cinematic Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky, and Marshall McLuhan rolled into
one, Ray Carney is a combination consumer advocate, media scourge, and
film visionary who pulls no punches in his attacks on the American filmmaking
establishment and the critics and reviewers who support it. Over the past
10 years, in a series of wide-ranging lectures and interviews, he has
tirelessly crusaded for off-Hollywood films and filmmakers.
When he is not stumping
for independent film, Carney is a prolific writer. He is the editor of
the multi-volume Cambridge Film Classics series of books, and the
author of more than a hundred essays and ten books of his own, including
the recently published The Films of John Cassavetes (Cambridge University
Press) and the new The Films of Mike Leigh (Cambridge University
Press) and forthcoming Cassavetes on Cassavetes (Faber and Faber).
He is currently writing a critical history of American independent
filmmaking from 1953 to the present.
MovieMaker caught up with
him in his office at Boston University, where he teaches courses on film
and American studies. The text that follows was edited from more than
eight hours of conversation on three successive afternoons.
MovieMaker (MM): Since
the Academy Awards are in a couple of weeks, would you comment on the
state of the art of contemporary film?
Ray Carney (RC): Do
you realize you just used the words Academy Awards and art in the same
sentence? Doesn't that feel weird? Besides being the world's most boring
TV show, the Academy Awards obviously have nothing to do with art. It's
a three-hour commercial for bad movies. Actors who can't act, writers
who can't write, and directors who can't direct get together and give
each other little trophies congratulating themselves on how wonderful
they all are. Hollywood is not about art. Art isn't made by committee
or by testing different versions of something to see which one the audience
responds to the best.
But that's old news. Everybody
knows the accent falls on the second word in show business. What's inexplicable
to me is that American film schools go along with the whole thing. They
actually show schlock like Fatal Attraction, Alien, Thelma and Louise,
and Silence of the Lambs in film courses and invite the directors
to speak to their students! I may be out of touch, but I was under the
impression that the university curriculum was one thing that was not supposed
to be up for sale to the highest bidder.
MM: Are you saying
these films shouldn't be screened in universities?
RC: No. Just take them
out of the arts and humanities courses. Screen them in the Business School.
Study how they were financed. Discuss how the casting, the writing, and
the ad campaigns were coordinated. Analyze them as wildly successful marketing
coups–since that's what they are. Snake oil for the brain. And while
we're at it, let's get the library to re-catalogue all those books about
Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, and Ivan Reitman, so that they are shelved
where they belong–next to the books on mass-marketing and public relations.
I have no problem with that.
MM: But you can't
deny that Hollywood has an uncanny ability to put its finger on America's
pulse and involve a viewer's emotions. Movies like Forrest Gump,
JFK, Fatal Attraction, and Philadelphia obviously
spoke deeply to millions of viewers. The proof is that they took in hundreds
of millions at the box office.
RC: You're just making
my point–illustrating how Home Shopping Club values have replaced artistic
ones. We don't measure Picasso's Guernica or Paul Taylor's Esplanade
by how much money they rake in their first weekend. So what if a movie
is popular? The Big Mac is the most popular food in America. Norman Rockwell
is the most popular painter. Does that mean the English Department should
dump Shakespeare and replace him with Stephen King?
As far as emotions go, if art
was just about getting our feelings worked up, an auto accident or the
cry of a baby would be more important than Hamlet. It's easy to
get a viewer's emotions involved. Make a movie about a victim–especially
a fashionable one: someone dying of AIDS or rounded up by the Nazis. Only
slightly subtler, make a movie about a victim of some obvious social injustice.
Take an even easier route and rely on a suspense plot with constant threats
of violence. Stir and serve. I've just described 90 percent of the movies
made last year. That's not art, it's just playing games with our evolutionary
past–duping our reptilian brain-stems into pseudo-fright/flight or maternal/protective
Look, I'll admit that I have
the same visceral responses everyone else does to Natural Born Killers,
Reservoir Dogs, and Pulp Fiction. I squirm. I cringe. I could
hardly watch the screen while the Bruce Willis character in Pulp Fiction
went back to his apartment. Even a no-brainer like Speed can leave
you breathless with its propulsiveness. But what does that prove? These
films are the best roller-coaster rides (in the case of Tarantino, the
best haunted houses) ever made. But if that's what you want, you might
as well go to an amusement park! I remember a conversation I had with
a director over dinner a few years ago. He said his goal was to grab viewers
by the guts with the first shot of his movie and not let them go for two
hours. I asked him where he had developed such a bizarre desire. Why would
he want to grab people by their guts? Why wouldn't he prefer to touch
their minds and hearts?
MM: I take it you
are not a Tarantino groupie.
RC: You're talking to
one critic in America who isn't ready to found a religion around him.
I was willing to suspend judgment after Reservoir Dogs, but it's
perfectly obvious to me by now that he's a lightweight. A flash-in-the-pan.
The Tarantino cult will disband in a few years and search for another
Messiah, once he predictably fails to live up to his "early promise"–just
like the David Lynch cult did.
MM: Why do you feel
so negatively about his work?
RC: It's only that in
three films–running something like seven hours in all–he has managed
not to express one interesting insight into human emotion or behavior.
