What qualities must a filmmaker embody
to be an artist?
that matters is that you tell your own personal truth. That you present
some aspect of experience the way you see and feel it. Not
the way anyone else does. Not the way any other movie has
ever shown it. There is no right or wrong way to do it. Your movie
can take a trillion unknown, undiscovered forms. It can be about anything.
Showing us how strange and miraculous our lives are. How weird society
is. How extraordinary ordinary people are. How revelatory everyday
life can be. It can depict the love and kindness that never make the
news. Or the mystery of what we are. The important thing is to copy
no one. Forget every film youíve ever seen, everything youíve been
taught in film school. Thatís why film school is a curse. It teaches
you to become an imitator, but the one thing we know for sure is that
the next great work of art wonít look at all like the last one. I
donít want to see another Citizen Kane. I saw that movie already.
My students are always recommending something they think Iíll admire
because itís ďlike TarkovskyĒ or some other filmmaker whose work I
show in class. But I donít want a filmmaker who makes Cassavetes or
Leigh or Ozu or Tarkovsky movies. Those filmmakers didnít become who
they were by imitating someone else, but by throwing their feelings
and insights up on screen in their own unique ways.
What directors in Hollywood
are making films that transcend the studio mindset?
would be the last to know. Or care. Itís like asking who worked for
Enron but transcended the corporate mindset? There might have been
someone, but the question then would be why he worked for Enron. Why
not ask what non-Hollywood directors transcend the studio mindset?
There are amazing artists out there, but you arenít going to see their
faces on the cover of the next issue of Premiere. Every week
I get videos in the mail from filmmakers Iíve never heard of whose
work is better than what is playing in the mall. Let me give you some
names of the great contemporary American filmmakers: Fran Rizzo, Andrew
Bujalski, Jay Rosenblatt, Sam Seder, Su Friedrich, Charles Burnett,
Mark Rappaport, Vince Gallo, Tom Noonan, John OíBrien, Chris Brown,
Jim McKay, Rob Nilsson, Harmony Korine,
Larry Holden, Chris Smith, Gordon Erikson, Paul Harrill, Josh Apter,
David Ball, Terry Zwigoff, Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, Caveh Zahedi,
Rick Schmidt, Jim Jarmusch, Eric Mendelsohn, David Barker. Iím sure
there are dozens of others Iím forgetting to mention or donít know
about. Never heard of most of them? That just proves my point. Itís
the hacks whose names are on every tongue, whose faces are everywhere,
who are profiled in the Times. Hereís a rule of thumb: if someone
is on Charlie Rose, you can be absolutely, positively sure
they donít really matter.
Why do you think there has been a
trend of anti-sentimental films in recent years?
epilogue to my Leigh book talks about this. Itís a way of bursting
the bubble, of revealing that the empress is wearing a pushup bra.
Black comedy surfaces when options for truth-telling are blocked or
frustrated. Society always tries to paper over its imaginative San
Andreas faults. One of the jobs of an artist is to reveal the gaps
and inconsistencies in the cultural cover story. Artists have been
doing this for centuries. In the expansionist, optimistic, go-go Elizabethan
period Ė so much like our own Wall Street greed-crazed Reagan-Bush
years Ė Kyd and Marlowe wrote these brilliant, dark, sardonic comedies
Ė Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, The Spanish Tragedy. That
was in 1590. At the height of the Eisenhower snooze-fest and the Kennedy-Camelot-preppie
touch football game, Kubrick made Paths of Glory and Dr.
Strangelove. In the peace-love-Woodstock era, Altman and Penn
unleashed Mash and Bonnie and Clyde. Altman has been
turning over Betsy Rossís stitching and forcing us to look at the
bad side for more than thirty years. Someone has to do that from time
Todd Solondz, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sam Mendez, and Neil LaBute
flourish because they tell us something we need to hear. America is a relentlessly upbeat, optimistic
culture. A sentimental culture with an immature view of life. Look
at how 9/11 affected us. Thatís a sign of our immaturity. We see things
in terms of black and white, good and evil, us versus them. These
filmmakers correct our vision. They make the darkness visible.
