Questioning Film CultureInside and Outside the University
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Interviewer: What films
do you show in your courses?
Carney: They change from semester
to semester because I'm pretty easily bored! But some of the filmmakers
repeat even if the film titles don't.
Interviewer: Well, beyond
the obvious choices, like Cassavetes, which filmmakers do you find yourself
Carney: Actually I've only
taught one all-Cassavetes course in my life. I generally avoid showing
his work since it's not as much of a learning experience for me as doing
something new. I also end up seeing the films a lot at festivals and special
events, and I don't want to wear them out by seeing them too many times
Interviewer: What you mean
by wearing them out?
Carney: Becoming too familiar
with them. I don't want to take away the strangeness of the experience.
There are lots of other filmmakers that I have been staying away from
beyond Cassavetes. I adore Mike Leigh's early work, but I don't want to
get bored with it and kill the mystery. I used to teach Renoir, Tarkovsky,
Dreyer, Bergman, DeSica, and Chaplin a lot, but lately I've been letting
them lie fallow. I figure if I give them a rest, and return to them in
a few years, I'll see new things because I'll be a different person.
I sometimes try to explain
this to students, but I think it's hard for them to understand since they
haven't lived long enough to notice how their perceptions have changed
Interviewer: How does that
come into your teaching?
Carney: Well, it comes in if
they say they don't like some movie that I recommend or screen in a course.
I generally say it's OK not to like itthat they should give it a
rest, and look at it again in five years, and that it will be different
because they will be different. But they are young. They live in a bunny
hutch world where everything happens quickly, and five years seems like
an eternity to them.
I tell them that every time
you see a film you are a different person and that living a little more
is often necessary to appreciate something. I tell them how I hated Faces
the first time I saw it. Or how I couldn't understand the point of The
Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Or how I resisted the vision of life
in Opening Nightthe despair and loneliness and limitations
it placed on experience. It took me years to come to grips with those
experiences. That's true of most of life. We fight certain recognitions.
We aren't ready for others. We change our understandings of events as
we go along. Why should art be different?
But to answer your question
about directors I recently have been screening a lot: Kiarostami, Wilder,
Tati, Rossellini, Sautet, Ackerman, Bresson, and Ozu. I am probably forgetting
a few others. My idea of heaven changes from year to year, but for a long
time now it's been an Ozu film festival. His work speaks to me so deeply.
I remember something one of my professors said in a freshman literature
coursehow there were poets he grew tired of teaching year in and
year out and felt the pleasure of reading had diminished, but how, for
him at least, Keats always stayed fresh. Well Ozu is my Keats. Keats isn't
bad either! Ozu's work always feels new, so I squeeze him in everywhere
I can. The good news is that he made so many films that I don't have to
repeat titles very often. The bad news is that they are hard to geton
film or video. America doesn't care enough about real art to keep them
in circulation. But I have an amazing film booker who ferrets out secret
There is also my personal pantheon
of American indie directors, which I cycle through in my indie course
and add new names to every year. But I've named most of them already to
Interviewer: I didn't know
you were so interested in foreign films.
Carney: I teach my department's
International Masterworks course almost every year. [Laughing]
My goal is to get as far from Los Angeles as possibleimaginatively
and geographically! The single best thing that could happen to American
film would be if the city and the reporters who make a living covering
it slid into the Pacific. Where is the San Andreas fault when we really
need it? If it's disgraceful that Hollywood movies get so much space in
the media, it's even more disgraceful that they get so much space in the
curriculum. The university is supposed to offer a perspective from somewhere
above and beyond the hucksterdom of the culture, not be an extension of
it. We have dumbed down film courses to what the students are familiar
with and already understand.
The problem is everywhere.
I got a mailing from Oxford University Press a few weeks ago advertising
two new books: Introducing Film and Key Film Texts written
by two film professors, Graham Roberts and Heather Willis. Oxford is the
major high-brow, academic press in the English-speaking world. These books
are textbooks for college students. According to the blurb, Key Film
Texts focuses on fifty canonical, critically important, core works
as the foundation for a film student's education. When I got the mailing
and read the blurb, I was really excited. I couldn't wait to get my hands
on the second book. My mind was racing. What a neat idea. I started creating
my own mental list of the fifty works I would include if I could rove
over all of film culture, with no restrictions, works from any country
and any period. I couldn't wait to see what the authors had picked. Well,
I got the book. Both books actually. Here they are. [Holding them up.]