If it weren't for daytime television, it might constitute some sort of
record. All there is in his work is the Grand Guignol campiness, the chiller-diller
suspensefulness, the kicky twists and turns of plot, and reversals of
expectation. It's not much to go on, if you are beyond the age of 18 (which,
admittedly, most of his audience is not–at least not emotionally).
What am I saying? Simply that
his scenes are boring. All he has to keep them interesting is the pop-schlock
tones and effects. There is not a single conversation in Pulp Fiction
that is interesting enough to stand on its own without some comic-book
effect to jazz it up. Without the harem-scarem jokiness and thriller plot,
even his teenage admirers would be bored out of their minds.
MM: At least you
concede that it isn't just buckets of blood, as some mistakenly say. His
work is funny.
RC: My problem with
the humor is that it is too shallow. The great comic masters–Chaplin,
Mike Leigh, Elaine May, Mark Rappaport–know that comedy is a deadly serious
form. In their works, we laugh from the shock of recognition. We see ourselves
in extremely complex ways. The comedy is a way of suspending a viewer
within the complexity. Tarantino never uses comedy that way. It's always
merely for a cheap laugh at some easy irony or obvious incongruity–usually
a sudden change of mood. The comedy doesn't reveal anything interesting.
That's why in Chaplin, May, Leigh, and Rappaport the comedy draws us into
states of intricately multivalent sympathy with the characters, while
in Tarantino, it just makes us feel superior to them. The one kind of
comedy makes things more complex; the other kind, Tarantino's, makes them
simpler. Tarantino's comedy is similar to Altman's in this respect. It
reduces and demeans, but above all it simplifies.
MM: How can you account
for the critical praise that's been heaped on him?
RC: Oh, the critics
are easy to buffalo. I sometimes give my students a recipe for making
a movie that New York critics will champion. First, be sure you work in
a well-established genre and wedge in lots of references to other movies.
Play games with narrative expectations and genre conventions at every
opportunity. That always appeals to intellectual critics, who like nothing
better than a movie about movies. It makes them feel important. Second,
include a ton of pseudo-highbrow cultural allusions and unexplained in-jokes.
Critics love it when they can feel in the know. Third, strive for the
"smartest" possible tone and look: as ironic, cynical, wised-up,
coy, dryly comic, and smart-alecky as you can make it. It's important
to avoid real seriousness at all costs, so that no one can accuse you
of being sentimental, gushy, or caring about anything. That's a mortal
sin if you want to appeal to a highbrow critic. If it's all a goof, like
Pulp Fiction's comic-book approach to life, no one can accuse you
of being so uncool as to take yourself or your art seriously. If possible,
make the story blatantly twisted, surreal, excessive, or demented in some
way. Make it outrageous or kinky. If the average middlebrow viewer would
be offended by it, that makes it all the more appealing to this sort of
critic, since shocking the Philistine is what this conception of art is
about. Finally, glaze it all with a virtuosic shooting and editing style
and keep a certain degree of onrush in the plot. Keep the nonsense moving
right along, so no one will stop and ask embarrassing questions about
what it all means. Every other interest is abandoned to keep the plot
zigging and zagging–psychological consistency, narrative plausibility,
It all seems pretty adolescent
and Spy Magazine-ish to me, but when you're done, you've got Pauline
Kael's all-time greatest hits, and the New York and Los Angeles Critics'
Circle Awards winners for the past 30 years: Bonnie and Clyde, Mickey
One, Clockwork Orange, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, The Fury, Blood Simple,
Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and
Her Lover, Blue Steel, Near Dark, Blue Velvet, Heathers, Reservoir Dogs,
Red Rock West, Natural Born Killers, Bad Lieutenant, King of New
York, The Last Seduction, Pulp Fiction. I probably left a few out.
MM: Tarantino aside,
aren't you being blatantly unfair to other serious movies? They aren't
merely roller-coaster rides. People think when they watch them. They make
complex moral judgments. They learn things. With films like JFK,
Malcolm X, and Quiz Show, they are forced to re-evaluate
RC: These movies are
to thinking what sound bites are to political debate. How much real thinking
do we do in the course of any of the ones you have named? Lee and Stone
and Redford don't change anyone's mind about anything. They don't twist
our brains into knots. On the contrary, they make things easy to understand,
easier than life–or real art–ever does.
The lighting, the music, the
acting, the narrative events keep a viewer in the clear about what
is supposed to know and feel in every shot. You are not actually allowed
to think on your own, trusted to draw your own conclusions, for a
All there is is button-pushing: idea number one, number two, number three.
Of course, it goes without saying that if you are told what to think,
you are not really thinking at all. Thinking is an active state, not
a passive one.
Maybe I'm just slow or something,
but in the presence of a real work of art–a poem, a painting, a ballet–I'm
never able to understand things in the Stone or Lee way. I'm uncertain
exactly how to feel. I have contradictory responses. The experiences a
work of art offers are not simple or easy. They're hard and challenging.
You have to wrestle with something that won't come clear for a long time–that
won't ever come as clear as these movies do. You have to do a lot of work.
MM: What about a
really serious movie like Schindler's List? Certainly it forces
people to work through difficult material.
RC: I'm afraid I can't
see much difference between Spielberg's serious movie and his boy's book
movies. Schindler's List depends on Spielberg's inflatable, one-size-fits-all
myth about how a clever, resourceful character can outsmart a system.
Is that what the meaning of the Holocaust boils down to–Indiana Schindler
versus the Gestapo of Doom? That's what Spielberg's entire world-view
amounts to, as far as I can tell.
