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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 Professor Carney,

This is a bit lengthy, but something I've wanted to share with you for a long time:

I'd like to share something with you something that I experienced with Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration.

I got my VHS copy from Amazon in 2002. I had been looking for a way to get a copy of that film two year prior for I guess at the time the wrong reasons: hype, blah-blah, use of digital video, Dogme 95, blah-blah, tight script, incredible acting, dark subject matter, blah-blah

Sadly, I had sort of spoiled it by reading online a little bit about the film's storyline, but that still didn't prepare me for the experience of watching the film ... How my emotions and thoughts changed and shifted from one scene to the next, how I couldn't pin down most of the "characters", how my laughter at certain moments was what my friend calls "life laughter" since you it is as you write "from the shock of recognizing something true", and the most baffling of all to me at the time, emotional-wise, how could a film make me feel sorry for Helge (the patriarch who molested his twin children Christian and Linda). That I would feel sympathy for this man who had committed these horrible acts of betrayal towards his children as his youngest son Michael was drunkenly beating him up.

In any other movie (and this kind of subject matter is staple for most of our Philippine melodramas), I'd be cheering along with audience with every slap and kick of Michael on Helge's face and gut. But I couldn't. I just couldn't ... And that final speech at the dinner table was just heartbreaking ...

I've shown the film to many other people and have had some interesting and unique reactions. (I would say that because of its deceptively familar storyline and characters and narrative presentation, that most people of different backgrounds or age groups from college level to middle age that I've shown it to find it more "accessible" or can "ride on" compared to when I try to screen What Happened Was or some of Cass's more difficult work. But its style of course bludgeons them into submission and sensitivity that they don't understand right away. Just like I did.) Some people have told me that they felt like the film was pulling them back and forth, side to side, every which way. One said that she didn't know anymore who was telling the truth. Another lay on my bed for several minutes just quiet, overwhelmed by his feelings ... The two most interesting reactions came from when I showed it to my film appre! ciation class (I taught for one semester at our State University). I told my students to go take their bathroom breaks and to buy food (the class was from 9 am to 12 noon), since I didn't want them to miss anything from the film. And like the cruel person that I am, I sprang the film on them without any background information or warning. Thirty minutes into the film, the food on their plates remained untouched. By the end, one half of the class was dead quiet and the other half was violently arguing whether it was "proper" for Michael to have beat up his dad.

I'll save the most interesting reaction for last: my dad said, after seeing it, "they're ganging up on the father!"

The incest and sexual abuse I know now is the just the jump-off point and not what the film is really "about".

It took almost three years and dozens of repeat viewings to understand why the film has those particular effects on people ... To be able to stir such emotional responsiveness and sensitivity ...

I must admit, I've borrowed some of your ideas from your FACES chapter (The Films of John Cassavetes), particularly on the film's style keeping the audience totally open, and particularly on editing since I perceive that Vinterberg is operating in a similar vein, but one that he dug up himself. (Not in a copycat manner.) I'll get to the editing later.

Structure and Style had a lot to do with it I realized. On structure: why does the revelation about the incest and sexual abuse happen a third into the film? Not at the beginning, Not in the middle, not at the end (like some revelation or solution to a mystery being revealed.)

This revelation coming after the first third, I realized, is necesarry for that first third of the film, the structure and the style working towards - as you wrote of FACES - leaving the audience completely open to possibility.

We are left completely open to possibility by everything from the performances, the camerawork, the scripting, and the editing, etc.

I'd like to first tackle the editing since it's one of the things that we notice right away. Vinterberg here practices something similar but different to FACES non-judgemental editing (as you wrote). This is illustrated particularly in the sequence with the siblings in the three different rooms (Christian with Pia the maid, Michael and his wife Mette and Helene with Lars the concierge.) In most films, the use of parallel editing would be to compare the relationships between the three couples, but here, Vinterberg uses editing in a different manner.

Again, as you wrote in FACES, at the point where the audience is about to make a mental conclusion about one couple's situation, Vinterberg makes his cut and we are shifted to another couple's point of view causing us to begin the formulation of another conclusion and again at the point of reaching the scene's point, he makes the another cut shifting us to the other couple and so on ...

This type of shock editing has seen similar use in horror and suspense films, but here instead of leaving us with just a fright or a shock, Vinterberg leaves us with a stimulating pattern of thought and feeling. He asks us to jump start our dormant and passive thoughts and emotions. We are kept on our toes, the best place thoughts and feelings should be. And what is the point of all this internal gymnastics?