They both deal with basically the same set of films. So I'll confine myself
to the Key Film Texts one.
Are you curious? Do you want
to know what the fifty key film texts are? Brace yourself. I'll read from
the table of contents: Taxi Driver, Star Wars, Annie Hall, Raiders
of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Do the Right Thing, Jurassic Park, Reservoir
Dogs, Titanic, Gone with the Wind, The Blair Witch Project, Bringing Up
Baby, The Matrix, Face/Off, The Godfather, Psycho.... Let's see, that's
sixteeen, a third of the total.... Do I need to continue? Keep in mind,
this is two professors writing for Oxford University Press. This is as
serious as it gets academically. We're not talking about the writing of
Pauline Kael or Leonard Maltin or some piece of journalistic hack work.
This is not a mass market paperback written to cash in on interest in
Hollywood schlockbut an academic listing of fifty seminal, central
works for university film study.
OK. Let's stop and consider
what's not on the list. What didn't make the cut. Here's the book.
You can check what I am telling you by looking in it. The Key Film
Texts do not include one Bresson movie, not one Ozu movie, not one
Renoir, Cassavetes, Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Kiarostami, or Rossellini movie.
I guess Roberts and Willis would say they had to make some hard choices.
It must have been a tough call: Ordet and The Sacrifice and
Equinox Flower barely got nosed out at the finish line by Jurassic
Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Titanic. And by
two John Ford movies and three Hitchcock movies, of course. They rank
right up there with Spielberg on the list in terms of multiple selections.
A single title by those three artistic geniuses wouldn't have been enough.
But wait a minute, there's
more.... [pulling another mailing out from under a heap of papers on his
desk] .... here's a flyer I got it a couple months back but never opened.
What's it say on the front? Studying Contemporary American Film: A
Guide to Movie Analysis, by Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland.
Another brand new film textbook from a top drawer academic press. Oxford
again. Let the record show, I am breaking the seal on the flyer, opening
it for the first time before your very eyes. Silence. A drum-roll please.....
I'll give you the highlights
from the book description. [Reading:] How should the student set
about analyzing contemporary American cinema? This book takes an innovative
approach to film analysis: each chapter examines the assumptions behind
one traditional theory of film, distils a method of analysis from it,
and then analyzes a contemporary American movie. All students of film
will find this book ideal for writing clear, well-structured, detailed
analyses of American movies and American filmmaking technique. The
author bio reads: Thomas Elsaesser is one of the world's leading
film scholars. OK. Got that? Now let's see what films are discussed.
Are you ready? Are you sitting down? Here's the table of contents. [Reading
again:] Classical/Post Classical Narrative: Die Hard; Deconstructive
Analysis: Chinatown; Cognitive Theories: Lost Highway; Realism
in the Digital Image: Jurassic Park and The Lost World;
Post-Oedipal Narratives: Back to the Future; and Feminism, Foucault,
and Deleuze: The Silence of the Lambs. It's too good for
me to be making this up. It would take a Borges. But, I must say, it does
look like Jurassic Park gets the academic Gold Medal. It made the
cut in all three books. That Spielberg. What a genius.
Am I the only film professor
in America who thinks there's something wrong with this picture? Isn't
education supposed to involve going in the opposite direction? Not having
the teacher go slumming down in the artistic neighborhoods where the students
imaginatively live, but bringing them up the mountaindragging them
up kicking and screaming if necessary, even if they dig in their heels
and resist as many of them doto show them what the human spirit
is capable of when its liberated from commercial calculations. Why is
everything so dumbed down to the level of the Hollywood-addled viewer?
Interviewer: Well, why do
you think it is?
