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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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Thanks for explaining. As I said, it's not an issue.

We'll figure out when the interview would work best. Thanks for your flexibility.

I was looking through some of your aphorisms, and I found this one: No one intends to do wrong in life. No one. Ever. Not even Hitler had bad intentions or thought he was doing anything wrong. As Renoir said: "Everyone has his reasons."

I'm curious whether you've read much Carlyle. I know he's never been much in vogue in academic circles because of his politics, but it always comforted me that Emerson admired him at least. Your above aphorism reminds me of a passage from Carlyle one which I used as an epigraph in my second novel.

"No man at bottom means injustice; it is always for some obscure distorted image of a right that he contends: an obscure image diffracted, exaggerated, in the wonderfulest way by natural dimness and selfishness; getting tenfold more diffracted by exasperation of contest, till at length it becomes all but irrecognisable; yet still the image of a right."

Alejandro Adams

Ray Carney replies:

No. I didn't know the Carlyle quote. Guess he copied me! : )

Carlyle is a favorite of mine. As is Emerson. I never let someone's politics come between me and the truth. That's an external understanding of truth.

Caryle's point is a deep philosophical one. It goes far beyond merely understanding Hitler's goals or Bin Laden's motives. As you probably know, I've written about the "intentional fallacy" at length in my work. (And long before Daniel Dennett wrote about it in his convoluted, poorly written, maddening Freedom Evolves!). In the "stylistic introduction" to my Leigh book I talk about the pervasiveness (and fallaciousness) of intentional understandings in American culture--the cult of willpower and effort and ideals and desires--and in my Cassavetes' books I deal with the way his films defeat intentional analyses of action and expression. I talk about the imperfect self-awarenesses of Cassavetes' characters--about how they don't know what they are doing, don't see themselves as they are, and don't intend to be what they are or to make the impressions they do. They just are. States of doing replace states of being. In class, when my students "get psychological"on me with the work of Tom Noonan or John Cassavetes, I tell them that there is no such thing as an intention, that it's a philosophical and ontological fiction, but I don't think most of them understand the philosophical implications of what I am saying. And they resist it. It's such a flattering notion. We want to have inner selves--as a justification for our outer failures, as a place of freedom, a place of purity. It's an American idea. But it's a fallacy. If we leave intentions behind, a whole new way of understanding opens up to us based on the truth of surfaces, not depths--the truth of expression and behavior, not the invisible (stupidly Hitchcockian) world of vision, psychology, motives, and goals. But there's too much to say, and I've written so much already about this subject.......

So, in answer to your query, I am not indebted to Carlyle in any direct way, but I have to admit that everything I know I've learned from artists. Not from philosophers or psychologists. And certainly not from film critics! Artists have been my real teachers not the professors, not the academics, not the bookworms. They taught me everything I know. Emerson in fact is the one who showed Carlyle's work to me just as Cassavetes showed me other things about other filmmakers. Forget the university. Art is my university. The invisible college, the visionary company of true souls.

Best wishes,


Mr. Carney,

I just wanted to thank you one last time for allowing me to sit in on the Indie class, even though I was not enrolled in it. It's so nice to be in a course that actually leaves you thinking after each class. And I mean REALLY much that you have to whip out a notebook, record all your thoughts, and maybe even write a mini-essay to get a handle on them. I hadn't been in a film studies course like that in about three years, since David Kociemba's class. I'd be exaggerating to say my excitement for the art of film had been dead since then, but watching LOCAL COLOR, Rosenblatt's works (especially HUMAN REMAINS), and FUNNY HA HA really sent a jolt of artistic energy through my body, reminding me how important a film - or any good work of art for that matter - can be in a culture where passive complacency easily becomes the norm. I wish I could've come to more classes and seen more films; then again, it's probably better to be left in a state of want. Dissatisfaction leaves you with a drive. Satisfaction is death.

