing job. To have to sit through
a Hollywood movie every afternoon of the weekwith the prospect of
continuing to do the same thing every week of the rest of your lifeit's
like damning yourself to hell before you actually go there. It's not surprising
that after spending a good part of their working lives watching movies
that are horse manure, they conclude that nothing really
matters. So when they view a film that is even a little more gripping
or thrilling than the average, they sing its praises. If it's
all trash, so you might as well grade it on its flash. In a word,
they become cynicalthough the cynic is always the last to see his
Interviewer: Why do you
call it cynicism?
Carney: They are settling for
too little. They are not asking enough of art or life.
Interviewer: But what these
reviewers describe is all that most people wantan exciting story,
a scare, a lump in their throat, a tear in the eye, a happy ending. They
don't expect anything else. The reviewer is just giving people what they
Carney: Well, there you go!
You've just given another definition of cynicism. That's my point. We
have lost the ideal of film being anything more than an entertainment.
The idea of a movie really mattering in any way, of being of any
real importance to anyone, of being more than mere escapist adventure
for men or a Harlequin romance fantasy for women becomes unimaginable.
I speak with a lot of peopleI'm talking about ordinary working people,
not students and professorsafter screenings, and the notion that
films can reveal their lives to them or offer transformative experiences
is a novel concept to them. They come up to me after a post-screening
discussion and tell me that they have never even imagined that
a film could be what I am implying Faces or Milestones or
Safe or Funny, Ha, Ha is. These are people who go to lots
of movies and read lots of reviewsand they tell me they have never
seen a film treated as really mattering in this way.
It's easy for academics to
forget this. They live in a universe where people talk about art and occasionally
include a film in the category. But my point is that movies are just not
accorded this kind of importance in the media. On the rare occasions when
they are treated as having any degree of importance, it is invariably
for the wrong reasons. You know: Everyone should see Schindler's List
to avoid a repeat of the Holocaust. Or they should see Malcolm X
or Ali to learn about the civil rights movement. Or watch Pearl
Harbor or Saving Private Ryan to understand World War II. That
kind of fake pseudo-importance replaces actually, really mattering in
Interviewer: But you have
to remember that the films most reviewers write about are not transformative.
They are escapist adventures and romances.
Carney: That begs the question.
You are not supposed to dumb down your approach to the level of the lowest,
meanest object you review. In fact, most films are not worth reviewing
at all. But that's part of the cynicismthat newspapers review virtually
every mainstream Hollywood release, then skip the noncommercial independent
films that only play at a single theater. No space for that. It's as if
the fine arts reviewers began reviewing the black velvet paintings peddled
on the sidewalk in front of the Whitney and then said they didn't have
enough space left to review the Biennial. As if the editor of The New
York Times Book Review filled up the pages with reviews of Tom Clancy,
Stephen King, and romance novels and then said there was no space to review
But the real issue is not
the number of column inches devoted to Hollywood in the newspapers or
on television every week. That's discouraging of course; what is at stake
is loss of an ideal, a larger vision of film mattering, film as a form
Interviewer: I'm not sure
I understand what you mean.
Carney: The idea that a film
can be more than fantasy entertainment has been lost. The idea of that
kind of seriousness has been lost in our culture. Film reviewers are the
ones who are ultimately responsible.
Interviewer: What does film
reviewing have to do with the loss of an idea?
Carney: Do you know what Gresham's
Carney: Well, imagine a financial
system where for every real dollar and coin in circulation, there are
a hundred or a thousand counterfeit ones. Gresham's law says that the
real money will cease to have any special value. The counterfeits will
replace it. That's the state of film analysis, discussion, and appreciation
in the mass media. For every intelligent, serious essay or opinion, there
are a hundred or a thousand gushy, mushy, soft-headed radio, television,
magazine, and newspaper reviews, interviews, and feature-stories. Stories
more focused on celebrity gossip than acting. More interested in a film's
popularity than its capacity to change lives. More concerned with how
much money it raked in on its opening weekend than how deeply it affected
anyone. These reviews rank films in terms of roller-coaster thrills and
chills rather than human values.