Carney: Well, a lot of it is
things we've already talked about. Hollywood has polluted the American
imagination and film professors are influenced by a lot of the same movie
ads and reviews as Joe Sixpack. On top of that you have to keep in mind
that playing to the expectations of an audience and getting an enthusiastic
response is an important part of teaching. Many teachers want to be hip
and show their students that they are interested in the same things they
are. Every teacher is a bit of a showman at heart and loves to teach what
workswhat gives a relatively quick and easy intellectual
and emotional payoff. If you show films by Ozu and Bresson, there's going
to be resistanceit's a giventhere has to beand it's
going to take a lot more time and effort to get a payoff than if you show
something that the students already know and likesay something by
Lynch, Stone, or the Coen brothers. Your student evaluations will be better
because those films are much more teachable.
Interviewer: What do you
Carney: The meanings are right
on the surface, waiting to be unpacked. As far as I can tell it's the
main reason Welles and Hitchcock have dominated film study for the past
thirty years. They made films that are easy to teach. See that No
Trespassing sign? Listen to that music. Look at those shadows. Watch
the tracking movement of the camera. See how it communicates loneliness,
emptiness, estrangement, death. Look at the birds and the lighting in
Norman Bates' office. Look at the safe. Listen to the boy's-best-friend-is-his-mother
dialogue and note the misogyny and veiled perversion. See how easy it
is to do? Wow. We sure are smart.
It's bing, bing, bing. Those
meanings are quick, easy, and clear. Just add water and serve upinstant
profundity while you wait. You don't have to know anythingabout
art or life.
Interviewer: Wait a minute.
You can't say this doesn't take knowledge. To do those things you have
to know about how films use symbols and metaphors. You have to know about
lighting and musical orchestrations and tracking movements.
Carney: That's trick knowledgequick,
easy, prefabricated, one-size-fits-all knowledge. It's not real
knowledge like life's, but a children's game simulacrumone of those
Highlights can-you-see-the-face-in-the-bark-of-the-tree drawings.
That goes for all symbolic knowledge, by the way. It's all fake
knowledgesermons hidden under stones, just waiting to be found and
translated into what my middle school history book called Big Ideas and
Basic Concepts. Even in seventh grade when I read William Shirer I realized
that real historical knowledge was less clear, more slippery, more
elusive than this connect-the-dots idea of what things mean. Symbolic
knowledge is invisible ink/decoder ring knowledge. That's why you can
teach it so quickly and a student can learn it so quickly.
The knowledge Noonan and Kiarostami
and Tarkovsky offer is entirely different. You can't open up and unpack
their images and events the way you can Hitchcock's. They offer slow knowledge,
living with something rather than seeing into it; vague,
fuzzy knowledge; changing, revised knowledge. That's real knowledge. Of
course that's also why Noonan and Kiarostami and Tarkovsky will never
be as big as Hitchcock and Lynch and the Coen brothers. People prefer
imitation knowledge to the real thing. They love symbols and metaphors.
The Hitchcockian, Wellsian kind of knowledge is as seductive as a drug
experience. The teacher gets this massive rush from showing how much power
he has over the text, and the students get their rush from discovering
how easily they can do the same thing the teacher does.
Interviewer: I'm a little
confused by your attack on symbols and metaphors. isn't looking for metaphoric
and symbolic meaning what film study is about?
Carney: I hope not. I hope
it's about understanding life. But to do that you have to know
a lot about life to start with and a film has to draw on your knowledge
of life. I'll adapt something Robert Lowell once said about modern poetry.
Films like Blue Velvet and Blood Simple and Pulp Fiction
and Natural Born Killers and Mulholland Drive have miles
and miles of formal clevernesstons of narrative and visual tricks,
jokes, and stuntsbut their knowledge of life is an inch deep. That's
why teenagers can enjoy and understand them, and why these movies get
the same dependable response from young and old, rich and poor, year in
and year old. Hollywood has raised this being nowhere, saying nothing
game to a fine art. I once had dinner with a big producer who actually
bragged about this quality of his work. He said that to avoid losing foreign
audiences, he made sure that his films required no knowledge of
anything. That way whether he showed them in Timbuktu or Tehran,
everyone got the movie. But it's equally true of most so-called
highbrow films. They ask nothing of you in particular and consequently
gives nothing to you in particular. You, the individual unique you, don't
bring anything different from anyone else to the banquet. They invalidate
my point about returning to a film when you have lived more and seeing
different things in it, because with these films you don't have to have
lived or know anything in particular about life to understand them. All
you have to know about is lighting and editing. Their effects are sterile,
hermetic, self-referentialtrivial, in a logical sense. It doesn't
take any real knowledge to unpack the meaning of camera angles,
editing rhythms, music, lighting, or The-Idiot's-Guide-to-Freud symbols
in David Lynch's work.