Thanks again,


Professor Carney,

I was cleaning through my computer files this morning and I found a Commencement speech that I wrote for the College of Communication speaker's contest last April, hoping I would get to read it at the College of Communication graduation ceremony. I thought you might get a kick out of it for two reasons: 1) It ironically has a lot to do with the kind of evil Jay Rosenblatt's "Human Remains" explores and it also talks about the media being the creator of a "normal" but unreal reality like I discussed in my last email. 2) I was very angry and confused when my speech wasn't even chosen as a finalist because I heard the winning speech at the ceremony and it (along with the speeches given by the Dean and other bigwigs) was the most meaningless thing I've ever heard; however, I now see why my speech wasn't chosen. It would've sounded too edgy. A school like COM always needs to avoid controversy lest they hurt their reputation as "third-best communications school in the nation" -- or whatever it is! The mistake I made was believing that the contest was looking for the "best" speech, not the "safest" speech. They should've been more clear in their announcement.

I haven't touched the speech since last April when I entered it into the contest. My views have changed a bit since then, but I still basically stand beside what I say.

And please don't read it unless you have the time. I know you're busy with end-of-the-semester business and I feel guilty asking you to read this email. But, again, I feel it's somewhat relevant to the issues raised by the films you show in class. Read at your convenience.

(Name Withheld)

Commencement Speech

Allen Ginsberg once said, "Whoever controls the media, controls the culture." On a day like today, these words couldn't be more relevant, for we all aspire to be key members of the media and we all want a grip on the strings controlling culture. But many of us still don't realize how great a responsibility we're taking on. What kind of messages will we send to our culture? In what direction should we steer it? How should we change it? When I find myself asking these questions, I find answers in something Leo Tolstoy said: "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." Yes, we must change ourselves before we take on the responsibility of changing our culture, and one of Tolstoy's books, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, tells us how.

The story is about a high court judge named Ivan who lives his life according to a social blueprint. He works a respectable job with a good salary, lives in a respectable neighborhood with other respectable neighbors, and fancies dancing and card games in his spare time as a respectable well-rounded citizen should. Ivan never thinks of transcending this normal, "respectable" lifestyle and embracing his free will as a human being until it is too late. It isn't until hours before his death that he realizes how meaningless his life was, how the social goods, constructions and institutions he valued failed to give his time on earth meaning. The moral of the story is paradoxical: we must acknowledge our inevitable death in order to live our life properly. Selling out our soul for material wealth and prestige is selling our self short of the fruitful meaning we can bring to our life in the scant amount of time between our birth and death.

A planet in trouble, and baby, it ain't the tsunamis and hurricanes we have to worry about.  It's not even the terrorists.  It's the leaders and opinion shapers.It is important that WE understand Ivan's tragic error more than anyone else, for if we live our life with meaning, our mass audience will live their life with meaning too. As gatekeepers, we have the power to steer the entire culture away from the harmful entertainment of today and redirect it onto a more meaningful pathway. Now, when I say "harmful entertainment," I'm not referring to movies like The Matrix, music by Marilyn Manson or videogames like Grand Theft Auto. Ironically, my idea of harmful entertainment is the very media that our society perceives as harm-LESS. Today's evening news teams and other infotainment, popular tabloid newspapers, reality television and most major studio movies have all succeeded in imposing an impenetrable set of norms on our culture and instilling fear in anyone that dares penetrate them. Their illusory portrayal of reality has become a skewed model for how a "normal" society functions. If we're not physically gorgeous like all the men and women in the media, then we're not normal. If we're not tattooing our lower back with butterflies or piercing our navel with rings, then we're not normal. If we're not freaking out about terrorism, SARS and killer bees, then we're not normal. The media creates the illusion that they're the ones we have to listen to in order to stay normal. In fact, they make their money off our fear of becoming ABNORMAL. This, my friends, is harmful entertainment. It is as harmful as evil itself. No, it is evil itself.

The media is, indeed, evil's gateway into our culture. And as long as we are the gatekeepers, we will have the power to contain the evil; if we don't let it through our gate, then it won't enter the culture. Yes, I sound like some preachy televangelist right now, but bear with me for one more moment. The bottom line is that we have to think twice before giving our television programs, motion pictures and news articles the green light. Do they impose norms on our culture and scare us into adhering to them? If the answer is 'yes,' then we've discovered evil. But it's not as easy as it seems; evil is tricky. Even if we see through its seemingly "harmless" disguise, it will retaliate by bribing us to let it pass, either in the form of money, a brand new BMW, or a promotion. But when it does, we must remember Ivan's tragedy: when WE grow old, we will search for meaning in our life, and if all we can extract from it is material wealth, prestige and other empty socially constructed illusions, then we won't die happily. Ivan didn't have time to redeem his wasted life; we do. If we understand how to live our life, then we'll understand how to control our culture. Class of 2004, I wish you the best of luck in controlling our culture.

