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This page contains a short section from an interview Ray Carney gave to filmmaker Shelley Friedman. In the selection below, Ray Carney discusses the limitations of Hollywood filmmaking and the fallacy of thinking of art in financial terms. The complete interview covers many other topics. For more information about Ray Carney's writing on independent film, including information about obtaining three different interview packets in which he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of a writer, and the path of the artist, click here.
To read an interview with Ray Carney about film production programs, "Why Film Schools Should be Abolished and Replaced with Majors in Auto Mechanics," click here.
Making a Life
In this time of economic hardship, what do you recommend for people just entering a career in filmmaking?
I’m always uncomfortable with the notion of a “career” in anything. American society is structured so that it opulently rewards certain roles (lawyers, doctors, celebrity actors and athletes, wheeler-dealer businessmen, con-man stockbrokers, big-talking producers) and ignores or financially penalizes others (teachers, nurses, mothers, caregivers, ministers, artists). That never changes, in good times or bad.
We focus too much on the financial side. That’s Hollywood thinking. If you are a real artist, you can make art with no money. Red Grooms used house paint and plywood to make his art. Paul Zaloom sets up a card table and moves toy soldiers around. Todd Haynes used Barbie dolls. I know a guy, Freddie Curchack, who made finger-shadows on a sheet as his art. An artist who complains about not having enough money is not an artist, but a businessman.
The only reason to make a movie, paint a painting, or write a poem is to try to understand something that matters to you that you don’t understand. God knows, it’s only the reason I write my books. If I were in it for the money, the fame, or the glory, I would have thrown in the towel and declared bankruptcy a long time ago! [Laughs] You do it for the challenge and fun of picking your way through a jungle of unresolved ideas and feelings. The filmmakers I know who don’t have the twenty thousand dollars it takes to make a movie are busy writing short stories or putting on plays with their friends. The beauty of that is that when they are able to get things together to make a movie, they already have a head start on something to film. They have tested it by tinkering with it and writing it out. They have workshopped it and seen where it needs to be revised. I tell students who say they can’t afford a digital camera and sound equipment to put on a play in their living rooms or hide out in their basements and write a novel. If they tell me they’re not interested in doing that, then I know they’re not artists. They are more interested in having a career than a life.
But they have to make a living.
I know that, but all I can deal with is the education side of it, and education is not about making a living, but making a life. A deep, spiritually meaningful life. It is a time for exploration and discovery. You’re right. Every day after my students graduate, the world will be demanding its pound of flesh from them. There will be pressures placed on them to compromise, to put their values aside and do things the established way, the way that makes money, the way that makes for worldly success. That’s why a university is such a special place. It is their one opportunity to do something for truth. Not for money. Not to get ahead. Not to curry favor with someone. Not to please anyone but themselves. It is a special time of life, a unique opportunity to go as far as they can, to dig as deep as they dare into the meaning of life. It is a time to study their hearts and souls and not worry about the ridiculous, wasteful, stupid things the world wants them to care about. To go to school to try to build a resumé, or to learn secrets about how to get rich or famous is to waste this glorious opportunity to break free from that oppressive system. The only right reason to go to school or to make art or to study art is to begin to understand truths the world suppresses and denies, and eventually to be able to share your understandings with others in acts of love and giving.
Just this afternoon I just spoke at a Boston U. open house "visiting day" for grad students who were visiting a number of different schools and told them if some teacher or Dean stood up in a meeting and told them that if they got a degree from their school they could be rich or famous some day, they should run for the door. I told them that the only reason to go to grad school was to have a chance to explore themselves and our crazy, messed up culture so that they might begin to understand themselves and it – and eventually be able to communicate that understanding to others. To do anything else is to waste your education, and ultimately to waste your life. It is to sell your soul to the devil. Life is not about making money or getting famous or being successful. In our brief time here we must try to understand who we are and what really matters, and try to bring our feelings of love and kindness and understanding to others to change the world for the better in some way. That's what school is about – or what it should be about. Starting out on – or continuing – that great adventure of discovery and self-discovery.
