here for best printing of text
page contains a short section from two pieces by Ray Carney. The first
is an email from a student journalist in England with Carney’s answers to the student’s questions.
The second piece is a brief excerpt from an interview Ray Carney gave
to filmmaker Shelley Friedman. For more information about Ray Carney’s
writing on independent film, including information about obtaining three
different interview packets in which he gives his views on film, criticism,
teaching, the life of a writer, and the path of the artist, click
I'm a student journalist
in Brighton, England and i'm trying to write a feature on puzzle-like
films, for example Mulholland Drive.
I got your e-mail
address from a fellow student who said you might be able to help, so if
you can, here are my questions:
Why do you think people enjoy films like these?
People are stupid about art.
They would rather waste their lives playing games, doing crossword puzzles,
watching tricks than facing reality,
dealing with harder questions. Puzzle-films are a way of flattering themselves
that they are smart and hip and "with-it." These movies are
for teenagers who are too young to understand much about life or too
intimidated by the complexity of adult life to grapple with it.
Is there a reason more films like this are currently emerging (e.g. new
Russian film the Return)?
People are afraid of the world, of their lives. Game-playing is a form
of avoidance. These films are forms of escapism, ways of dropping out
of reality, of avoiding life. I say if you can't deal with reality take
drugs, go on sexual binges, jump out of an airplane, go up in a rocket.
Those escapist responses will at least lead to more complex outcomes
than sitting through a stupid movie and arguing about it with your friends
afterwards. Put down the decoder ring and go outside!
Is their ability to be interpreted subjectivly a good thing, like with
a piece of art? Or is this just an excuse for a loose plot?
To think that "subjective interpretation" is something in these
works' favor is completely to misunderstand how real art works and affects
us. We don't leave Bach's B-minor Mass, Picasso's Night Fishing at Antibes,
or Paul Taylor's Esplanade arguing about what things mean. Complexity of
interpretation is different from multiplicity. Lynch's work is shallow,
trite, silly. An ink blot or a cloud allows for "multiple interpretations," but
that doesn't make it a work of art. The great works of art do not play
games. They do not tease us. They are not coy, arch, or ironic.
Any other info/opinions would be fantastic. Hope you can help and thanks
very much for your time,
In the interview
excerpt below, Ray Carney talks more about Mullholland
Drive and the “puzzle film” phenomenon, and goes on to discuss other
kinds of film that make meanings in other ways. The complete interview,
which was conducted with filmmaker Shelley Friedman, covers many other
topics that are not included here. For more information about Ray Carney’s
writing on independent film, including information about obtaining the
complete text of the following interview, which is included in the Necessary
Experiences packet, click
The Seductions of Stylishness
here for best
printing of text
Sometimes it seems like even so-called
art films many times gloss over the interior life of their characters
and become rather cynical reflections of the filmmakers’ unwillingness
to grapple with deep questions. Why do you think this is?
agree. Of course, cynicism never goes by its own name. It is always called
something else: smartness, stylishness, coolness, playfulness, wit. Look
at L.A. Confidential.
David Denby called it one of the best films of the decade. Or Pulp
Fiction, which every critic in America had multiple orgasms over. Or the
complete work of John Dahl or the Coen brothers. Highbrow critics absolutely
love hard, mechanical film noir. The quantity of inner life,
the truth, the depth of the experience in the film never enters into their
calculations. In fact the more cynical, manipulative, and tough the movie
– the more heartlessly witty and hard-edged it is – the more they like
Why do you think that is?