It's really a scandal, but
no one notices. Reporters and reviewers have a sacred trust as guardians
of the public interest, and they have betrayed it, sold their souls to
the highest bidderwithout realizing it of course. You know we think
of the public interest as protecting our pocketbooks or protecting us
from political corruption, but protecting and honoring our imaginations,
the meaning of our lives and our art is an equal or greater public interest.
In the Gresham's law of the imagination, counterfeit ideas and emotions
have replaced real ones to the point that people have forgotten what the
real ideas and emotions look like. Look at Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party
if you want to see the results.
Interviewer: Can you explain
what you mean by counterfeit emotion?
Carney: I mean that all of
this takes place beneath the realm of consciousness. When you have so
much fake expression, real expression is squeezed out. Think of what advertising
does to our values. Think of what the drumbeat of deceitful, bad actingin
life and artdoes to our understanding of ourselves. We are barraged
with fraudulent expressionin movies; in politics; in infomercials
trying to sell us something; in press releases and business sales conferences;
and in the onslaught of hype and distortion associated with American journalism.
We live in a culture of unreality, a world of media hype, glitz, distraction,
and evanescenceof thirty-second sound bites, bumper sticker sloganeering,
black and white contrasts, synthetic emotions, pose-striking, and flashy
attention-getting. Virtually everything on the evening news, advertising,
and journalism is an expression of that fraudulent value system.
The job of the critic is to
position him or herself somewhere outside of the distortions associated
with that force fieldnot to become an extension of it. And that's
what ninety-nine out of a hundred film reviewers arecogs in the
Hollywood publicity machineless media critics than studio snake-oil
salesmen. Elmer Gantry as thinker.
When the language of art and criticism becomes indistinguishable from
the language of salesmanship, the loss is incalculable. When certain forms
of attention are not exercised, they begin to disappear. When language
is not used with care and thought, the language of care and thought dies.
We're talking about part of our culture dyingor being forced into
hiding on the fringes. The best part.
I'll give you an example that
sums up the situation. I'll base it on the lead reviewer for my hometown
newspaper, The Boston Globe. But the reason the example matters
is that the same generalizations apply to almost every reviewer in America.
The reviewer's name is Jay Carr, but his reviews are indistinguishable
from the ones written by hundreds of others every day. His reviews have
an enormous commercial impact. The Globe's circulation is around
a million. More on Sunday. Carr writes virtually everything that appears
on film in the paper, frequently three or more reviews in a single issue.
He also appears on the newspaper's cable station, reaching hundreds of
thousands more viewers that way. His print and TV reviews determine the
viewing habits of thousands of readers every week. His picks and pans
directly affect the reception of virtually every movie that plays in the
city. Museum curators and specialty film programmers read the financial
fate of their programs in the paper each morning. They will tell you in
confidence that they shape their programming in terms of what might or
might not appeal to Jay.
But as unfortunate as Carr's
commercial impact is, his imaginative impact is worse. His words affect
how hundreds of thousands of people think and feel about film.
After ten or fifteen years of him, it's no wonder that people have forgotten
what intelligence really sounds like or what intelligence at the movies
looks like. His writing is an unending stream of puns, jokes, snide comments,
fake emotions, pseudo-insights, and every other form of hyped-up verbal
snap, crackle, and pop. Reading a week of him is, for me, like reading
a couple dozen bad student papers in a row. Or like listening to a series
of political speeches on the Fourth of July. Or listening to a stream
of real estate infomercials on television. You start to forget what words
really mean. Things that should be kept apart start to blend and blur
and glom together like cotton candy.
Let me give you an example:
A few days ago I heard Carr nostalgically refer to Notting Hill as
a sophisticated romantic comedy. He said it with real reverencein
the vein of: We've fallen on dark days. Will Hollywood ever make
a film as good as Notting Hill again? I had to mentally pinch
myself and remind myself that he was not talking about Top Hat but
a silly Hugh Grant vehicle. What has happened to language when something
as adolescent as Notting Hill can be invoked as an Arnoldian touchstone?
