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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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Dear Prof. Carney,

I've read your statements about thinking (RC: There are many discussions of the limitations of ideas and the dangers of abstraction on the site, but for a starting point, to know what Lindsey is referring to, read the blue headnote titled "A note from Ray Carney" that precedes the excerpt from chapter 6 of William James's A Pluralistic Universe around the middle of the preceding page of the Mailbag -- page 118.) You are a very brilliant man but I still am not sure I understand what you are saying. Can you explain how to think without thoughts? Thanks.

Lindsey Hall (not a film student but a film lover)

Dear Lindsey--

Thanks for the kind words. Flattery will get you everywhere! ("Brilliant" is one thing I am seldom accused of being!!! haha.)

I appreciate your questions but the problem is, first, that the site only has excerpts from my writing, not the complete books and interviews (go to the Bookstore section via the top menu of the Mailbag to find the complete versions), and, second, that this is an inherently difficult idea to explain. Some things are hard to put into words, and more easily explained by "working on them" in a classroom where there is a give-and-take, call-and-response, question-and-answer format. As Maria Montessori and John Dewey understood, a lot of learning is easier done as "doing" than as "talking." Explaining some things is a little like trying to learn farming or carpentry (or love) from a book. I guess it might be done, but it would be the slowest and most cumbersome way to learn it. The best way to learn this would be in my classes. But even then it is hard. Many students have a lot of trouble learning it even that way. They dig in their heels, they kick and scream bloody murder, they don't want to "be pushed off the cliff" into the dark. We love ideas. We cling to them with a death grip. We don't want to let go of them. As my coach said: "No pain, no gain." It's true intellectually, too. I have lots of discussions of that on the site.

So I don't know exactly how to answer your question. I assume you have already read the note I wrote that precedes the William James passage and read James's words that I posted in the middle of Mailbag page 118. I also assume you have seen the links to other pages on the site that have related discussions that I posted following the James passage. If you haven't already done it, go to the middle of page 118 and start reading there with my headnote, followed by the James text (though I'll admit that the James stuff may be stiff going if you aren't up on your Bergson -- or more recently: Maurice Merleau-Ponty or John Dewey or Richard Rorty or Richard Shusterman, if that's the right spelling of his name, I can't remember!). Once you have done that, or at least have tried (give it the good old "college try!") to understand what James is saying, then read the material elsewhere on the site that the links on the bottom of Mailbag page 118 take you to. (My words may be easier to understand than either James's or Bergson's. I'm not as smart as they are, so my ideas are simpler and easier to explain.) Don't rush. Don't skim. Devote a few days to this. Or at least a few hours. It's worth it. All learning is hard. All real learning. Students forget that. America is a culture of instant gratification. People expect quick and easy results, but it's a mistake. It leads to wrong answers. Ideas can be as hard to wrestle with and take as long to work through as a war or a financial bailout. Why wouldn't they? So be patient. Be kind to yourself. OK? Once you have already clicked on those links and read the material on the other site pages, then try this one and this one and this one and this one. And then, maybe read one of my books or packets (on this topic I'd especially recommend the "What's Wrong with...." packet).

But bear in mind that ultimately it's about you working through art in any way you can, on your own, and coming to your own understandings. I really can't GIVE anyone anything. I can only point in a promising direction. (If you know music, think of how you learned to hear the difference between C major and D minor, between G and F major. Once you know the difference, it seems obvious and absurdly simple; but the first time you listen, it is so hard to put into words.) And all I'm doing in this case is reminding students (or you) that everything must be thought through--even the importance of thought! The important lesson is that you need to think through EVERYTHING from the "ground-up." There is so much received knowledge, so many cliches substituting for original response. EVERYTHING must be thought through. Why do we search for symbols, metaphors, images in films or novels? Why do we search for philosophy? Why do we search for meanings? Why do we think that THOUGHTS are the goal? Get the idea? Do you understand what I am driving at? Where I am going? Put EVERYTHING in question. EVERYTHING. Even THOUGHTS and IDEAS.

Well, that's the best I can do in an email. Hope it's of some use.

Fare onward voyager.

Sincere best wishes,


Subject: Link András Schiff Beethoven-Lectures

Hello Mr. Carney,

this is Klaus Findl from Cologne (who is also very happy about the continuation of the mailbag posting!...).

