The following remarks by Ray
Carney were offered at the Grand Re-Opening of Seattle's Grand Illusion
Theater as an introduction to a screening of A Woman Under the Influence and
a festival of independent films that included the works of Su Friedrich,
Rick Schmidt, and Caveh Zahedi.
are here to celebrate American independent film, but I want to begin by
observing what a bizarre concept an independent work of art is. It's weird
because it's redundant. What other kind of art is there? All art is supposed
to be independent. Independence is its natural, its only true state.
That's why we don't talk about
independent ballet companies or independent ballerinas. We don't describe
symphony orchestras or composers as being independent. We don't debate
the pros and cons of painters and museums being independent. We just take
for granted that they are, and would stop paying attention to them if
they weren't. It is only the corporate nature of filmmaking in America
that has made independence seem like something unusual. Hollywood has
created this nutty situation where the majority of films are basically
multimillion dollar business deals, so that the ones that are not have
to justify themselves as being some kind of exception to the rule. So
we invent this special category called independent film. Then the American
Film Institute or Sundance can invite retired studio hacks in to discuss
the pros and cons of being an independent as if it were something controversial
and strange. How totally cuckoo. Let's never forget, the independent artists
are not the odd ducks in the history of art; the businessmen are.
Of course, a buzz word is a
buzz word, and corporate America recognizes the value of this one, so
independence has been turned into a mass-marketing trademark. Once it
gets in the hands of the ad men, the meaning leaks out of it, of course.
Everybody is an independent–so long as it sells tickets. In Miramax's
definition of the concept, Tim Burton becomes indistinguishable from Mark
Rappaport. I had a student last week try to convince me that Star Wars
was an independent feature. It was in a course on independent film I teach.
In the first class I asked the students to define what was independent
about independent film. The answers were all over the place: Some said
it depended on the movie being made outside the studio system. Others
said it involved making it for less than a certain amount of money. Others
said it had to be made by a young and unknown director. Others said it
was a film with a certain kind of style or content–directed at film buffs.
One wit said it was any movie that had bad lighting and out-of-focus photography.
I told them that, as far as I am concerned, being independent is more
about the state of your soul than your budget. I don't really care how
a movie is financed or who produces it. An independent film is any movie
that uncompromisingly expresses a unique, personal vision. (Of course,
it takes more than good intentions to do that. It's hard to be original.
Most of the time we live up to William James' maxim that we think we're
thinking creatively when we are just rearranging our prejudices.)
Most movies are the opposite
of being personal. They are as industrial in their design as amusement
park rides. And as mechanical. In the ten years that separate Star
Tours from The Lost World, it's become increasingly hard to
tell Hollywood and Disneyland apart. Filmmakers like Spielberg might as
well work for some hybrid called Disneywood or Hollyland.
Rather than being unique, most
movies are recycling operations. Of course the real recycling is not of
pieces of plot and character, but of intellectual and emotional clichés
that make their way through the American imaginative digestive system
to be excreted on the screen prior to being swallowed whole again. There
are really only five or ten of these films made over and over: the thriller
with a twist ending; the movie about competing and getting ahead; the
boy-meets-girl romance; the buddy boys who start out hating each other
but grow to respect each other in the end; I'm sure I don't have to list
the rest. The trick is to conceal the fact that it is always the same
few movies over and over again. Do it just slightly differently, without
really departing from the formula. I call it the Chicken McNuggets syndrome.
It's really always basically the same thing as last time, but you add
a different sauce or spice to make it look like a whole new meal. It's
a truism to say that these films are mass-produced like cars, but that's
a slander on Detroit. Our cars give us satisfaction for years. They last
a lot longer. They are put together a lot more imaginatively than these
You know it's all formulas
when people can get rich teaching courses on how to make movies by recipe.
I know someone who goes around teaching a three-day seminar on how to
write a script. Can you imagine someone trying to tell you in three days
how to score a great symphony? Or choreograph a ballet? Do you really
think Guernica can be reduced to a paint-by-numbers scheme? But
people are convinced film is different. It just shows their secret contempt
for the art they claim to care about.
But you don't have to have
pay a thousand dollars to take a course to learn the emotional formulas
these films are based on. The clichés are everywhere. We are up
to our eyeballs in them. We are bombarded with them on television, in
York Times Book Review, in Time magazine, at sporting events,
on the front page of the newspaper. They were not invented by Hollywood.
