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114 < Page 115 < 116

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 Ray Carney: As I noted in the posting that previously stood in this place on this page, a site regular generously devoted hours to creating a written transcript of the Mike Leigh interview that is linked to on the preceding page (see toward the bottom of Mailbag page 114). I posted the transcript, but have had to remove at the insistence of the interviewer. I am sorry to say that in this case (as in so many others) it appears that "money talks." The interviewer asked for money to use it. I have removed the transcript and apologize for having posted it. I also apologize to the site reader who created it for not being able to post it. -- R.C.

A note from Ray Carney: The following note is a thoughtful response to the El Greco experience described on Mailbag pages 111, 113, and 114. I think the writer makes a critically important point about the time and effort it takes for a genuine work of art to affect us. Its effects are far from obvious or instantaneous. I vividly remember how I too walked out of certain films (e.g. Faces and some of Tarkovsky's early work) in frustration or confusion, and only days or weeks later realized what was really going on between me and them. Greatness can be off-putting. In fact, it generally is. Greatness can be alienating. Greatness does not smile and snuggle up and hug us. Great art makes demands on us and takes getting used to. It is not necessarily quick or easy or obvious. Quick understanding is more often than not a sign of shallowness. Automatic responses (the responses we would have to a Hollywood movie) are almost always the wrong responses to a truly demanding, great work.

Many pages on the site deal with this phenomenon -- with how hard it can be for viewers to know how to respond to great works of art. And with how inappropriately they respond. They often laugh at them, they often feel that they are boring. They often hate them. The greater and more original the work, the more likely this is to happen. Every teacher knows this, unless all they show is junk and Hollywood movies. Every teacher experiences it who tries to show demanding works. (Click on the following links to read my accounts of specific screening fiascos I have lived through when I've shown students or film festival audiences works that they weren't ready to understand. Or when I myself have not been ready to understand a work. Click here to read about how I stormed out of Cassavetes' Faces, totally hating the movie and refusing to sit through it, the first time I saw it. Click here to read about a disastrous screening of Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence I held in a Freshman course with a bunch of students not ready for the emotional experience the film provided, and an account of another similarly disastrous screening I had, that time with Robert Bresson's Lancelot of the Lake at a film festival on the West Coast where the audience laughed all the way through Bresson's great tragedy.)

The writer's second paragraph changes the subject and makes me sad. What would a world be like where everyone could tell the truth without fear of reprisal? It sure would be different from the world we (he and I) live in! I wish I didn't have to withhold the writer's identity. It is so sad to me that he has already learned this lesson at his young age. It took me twenty more years to learn how dangerous telling the truth is. May that someday change....... -- R.C.

Dear Prof. Carney,

I think you're right to say that the incident involving the women at the El Greco exhibit shows the power art has to transform, however, in my (admittedly limited) experience, most of the art that has moved me hasn't affected me so immediately. I've never broken down and cried after looking at a painting, but I've looked at a piece of art and thought about it for a long, long time, only becoming conscious of an inner transformation until weeks or months have passed. I think that the the cathartic reaction of these women is valid, but I would argue that it's atypical - most of the pieces of art that I value have indeed struck me when I first see them, but they stay under my skin for much longer, kind of like a parasite (...), before I feel like I know them. It took me more than one listen to A Love Supreme, more than one visit to a Richard Serra exhibit, more than one reading of Beckett before I could comfortably say that I loved it or that it changed me. I suspect most serious art lovers are the same way; you yourself wrote on your website that you walked out of Faces when you first saw it. This is why I tend to be skeptical when friends tell me they saw a concert the night before and it changed their life - I don't think art is easy like that. The life changing experiences I've had I wasn't even aware of at first, and yet I would say that their long-term impact equaled that of the El Greco paintings on the old women.

Anyways, just wanted to share these thoughts with you and also ask you about your situation at BU - your name is not listed on studentlink, so I hope that all is well. Judging by your struggles with the COM department and also by gossip (about my department at Boston University). I get the feeling that this university is going through some major political issues. I certainly hope you're around before I graduate.


Name withheld

P.S. If you choose to post this on your website, please remove my name + the (reference to gossip about my department).