They tell us that the dominant culture is screening out reality.
They tell us that its mass-produced feel-good emotional costume jewelry
is junk. That Hollywood is devoted to systematic, life-denying
acts of repression. Magnolia, American Beauty, Your
Friends and Neighbors, and Happiness are purgatives. Enemas
to flush out the sentimental crap. Their causticness, irony, and satire
are positive in this respect. They are the last refuge of the truth-telling,
caring heart in hiding Ė forced underground by the happy-face fakery
of American culture in the pre-9/11 decade.
But that doesnít mean these films are great works of art. I
wouldnít say that of Marloweís or Kydís plays either. Shakespeare
was the great artist of their era Ė because his art, like all great
art, came out of love, trust, and sympathy, not sarcasm, illusion-shattering,
and cynicism. The work of Altman, LaBute, Solondz, and the others
is too purely negative. It isnít enough to show what is wrong. You
have to find a way to affirm what is right, without denying what is.
A lot of their work is mean-spirited, ungenerous, spiritually stingy,
and emotionally closed. They take cheap shots. In other words, they
are afraid. Before they can be real artists they have to risk more
by loving more, and daring to show us what they love. Thatís dangerous
for an artist. Itís always easier to mock and sneer, particularly
if your audience is people in their late teens and early twenties
because satire is what they are most comfortable with at that age.
Drunk Love is
the one exception to what I am saying. Itís Andersonís attempt to do what Iím asking for;
but he canít pull it off. Itís revealing that his attempt at a positive
vision can only be done as a fairy tale.
It may sound paradoxical, but the anti-Hollywood perspective
of these directors is actually evidence of their still being trapped
in the Hollywood view of life. The anti-romanticism,
the anti-sentimentality of Magnolia, American Beauty,
and Happiness actually represents a nostalgia for old-fashioned
romanticism and sentimentality. These anti-sentimental movies are
actually sentimental at heart.
I donít see that. Can you explain
what you mean?
anti-sentimental filmmakers look at movies like Titanic and
The Matrix and note that the romantic idealism of their characters
and the melodramatic intensifications of their events are false to
what life really is. In reaction, they focus on the absence of
romance in their charactersí lives, the falsity of their idealistic
understandings, and the fraudulence of their apparent virtue.
Idealistic characters are shown to be deluded or revealed to be imposters.
But to invert these values is really just to play the same game Hollywood plays, only upside down, inside out. Hollywood movies flatter us by telling us that
we are visionary heroes; Solondz and LaBute and Paul Thomas Anderson
reveal that we are frauds. Hollywood tells us we are angels; they tell
us we are devils, cheats, scoundrels, or fools. But do you see what
is going on? The anti-heroic stance of Boogie Nights and Magnolia
and Happiness represents a perspective from within the
heroic understanding of life. You havenít left the heroic paradigm
behind; you are still inside it.
Iím not just playing games with terminology. Magnolia is
as cloyingly, syrupily sentimental as Titanic. The narrative
strategy of the film is to present larger-than-life images and then
cut them down to size. A viewer is supposed to be moved by the difference
between the grandiose, poised, or confident public image the character
projects and his or her actual state of loneliness, emptiness, despair,
or deceit. Narratively itís all a set-up. First you evoke the ideal
and then you undermine it. The result is that you create this vague
longing and nostalgia for the states of heroism and romantic connectedness
even as you get credit for acknowledging their absence. But the romantic
values you are undermining come from sentimental movies. They donít
exist in life.
Sentimentality is any time you ask the viewer to feel something
without forcing him to learn something. Itís emotion without knowledge.
Feeling without thinking. These movies are not about giving us new
and complex understandings of their characters, but about making us
feel sorry for them or, in a few cases, dislike them. Thatís too easy.
It just substitutes one emotional clichť for another. Another reason
to call them sentimental is that, just like Hollywood, they flatter the viewer.
How do these films flatter the viewer?