In fact, the movies are not really any worse than (or different from)
the rest of our culture. That's what's wrong with people who demonize
Hollywood (or television). Most of contemporary America is organized
around capitalist clichés about rugged individualism, the value
of competition, and the importance of material achievement (not to mention
a whole other
set of emotional clichés left over from 19th-century melodramatic
novels). There's no point in blaming the movies for the trashiness of
Look at what's on the bestseller lists or in the editorial columns of
our newspapers. Look at our fascination with celebrities, our obsession
with "news," our insane faith in science. Look at the malling
of our museums. In my hometown, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts recently
mounted back-to-back exhibits devoted to the work of Josef Karsh, a
society portraitist, and Herb Ritts, a fashion photographer–and
crowds flocked to see both. Their work is as stupid as a Hollywood movie–probably
But even though it flatters
us to imagine our age the worst that ever was, I don't think things are
any different than they were a century or two ago. Rupert Murdoch and
Jenny Jones didn't invent sensationalism. Before Jerry Springer, there
was P.T. Barnum; before interviews with women who married men who had
sex change operations, people paid money to see the Wild Man from Borneo
and the Fat Lady in the side show. Before the tabloids, there was old-fashioned,
over-the-fence, backyard gossip. CNN itself is just a high-tech version
of gossip. The only difference now is that the whole world has become
our backyard. Cheap substitutes for thinking have always been with us.
It is the artist's job to free
us from them and tell the truth. That's harder than it seems. The problem
is that we prefer the clichés and the formulas. It's hard to deal with
truth. As T.S. Eliot wrote, humankind cannot take much reality. D.H. Lawrence
put it even better. He said we go through most of our lives with parasols
over our heads, with a painted sky on the underside of them. We look up
every once in a while and admire the view. Of course it's all a sham.
But we don't realize it until something forces us to–until something
breaks through the painted picture to reveal what is really on the other
side. It can be some emotionally shattering experience that comes crashing
down on us and collapses our parasol. Or it can be some artist who slyly,
silently sneaks up on us and slashes a hole in our parasols, so that we
can see past them. We briefly get us a glimpse of the real cosmos on the
other side. But Lawrence went on to say that since we're not used to it,
the sight of the other side is almost always bewildering or frightening.
The parasol is no sooner cut open than we go about sewing up the hole.
We prefer the painted sun and moon and stars.
That's a parable about almost
all truth-telling art. Precisely to the extent that it breaks through
the clichés, it's going to meet with resistance. It's not unique to film.
Think of the reception the paintings of Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Eakins
got in the nineteenth century. Or of Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps
early in this century. They were jeered at. The important critics completely
ignored them. A few years ago I had a conversation with a curator of a
major New York art museum who said that could never happen nowadays. The
implication was that twentieth century critics are so much smarter and
better informed than the nineteenth century ones were. But then how do
we explain film events of the past fifty years? The initial Paris screenings
of The Rules of the Game were so disastrous that the film was pulled
from distribution and not screened for the next 11 years–until it had
an equally bad run in New York and was withdrawn again. Citizen Kane
was a flop on its release. And Carl Dreyer's crowning final masterwork,
Gertrud, was booed on its world premiere screening. I should say,
booed by the viewers who remained at the end of the film, since more than
half of the audience had walked out before the movie was over.
applies even to the film you are going to see tonight. There is no doubt
whatsoever that A Woman Under the Influence is one of the major
works of American film art–but consider what it took for the film
to attain the stature it currently has. To start with, Cassavetes couldn't
even get anyone to show the movie. Woman was scripted in the summer
of 1972 and filmed late that year, completely outside the system (funded
jointly by Peter Falk, who starred in it, and Cassavetes himself). Postproduction
was complete in 1973. But as many an independent has discovered, making
the movie was only half the battle; getting an audience to see it was
a whole other war. For eighteen months ("the most discouraging time
of my life," Cassavetes told me) Cassavetes went from city to city,
cans in hand, trying to convince a theater owner to screen his work. The
response was always the same: The movie was too long, too boring, too
sloppily made, too depressing. Not one distributor or exhibitor in America
would take a chance on it. Finally, in desperation, after a year and a
half of getting nowhere, Cassavetes offered it to the New York Film Festival
in the summer of 1974. The only problem was that they didn't want it either.
It was screened in front of the selection jury and rejected. (According
to Cassavetes, Molly Haskell led the chorus of objurgation, telling him
personally that his film was "garbage.") It was only after Cassavetes
called up Martin Scorsese, whose Italianamerican was scheduled
for the opening night, and asked him to withdraw his movie as an act of
solidarity, that Woman was granted a couple token screenings a
few nights from the end of the festival. The film was a hit with the audience
and the members of the selection board took turns taking credit for discovering
it. But even at that point, Cassavetes still couldn't get a distributor
for the film: "Too long, too slow, too depressing"–they
all said. In the end, he had to distribute it himself.
In the end, the film was quite
successful commercially, but I'd point out that even at this point, the
critics still didn't get it. To check out contemporary critical opinion,
I took down an old edition of Leonard Maltin's TV Movies–you know
the thick paperback that is everywhere–to read the following: "Typically
overlong, overindulgent Cassavetes film." Maltin gave it two stars
out of a possible four. To put that into perspective–on facing pages
you'll see that two stars is the same as Woman's Prison and Won
Ton Ton the Dog that Saved Hollywood, one star less than The Wonderful
World of the Brothers Grimm, and two stars less than The World
According to Garp. Just to be sure, I looked the film up in an old
edition of another book. Halliwell's Film Guide doesn't use stars,
but Leslie Halliwell makes his opinion perfectly clear–again I quote:
"Insanely long case history in close-up, with all parties constantly
on the brink of hysteria. Hard to sit through."