Look at how many of these movies
use the pull of mystery or suspense to keep us interested. The easiest,
most infantile way to hold anyone's attention. They draw on our reptilian
flight or fight responses, not more complex, mixed-up, gray-scale adult
emotions. Look at the Mulholland Drive craze of six months ago.
There's about one of these a year. A few years ago it was Pulp Fiction.
Then it was Magnolia. I'm sure by the time this is out, there will
have been three more nominees for most overrated films of the decade.
And everyone falls for it!
Film Comment puts Mulholland Drive on the cover and devotes
not one, but two feature pieces to the film! All you apparently
have to do to sell this sort of thing to a New York critic is put in a
lot of flashy, stylish references and chic cinematic in-jokes; give your
work a knowing, hip, fashion-magazine visual and acoustic smartness; put
in some spooky-dooky music; add some mysterioso point-of-view camera work;
and hang it all on a trickily disjointed or convoluted narrative line.
Mix and stir the ingredients together and what do you get? A puzzle film
that Philip Lopate and Amy Taubin treat as a masterpiece because it allows
them to show off their own smart, hip ability to piece all the nonsense
together. Attitude admires attitude.
Stylistic razzle-dazzle replacing
content is not new of course. Henry James wrote about it a hundred years
ago. It's what American advertising and salesmanship and television have
always been about. But what's changed is that the critics no longer decry
it. Rather than standing outside the style system, they aspire to become
part of it. As Lopate's and Taubin's Film Comment pieces illustrate,
they are in a mad race not to be out-hipped by the next critic. Print
my appreciation of it! No, print mine!
Look at Mikey and Nicky
if you want to see a doppelgänger movie that knows a lot about
life and requires you to know a lot about life to understand it. A movie
that isn't a pack of stylistic in-jokes and editing shock tactics. Of
course, it's much harder to write about May's film. It's not a game-playing
movie and the critic can't play a clever critical game with it. There
are lots of films like that. You can't understand Love Streams,
Wanda, or The Wife either unless you know a lot about men
and women and the differences between them. An awful lot. So guess which
set of films gets the rave reviews. And gets screened in film courses.
Interviewer: I'm getting
a clearer idea of why you tell students to study literature instead of
film. They can avoid all this.
Carney: Only in your dreams.
Film study doesn't have a monopoly on quick fixes. In fact I discovered
most of what I am telling you at the very beginning of my career when
I was in the English department at Middlebury College. One of the jobs
they fobbed off on new faculty members was team-teaching the required
survey of literature course with a bunch of other professors. I did it
for six years. The good part was reading The Canterbury Tales and
Shakespeare and Paradise Lost over and over again. The bad part
was constant squabbles with the other professors about what novels we
would have the students read. It was almost exactly the same battle as
what I have just described in terms of film study. They were just as much
addicted to easy teachability as any film professor.
Interviewer: Can you give
Carney: Well, I pushed to get
Jane Austen into the course, but was told she didn't work
in class. Her novels were too much a matter of delicate tones of voice
and subtle play of wit. Bronte and Joyce, on the other hand, were teachable.
