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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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This just came in from a very thoughtful artist who finds himself struggling to teach the mysteries, the wonders, the excitements. It is always a struggle. Everything valuable is. There is nothing more difficult and more exciting than grappling with art. Real art. -- R.C.

Dear Ray,

Apologies to add to the onslaught of unanswered email in your inbox but two things that might interest you:

1. Have you had a chance to see an American independent film by the name of JE NE SAIS QUOI yet? It's directed by John Koch, who runs what sounds like a very decent dvd place, Cinema Revolution, in Minneapolis, and stars Dave Andrae, an actor and also a talented filmmaker himself. It's got a darkness and a formal precision that sets apart from most of the Mumblecore set, while still housing some very strong performances. I highly recommend taking a look if it comes your way.

2. I've started teaching on a film degree course; it has a large academic emphasis so it doesn't suffer from the overwhelming focus on the technical that you decry in US film schools----but it does suffer from an incredibly passive student body. Mostly straight out of school with no particular passions and at the same time no particular objections to anything, they tend to sit in class the way they probably sit in front of the TV, seemingly oblivious to the fact that learning isn't something that they're just going to be GIVEN. I know from your past comments that you've encountered the same phenomenon; how do you deal with them? How do you get them to care about anything? How do you get them to re-examine their own assumptions and prejudices about film? Do you ever tell them straight out that they're wrong, that this is the case rather than that, or are you always gentle about it, letting them figure it out by themselves (if they ever do)?

Hope you're well,

name withheld

PS: If you post this letter and include my comments on the students, please leave my name out!

RC replies: The path of gentleness is generally preferable, as it is in most of life. But sometimes dynamite can come in handy too. As a Zen teacher of mine once said, "sometimes the bramble bush, sometimes the ladder." He meant what to throw in when a student was in a hole. Sometimes thorns, sometimes a helping hand. Teaching is drama. Life is drama. And drama can use anything. But it has to be the right thing. Re: "if they ever do"--some students never will. I mean they just aren't hungry enough, or they are too afraid to risk letting go of old positions, or too busy really doing something else and just trying to hide out for a while and pass time. That's true of all of us in some situations, at some moments in our lives. It's just the nature of life. I have a lot of stuff on the site about teaching. Look up "Appolinaire" with the search engine for a starter and see where that takes you. Ah, I saved you the work. One brief discussion of teaching is towards the bottom of this page. But scratch around and there's lots more where that came from. The important -- really important -- thing is not to turn cynical and start teaching only what they like and understand. You know: screening Psycho and Citizen Kane and 2001. Or other Hollywood movies. If you show the warhorses, the standard works, the top 40 hits, your course evaluations will go through the roof, your students will be so happy and delighted, and your discussions will be a breeze; your students can sit back and relax, and your classes will be put on auto-pilot and will run themselves. Everything will be so much easier; but you will have sold your soul and turned your course into a series of screenings equivalent to what's on Turner Classic Movies TV or what is playing at the local Metroplex. So whatever you do, and however you do it, keep "blasting through the concrete"-- either with dynamite or by wearing the stone down with a sweet, gentle flow of water. Whatever works, as long as you don't compromise on the fundamental challenge and excitement of grappling with real genius. "Some bows, some spits." (Ask me sometime to tell you about that saying. It's a story a Zen master named Walter Nowick, the second greatest teacher I've ever had, told me years and years ago.) --Ray

And this came in from Lucas Sabean, a former student of mine at BU, recommending the new Mike Leigh movie. Lucas's comments about how hard it can be to appreciate interesting works are very perceptive. He's a deep reader. -- R.C.

