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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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Your Life is a Movie coverA note from Ray Carney: As regular readers of the site and my other publications know, much of my writing comprises ideas about how to improve film study and criticism, and how to increase the intellectual value and content of film and arts education. I have argued that there is much room for improvement and many different ways that teaching and course offerings can be enhanced. My expression of my ideas has met with great resistance from specific administrators and faculty members at Boston University, who have retaliated against me in numerous ways for my expression of them -- penalizing me financially, bureaucratically, and personally; abusing me and slandering my work in meetings with students and others; and attempting to censor my publications and to force me to take down this web site. These actions represent serious abuses of professional ethics and assaults on academic freedom. The following comments came in from a recent graduate of the Boston University film production program, partially in response to the postings at the bottom of Mailbag page 101 and page 102 that detail some of these events. With the writer's permission, I have removed a few personal references to maintain anonymity. The writer's important points concern the absence of intellectual and artistic content in production and screenwriting courses, and the reluctance to move the program beyond a form of "vocational education." I'd emphasize that the critique is by no means limited to Boston University's program. The experiences the writer describes apply to many other programs, and the suggestions the writer offers are ones that many different programs can benefit from. -- R.C.

Prof. Carney:

I found the production curriculum rather dated as well. I find that the administration has always done its best to employ deans that have backgrounds in journalism and/or politics. Though they have always been greatly esteemed individuals, I don't believe that they have the slightest clue as to how to run a film program at a university. I agree with the other former students and Jon Jost in that working with 16mm film, Bolex cameras, and Steenbecks was a fun and authentic experience. It was a nostalgic moment - to be physically cutting my first film together. Yet, in the two years since I've graduated, I've found it difficult to land a production job without any knowledge of digital film stock.

And though I don't consider myself to be a writer by any means, I do have aspirations to produce/ direct some small projects on my own, but I don't feel that I ever really learned how to put my thoughts together in my screenwriting classes - which is rather strange, as I would think the administration would rely heavily on a class like screenwriting to make the film program more 'academic.' And perhaps the most frustrating part of the film program for me personally was the incredible lack of communication with the College of Fine Arts. Why hasn't BU made it a point to connect film students with actors, playwrights, musicians, production designers - people that could all greatly increase the production value of our stereotypically mediocre student films about break-ups and suicides? Why did I spend two class periods learning how to load a Bolex in a dark bag rather than discussing innovative ways to shoot my films?

I'm sorry to hear that you've had your own problems with expressing your opinions to the administration. Perhaps if they were open-minded to hearing what you and so many other people have to say, they'd realize that students are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars (my bill is around $140,000) to graduate from a program that is misleading, outdated, and does not prepare graduates for the workforce.

For a variation on the Bolex changing-bag point, see the interview titled "A Modest Proposal: Let's Replace Film Production Programs with Majors in Auto Mechanics" on another page of the site. Click here to go there. -- R.C.

A note from Ray Carney: This is the press release for the New York Film Festival series Su Friedrich commented on in her open letter posted on Mailbag page 106, and that Barbara Hammer relayed her personal experiences with on page 107. I recommend reading both statements. But neither letter disputes the fact that there are some very important films being shown at this event. I recommend the screenings, and especially the Bruce Conner retrospective events, to those who live in New York. I myself often show Conner's work in my courses. (See the Syllabus pages of the site, via the top menu on this page, for lists of the specific Conner titles I program and screen.) -- R.C.

46th New York Film Festival, Sept. 26 - Oct. 12

NEW YORK, Sept. 11, 2008--Views from the Avant-Garde returns to the Film Society of Lincoln Center's New York Film Festival for the 12th year, offering a look at the latest work by established luminaries and exciting new avant-garde talents at the Walter Reade Theater, Oct. 3-5. James Benning, Andrew Noren, Nathaniel Dorsky, Craig Baldwin, Guy Debord and the late avant-garde pioneer Bruce Conner are each highlighted by individual exposés within the showcase's nine unique film programs. Views from the Avant-Garde is curated by Mark McElhatten and Film Comment editor Gavin Smith.

