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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 Mr. Carney:

You might not remember this, but somewhere around August of 2001 you sent me a bundle of your Cassavetes books. I read and loved them, and I wanted to review them for New York Press, and even argued for a cover story. But because of the timing of certain world events, the newspaper had little space available for the sort of big piece I wanted to do, or even a straight-up book review. Plus, my editors were not enthusiastic about Cassavetes anyway (a regrettably common response in these hip-and-current days). They humored me by promising to indulge me at some future date, but after a couple of months the old journalism Catch-22 kicked in and they told me the books had been around too long and the hook was gone, so forget it.

Why am I taking up your precious holiday time with such a depressing anecdote? Because I wanted you to know that your writing affected my life in ways that go beyond journalism.

As you might already know from reading my stuff, I invoke Cassavetes' name every chance I get, and have made it a minor mission to situate Cassavetes within the Neorealist tradition and show how his influence resonates within cinema and TV. Your writing encouraged me to revisit Cassavetes' work and the work of filmmakers clearly influenced by him (Steve Buscemi, for instance), strengthening and deepening my interest. In 2003, when the New York Film Critics Circle did its annual series at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, I selected "Shadows" and introduced it at the screening.

After reading and re-reading "Shadows," "The Adventure of Insecurity," " Cassavetes on Cassavetes" and "The Films of John Cassavetes," I felt I understood him in a new way, both as an artist and as a private citizen. More significantly, your account of Cassavetes' artistic and financial struggles, and the general optimism with which he faced life, inspired me to get off my ass and try, in some modest way, to continue his tradition, or at least engage with it directly, beyond writing movie reviews that invoked the master's name.

The culmination of this fascination was my decision to make a 90-minute feature, titled HOME. It's an ensemble comedy-drama set entirely in one house, following a dozen characters through a party over the course of about eight hours. Without slavishly imitating Cassavetes, I tried to employ principles and lessons drawn from Cassavetes' early movies, particularly the idea of growing the drama in direct, sustained collaboration with the cast, incorporating their suggestions and script revisions and writing new scenes to explore ideas that came about during rehearsal or during shooting. We did a lot of meticulously scripted, storyboarded sequences shot in a classical Hollywood style (I tried to steal from Orson Welles and John Frankenheimer whenever possible). But we also did some riffs and experiments the master might have enjoyed (though not entirely approved of), including sustained improvisations (60 to 90 minutes in length) during which we lit the entire house, packed it with characters and had roving camera crews move from room to room, doing documentary-style, spontaneous coverage of small moments that had been outlined in advance (with some dialogue) but not rigidly scripted.

The result is a very odd mix of party movie, hothouse drama, romantic comedy and dream film. I don't have any illusions about its commercial prospects. The cast is a mix of disciplined professionals and rough-edged nonactors drawn from my neighborhood. It is clearly a first film by artists who are still discovering their voice. There's almost no exposition and it's a decentralized ensemble picture that's more about physical behavior than plot, kind of like a zoo with people, a fact that will probably alienate viewers who like having themes laid out buffet-style. Most damaging, from a commercial standpoint, I have no sexy or exciting backstory to tell to reporters, I shot the movie with fairly primitive equipment and there's nobody in the cast you've heard of, except maybe for leading lady Nicol Zanzarella, who was in the little seen but well-reviewed 2000 indie drama " Too Much Sleep." Sundance and Slamdance rejected us, which I expected. However, Cinequest loved the movie (it had to pass muster with three jurors, all of whom gave it a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10) and will program it in the " Emerging Mavericks/New Visions" section of the 2005 festival. The 2005 Dallas Video Festival has promised us a slot as well.

We've submitted to other significant festivals, including Boston, South by Southwest and Tribeca, but haven't heard yay or nay yet. It's going to be an uphill struggle because HOME is a movie that takes you gently by the hand instead of grabbing you by the throat, and big festivals seem more interested in the latter than the former. But we all put a lot of thought and feeling into the movie, and the love comes through onscreen. I am confident that sooner or later, HOME will be discovered and embraced.

I would like to send you a DVD of the movie if you can spare the time to look at it. I have no idea if you'll like it or not. Either way I would like to hear your thoughts, and whatever your verdict, I thought you should at least see physical evidence that your scholarship and criticism inspired someone you've never met. This movie surely would not have come into existence without two real-world influences: my friend and mentor, the late John Frankenheimer, who believed in my potential as a filmmaker, and your own scholarship on Cassavetes, which I treated as inspirational literature throughout production.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.
-- Matt Zoller Seitz

Ray Carney replies:


The story in your first paragraph is all too familiar. Unless I have missed it, the five or six Cassavetes books I've written in the last ten years, all of them, hold the world record of never having even been mentioned in The New York Times, The Daily News, New York magazine, The New Yorker, Time Out, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, or any other major general interest American magazine or newspaper. Not a single mention. May be some kind of record. And, year after year for more than a decade, when I checked with people I knew at each place the story was almost identical to the one you tell: Cassavetes was just not important enough to merit a review, a survey, a feature piece, etc. "If only the book were about Woody Allen or Oliver Stone it would be different..... But it's an old, dead filmmaker after all....." I won't bore you with the details. So, yes, the fate of independent American criticism is not entirely different from the fate of independent American film. (It's not entirely bad; it gives me sympathy with the filmmakers.)