What can we learn from such
off-base judgments? One thing is that when a film leaves accepted formulas
behind, even a lot of the critics get confused. It isn't, as my curator
acquaintance felt, that earlier viewers and critics were stupider or less
knowledgeable than we are. The fact is that an original work is always
going to be at least a little disorienting because it's not going to fit
into our existing categories. As Marshall McLuhan said, when real revolutions
come along, they don't look like breakthroughs–they look like chaos.
Let me offer you a concrete
example–a personal confession. I have written three books on Cassavetes'
life and work–two in English and one in French, but I want to admit publicly
that I stormed out of the first film by him I ever saw. It was Faces.
The movie confused and offended me. It violated everything I took for
granted about movies. It was too sweaty and passionate. The characters
were too extreme. I couldn't figure them out. It was hard to follow. Cassavetes
didn't explain things in the way I was accustomed to. He just didn't play
by the rules of filmmaking I was familiar with. For some weird reason,
I went back a week or so later. But I walked out again. Then I went back
again, and it was only on the third time that I was able to sit through
to the end of the movie. But even then I still didn't know whether I liked
the movie or hated it. It's now years later and there is no doubt in my
mind that Faces is one of Cassavetes' two or three greatest works.
But it took me a very long time to realize it. (And Faces wasn't
the only time this has happened. I've fought some of Cassavetes' other
movies tooth and nail also. Fought them to the death, before I realized
what I was seeing.)
One of the reasons I can tell
such an embarrassing story, is that I told this to Cassavetes once to
apologize for my stupidity about his work, and he said the same thing
had happened to him when he first went to see A Place in the Sun.
He said he walked out on Montgomery Clift's performance and only later
realized that what he resisted in it was precisely the quality that he
eventually learned the most from. Cassavetes had a hilarious routine he
used to do to characterize this situation. He would mimic a viewer (me,
him, or someone watching one of his films) when the lights went down.
He would slouch down in his chair, writhe in pain, and flail his hands
in front of his eyes, as if to protect himself from the fury of an atomic
blast, shouting (in-between his cackling laughter): "A new experience.
Oh, no. Save me! Anything but that!"
My point is that it's easy
to praise original, innovative film in the abstract, but the particular
case can test our patience. We cry out all of our lives for masterpieces,
but face to face with one, we reject it. The problem is that the next
masterpiece never looks like the last one. When the next Citizen Kane,
Faces, or A Woman Under the Influence appears, it won't look
like Citizen Kane, Faces, or A Woman Under the Influence.
It will look different. And that's why there's more than a decent chance
we'll walk out, or shake our heads and say, no, no that's not what we
really meant at all.
We want our knowledge easy.
We want experiences that will snap like Legos into place with what we
are already familiar with. But that's what great art never does. It offers
new ways of knowing. It gets us out of our old patterns and into new rhythms.
All growth, if it is important growth, is going to hurt at least a little.
It wouldn't be growth if you stayed the same. You have to work to
know something. Anything short of that is just Musak. It's cheap knowledge,
like the forms of thought in the newspaper or on television. Great art
makes things hard on us. It makes trouble for us, because it denies us
our easy, familiar categories.
Given the psychological realities,
how can it possibly be financially feasible to run a first-rate independent
theater? The situation of the independent theater is similar to that of
the fine independent restaurant that is placed in competition with a McDonald's
or Wendy's down the street. People are so susceptible to saturation advertising,
and so fond of the generic and predictable, that it is almost impossible
for the independent to win the battle on the basis of sheer numbers. We
have to hope there are enough people who taste their food before swallowing
it to keep the mom-and-pop operation in business.
Let me make what will undoubtedly
seem like a bizarre proposal. The best way to improve attendance at independent
theaters would be to charge more for tickets. Much more–say thirty
or forty dollars a seat. You should have to pay a premium to see art films.
What's wrong with that? It makes perfect common sense. Star Wars
is like a Happy Meal. You can mass-produce both the meal and the movie
so cheaply and sell them in such quantity that you can almost give them
away. Art is different. You just can't make great works of art that cheaply
and count on selling billions and billions of them. In line with the example
of an independent restaurant in comparison with a McDonald's, the independent
theater should stop trying to compete with the mainstream theater on ticket
price. It can never win that battle. There are too many economics of scale
that favor the fast-food artistic operation. People should expect to
pay more for the gourmet meal, and if they don't want to pay it, they
should be denied the chance to partake. If you aren't willing to pay fifty
dollars to see Milestones or Scenic Route, you don't deserve
to see them anyway. Every night of the week, people throw down that much
or more for a concert ticket, a ticket to a sports event, a dinner in
a nice restaurant. Why in the world do they think seven-fifty is the top
limit for an experience that is far greater than any of these others?