Stylistically, it's the same
old comic-book sense of life: Schindler's List depends on the same
formulaic responses to formulaic characters and situations that Jaws
did. We live in a culture of mass-production and one of the products
we manufacture the best is synthetic emotions and experiences. The Hollywood
studios are brilliant at mass-producing stock feelings. They have perfected
the art of canning them.
MM: I'm not sure
I understand what you mean. How can you call an experience or a feeling
are everywhere. It's done all the time in the human-interest stories on
the evening news or in the newspaper. Wall-to-wall fake feelings. Or look
at what happened during the Gulf War. A whole nation was worked into a
frenzy of pseudo-emotions. In fact, I sometimes think that Americans'
obsession with live television–the Iran-Contra hearings or OJ's Bronco
going down the freeway–is a reflection of how starved we are for real
experiences. At OJ's trial, there is at least the possibility of some
reality breaking through–of something unscripted and unplanned happening.
The hope is that, if only for a second, something truly real will be visible.
MM: What does this
have to do with film?
RC: Well, Oliver Stone,
Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, and most Hollywood directors are masters
at plugging into the emotional fad of the moment. They whip up the same
sort of instant, artificial emotions that the Super Bowl does. Schindler's
List, Malcolm X, and JFK cycle the viewer through a series
of predictable, clichéd, plastic feelings. But it's all just a bad simulation
of real experiences and emotions. Virtual unreality. The ideas are prefabricated,
the experiences are formulaic, and the emotions are superficial. Which
is why it's all forgotten a few hours later.
The superficiality of the experience
is in fact what many viewers love about Hollywood movies. They take you
on a ride. You climb into them, turn on the Cruise Control, and sit back.
Not only are events, characters, and conflicts entirely predictable (most
movies are their trailers), but there is nothing really at stake for anyone–actor,
director, or viewer–in any of it. It's like a roller-coaster ride in
this sense too–a few pre-programmed thrills and chills and then all is
well. When it is over, you leave the theater and go home untouched by
any of it. Anything that has happened has taken place entirely on the
surface. That's what Antonioni meant when he said Hollywood was being
nowhere, talking to no one, about nothing. It all takes place on a fantasy
island. It's all "as if." There's no real danger or threat in
any of it.
MM: What does that
mean? How can a movie really be dangerous?
RC: John Cassavetes
did it with every move he made–which is why he got into trouble with
the critics. His movies get under your skin. They assault and batter you.
His hell isn't reserved for other people. Cassavetes puts us on screen
and forces us to come to grips with what we are. It is too easy to put
the blame on someone else. Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence
won't let us locate the stupidity or cruelty somewhere else. They have
neither heroes nor villains, but only in-between characters, because that's
what we are.
Spielberg could have done it
with Schindler's List if he had dared to make a movie sympathetic
to the SS. You may smile, but I'm not joking. How about a movie that deeply,
compassionately entered into the German point of view in order to reveal
how regular people with wives and children could be drawn into committing
such horrors? How about a movie that showed that, at least potentially,
we are them? A film that didn't locate the bad guys in an emotional galaxy
far away? Of course, Spielberg could never make that film even if he tried
to, because it would require too much insight on his part. And if he did
make it, it would certainly not get Academy Awards–because it would not
merely cycle through Good Housekeeping approved responses. It would make
viewers really have to think. And thinking, real thinking, is always dangerous.
They might be forced to realize things about themselves that they would
rather avoid. They just might be made to squirm a little.
MM: Why don't viewers
detect the falsities you are describing?
RC: Sometimes they do.
Maybe it's not a matter of knowledge. Even the most untutored viewers
detect the phoniness, the formulaic packaging when a film is close enough
to their lives that they can compare it with something they know. That's
why Reality Bites bit the dust at the box office. The teens it
was supposed to appeal to were precisely the group that most sniffed out
its fraudulence. It's also why most Hollywood directors have the good
sense to make characters sufficiently different from their viewers' ordinary
experience that the viewer suspends disbelief. The Crying Game
worked because most audiences had no experience of its gay milieu. Inform
yourself by viewing Gregg Araki's Three Lonely People in the Night
or All Fucked Up, and The Crying Game becomes almost as
cartoonish as Fatal Attraction.
MM: Do you think
people would prefer the Araki movies if they saw them?
RC: Unfortunately, no.
I have no illusions that Araki will ever be as well-known as Tarantino
or Stone. People prefer artistic tricks to true discoveries. Truth is
messier and more complex than a gimmick. Flash is preferred to real insight
because flash gives the illusion of insight without requiring the actual
effort of learning anything new. It's a fact of psychic life that our
ideas and emotions are organized to resist fundamental change. Real art
is always going to be resisted, because its experiences will never neatly
fit into pre-existing categories. It makes us work. We can't just sit
back and take it in. We have to wake up and scramble.
Art doesn't give us pre-cooked,
pre-digested experiences, but raw, rough, unclassifiable ones. In fact,
if you can say what emotions you feel while you watch a film, you probably
aren't having an emotional experience in the way I mean. Real emotions
defy verbal summaries. And they leave us more confused than analytic.
Thinking in a new way is more likely to bewilder than to enlighten us,
at least at first. If an experience is truly original, it puts us in places
we've never been before and may not want to be. To paraphrase Mick Jagger:
art gives us not what we want, but what we need.