Films like American Beauty, Magnolia, Boogie Nights,
Happiness, and Welcome to the Dollhouse plug into one
of the main cultural archetypes of the MTV generation: a vision of
young people as a group of walking-wounded betrayed by their parents,
let down by their leaders, and damaged or broken by society, who either
mope around feeling rejected, unwanted, lonely, and neglected Ė thatís
Paul Thomas Andersonís territory Ė or turn themselves into goof-ball
nostalgics devoted to hanging-out together and recapturing the days
of their youth in some kind of nonsexual family Ė thatís Wes Andersonís.
This understanding of life is one of the recurring romantic myths
Ė read early Byron, Eliot, or Truman Capote and youíll find it there
Ė and it continues to snake its mournful, elegiac, nostalgic path
through the pop-culture, twenty-something world of today. Itís everywhere
Ė in the music of Morrissey and Avril Lavigne, in the writing of Douglas
Coupland, Nick Hornby, and Dave Eggers, and in these movies.
Itís comforting because it lets the younger generation off the hook.
Collapsing into an adolescent wail of despair or trying to
recapture a golden age of childhood that never existed in the first
place is just another form of escapism,
another way of avoiding and denying
the claims and complexities of adult life, another way of refusing
to grow up. The young people in these films and the young people watching
them wash their hands of the problems of adult society and console
themselves that they are the hapless victims of even more screwed-up
parents. They can blame their father, mother, or other authority figure
for their problems. Itís flattering because it allows young viewers
or listeners to cast themselves as and to identify with all of the
other damaged, weak, heartbroken misfits. In a word, it allows the
viewer, listener, or reader to feel sorry for himself: ďOh, itís so
hard to be born into a world where there are no more heroes, where
everyone is flawed, where eternal love is no longer possible. Iím
so lonely I could cry. Woe is me. But itís comforting to know Iím
not the only one who feels this way.Ē
I know Aristotle said art was about pity, but he didnít mean
self-pity. Pity is not a viable artistic relation to your characters
Ė just like itís not a viable relation to real people in life or to
yourself. Itís patronizing. Adolescent. Sentimental. Real art is never
about pity Ė or self-pity.
LaBute is another story. At least Paul Thomas Anderson and
Todd Solondz seem sincere. LaBute is calculating, cynical, and manipulative.
Think of Laclosís Les Liasons Dangereuses or Da Ponteís Cosi
fan Tutte Ė without Mozartís music, of course. Films like Your
Friends and Neighbors and In the Company of Men rely on
shockĖtactics. They play with narrative expectations, reverse things,
and trick the viewer. But you canít create great art out of shock
effects and surprises. Shock grabs your attention but doesnít reward
it. Narratively, LaBute is as cold-blooded and as out-of-touch with
the complexities of actual lived experience as his main characters
In short, you havenít really escaped something if you have
to keep putting it down or regretting that things arenít the way Hollywood movies say they are. The goal should be to break free of the
stupidity of Hollywood ways of understanding, not keep being
upset by the fact that life isnít the way Hollywood movies say it is.
How does a filmmaker do that?
up. Get over it. Leave the heroes and villains behind. Leave the romantic
myths behind. Capture a reality that doesnít have good or bad, angels
or devils. Depict a world that isnít organized around swoony-moony
Hollywood love and heroism, but that does not
leave you disillusioned and despairing by that fact. Move your work
beyond both idealism and cynicism. That is the place of truth. The
challenge of art is no different from the challenge of life: to embrace
the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Poetry of What Is
How can that be done?
at Ghost World. Itís one of the best films of the last ten
years. Terry Zwigoff not only creates a movie without Hollywood visionary depths and melodramatic
intensities, but one that doesnít nostalgically long for such things
and regret their unavailability. He creates a world without spiritual
peaks and valleys, without wild romantic passions, without sentimental
mood music orchestrations or tight close-ups. But he doesnít get into
a funk about it. He accepts it. In effect, he says, thatís life. Deal
with it. He and his characters accept what is and what isnít and go
on from there. His characters are flawed and flat and weak, but rather
than condemning them for not being white horse heroes, the way Solondz
or Paul Thomas Anderson would, Zwigoff appreciates them. Whatís the
Robert Frost line? He loves them for what they are. Ghost
World leaves Hollywood behind without looking back. Zwigoff
is not nostalgic for heroes and sentiment and ideals. He accepts and
affirms rather than regrets and bemoans. The earth is as flat as a
cartoon; but so what? Now that we know that, we can still go somewhere.
