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The Rules of the Game
An Interview with Ray Carney On the State of the Art of Independent Film

Ray Carney is a professional academic (a professor of Film and American Studies at Boston University); a much sought after speaker at film festivals and on the lecture circuit; a prolific author (of eight books and more than one hundred essays); a teacher who inspires passionate devotion among his students (a young man sitting outside his office told me: "One course with him is a college education in itself."); and a professional gadfly everywhere he goes. In person, I found him to be playful, outrageous, deeply thoughtful, screamingly funny, and remarkably inspiring.

Over the past ten years, in a series of articles in national magazines and scholarly quarterlies, he has conducted many blistering attacks on the film establishment. I thought that would be a good place to begin.

VISIONS: In preparation for this visit, I came across a number of articles you've written about what you call the "disgraceful state of American film reviewing." You are quite hard on all of the major reviewers. In fact, a couple years ago you wrote in Partisan Review that the average chess or bridge column in the newspaper, or the reporting on the sports page, is more intelligent than the writing on film. Do you still feel that way?

RAY CARNEY: The problem is that most film reviewers don't function as critics. They're consumer ombudsman, and their so-called criticism consists of the trooping out of the same stock responses the average viewer is limited by. That's in fact how most reviewers define their job. They think of themselves as keeping their fingers on the pulse of the public, when they should be trying to cure the patient or at least be telling him how sick he, his culture, and most of its corporate creations are. Anyway, if a critic is just a surrogate for Joe-six-pack, why not hire George Gallup to do the job? He could poll the first-day audiences and eliminate the middleman.

A critic is not supposed to be Everyman. His job is to question just the sorts of simplistic assumptions that audiences take for granted. I think it was Horace who defined the function of criticism as "breaking the chains of the present." That's what ninety-nine percent of the writers on film–even in our universities–never do. They don't call us out of our cultural prejudices and imaginative shortcomings. They don't buck intellectual fads. The result is that they've missed the boat on virtually every major American filmmaker of the past thirty years.

VISIONS: Who do you mean?

RC: Barbara Loden, Elaine May, John Cassavetes, Robert Kramer, Mark Rappaport, Charles Burnett, Paul Morrissey, and Jon Jost, for starters. They are the great artists of recent American film. They are mapping the emotional geography of our culture, but where is the heated debate about them–pro or con? Meanwhile, what films were getting extensive coverage? Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Fatal Attraction, Thelma and Louise, 9l/2 Weeks, Pretty Woman, Silence of the Lambs, and hundreds of other pieces of meretricious nonsense. Why, a single review wasn't enough for these films! Look at an index to the New York Times if you don't believe me. They were treated two, three, four, five, or more times–in a daily review, a Sunday review, a feature article, an interview with the star, an interview with the director, and then maybe a summary "think-piece" article. And they were taken seriously! No one was jeering at their silliness, laughing them out of the room. Am I the only person in America who thinks there's something wrong with this picture?

VISIONS: But surely there aren't enough art-film releases to fill the review columns, to have enough movies to review every day?

RC: That raises the larger question of why are films written up on a daily or weekly basis anyway. There are no obligatory reviews of the painting-of-the-day or the poem-of-the-week. Why is cinematic garbage reviewed at all? Just to fill column inches and justify the reviewer's paycheck? Wouldn't it be better to wait a week or a month until something important appears? The reviewers have so completely internalized the value system of the studio publicity apparatus that they don't even realize how much they have become an extension of it. They're not critics, but publicists–stoking up interest for up-to-the-minute coverage of the trend-of-the-minute. They treat the whole job as if it were no different from reporting the weather–and obviously take it about as seriously.

VISIONS: But what about the argument that the filmmakers on your list don't deserve extensive journalistic coverage because their work is not popular?