MM: Is that your
definition of art?
RC: Well, art does lots
of things in lots of different ways, but one of the things it can do is
to point a way out of some of the traps of received forms of thinking
and feeling. Every artist makes a fresh effort of awareness. He offers
new forms of caring. He can point out the processed emotions and canned
understandings that deceive us. He can reveal the emotional lies that
ensnare us. He can help us to new and potentially revolutionary understandings
of our lives.
Can you give a positive example of how a film can do that?
RC: Sure. It's more
fun to praise than to criticize, anyway. The only problem is that Hollywood
has such a hammer-lock on our imaginations that the major works of film
art are still largely unknown–even to most film professors.
John Cassavetes' Faces
is an example of a film that simply leaves behind most of the ways other
movies organize and present experience, as if Hollywood had never existed.
At a stylistic level, it literally shows us life in a new way– ignoring
all of those old clichés about how scenes should be shot and edited: all
that stuff about using intercut shot/reverse-shot close-ups for conversations;
star-system hierarchies of importance for actors; melodramatic conflicts
and confrontations between the characters to generate drama; and the reliance
on an action-centered plot to keep the whole thing zooming right along.
At the level of experience,
Cassavetes shreds most of the myths that American life and film are organized
around: the worship of personal glamour and power; the myth that outward
actions and the belief that we prove ourselves by competing with each
other. That's what it means for a film to reject old formulas, clichés,
and myths and present new forms of understanding in their place.
MM: But Cassavetes
is a depressing filmmaker. Many viewers walk out of his movies. Does something
have to feel bad for it to be good?
RC: You know why people
leave his movies? Because they won't simplify the experiences they offer
and tell viewers what they are supposed to know and feel every second.
They force us to come to grips with experiences that we have to work to
understand. In short, he's not Altman. He doesn't offer easy ironies or
intellectual shortcuts to knowledge. He doesn't flatter us and allow us
to feel superior to his characters and events. His work is depressing
only if you refuse to give up your old ways of understanding. It's frustrating
only if you refuse to learn from it. His truths seem fierce, only because
we resist them so fiercely. Otherwise, his work is a joyous, spiritually
exultant viewing experience– because it opens the door to the discovery
of new truths about ourselves.
MM: How does the
assaultiveness and intensity of Faces differ from the shock value
of Tarantino's work? Aren't both filmmakers using what you called "tricks"
or "gimmicks" to hold our attention?
RC: It's a trick
if it is there simply to stoke up the drama, to churn our emotions, to
grab and hold us. It's not a trick if it's in the service of profound
insight. It's not a trick if it opens up new understandings. Cassavetes
is not interested in shocking, but in enlightening us. We feel the shock
because we register the insight. In Tarantino, there's nothing but the
If you want a crash course
on the difference between gimmicks and revelations, watch Pulp Fiction
and Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky on successive nights. May creates
characters who have a superficial similarity to Tarantino's in their guttersnipe
jitteriness, and scenes that similarly defeat our expectations, but she
does it not to astonish us, but in the service of showing us astonishing
things about ourselves. She's not playing with genre conventions. She
doesn't use narrative surprises or shifts of tone to hold our interest.
She doesn't use gore to scare us. She gives us a scary, wonderful, shifting
conception of who we are. She imagines experience as having a mercuriality,
onwardness, and open-endedness that is exhilarating and terrifying. Like
Tarantino's, May's scenes can be both shocking and screamingly funny,
but the difference is that in May these extremes of feeling are almost
accidental side-effects of the insights her work provides. In Tarantino,
the shocks and the jokes are ends in themselves. They reveal nothing.
They are all there is.
Mikey and Nicky shows
us what great art does. It gives us new ways of knowing. It gives us new
emotions, new brains and hearts, new eyes and ears. It blows our old,
tired selves away and makes us, at least for a while, newborn, in a new
End of Part
* * *
MM: In the first
part of the interview, you were defining what great art does. Could you
Ray Carney: It changes
MM: You mean our
attitudes and ideas?
RC: Coleridge said something
very interesting about this. He said that the functions of the imagination
that we normally think of when we use the word–wishes, dreams, fantasies,
etc.–were in fact its secondary or subordinate functions. He said the
primary function of the imagination was the way we used our senses.
Tarkovsky was the first filmmaker
who showed me what that really meant. Changing our ideas or philosophy
touches only a superficial aspect of our being. Stalker, Nostalghia,
and The Sacrifice change how we see and hear. They alter our
experience of time and space–deepening, intensifying, slowing our perceptions
down. Tarkovsky gets us hearing dog frequencies. It's like a drug experience,
but more interesting because it's not a momentary escape from reality
but a whole way of life.
MM: All the positive
artistic examples you have cited are difficult filmmakers. Must a film
be stylistically unconventional to be important? Can a conventional narrative
work with "normal" dramatic events be an important work of art?
RC: Sure. A filmmaker
I know, Caveh Zahedi, made a simple boy-meets-girl love story, A Little
Stiff, that is one of the best movies of the past 10 years. If the
Academy Awards actually meant anything, it would have won Best Director,
Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Performance of 1992. Mike Leigh
is a stunning illustration of how a filmmaker can work in absolutely conventional
narrative forms (with coherent plots and believable characters, no narrative
tricks or temporal dislocations, and no Steadicam showboating or shock-editing
to grab the attention of the New York critics), and still open a door
to a stunning new vision of life. His greatest works–Bleak Moments,
Meantime, Grownups, Kiss of Death, Abigail's Party–represent complete
re-imaginings of what life is about. They show us things we have
never seen before. There's a whole philosophy in those films–not in the
trivial form of words and theories–but as new ways of seeing and feeling.