Thank you.

Dear Mr. Carney,

Toneelgroep Amsterdam has the intention to make a stage version of Husbands by JohnCassavetes. And for this performance, we want to acquire the stage rights.

Do you know who is still in charge of the estate of John Cassavetes? If so what is the best way to reach them? Could you inform us and send us name, address and email address?

For your information: Toneelgroep Amsterdam is the most important subsidized theatre company in The Netherlands. Our director, Ivo van Hove, made an excellent performance of Faces in 1997, and this summer he is directing Faces again in Stuttgart, Germany .

Looking forward to hearing from you,

With kind regards,

Dirkje Houtman

Ray Carney comments:

After investigating and learning a little more about the project -- namely, that it is being directed by a major director, being mounted by one of the Netherlands's most important dramatic companies, that months of preparation have already been put into it, and, finally, that it is being done as a homage to Cassavetes, for strictly artistic reasons, more for love than for money, I put Ms. Houtman in touch with the business manager of the Cassavetes estate, Al Ruban. Ruban works directly for Gena Rowlands and does her bidding.

Some time later, I received the following follow-up email from Ms. Houtman (which I then subsequently followed-up with a lengthy telephone conversation with her discussing the situation). I include Ms. Houtman's letter to me for two reasons: Rowlands's response will not only serve to summarize her attitude toward such projects but may save others from making the mistake of assuming that her approval of similar not-for-profit, artistic productions can be taken for granted. Ruban instructed the Amersterdam group to cease and desist from their production. He denied permission:

Dear Ray Carney,

Thank you for your reaction. Of course we will send you a tape of Faces and we had hoped you would come and see the production of Husbands. But we've got a real problem.

I mailed Al Ruban and today we've got a message that certain rights were retained by John and the estate has informed us that "they have no interest in licensing the right to adapt John's screenplay of Husbands for a stage play."

It took a long time to get here. [Omitted material describing many things, including how much time and effort has already been put into planning and preparing the Husbands play production.] We don't understand why the estate won't do it.

This afternoon I'll try to reach you by telephone to confer about this question.

With kind regards,

Dirkje Houtman

Subject: Cassavetes Film Series

Dear Mr. Carney,

I'm a student at the University of Chicago proposing a Cassavetes retrospective series at Doc Films, our student-run theatre, for the fall. I'm looking for distribution, and I found out that you have the preview cut of Shadows. Would you be willing to screen it at Doc? Also, it would be an honor to have you introduce a film and host a discussion afterwards, as the preeminent Cassavetes scholar. The series will be ten films, starting with Shadows and ending with Love Streams, omitting such studio works as A Children's Hour.

I loved your book, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, by the way.


Alexandra Ensign

Ray Carney replies:

Dear Alexandra,

Good to hear from you! Yes, I'd be very interested in pursuing this. That is to say:

1) screening the first version of Shadows
2) moderating a panel discussion about it and other things
3) introducing other Cassavetes films and conducting audience discussions about them
4) and, while we're at it, screening both versions of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie as well and conducting discussions of them too
5) Possibly screening both versions of Faces too (if the Library of Congress can be prevailed upon)

But note that the devil is in the details. I don't want to fly into Chicago--or anywhere else--for anything less than a major, important, creative event. As noted above, that means that I would want to show both versions of Shadows and Bookie and to support the screenings with a scholarly panel or lecture series devoted to discussing Cassavetes' creative process. I would want to run a series of "high level", "professional" quality events. Introductions and post-screening discussions would have to be done "right," with enough time allowed for the discussions. Program notes and handouts would have to be part of the events. Etc. Etc. I am thinking in terms of a week or two of Cassavetes films and events in all.