I wanted to share with you and other visitors of your site (especially for those interested in music) a very interesting link - just in case no one else told something about ist:

During the last two or three years the pianist András Schiff performed (and recorded) the complete 32 Beethoven piano sonatas. In Wigmore Hall, London he gave introductions to the sonatas, about 30-40 minutes playing parts and talking about every single one of them. It's a pleasure to listen to - humorous and full of insights.

His lectures have been recorded, and you can listen to them here.

All the best
Klaus Findl

P.S.: Cassavetes' "Husbands" is released today on DVD in Germany! (I still don't have it, so I can't say anything about cuts etc...We'll see...) By the way: the (unfortunately dubbed) Version I taped years ago from German TV contains - as far as I can see - all the harassing in the bar and the complete toilet shit, fart and puke stuff.

RC replies:


Great to hear from you! It's been about a year, hasn't it? Thanks for the information about the German release of Husbands. A few other site readers from Germany alerted me to it a few months ago, but I forgot to post the info. Let's keep our fingers crossed that it's the complete version. Still hasn't happened yet in America -- but what else is new? The U.S. of A. always has to learn about what matters in American art from Europe. It was true with Chaplin and Jerry Lewis, and true with much American painting and music, so why wouldn't it be true of Cassavetes as well? We'll have to learn from Germany and do our own DVD release some day. And what about Love Streams? That's still not available! (Though I did help with a French release of it five or six years ago.)

Re: the Schiff Beethoven lectures, thanks for that information as well. I had no knowledge of them being available (and for myself can't access them on my old computer), but I am delighted to pass the link on to my readers. Beethoven's piano sonatas are among his greatest works (and just a tad easier and more pleasing for newbies to listen to than his quartets, which are a bit more demanding and better saved for "advanced students."). Here is a quote I use in one of my books about them. Maybe it will help to generate some interest. It's from one of my favorite contemporary music critics, Antony Hopkins. I've mentioned his name before on the site.

"The thirty-two piano sonatas Beethoven wrote are his most significant biography, worth more than all the thousands of pages that have been written about him. In them we see not the events of life outside, as we do in most biographies, but the infinitely more important life within. In the sonatas, written clearly for us to hear, lie the stages of a great composer's development from youth to maturity, a journey which paradoxically began with the complete confidence of a young man, knowing he had the stuff of genius within, and ended in loneliness, cut off from the world by a barrier of silence, pushing bravely but sometimes gropingly into a new era." -- Antony Hopkins, Talking about Music

Best wishes and thanks,
Ray Carney

P.S. (To site readers): If anyone out there is able to download and copy Shiff's lectures to a plain old "red book" CD , and send it to me, I'd be in their debt. I'm such a techo-klutz luddite that I don't even know if this can be done, or if it is too time-consuming to bother with; but if it isn't too hard or inconvenient, I'd love to listen to Shiff's lectures myself. (Note that the CD must be indexed to be read by, and playable in, a regular "low tech" CD player; if it is a CD Rom to be played on a computer, then I'm back to square one. And please do not send me an electronic file, MP3 or anything else, via email. Same problem. My own primitivism. My poor stuffed-to-the-gills hard drive groans and mutters every time my machine receives an email attachment.) -- Ray "Living in the Stone Age" Carney

Subject: Keep it Up!

I just wanted to let you know I still visit and read and love being challenged by your site. You're doing great and thanks for staying in the trenches and fighting the good fight.

Much Love and Respect,
Paul Biagiotti

RC replies:

Thanks, Paul. I recognize your name from previous emails a year or two ago, but have to confess that I forget who you are. Don't take it personally! Haha. Just too many emails to keep track of.

I really appreciate the encouragement. Keeping up the site is like digging a well that, when I drop a pebble in to see how deep it is, I can never quite hear an echo back from. In other words, I don't know how deep I've gone or if there is anything worth hearing. (Thanks to Robert Frost for the image---see his poem "For once, then something.") So it's good to hear an echo. (I just thought of another Frost poem on the subject of echoes and replies. It's about Adam and Eve and the incredible value of receiving "creative response" from someone else, the importance of getting stimulating feedback -- that's what you and other site readers give me!! Hey, thanks, guys!! -- It's called "The Most of It." Check that out also. Frost must have felt pretty lonely at times.)

Since you allude to the motion to censure me by my department and the period in which site postings were suspended, if you want to know how things stand at present, the current status of things BU-wise is summarized near the bottom of page 101 of the Mailbag, or you can click on to the Mailbag "Most Popular Topics" button in the left margin of this page and scroll down to the "Sources of Fascism" category and click on six or seven different pages that are linked there to get a bigger picture.