(By the way, Leigh is also an illustration of the truism that an artist
is often best known for his most conventional work. Naked, Secrets
and Lies, and Career Girls, the films of his that most people
know, are in fact slightly less interesting than his earlier work.)
MM: Can you name
other filmmakers who you think are worth watching?
RC: Sure, but I'll limit
myself to American filmmakers, if that's OK. Again, though, I'm afraid
that none of them is a household name.
The two most important American
artists of our era, in my opinion, are Mark Rappaport and Robert Kramer.
I know. I know. They haven't made it to the mall yet.
MM: How many films
have they made?
RC: Many. Over many
years. More than Oliver Stone or Spike Lee. Rappaport's major titles are
Casual Relations, Local Color, Scenic Route, Mozart in Love, Imposters,
and Chain Letters. Kramer's major works are Ice, the
four-hour epic Milestones, Doc's Kingdom, My Nazi, Route One, and
Starting Point. (For the record, Ice more or less does what
I said Spielberg couldn't dare to do with Schindler's List. It
goes inside an urban terrorist group–you know, the kind that bombed the
World Trade Center–and attempts to enter into their point of view. My
Nazi does something similar.)
But it's obviously not enough
to make a movie, however good it is. I tell my students making the movie
is the easy part. The real work begins when you attempt to get someone
to screen it and someone else to review it. The most interesting American
filmmakers are almost all in the same situation Rappaport and Kramer are.
They gave a party but no one came. They made their movies, but almost
no one screened or reviewed them. That's why most people haven't heard
of them. It is a miracle that they keep going at all. They give us priceless,
precious gifts we don't want or ask for, and that most viewers won't ever
even hear about.
MM: Who else are
you thinking of?
RC: Well, off the top
of my head: Paul Morrissey and Charles Burnett. Alison Anders, Claudia
Weill, Su Friedrich, and Jane Spencer.... Rick Schmidt and Jon Jost....
Sean Penn, Gregg Araki, Michael Almereyda, and Caveh Zahedi.... Sean Penn,
Vince Gallo, and Jay Rosenblatt.... From an earlier generation, Shirley
Clarke, John Cassavetes, Morris Engel, Lionel Rogosin, Barbara Loden,
and the early work of John Korty. These filmmakers are the real newsmakers
and reporters of our time. They're actually more important than the journalists
who write for our newspapers, because they report news that stays news–news
about our emotions, our consciousnesses, our lives and relationships.
They are our truest and deepest historians. Amid all the media-created
fictions, they are writing the true history of our lives.
I felt incredibly fortunate
to have been able to have been alive during such an artistically fertile
and productive period in American film. But you wouldn't even know it
had happened from reading the Sunday Times over the past 30 years. Even
most film professors haven't seen these films.
MM: Why aren't these
filmmakers better known?
RC: Don't ask me. Ask
Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby! For 25 years, they determined what got
covered in the two most influential publications in America, and consequently
what lived to be distributed beyond New York. They truly could have been
great forces for good over the years–educating viewers, raising standards,
opening people's minds to alternatives to Hollywood–but they missed the
boat. They trimmed their sails to the prevailing commercial winds. Maybe
it sounds like I'm being too hard on them, but they have a lot to answer
for. Their reviews had important consequences. They ended many promising
careers, and slowed down many others. This is not speculation. I know
many promising filmmakers who were ignored or bashed by them in print.
Ask Rob Nilsson what happened to him when he four-walled a theater in
the Village. Their words had consequences. There is a lot of blood on
Are you saying there is some kind of conspiracy not to review independent
RC: No. It's just the
usual combination of laziness and inadvertence combined with basic bureaucratic
expediency and economics. The major studios have teams of professional
publicists working around the clock, revving up interest in their big-name
releases. They flood the reviewers and their editors with phone calls,
press packs, videotapes, and notices of special screenings. They fill
every column inch with press releases, gossip column teasers, and advertising.
They book the director and stars onto talk shows and lend them out for
interviews. They fly cadres of reviewers to New York or LA and put them
up in fancy hotels on all-expense-paid junkets for additional interviews.
Then they block-book their movies into hundreds of theaters at once (made
all the easier thanks to the de-regulation of the Reagan years). In the
face of this onslaught, is it any wonder that the reviewer–or his editor
or TV producer–harried and overloaded with claims on his attention, decides
to review Little Women rather than A Little Stiff?
MM: Are there any
heroes in this story?
RC: Yes, a flock of
even more harried and overworked museum curators and specialty film programmers
who have supported creative work over the years: Bruce Jenkins at the
Walker, Bill Banning at the Roxy, Bo Smith at Boston's Museum of Fine
Arts, Bruce Goldstein at Film Forum, John Gianvito at the Harvard Film
Archive, Marie-Pierre Macia at the San Francisco Film Festival, Jonas
Mekas at Anthology Film Archives–and many others. And a few staunchly
independent critics who actually review the films that play at such places:
Jim Hoberman, Dave Kehr, David Sterritt, and Jonathan Rosenbaum being
the best of the bunch. What's strange to me is that "independent"
reviewers are a special category, and so few and far between.