Like Cassavetes before him, Vinterberg is in the service of a moral vision: to keep the audience open to the experience of life. To strip or to ask us to question our pre-conceived notions. To ask us to understand and empathize instead of condemn and judge.

The film's narrative structure also lends itself to this vision. Despite the hype, the one of the Dogme 95 rules helped contribute to this: the film must happen in the here and now. No spatial or temporal tricks are allowed. As pointed out by one of my friends, the use of a flashback (majority of other films would have probably used a flashback) would have greatly affected our perception of Helge. And just the same, placing a scene at the beginning showing Helge or making a mystery of who abused the twins would have greatly affected our perception of Helge.

Through the first third, we get to know, as in life, the people involved. It takes time to get people involved. An example I would like to deal with from the first third is Michael. The youngest of the siblings, he appears to be the most emotionally volatile and violent (funny that in a way he resembles Gary Oldman in that respect), a character given to stereotypical behavior in most films, but he surprises us here with his sudden turns of feeling, his sudden changes of emotion that the scripting and performance are able to turn him towards. Two examples illustrate this from the first third. The first example is when he shows up with Christian at the hotel desk to talk with Lars the concierge. First his tone is condescending being the "son of the owner" at getting a room for him and his brother, then it suddenly ! shifts to embarrassment after Lars reveals that Helge has not invited him (the power continuum shifts here as Lars takes control), then Michael bursts into irritation and near anger to cover up his early embarrassment and to try to bully Lars back into submission, then he settles into mortification after Christian steps in to keep the peace between them. Michael has gone through three or four different emotional tones in one scene alone.

The second example is a combination of camerawork, editing and performance during the three siblings room sequence. Michael is anxious looking for his black shoes for his dad's formal dinner. He asks Mette where they are. She looks through the bag. His tone is dominating and impatient. She informs him that she left them behind. He throws a tantrum. He tries to bully Mette into driving two hours back to their house to get his black shoes for the formal dinner. They get into heated argument that degenerates into a screaming match. (The camerawork has reached a feverish pace of panning back and forth at this point.) The scene cuts to another couple. When it cuts back to them, Michael is half-embarrassed, and half-remorseful over what happened. He asks her timidly if they can lie down. He unbuttons his shirt. The scene cuts to another couple. When it cuts back to them. Michael (in his briefs) sits on one side of the bed. Mette's overalls fall to the floor, she sits on the other side of the bed in her shirt and panties. They sit there in awkward silence before she asks him to come over. Everything comes together in this sequence where we are left, if not unable to make a conclusion, forced to keep changing it ...

... And then there is Christian, the "hero"? Our protagonist full of flaws. The "victim'? But what realize only much later on is what irritates and endears himself to us at the same time are his deep flaws ...

By the time the revelation of the abuse comes during the first dinner speech it is already too late. Just as you wrote of Richard, Freddie and Jeannie, by the time we learn of what Helge did and what this family is like, it is too late. They, the Klingenfeld-Hansens have already entrenched themselves into our minds and hearts as individuals and we can no longer dismiss them as general concepts.

It is much easier to judge and despise the idea of someone rather than the actual person. If Helge had been given to us as concept, "the dominating patriarch turned child rapist", he would be much "easier" to deal with. But as a person, someone who might even be our own father, we cannot blot him out as easily.

Just as I asked myself and my students, "You can't hate him, can you?"

Actually, the question of whether or not Helge did abuse the twins becomes secondary at some point because as any jaded film buff might figure out by the first third, Linda's note holds the answer. So the film isn't even about that "truth". So why then bother going through all this?

It's one example of film that illustrates "it's not the destination, but the journey there." Again, in the process of watching the film and going through the experiences, we are being molded and shaped to hopefully become more open and sensitive to life and other people no matter how dark things may seem ...

That's all for now. There's so much more I want to write. I suddenly realize that I want to write a piece on the film. (Pardon if the style resembles yours a lot, haven't really found my own yet, and the piece is unfinished and crude.)

But basically thanks, even though you said web pages suck, your web pages, the Cass books (The Film of JC, Cass on Cass) were the best film school for me. They were a great guide in my coming into my own understanding of the Celebration. And yes, understanding great works of art take time ... The difference between that statement before and actually experiencing something like it is also completely different.

Stay true,

Subject: Why Art Matters: A collection of essays, interviews, and lectures on life and art

This is payment for a re-purchase of Why Art Matters: A collection of essays, interviews, and lectures on life and art. I first bought this collection as an undergraduate film student. It was the most inspirational thing I ever read. I since went to graduate school for film production, lent it, and never got it back, and I need it again to try to remind me what it was like to at one time be an artist. Thank you for being the one person that I can connect with out here.