Another book recommendation from Ray Carney: I just stumbled on a copy of Frank Rich's The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth. Read it and weep. What a deeply perceptive, wonderful, and sad book about the culture we live in, the politicians who govern us, and the journalists who (cravenly, callowly, shoddily, exploitatively) report on it all. Go to a public library and take it out. You can read it in a night or two. Ponder the consequences of postmodernism triumphant, and realize that its moral and intellectual abdications are not confined to works of art or criticism. Frank Rich shows that Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, George Bush, and Donald Rumsfeld were living postmodern possibilities that Jean Baudrillard only theorized about. They transformed the campy, cute postmodern dream into a real world nightmare -- so that torture and waterboarding and suspensions of habeas corpus, in their world of style-surfing, become "expressions of the Geneva Convention." Anything can mean anything if you only master the form of the presentation and the right tone of voice as you pronounce it. In the light of recent political events, Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulations seems as quaint and antiquated and romantic as a Norman Rockwell painting. Rich's America is a country where the ad campaign has replaced reality, a culture where the flash and dazzle of style and spin and appearance have replaced pathetically old-fashioned concepts like truth and reality. Thank you, postmodern artists and critics. This is your work. This is the world you celebrate. Welcome to the future. Orwell and Huxley had nightmares about this world, but they were unable to delay its appearance-- the appearance of the there where there is no there there. And it's no surprise that it took a drama critic (not a political reporter) to understand the Bush White House. Being President and conducting a war is all just a performance. It's all theater. Who says it has anything to do with bodies and blood and death? How old-fashioned. Thank you, Frank Rich. What an amazingly sad and revealing book you've written about ourselves and our world. -- R.C.

Subject: bursting through concrete

Dear Professor Carney,

Hi. I'm Wes Tank, I'm a filmmaker from Milwaukee. I first came into contact with your work four years ago when I was writing the screenplay for my first feature film. It was Cassavetes on Cassavetes, and it changed everything for me. We spent a little over a year shooting the film, and shot nearly 60 hours of footage. I was revising it, going in new directions and keeping it intuitive every step of the way (this proved very difficult as I found out that change made some people very nervous and sometimes paranoid...I wonder if this was the case on Cassavetes' sets). I have been editing for over six months now, and I am just beginning to find the structure.

I recently read The Films of Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies, and it has changed everything again. Your work is incredibly inspiring. Your writings contain the same combination of true sprawling open-endedness and eloquently dire and explosive precision that Cassavetes' films contain. I have also become exposed to so many inspiring films and filmmakers that I would have never heard of without your online recommendations. Thank you for doing what you do.

I'm curious...what are you working on now? I hope the comprehensive, all-art-encompassing, creative biography is still in the works. From what I've read it sounds amazing.

Lastly, I want to mention that I have been seriously looking into Boston University for grad school after I finish up my film. I have a BFA in experimental film production from UW Milwaukee. My fiance wants to get into Tufts to get an MA in Law and Diplomacy and an MS in Nutrition (food systems and society) so it seems like a step in the right direction. I'm planning to go into Film Studies so I can teach the films of Cassavetes, Tarkovsky, Herzog, Mallick, and others. while making my own. Do you often take on graduate students as a professor at BU? If you do, I would be interested in the possibility. I feel that I could learn a lot from you.

Thanks again, and all the best to you,


PS: (Trailer for my film...its kind of old and has less and less to do with what the final product will be, but gives you somewhat of an idea. It looks better if you click 'view in high quality' right under the player. If you click on 'stumblesome' you can see some more recent short experiments i have been doing with video.)

RC replies: You might enjoy and benefit from Boston U; you might not. I just can't say. That would be true of every university. The best thing is to come to an Open House (several take place every year) and then do the same thing I would tell anyone in your situation thinking of attending any university in America: Take time and talk hard with the faculty, not in a group but one on one--hard, hard, hard. By hard I mean: refuse to indulge in "small talk" or "chit chat" or "cocktail party talk." Refuse to do that. Get them in private, off to the side, and ask hard, specific, focused questions: ask them what films they have made and how you can see their work; ask them to send you a copy of their syllabus for the first class you would take with them; ask them what films they like, and -- if they name some work you know -- quiz them about why they like it and what it does to them. Don't let them try to avoid answering. Don't let them give you vague responses. If they do, you can be sure they are frauds. If they do, you can be sure they will have nothing to say in class of interest. If they don't want to have this conversation with you, if they say they are too busy, that's the way they will be as teachers. Also keep in mind the obvious: I am not the Department. Many of them hate and despise me and my work, many of them hate this web site, many of them love Hollywood movies, many of them dislike filmmakers like Cassavetes or know little or nothing about independent film. That's just the reality -- See page 101, the boxed material at the bottom, for more on that subject. Read the last five or six paragraphs in particular. Finally, for more background about the program go to the menu at the top of this page, where it says "Boston U." and read the material on that page too. Good luck! May our paths cross (I don't come to all Open Houses, but I am at a couple of them each year.) If you come here, I do have many grad. students in my courses. But keep "blasting" (that was Cassavetes' word to me--harder, tougher than "bursting!") through that concrete!!! Blast away! It's the only way to go!!! Love, Ray