Subject: Happy-Go-Lucky

I finally got to see the new Leigh film last night and had one of the greatest film screenings in a long long time. Don't know if you have seen it yet, but I think it is his best film since "Life is sweet." Half way through the film, the main character Poppy started to remind me of Chaplin's Tramp, how he/she allow themselves to be vulnerable to all of life and courageously maintain a dignity and playfulness, while we get to enjoy the world through their particular form of consciousness and above all, LOVE. I was able to then not just identify deeply with Poppy's upbeat attitude to life or state of mind, but also, more scarily saw all my shortcomings in the far from perfect characters that walk in and out of her life. It made me laugh and deeply cry to myself. The two 16-year old girls sitting behind me in the movie theatre left after 10 minutes. They could have gotten so much out of the film, but because the film was doing something different (there was no plot with an agenda) it was probably too confusing for them and they had to get out. I walked out of "In the mood for love", which I now consider great, so I can understand, but it made me really sad that they didn't stay. From the first note/dialogue line in the film, Leigh clearly shows us how our imagination can triumph (or must triumph) as Poppy pulls a book off a bookstore shelf which is titled something like "The great Universe, how to get in touch with reality." She says something like, "Ooh, don't want to go there now do we" and the rest of the film follows this attitude of not living in the great cosmic question (even though these types of questions come up again and again or characters that are trapped by a theoretical approach to life--the driving instructor's conspiracy theories or the flamenco teachers notions of "spanish" identity), but rather points to the true path to JOY (rather than happiness, which is the true gold Poppy possesses) by pragmatically dealing with what life presents--no matter what it is--and moreover not running away from the situation. As the Buddhists like to say, a Lotus flower cannot grow in a clean environment, instead it thrives in muddy water and I would argue that Poppy is like a Lotus flower in that she stays with the "mud of life" and doesn't try to change what is coming at her. What makes Poppy who she is, and why she is so loved by the audience and the characters in the films is that she takes chances. She has no fear, no separation from life. The scene with the homeless man is the best example, but it actually runs throughout the whole narrative. In fact, to become like Poppy, we have to live dangerously ourselves, that to me was the ultimate message of the film. What does Helen Keller say, "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure." The film showed me so much of myself (I even got jealous of her boyfriend in the film--how crazy is that!!) and above all it showed me what is missing in my own life and for that I get down on my knees in front of Leigh and bow deeply!!! If you can watch this film with you heart open it is a magical experience and I can't wait to drag more friends to see the film. It is what the world need more of. Aliveness!!! Can't wait to hear what you make it. Writing about the film reminds me of how Poppy personifies what Emerson is getting at in this wonderful paragraph from "The conduct of Life"

"The heart has its arguments, with which the understanding is not acquainted." For the heart is at once aware of the state of health or disease, which is the controlling state, that is, of sanity or of insanity, prior, of course, to all question of the ingenuity of arguments, the amount of facts, or the elegance of rhetoric. So intimate is this alliance of mind and heart, that talent uniformly sinks with character. The bias of errors of principle carries away men into perilous courses, as soon as their will does not control their passion or talent. Hence the extraordinary blunders, and final wrong head, into which men spoiled by ambition usually fall. Hence the remedy for all blunders, the cure of blindness, the cure of crime, is love. "As much love, so much mind," said the Latin proverb. The superiority that has no superior; the redeemer and instructor of souls, as it is their primal essence, is love.

Best wishes,

Let me know what you think of the films!!

A note from a friend, whose name I have removed, about a meeting with Mike Leigh in person in Boston. I have withheld her name and deleted a few personal references to protect her identity and that of a few other people she mentions who were having supper with Leigh. I print her note mainly for the "chagrin" she expresses. I'm sure she is being entirely too hard on herself. We all feel this way when we meet someone we've longed to talk to. It's only human nature to feel that we've "blown it," and have not said the "right things." Keep it in mind the next time you feel this way yourself. Don't beat yourself up! -- R.C.

Subject: Regards from Mike Leigh

Ray, saw Happy go Lucky last night. I know you like to go to a film without benefit of reviews by the press or the peanut gallery so will hold off on giving you mine (which is what I should have done yesterday instead of interrupting Mike Leigh at dinner and telling him some of my thoughts about his protagonist without having digested the work). Mike respectfully disagreed with my take on things.... Having not made enough of a fool of myself, I proceeded to tell him about (omitted material). He asked for you by the way; said he had thought he would see you at the screening and seemed disappointed that you weren't there. I told him that you were travelling sans email and hadn't known he was in town. Mike nodded and wistfully said he could well understand the impulse........