The showcase also features new films and videos by several prominent artists, including Pat O'Neill, Ben Rivers, Michael Robinson, Julie Murray, Leslie Thornton, Ken Jacobs, Ernie Gehr and Lewis Klahr.

Mary Helena Clark, Taylor Dunne, Chris Kennedy, Michael Maryniuk, Sylvia Schedelbauer, Joel Schlemowitz and Jessie Stead are among those film and videomakers who are making their Views from the Avant-Garde debut.

Filmmaker Olivier Assayas, writer Greil Marcus and filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin will launch the weekend program by joining the Film Society for a panel discussion following a 30th-anniversary screening of Situationist International originator and founder Guy Debord's landmark opus, "In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni," Friday, Oct. 3, at 6:30 p.m. The film re-uses images from magazines, comics and popular films-a technique defined by Debord as détournement-to critique image culture and media-dominated society. It is "an act of condemnation, but it is also an affirmation," says Kent Jones, associate director of programming at the Film Society, "of our ability to build on the best rather than the worst in mankind, to create a true Utopia rather than a paltry counterfeit. Without exaggeration, this is one of the most provocative experiences you'll ever have at the movies."

Throughout the weekend, film and video artists Andrew Noren, Nathaniel Dorsky and Craig Baldwin are each given the Walter Reade's spotlight with individual programs, while Views from the Avant-Garde honors legendary film and video trailblazer Bruce Conner-who died this year at the age of 74-with a program of some of his most inventive and celebrated works, including "A Movie," "Breakaway," Report," "Take the 5:10 to Dreamland," and his last completed film, "Easter Morning," on Saturday, Oct. 4, at 8:45 p.m. The entire Views from the Avant-Garde showcase culminates with a screening of James Benning's 2007 film RR, on Sunday, Oct. 5, at 9:00 p.m.

Among the other celebrated names highlighted throughout the series is Ben Rivers with three new films: "Dove Coup," "Origin of the Species," and "Ah Liberty!" Pat O'Neill unleashes his provocative optical wizardry in "Horizontal Boundaries." Michael Robinson, Julie Murray, Leslie Thornton and Ken Jacobs all return with their newest works ("Hold Me Now," "ELEMENTs," "Novel City," and "The Scenic Route" respectively). Ernie Gehr will present "Whispers" and "New York Lantern" in two separate programs, while collagist Lewis Klahr offers "False Aging" and the video-based "The Diptherians Episode Two: The Rhythm That Forgets Itself."

Special thanks to Jean Conner for making Bruce Conner's personal prints available. Additional thanks for the Bruce Conner tribute go to Michelle Silva and Henry Rosenthal.

The 46th New York Film Festival is sponsored by Chopard, The New York Times and Sardinia Region Tourism. Additional support from illy caffè; HBO Films; 42 Below Vodka, Maxell; and Wines from Spain. Participating sponsors include Stella Artois, Technicolor, agnes b., the Film Foundation and American Express Preservation Screening Program, and Kodak. Special thanks to Cineric; Dolby; CTS; Josephina; O'Neals; The Park Lane Hotel. Trailer courtesy of Bunker New York and Nuncle. The 46th New York Film Festival is made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.

Presented by the Film Society, the annual New York Film Festival showcases new works by both emerging talents and internationally recognized artists, including numerous New York, U.S., and world premieres. The majority of the festival screenings will be held at the Ziegfeld Theatre, 141 West 54th St. (Please note: the Ziegfeld Theatre is not wheelchair accessible. For further information please call 212-875-5610). Opening and Closing Night screenings will be held at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, on the corner of Columbus Avenue and 65th St. Additional screenings and events will take place at the Film Society's Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th St. close to Amsterdam Ave. More information is available at

The Film Society of Lincoln Center was founded in 1969 to celebrate American and international cinema, to recognize and support new directors, and to enhance the awareness, accessibility and understanding of film. Advancing this mandate today, the Film Society hosts two distinguished festivals. The New York Film Festival annually premieres films from around the world and has introduced the likes of François Truffaut, R.W. Fassbinder, Jean-Luc Godard, Pedro Almodóvar, Martin Scorsese, and Wong Kar-Wai to the United States. New Directors/New Films, co-presented by the Museum of Modern Art, focuses on emerging film talents. Since 1972, when the Film Society honored Charles Chaplin, the annual Gala Tribute celebrates an actor or filmmaker who has helped distinguish cinema as an art form. Additionally, the Film Society presents a year-round calendar of programming at its Walter Reade Theater and offers insightful film writing to a worldwide audience through Film Comment magazine.