RC: The logic is circular, since the reviews help to create the popularity. And, beyond that, have we actually reached the state of decadence where everything, including criticism of the arts, is only a popularity contest? Is automatic critical coverage guaranteed to anyone who buys his way in? Why does the fact that a movie is released by a major distributor have anything to do with whether it gets reviewed? Has the business ethic really got us to the point where if something costs fifty million dollars and opens in 500 theaters, it deserves to be reviewed by Vincent Canby no matter how idiotic it is, but if it costs fifty thousand and plays in a college auditorium, it doesn't deserve to get mentioned, no matter how wonderful?

According to the same sales figure logic, the Times's restaurant reviewer should forget about La Grenouille and Aureole and start covering the local Pizza Hut and McDonald's outlets. The art critic should make sure he writes up the black velvet Elvis paintings. The book review editor better not miss a Tom Clancy or Stephen King novel. All kidding aside, shouldn't the film reviewer take his job at least as seriously as the restaurant reviewer? At the very least, shouldn't there be one reviewer at each major publication assigned to covering the real works of art in film–no matter how small their budgets or limited their releases? There's no one at any major publication I know of doing that now.

VISIONS: Doesn't Pauline Kael's promotion of the early work of Coppola, Lynch, the Coen brothers, Toback, and DePalma disprove that?

RC: (Laughing) You're asking the wrong person about Pauline Kael. [Carney has written a number of articles attacking her work.–DC] Kael wasn't interested in art; she was a connoisseur of kitsch. As far as I'm concerned, she was the single most unfortunate influence on the last thirty years of American film reviewing–stylistically, intellectually, and aesthetically. OK, so she went out front and championed certain filmmakers' work before anyone else did. But doesn't it matter that she was wrong about each and every one of them? Have any of them produced a major work?

Kael was the Michael Milken of film reviewing–she had a genuine flair for rhetorically inflating the value of a worthless stock and creating a stampede on the part of others to buy into it based on the inflated value. Look at how it worked in practice: Kael canonized The Godfather, Dressed to Kill, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Fingers, Blood Simple, and Blue Velvet as masterworks. Since most critics, like most stock market investors, are more or less sheep, they followed her lead. Once they jumped on the bandwagon, the fiction acquired a life of its own, and she seemed astonishingly prescient. Reputations were made, canonical oeuvres were established based on one or two works, careers were avidly tracked, with the critics wagering on each of the successive works. The only problem is that it was all a shell game. A few years went by and the initial offering inevitably went back to zero, since there was no intrinsic value to start with. Subsequent works (not surprisingly) failed to live up to the "promise" of the director's previous work. The six movies I named were eventually perceived to be merely quite ordinary or worse than ordinary. (Most people seem to have realized this about the DePalma, Spielberg, Toback, Coen, and Lynch movies, though there are those who have invested so heavily in Coppola that they still can't admit that they are holding worthless promissory notes.)

VISIONS: But it's always said that she was a great writer.

RC: Doesn't great writing have something to do with being smart, being perceptive, being critically "right" about a work or a career? Is it great writing if you're consistently stupid and wrong? Are we in such an alexandrine age that great writing has become nothing more than jazzy metaphors, panting exclamations, the snap, crackle, and pop of adverbial self-stimulation? But what's even worse is that the awfulness lives on in all of the Kael-clones she spawned over the past twenty years. You come up against her lamentable legacy every week in the Village Voice, New York, and the Boston Globe–both in the schlock sensibility and in the costume-jewelry glitz of the writing itself.

VISIONS: How about Vincent Canby's receptiveness to the work of Oliver Stone and Spike Lee in the Times? Doesn't that represent a major critic going to bat for serious work?

RC: Stone and Lee don't represent serious filmmaking–unless you mean taking themselves seriously and taking press coverage seriously. They are an invention of the media–which they masterfully manipulate. They don't make art; they make publicity events–perfectly ordinary movies dressed up with topical gimmicks and stylistic tricks. It's a standard Madison Avenue technique to get attention, and Hollywood did it for decades before they came along. Stanley Kramer made a career of it–with one bad movie after another–each of which declared its artistic seriousness and importance in capital letters. Any so-called daring or controversial reference will apparently fool most reviewers into thinking they are dealing with "cutting edge" artistic material.