P.S. All of the above quizzing can be done by email or on the telephone. And be sure you look at their films or read their essays. That will reveal their minds, just as my writing (here and in my books) reveals mine. Every potential student should do this before spending a hundred thousand dollars or more. You'd kick the tires on a car. Quiz, cross-examine your future faculty. Beware of salesmen and salespitches!

P.P.S. An afterthought: I just re-read your note to me and now am thinking that you are almost certainly wildly over-qualified for the program. Though it varies from year to year of course, most of your classmates will not have made films or even know very much about filmmaking. Don't faint but, based on what you tell me, you're actually better qualified -- with more film experience at least -- than many of the faculty you'd be taking courses with! You actually have experience with writing and directing a feature film. They don't. I could be forgetting someone of course, but I don't think a single one of them has made and released a single feature film -- ever -- at least nothing I've ever heard about or seen screened in my years here. In other words, you've wrestled with narrative issues and organizational problems and editing concerns they themselves haven't..... You could teach them a thing or two.

The larger and more important question to grapple with is why you feel you need to be a student again? What's the pull, what's the fear, what's the need? Most of the greatest indie filmmakers in America (Robert Kramer, Mark Rappaport, John Cassavetes, Tom Noonan, Elaine May, etc. etc.) never went to film school at all. So I'm asking an emotional as much as a technical question: Why do you need this certification? Why do you want to be a student sitting comfortably in a classroom rather than a creator struggling out in the world? The first is easier, of course; but is that the right reason to do it? And wouldn't the hundred thousand dollars (or more) that you will have to spend on your film school tuition be better spent making a movie? You can learn the technical stuff in six weeks by apprenticing yourself to Rob Nilsson or Tom Noonan or Caveh Zahedi. Why this need for school? (Click on this link to open a window to some more thoughts about the function of film school, and its being unnecessary for many students.)

Edgar Jorge asked me to post a correction/clarification to his note on the preceding Mailbag page (114). --R.C.

Prof. Carney

Thanks for posting my letter on the mailbag (page 114), I really appreciate it. I'm glad to see the response it got from BR, and your thoughts on "representational art" and "functional art." Stuff that I sometimes feel, but becomes hard for me to articulate (particularly in classrooms when having a discussion on Moulin Rouge).

I just wanted to clarify, in case there was any confusion, that the quote in my previous e-mail is not from Bresson's book. It was simply something I wrote when inspired by his book (and, obviously, his movies). I don't want to accidentally misquote him, though I like to think that he would agree!

May I add, BR asks what do those transformations of life and art lead us to, and the closest answer I have is: a more open and aware us. But that awareness is not uniform, it manifests differently in each one of us.

That's all I got!

Thanks for the inspiration


A request for assistance: I am preparing an independent film festival for a major screening venue. I solicit reader suggestions of low-budget and alternative films from the last year to include. The films may be released or unreleased. If you have information about how to contact the director or obtain a viewing copy, please also provide that information. If you are the director or distributor, please send a DVD of your film directly to me. My email address is and my mailing address is given on many pages of the site (e.g. look at the bottom of the "Bookstore" page, which is available via the top menu on this page). Thanks for any and all suggestions and ideas. -- R.C.

Hey, how's it going? (omitted material) College is going a lot better now that I'm out of the introductory classes. I've been involved in very engaging classroom discussions regarding John Dewey, William Faulkner, and Marshall McLuhan, all within the last week no less. I'm taking a class in Museum Curation and based on what I'd mentioned in class, the professor recommended a book to me called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman. Apparently it's a fairly well known book, so maybe you've already read it, but if you haven't you owe it to yourself; Goffman tries to explain human interaction using theatre terminology, and comes up with some very interesting insights to the performance-like aspects of behavior.