But word gets out anyway. And I am DELIGHTED that my work had such a salutary effect on you. The secret of life is not to think about things, but to do them! Good for you. Good for the world too.

As to looking at your DVD, I regret I can't promise much. I hold a full time job. I have more than 400 other DVDs stacked on my coffee table (and, to tell the truth, my rug, my floor, my bookshelves, etc.) waiting to be viewed. I wish I could help every young or beginning filmmaker in the world. But I really can make no promises. As the first paragraph suggests, I can't even help myself!

So send it or not as you choose, but I would ask that you please expect nothing definite in response. I have said that to dozens of others though, and sure enough, four or five weeks after they send their work, they write me (often with an edge of hostility in their tone) and ask why I haven't written something about their films or given them a blurb to use in advertising or whatever.... So don't put yourself in that position, please. And if you have any better use for the DVD, send it to someone else, please.

But do believe that I wish you all the best. I even wish you success (though the bitch goddess is often more of a curse than a blessing for an artist). It's the work that matters, after all. We do it for ourselves and for God and for truth and eternity. The journalist/reviewers will never understand that and will never help to change that (unfortunately). They live in a world where value is established by popularity and fame and notoriety and trends and buzz. They don't question those depravities, they merely accept them. Alas.

Warm regards,


Mr. Carney,

I wrote you an email a few months ago asking if I could send you some of my work. I have yet to do so. I'm going to send something I'm truly proud of rather than send mediocrity. Yet, I do appreciate your willingness to write me a short email. Thank you.

After reading and pondering countless pages of your essays, I do have one question for you. Are you a religious man? If so, part of what one may I politely ask? I'm just trying to understand your roots and thinking more. I hope I'm not being too personal.... I'm not trying to argue whatsoever. Your essays are the most thought provoking pieces of text I've ever read. I'm just trying to understand more I suppose. Can you direct me to an essay that would help clear up some of my questions?

.... I too am very religious. The reason I say that is because Christ, being perfect, often taught with parables so he could teach complex doctrine in a more simple way. Now, with some films I've done, I've tried implementing that same idea by using colors or objects to represent deeper meaning. I know you don't agree with that, but this is how Christ taught.

Thanks again!

Rhett Lewis

Ray Carney replies:

Thanks for the kind words. I don't really know of any one particular essay I can recommend though. Everything I believe is in everything I write.

I guess you could say I'm a spiritual person—if spiritual means that I don't take my values from our messed up culture—the world defined by the sicko beliefs (and non-beliefs) of journalists and businessmen. But to talk about religious practices, we would have to know each other better. Don't take that as a discouraging response, please. It's only that there are different realms: my web site is a very public form of discourse and my spiritual activities are very private, very secret, really very mysterious in fact. But of course the two realms are not separate. They overlap and inform each other, as they should. (I have a reply on the bottom of one of my letters pages to someone who asked me about "sacred texts" that says something related to this.)

I have no prejudice against any religion. Many paths exist, but they all go to the same places. They are all headed in the same direction. But I have to say color symbolism doesn't do much for me. My life is too snakey sinuous, too changeable and slippery, too hard to hold onto, to stand still for a symbolic representation. But I do agree with "parable" teaching. Every narrative is a parable. It's not telling us what literally happened, but giving us a way of understanding more complex truths by telling us a simpler story about them. Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, Tarkovsky, and Kiarostami are all writing parables. What's the Robert Frost line? "They hide it so the wrong ones won't find out." Or something like that! : )


I've convinced the good people at The New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles to do another Cassavetes double feature. They'll be screening Faces and A Woman Under the Influence on Jan. 28th and 29th. You may want to add it to your "screenings" page. The link for the schedule is below.

Also, I saw Andrew Bujalski's "Funny Ha Ha" (best film I saw all that year) in Northampton at the festival a couple of years ago and thought of you. Turns out, you were the reason it was screened there! Anyway, I'm sure you know, but Andrew now has the film on DVD and you should let you web viewers know!