Take away the tricks and gimmicks and Do the Right Thing is a routine 1950s studio social problem melodrama with every stereotype and clichÈ in the book. Malcolm X is a live-action Disney cartoon for adults (although it's not as good as Disney–the death of Bambi's mother is emotionally much more complex). JFK is just another breathless, brain-dead murder mystery. The Doors is a sappy music video. These films owe their notoriety solely to their ability to work in "issues" that journalists equate with artistic seriousness. They provide something for Susan Stamberg to discuss and Ted Koppel to organize panel discussions around. That has nothing to do with art.

Stone and Lee are not exploring; they're pushing buttons. They are not searching for truth, taking chances, trying to understand complex emotional and intellectual realms. They obviously have their minds made up about what they are going to say before they ever start shooting. It's only the even greater awfulness of most other mainstream films that makes us desperate enough to take them seriously.

VISIONS: But you are assuming that what reviewers say matters. Vincent Canby and Gene Siskel have both argued that the power of reviewers is grossly overrated, and that many movies are completely critic-proof. They will make it or not, independently of what critics say.

RC: That may be true in terms of blockbusters. Arnold Schwartzenegger and Steven Spielberg would probably continue to make money even if their films were critically savaged (though it's quite interesting how rarely they are–the reviewers shrewdly never risk alienating their readers by taking a position too different from the lowest common denominator). But who cares what happens to those movies, anyway? They are just business deals to make a quick profit for venture capitalists. The sad reality is that the movies that most need critical support–the ones the critic can truly help or destroy–are the ones least likely to get it: small-budget independent works. Given the terrifying economics of film production, distribution, and advertising, the only way for a small film to get any attention at all is to get a review in a newspaper, magazine, or–God willing !–on television. Yet the problem is that these are precisely the works that most go begging for critical attention.

The music industry shows it doesn't have to be that way. There are a variety of levels of entry and opportunity, and a wide range of critical and commercial receptiveness. You have the Elton Johns who make mainstream music that is played on Top 40 radio. And you have punk bands and minor jazz artists who play in basement clubs in New York or Boston. And what is wonderful is that there is room for all of them–commercially and critically. They are all accorded some degree of critical recognition and some chance to reach audiences, however large or small. But with film, there is effectively nothing but the Top 40, with the same ten movies playing at every multiplex in the country and getting all of the critical coverage in the papers, which is why guerrilla groups have a far better chance of getting known than guerrilla filmmakers like Rob Nilsson, John O' Brien, Rick Schmidt, and Caveh Zahedi. There must be some way to make room in the distribution process for the garage filmmakers, the punk rock films, the jazz artists of cinema.

VISIONS: How about the serious film magazines? Are they any better than newspapers and newsmagazines?

RC: You mean Premiere, Entertainment Weekly, Film Comment, Movieline? Does anyone actually read those things? They're even worse than the Sunday Times, if that can be. They're print versions of Entertainment Tonight–glossy, four-color updatings of '50s movie-star fanzines, celebrity-gossip rags dressed up with zippy language and fancy photo spreads. There is no exercise of critical intellect or independent judgment, just a breathless rush to get an interview with the hottest star or to retail the latest factoid before it is reported in a rival publication. The studio publicists use them as part of a film's advertising campaign, and they are obviously glad to be used.

We complain that reporters are puppy dogs when it comes to asking hard questions of politicians, but the Hollywood hagiography of Premiere makes the Washington press corps look like paragons of principle by comparison. When was the last time a studio director was grilled about the idiocy of the movies he makes, or an article told the truth about how silly most of the studio releases in a given year are? Of course, the reason they can't print the truth is that they need the studios for sources as much as the studios need them for publicity .

In short, it's all just PR, and the first principle of public relations is that you don't sell the steak but the sizzle, so it's not surprising that two-thirds of what appears in a given issue of Premiere or Film Comment is not actually about anything that is on the screen at all. As with any gossip column, almost anything else is more interesting than the film itself: its budget, its shooting schedule, the romantic relationship of the star and co-star, self-serving quotes from the director, how the special effects were created, the trends, the buzz, the hype about Steven Spielberg's next piece of silliness.