Sometimes it seems like we have a
very “everyone for themselves” attitude in the film industry in the
Rob Nilsson said something very interesting in a Res column. He said that film schools should be abolished and all the young people should go find some low-budget independent filmmaker whose works they loved, apprentice themselves to him or her, and give their tuition money to the filmmaker. Of course, the proposal was tongue in cheek. He knows it will never happen, and that it sounds insane to most people. But I would love to have young filmmakers take him seriously. It could change the history of American film. I’ve given my students this advice, but they always think I’m joking.
Film school is a waste of time for most students. In fact, it’s counterproductive in most cases because the wrong things are taught – like explaining away your characters’ mysteries by providing unnecessary background information, and how to keep the stupid plot moving along. Why should every movie look like every other movie? Even children’s books are more different from one another than Hollywood films are. Who says you have to have establishing shots or over-the-shoulder shots? Who says a scene has to be lighted or edited in a certain way? It really shows contempt for the art. You’d never tell a musician he had to compose for particular instruments and play in certain keys, or a painter what colors to use or what size canvas to paint on. And what happens at the end of the process? Another class of know-nothings is turned loose in the world to compete with each other for a Hollywood distribution deal.
To tell the truth, most of the students I teach give up on film after they leave school. They go into something else. It’s the open secret of most film programs. The faculty tell the parents all these tall tales about careers in film on visiting day before their children enroll, but most of the film students stop doing film the day they graduate. And the ones who go to LA and fight to get a job and starve for a while end up pushing a dolly or stringing wires on some big budget production that no one involved with gives a damn about. Those are the lucky ones! For that you went to four years of film school? To learn how to push a dolly or answer the phone for some producer?
Each of these students could have made their own feature their own way if they had taken Nilsson’s advice and apprenticed themselves to an indie filmmaker. Instead they go off to work in a factory every morning, and become a tiny cog in an enormous studio machine. What a waste of an education. What a waste of a life. They had it right in the sixteenth century. The guild system was a much better way to learn art.
Why do you think so many filmmakers are drawn to teaching, besides the schedule flexibilities?
[Laughs] Well, they have to pay the rent somehow, and the hourly rate is a few cents better than McDonald’s! Lots of filmmakers become teachers so they can use equipment for free or get students to help them with their films. But I’d like to think there is a higher, nobler reason – the dream of being part of a community of like-minded, soulful, spiritual searchers. Universities are the last of the monasteries – the last shelter from the capitalist way of measuring everything in terms of popularity and profit. That makes them a wonderful place to be.
Of course I’m talking about an ideal university. There are so few of them left. Most academic film programs – all of the best-known ones, NYU, UCLA, USC, and the others – do not represent an alternative to the business sickness of our culture, but are devoted to training people to enter and compete within it. The students don’t ask questions about the meaning of art and life. They major in vocational ed – no different from studying auto mechanics or farming or being in beautician school. Like I was saying, they’d rather give their students a job than a life.
I get emails every week from students who have spent four years majoring in film at UCLA or USC or NYU, and have never heard the name of a single one of the art filmmakers I write or speak about mentioned in their classes. The so-called independent films shown in their courses are by mainstream directors like Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, and John Sayles. Artistic expression is represented by someone like Hitchcock. The students should be awarded degrees in advertising and promotion when they graduate. That’s the only area the work of these filmmakers represents. They’re not studying art but commerce.
The reason I’m so familiar with these problems is that they are not taking place in a galaxy far away from me. The Boston University film program is no different from the UCLA one in this respect, maybe it’s worse. Just because I am in it doesn’t mean that the program reflects my personal values. I have to remind saucer-eyed students about this when they write me and say they want to come to Boston University “to study with me.” Like I was Yoda! I tell them that they will also have to study with a lot of people who disagree with me, who argue with me, who think I’m a pain in the neck. Boston U. churns out worker bee drones for the studio hive the same as other programs do.