(Cassavetes once said to me–more than half seriously–that he wanted
to charge $5000 per ticket for Opening Night, since he figured
that was what the film had actually cost him when he divided the budget
by the number of viewers who had seen it in the first year after he made
Beyond that, maybe the independent
theater should present its works more the way a drama or ballet company
does–selling subscriptions for an entire season, with the purchaser committing
himself to a long-term involvement with the art form (and as I already
said, at a price more at the level of a ticket to a play or a symphony
orchestra). That would not only be financially advantageous for the theater,
but also change the way the viewer approaches the individual works. I
buy lots of season tickets to opera, ballet, and theater with the clear
understanding that I will be taken on a long journey in which some of
the events will be more to my taste and others less so, some will be more
traditional and conservative and others will be more experimental, some
more memorable and others more ephemeral. Each individual work doesn't
have to hit a home run; you judge the success of the subscription on the
basis of the entire journey. I'd buy a ticket for that sort of film subscription
anyday if I believed in the vision of the programmer.
The problem in our culture
is that–because Hollywood has polluted the atmosphere–film is never
thought of as being in the same league with the opera, the ballet, or
drama. It is simply never given the same respect as the other arts, and
most people would roll their eyes at the idea of subscribing to a film
series months in advance and at a higher cost. Desperate financial measures
are required to break the cycle that keeps film in an artistic ghetto–all
the more since neither the government nor the major grant agencies are
willing to step in and assist with the funding of this art, as is done
in every other civilized nation in Europe and North America. It's really
About the only way an independent
film can get any real attention from the general public is through the
free publicity of newspaper or magazine pieces. It's completely out of
the question for it to compete financially with the Hollywood marketing
mavens. Hollywood advertising budgets alone are ten to a hundred
times the amount of the entire production budget of most American
independent works. That is why, to a large extent, the fate of the indie
is in the hands of journalists. I can't say that the situation inspires
confidence. Most journalists are not interested in art anyway, and they
are too bombarded with Hollywood press releases and the opportunity to
participate in pseudo-events (celebrity interviews, gala ceremonies, and
private screenings) to see what a con-game the Hollywood publicity whirl
Journalists are not bad people,
just overworked and harried individuals who gratefully print what the
Hollywood behemoth excretes. They simply don't have the time or inclination
to buck the tide or check things out for themselves. Heck, given their
deadlines, they hardly have time to think. I had the luxury of going back
again and again to Faces, until it had pummeled me into submission,
but what if I had had a deadline for a review for the weekend issue of
the paper? Pauline Kael once bragged that she never had to see
a movie more than once to know if it was any good, and that she almost
never did go to see anything twice. Read her reviews of Faces
and A Woman Under the Influence if you want to see the result.
Art takes time. Real growth and insight are always slow.
I have a theory about how a
movie gets to be covered heavily in the newspaper anyway. Most journalists'
idea of a great movie is one that looks like journalism. Their idea of
great art is a film with a discussible historical or current events subject,
a film with a newsworthy person or event in it. The more the movie resembles
an article in the newspaper the more attention it will get in the newspaper.
At least that's the only reason I can fathom why movies about Richard
Nixon, Larry Flynt, Malcolm X, the JFK assassination, or astronauts are
treated as if they actually mattered. (If you ask me, it's the secret
of Oliver Stone's and Spike Lee's whole critical success.)
Most newspapers treat the movies
as if they were about as important as the society pages in any case. You
can tell from the way The New York Times heads their Sunday movie
section: Arts and Leisure, as if Bergman, bridge, and bowling were
more or less in the same league. The joke about my hometown paper, The
Boston Globe, is that they head their movie section Arts, Etcetera,
but that there is always a lot more Etcetera than Art. It's really not
that different from Jesse Helms' or Jerry Falwell's views of the unimportance
of art. Art is for sissies or children. Real men don't do art. It's not
the real world. It's all a kind of Disneyland.
The few exceptions that do
get extensive journalistic coverage are invariably for the wrong reasons.
El Mariachi gets covered because it has a tiny budget. A Woman
Under the Influence got some coverage because it could be plugged
into debates about feminism. Sex, Lies, and Videotape got discussed
simply because of its title.
The other reason films get
to be written about and known is because of what I would call tricks.
They have a glitziness that grabs people's attention, but doesn't repay
it. Tarantino is a good example of this sort of flash. Or look at John
Dahl's work or that of the Coen brothers or David Lynch. Their works aren't
about anything, except displaying their own cleverness. What do we learn
from these sorts of movies? What do we have to know to understand them?
How do they deepen our knowledge of life? Those are the questions we should
be asking. They are the only questions that matter. But the works of these
directors require nothing of us and offer us nothing in the way of knowledge.
They just perform continuous stylistic, narrative, and verbal backflips
to hold our interest. It's all empty, meaningless stunts–not instruction,
not wisdom, not spiritual insight.
