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Ray Carney's Mailbag -- This section of the site contains letters written to Prof. Carney by students and artists, announcements of news, events, and screenings, and miscellaneous observations about life and art by Ray Carney. Letters and notices submitted by readers are in black. Prof. Carney's responses, observations, and recommendations are in blue. Note that Prof. Carney receives many more letters and announcements than he can possibly include on the site. The material on these pages has been selected as being that which will be the most interesting, inspiring, useful, or informative to site readers. Click on the first page (via the links at the top or bottom of the page) to read an explanation of this material, why it is being posted, and how this relatively small selection was made from among the tens of thousands of messages Prof. Carney has received.

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A note from RC: Paul Cronin is an independent filmmaker, a personal friend, and a major contributor to the site and supporter of it. His new movie recently played at the Toronto Film Festival and was reviewed in the Village Voice by Scott Foundas. Scott gives thanks at the end for the existence of film programmers who are not looking at the bottom line; in a similar vein I give thanks to film reviewers like him who review and celebrate films that don't have publicists and press junket budgets. Cronin's tough-minded, unsentimental film is a lesson in the inadequacy of Hollywood simplifications of  experience. It is incidentally also a reminder of something that has been lost on today's college campuses, with their style-centered, narcissistic student populations. Where is the rage, the passion, the outraged revulsion against injustice and malfeasance? See my plea to students and artists near the bottom of page 107 that they not sit on the sidelines listening to their iPods and texting their friends, while their country's future is sold to lobbyists and the creators of the most negative campaign ads. -- R.C.

Toronto Rounds Out Film Festival with Four-Plus Hours of Its Best Material in A Time To Stir
by Scott Foundas
Village Voice, September 16, 2008

The most vital movie I ended up seeing at this year's Toronto International Film Festival didn't have its first screening until the festival's final day and is, in the words of its own creator, not a movie at all but rather a piece of "visual history."

At more than four hours, it also isn't finished yet, with more than an hour of introductory material reportedly already assembled in the editing room and additional footage still to be shot. But even in its current form, Paul Cronin's A Time to Stir strikes me as a major film about the American Left, its splintering and factionalizing, and its still-flickering embers.

Cronin takes a single subject-the April 1968 occupation of Columbia University by radicalized members of the Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Afro-American Society-and proceeds to map it from nearly every conceivable angle. Amassed-"carved out" might be more accurate-from more than 100 hours of new interviews plus thousands of archival images, the film begins as a minute-by-minute account of the occupation as told by the occupiers (including former SDS leader Mark Rudd and former SAS leader Bill Sales, both of whom attended the Toronto screening). Cronin then folds in other voices-a lot of them-including the faculty members who found themselves caught between a rock (the intractable students) and a hard place (the ineffectual campus administration); the journalists (including NPR's Robert Siegel, then an anchor at Columbia's WKCR radio station) who reported from the scene; those students who eventually took to protesting the protestors; and the police officers who, one week after the unrest began, brought the bloody curtain down.

Coming on the heels of so many shallow, nostalgia-tinged portraits of '60s radicalism (including the Oscar-nominated The Weather Underground), Cronin's film is remarkably astute and tough-minded about the complex dogma of revolutionary movements: the divergent personal, political, and (especially in the case of Columbia) racial agendas; the razor's edge between liberalism and imperialism; the oft-misguided impetuousness of youth; the indifference of the masses. But where does A Time to Stir go from here? To DVD? To marathon screenings in underground cinemas? To every high-school classroom in America? Wherever it ends up, this is a film that demands to be seen.

Cronin's massive Venn diagram of conflicting and congruent ideologies could be viewed as an apt metaphor for Toronto itself: a giant celluloid campus where, the further one stRays from the red carpet and the overhyped Hollywood premieres, the likelier one is to find encouraging signs that the festival programmers haven't entirely forsaken art in favor of commerce.

This just in from a filmmaker in Holland. Thank you, Patrick Daniel van Es. (And for American site readers, please make allowances for the fact that Patrick is not an English speaker.) -- R.C.

Subject: Salut!

Dear Mr. Carney, Ray,

I just wanted to let you how much I enjoyed your writings I read after discovering your site today.