Former student,
Phil D'Amour


Thanks for always responding so promptly to everything I've sent you. I have a question for you as you are one of the experts on how filmmakers get screwed. I am aware of the irony and pathetic nature of this question. A few years ago I made a short film, which everyone complained that it wasn't 'short enough' LOL. I recently re-edited the film enough to make it constitute as a new film altogether.

Now once it's shorter, I've gotten it on television etc. things have started to happen. Yay, right? The producer of the station even understood it. I wanted to try to start approaching producers on getting a 35 mm transfer and sending it to Cannes, Berlin, Venice, something unreasonably ambitious like that. I really do feel I've created something great. Now is where it gets embarrassing to ask you this. I am aware of the 'star' situation and those sort of preferences in the film festival circuit and as it turns out, the main actress (lead) from my film is in Queensland acting in a film with The Rock or one of those idiots, and she is probably heading for fame ( her dad had one the lead roles in Lord of the rings, that's how she got her break).

Should I wait for her to become famous before I start wasting time and money on this campaign of mine for a film print? Am I right about this situation? Is that the way things are? I realize what a whore I must sound like, but I am just tying to benefit from a bad situation that will never go away.

An opinion would be appreciated. Got the Cass boxset. Cool. The Kiselyak doco sucked, particuarly the bit where Lynn Carlyn is crapping on about how Cassavetes could see into the soul.

Another quick question regarding Paul Morrissey. I have seen Heat ( i thought it was alright, had it's moments) and I tuned out during Women in revolt which I hated. I was wondering about your opinion on Trash and Flesh (which are incidently stocked in the gay porn section of my video store), why are they special?

Keep well, don't judge me too harshly for my dumb ass question about stars and festivals etc. I am aware of what it sounds like.

Shaun Katz

Ray Carney replies:


A quick and over hasty reply to your thoughtful note. (I'm swamped, overwhelmed, drowning under emails. Please make allowances.)

The reply to your question: No apology necessary. No problem. We all want to be seen, read, viewed. It's Adam's dream. It's the quest for love. It's our need for companionship. And here's my answer. Do it now. Do everything now. Never put anything off. If you have to, or can benefit from it later, if the PR situation changes subsequently, then do it again. But never put things off. The secret of life is to do. And to do it now. Not later. Now. The minute you think of it. If you wait, the emotion, the impulse, the desire turns to ashes. Anytime you think of something, do it then. Don't do it tomorrow. Go for it. Now. Always and forever now, now, now. Anything else is your weakness, your procrastination, your doubts speaking. The devil, the ego, the fear speaking. Be brave. Do it now.

But, apropos of your other comment: beware of being understood. Resist it. Fight it. Try to be misunderstood. If you're lucky. It's a much better place to be. That way you have a remote chance of holding onto your independent soul. Staying free. Understanding is a trap, a dead end. Make your work so wonderful it can't ever be understood. Or that the only way to understand it is through love not ideas. Like life.

Just call me Yoda,


P.S. See Trash (first) and Flesh (later). Draw your own conclusions. I know Trash is a masterwork, but that's my opinion, not yours. My opinion doesn't count. Your is the only one that matters to you. Decide what he is for you. (And look at Spike of Bensonhurst and Forty Deuce too sometime.)

Subject: From a freshmen

Dear Mr Carney,

I am Tianzi from Singapore. Half a month ago, I received the acceptance letter from Boston University. I have been admitted to the School of Communication as an Early Decision applicant. And my intended major is the Film course.

I have been to your website a few times. I feel much impressed and inspired. May I ask you to suggest some ways to prepare for the course on which I am going to embark? It is because that I am quite free these days. Despite that I have to work as a part timer in the day, I always have plenty of time in the evening.

Thank you very much!

Yours sincerely,
Cai Tianzi

Ray Carney replies:

Dear Cai Tianzi,

Congratulations, future freshman! Welcome aboard! Bon voyage!

A good question. My answer would be to suggest you read the letter I write to incoming graduate students. It has viewing suggestions and other preparation ideas (including attempting to turn your thoughts into words by keeping a journal). The letter appears on the "Boston U." page in the "About Ray Carney" section of the site. (Click on the button on the left of this page to go there.) Those are the best suggestions I can offer both entering grad. students and freshmen. There is actually not that much difference between the two situations. Incoming grad students and incoming freshmen, I mean. Consciousness cannot precede expression and consequently both groups are engaged in the same struggle for verbal consciousness--a struggle that never ends. (I am still engaged in it myself, even now.) And emotionally you're in the same place as an entering grad student. At both stages in your life, both as a freshman and as a beginning grad. student, you're the "low man on the totem pole," at the bottom looking up. That may sound bad, but it's really the ideal emotional place to be in order to open yourself up and begin a new kind of learning. This new learning requires great humility and great effort, but I can tell from your letter that you are capable of both. Go for it!



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© Text Copyright 2006 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.