Dear Friend,

Join us as we present Two Films by Jon Jost at the Walter Reade Theater, on Friday, October 24 at 7:00 and 9:00pm. Unexpected, perceptive, the films of Jon Jost belong to that rare group of independent works that continually challenge filmmaking styles and conventions. Discover or rediscover two of his most innovative films, Over Here, a delicate work of tonalities rather than a "plot" film, and Oui Non, a simple boy-meets-girl story which is really a tragedy. "Oui Non makes homage to many things Parisian, from Eugene Atget, to Degas and Lautrec, to Monet and Manet, to French films, to the mythos of Parisian romance, and along the way is trapped in its own real reality in which the narrative story imposed collapsed in the face of the lives of its actors and maker" - Jon Jost.

Kind regards,

Film Society of Lincoln Center

A note from Ray Carney: Since I had to cut some material from Mailbag page 115, I wanted to call attention to the fact that I recently added new material to the page (expanding several of my replies to letters, and posting a few completely new items at several places) to make up for the material that was cut. I didn't want them to be overlooked, if someone had already read and "finished" that page.

A note from Ray Carney: I wrote out some recommendations to a friend at Princeton, of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates she might want to read, and realized that site visitors might be interested in the same subject. So I am including the end of my email to her here--for what it's worth. Ah, why aren't short films this interesting, this complex, this perceptive? What is it about words? Or is it just the difference between being a genius (Oates) and being an ordinary person (like all the rest of us!). Anyway, here's the end of my email, recommending some Oates short stories, FYI:

For Oates, for starters, may I recommend either/both of two story collections:
Will You Always Love Me? (can't forget a title like that)
Faithless (or that either!)

Here are some stories I highly recommend. There are a few "clinkers" to avoid in each book, but that's the magical, frustrating, "unevenness" of all of life. We must live and dive for the pearls, and read for the "glimmers" (credit Emerson for that last). Here are some killer stories to try on and see if they fit:

In Will You Always Love Me?---
You Petted Me and I Followed You Home
Good to Know You
The Missing Person
The Goose Girl
The Handclasp
The Girl Who Was to Die
American Abroad
The Undesirable Table (corrosive, bitter, and brilliant: the greatest of the great--and very much about Princeton!--they should fire or censure her for having written it!)
Is Laughter Contagious? (ditto the above--the Princeton ladies club should ban her from their teas and book club readings)
June Birthing (as soft and sweet and tender as the two preceding stories are livid and fierce)

In Faithless---
Secret Silent
The Scarf
We Were Worried About You
The Stalker

A good Christmas present to yourself, perhaps.

Best wishes. In haste,


P.S. (Afterthought): There are other great volumes and great stories, beyond these, of course. E.g. There is one called Heat. In that one, I recommend:
House Hunting
The Hair
Sundays in Summer
Leila Lee
The Swimmers (a small masterpiece)
Capital Punishment

We have officially launched our new website! For all news and information regarding Tropfest around the world - Australia, New York, Toronto and elsewhere - please see our brand new online home!

Upcoming Tropfest dates of interest:
Tropfest Australia - February 22, 2009 (filmmaker deadline: January 8)
Trop Jr Australia (under 15 year olds) - February 22, 2009 (filmmaker deadline: January 8)
Tropfest New York - June 28, 2009 (filmmaker deadline: June 5)

To see some of the best Tropfest short films, including finalists and winners from the recent Tropfest NY 2008, please visit our YouTube Channel at:

As food for thought, three quotes: The first, a justly celebrated passage from George Eliot's Middlemarch, appeared in an email I recently received from a former classmate. It is about the waste, the pain, the uselessness of consciousness; and the value of stupidity and oblivion. The second, from Howard Aiken, appeared in the current issue of Utne Magazine, as a heading to their feature piece: "Fifty Visionaries Who are Changing the World." The third is a quote from one of my favorite books of mystical vision and insight. -- R.C.