for Denby and Anthony Lane and other self-styled “intellectual”
journalists, it’s a reaction against all the smarmy, sentimental gush
that they have to sit through every other day of their lives. It’s what
they feel sets them apart from the sappy, stupid, Leonard Maltin-Gene
Shallit-type critics who like Titanic or Pearl Harbor. To
be wised-up, cynical, and “smart” in this way is their definition of what
it is to be an intellectual. It’s a high-school definition, but they don’t
These films are as much about flattering the viewer as Hollywood movies are, but it’s just a different
kind of viewer. These critics can feel intelligent because they get the
cinematic in-jokes. They can feel clever because they appreciate the narrative
or visual cleverness. The more the whole experience has a patina of Penn
and Teller knowingness and cynicism to it – you know, “Hey, it’s all stupid,
but watch me pull another friggin’ stupid rabbit out of a friggin’ stupid
hat” – the more they like it. They think these movies reveal how manipulative
other movies are. They think they reveal how everybody who falls for the
sentiment in other movies is a donkey. Everybody but them! They
and the filmmaker are insiders. Hey, lighten up, it’s all just hocus-pocus-dominocus.
There’s also a gender component to it. It’s no accident that
most of these critics – and the filmmakers they adore – are men. It’s
a boy thing. A teenage boy thing. “Look at how tough I am. How
unsentimental I can be. I’m a real guy.” The same critics who canonized
Lynch in the 1980s and Tarantino in the 1990s loved those half-jokesy,
glossy, ironic horror films by Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, and Brian
DePalma in the seventies. Twenty years later, they still haven’t grown
Look at Mulholland
Drive. And, for an even more depressing
experience, look at the critical accolades showered on it. Film Comment
devoted a large part of an entire issue to it. In celebration of what?
A series of smart-ass tricks and games. Big friggin’ deal. That’s the
best someone can do with a couple million dollars? I don’t care how the
New York critics revel in it, or what they call it, it’s cynicism to me.
You wouldn’t need all the emotional back-flips and narrative trap doors
if you had anything to say. You wouldn’t need doppelgangers and shadow-figures
if your characters had souls. I always think of something Robert Frost’s
students said he used to ask over and over again in class: “Is this poem
sincere?” Robert Graves had a similar bullshit test. He used to ask, “Is
this poem necessary?” Those are not bad questions to ask about any work
of art. Movies like Mulholland
Drive and Kill Bill are not about
sincerity or necessity but stylishness. We don’t learn anything important
about life from them.
This adoration of cleverness, this love of wit isn’t something
new. Lynch’s fan club didn’t invent this value system. Oscar Wilde was
prancing down this runway a long time ago. The critics loved it then and
they love it now. Look at the votive lights that have been tended at the
Hitchcock shrine for more than fifty years. I was leafing through an old
issue of MovieMaker where a good friend of mine, David Sterritt,
was being interviewed and described Hitchcock as a “philosopher-poet.”
That got my attention. That’s what a filmmaker should be. So I
couldn’t wait to read his answer to the next question the interviewer
asked – about what made Hitchcock’s work so great? I was all set for a
poetic, philosophical answer. Then Sterritt said something about the way
in Psycho the first thing visible in Sam and Marion’s hotel room
is the “bathroom” and the way the driving in the rain scene involved “water
and blades.” Get it? Marion is killed in a bathroom, in the shower,
with water streaming down her body, by a blade, and – ta dah! – there
are all these allusions to bathrooms, showers, and blades earlier in the
film. Can you run that by me again? Is that the poetry part or the philosophy
It’s an immature notion of art. I can understand the appeal.
Everyone went through that stage. I did too. In high school. The class
read The Great Gatsby and when we were done, the teacher pointed
out these metaphors. The green light and all those other references. I
thought I had understood the novel before that. But then I suddenly realized
how I had missed all this metaphoric stuff. I raced though the text finding
all these things I hadn’t realized were there. It was like reading a different
book. It was a heady experience. It was exciting. I had never known you
could do that. There was all this hidden stuff, just waiting to be excavated.
That must be what a work of art is. It had secret meanings. Wow. Amazing.
I felt like an intellectual for the first time when I did it. But that
was high school for gosh sake. I was just a kid. I got over it. A few
years later, sometime in college I guess, I realized how trivial it all
was. That it was all just a parlor trick. But there are apparently thousands
of film reviewers and students and professors out there who never got
over the green light at the end of Gatsby. Art is about finding
hidden messages in invisible bottles thrown ashore by the artist. It’s
that pattern that emerges when you connect the dots. Bathroom. Rain. Wiper
blades. Shower scene. Knife blade. Get it? It’s all so clear. So crisp.