VISIONS: How about the elite or high-culture institutions–museums, archives, and universities?

RC: America is a culture of publicity, and there are very few institutions that successfully resist its pressures (or even attempt to). The museum film curators I know have no time for more important things because they spend all of it trying to get press coverage for the works they show so that they can justify their budgets. After a while, the tendency to compromise–to show works that can be depended upon to generate good reviews–becomes almost irresistible. The American university is not exactly a profile in courage, either. The Ivory Tower has always been a myth, as far as I can tell. Film professors' values are no different from those of the culture at large (though they invent terms like "pop culture genre studies" to give their taste for junk the appearance of intellectual legitimacy). The film programs at Ohio, UCLA, and Wisconsin embody more or less the same Hollywood values and priorities as American film reviewing does.

The whoredom after celebrity is as pervasive inside the ivy-covered walls as it is outside. How else does Spike Lee merit a visiting professorship at Harvard? If they wanted an African-American artist, Charles Burnett is ten times the filmmaker Lee is–but, of course, he's not a name to conjure with in USA Today. By what stretch of the imagination do schlock-meisters like Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone deserve to be asked to address classes of film students at UCLA or USC? Are these the examples we want to hold up to the next generation of artists to imitate?

VISIONS: Are the American Film Institute and the Sundance Institute successfully counteracting these tendencies?

RC: They're not even trying. The AFI and Sundance are in bed with Hollywood values and celebrities as much as the rest of the culture. When the AFI, which is explicitly chartered to devote itself to the art of American film, spends its money restoring King Kong, and Sundance picks former studio hacks to teach its seminars, what conclusion can you draw? Look at who the AFI gives its Lifetime Achievement Award to each year. They might as well merge with the Academy Awards and save both of them a little money. Or was I out of town the years Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes, Morris Engel, Lionel Rogosin, Gena Rowlands, and Maya Deren were up on the dais?

VISIONS: How about academic film criticism?

RC: When I've told you that Cinema Journal, the official scholarly film quarterly, runs articles about "I Love Lucy" and Popeye the Sailor Man, there's not much more to add. And since I recently wrote at length on this subject [in the "Polemical Introduction" to the Winter 1992 issue of PostScript magazine–DC], I'll spare you the gory details. Suffice it to say that there are two dominant schools of scholarly film criticism– the ideological and the formalist. The ideological approach basically represents a kind of affirmative action for the arts. The reviewer grades the work against a checklist: Are there enough female parts? What about minorities? What occupations do the characters have? Are women depicted as sex objects? Is sexist language used? The ludicrous critical consequences can be summed up with a story a friend told me at supper last night. She attended a university screening of Barbara Loden 's Wanda (which is surely one of the greatest works in all of American film). After the movie was over, a Women's Studies professor got up and delivered a lecture on how the film "failed to provide adequate role models for women" and "failed to offer a solution to the central character's problem." The lecture was intended to be a more or less definitive critique of the film's artistic failure, but as my friend pointed out, all it ended up definitively proving was the absurdity of asking a work of genius to answer such kindergarten questions. Where in the world did this professor get the idea that this is what works of art do? Do we go to Macbeth to discover "adequate role models" for women? Do we read Antony and Cleopatra to find "a solution" to the title character's problems? Given such flat-minded standards of what constitutes artistic greatness, it's no wonder feminist critics prefer the triviality of An Unmarried Woman to the profundity of A Woman Under the Influence.

The formalists are at the other remove. While the ideological critics ask very little other than that their works of art have their political papers in order, the formalists offer a vision of artistic expression with stylistic razzle-dazzle a mile high and knowledge of life an inch deep. Meaning drops out of the account. Filmmaking and film viewing become a matter of "manipulating and decoding diegetic strategies."

VISIONS: It sounds sort of scary!