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar that lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity." Our "stupidity" is essential for our survival; none of us could bear to comprehend the suffering of everyone else. -- George Eliot, Middlemarch

"Don't worry about other people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." -- Howard Aiken, computing pioneer

"If you would let the barriers down you would fall madly in love with everybody. God's love is not tame. Your love is tame. God's love is huge and passionate and wild. Fall wildly in love with everybody. Cherish all as the precious creations that they are." -- Anonymous

A note from Ray Carney: For what it is worth, I wanted to print excerpts from an email exchange I have been having with one of America's most important independent filmmakers. I have removed his/her name and edited several passages in his/her messages to me to remove personal references and respect his/her privacy.

I have corresponded with this particular fllmmaker for many years, and we have exchanged dozens of emails. One of the recurring subjects of our discussions has been my expression of dissatisfaction at the "merely personal" nature of most of the drama in the work of young American independent filmmakers. The major American independent films --think of The Puffy Chair, Quiet City, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and Team Picture -- are love stories, or failed love stories, and they are good at being love stories. They present their boy-girl interactions well. However, in my opinion, that is not good enough. A film has to be more than just a love story. A film has to do much more than merely tell a boy-girl story. An important film must explore larger social issues and problems. It must deal with dysfunctions in the society. It must propose new ways of thinking about the meaning of life. This is what great films always do. This is what Renoir's The Rules of the Game does, what Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice does, what Bresson's Femme Douce does. This is what the great novelists' work does too: What Tolstoy's Anna Karenina does, what Proust's Swan's Way does, what James's The Ambassadors does, what Mailer's Armies of the Night and Why Are We in Vietnam do. American independent film has to do what these other films and novels do. It has to do more. It has to be more ambitious. It has to be more intelligent. It has to do more than tell a touching, moving love story. That is not enough.

The relevant starting point in my exchange with the major filmmaker involves a somewhat backhanded compliment I paid him/her by saying that he/she never depicted extreme emotions. -- R.C.

Dear XXXX,

.... It's hard to explain so let me throw out some metaphors. As I watch these movies I feel like I am a terrorist attending a high society dinner party. The situations and characters are all so fascinatingly complex and interesting, the dramas are so gripping, but they are ultimately all so irrelevant and trivial. The films and characters don't matter and nothing they say or do seems really important. I live in a world of opera, but I never see my world in these films. I feel extreme emotions. I live in extreme situations. I grapple with good and evil, demons and angels, giants and pigmies.... But ... you and the others make movies where everything is calm and reasonable, where everyone is thoughtful and kind, and where "everyone ... has their reasons." That's not my life. I refuse to recognize it.


This was my polite (?!) way of saying much recent American independent filmmaking was lacking in emotional depth and seriousness. The films are just too bland, too tolerant, too understanding. The filmmaker, who is a very smart person, was smart enough to pick up on my point., without me spelling it out. The filmmaker's reply to the preceding point follows:

Dear Ray,

Yes indeed, I am afflicted w/ the belief that everyone has their reasons. Which removes most of the enemies from the world, bringing equal parts sense of peace and panic that there's nothing solid out there to push off against.

When I was young.... I moved to a distant part of the country, and it was a massive culture shock for me, and if I'd stayed there for longer than a year, I might have matured into a proper punk rock type of guy--or perhaps I would have followed the same mellowing path and learned to love even the locals.

There are thousands of movies that attack the grey area where pacifism becomes cowardice and implore us to "take a stand" etc etc and our culture seems to have taken the surface of those lessons very much to heart--"civility" perhaps need not be considered paramount among virtues but I don't suspect it makes the top 10 anymore in this country and my bafflement at that I think greatly informs my work. The idea that *trying* to be kind to others can contain struggle and drama all its own is a tough one to sell but it seems to be my preoccupation.

The older I get the more I fear becoming a politician--certainly it seems common in adults. So of course I have admiration for an aging terrorist. Neither fate, I suppose, is quite what we might have dreamed, but time only moves in one direction...?