You can expect the publicists
to have sold their souls, but I still can't get used to the critics functioning
as extensions of a movie's ad campaign and not even seeing any problem
with that. If you count the publicity junkets, virtually every reviewer
in America is being paid by the studios.
MM: Let me switch
to a larger issue. Many would argue that your position is founded on the
fallacy of treating film as a high art. They would say that different
critical standards apply to popular art.
RC: This special pleading
for separate "levels" of art has always baffled me. It seems
to me there is good, stimulating, revelatory work; bad, boring, derivative
work; and lots of work that is a little bit of both. Invoking special
levels of appreciation doesn't change anything in any of it.
There's no high art and low
art. There's only good art and bad art. Pop art and mass culture are concepts
invented by film professors to justify to their deans why they are screening
junky movies in their classes. Pop art is a contradiction, just as pop
science or pop mathematics would be. Art is an effort to explore, understand,
and express human experience. Sometimes the understandings it arrives
at are popular and you get rewarded; other times they are heretical and
you get burnt at the stake; usually no one notices one way or the other
and you are ignored. But whatever happens–whether your art is popular,
unpopular, or neither–it doesn't change the value of what you did. It's
interesting and enlightening, or it's not.
I'm not just playing with words.
If there is a fallacy to be rooted out, it seems to me that it is on the
other side: It is the pop-art belief that art is somehow an emanation
of the zeitgeist, and that the appreciation of it is some kind of mindless,
Jungian communal event. It's just not true. All valuable art is the expression
of an individual vision. It isn't something in the air that magically
appears when a certain number of people gather together. Similarly, the
appreciation of a work of art is always the result of an individual effort
of understanding. You don't just breathe it in. It takes work, knowledge,
experience, effort. The understanding of art is not natural or inevitable
or effortless or mindless.
A concept like mass culture
does not apply to art. In fact, in the deepest sense of the word, there
is no mass culture. All culture is individual culture. It is your culture
and mine–somebody's not everybody's. You can't inherit it. You can't
be born into it. Everyone–you, me, and Henry James–starts from zero.
That's the fun and challenge of working with students. Everyone has to
start at the start and go over the whole ground. There are no shortcuts.
And no one can do it for you. , You can't get it out of Cliff's Notes.
You have to live into it slowly and unsurely, in space and time. You have
to earn your right to it.
MM: But aren't you
just expressing a form of high-culture snobbery? What about ordinary people?
RC: The pop-culture,
mass-culture position is the snobbish one that doesn't respect the average
person. If you are engaged in anything seriously–auto-mechanics, cooking,
soccer playing–you have to work at it. You have to study and master its
traditions. It isn't mindless or instinctive. You get better at it the
longer you do it. The plumber who came to my house last week understands
the work of culture better than most professors–in his case, the culture
of plumbing. He knows it takes time and work and knowledge to be a good
plumber. I'm only asking that we take film as seriously as he takes plumbing.
MM: Yet there clearly
are works and events that aren't created by the vision or labor of one
person, and that are experienced by groups of people in a fairly mindless,
relaxed way–sporting events, for example. Why can't Hollywood movies
be appreciated as being more like these kinds of experiences?
RC: Well, they
can. But then you are no longer talking about anything having to do with
art, or anything very valuable at all for that matter. Watching the Terminator
movies is a lot like watching a football game. Watching Malcolm X
is a lot like reading one of those simple-minded children's biographies
they assign you in middle school. Watching Top Gun is a lot like
playing a video game. But what does that prove? It proves that schlock
movie experiences resemble schlock non-movie experiences. The confusion
arises when we try to dignify either set of experiences by giving them
the fancy title of "popular art" or by calling them expressions
of "mass culture" so that we can include them in a course. Why
not just call them mindless, trashy vegging-out?
The advantage is not only a
terminological clarity. If we called these films by the right names we
wouldn't make the conceptual error of freighting them with portentous
sociological or psychological meanings either. The Terminator, Forrest
Gump, Top Gun, or ET are not profound expressions of our society
or its beliefs. They are not tap roots into our psyches. And one obvious
reason they are not, is that they do not truly emanate from ordinary people
the way primitive paintings or quilts or hope chests do. These movies
are planned and funded by big corporations to make money. They are conscious
and deliberate corporate contrivances to take seven dollars and fifty
cents out of as many pockets as possible. They are not anonymous expressions
of the voice of the people. They are business deals put together to make
money by a group of millionaire California producers, agents, and venture
capitalists. In that sense, Spielberg's movies are far more "elitist"–less
an expression of the concerns of the ordinary person–than any movie Jon
Jost ever made.
This seems to be forgotten
by every sociological and historical critic in our universities. All that
stuff about how Thelma and Louise represents a "new feminist
consciousness" or Rambo documents "suppressed male rage"
is simply silly. As someone once said, you could base the science of botany
on Monet's paintings, but it would be neither good science nor good art
criticism. Similarly, an attempt to draw conclusions about race or gender
relations from what appears in Hollywood movies makes as much sense as
writing essays on paleontology based on what appears in The Flintstones.
MM: Are you saying
that courses on film and mass culture shouldn't be taught in the university?