I'm a Dutch filmmaker who thinks like you and is wondering why the common sense we have is so seldom found...

These months I follow a great international Script Development Programme in Amsterdam, and the current workshop are by Ken Dancyger.... he made me feel so bad that I found you - it was by googling my favorite film Stalker, that got me on your Path of the Artist pages on

I laughed l lot too - just because of the truth of it.

One question I'd like to ask you before not bothering you any longer:

How come you name Breaking the Waves as a masterpiece? What did I miss besides the cynical use of the old Cinderella-storytrick, so often used in girlstories, to force us to emote?

Anyway, all the best and thanks,

Patrick Daniel van Es

RC replies: Salut back at ya, Patrick! Believe it or not I actually agree with you about Breaking the Waves. What's the thing they say about "liberals" (or other enlightened beings)? When they form a firing squad, they line up in a circle. Well, shoot away. We agree about most things, so cut me a little slack, willya, about "Breaking the Waves." And -- to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but .... I don't actually think it's "a masterpiece" anyway. Just an interesting film. Strictly between I and thou: Von Trier got listed on the "Masterpieces ... Viewing Recommendations" page (see the blue button in the left margin to go there) only because a site reader sent that page in to me to post. I didn't create it; she did. She was trying to do me a favor, and I appreciate it, but she listed a bunch of films that I would not have put in the "Masterpiece" category. They are good films, but not "masterpieces." But I posted the page anyway because I thought it would be of interest and use to others and be a good source of discussion. And that's where you come in, and where I agree with you. So, let's uncircle the wagons... and agree that 1) film in general is in a bad way in many countries and situations; but 2) there are a few bona fide "masterpieces" out there, works as great as anything done in the other arts, and we don't have to agree about each and every one of them. (How about Bjork's "Dancer in the Dark" -- a strange wiggly genre-breaking musical -- does that make the cut for you?)

Keep doing original work, Patrick. Keep thinking. And keep telling the truth (to me and everyone else). All the rest of life is merely holding a job. Who needs it?

Thanks for your contribution to the site! And, above all, thanks for the laughs! Now you're talking!!!!!


A note from RC: This just came in from Tom Russell, an independent filmmaker and site regular. He comments on two earlier Mailbag postings: The posting about Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game is in on Mailbag page 105 and the posting from Darren Pardee about Barak Obama is on Mailbag page 106. (For reference: I myself have a posting about Obama on Mailbag page 107.) -- R.C.

Subject: Renoir and Obama, with a dash of Watkins-- How's that for a combination?

Prof. Carney,

Forgive the somewhat wonky subject line, but rather than clutter up your e-mail box with two letters, I thought I'd respond to two things I saw on your letters page.

First and more pertinently, let me respond to the young man who saw Rules of the Game but didn't find much to like in it. I think that your general point, Ray, that great movies require life experience to appreciate them, is a sound one. I think I told you before about my first experience with "Faces", in which I found the whole thing and all the people in it to be a little ridiculous; once I had aged a few years, though, it stabbed me in the gut. (Which was wonderful.)

A personal ancedote: we've had showings of the film we made last year to various members of the cast and public. There's a scene towards the middle in which the two "main" characters begin to squawk like chickens at one another, flapping their wings and scratching at the ground. It has, as you can imagine, evoked a wide variety of responses. One young man, who was eighteen years old and had never been in a relationship, thought it was utterly ridiculous. It made no sense and did not appeal to him. His friend, the same age, who had been in several relationships, said "I've had that conversation at least a dozen times."

Now, getting back to Renoir, more specifically, I think your correspondant's point holds true: there is a certain hollowness to the characters prancing about in Rules of the Game, a certain superficiality. I don't think, however, that this makes it an "elitist" film, or that Renoir feels superior to these people. He is, after all, one of them, both figuratively-- i.e., that he plays the role of Octave-- and literally-- in that he was known to have mistresses and dalliances himself.

Renoir is certainly critical of the people in the film, but I think he loves them, too. (If you really love someone, you're not afraid to be critical of them.)

Renoir is famously democratic in his approach-- in that he lets everyone have their say and in that he uses editing not to editorialize or heighten but to create a space in which we can watch these characters. I think he is, first and foremost, a people watcher. He enjoys simply watching people, how silly they are and how serious, how capable of love and of pettiness.