So abstract. So tempting. It’s the pleasure of filling out a crossword
puzzle or manipulating one of those cereal box decoder rings and cracking
the code. “Look at what I can do. Look at the secret connections I can
find.” It’s pretty intoxicating. Like finding the word that slips magically
into 12 down and links with 5 and 7 across. It gives the critic all this
power over the text. It makes him feel smart.
only problem is that that’s not what you do to art or what real art does
to you. When you watch a Cassavetes or Noonan movie, even for the tenth
time, you are not doing a crossword puzzle. You are not playing
connect the dots. You are not turning over stones looking for sermons
underneath them. The meanings are not hidden in that way and they are
not revealed or decoded in that way. Oh, there are probably people who
try to do this to Cassavetes – just as they try to do it to Rembrandt
and Balanchine – but that doesn’t make it right. The meanings in his works
aren’t those kinds of meanings. They don’t snap into place with a satisfying
click. The computer programmers talk about “fuzzy logic.” Well, Noonan’s
and Cassavetes’ and Leigh’s and Rembrandt’s meanings are murky, fuzzy
meanings. I was just teaching Mike Leigh’s Meantime in class yesterday.
I was trying to show the students how the film is a triumph of not
spelling things out, not pinning them down, not clarifying
its meanings. Leigh gets us to the same place life at its best does. The
effect is extraordinary. And so different from Hollywood. In the Renaissance,
they called this “sfumato,” smoky meaning. That’s not something against
it. That’s what is great about it. The meaning is not clear and distinct
like an idea, but fuzzy like an experience. You don’t “get” it like a
New Yorker cartoon. You undergo it; you live with it; you
live into it. It’s the difference between mysteries and acts of
mystification, between the real complexity of life and the bogus fakery
of bad art.
I talk about this at length in my Leigh book and my Cambridge
Cassavetes book. At one point in the Cassavetes book I contrast the kinds
of meanings made by The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Citizen
Kane. Cassavetes’ movie makes unclear, partial, hesitant, tentative
meanings. Welles’s makes sharp, clear, distinct ones. When the smoke goes
up the chimney at the end of Kane it is the opposite of a smoky
meaning. It’s as clear as a bell. Of course that’s why people love Kane.
They have the fun of “getting it” loud and clear.
as Ideas Versus Art as Experiences
Is the clarity of the meanings why
people enjoy films like these?
would rather play games, do crossword puzzles, watch tricks than face
reality and deal with hard questions. It’s a form of intellectual escapism.
Decoding puzzle-films is a way of flattering themselves that they are
smart and hip and “with-it.” These movies are for teenagers who are too
young to understand much about life or for adults too intimidated by the
complexity of adult life to want to grapple with it.
Appreciating great art is totally different from doing a crossword
puzzle. My pal David Sterritt should not be asking what he can do to Hitchcock,
but what Hitchcock can do to and for him. Ultimately, it all comes down
to how much the work can show us about life – the density and complexity
and flow of reality that it captures and exposes us to. Reading Joyce
Carol Oates and Alice Munro and Eudora Welty is like living life on steroids,
on speed, on hyperdrive. Let me emphasize what I just said: not reading
about life, but living it. I have experiences like the ones
I have in life – just as slippery and elusive and changeable – but even
more interesting than the ones life usually provides, because they come
at me faster, and they are richer, more complex, and more demanding than
those in my everyday life. Hack your way through Oates’s “Missing Person,”
“Goose Girl,” and “American, Abroad” if you want to see what I mean. I
happen to be teaching all three of them this week. They are like doing
emotional rock-climbing. You build new emotional muscles, you stretch
yourself in new directions, you feel new things, as you gingerly pick
a path through them, word by word, sentence by sentence. My What’s
Wrong… and How to Do it Right book is all about this sense of art.