46th New York Film Festival, Sept. 26 - Oct. 12
Views from the Avant-Garde

A reflection and a question: The other day I was talking with one of my dearest friends at Boston University, a woman named Gloria Thompson. She told me that she had recently attended the El Greco exhibit (now closed) at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and had a strange and memorable experience. I want to share it with readers and and ask for responses and thoughts.

Here is a paraphrase of what she told me: She said she walked into a gallery full of enormous El Greco Madonna and baby Jesus paintings and watched old women (often escorted by young men, presumably their grandsons) -- eighty-year-old women from the old country, women dressed in black, wearing old-world babushkas -- come into the gallery and almost fall on their knees in front of the paintings in awe of their power and their depiction of the Blessed Virgin Mary's motherhood. She said she could hear them muttering to themselves or even quite audibly, with sighs and ejaculations of adoration, praying and adoring the images in the paintings, obviously deeply moved and even physically affected by El Greco's gigantic oil-painted depictions of the Virgin and Christ child. She told me the story at first almost as a comedy, a farce, a Saturday Night Live sketch, about how weird, how unexpected, how embarrassing it was to see this happening in a museum, at an art exhibit, in front of a painting. Not connoisseurship, but abasement. Not careful, cautious, intellectual art criticism and commentary, but a sense of emotional devastation, a sense of being smitten or wounded by the power and wonder of the work. You didn't do that in a museum. You saved that for church or for your private life. But I told her that, in my mind, it was such an important and revealing anecdote about the function of art. I thanked her for telling it to me. I said how many thoughts it got going in my mind. And then we spent the next ten minutes talking about it. And it haunts my mind even now.

My question to site readers is: What do you make of this story? What is this sense of art? What was going on? Art can have many different functions, but have we (all of us except for the old women in black) lost this sense of being directly, passionately wounded by, personally moved by, directly affected by art? What would it be for a movie to make us fall on our knees? What would it be for a contemporary painting to do this to us in a gallery? Is it we who have changed or the movies and paintings that have changed? Is it El Greco or the old women? What was going on in that gallery that Gloria witnessed? Is it good or bad? Is it something we want to recapture or something that is (for those of us who are not old women from the old world dressed in black) forever lost to our art and our culture? Can a movie or a painting do this to us?

I believe Gloria's anecdote raises really important questions about the function of art in the contemporay Western world, and in America in particular. About how we approach it and how we understand it. Are the critics and professors leading us astray? Has a film ever done this to you? Would you dare to show that reaction in public? In a classroom? In a museum? I want to hear your thoughts on this. Please share them with me and wtih readers of the site. I will publish the most interesting ones. Thanks. -- R.C.

A postscript and afterthought a few days after the above posting: Several site readers have responded to the preceding invitation, however I have noted that most of the responses could benefit from taking a deeper and more comprehensive view of the issues I am trying to capture, the questions I am attempting to pose, with the El Greco anecdote. So I wanted to suggest that others do a bit of homework on the issues at stake in the preceding posting by reading some other items on the site before submitting a response.

A little context may help to clarify your understanding of how the contemporary approach and response to art is radically different from that of previous generations. The El Greco anecdote represents a more general parable about what "postmodernism," "the culture of irony," and "the hermeneutics of suspicion" have done to appreciation of art -- and to our hearts and minds.  (College courses, even courses on criticism and theory -- I should say ESPECIALLY courses on criticism and theory -- do not discuss this issue since most of the teachers of those courses are themselves captive to the contemporary view of art and the functions of criticism. They too would regard the old women in babushkas as figures in a Saturday Night Live sketch.)