And I think people-watching is one of those acquired tastes, one of those things we grow into as we get older and more experienced. I think it's a skill that frees up the best filmmakers to make their best work-- to be brave enough to let us look at human behaviour and draw our own conclusions, if conclusions we do draw, instead of manipulating life to create a "point" or a larger "truth". And I think it's a skill that frees up the audience to actually look at the screen and appreciate the people on it-- and to actually look at other people and appreciate them. (I can spend hours just watching my wife knit or eat or sleep.)

As for Rules of the Game being "predictable"-- by which I think he means the film's ending-- the film is, despite its underpinnings in bedroom farce, a tragedy.

All true tragedy is predictable. Whether Greek or Shakespeare, we all know what's going to happen. It's not a question of "what happens next", but of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And the aviator is a classically tragic hero in the sense that he's brought down by the very thing that makes him great in the first place: he doesn't belong to this society and doesn't understand... (drumroll:) the rules of the game.

That's my thoughts on it, anyway.

Now, as for this other thing-- I wasn't going to respond at first because I know you're not exactly a political person and this isn't exactly a political website. But I could not let Darren Pardee's letter go unanswered. This idea that Barack Obama promotes some vague empty notion of "change" without providing details is not only ridiculous but provably false. "Change to what, change for what?", he asks?

Change to a nation in which most Americans can afford health care, and the sick are not turned away from coverage because they actually need it. (The Obama health plan.)

Change to a nation that no longer operates the illegal Gitmo prison. (As mentioned in his acceptance speech.)

Change to a nation in which the poor and elderly shoulder less of the tax burden and the rich shoulder more of it. (Obama's tax plan, as evaluated by the Tax Center.)

Change to a nation in which we don't alienate the rest of the world or fight pre-emptive wars. (It's a little something called diplomacy.)

I think that's change for the better, myself. Others are free to disagree.

There's certainly a lot to be critical of regarding Obama, especially in the media coverage, and the tendencies towards hero worship. And I say, please, Darren, and everyone else: be critical. Look closely. Think deeply. Ask questions.

I'd say to Darren: Just don't recite talking points that are blatant B.S.


Tom Russell

P.S.: Just saw "Punishment Park" by Peter Watkins. While I didn't get a whole lot out of "The Gladiators", I thought "Punishment Park" was astonishing and revelatory. It really captures what polarization and extremes does to our discourse, political, artistic, interpersonal, and otherwise-- and the consequences of unmitigated and unyielding belief systems with no room for shades of gRay. It was quite an experience and I thank you for turning me on to it.

Ray Carney in Melbourne Australia


An overly hasty reply: First, thanks for the thoughts on The Rules of the Game. I agree with much of what you say and invite other reader responses to the page 105 posting. Second, on Darren's comments about Obama: Though it wasn't visible when you wrote your note to me, I have a posting about Obama, and about the importance of not becoming cynical about the political process, on Mailbag page 107. Give it a glance. I recommend that readers go to it and think about it. Third and finally, I couldn't agree more about the importance of Peter Watkins's work. I tried to get him a job at both Harvard and Boston University eight or ten years ago when he was in need of a position, but I was turned down at both places for completely ridiculous reasons. ("Has he ever taught?" "What do students think of his movies?" "Does he know anything about fictional film?" "Don't you think he might upset the students." Etc.) This about one of the ten or twenty greatest living filmmakers. Well, that's the American university in a nutshell. Tom, you are preaching to the choir. Watkins in one of the greats -- too great for any university to be comfortable with him, I'm afraid. Harvard, Boston University, or the petty, bureaucratic film programs at most other universities. Their first thought (at Boston U., at Harvard, and at anywhere I know) is that "if they hire him, will they own him?" ... "Will he make a good imrpression on students and alumini...." The fact is that Peter Watkins is one of the people who will never be bought in that way, by anyone, at any price. (I'm another, if you want to know.) I agree that it's a genuine tragedy how little his work is known or how seldom it is screened. -- R.C.

And this came in today from Philippines-based JP Carpio, another site regular.