David Sterritt should ask what Psycho can show him about
his desires and needs, his relationship to his lover, his family, his
life. The answer would be: very little. And that, if you want to know,
is why Hitchcock is not a great artist but an entertainer with
just enough cleverness and panache and visual dazzle to impress the pseudo-intellectuals.
His works are kitsch. Fake art. Pretend art.
Is there a reason filmmakers are making so many movies
with visual games and narrative surprises? Movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Run,
are dozens of these films and they are some of the most influential movies
among my students. In addition to the ones you’ve named, I’d add Memento,
Suture, Waking Life, The Truman Show, and Eternal
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The Matrix also falls into this
category. Oh, I just thought of some more. There are so many. But to answer
your question, I’m of two minds about the popularity of these works.
the one hand, I know that many young people go to these movies out of
a sincere desire to have a deeper and more thoughtful experience than
they can get in an ordinary dramatic film. They want to grapple with questions
about the ultimate nature of reality and our place in it, about how the
world’s systems of understanding are organized, about “what it all means.”
For that kind of viewer these movies provide a cosmic, panoramic, intellectual
experience. Watching them is less like watching a normal movie than going
to church or reading philosophy.
films like Magnolia and American Beauty and Boogie Nights
are different in some ways, that sense of enlarging your perspective,
of actually learning things, things that you don’t learn in a regular
movie is a large part of their appeal too. Because of the size
of their casts and the generational scope of their stories, young people
feel that they are getting a larger, deeper, more comprehensive vision
of the world than the one in a Hollywood movie. They have the feeling
that these movies give them an inside view of the world of adult life,
a view of hidden realities that they otherwise don’t have access to. Watching
these movies feels like being able to hear what your parents talk about
when their bedroom door is closed. Watching them feels like having the
secrets of adulthood revealed to you.
I can understand and sympathize with both kinds of appeal. When I was
young, the only difference was that I went to books as much as to films
to try to break the codes of the world. For sociology, I read Paul Goodman
and Vance Packard and Alfred Kinsey and David Reisman and the Hite Report.
For philosophy, I read Ayn Rand, Herman Hesse, Carlos Castenada, Alan
Watts, Nietzsche, and Lin Yutang. [Laughs] I know, I know. I was young!
It’s a totally embarrassing list! I sat through My Dinner with André
to get the same philosophical rush I did from the books. And I watched
The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to see what
adults did after I went to bed, what they really thought and felt and
said when kids weren’t around.
Profundity and Profound Superficiality
at some point you leave those understandings behind. What’s the bible
verse? “When I was a child I saw as a child, but now I am a man and I
see as a man.” Well … something like that! [Laughs] At some point you
learn that the strangeness of the human heart can be more surprising and
less predictable than all of quantum theory. In a word, you realize that
experiences can be much more complex and interesting than ideas.
At that point you realize that Spike Jonze’s mysticism for
the millions is just a lot of eyewash. You realize that Magnolia’s
vision of adulthood as a repository of dirty secrets is a superficial
way to understand adult life. You realize that Anderson’s invocation of suppressed depths,
his obsession with revelations and breakdowns, are just cheap ways of
attaching drama and interest to otherwise fairly shallow, boring characters
and situations. All of his major characters are wearing masks, hiding
dark secrets. That seems revelatory when you are 18, but it’s a high-school
notion of depth, a child’s understanding of what it is to be an adult.
David Lynch’s and the Coen brothers’ work is no deeper. I blame
it on Hitchcock. And all those critics who force-fed his work to generations
of undergraduates. And Welles. It’s the lamentable legacy of all of those
critical paeans to Citizen Kane – the fallacy of thinking that
truth is in the depths, when it’s really on the surface. It’s not the
things adults hide that matter; it’s the things they show.
The great mystery of life is not the invisible, but the visible. What
makes us fascinating is not what we don’t say, but what we do.
But it takes a while to realize that.