It's good to see the mailbag is back, and hopefully everything is well. Have a good night!

-Daniel Levine

RC replies:


Erving Goffman is great. I cited his work when I wrote about Shadows in one of my books (all that self-dramatizing that Lelia and Tony and Ben indulge in). His work would also clearly apply to Faces and Husbands and to most of Tom Noonan's films -- and all of Mark Rappaport's. I generally try to keep from repeating things that are in my books on the web site (I like to leave a little mystery!), but I'm glad to second your recommendation in this case,

And I'll second your other point too: How I wish film students read, read, read more -- read more sociology, more philosophy, and -- above all -- more literature (poetry, drama, short stories, novels). But our universities are compartmentalized, alas.... and each department fights with the others for majors and course enrollments. How stupid and wasteful. And I'm not exaggerating when I say "fights." Last year when my colleagues in the film and tv program heard that I had recommended to discontented film students that they consider changing their majors to literature or history or something else, they almost had a seizure. Or tried to induce one in me! They got so mad their eyes bugged out and spit came out of their mouths as they yelled at me at the outrageousness, the complete unacceptability, the ridiculousness, of what I had done. (Yes, welcome to my world. Welcome to the College of Communication Department of Film and Television at Boston University.) As one member of my department ever so eloquently put it: "You are sending students to other departments!!!!???? You are taking food from my baby's mouth!" (You have to scream this at high volume in a small room in front of 15 other faculty members, as he did, to get the full emotional effect. The full tilt hysteria and irrationality. Haha.) And then a bunch of the rest of them joined in and continued the yelling at me, agreeing with what he had said. Not one of them defended the value of studying and majoring in anything other than film. All that mattered to them was keeping up the department enrollment. Keeping students in their courses. But he and the rest of them are wrong, wrong, wrong. Let this guy's baby manage on his own without using film students' tuition dollars to pay for his pabulum. This guy forgot that the whole point of being a teacher is not for the students to support his needs (or his baby's!), but for him to support theirs. Translation: Keep taking those other, non-film courses, if that's what paddles your boat -- and don't let anyone get on your case about it!!!! They will make you a deeper person and better thinker, and even if you stay in film, they will make you a deeper, greater artist. That's what it's all about--even if the faculty members in my department will never understand it. -- R.C.

P.S. Confidentially: about the other question you asked me (that I omitted from your letter above): You have the right information.

This came in from regular site contributor Jeremy Cherson. He is so right about how reviewers (and viewers) cling to formulas -- formulas for understanding, formulas for interpreting, formulas for filmmaking. -- R.C.

Subject: Indiewood Goliath

Dear Ray,

This morning, I sent an email to a friend who had written me to ask me what I thought of the New York Times review of "The Pleasure of Being Robbed." I think the message may be valuable to you and your readers. I am currently engaged in an active reading of your The Films of Mike Leigh, and much of what you've written about both systematized and ideological interpretations of experience factored into what I was writing. Additionally, the comments below feature some reflection on the current oppressive state of film distribution, and the inadequacy of most film reviewing today. If you have the time, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Kind regards,

Jeremy Cherson

Competing alongside the New York Times and the Village Voice for 'most pandering news source', Indiewire is a standalone model of the ways corporate motivations warp ideals. After establishing itself as an news source for underground talks in the film world, the magazine has integrated itself right alongside Variety and the Hollywood Reporter not as a journal of cinema but as rag that sucks-the-asshole of the booming, ever-expanding Indiewood world. Now, all cozy and corporate-sponsored, Indiewire is able to be the monotonous, dry-heaving lump of business drivel that is the inevitable destination of all film criticism in this country. Indiewire, that alternative magazine, my friend, is one of the most corporate pieces of horseshit reporting I've been exposed to, even with the New York Times and the Village Voice giving increasingly strong pleas to suck the Indiewood teat everlasting.