They are all a goof, a game,
a lark–fundamentally no different from an episode of "Letterman,"
"Conan O'Brien," or "Saturday Night Live." Everything
is "as if." Nothing is real; nothing is at stake; nothing is
ultimately serious. Everyone involved in the process–from the director
and writer to the actors and the viewers–treats the whole event as completely
weightless. It's all Zero-G acrobatics with not even a pretense that it
matters. These films reflect the culture of unreality we live in, and
its all-American triumph of style over substance. Appearance has replaced
reality. Outsides have replaced insides. The goal is to look (and sound)
good, rather than to do or show anything morally good.
The postmodern dream has come
to pass. These directors skate across surfaces and revel in their own
deliberate superficiality. That is why these films are all ultimately
ironic in tone. It's the curse of postmodern culture. Where nothing is
real, irony is the supreme virtue. At least the ironist is wised up to
the unreality of it all. At least the ironist is not taken in by the fraudulence
of the game. It's not just the movies, of course. The Jack Nicholson smirk,
the Macaulay Culkin cuteness is everywhere–on MTV, in advertising, in
reporting. Why should the movies be any different?
Surely, I'm not the only person
in America weary of stylistic games and jokes. I can't be the only one
who wants a movie to teach me something, to change me–not merely to spin
around chasing its own tail, no matter how stylistically virtuosic it
may be. Narrative jokes, tricks, and surprises are too easy, too superficial
ways of holding interest. This worship of empty stylistic virtuosity is
Hitchcock's cinematic and Pauline Kael's lamentable critical legacy. Is
that what art is about–thrills and chills? Surprises and winks at the
viewer? Most of my production undergrads can do that before they arrive
on campus–because it doesn't take knowledge, thought, insight, maturity.
These movies whip up a frothy soufflé of zippy effects, but leave you
hungry in the end. They don't nourish our souls–just titillate our feelings.
It seems like such a revelation at the time, but there's really nothing
to it. It's all fake feelings.
Fake feelings are manufactured
all the time outside of the movies. Look at the craziness that parents
are persuaded to flip into, chasing after Beanie Babies or Nintendo games
for their kids, or at what happens at a political rally, or the Gulf War
patriotic frenzy that had all of America by the throat a few years back,
or at what goes on at sporting events. You'd think civilization hinged
on who won the Superbowl or the World Series. You'd think whether the
O.J. verdict was correct really mattered to the future of the world. These
emotions are not real; they are synthetic, made-to-order.
For an illustration of how
films can whip up and exploit what I am calling pseudo-emotions, look
at the whole thriller genre. There's not a real feeling in it. The emotions
are plastic. The only reason we fall for it is that it taps into some
aspect of our evolutionary past, some section of our reptilian brain stems
connected with flight or fight responses. I dare you to try to turn off
a suspenseful thriller after you have watched ten minutes. I can't do
it either. But what does that prove? Suspense is the cheapest trick in
the book, and it means nothing–no matter how gripping it may feel. Just
because you feel an emotion, doesn't mean anything valuable is
happening to your heart and mind. The emotions in most movies are about
as deep as an experience at the circus or an amusement park (though a
friend who read this told me that I am being much too hard on amusement
parks and circuses.)
movies just use another set of tricks. Watching them, I get a lump in
my throat; I get goosebumps and the hair stands up on my arms; sometimes
I even cry; but it's not deep learning, just gimmicks. My students always
say but a particular movie "is so moving." So what? If
you want to feel emotions, go to a hospital emergency room on a Saturday
night. Simply feeling an emotion about a scene in Shine or The
English Patient proves absolutely nothing. You can get emotional hearing
a baby cry, but that's not art. It's biology. It's something programmed
in us. Shine and The English Patient are cartoons for adults–no
different from Schindler's List, Forrest Gump, or Bambi.
They're as simple-minded as a children's storybook. To put it more bluntly,
they're a pack of lies. There's not an original or truthful shot, scene,
or line of dialogue in all of Shine. It's a sign of how even our
film festivals have been dumbed down to the level of the melodramatic
mainstream that it played at Sundance last year. I think it even won some
kind of award. Unbelievable. Thank you, Robert Redford, for bringing us
works like Shine and Four Weddings and a Funeral. It's nice
to know that someone is out there fighting for the future of cinematic
art–making sure that nineteenth-century melodramatic hokum will
live on into the twenty-first century.
These films–Shine, The
English Patient, Schindler's List–offer lite experiences–not
learning, but simulations of learning, with none of the trouble and pain
and growth of the real thing. We go in not to be tested and grow but to
have our prejudices confirmed. These movies are machines for mass-producing
feelings, which roll off their assembly lines in one-size-fits-all form.