Films like What Happened Was and Faces and Mikey
and Nicky and Wanda make the work of Jonze and Anderson and
Solondz and Lynch look like Sesame
Street. They don’t rely on shock tactics
and surprise revelations. They don’t need special effects, narrative tricks,
or revelations to make things dramatic. The characters don’t have to have
deep, dark secrets in order to hold our interest.
The salesmen in Faces are fascinating not because of
what they hide from us, but because of what they show us. There is no
mask to remove, no hidden truth to unveil. What makes them interesting
is not what they aren’t, but what they are. Cassavetes’
characters are mysterious because they don’t have any mysteries. They
are deep because everything you need to know about them is on the surface.
If they had secrets they would be easier to understand. In our love of
depths, we’ve forgotten that the surface is the most complex place there
This search for secrets is just another version of the “decoder
ring” understanding of experience. My real fear is that, culturally speaking,
we are losing extraordinarily valuable forms of understanding.
What does that mean? How can you lose
a way of understanding?
a real danger. Young people in the current generation have intellectually
been worked over for so long and to such an extent that they are in real
danger of losing the awareness that there can be anything deeper than
these shallow versions of profundity. There are dozens of cultural forces
and factions working to limit their consciousnesses: from the multicultural
ideologues who teach them to measure things in sociological terms, to
the allegorists who want them to translate their experiences into abstractions,
to the pop-culture slumlords who want to deny them their intellectual
and artistic heritage by ignoring or downplaying the high culture masterworks
– the greatest achievements of the human heart and mind.
All of the interesting aspects of art, all the things that
make art art drop out of the analysis: style, tone, and performance among
other things. I just read a thesis proposal on Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita
from a student who apparently has never grappled with the idea that style
can bend or color the content of a work. She treated the novel like it
was a story in the newspaper. Nabokov was writing about a dirty old man
molesting an innocent pre-teen. And she, of course, was interested in
writing about the cultural history of men who exploit women. I thought
of the Robert Frost quote that “poetry is what is lost in the translation.”
Well, the novel was what was lost in her translation of it into sociology.
I wish she were an exception. I just read a set of papers about Buffalo
66 that did
the same thing. The weirdness, the extravagance, the pushiness, the insecurity,
the swagger of the film’s style disappeared. It became a boy-meets-girl
love story. When I have students read Stanley Elkin or look at Mark Rappaport
movies, they do the same thing. They treat the works like they were equivalent
to the events in them, and talk about the characters like they were real
people. Estelle should get a life, and Bernie Perk, he sure is a weird
druggist. They can’t deal with the stylization. They blow right by it.
They read right through it. But the style is the reason the work
Reminds me of two essays I got in a literature course when
I was first starting out at Middlebury. Both from the same student. The
first was about “moody, broody Hamlet, who missed his dad so much.” The
second was about “poor, old, neglected, unloved King Lear.” Like Hamlet
was a boyfriend who should go to the college counseling services and get
some help, and Lear was some lonely old guy who lived down the street!
I guess she could next do Othello as a victim of racism. That’s
not what Jan Kott meant when he called Shakespeare “our contemporary”!
[Laughs] That’s not why we read the plays.
It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. The contemporary psychological
and sociological steamroller levels everything in its path. The style
gets flattened. The Shakespeare in the play disappears. We see how ridiculous
it is to do this to Lear and Hamlet – at least I hope we
do! – but we seem to think it’s OK to do it with a lot of film. Must be
the seductions of photographic realism. Anyway, that’s what I mean by
saying these students are being denied their intellectual heritage by
a 60-Minutes, 20-20, Dateline approach to art. It’s
a terrible loss.
can lose a whole way of understanding in a single generation. Scientists
and mathematicians realize that. They know that if you discontinue research
in a certain area of knowledge, you can cut off progress in it for the
next century. Musicians know it. How many people beyond musicians still
understand the nuances of something as basic as sonata-allegro form? What
every well-educated person in 1791 Vienna “spoke” has become a lost language.
English professors, at least ones in the older generation, understand
that you can lose ways of reading, forms of linguistic awareness and sensitivity.