Caveh Zahedi does something just as interesting in A Little
Stiff. He captures the clumsiness, the embarrassments, the disappointments
of life. Zahedi is a little like Wes Anderson, but better than Anderson because he doesnít take the easy
way out and ďplay cute.Ē Andrew Bujalski does it in Mutual Appreciation.
He creates a world as socially complex and emotionally layered as
Renoirís Rules of the Game, and as lacking in visionary releases
and romantic expansions. The characters donít have the option of imaginatively
enlarging themselves in the Hollywood way. They have to just muddle through.
David Barker creates a totally different but equally fascinating non-melodramatic
world in Afraid of Everything. And Vince Gallo does something
different from all of them and just as unsentimental in Buffalo
until the sentimental ending, at least.
Can you say more about Wes Andersonís
give him his due. He lets his actors act. An actorís performance can
bring out a lot of complex feelings that the words in a script never
get near. So the performance part of his work is a plus. So many other
movies donít have any acting in them at all to speak of. Just people
playing scenes, reading lines.
But Andersonís films are hobbled by two limitations.
First, as I already said, they are suffused with nostalgia for some
golden age when everybody lived in one big happy family. Itís an adolescent
belief. There never was, there never could be, such a time. He and
his characters are locked in states of arrested development. Like
they never got over their pre-teen years. During Royal Tennenbaums,
I wanted to yell at the screen: ďEnough already about not being loved,
Wes. Enough about dysfunctional families. Enough about how much fun
it was when you and your friends could all hang out together. Let
your characters grow up. Let them let go of the past. Let them get
over their childhood lack of love. Or their parentsí divorce. Thereís
life after high school. Make a movie about that.Ē
Nostalgia for a past that never was is part of the romantic
myth I already talked about. Nostalgia is a young personís version
of history. When youíre twenty, five or ten years ago seems like the
middle ages. Itís a button you can push to get a guaranteed emotion
from a person of a certain age, but that doesnít change the fact that
itís an avoidance of getting on with your life here and now. A thousand
years from now, people will study these movies as pathology. They
tell us a lot about the infantilization of our culture.
The second limitation of Andersonís work is that he is afraid of upsetting
his audience. He turns things into jokes too much. His sense of humor
gets the better of him. It allows him to take the easy way out of
difficult scenes. I heard him say in an interview that someday heíd
like to make a movie that didnít have a joke in it. Well so would
I. Iíd like to see him avoid using Owen Wilsonís goof-ball clowning-around
or Bill Murrayís charming hamminess to get out of a sticky situation.
Anderson lets his actors act, but he apparently
doesnít detect that they are using cuteness to avoid having actually
to reveal anything. But again Anderson didnít invent that problem either.
Terminal cuteness is another curse of our culture. Look at how talents
like Jack Nicholson, Nick Cage, Chris Walken, and Robert DeNiro have
squandered enormous chunks of their careers by mugging their way through
roles. Enough with ďThe Joker.Ē
But can I go back to the question of what can be done positively?
Let me make clear that I donít want young directors to go off and
re-make Ghost World or Little Stiff. You donít have
to do it those ways. Express your own vision. The world may be flat,
and our personalities may be messed-up and confused, but every artist
finds a new path through lifeís disappointments and struggles. And
there are a lot of them Ė and not only when youíre young!
Great art gives a jillion illustrations of how you can embrace
realities Ė giving up what is not, while still being able to
rejoice in what is. Listen to Bachís St. Matthew Passion.
Look at Rembrandtís portraits. Read Chekhovís plays or Alice Munroís
stories. In their different ways, they all tell us that the toughness
of life, the disappointments, the weirdness is inseparable from its
beauty. If you screen out the hard realities, you deny life. I saw
a quote from Chekhov a couple weeks ago that sums it up. He said the
most beautiful landscape has cow manure in it Ė and in fact was
created by the cow manure Ė that bad, selfish, destructive emotions
are as much a part of the meaning of life as noble, idealistic ones.