You too keep up your good work, whatever it is. I was just telling a woman I met in a bookstore the other day that most of the greatest achievements in the history of civilization have gone unrecorded and uncommemorated because they have been done not by politicians, generals, and presidents, but by ordinary people--mothers, teachers, nurses, ministers, and caretakers of all kinds. We need the Baracks, but we also need the mothers, teachers, and ministers too.

Translation: Keep doing whatever you can for truth and love and compassion, however you can do it. Nothing is too small to make a difference.


Ray Carney

Subject: Best version of Shadows?

Mr. Carney,

I read the information on your pages but was wondering, I may have missed this but, what is the best (your recommended) version of Shadows I can purchase right now that shows the closest version of the original Cassavetes' intentions for the film?

I would love to order a copy of the closet thing to the original very soon.

Thank you,

Sean McHenry

RC replies: Easy answer in this case. There is only one version of Shadows you can buy right now: the second version. Gena Rowlands has prevented me from making the other one available as a video release, from screening it publicly, from giving it to Criterion to include in their box set, from everything! Her lawyers are "on my case" to keep me from showing the first version.....

But your question is worth responding to anyway. My response is that you should try to break away from thinking in terms of "best" or "second best" versions of anything. It's a "Top 40," "Academy Awards," "News at Nine" vision of reality. What is the best film? Who is the best director? Who is the best novelist, poet, or playwright? What is his or her best novel, poem, or play? Who is the best parent, brother, sister, child, boy or girlfriend in your acquaintance? What is the best job? Who is the best person alive? Who was the best philosopher, historian, mathematician? What is the best country to live in?

Ray Carney in Melbourne Australia

There are no answers to those questions because they are premised on false understandings of art and reality. There is no "best" or "second best" -- except in stupid awards ceremonies and magazine polls. Things are unique. People are different. Films are different. Artists are different. Most of Henry James's novels and stories are published in two different texts. Neither is better or worse.They are different. Art Tatum performed "Tea for Two" and "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Night and Day" and "The Man I Love" dozens of times, each time in a different way. None of those performances is the best -- or the worst. They are all different and all interesting for different reasons. That's the way art and life are. There is seldom a best or worst. Both versions of Shadows are fascinating, wonderful, and interesting -- for different reasons. There is no best version of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie either. And no best version of anything really complex. There are only different versions.

The earlier Shadows has much more of the three boys' sensibility, and much more of Tony's sensibility. The narrative is more masculine in its point of view. That is because Cassavetes was much closer to the boys and to Tony, imaginatively and emotionally, when he made the first version. The second version has more of Lelia's sensibility and less of Ben's and Tony's. That is partly because of screenwriter Robert Alan Aurthur's insertion of new material, and also because (partly due to Aurthur's input) Cassavetes had changed his view of his own movie by the time he shot the new scenes to cut into it. Both versions are equally fascinating but really very different.

But, as I say, all of this is moot, since Gena won't let the world see the first version. Too bad.

Happy viewing!


Subject: great film programs

Hi Ray:

A random Google Alert brought you to my attention and I can see your wonderful array of films. Congrats on being such a fine archivist of excellent and unrecognized works. I particularly love the film Junebug - it ranks as perhaps my favorite film of the past few years.

Please keep up the good work and inspire even more people.

Rick Ray
10 Questions For The Dalai Lama

Dear Rick:

Thanks. And praise counts triple when it comes from certain people. I LOVE YOUR MOVIE! And the Dalai Lama is one of my great personal heroes of all time. I'm posting your note and this reply on the site Mailbag (I hope you don't mind) to bring your work to the attention of those who might not be aware of it.

Best wishes,

Ray Carney

Klaus Findl, who lives in Cologne, Germany, sent in a postscript to his notice above, about the relevance of the Beethoven Sonata Lectures by Andras Schiff to students in other arts. He makes an excellent point about how all great art is fundamentally revolutionary. It aspires to move beyond what has been said or thought before. It aspires to move beyond the ways the "instrument" (piano in the case of music, camera and Nagra in film, brush for a painter) has ever been used before. Look at Picasso and see how his paintings not only "destroy" other paintings that preceded them, but even his own previous works. ("My paintings are the sum of destructions," he once wrote.) Listen to Ives or Stravinsky and hear how they mess with meter and wound harmony. ("Do not correct all the mistakes. The mistakes in my score should not be changed. They are the way I want things," Ives wrote to a copyist.) Meanwhile, film scholars and film students revel in "intertextuality" and "allusions" and "cross-references" to Spielberg, Welles, Renoir, Tarkovsky. And production teachers (at least the ones I know) continue to give their students rules for how to shoot and edit their work: e.g. "cut on motion," "coverage," "alternate close-ups in a conversation," "don't cross the 180 degree line," and a hundred similar stupidities. No real artist works this way. No real artist makes his or her art from a recipe. No real artist tries to make his or her art look like someone else's. Artists learn from other artists, not by imitating, but by stealing; not by following rules, but by breaking them; not by doing what someone else did, but by doing everything differently.