Lots of metaphors. Emma and Sense and Sensibility couldn't
make the cut; the students read Wuthering Heights and Portrait
of the Artist. Something similar happened with Henry James. I tried
to get Daisy Miller bumped off the reading list and replaced with
An International Episode. No dice. I tried to get some of James'
late short storiesThe Given Case, The Story in
It, The Beast in the Jungle, or In the Cageput
in place of The Turn of the Screw. Lost that battle too. Daisy
Miller and The Turn of the Screw are absolute clinkerstedious,
predictable, pot-boilersand the titles I wanted to substitute are
subtle, interesting, and complex; but I never stood a chance, precisely
because you can't do the sort of metaphorical and psychosocial circus
tricks with the complex works that you can with the simple ones.
Let me be clear about this.
My colleagues were right. It is harder to teach Austen than Joyce.
It is harder to teach An International Episode than Daisy
Miller. It is harder to teach Cassavetes than Hitchcock. But that's
not what's wrong with the first group of works and artists, but what's
wrong with critical methods that exclude them and favor weaker works.
When weak works yield more to our methods than strong ones, it should
tell us that it is time to change our methods. If you had a metal detector
that detected tin cans but passed over gold coins, you should adjust the
device, not change the valuation of tin cans.
Interviewer: How have you
succeeded in making unteachable works teachable?
Carney: I haven't! Every teacher
who has tried anything a little more demanding than the obvious can tell
you horror stories about screening adult films[Laughing:] Better
scratch that sentence before I get into trouble with my DeanI mean
about screening films that require adult perceptions, adult experiences,
adult sensitivities. Tom Noonan and I were just swapping stories about
this. He was telling me about times when the audience to one of his plays
was so out of it or hostile that it was almost impossible for him to make
his entrance and go on with his performance, and I told him I had had
lots of experience dealing with hostile audiences myself.
Interviewer: What do you
Carney: Screenings where you
show something beyond the students' ability to understand it and you totally
lose your audience. It doesn't happen as much in a small course, where
you're working in a very intimate setting, and a large amount of trust
is developed in the course of working together, but a large lecture course
can be a killer. I remember one particularly nightmarish screening of
A Woman Under the Influence where everything went wrong. It was
in a gigantic required survey course for a group of about 500 Freshmen.
I was a guest lecturer. That meant not only that most of the students
weren't film majors and didn't want to be there, but that, because I was
not the regular teacher, they had no emotional connection with me or the
subject. They laughed all the way through itwhen they weren't shouting
things at the screen.
Interviewer: Why would they
Carney: Oh, that's not at all
an unusual a response from someone that age or in that situation. If I
had had a clearer idea of the situation of the students in the course
I would have chosen a different Cassavetes filmShadows or
a film by some other director. A Woman Under the Influence was
something they couldn't understand or emotionally identify with, especially
at that event. They were boys and girls in their teens. They had no interest
in or knowledge of the life of someone the age of their mothers. They
thought the movie was exaggerated and silly.
You can tell an awful lot about
what is going on inside a viewer during a screening. I always have my
antennas out when I am showing a film. I sit in the room with the class.
I listen to the students' breathing. I watch their eyes. I study their
body language, whether they are moving or still, sitting forward or back
in their seats. But this particular screening didn't take supersubtle
perceptiveness. I could see it coming when I walked into the lecture hall
even before the movie began. I was to speak following the screening. It
was a special evening event and many of them had brought popcorn, soft
drinks, and friends, assuming it would all be a big partytheir one
movie of the semester. I could tell things were wrong by the tone and
mood. No one was listening as the regular professor introduced the film.
The students were laughing, slouched back in their seats, calling things
out to their friends across the aisle. A chorus of cheers went up as he
sat down and the film began. From that moment on there was nothing I could
do to wake up from the nightmare. I sat in the back of the room next to
the regular professor, listening to the jeering. I watched at least fifty
students get up and leave (probably the friends and roommates who had
come along for the ride). When the cat-calls got really bad, I asked him
if we could stop the film, but he told me he didn't want to because there
would not be time to screen it any other night. On reflection, I'm sure
all he cared about was getting the event over as soon as possible. The
last thing he wanted was to go through this on a second night. Talk about
contempt for your own students and your own classroom. Of course it seemed
like it would never end. When the lights came up to a chorus of sarcastic
cheers, I had to walk slowly up the aisle, onto the stage, and deliver
an hour-long lecture. I'll put that up against any entrance Tom Noonan
has ever made!