RC: Well, I started
out by saying they belong in the Business School. But seriously, I'm willing
to let the history and sociology departments do whatever they want with
these movies (although I still think the result will be bad history and
sociology and worse film criticism). What I resist is the creeping "sociologization"
of the humanities–of the English Departments, film programs, philosophy
programs, language programs.
MM: What do you mean?
RC:Our age is the age
of the social sciences. Social science understandings have triumphed.
They are the dominant forms of understanding in our culture–on television,
in the newspapers, in classrooms. Virtually everything is understood sociologically,
ideologically, or psychologically. That's why it's the one form of understanding
I never need to teach. If I ask a group of beginning students to comment
on a work, a sociological understanding is their automatic way of understanding
MM: What do you mean
by a sociological understanding?
RC: In a sociological
understanding the undergoings and efforts of individuals are forgotten.
The precious uniqueness of individual consciousness is forgotten. You
become your group: your gender, your race, your social and economic status.
Characters in movies are rich-poor, Black-White, men-women, bosses-secretaries,
It's the usual way movies are
understood. In fact, the way most art works are understood nowadays. We
turn them into allegories about race, class, and gender. Art is thought
of as offering us social and political insights into our culture. Now,
any dominant language passes for nature and not culture, so that may sound
perfectly neutral and unobjectionable, but the problem is that art's ways
of knowing effectively begin where sociology's ways of knowing end. It
takes the art out of the art. We might as well be reading the newspaper!
Art is not only a million times
more subtle than that, it is different from these ways of knowing. Sociological
knowledge is a form of group-thinking, the understanding of the experience
of a group, by a group. Art is the opposite. It represents the understanding
of the experience of an individual by an individual. It is about unique
and personal ways of experiencing.
may be of use in interpreting census figures or compiling actuarial tables,
but they are almost completely irrelevant to understanding the ebbs and
flows of consciousness embodied in the greatest works of art. The language
of the greatest art is not translatable into the language of sociology.
Almost everything is lost in the translation from art-speech to sociology-speech.
That's why almost all sociological criticism is doomed to be bad, and
why the works sociological accounts of art can account for are the weakest
works of art.
MM: Can you elaborate
on what you mean by the art being a language, or is that just a metaphor?
Sure, I give lectures on the
language of film and mean it very literally. I'll tell you a story. A
number of years ago I actually met with a Dean of Humanities and tried
to persuade him to change the university's undergraduate and graduate
language requirement to allow arts to count as foreign languages. Instead
of wasting two years studying German or French, skills which are then
almost invariably never used again, I said that students should be allowed
to take a specified series of courses in an art, so that they could learn
a language they would be able to "speak" and "read"
the rest of their lives. They would learn a specific dialect of art-speech–poetry-speech,
dance-speech, music-speech, painting-speech, etc. That would be a skill
they could continue to use and enjoy. Well, the Dean apparently thought
the whole thing was some kind of elaborate deadpan joke, and never took
it any further (laughing). Maybe someday when I start my University of
MM: Does that affect
your teaching in any way?
When I teach arts courses,
as far as I'm concerned, that's what I'm doing and that's how I describe
it to students: I'm teaching a foreign language, a language fully as intricate
and subtle and complex as any verbal foreign language. Robert Frost once
wrote an essay titled "Education by Poetry" in which he argued
that by studying the expressive strengths and limitations of poetic language
you could learn about all of life and consciousness. Well, I teach education
By the way, does that make
it clear why I have problems with sociological approaches to film–all
of those ideological, multicultural, or gender-based understandings? They
are like bad social workers, who rather than learning the language of
the neighborhood, and letting it speak to them in its own distinctive
way, insist that their subjects speak in their tongue. They look through
the work of art–at what they consider to be the sociological facts it
points to–rather than learning how to function within it, in accordance
with its own ways of understanding.
MM: Does your linguistic
approach affect your choice of films to teach?
RC: One of the best
ways to explore and master the expressive possibilities of any language
is to negotiate examples of the most brilliantly creative and revealing
uses of it. If you really want to understand English, you study Shakespeare,
not the newspaper. That is why, in terms of film, my students and I work
through movies by the great stylistic masters: Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Leigh,
Cassavetes, Rappaport, Ozu, Rossellini, and Renoir–rather than wasting
our time on Hollywood hacks. And it is work, but it's fun too.
MM: Aren't you implicitly
urging a form of connoisseurship or aestheticism, where students and teachers
sit around admiring the virtuosity of a film's style?
RC: No, no, no. The
reason the English professor has his students reading Antony and Cleopatra
and I have mine looking at Ordet or The Influence of Strangers
is not to stroll among the masterpieces, or to cultivate "aesthetic
emotions" (whatever that means), but so that they can discover practical,
important things about their lives and experiences. Negotiating the emotional
challenges, intellectual defamiliarizations and expressive dislocations
of a great work of art is not an exercise in idle "connoisseurship."
In working their way through stylistically demanding films by Dreyer,
Loden, Cassavetes, or Rappaport, my students are not tiptoeing through
the tulips. They are having experiences that are equivalent to the most
intense, demanding, and mind-expanding experiences they will ever have
in life. They are being forced to see, hear, think, and feel in new ways.
This is not dilettantish aestheticism. It is learning new forms of caring,
loving, and understanding.