My painful, awkward, fun job – it really is a lot of fun! – is to force my students to let go of their limited understandings of art. Classes are great, exciting, crazy tugs-of-war. They try to stay on their feet and I try to pull the rug out from under them. To show them works that don’t yield to their ways of understanding, works of real art that do much more complex, slippery, challenging things. But it’s an uphill battle. The force of the whole culture is arrayed against it. The students generally don’t appreciate the works I show or begin to understand how they function until we have put in a lot of time together. It can take months. One of my courses runs 70 hours over fourteen weeks, and that’s frequently not enough time to do what I want to do. I get emails every week from students who have been out of school for a few years who tell me that only then are they finally beginning to see what I was trying to show them. What do they know? They come into school having been brainwashed by the media into believing figures like Spielberg and Tarantino are as good as film gets. They’ve never heard of Tarkovsky or Ozu or Bresson or Kiarostami or Rappaport. They don’t know the great works of art. Of course everything that I am saying goes against the grain of post-60s cultural assumptions that students should have the final say about what they study. We live in a democracy where things are supposed to be decided by popularity. That’s how we elect our leaders. What’s popular is what’s stocked in stores and what gets reported in our newspapers. But that’s not how a university should work. It’s a mistake to teach films that the students want you to teach. It’s a mistake to put works on the syllabus because they are popular or will get a large enrollment. If you teach what the students have heard of and want to see, you might as well open a movie theater in the mall. My job is to show the students movies that they haven’t heard of, movies they don’t know they want to see, movies that do things in ways they’ve never even imagined a work can do them.
The music department knows this. The art department knows this. The English department knows this. The physics and math departments know this. They don’t consult students’ wishes when they create a syllabus. They aren’t afraid to force students to do things they’d never do on their own. But the film department is always, at least implicitly, playing to the audience – organizing courses around films that have gotten the most attention over the years, and giving the students a kind of vote on what should be taught by evaluating courses in terms of their popularity and enrollment.
At the point they show up on campus, very few students have any conception of what art does. Half of them come into my classes treating film as a form of sociology or cultural history. They look at a movie to study the depiction of women or minority groups or gays or whatever, and they evaluate it based on how politically correct or incorrect it is. They take out their clipboards and work down the race/class/gender/ideology checklist. The other half profess to care about artistic expression, but their understanding is based on these bogus pop culture notions of art. Many think art involves glamorous photography, lush sound effects, and beautiful settings. Some think it is about creating powerful emotions. If it makes you feel something, it must be great art. Others think works of art are always “unrealistic” in some way – that art involves creating visionary– or dream-states by using fancy lighting effects, weird music, or jumpy editing. Others think art is about employing metaphors and various kinds of color or shape symbolism. Others think art is about telling stories in convoluted, non-chronological ways. Others think it’s about sneaking in hidden meanings and surprise endings. I understand where both groups are coming from. It’s what they’ve been taught. They’ve learned this stuff from teachers and from viewing a lot of bad movies. Movies by Hitchcock, Welles, Spielberg, Lucas, Lynch, Stone, DePalma, Tarantino, and the Coen brothers. And I don’t want to seem to be picking on students. A lot of people have the same limited views of art. Artistic appreciation is a very rare thing in our culture because exposure to art is a very rare thing in our culture. Look at the books people read, the music they listen to, the movies they enjoy! I travel a lot and almost always ask the person sitting next to me what they are reading or what kind of music they like. Maybe one in a hundred people has any interest in or familiarity with art. Maybe it’s fewer than that. It doesn’t matter how many years they have attended school, what they majored in, or what degrees they hold. What about the grad students? They must be more sophisticated. Oh, the grad students are worse than the undergrads in this respect. They have a lot of time and effort – a lot of ego – invested in their admiration of Mulholland Drive and Vertigo and Blue Velvet and Pulp Fiction, and fight me tooth and nail when I try to show them the limitations of those sorts of works. What I am doing threatens their whole world view. It makes me understand the Marine Corps commitment to getting them when they are 18. [Laughs] An 18-year-old is a lot easier to teach – to inspire or scare into thinking in new ways. People in their mid-twenties or thirties don’t want to have to think new ideas. They dig in their heels when you try to move them in a new direction. Do you know the quote by Guillaume Appolinaire? “‘Come to the edge,’ he said. ‘We are afraid,’ they said. ‘Come to the edge,’ he said; and slowly, reluctantly, they came. He pushed them. And they flew.” It’s hard to overcome the fear of falling. I mean the fear of flying. You also have to take into account who goes into grad school to study film. There are some exceptions, thank God, but in general a student who decides to get a graduate degree in film is someone who took a lot of film courses as an undergrad and did well at them. They are people who chose to take courses dealing with The Godfather, Blade Runner, and Psycho rather than the paintings of Rembrandt, the music of Bach, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, or the prose of Henry James. What does that tell you? It tells me a lot, and it’s borne out by my experience when they come into my courses. Most of them are not readers, not deep thinkers, not interested in serious art, and generally not independent intellects in any sense – or they wouldn’t have done so well in those undergraduate film courses writing papers about 2001 and Citizen Kane. They spent their college careers watching junky movies and writing junky papers in praise of them. It sounds like a horrible thing for a film professor to say, but having been a film major is generally not a very high recommendation for the state of their emotional development and intellectual potential. You can’t be a very sophisticated person and take Kill Bill, Schindler’s List, or Boogie Nights seriously or want to devote your life to viewing works like these. That’s why I often try to admit people who have majored in things other than film as undergraduates. I should say, tried. Those days are past. I recently tendered my resignation as director of the program. I’ll step down this summer. (To read about some of the changes in the Film Study program and admissions processes that prompted Ray Carney's resignation, click here.)