To leave out the cow manure and the venality is to reject life. Chekhov
doesnít put pettiness and fear into his plays to do dirt on life,
to undermine his characters in the LaBute way, but to tell the whole
truth about experience Ė about how interesting, complex, mysterious
it is. You have to find a way to love life without denying its imperfections.
You have to find a way to love the imperfections! Thatís what Frans
Hals did. Thatís what Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks
did. Thatís what Renoir and Cassavetes and May did, and what Kiarostami
and Leigh and Von Trier still do. The important point is that the
greatest works of art, like the greatest moments in our lives, are
always acts of reverence and love and respect. They show the pettiness
and flaws but still affirm the wonder. They donít regret what isnít;
they celebrate what is. They bless rather than curse. And they donít
ask us to feel sorry for ourselves or retreat into some past that
from another interview follow, this time with Ray Carney talking to
Jim McKay. The complete text of this material is also available in
the Necessary Experiences packet.
McKay: The films of Neil
LaBute, Sam Mendes, Todd Solondz, and Paul Thomas Anderson have been
compared to Cassavetes'. Do you think the comparison is justified?
Carney: I know that someone
like Paul Thomas Anderson thinks he is doing what Cassavetes was.
And a lot of his fans think he is. There's a real need to escape the
schlocky sentimentality of Hollywood and get to something more authentic,
something sadder, something truer. But I think the similarity of their
work is superficial. The problem is that these filmmakers are genuinely
sardonic, negative, downbeat. Cassavetes' work was the opposite.
The comparison comes out
of a fundamental misunderstanding of Cassavetes' work. Compared to
the sentimentality of Hollywood, Cassavetes' films may seem to be
disillusioned and cynical. But they're not. They are tough-minded—but
upbeat, even hopeful. When I leave his films—no matter how difficult
things may be for Mabel or Sarah or how sad their lives may seem—I
don't feel depressed but elated. The characters are so passionate,
so alive, so indomitable, they inspire me. They show me not how weak,
but how strong we are. They make me feel that we can survive anything,
and that almost anything is possible. They don't make me want to despair
or give up, but believe in life again.
That's the opposite of
films like Happiness, Magnolia, Your Friends
and Neighbors, and American Beauty. They are about doing
dirt on life, which is why they have more in common with Altman than
Cassavetes. You might say all of American art film forks into two
paths—the path of Altman and the Coen brothers—of irony,
scorn, and sardonicism; and the path of Cassavetes, of non-judgment
and appreciation and humility. It's no wonder Altman and the Coen
brothers have carried the day and created art cinema as we know it.
Their films were art cinema for an entire generation of critics and
viewers. Cassavetes simply wasn't on the map—and still isn't!
Telling the truth became equated with doing what Altman the Coens
did-standing sardonically, ironically above the characters like Joyce's
God of creation, paring your fingernails, feeling superior to them,
smiling at what fools these mortals be-rather than identifying with
their struggles and confusions, making them your own, caring about
them, loving them, plunging into the mess of life with them.
I understand why these
films are that way. They are reacting against the stupid, flabby sentimentality
of Hollywood. They think the way to do that is to show the dark side
of everything. But the cure is as bad as the disease. Just because
Hollywood tells us life is a Disney movie, doesn't mean that we have
to believe it is sordid and sad. I refuse to accept that view of life
and hope that everyone refuses because it says that life is not ultimately
Cassavetes had an amazingly
nonjudgmental stance toward his characters. That's what threw reviewers
for a loop. They wanted condemnation and moral judgment and he gave
them sympathy and understanding. That's what makes his presentation
so different from the scorn and condescension that Altman or the Coen
brothers display toward their characters' limitations. Look at Ben
in Shadows, McCarthy in Faces, or the three men
in Husbands. They are pretty imperfect human beings, but
Cassavetes loves them, warts and all.
Tone is always critical,
and the tone is the crucial difference between them. Altman, the Coens,
and Cassavetes are all masters of comedy, but while the comedy in
the comedy in Short Cuts, Fargo, and Ready to
Wear is corrosive, critical, and dismissive, the comedy in Shadows,
Faces, and Husbands is delicate, gentle, and forgiving.