The characters are generic; the dialogue is generic; the acting is generic;
the ideas are generic; the emotions are generic. Shine is a series
of emotional clichés–Rainman meets Mr. Holland's Opus–one
little heart-throbbing manipulation after the other: Feel this, feel that–click,
click, click. Get it? Got it. It's not real experience, but button-pushing–like
the joke about the comedians' convention: "Number 23, number 18,
number 3. Ha, ha, ha." These movies provide low-impact emotional
workouts and knowledge on the cheap. If this is art, Norman Rockwell should
be in the Louvre. It's cooked up from a recipe–about the level of an
afterschool special on TV. As with Schindler's List, when it works,
the goal is to make us feel good about feeling bad. We can congratulate
ourselves on the nobility of our emotions.
Are we that desperate to feel
something? Are our lives that out of control that we need this degree
of emotional reassurance and predictability in our works of art? Are we
this addicted to emotional formulas that we need a fix of these fake feelings
every Saturday night? Do viewers actually enjoy having their buttons pushed
in this cynical way? I hope things are not that bad. Yet I have to admit
that when I eavesdrop on the conversations of the couples streaming up
the aisles as the credits roll, it seems that most of them absolutely
adore being passive and manipulated like this. They like being put on
intellectual autopilot. They enjoy turning on the Cruise Control, sitting
back, and being taken on a mindless, impersonal, emotional ride.
How different a film like A
Woman Under the Influence is. You have to work as a viewer of that
movie. Cassavetes tests your powers of response. You have to come to grips
with difficult, unclassifiable experiences. You learn things as you watch.
It's not clichés. It's not a cartoon version of experience. It's not Cruise
Control, but an Indianapolis 500 of the feelings, demanding continuous
emotional lane-changing and gear shifting, as you navigate hair-raising,
hair-pin emotional turns every second. It's not high school understandings
of what life is about. You have to know a lot about men and women and
children and marriage and life in general just to understand what is going
on. You have to think about what you see. You have to work through it
emotionally. The film makes demands on you. It deliberately challenges
you. It defeats your expectations–all those formulas we try to impose
on experience. It doesn't scream its meanings at you. It doesn't simplify
everything. It shows us things that are subtle and slippery and elusive.
You have to really rise to the occasion, just as you do in the subtlest
and most delicate moments of life. Cassavetes makes adult movies–not
in our degenerate, pornographic sense of the term–but movies you have
to have experienced a lot to understand, movies that take emotional maturity
and subtlety to keep up with.
Everything about A Woman
Under the Influence challenges us. Nothing is formulaic. Consider
the main character, Mabel Longhetti. She's impossible to pin down. We
can't bring her into focus. She won't fit any of our stereotypes. She
has so many different facets to her personality. So many different selves.
She reminds us how boring and predictable the characters in mainstream
movies are. She reminds us that there are no characters in real
life. No one in this room is a character like someone in a mainstream
movie. Mabel is a chameleon who becomes different things with different
people. That's also why she stirred up critical debate. Each critic tried
to catch her in one net or another–she was a victim, she was a feminist,
she was oppressed, she was free–but she slipped through each one's grasp.
It's a wonderful place to get a character to–beyond reductive categories.
But it's also confusing and dangerous–especially if you want good reviews.
Cassavetes gets his film to a place beyond the bumper-sticker ideological
slogans that pass as a substitute for thinking–a place a lot like life.
While there are only five or
ten generic Hollywood movies, there is no one kind of independent film.
They come in as many flavors, sizes, and shapes as there are artists.
That's why it is easier to say what independent films are not than
what they are. I can tell you some things they aren't: They
aren't about fancy camerawork and razzle-dazzle visuals. They leave that
to TV commercials. They aren't about pretty photography and gorgeous shots.
They leave that to the manufacturers of calendars and postcards. They
aren't necessarily about telling a suspenseful, gripping story. They leave
that to writers of murder mysteries. You don't read Shakespeare for the
story. You don't go to Chekhov to find out how it ends.
These films aren't about grand
sociological generalizations and clanging symbols either. They leave that
to Time magazine think pieces about 2001, Apocalypse
Now, and Thelma and Louise. Independent films may even violate
conventional notions of morality–the infantile punishment of villains
and rewarding of heroes that you find in most mainstream movies, because
they call us to a higher morality, where what matters is not rewards and
punishments, but subtleties of sensitivity and kindness and love.
The best way to describe these
films positively is to say that they give us new powers. They give us
the ability to see and feel in new ways. Watching A Woman Under the
Influence is like seeing family life through a microscope, suddenly
being able to see things that we live most of our lives not noticing;
suddenly being able to feel in new ways. We see butterfly flickers of
emotion in characters' faces; we hear verbal flutterings with super-sensitive
ears; we see and feel emotions we never realized existed.
People think that great works
of art give us big ideas, but that is not correct. We can leave that to
Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Star Wars and 2001. Really great
films give us experiences which ideas are entirely too coarse and rigid
to take in. As T.S. Eliot said of Henry James, these artists have minds
too fine to be violated by an idea. Ideas are an easy way of knowing.
These films don't tell you what to know, where to look, what to feel,
or what to conclude about what you see. They make you work. Rather than
giving you thoughts, they make you think. They give you experiences too
mobile and slippery to be boxed up in an idea.