But again I'd emphasize that
the knowledge they acquire is different from what usually counts as knowledge
in our culture–specifically, it's incompatible with the simple-minded
formulas of sociology and psychology. The only reason that sociology seems
to be real knowledge and art seems to be flaky knowledge relates to the
point I already made–that flickering, spatial, temporal, and emotional
ways of knowing–art's distinctive ways of knowing–aren't acknowledged
as being fully legitimate. If something doesn't translate into psychological
or sociological–or scientific–platitudes, it seems "useless"
or "irrelevant." The fancy term for useless, of course, is "aestheticism."
Art's way of knowing are just as valuable and rigorous as science's. That's
what's forgotten in the current intellectual climate.
MM: What are your
goals as a teacher?
RC: Even though I reject
multiculturalism's specific assumptions, I accept its stated goal: the
explorations of otherness. My difference from the multiculturalists is
that I define otherness not in terms of race, class, and gender, but consciousness.
The greatest artists give us the amazing opportunity to see through others'
eyes, to feel with their emotions, to think with their brains. That's
what it means to say that, at its greatest, art offers new ways of knowing–not
merely new facts, events, details–but whole new structures of knowing
and feeling. Art gives us the greatest of all possible gifts–the gift
of a new consciousness.
MM: It sounds almost
mystical. Are you sure it can be taught?
If it can't, I should resign
my job. It's what I'm paid to do. But, let me bring this back down to
earth. What I am doing in a course is not fundamentally different from
what a physics or economics professor does. It would be a trivial economics
or physics course that merely taught students a set of new facts and formulas.
The goal of the course is much more radical than that. It is to learn
whole new forms of understanding. Students learn to look at the world
with the eyes of an economist or a physicist. They end up by being able
to see structures, connections, and events that were previously invisible
to them. Well, what arts students learn is something like that in terms
of human emotions and relationships. To negotiate John Milton's frames
of reference, Henry James's syntax, John Cassavetes' editing, Carl Dreyer's
camera movements, or Renoir's frame spaces it to learn new forms of sensitivity
and awareness. Of course, when that happens deeply–when we have our minds
expanded sufficiently, it is almost mythical in effect. There is a new
heaven and earth. And, at least for me, as a mind-expander, it sure beats
economics hands down!
MM: Can this actually
be done in a course?
RC: I sometimes envy
the football and basketball coaches who get to spend all day and most
weekends with their charges. I have them so few hours a week, and fundamental
changes obviously take more than a semester to happen. But they do happen
to the students who allow them to.
Let me again insist that although
a deep immersion in art may be one of the best and fastest ways these
fundamental perceptual changes can take place, I'm not really talking
about something entirely unrelated to nonartistic experiences. The same
sort of deep learning takes place in many areas of life. Rookie NFL quarterbacks
talk about the game "slowing down" after a year or two. Apprentice
piano tuners talk about weeks of frustrated listening, and then suddenly
being able to "hear the beats" without even trying. Wildlife
trackers talk about gradually being able to "read" a trail better
and better. That's what I teach–slowing down the film, hearing its beats,
being able to follow the wandering tracks of consciousness without losing
But how do you get someone to hear something they initially can't,
and that they may not even know is there?
RC: Learning anything
really new and different is a very mysterious process. The most important
thing for the teacher is to be modest: to realize that he or she is only
a kind of facilitator. Since we can't really learn anything until we are
ready for it, the deepest learning can't be forced to happen. You have
to be patient. Second, real learning always has to come from ourselves.
No one can do it for us. So a teacher can only take students so far.
I think of myself as a Johnny
Appleseed, preparing the soil and planting seeds, dousing them with a
little shower or throwing a beam of light on them from time to time. I
have to accept the fact that a lot of them won't sprout for a long while.
And some won't ever sprout because the soil is too rocky or unfertile
or poorly prepared. The growing takes place so deep under the surface
that it is invisible for a long time–to the student and to the teacher.
Why there are things my teachers said to me 15 years ago that are still
One other thing. Sometimes
the job of the teacher involves making things a little hard on the students,
so this isn't necessarily all fun and games. A lot of times learning involves
undergoing a certain amount of pain or confusion for a long while. That's
an essential part of the process. A twelfth-century Zen Master once said
that when his students were deep in a hole trying to clamber out, it was
sometimes the job of the teacher to throw in a bramble bush, rather than
to lower a ladder. Sometimes we have to tear ourselves up a little to
get anywhere that matters. A teacher who makes it too easy is not doing
you a favor.
MM: Any final thoughts
on teaching before we end?
RC: Only that
all this talk about my role as a teacher just slightly misrepresents what
is actually going on in the classroom. I am really only the teaching assistant.
The works themselves are the true teachers. The most intense learning
is often taking place during the screening, not afterwards during the
lecture or discussion. At least I know that's the way it was for me as
a student. I learned far more from teachers named Shakespeare, Emerson,
James, Dreyer, Wordsworth, and Cassavetes more than I ever did from anyone
with a Ph.D.! The professors are always the last to know anything. The
students, artists, and young actors are always way out front.
–Excerpted (in an edited
and corrected version) from MovieMaker Magazine May-June 1995,
p. 28-30, and 43-5; and MovieMaker Magazine Issue 14 July/August
1995, p. 18-22.
This page only
contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing. To
obtain the complete text of this piece as well as the complete texts of
many pieces that are not included on the web site, click