That was the worst because
I was so personally involved, but I remember Bresson screenings at the
Olympia Film Festival, including one of Lancelot de lac, that were
almost as bad. Lancelot is a deeply spiritual work, but the audience
laughed all the way through it, treating it as if it were Monty Python
and the Holy Grail.
Interviewer: How could they
Carney: Audiences have problems
with any artist who makes reality even a little hard to see. Isn't that
Wallace Stevens' definition of poetry? It happens all the time. People
laugh when they don't have any other category to put an experience in.
They assume it must be a joke. Especially young audiences nowadays who
have seen so many smart-ass movies that ask you to laugh at everything.
Movies like Happiness or Your Friends and Neighbors or Magnolia.
I remember a screening of Dreyer's Gertrud at the Harvard Film
Archive where the audience hee-hawed all the way through the film. I've
seen it happen at Paul Taylor dance performances. As soon as the dancing
gets at all strange or tonally unclassifiable or resists simple understanding,
people start guffawing. You can always tell this laugh, though, because
it's different from a real laughit comes from the head not the heart,
as if the people laughing were not feeling it, but willing it, thinking
Laughter is a way of protecting
yourself so you don't have to deal with something emotionally. If those
girls in the lecture course actually let Mabel into their hearts and saw
themselves in her, or if the fraternity brothers in the Bresson audience
saw their own enslavement to abstract notions of style and macho-man behavior
and mindless group allegiance, it would be too scary for them to contemplate.
Bresson slows things down in ways that force you to look at them in new
ways, and if you don't want to do thatif you just come to a movie
to waste your own timeit's always safer to regard it as a joke.
You don't have these kinds
of disasters when you show Hitchcock or the Coen brothers. You frequently
have them with Cassavetes, Tarkovsky, Bresson, Dreyer, or Ozu. I remember
one of my own classroom screenings of Ordet where the students
laughed or called out names every time Johannes came on screen. And a
screening of Jeanne Diehlman wheregoaded on by a vocal grad
student who resented the fact that the film was so longthe students
called out smart remarks at the screen, like hurry up and
are you going to do that again?
Interviewer: What do you
do in those situations?
Carney: In the Bresson and
Dreyer screenings that took place elsewhere, I couldn't do anything but
change my seat and try to sit as far away from the rowdies as possible.
After the A Woman Under the Influence screening, I threw away my
lecture notes and made the audience's ridicule, their rejection of sincerity
and seriousness, their implicit contempt for the art of film the subject
of my talk. When it happens in my own classroom, I can do a lot better.
I stop the film in mid-reel and have the students analyze their responses.
Why are they ridiculing the film? I've had this very discussion with themabout
how easy it is to know exactly how to respond to a scene in Hitchcock
and how much harder it is to understand the tone or meaning of a scene
in Gertrud or Ordet or Solarisand what that
difference tells us. Sometimes, if it's just a few yahoos and not the
whole class that is the problem, I'll take them out into the hall and
talk to them in private.
Interviewer: Are you able
to succeed in showing them how they went wrong?
Carney: Sometimes yes; sometimes
no. The discussions can get very heated. Everything in our culture, everything
in most of these students' pasts has trained them to believe that their
emotional responses can't be wrong. Their facts may be, but not
their emotions. It's a legacy of the sixties that if they feel it, it
must be right. Or at least it must be respected.
Not to mince words, what I
am basically telling them is that their emotions are wrong. That
they are immature. I don't say that directly, of course, but they pick
up on it. And they're right. That's what I am telling them. I try to reach
them with various analogies, like how their taste in music is different
from and presumably more advanced than their little brother's. Or how
the books they read have changed over the years. We talk about the emotional
programming of our culture and how it encourages comic, ironic, or sarcastic
responses. We talk about why works of art might resist easy understandings,
and how they might actually want to put us in tonally unresolved situations.
We talk about how a work teaches you how to respond to it, how it uses
formal devices to adjust its emotional register, and how it distorts artistic
experiences to interpret them simply in terms of your own set of private
associations and frames of reference.