The films you are about to
see this weekend are parasol-slashers, but that does not mean that they
are negative. In fact most of them offer euphoric experiences, because
they are liberating. As Emerson said, the poet is free and makes free.
These artists show us ways out of the clichés, the fakery, the synthetic
feelings, the canned identities that our culture overflows with. That
is the real reason this gathering is an occasion for celebration.
The preceding should suggest
why the real nature of cinematic independence is not bureaucratic, but
emotional and intellectual. It matters less how and where these films
were made than that they break the chains that bind us (as Horace said
was the function of all art). They break us free from the fabric of lies,
simplifications, and half-truths that our culture is woven of.
What is it to be an independent
filmmaker? I want to propose a series of definitions in the hope that
at least one may be meaningful. Cassavetes once said to me that he thought
of himself simply as a reporter, and that is not a bad definition. Of
course, being this kind of reporter means that you file reports from the
emotional front that avoid the intellectual clichés and emotional formulas
that most professional reporters employ. Ezra Pound said that the only
difference between an artist and a journalist is that the artist reported
news that didn't become obsolete. News that stayed news.
Another way to think of independent
filmmakers is as anthropologists–anthropologists who don't
go off to Borneo or New Guinea to study mating rituals and family customs,
but who stay at home and study their own culture.
Another way to think of real
art is as endless question asking. These filmmakers are little Socrateses
who are never satisfied with a pat answer. They keep asking did you notice
this? This? This? They dare to ask questions to which they really, truly
don't have answers. And they ask the hardest possible questions: Questions
about our uncertainties, fears, and insecurities. Questions about our
ability to give love and to receive it. Questions about our loneliness
or our alienation from our emotions. Questions about why we may not be
happy even when we have everything we want. Questions about what ultimately
matters in life.
way to think of artists is as explorers who travel and map unknown inner
worlds. While the Hollywood filmmaker knows where he or she is going every
step of the way, storyboarding scenes days or weeks in advance of the
shooting, and going in each day with a set of predetermined points to
make in each shot, real artists set off down a road they can't see to
the end of. They work in the dark, feeling their way step by step, learning
new things as they go along. In our smug, know-it-all era, it is clear
that artists are almost the only the real explorers left, and that they
come back with the only news that really matters. But we might as well
accept the fact that Ted Koppel will never devote a panel discussion to
Mark Rappaport's or Robert Kramer's explorations. Barbara Walters will
never interview Caveh Zahedi or Su Friedrich and ask them where they have
been traveling emotionally. It's so easy to deal with factual discoveries,
and so hard to deal with emotional ones that it's not surprising that
the more important kind of exploration is almost completely ignored. We
know so much about facts and events, and so precious little about ourselves.
Sometimes I think we're downright scared of looking ourselves in the eye.
We'd always rather look outside ourselves–cruise the Internet, travel
the world–than sit still and listen to our own hearts.
But my favorite metaphor for
thinking about artists is as students and teachers. (Since I'm a teacher,
I admit that my occupation probably biases me.) Like students and teachers,
above everything else, real artists must be humble and willing to
They must open up themselves and make themselves vulnerable. That's not
a very fashionable stance. We live in a culture that's devoted to
"cool," in control, and above-it-all. The goal is to be wised-up
and "in" and smart. That's another source of Tarantino's cachet.
His movies are so hip and knowing. Well, I have news for him. Real
is about not knowing. It's about being humble. It's about admitting
how little we understand about who we are and what we need or want.
greatest films are made by artists who dare to plunge into their uncertainties,
their places of fear and doubt.
Again, Cassavetes can stand
as a model of this kind of artist. He went into his films genuinely willing
to learn from the process of making them. He used them to explore parts
of his life he didn't understand. He had a sense of wonder at all they
taught him about life. Let me tell you a little story about one of his
greatest works that will make clear what that means. This is the first
time I've ever told it. I'm not sure how many of you know about the early
part of his career, so I'll briefly summarize it. He made his first film,
Shadows, as a no-budget indie production, more or less entirely
on his own in New York. The film didn't do that well commercially, but
Cassavetes managed to get some attention by giving interviews. When all
was said and done, he was offered a studio contract to make two low-budget
features on the West Coast. He was young and naive, and jumped at the
chance, and moved to Los Angeles actually believing he could do the same
thing he had done as an independent, only this time with a decent budget,
a professional crew, and a whole studio support system. He thought it
was a dream come true.
Well, I probably don't have
to tell you what happened. The predictable result was two mediocre movies
and a total, unmitigated, career disaster. The studios had talked a good
line, but when final cut time came around, they wanted their kind of picture
not his, and on both films Cassavetes got into incredible fights with
his producer, and eventually got thrown off the set of the second picture
and blackballed from working in the studios. He went back to his big,
new house in the Hollywood hills and sat at home licking his wounds, unemployed
and unemployable. He could hardly believe the way he had been treated
and what had happened to him. He was young and idealistic and inexperienced,
and had never had a run in with the kind of men he had had to work with
on these two pictures–high-powered studio producers and executives whose
only interest was power, money, and the bottom line. Art was a dirty word
to these guys. Cassavetes was treated pretty badly, but he was so different
from these men that even when it was over he still couldn't really understand
why they done to him what they had.