RC: (Laughing) It's even scarier to see what it does to David Bordwell's writing! The vocabulary is an attempt to lend legitimacy to a field of study that is still too obviously an artistic and academic ghetto. But the result is to wall film into another kind of ghetto–a ghetto of semantically empty aesthetic effects.

VISIONS: What is the alternative?

RC: To recognize that art is a form of knowledge or it is nothing. The formalists try to turn it into a stylistic game played off to one side of life, as if it were no different from chess; the ideological critics try to turn it into a shopping list of politically correct attitudes and positions, as if it were no different from the newspaper. The mistake both make is that neither takes art seriously enough. A work of art is the finest, most complex form of knowledge and communication of that knowledge that man has yet invented. That is not meant to be a flowery metaphor. When we watch Killer of Sheep, Mikey and Nicky, Trash, or Milestones we learn things–about our culture, about our relations with others–that we never knew, and that can't be learned in any other way. Art is a form of knowledge in precisely the same sense in which science, history, sociology, and philosophy are forms of knowledge. The only difference is that of all of the ways we can know, it is by far the most intricate and profound.

We feel this intuitively when we participate imaginatively in the greatest works of art–whether they are paintings, plays, works of music, dance, or film. We internalize new structures of understanding–not just new facts or observations or beliefs– but entirely new intellectual and emotional forms of awareness. Our consciousnesses are altered–as much as drugs or sexual or religious experiences can alter them.

I hope that doesn't sound like mystical mumbo jumbo. What I'm describing is a very practical thing, something the best students repeatedly experience in their course work, and I've often dreamed of a whole university curriculum organized around it. It would be a curriculum even more intellectually demanding than a conventional history, philosophy, or physics major, since the ways of knowing offered by great works of art represent knowledge even more subtle and intricate than the forms of knowledge already included in the curriculum. As a former physics and math major in college, I'm especially weary of scientists and mathematicians getting credit for being the only heavy thinkers on campus–or claiming there's some kind of knowledge gap if the Japanese have more years of math study in their schools than we do. If we want to turn out the deepest, most creative intellects possible, we should require the study of art from first grade up. Science and math are too easy. Anyway, isn't it about time America stopped worrying about its technological superiority and started grappling with its obvious emotional and spiritual immaturity? As the long-running national orgy of sex, violence, and consumption painfully testifies, we are a nation of emotional cripples and moral paupers.

VISIONS: Why do you say artistic knowledge is harder to master than physics or math?

RC: Because it is much more complex. It offers sensorily thick experience in place of abstract intellectual analysis. Art gives us dense, lumpy oatmeal experiences–not a thin gruel of rules and formulas. More than that, it requires us to reconcile the truths of the body, the senses, the emotions with the truths of abstract ideas. It doesn't allow us to rise above the tangibility of space and time into a realm of conceptions, but forces us to express ourselves within space and time. Most challenging of all, it replaces static with dynamic knowledge. It provides examples of knowledge in motion that resists codification. It asks us to enter into continuously shifting states of awareness that won't stand still for analysis.

VISIONS: What do you mean when you say it alters consciousness?

RC: The greatest works do brain surgery on their viewers. They subtly reprogram our nervous systems. They make us notice and feel things we wouldn't otherwise. One of the principal ways they do this is through the strangeness of their styles. Style creates special ways of knowing. Henry James and John Milton do it with sentences; Chantal Ackerman and Roberto Rossellini do it with pictures and sounds. Artistic style induces unconventional states of awareness and sensitivity. It freshens and quickens our responses. It limbers up our perceptions and teaches us new possibilities of feeling and understanding. In this view of it, art is not a luxury, a frill, a pastime, a form of entertainment or pleasure (though it can be supremely entertaining and pleasurable). The greatest works of art are not alternatives to or escapes from life, but enactments of what it feels like to live at the highest pitch of awareness–at a level of awareness most people seldom reach in their ordinary lives. The greatest works are inspiring examples of some of the most exciting, demanding routes that can be taken through experience. They bring us back to life.

