This page contains brief excerpts from two interviews with Ray Carney. The first was conducted by Shelley Friedman and the second by Jim McKay. In the selections below, Ray Carney discusses what makes great art and the limitations of the "dark vision" of Solondz, LaBute, Mendes, and Anderson. The complete text of both interviews is available in the Necessary Experiences packet. For more information about Ray Carneyís 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.

Excerpts from
What makes art great? Thoughts about the "dark vision" of Solondz, LaBute, Mendes, and Anderson

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What is Art?

What qualities must a filmmaker embody to be an artist?

All 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?

I 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.

Darkness Visible

Why do you think there has been a trend of anti-sentimental films in recent years?

The 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 to 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.

Punch 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?

The 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.

Self-Pity

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 are.

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?

Grow 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.

The Poetry of What Is

How can that be done?

Look 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 66. Up until the sentimental ending, at least.

Can you say more about Wes Andersonís work?

Iíll 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 never was.


Excerpts 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 worth it.

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.

For more information about Ray Carney's writing on independent film, including information about obtaining the Necessary Experiences packet and 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 here.

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© Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.