Dear Professor Carney,

I'm glad to read that the letters page is slowly getting updated again. Considering what the "academic fascists" (as Rob Nilsson referred to them in a letter to you) have been putting you through, I am thankful to you for keeping on going as you have told me many times in my many moments of frustration. (Click here to read independent filmmaker Rob Nilsson's comment about "academic fascists" on page 34 of the Mailbag.)

The situation here in the Philippines is sadly no different. Very few people, as my girlfriend Yve says, have the balls to say, "the emperor has no clothes!" So much hypocrisy in our genes in general, it's hard enough dealing with my own personal hypocrisies.

And when you do speak up to tell us not to be afraid, "we kill those guys" as Bill Hicks said.

Since the Philippines is the only predominantly Catholic country in the whole of Asia, I usually have tell my mother to really examine that we have over 2,000 years of hindsight to be smug about, but really, seriously, based on the track record of human beings, if the son of a carpenter, or a former prince who gave up all of his wealth, suddenly came up to us today in the present and started talking about sacrifice and letting go and love thy enemy, would we really listen to any of them (unless they were on CNN)?

I believe human pride is the greatest cause of the death and destruction since the history of our species began.

So much work to be done.
Thanks again.

trying to stay true
with love,

RC replies: To the evil of "human pride," I'd add the evils of "fear" and "insecurity." (People are so afraid and insecure--afraid of change, afraid of being questioned, afraid of having to defend their beliefs, afraid of anyone who has different views or thinks differently.) That fear and insecurity is the source of all of the bigotry and intolerance and hatred in the world. Nastiness and evil are not the source; fear and insecurity are. Why don't our works of art (our plays and moves in particular) show that? Why do they create characters who are bad and mean and evil? When they do, they are telling lies, since there are no such people in the world. There are just a lot of frightened and insecure people. The world's evil comes out of that. (And you don't have to go to Mao's China, Franco's Spain, or Hitler's Germany to see the effects of fear and insecurity; I could prove the point right at my own university or probably any corporation in America. It's all there, plain for the eye to see.) Why don't our movies show that? -- R.C.

Subject: Mike Leigh's transcripts

Ray hi!

it's your old student/friend Dina. glad to see you are still at BU! what are you working on these days?

i am taking a directing class here in New York and wanted to work with Leigh's scripts. i can't find but two online, none in the library. do you have any idea if these transcripts are available to the public?

Thank you!


Wow, wow, wow. Hi, Dina. It's been eons, millenia, centuries; but of course I remember you. Thanks for writing. So amazing to hear from you!

Write back and tell me what you've been doing since you graduated. Where you live, what you are thinking about, what your most creative activity is (Any answer is the right answer from rollerblading to cooking, from reading to gardening, from knitting to biking to keeping a journal!). I'm always interested. Not necessarily what you do on your job, but in what you do with your heart and soul.

Your problem is that you are relying on the idiot internet. Like some of my students. Leigh's scripts are in books, not on-line (believing your testimony). I own books with the scripts to High Hopes, Abigail's Party, Naked, and Life is Sweet; I'm pretty certain I've seen Career Girls and Topsy Turvy, and a few others in bookstores. Go to a a bookstore. A well-stocked bookstore. Or use the Library of Congress catalogue or the National Union Catalogue or OCLC on line to see what is available under author "Mike Leigh." Then get off your computer and go to a bookstore or use interlibrary loan at your local library. Did I make myself clear? Get off your computer! The internet is full of lies and mistakes and foolishness! See my notes about Wikipedia on page 105 of the site Mailbag. Or go to this page on my site and read what I have to say about the intenet.

Love and hugolas to you,


P.S. In case it's of interest to those who are reading this on the site, Mailbag page 103 has another letter about the shortcomings of internet research and a comment (and another link) by me in response. Go to near the bottom of page Mailbag 103 and read the letter that has the subject heading: "Thought a great deal about the last response you gave me" and my reply to it.

Dina Kagan replied. I was delighted to learn that she is continuing her studies of art and the pursuit of truth. Capitalism makes it so hard. (See the "Reality check" note and letter at the top of the next Mailbag page.) -- R.C.

Ray hi!!