Interviewer: Does the discussion
Carney: Not necessarily, but
it upsets them, and that might actually be better. I'd rather reach their
hearts than their minds anyday. Tocqueville was right. The idea that there
is an aristocracy of sensibility, that your own personal responses might
be wrong, is a hard concept for people to grasp in our I'm OK You're OK,
everyone is entitled to their opinion culture. It can be years
before some of them really understand.
Teachers of courses in feminism
or multiculturalismwho are talking about similar forms of cultural
emotional programmingknow enough to limit their enrollment to members
of the special interest group to avoid the how dare you criticize
my feelings syndrome from people who don't agree with them, but
I don't have that luxury. As with any discussion, there are always a few
students who refuse to learn anything and argue to the death that everyone
is entitled to his own response. But there are others who tell you years
later that particular class was the most important discussion they ever
Interviewer: It's interesting
because I don't think I've ever heard this issue dealt with. Usually it
seems that the professor tells the students what the movie means or what
its historical importance is and the students simply write it down and
regurgitate it. Very seldom does a class let you deal with the interpretive
process itself, actually to discuss or reflect on why your reactions might
be different from the professor's.
Carney: Or it happens the other
way around. The professor simply echoes the students' interpretations
of what they are seeing. Ah, yes, that's an interesting point. Thanks
for mentioning it. He doesn't ever say, I think you missed
the point. The work doesn't want us to do that to it. It's dangerous
territory for a teacher to get into. And it raises larger issues. My classes
are full of value judgmentsmade both by me and my studentsjudgments
about the value of a particular work; judgments about right and wrong
ways to respond to it; judgments about how Hollywood panders to viewers'
base instincts and self-aggrandizing understandings of themselves; a whole
slew of judgments, judgments, judgments. And there is a strong aversion
to judgment in our culture in general and in the classroom in particular.
Given the age of most students, open-mindedness and non-judging
are their supreme values. It's a stage we all went through. When you are
young, and don't know very much about anything, and are not in a position
to judge it, it seems as if all the problems of the world would end if
the adults simply stopped judging each other or anything else. And here
I come inmaking judgments a mile a minute, not only about works
of art, but about how viewers should respond to them, scene by scene.
Most classroom discussions
generally take their values from the students. Most professors don't
to get out of step with their students for all of the obvious reasons.
They court student approval and live in fear of student evaluationssince
much of the tenure and promotion system is based on them. So they
not about to rock the boat by telling their boy students that The
panders to their feelings of powerlessness, their Walter Mitty dreams
of saving the world, and their nostalgia for their youth; or telling
girl students that they are being shamelessly manipulated by Titanic
and Shrek; and on and on.
Interviewer: Is there anything
else we didn't cover about college film study?
Carney: Well, I know it's pretty
trivial, but you want to know my pet peeve? The film department whoredom
after celebrity speakers. Why do film professors invite movie stars into
the classroom at all? And then fawn on them while they are there? I thought
universities existed to question the commercial values of our sick society,
not for professors to turn their classrooms into the touring company of
Entertainment Tonight. If Steven Spielberg asked to come into my
classroom, I'd either turn him down or subject him to a grilling about
the fraudulence of his work that he'd never forget. So I'm not holding
my breath on him asking!
The celebrity suck-up goes
on at every school I know of, including my own. The Dean of an important
film school called me a few months ago and was dropping names of famous
directors and actors who had given presentations at his school. He was
trying to talk me into coming and lecturing, but it had the opposite effect.
I thought why would I want to go somewhere that the students were being
brain-washed into taking Tom Cruise or Oliver Stone seriouslyas
artists or thinkers? But I have to confess that my own university is no
different. Just last week, I received this press pack about Douglas Fairbanks
Jr. and the huge collection of material about him the school library recently
acquired. All it made me think was all of the ways the money and time
spent courting him and his collection of adventure movie memorabilia could
have been better spent. Hollywood doesn't have to storm the barricades;
universities roll out the red carpet and fight each other to get millionaire
movie stars and producers to accept honorary degrees at Commencement.
Move over Charles and Fergie.
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