Well, in film study, we’re in danger of losing delicate, subtle ways of
understanding film. They are being replaced by simpler, cruder forms of
knowing – Marxist, feminist, psychological, sociological, metaphorical,
symbolic, and dozens of other mechanical, preformulated forms of understanding.
You want another example? Most of my grad students can’t understand
meanings that won’t stand still. They try to nail everything down. [Laughs]
D.H. Lawrence calls it nailing Christ to the cross. And most of them can’t
understand meanings that resist clarifying themselves – meanings that
are bent and colored and inflected by tones and moods. All their training
has programmed them to deal with meanings that don’t shift and change,
meanings that are flat and simple and monotonic and “on the nose.” All
their classroom experiences have been devoted to treating meaning as something
abstract and atemporal. They have lost the ability to deal with fluid,
flexible, multivalent, unresolved forms of experience.
Well, that’s what I am talking about. Those are enormous
cultural losses. Tragic losses – of inestimably important ways of
thinking and feeling.
Why do you think the students are
I wasn’t actually arguing that the students are getting worse. The Middlebury
example shows that literalism has been around for a long time. What is
getting worse is the teaching. It’s the teachers who are the problem.
The students just do what they are taught to do. In the past professors
who taught arts – fiction, dance, drama, poetry, etc. – used to root out
this naïve realism and move students beyond it, but now as far as I can
tell, they encourage it, because it plugs into so many contemporary
ideological projects – like reading texts as honoring multicultural diversity
and “otherness.” A racial reading of Othello not only wouldn’t
be laughed at today, but probably encouraged. The student would then be
told to do a feminist reading of Othello’s relationship to Desdemona.
you know, maybe teaching hasn’t really changed that much. Leon Edel’s
writing on Henry James, Richard Ellman’s on James Joyce, and A.C. Bradley’s
on Shakespeare show that even a long time ago big name academics were
unable to read great literature. There have always been flat-minded readings
and weak readers among both students and professors. There is no reason
to wax nostalgic that earlier generations of teachers and students were
great at dealing with the subtleties of style and tone.
and tone are hard to grapple with. They always have been and always will
be. We are always more comfortable with clarity and literalism than ulteriority
and indirection and inflection and grace notes and “bending.” The fluidity
of temporal experience always presents a challenge – in art and life.
The shift and flow of meaning in a complex work of art is always going
to test our capacities of responsiveness. We’re not good at dealing with
change, indeterminacy, and in-betweenness.
relates to our evolutionary past, to how our brains have been wired to
process information. We are much better and more comfortable dealing with
stasis. Our brains are tuned to grapple with objects rather than experiences,
with fixities rather than fluidities. We conceptualize life in terms of
adjectives and nouns rather than verbs and adverbs. Our brains have been
programmed to freeze experience into ideas, conclusions, predictions.
We sort, arrange, and categorize – we close down cognitively – when we
should stay open and responsive to the flow of experience. That’s just
the way the mind works. It has a certain amount of survival value, which
is why evolution has bred it into us, but it gets us into a lot of trouble
in the rest of life, especially in complex social experiences; but that
part of us won’t change until evolution changes it. Or until some Zen
Master comes along and helps us see our rigidities.
there’s a kind of evolutionary reward system at work in the classroom
too. My argument is that the current generation of students has been rewarded
for their mistakes – rather than being told they are wrong – because of
the influence of all of the sociological understandings they have had
thrust at them by the media and by their teachers. And, at the opposite
extreme, films like The Matrix and Pulp Fiction and the
glitziness of MTV visuals have desensitized them to the sheer strangeness
of style. The result is a particularly pervasive and damaging 21st-century
form of critical flat-mindedness.
In the interview excerpt above, Ray Carney
talks about Mullholland Drive and
the “puzzle film” phenomenon, and goes on to discuss other kinds of film
that make meanings in other ways. The complete interview, which was conducted
with filmmaker Shelley Friedman, covers many other topics that are not
included here. For more information about Ray Carney’s writing on independent
film, including information about obtaining the complete text of the preceding
interview, which is included in the Necessary Experiences packet,