In short, I don't want a quickie screening of Shadows or a quickie series of events that are attended by people who are not knowledgeable and seriously committed to the subject. I speak from (bitterly disappointing) experience. I have flown into too many festivals that aren't committed to serious presentations. They just want the box office dollars and prestige of being able to say that they are showing an unnknown film or presenting a premiere. That's why I have turned down similar previous inquiries from all over the world--because people are not willing to do this right. They want me to give them the film simply to bring in the crowds of viewers. I refuse to provide the film for that sort of occasion.

So in summary: I am willing to show the first version of Shadows anywhere, anytime, for anyone (a student film society, a professional scholarly meeting, a movie theater) if it is DONE RIGHT--meaning intelligently, carefully, in a way that allows people to learn things from the events, not merely walk in, walk out, and put two thumbs up or down. That is a waste of their time and a waste of my time.

Note that with the exception of a few of the events I have organized for Anthology Film Archive in New York long ago (all praise be to Jonas Mekas!), and a few of the events I conducted to support the national tour of Cassavetes' work after his death this has NEVER BEEN DONE BEFORE for Cassavetes. With these sole exceptions (and most of these events took place ten or fifteen years ago) there has NOT BEEN A SINGLE scholarly panel or film festival lecture devoted to Cassavetes' work. Ever. It's actually shocking to realize this. EVERY OTHER CASSAVETES EVENT of the past fifteen years, at Sundance, at Tribeca, at Denver, in L.A, in New York, EVERY CASSAVETES event all around the world, has, at most, simply consisted of wheeling in some know-nothing bimbo movie star to do a Q-and-A or sit on a panel with a bunch of other bimbo movie stars or directors. Seymour Cassel. Gena Rowlands. Peter Bogdanovich. Martin Scorsese. Or someone else with "name" value. Someone else who will "draw." I am not exaggerating when I say that there has been NOT ONE really intelligent, thoughtful, careful discussion of even a single film in front of an audience in this entire time. I know whereof I speak. I have been at most of the Cassavetes events in this period of time. My heart sinks at the cravenness, the celebrity worship, the shallowness, the glibness of the presentations. Artistic creation is turned into a bunch of comical anecdotes. Is that the meaning of life? Is that why we're here? To hear movie stars tell funny stories?

Without a single exception, the festivals and theaters and film series have been more interested in the drawing power of an idiot movie star than in having a serious discussion of Cassavetes' life, work, or creative process. Their priorities are totally backward. I speak from long and sad experience. The festivals spend dozens of hours making arrangements with Gena Rowlands or Peter Bogdanovich or someone similar and spend tens of thousands of dollars flying them in first class, shuttling them around in stretch limos, giving them fancy meals in five star restaurants, and putting them up in swanky hotel rooms, but when I ask the director to allow me to give a single serious lecture or hold a single serious discussion of a film (not a boring, tedious presentation, but simply a serious, thoughtful, informative one), they tell me they don't have the time! Or that their budget won't support it! Or that it will be too much trouble to arrange and publicize! I have attended dozens of these events in the past and played genial Master of Ceremonies, but I refuse to be part of another one. They are a waste of my time and of everyone else's. They are part of our sick culture of celebrity suck-up and adulation. I refuse to perpetuate it. Enough is enough.

Now what's in it for you, you ask? Because this has never been done before, I am certain that you could get national press coverage if you arranged the sort of events I have described. It would be the sort of event Roger Ebert, NPR, and many other news outlets should cover. The first intelligent, careful consideration of Cassavetes' life and work. For that reason alone, it would bring in a large audience. I am certain it would be a success, intellectually and commercially. And I would love to be part of it. But, to reiterate: to provide the first version of Shadows and to come in and do an intro. for a screening or two is not something I am willing to do or even to discuss.

Perhaps your next step would be to see if there is any interest in (or support from) the U of Chicago film faculty for this. Let's get some professors on board. Let's get some scholars involved. Or you might approach the Gene Siskel Film Study Center (a good place). If you got a few people to commit to it, I would LOVE to discuss this further, but again, it has to be done handsomely and intelligently or there is no point in going any further with our discussions.

Feel free to forward this email to anyone else who might help. If they don't know who I am or what the first version of Shadows is, tell them to go to my web site:

All best wishes,
Ray Carney


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