So what did he do? He decided
to make a movie about them. The result was Faces–the film I walked
out on. Cassavetes made the movie to try to figure out what made these
guys tick–how they could be so entertaining, and so much fun to be with,
in some ways, and so awful in others. He wanted to understand what they
were like when they were home with their wives eating supper. He wanted
to understand what their sex lives were like. He told me he was puzzled
all the way through the movie: he wrote the script to try to come to grips
with them; he shot scenes in dozens of different ways to try to figure
out how they might have acted in different situations; he played and replayed
the footage on an editing table to try to figure out what it was like
to be them.
But Cassavetes also told me
that a strange thing happened as he made the movie. As he wrote, directed,
and edited it, his bitterness and rage dissipated, and he began to feel
a deep compassion for these men. He started to realize things that he
hadn't before. He let his film teach him, and he gradually changed his
mind about these men. He still saw how awful they were, but where he had
begun by despising them, he began to feel sorry for them. He saw how they
tortured themselves even more than they tortured other people. He saw
how unhappy they were, how emotionally needy they were, how insecure,
how desperate for love and approval. In short, Cassavetes eventually came
not only to understand the men who had ruined his life, but almost to
love them. He came to see them with kindness and sensitivity.
That's what it means to use
film not to tell a canned story in the Hollywood way, not to make a set
of points you've already arrived at, but as a means of understanding life.
That's what it means to humble yourself before your material, and genuinely
let yourself learn from it. Is it clear how different this is from the
way films are usually made–not only by mainstream directors, but even
by many independents? It's obvious to me that Robert Altman, for example,
whatever his other considerable gifts, is incapable of this sort of openness
to his material. He has clearly figured almost everything out before he
steps onto the set. His goal is to score points–not to look, think, and
actually learn or change his mind in the process of making the movie.
To open yourself as completely
as Cassavetes did in front of a set of experiences you don't understand
and use film to work through them is to grapple with deep mysteries of
human personality. By mysteries I mean something entirely different from
the acts of mystification in Hitchcock, DePalma, Lynch, the Coens, or
their clones, of course. There's lots of mystification in contemporary
film–the deliberate withholding of information to thrill or titillate
an audience, but no real mystery. The mysteries in thrillers can always
be cleared up by the final scene, which is to say that they aren't mysteries
at all in the sense in which I mean. Cassavetes explores mysteries of
who and what we are that won't be resolved. His mysteries have the profundity
All of the filmmakers being
shown this weekend ask us to become explorers along with them–to enter
into a different kind of viewing experience, not to sit back and register
a series of predetermined points and meanings, but to open ourselves to
any and all possibilities, and genuinely go on an adventure of discovery.
I do a lot of interviews, and
I frequently get asked the question of where is independent film heading?
What trends are there? I always answer the same way by saying that it
is an illegitimate question. It treats art as if it were like advertising
or politics or Wall Street, as if it were a matter of demographics or
trends or business cycles. The truth is the opposite. True artistic creation
is solitary in its essence. It is not done by a group but an individual.
It is one heart speaking to one heart. And it doesn't ultimately depend
on funding or support groups or government grants. (Though those things
certainly don't hurt!)
There's lots of talk about
how technology will make it better for filmmakers of the future, but I
don't think the future of independent film depends on technology either.
Real artists can use anything. If 35mm film is not available, they will
use 16, and if 16 is not available they will use 8; if 8 is not available
they will use video or even a still camera. In Another Girl, Another
Planet, Michael Almereyda made a feature film with a 69-dollar child's
pixel-cam. It's terrific. Todd Haynes used Barbie dolls when he couldn't
afford actors. Superstar is pretty amazing too. A real artist can
use finger paints–like my friend Stan Brakhage–or finger puppets–like
Paul Zaloom. The best student film I ever saw in my life was a series
of still slides projected on a screen with a desynchronized voice-over
narration. One of the best artists I know uses his hands to make shadows
puppets on a sheet hung on a rope. It doesn't matter. Where there are
men and women devoted to telling the truth about life, great art will
continue to be made.
To read more about fads
and fashions in criticism, click on "Multicultural Unawareness"
and "The Functions of Criticism" in the Carney on Culture
section, the essays "Sargent and Criticism" and "Eakins
and Criticism" in the Paintings section, "Day of Wrath:
A Parable for Critics" in the Carl Dreyer section, "Capra
and Criticism" in the Frank Capra section, all of the other
pieces in this section, and the essays "Skepticism and Faith,"
Irony and Truth," "Looking without Seeing," and other pieces
in the Academic Animadversions section.
This page only
contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing.
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of many pieces that are not included on the web site, click