Deny influences. Reject models. Throw out the past. Break the mold. Break with the old. Find a new path to pursue your new truths. Follow no one -- not even Schiff or Beethoven! Make it new. Do it differently. Tell your truth your way. -- R.C.

Subject: Postscript to: András Schiff Beethoven Lectures

Hello, Mr. Carney,

in my preceding mail I sent you a link to the public lectures the pianist András Schiff gave about the Beethoven Sonatas.

Maybe I should make a remark, why I think these lectures, in my opinion, are so inspiring -- and not only for musicians (your website is mainly for people interested in film).

I myself am no film director, I started as a theatre director and now I am a painter for several years, and one of the things that is great about the lectures (for me, too) is how Schiff emphasizes and shows in detail that for Beethoven "the piano is never just the piano".

Beethoven thinks in his piano sonatas in a constant mixture of pianistic and orchestral and chamber music terms. In every sonata he develops different concepts of relationships between (potentially) orchestral, pianistic, string quartet-, woodwind ensemble-, percussion- etc. sounds and layers. Every sonata is a kind of utopian load test for the potentials that can be embodied by a work written for solo piano. And more than once he goes beyond the limitations of the instrument, in favor of the "idea". And these load-tests, these strains for the piano and for a solo piece are essential to the "content" of Beethoven's music. (In the late 19th century somebody in fact orchestrated the "Hammerklavier-Sonata" for big symphony orchestra. I once listened to a recording and the piece sounded rather silly and inflated - because the utopian potential of the sonata was - well,"realized")

I think this experience could be a very important insight for students and people who want to make films. I know some film students (we have two Film academys here in Cologne) and many of them are only interested - in films. They don't know why they should be seriously interested in any of the other arts and their potentials. So the films they make in most of the cases are just "films", nourished only by other films... Well, you get the point - your website is dedicated to it.

Best wishes

Klaus Findl

P.S.: My English is probably not always state of the art. If you want to post my mail or parts of it on your site, feel free to correct awkward passages.

Klaus, Your English is fine. And your thinking is terrific. -- R.C.

This came in from a programmer who runs a very interesting and important documentary series. I recommend his IFC series to readers who live in Manhattan. And his programming in Toronto. -- R.C.

Subject: Question

Dear Ray,

I recently wanted to recommend your 1986 New Republic essay on Vincent Canby, which I vividly recall reading at the time. Is it collected in any book or available on-line anywhere?

Thom Powers

Documentary Programmer
Toronto International Film Festival
Stranger Than Fiction @ IFC Center (Tuesdays: Sept 23 - Nov 25, 2008)

NEW web site:

RC replies:


I can understand it being hard to find. The site is so sprawling and massive I tell people to leave a trail of cookie crumbs or unfurl a thread behind them as they go to avoid being lost forever in the maze of endless text passages and the mind-boggling confusion of dead-end ideas. (I hear the howls of lost souls through my modem all night long.) Many enter never to be heard from again. Lost to the world of capitalism, profit, power, and fame, forever.

The essay I wrote about Vincent Canby is at this url.

To get to the New Republic cover story, you'll have to scroll down until you reach the heading:

The Hazards of Humanism
The corrupting influence of Vincent Canby and The New York Times on American Criticism and Culture

You might also want to check out the piece above that point as well as some of the other pieces listed in the top (roll-over) menu on that page. They are companion pieces to my Canby caper.

I know and appreciate your work. Thanks for the good words.


A note from Ray Carney: Jim McKay is one of my favorite people and independent filmmakers. I pass along for the benefit of site readers a recent unexpected recommendation of his. I myself have not seen the Demme film, so I can't corroborate Jim's recommendation, but I will admit that I just love the fact that Demme's film has gotten only so-so (or worse than so-so) reviews, as far as I've seen. It would be just the same-old, same-old deju vu all over again (thanks, Yogi!) if the critics have missed the boat with this movie for the ten-thousandth time. That never changes.