In short, there are larger emotional, intellectual, and moral issues at stake that readers need to consider. They connect with larger cultural phenomena: e.g. how Right-wing politicians in America have hijacked moral terminology and left liberals afraid to make "moral judgments;" how art is treated in courses as a form of rhetoric rather than as a form of truth (tell your teacher that a work is "true" or "false," "right" or "wrong" about experience and see what happens); how multiculturalist approaches to art have induced a form of cultural and epistemological relativism that has made critics afraid to enter into more a personal, emotional, or committed relationship to a work of art; etc., etc.

As a minimal background to understanding the El Greco anecdote, I'd recommend reading and thinking about two essays posted elsewhere on the site: "Skepticism and Faith," and "The Culture of Irony."  For an even broader view, I'd recommend reading the entire "Academic Animadversions" section of the site. Or one of my books! -- Ray Carney

A note from legendary American independent filmmaker Rob Nilsson follows that responds to recent postings on the last ten pages of the Mailbag (pages 101 and later), and has a report about his current work. He also includes a link to a Film Comment article about his work. Rob is one of the greatest living American filmmakers and his words are as stirring and inspiring as his films. Thanks, Rob! -- R.C.

Hello Ray,

The cudgel whacks first on the backs of the peace-disturbers. And you are certainly guilty. I know you know and knew that before you ever got going. Gnouts on the back and boils and chilblains, (whatever they are), and probably newts and other slime are to be our rewards.

I do deeply appreciate your outbursts in support of our mission out here. (A note from Ray Carney: See Mailbag page 105.) Sort of amazing to have someone who thinks so truly, writes with such distinct, sweet and simple melodies, who sings with a purity which is always a reminder never to lie... supportive of the films. I could modestly deny, but I choose instead to monstrously affirm! That's the lesson. Affirmation of our richest takes on "the way things seem to be."

THE SACRED FOUNT. Amazing. I thought I was the only living lover of that book. I read it years ago and still remember the impact. As I recall it shows that people must guard their precious personal sources, must employ them with gusto and energy, lest they be sucked away by others bolder, more gifted, or perhaps less ethical. Or maybe it's about our unavoidable cannibalism. But that's a ghost of a long ago experience. I will have to read it again now that I now you're writing about it.

I took an hour off from finishing the screenplay for WOMAN #1, the de Kooning movie, down here south of Ensenada at a crumbling old Hollywood spa called the Estero Beach Hotel, to read your latest web site stuff and to write this letter. As always, life giving.

Estero is set on an isthmus, I would guess, but I only know that the tide rushes in right in front of my window and that a sandy spit of land lurches backwards toward low lying mountains. Walruses, maybe they're big seals, and flocks of pelicans bumble around on the sand across the raging stream. It reminds me of the much smaller stream that separates Marcello and the young girl on the beach at the end of (is it 8 1/2 or DOLCE VITA). Terrible how films mutate together. As I think of it both films end on the beach and DOLCE ends with the enormous round fish being pulled up on land by the fisherman, signal that the monstrocities of the sea are also a part of our natures. Do I have it right?

So, I owe you a box set of the films you so graciously introduced at the Harvard Film Archives. I am sending along the Film Comment article which, along with yours, I affirm with all my might and mane. (What does mane have to do with it, by the way?) Full of this and other questions, it is always good to hear from you, to hear about your epic battles with "the way things are." Vive your quest to substitute "are" with "should be." But still the age old battle singles out the gifted and the unique for its delicious punishments.

Stay strong. Take aim.


Subject: Tackling Balzac

Professor Carney,

What would you recommend to someone who's never read a page of La Comédie humaine? Is it something to work through chronologically? Or is there a better way to approach it? I'm a bit overwhelmed by the prospect, but it's something I want to attempt. If you have any suggestions I'd appreciate them. Also what other French or francophone writers do you like?

PS If you still need someone to transcribe those passages from Dictionary of Musical Quotations let me know. I should have my mitts on a copy (via interlibrary loan) early next week.