***material omitted that is available in the "Necessary Experiences" packet***
A fun question: If you could make one film required curriculum for American film students, what would it be and why? Why is this film innovative or unique? If I were limited to teaching one two- or three-hour film class for all eternity, one shot to change the history of American film, I wouldn’t show any movies! I’d have the students listen to Bach’s D-minor Double Violin Concerto or his Goldberg Variations and ask them to try to get that into their work. Or discuss some Eudora Welty or Alice Munro short stories. Or read some Stanley Elkin. Or some of D.H. Lawrence’s criticism. He is the greatest critic of any art in the last hundred years, but I defy you to find a single film theory class that reads him. They’d rather read Jonathan Culler or David Bordwell! Or I’d have them look at Degas. Those are things I already do in my classes and I’m convinced that many of the students learn more from doing them than they do from looking at any movie. If you absolutely required me to screen something, I’d use my three hours to show short films. They are better than most features, and would at least demonstrate that a movie doesn’t necessarily have to tell a stupid “story,” be “entertaining,” or any of that other rot Hollywood would make us believe. What would you show? Fran Rizzo’s Sullivan’s Last Call; Bruce Conner’s Permian Strata, Valse Triste, Take the 5:10 to Dreamland, and A Movie; Jay Rosenblatt’s Human Remains, Pregnant Moment, I Used to be a Filmmaker, and Restricted; Su Friedrich’s Sink or Swim and Rules of the Road; Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason; Mike Leigh’s Afternoon, Sense of History, and The Short and Curlies; Charlie Weiner’s Rumba. And ten minutes from Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was, Caveh Zahedi’s A Little Stiff, Mark Rappaport’s Local Color or Scenic Route, and Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky. That should be about three or four hours of stuff. If there was a little more time, I’d add selected chunks from Bresson’s Lancelot of the Lake or Femme Douce, Renoir’s Rules of the Game, Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice or Stalker, Barbara Loden’s Wanda, John Korty’s Crazy Quilt, Ozu’s Late Spring, or the last ten minutes of his Flavor of Green Tea over Rice.The least the students would learn is that a film doesn’t have to look like a Hollywood movie. That, no matter how much Entertainment Tonight and the New York Times try to persuade us otherwise, Hollywood is a tiny and ultimately unimportant rivulet flowing away from the great sea of art. The smart ones would learn something about artistic structure and how the greatest movies use something other than action to keep us caring and in the moment – that the worst way to make a movie is to organize it around a gripping, suspenseful plot. Plot, actions, and narrative events are the biggest lies we can tell about what life is really about. As Tom Noonan said to my students, just the way you say hello to a friend or shake someone’s hand is enough to build a scene around. Life is a string of those kinds of moments. Why are we always looking for something else to happen? Why do we feel our lives are not already interesting enough to make art out of?
This page contains a short section from an interview Ray Carney gave to filmmaker Shelley Friedman. In the selection above, Ray Carney discusses the limitations of Hollywood filmmaking and the fallacy of thinking of art in financial terms. The complete interview covers many other topics. For more information about Ray Carney's writing on independent film, including information about obtaining three different interview packets in which he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of a writer, and the path of the artist, click here.
To read an interview with Ray Carney about film production programs, "Why Film Schools Should be Abolished and Replaced with Majors in Auto Mechanics," click here.
© Text Copyright 2002 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.