The demons and the angels are out there, for sure, but I wouldn't begin to know how to separate them out from each other.

Was fun to catch up as always and I look forward to the next time.


I replied to the preceding with the following comments--attempting to push the question into other areas. -- R.C.

Subject: Coriolanian thoughts "there is a world elsewhere"

Dear XXXX,

Thanks for the good thoughts... Very Renoirian, if you can take that as a compliment. The Renoir of Grand Illusion, and the Renoir of one of the greatest movies ever made: The Rules of the Game.

But is that sufficient? Can we really understand the world in terms of everyone having their reasons, their good intentions? As I look around at the financial meltdown we are now undergoing, and at the despicable, immoral eight years of the Bush administration rule of greed, I see too many people who "have their reasons".... too many"good friends afraid to criticize other good friends," too many "go along and get along" individuals, who slap each other on the back and laugh loudly and toast each other, while Rome burns, and indeed while others outside their circle of friends get ripped off.

And, to move closer to my own personal experiences, I have seen (I have worked in) film departments like the Bush administration. Film departments full of "good buddies" who hire other "good buddies"----all of whom are mediocre teachers, mediocre or worse than mediocre filmmakers and intellects, and worse than mediocre examples for students to emulate, and yet (trust me on this, I know whereof I speak) those same departments, like the Bush administration, are total "love fests." Everyone in them is full to overflowing with good intentions, and good feelings. But none of it matters. Being nice doesn't butter any parsnips.

I trust (to allude to your second para) you would have had the courage to be a punk, in more than "in fashion," if you had stayed in XXXX ...... And I believe that maybe being a punk is the best response to some situations (just as being a terrorist may be the best response to others--whoops, hope the NSA isn't monitoring this email). These are metaphors, but there is meaning behind them, I trust. At least a terrorist or a punk is responding to the world out there. A larger world than the world of love and romance and group hugs and fine feelings. But there are no terrorists or punks in these indie films. That's just the problem. Everyone in them is too normal, too well-meaning, too nice. Where are the people in the Bush White House? Where are the fools who I see miseducating the youth of America? Where is evil and malice in the world of these films? They are telling us lies about the world. They are ignoring the real world.

These films are about love and romance, but love and romance are not enough. Private love is fine, St. Paul was right of course to tell us to love our neighbors... Yes, yes, yes, but, but, but! Loving your neighbor may be necessary but it is not sufficient. (To use the logician's terms.)

There IS a world out there that each individual affects and is in relation to no matter how much he denies or ignores it. That's the world I wrestle with every day of my life. And so does even Renoir. And American indie film must deal with it too. But it doesn't. Renoir understood love and sensitivity, but he also made his movie show that in the end Octave walks away from the manor house. He can't stay in it and continue to love those people --as an end in itself; it's not enough--or he would be giving up on something larger about life. Love would be an evasion, an escape. Renoir is showing us something about that larger world.



A very slow reply... Life has been mostly quite pleasant, it's the least I've worked on this film in a long long time and it's been a pleasure to begin such backburned projects as "clean the house / figure out what's in those piles of paper" and "see friends." Which isn't to say that it feels like there's enough time, certainly in the era of e-mail there is never anywhere near enough.....

Re: philosophy:

You've pretty handily and eloquently isolated the most disastrous consequences of "going along to get along" and identified a lot of my personal fears.

Interested in the distinction you draw re: "private love." Maybe I operate on a fallacy that private love is all I've got to give that's of much value. David Lynch has been promoting recently the notion that, y'know, if 1% of all humans meditate at the same time, the good vibes will get the world back on track. (I paraphrase, I'm sure to the detriment of the concept's credibility.) Anyway I'd love to believe that he's right and I don't guess that we'll find out in my lifetime or yours.

So, yes: private love plus public apathy is not going to do much for the world. So yes there is such a thing as "the good fight." The trick perhaps is keeping the emphasis on "good" rather than "fight"...