VISIONS: If film reviewers understand what you are describing, do you think that the major cinematic art works could reach large audiences?

RC: No, I don't mean to give that impression. The ways of knowing that the greatest works cultivate are emotionally so demanding, intellectually so elusive that even at best only a minority of viewers are ever going to be ready to understand them. The major American cinematic art of the past thirty years will never appeal to the majority, no more than Picasso's paintings or Stravinsky's symphonies do. But that does not count against them. We don't measure the importance of a Rembrandt by how many people stop in front of it for how many minutes. What matters is that it is there waiting for the right person to come along. And one right person justifies a wait of a hundred years. Why do we expect great art to be popular, anyway? Leave that game to the Academy Awards and the Book of the Month Club. Why let business values creep into the analysis, when business values are one of the problems the art is a reply to?

Works of genius are always going to make demands that almost no one is ready to meet at first, and that most people are never going to be able to meet. Truly new experiences, new thoughts, new feelings are always going to be disorienting. They are going to be painful or seem threatening, because they do threaten our old ways of knowing. They require more of us than most of us are prepared to give.

VISIONS: Are you talking about avant-garde and experimental film?

RC: I' m talking about any good film. The independent narrative tradition has always struck me as being more truly experimental, more genuinely avant-garde than the non-narrative tradition, but the category doesn't matter. As someone once said, all great art is experimental art. It attempts something that has never been attempted before, that's never even been dreamed of before. It gives us something we don't ask for, and tells us things we probably don't want to know. That's why it's always going to seem weird or ugly or scary at first. This is not a new phenomenon. Renoir's Rules of the Game was hissed at by audiences and beat up by reviewers so badly during its first week that it had to be pulled from circulation. Dreyer's Gertrud had half its audience walk out during its world premiere screening.

VISIONS: So you're saying that great art has to be unpopular?

RC: I think it has to be in a minority position in our culture–and will probably always be created by artists who are part of a minority sensibility–though I'm talking in imaginative, not sociological terms. I wish it could be otherwise, and some days, for an hour or two, I convince myself that true artistic greatness is self-explanatory and self-evident to everyone; but my students keep me honest! They prevent me from having any illusions about the real effect of a first viewing of these works. They are a fair sample of the general public, and the greater the work I show them, the more confused or intimidated or dismissive of it most of them are. But that's not bad–it gives us something to talk about in class. And with a little luck and hard work, it's something both they and I can learn a lot from. And I don' t claim to be different from my students. I was bored by Chain Letters the first time I saw it. I muttered under my breath at The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. I stormed out of Faces, confused and upset. I fought a number of other works tooth and nail before I gradually came to see that they were doing far greater things than I imagined possible.

That's another reason the whole instant analysis newspaper reviewing process is fallacious. Reviewers see a movie once and expect it to make sense, when in fact a film that is understandable after one viewing is probably not worth seeing at all. Like the most interesting people, the most interesting movies never yield up their secrets the first time we meet them.

VISIONS: Will you be writing more attacks on critics and films?

RC: I hope not. If this hasn't gotten it out of my system, I don't know what will! I really don't enjoy being negative. I'd much rather praise than damn, which is why I confine the venom to a few essays. My books are all expressions of gratitude for the wonders that great art makes possible. But sometimes it is necessary to hack away at what's wrong in order to clear a little imaginative space for what's right. I remember something John Cassavetes wrote me at a fairly difficult time in my life. I had just gotten into one of my perennial scrapes because of something I had written that someone "important" had taken offense at. Cassavetes must have been aware of the hullabaloo, because he took a minute to jot a note to cheer me up. His words have stayed with me: "Keep blasting through the concrete. Blast them. Then love them. Then be sure you blast them again!" It showed he understood that the blasting and the loving were really the same thing.

–Excerpted from Ray Carney's "The Rules of the Game," Visions Magazine; Summer 1993; pp. 10-16; 48-49.

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.

© Text Copyright 1999-2000 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.