Though I never read the bit about "The Pleasure of Being Robbed," I could only imagine what it might have said: lazy, uneven, and amateurish. Was the reviewer condescending enough to call it navel-gazing and mention mumblecore? The laziness of the reviewer creates these reviews, not the incompetence of the filmmaker. Had the Times sought to hire critics who had advanced degrees, and something greater than a basic, seminal understanding of art, then they would write, attempt to understand, and potentially support new forms of expression, like Safdie's. Unfortunately, that's not the ship we're on today. Instead, critics call for a continuance of the old, for models to be made the same way in the same style; when a film fails to conform, the critic usually tears it to shreds. Audacious claims made against films for being low-budget, for using non-professional actors, for poor-lighting (all of the most formalistic approaches to understanding film) reveal both the inadequacy of today's film reviewing, and the epidemic low-level of engagement with art that has become tantamount to our sickened culture. Failing to see the forest for the trees, film critics stick to surface explanations, and wade only through the shallow end of spiritual engagement with a film. Besides baffling critics, new forms of expression fail to see the light of day because they baffle distributors. The impermeable nature of film distribution creates a pipeline where the smooth shit slides through to audiences, while only you and your friends see the shit so explosive it clogs your drain. In the US, we have a slick, sophisticated style of filmmaking à la PT Anderson, but we don't have sophisticated filmmakers. We don't have artists with anything important to say. Film criticism is in need of a complete overhaul, something that begins to favor art over entertainment. We must replace indulgent, easy, critical engagement, with dead serious, you-bet-your-life proclamations. Film reviewing needs to borrow from philosophy, and rather than simply outlining the plot points and camera work, film reviewers need to draw conclusions about the implications of the work, and the vision of the artist. Film reviewers need to champion lesser-seen works, review retrospectives taking place in far away cities, review retrospectives taking place in our own city!

"Well, hello capitalism! I didn't see you standing there."

"Yes, I was standing here the whole time."

"Oh, you were! I hear you're working for the New York Times now."

"Yes, we're working very closely together. They're struggling, and in times like these, they need to do whatever they can to stay afloat."

Unable to figure out how to digest and interpret something new, the reviewer falls back on old tricks. Rather than choosing to engage in the film, and to work to understand the message as its filmmaker is sending it, the reviewers today rely only upon preconceived messages. They were never watching "The Pleasure of Being Robbed," they were simply remembering old films from the past. This process of remembrance reveals rigidity, which is not only deleterious to the film, it's also destructive to the person engaging in said activities. Unable to respond and be aware of the world, we force ourselves into mental imprisonment, with walls stronger than any jail cell, and judgments more damning than anything uttered by our thought or friends. This mental enslavement is what ruins most people in this world.

In case you weren't aware, the IFP announced the Gotham Awards Nominations today, and this year's pickings are slimmer then ever. Though claiming to be an award show for the independent film community (think about that: art needs rewards to be significant), at least 95% of the nominated films come from major distributors, featuring predominately heavy-hitters like "Synecdoche," "The Wrestler," and "The Visitor." Barry Jenkins got a nomination that is probably more because of what he represents as a black indie filmmaker -- an ideologue reporter/critic's dream -- and less because he made a mediocre film that just barely touches the surface of the energies and emotions that underpin the flaring up of romance during a one-night stand. I can imagine the reviewers now as they struggle to find ways to incorporate a systematic interpretation of "Medicine For Melancholy." They will search endlessly to find parts of the film to deem indicative of the "African-American experience." Oooooh! The pervasive and sinister spreading of mass-market, gentrified movies favors films with easily identifiable meanings and obstructs the distribution of sophisticated, complex art that features deeper, more elusive meanings. The system was bought and it won't be sold for a long time. For now, these symbolically powerful films will stand-in and gain fancy over more interesting works. This exclusionary system has been reinforced by decades of regeneration and fraternal order.

A note from RC: I received the following note from someone named Shannon Smith. I have no idea who she is, or who Jandek is (the artist she refers to), but I wanted to include the links she provided for the benefit of site readers. I've only spent a little time with them, but they seem very interesting and original. But -- truth to tell -- I have to admit that when it comes to contemporary music and other matters, I am sooooo out of it (as I say on at the top of Mailbag page 105: I am totally, absolutely, unregenerately, unimproveably so uncool, so stupid, so clueless, so "lost in space"...) So this is also a request to site readers. Can anyone provide me with more information about this artist? -- Ray Carney

Subject: Jandek

Dear Mr. Carney,

You influenced my life for many years so I thought I'd send you some links about an artist you might find interesting.

Thanks for everything,



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