It amazes me that a generation of Germans who, by and large, allowed the Nazis to rise to power and fought in their army would give birth to a generation of Germans, by and large, terribly ashamed of that legacy and anxious to rectify for it. It is hard to imagine an equivalent situation in today's reality: what warriors today will, a generation from now, be apologizing for their side of a conflict? Or will we just keep retrenching and rearming?....


My reply:

Subject: moving beyond the merely personal and private excruciations

Dear XXXX,

.... Glad you are getting some "down time." It's important. Not just so you can clean the house, but because the deepest work always takes place in the pauses, subconsciously. The way you remember something by not trying. Or the way a thought in bed will clarify something you couldn't decide in the day. So your down time will undoubtedly be productive in ways that you'll feel later.

Re: you queries/observations about "good Germans:" I understand this whole thing very differently. The point you make about collaboration then and grief and regret now, I understand otherwise. They collaborated then, because it was fashionable, when then was now. (Hope that's not dictionally confusing.) And they grieve now because that's fashionable, now. It's collaboration both times. No change whatsoever. The multiculturalists (Germans in this metaphor) are just as intolerant as the racists; but it's just the opposite set of prejudices. If you use a word they don't like, they hang you (occupationally: Howard Stern and the odd sportscaster who talks about the genetic superiority of African American athletes) just as back then they hung you for looking at their blonde daughters. These are metaphors of course, but I stand by the point. I see no more courage or principle now than ever, now than then, present Germany, present multiculturalism, than past nazism, past racism. No more. (And I base this on experience, not my own prejudices; I base this on hundreds of staff meetings and admissions deliberations and votes at faculty gatherings among the most, supposedly, enlightened of our populace.) What are contemporary Germans DOING to change the fascism, the intolerance in the world? Nothing. What are they doing to help the Palestinians, the people of Liberia, the people of Somalia, the people who are being treated like the Jews of the Holocaust TODAY? Nothing, nothing, nothing. In other words, their grief and guilt about the past is just a fashionable pose.

But don't misunderstand: I don't want you or Aaron Katz or whomever to make movies about that! I don't want you to become "political." Most political art is bad art. Oliver Stone is an escapist. Politics can be the ultimate escape. Political art is almost always an evasion of emotional complexity. It's schematic and formulaic. No, I hate that art. But my point (obliquely presented to avoid seeming too hostile to you or the other work of the others) is that when we watch Renoir's Rules of the Game or Grand Illusion we are getting a vision of something MUCH MORE than merely group interactions and personal emotional relationships (what I inelegantly called Pauline private love in the email to you). We are getting a vision of dysfunctions in the culture, of problems in society, of systems of reinforcement of mistakes and deceits that the individual actor is only an agent of, an expression of. Or look at Faces. Lots of personal expression problems analyzed there. But so much more also dealt with: the culture of business, the ego of salesmanship, the way men treat women (at least at that point in American culture), etc. etc. It's a whole world we get, not just a few people with problems. That's the limitation of young American indie film, in my view. It remains too narrow and small and "personal" in its focus. It doesn't go to this larger place. Or look at Todd Haynes's Safe (I hope we agree that it's one of the great works of the decade). Haynes takes this next step toward a larger, more comprehensive vision in it. That's where American indie film so seldom goes, in my view.

And you see my point I hope that this is not a recipe for any one kind of filmmaking. I'm not in favor of formulas. If Grand Illusion, Rules of the Game, Faces, and Safe are all doing it, it means there are a million ways and a million other ways to do it. (And Oliver Stone is NOT in fact doing it, he is just recycling clichés and pop culture images.) That's what I am calling moving beyond private, and merely personal concerns in art..... Hope that clarifies, but indeed I always believe that words are pretty useless; we must each of us come to understandings in our own way and time.

Constructively (I hope),


To read more on this subject, read the related discussions on Mailbag pages 55, 67 and 92 -- or click here and here and here to open windows to the relevant sections of those pages. I invite reader responses to this exchange. I will publish the most interesting. -- R.C.


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