Thanks for your letter, you made me smile, even giggle! Geez what to tell you. I live in NYC about ten minutes away from Times Square, can you feel the buzzz? But i do have two trees outside my window and one ficus here in the studio. Have three films in mind/soul for years now, now working on one of them, very slowly but very surely. Have studied and then taught at a healing school here, i feel like i've made a plunge inside for several years and now in the last couple of years coming to the surface and changing my life a whole lot. Have lived in Costa Rica and learned Spanish and wrote some for script number 2. Have a dream of buying land and creating an artist colony on the Caribbean, partly 'cause i can't stand winter and partly 'cause i want to create more of the kind of world i want to live in (by the way don't tell anyone yet, it's still germinating). Now taking a directing class with a woman called Adrienne Weiss, i think you'd enjoy meeting her. She actually teaches directing. I don't think anyone really does. But she does. So i'm excited to be learning this new dissecting in the emotional sea, it does feel like learning to swim and it keeps me awake. In these years i've tried pottery making, coin engraving (terrible!), backpacking in Guatemala, swimming with the largest fish in the world. Why Guatemala - have you heard of a book called Secrets of the Talking Jaguar? You might enjoy it, it's very human and full of humor and love of life. Just got back from Russia where I had bought a house on lake Seliger nine years ago and just now got to fix it. Next year it should be finished. It's a special place with nature that's wild, pristine and beautiful. If you have any interest in visiting the Russian countryside (less of Chekov aristocracy tea party dachas, more of Tolstoy rustic peasant nature style although with cell phones), let me know, you'll be very welcome!

Now, what's going on in your life? I am glad you are still teaching, for you but especially for the students. You know you were the one who introduced me to this totally new way of seeing life, of being aware. Your class started an awesome time in my life. What are you teaching now? If you have a class about American independent film, I'd love to see your film list. Just read some of your blog! I love it. You're totally uncool and alive.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for your advice and for reminding me about my own brains! I am so happy to hear about Leigh's scripts! and books! I love book stores. Wanted to ask you if you know if any Cassavettes screenplays are any published.

Big hug!

Subject: It's a Wonderful Life

Dear Dina,

Sorry, no Cassavetes scripts are available. It's very weird. He himself gave me copies of a couple dozen, and wrote many more that were never made into films, so there are lots of interesting things in existence. But publishers don't seem interested and Gena doesn't seem interested in helping along the process. (I've offered to contact publishers on her behalf, but she has never accepted the offer.) Strange.

You ask about me.The short answer is that "I go on. I go on" -- like Zelmo Swift, or a Beckett character! There is more than you want to know about BU and me (sounds like the title of my autobiography, eh?) in the boxed material at the bottom of Mailbag page 101 and on page 102. Or you can click on the "Most Popular Topics" button in the left margin of most site pages and scroll down to a series of links under the topic "Group Thinking as the Source of Fascism in an American University" if that is easier to navigate. That will take you to four or five places on the site. But that's only the bureaucratic part of my life. The blood and tears part. My world is not defined by my paycheck or my treatment by an institution, but exists in my imagination, my heart, my soul, my thinking and writing, and my classroom experiences with some absolutely amazing students--last spring in particular was a wonder and a revelation for me. I had five or six of the most remarkable students I've ever had in my entire life in my classes. Just wonderful people so willing and ready to learn and so passionate about art. Just like when I had you and some of your classmates. So the true answer is that I am living the greatest life imaginable (is it immodest of me to say that? I hope not. I just mean, like George Bailey, I'm the luckiest guy alive with the best job in the world!!!!) The teaching and writing could not be more exciting and energizing. Praise be. Thank you, God. And thank you too, Dina, for your kind letter. I'm so happy to read that you too are continuing to follow your dreams.

I'm delighted to see that you are continuing to live the "artistic life." So many BU students graduate the film program and, for one reason or another, are forced to give it all up and enter the regular work force. They give up their artistic love, their artistic pursuit, their dreams of being an artist or a writer. I sympathize with their predicaments, since money is what makes this sad world go round, alas, but it's a loss for their souls, and ultimately for the world. So many artists quit before they ever really start. So I'm so glad to see that your are keeping the vision alive, and still following your dreams and your heart. Keep going! Keep the vision alive.

Ray (aka. George B.)

PS. And be careful about those casual invitations. I may just show up at your dacha some day!


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