I'd encourage site readers to write back with their own reactions. Is Jim right? Is he (or Demme) on to something? -- Or not? Let me know what you think, and I'll publish the best responses. -- R.C.

From: Jim McKay


Hey, folks -

If you're thinking about taking a pass on the new Jonathan Demme film, Rachel Getting Married, because it has a weird title and because his last two fiction films, The Truth about Charlie and The Manchurian Candidate, were remakes and didn't have the oomph that his movies typically have, please think again.

I saw Rachel Getting Married last night and want to tell you that it is a total gem. The script, by Jenny Lumet, is amazing - extremely mature and subtle and featuring complex, finely drawn characters across the board.

But it's the absolute audaciousness of the movie itself that is overwhelming.

The rehearsal dinner toasts go on and on. We start to think, "okay, this is too much." But then we sink back in, we feel like we're there, we want to eat and drink with these people and share in their celebration. The music almost never stops and we start to think, "enough of the music, already." And then the main character says "enough of the music, already" and it stops - for a moment. And we embrace the boldness of the choice, Demme's decision to bombard us with music - from every corner of the country and the world - because....well, because he loves music and he wants to share it with us. Yes, Demme loves music but more importantly - and here's why the film is really a success - he loves his characters. Their joy, their flaws, their bickering, their insecurities....

It's beautiful to see a director so deep into his career making a film that is so personal and so adventurous. Not adventurous on some meta level. But a film that challenges mainstream narrative conventions, that has an actual personality, that you, as a viewer, experience in a completely different way. It's the kind of movie you'd expect to have come from an emerging French director, but with all the smarts and sophistication and life experience that a director like Demme can bring to it. And a humanism and an optimism that is very, very rare.

None of this addresses the amazing cast - incredible performances across the board by all the leads and inspired casting choices like Fab Five Freddy, dj Anita Sarko, poet Beau Sia. sax player Donald Harrison Jr, Demme regular Paul Lazar, and Demme's "Cousin Bobby" and his son, Brooklyn.

I don't know - I have a feeling the film might not be for everyone. Maybe some of what I just wrote is over-the-top. Maybe I'm caught up in some kind of post-election emotional mess.

All I know is that I laughed a lot, I bawled my eyes out numerous times, I broke out in weird tears of joy while waiting in the lobby afterwards (I think I was literally so happy just to have seen something so wonderful), and the film inspired me to think about my own life and experiences and to see the world in a little bit of a different way as I walked out of the theater and into the Brooklyn night.

I hope you get a chance to see it while it's playing in your town.



A note from Ray Carney: As a companion piece to Jim McKay's appreciation of Jonathan Demme's movie, I excerpt the following brief mention of Kelly Reichert's latest film from a message by Mike Gibisser (writer-director of the magnificient Finally, Lillian and Dan). Some site readers already know that I regard Kelly Reichert as one of the great hopes of American independent filmmaking. Her work is amazing, and I gather that Mike thinks so too. Catch her work any way you can. -- R.C.

.... I caught Kelly Reichert's WENDY AND LUCY as well; I think she is going to blow the lid off of the whole thing some day. I look forward to it.... -- Best, Mike

Oh, and while I'm at it, I might as well add a sentence from an email Caveh Zahedi wrote me today, recommending Mike Leigh's latest:

.... I just watched "Happy-Go-Lucky" tonight and thought of you. I LOVED it. And what a fantastic ending.....

And here's one more recommendation from Caveh that came in after the preceding:

P.S. Another film I liked a lot ... was "The Nines" (by John August) .... I thought it was absolutely brilliant.

So who says there are no good movies out there? Who says there is nothing to see? Who says the art of film is dead? Go check out Demme's, Reichert's, Leigh's, or August's flick. Or, better yet, check out all four. These are four strong recommendations from three of my favorite American independent filmmakers .... -- R.C.

Oh, and here's one more final thing from Caveh and Mandy. They sent me this birth notice a good while ago, but "better late than never" will have to be my motto. -- R.C.

Beckett Field Zahedi was born on Friday, October 3rd at 8:50 a.m.

After a sixty hour labor, we are both thrilled to finally meet him in person.

So far, he's good at sucking, sleeping, and making funny faces.

We hope you get to meet him soon,

Mandy & Caveh


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