RC replies: No need to read Balzac "chronologically" (whichever way you mean that: the order the books were written or the order they were placed in the collected edition). Each novel can be understood by itself. My choices are nothing unexpected, just rounding up the usual suspects: Les Illusions Perdues, Jeunes Mariees, Beatrix, Modeste Mignon, La Muse du Department, La Recherche de l'Absolu, Pere Goriot, Eugenie Grandet, and a few others. Maybe beginning with those last three, if you've never read Balzac before, since they are much simpler and more straightforward. Bear in mind that Balzac is generally a very "vulgar" writer -- in the same sense that Cassavetes is a vulgar filmmaker. Not elegant stylistically, not beautiful or "artful" in his observations -- concerned with tawdry, marginal existences, sordid financial realities, and the depiction of trashy, immoral, deeply compromised characters and situations. And Balzac's writing is full of his own personal vulgarity of  taste (just as Cassavetes' filmmaking is), which comes through in his work. That's not a fault; it is his genius. But it means you can't look for the kind of thing Henry James gives a reader -- stylistic and emotional elegance and refinement. Balzac is a different kind of writer than that.

And forgive me for saying it, but I hope you are not merely following my example and recommendations elsewhere on the site when you pick Balzac. If you don't read French or aren't an avid, knowledgeable Francophile, and you are an American reader -- I don't know where your email originated -- it would be much better to start by mastering major works of English-language fiction: William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Herman Melville, Henry James, etc. -- to avoid having to read translated texts. Literature is words and translations always put you at one remove from the language. Like looking at a glossy 35mm movie as a tiny, poor resolution YouTube computer image. If you are confined to English, you really want to see what can be done in that language before moving on to another. Sorry, that may not apply to you; you may be very sophisticated linguistically; but I have to say that in your own interest in case it applies.

Thanks for the offer to type for me. I may just take you up on it! Can always use help. Much appreciated!


P.S. Proust is the right answer to your question about other French writers to read. He's the ne plus ultra, the bee's knees, the cat's pajamas, the Eiffel Tower, the Top.

A number of site readers have written to me asking questions about the boxed statement about the election that I posted in the middle of Mailbag page 107, expressing disagreement with or puzzlement at what it says, or telling me that my call for political engagement is inconsistent with other statements I have made on the site, particularly those emphasizing the importance of spiritual awareness and actualization as a prelude to and foundation for all action. Since I have replied personally and individually to each of these inquiries, my response has taken many different forms, but I wanted, here and now, to post a general reply on the site, not only to avoid having to respond to any more questions, but to clarify the logic of the page 107 posting, since there seem to be questions about it.

The system employs many tactics to neutralize us. Creating feelings of powerlessness, frustration, and cynicism are ways of paralyzing us, keeping us in our places, making sure that we don't take action, or that we cut our expectations and actions down to fit inside the corrupt, compromised, existing systems of the world. Don't let the system do this to you. Fight cynicism. Fight defeatism. Don't allow yourself to become discouraged. Fight your feeling that the battle is futile and cannot be won. (Your beliefs and emotions are in your control; they are always in your control; don't let the system dictate them to you.)

Photo of Ray Carney by Randy Walker, 2007

Work for change -- and not as a mere slogan. Wherever you are and whatever you do, work to improve how it is done, work to make the world and your place in it better in every way you can. Work to make your family, your circle of friends, your job, your community, and the whole world a more loving place. Don't give in to negativity. Don't participate in hatred or unkindness in any form -- even verbally, even if "everyone is doing it," even it means correcting your friends or your boss. If your job is not doing good in some way, get a new job or transform the old job into something better. Talk to your boss or try to change how your work is done. If your friends are not doing good, get new friends -- or talk the old ones into changing their attitudes and behaviors. There are many forces and agents of entropy, greed, and selfishness abroad in the world; in fact they are everywhere; but that only makes it more important that you don't ever, in any way, give in to them. If you give up, you have given in.

Work for change. And (to add a personal note): Get off the internet! Get off this web site! Stop reading these pages this minute. Shut your computer off, yank out your iPod earbuds, and go out and devote yourself for a few hours every week to doing something for someone who is less gifted or lucky or privileged than you are. It's not about you and your self-interest (that's thinking like a Republican); it's about helping others, doing something for those whom Jesus called "the least of them." Do something for the world. -- R.C.

For a further meditation on these issues, and the cultural systems that impinge on and affect them, beyond reading the boxed posting on Mailbag page 107, I'd also recommend reading the statement I make at the top of Mailbag page 24. -- R.C.


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