George Orwell described this situation a half century ago. We're always
looking for newspeak in the wrong place. It's right in front
of us in the paper every morning. And the fact that we can't see it, or
we insist on its innocuousness is proof that the battle for our hearts
and minds is over.
Interviewer: But at least
he was criticizing whatever film he was reviewing at the time.
Carney: But look at how screwy
the logic is. He was knocking one piece of junk by praising another piece
of junk. It makes it look like he has standards; but if you know the film
he is invoking as the Golden Age standard, you see what a shell game the
whole thing is. He can sleep at night by thinking he is standing for something;
but what he is standing for is just another kind of Hollywood movie.
The basic problem with journalistic
reviewingand you can see it in Jay Carr's work, in Leonard Maltin's,
Joel Siegel's, Joyce Kulhawick's, David Denby's, and a hundred others'is
that rather than subjecting Hollywood expressive conventions to scrutiny
and questioning, the reviewer merely accepts the conventions. Rather than
dissecting the deficiencies of Hollywood's narrative forms and styles,
Carr and other journalists toast them. They are cinematic fashion slaves,
complete prisoners of convention. They are not critics, but consumers.
That is the opposite of criticism. Criticism is analysis. Criticism
is an exercise in intellect. Criticism involves attempting to understand
a work's forms and structures and what they do to us. Criticism involves
opening yourself to the experience of a work while simultaneously holding
yourself one inch outside of it in order to study how it does what it
does. You allow yourself to catch the fever, even as you study the etiology
of the disease.
Interviewer: But Carr doesn't
always praise Hollywood movies. He frequently criticizes them and writes
negative reviews. That represents a valuable critical function, doesn't
Carney: It counts for nothing.
Even the most virulently negative reviews these mainstream critics offer
are completely captive to Hollywood forms of understanding. In fact, their
so-called negative criticisms usually consist entirely of pointing out
where a film fails to fulfill its genre commitments, where the pacing
flags, where the characters do not fit into the mold. He may criticize
individual films, but he never actually criticizes the system of expressive
clichés they are part of. In fact, rather than critiquing the Hollywood
conventions or leaving them behind, the negative review actually ends
up uncritically affirming and upholding them all the more.
Interviewer: Can you give
Carney: Let Carr stand for
all of them. Rather than trying to understand the lamentable influence
of the thriller form on Americans' understanding of their lives, Carr
revels in itgrading the films on the degree to which they are or
are not successful. Rather than examining the sad emotional
vicariousness of romantic filmsparticularly for female viewersCarr
celebrates it. That's not criticism, it's cheerleading. And when the review
is negative, it's just as enslaved to conventions. You know: About
a Boy could have been a better romantic comedy if only it had....
The Thin Red Line could have been more gripping if only Malick....
Do you see the intellectual morbidity of the formulation? It's
entirely captive to conventional values of what constitutes the right
level of pacing and eventfulness and characterization. The truth is that
there is no right speed for a scene to progress. No
right way to create a character. No right way
to use a camera or edit. Anyone who thinks there is, is wrong, wrong,
The result, in terms of really
interesting work, is judgments that are guaranteed to be the opposite
of the truth. The more original the film, the less likely it is that Carr
or any mainstream review will appreciate it. The more conventional its
forms and meanings, the more likely he will admire it. What's at stake
is more than just a matter of wrong opinions. Language and thought are
the real losers. You start to think with bogus concepts. Hollywood terms
like gripping and compelling and fast-paced
and exciting and realistic and well-acted
and charming and entertaining invade your brain.
None of Bresson would pass that test. None of Tarkovsky. Nothing by any
filmmaker who doesn't merely recycle conventions.
This page contains
an excerpt from a lengthy interview with Ray Carney. In the selection
above, he discusses American film reviewing. The complete interview from
which this excerpt is taken is available in a new packet titled What's
Wrong with Film Teaching, Criticism, and ReviewingAnd How to Do
It Right. For more information about Ray Carney's writing on independent
film, including information about how to obtain this interview and two
other packets of interviews in which he gives his views on film, criticism,
teaching, the life of a writer, and the path of the artist, click