It is a way of suspending judgment, of redeeming flawed characters.
The semicomic view of the characters in Cassavetes' work incidentally
provides a pretty good insight into what Cassavetes was as a person.
His own personal attitude to many of the things he saw around him
was a kind of comical bemusement, which is why to talk with him was
almost always to be regaled with an endless series of funny anecdotes.
It may sound superficial
to say it, but the greatest artists—no matter how hard their
characters may have it—are all deeply affirmative. They are
in love with life. That's what Yeats meant by saying that Hamlet and
Lear are gay. He really meant, even amid all the dread, even as he
clearly saw the pain and horror of life, that Shakespeare was, at
the deepest level, rejoicing that he could see and feel those things.
Cassavetes saw how awful people could be, but he also saw how wonderfully
funny and entertaining they could be. He shows us that life could
be hard, but that it can also be exciting and funny. The greatest
art is always fundamentally affirmative in this sense, no matter how
truthful it is. It gives us energy.
I just saw this illustrated
in terms of painting. I was in New York and spent about ten hours
in the Met. Even in the best museums only about half of what is on
display is actually great art. The rest is of interest for other reasons—and
for contrast. There were entire rooms filled with the work of shallow
artists (Fragonard, LaTour, and Courbet), and rooms sprinkled with
great works (Rembrandt, Drurer, Holbein, Eakins). Walking from one
room to another, it became so clear to me how shallow art takes away
our energy. It discourages or bores us. It implicitly tells us that
life is boring and dull because it creates shallow characters and
experiences. Great art is always exhilarating because it does the
opposite. It creates great, complex, characters and experiences. Even
as it tells hard or painful truths, it stimulates and inspires us.
It gives us a visions of energy, drama, and excitement.
In this respect, Cassavetes
is ultimately an upbeat, positive, rejoicing filmmaker. He loved his
characters and makes a viewer love them. Even with figures as unappealing
as Bennie in Shadows or Freddie, Richard, and McCarthy in
Faces, we care about them, feel tenderly toward them, and
sympathize with their pain. They may be doomed, but they are utterly
remarkable-so witty, playful, entertaining-that we can't hate them.
We watch them in admiration, joy, and wonder. When I watch Solondz,
Altman, and Anderson, I feel like they don't actually like their characters.
They are losers through and through. They don't have redeeming traits.
The consequence is that they are someone else. Cassavetes' hell never
has other people in it. When I watch his films, I see myself—my
own mix of virtues, flaws, and stupidities; I see my own good intentions
and clumsiness at expressing them. It really comes down to a question
of the filmmaker's feelings about his characters and life. Cassavetes
loves his figures and communicates his love of life. Altman and Solondz
don't. They seem so ungenerous, unkind, unloving by comparison. The
difference between Cassavetes and Solondz is the difference between
loving a difficult relative or disappointing friend or pitying them.
Love always makes for greater art than non-love, because it asks for
a far more complex response on the part of the viewer.
Look, life is life, and
it's not a Hollywood movie. It's messy, confusing, imperfect, and
often difficult and disappointing. That's a fact. But what matters–in
life and in art–is about what you do with that fact, what your
response is, how you cope with it. LaBute, Solondz, Mendes, and Anderson
represent a fundamentally adolescent response. They want us to be
shocked by all these dirty secrets they reveal: "Oh my God–you
mean not all people are nice? And parents can be as messed up as their
kids? That's horrible. How can I go on?" It's a teenage view
of life–shock and dismay followed by sardonicism, irony, mockery,
black comedy, and gallows humor. We all went through it for a few
months when we were eighteen. But Cassavetes' work figures an adult
perspective: "OK. People are not perfect. They have good intentions
but hurt each other awfully, anyway. They will never really understand
other peoples' points of view. Now that we know that, how can we still
go on together? How can we find a way to love life and appreciate
each other anyway?" And then, miracle of miracles, he shows us!
That's great art, not teenage angst and nostalgia for our lost innocence.