Andrew Lang
Associate Producer for Extreme Makeover

Ray Carney replies:

Subject: Illegitium non carborundum


Wow. Thanks for the kind words. Made my day.

What a show you are part of.... Well, keep on trucking. And keep the faith. I've had my own crosses to bear in the past year, so there's times I have to read my own words to keep believing! The world wants to beat it out of us. But I refuse. I refuse to let them!!!

I'm crazy busy with term papers and grades right now, but shall get to mail this next Monday probably so you should have it by the end of the week.

All best wishes,

Mr. Carney,

When the day started, I didn't expect to be writing you. Last night, I saw "Shadows" by John Cassavetes. I was so impressed and amazed by it that I did a web search about him today and came upon your site. When I read all of the "stuff" (for lack of a better word) that has been going on with you and his I never knew or imagined. Anyway, I have three questions for you.

First, on, it says the DVD of "Faces" that was released in the Cassavetes Box Set includes 17 minutes of opening footage not seen before. I don't understand why Ms. Rowland would allow this to be shown when she didn't want the footage you found of "Faces" to be shown or the first edit of "Shadows" to be shown?

Second, why would Ms. Rowland's allow your essay to be included on the back and insert of the "Shadows" DVD which states there was an earlier version of "Shadows" which she claims does not exist?

And third, I read an online review of "Shadows" which states the original "Shadows" was a movie about racism and the longer version that was released was not about racism. After viewing "Shadows", I feel that while the longer version is not explicitly about racism it is still an integral part of the film. Was this person trying to say that the first version was entirely about racism?

Thank You very much for your time. Before last night, John Cassavetes was a tribute song done by the band Le Tigre. I had never gotten the chance to see any of his films. Now, I want to know as much about the man as I can.

Be Sound,
Skip Mountain

Ray Carney replies:

Mr. Mt.,

Sorry to be brief, but I am inundated by emails from all over the world, each expecting personal answers.

Short answer: All of your questions are answered in my writing. Buy the books--from the site or elsewhere. But some of the books are available only on the site (Necessary Experiences, What's Wrong...., and Why Art Matters, for example). Read the books.

Less short answer (but still brief):

1) Gena Rowlands and Al Ruban kicked and screamed and resisted releasing both any of Faces and any of the alternate cut of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (and of course the first version of Shadows too). I fought for the inclusion of all three. But I, via producer Johanna Schiller and boss Peter Becker, did persuade them that they were shooting themselves in the foot with their obduracy. That they were wrong, stupid, foolish. After months of persuasion, they finally saw the light in part and including the 17 min. of Faces and the other version of Bookie were the compromises they agreed to. They never would agree to including the first version of Shadows. I took a bullet in the end for all of it. But I did the right thing. Neither of the other films' (Faces and Bookie) alternate material would be in the set at all if I hadn't pushed for months.

2) I can't understand your question. My writing on Shadows is NOT included in the Criterion DVD. (I do have a set of essays on another DVD set about Cassavetes done years ago by Pioneer but that is a different matter.) Nor was the voice-over commentary I spent weeks writing and three days recording in a sound studio. Gena threw that overboard when she made me walk the plank. The voice-over was removed and all references to it having been done were suppressed. You won't find a whisper of any of it -- or of my considerable involvement -- in the box set, the publicity, or the reviews. It's a little like the way the old Communist and Fascist regimes worked. Rowlands re-wrote history by forcing Criterion to remove references to anything that didn't tell the story her way. All references to the voice-over work I did and to every other aspect of my massive input into the DVD set were removed by Criterion. That's the way real censorship works. When you don't like something, it ceases to have ever existed.

3) As to the racial themes in Shadows, see my Faber/Farrar Cassavetes on Cassavetes and British Film Institute Shadows books. They have much about this. The books not the web site. As to whether the first version is more "racial" than the second: No, it's not. Whoever wrote that doesn't know what he/she is talking about. (Not the only one I would put into this category.) There are many many differences between the versions, many different scenes and even different characters, too much to summarize here; but one difference I can put into a few words is to say that the first version is much more about the boys than the later version and much more told from a male perspective. It throws a lot of light on Husbands in this respect.

In haste,

Dear Professor Carney,

How are youI do hope you are wellI hope you remember me...but I would understand if you do notI know that this email probably appears out of nowhere to youI hope you don't mind hearing from an old student.

I was just thinking back to something I remember you saying in class one dayI was in the midst of writing and there was a point I was just staring off into space (writer's block)I am living in
Hong Kong now and writer's block is a common occurence amidst the physical and mental clatter and congestion that exists here on a non-stop basisI was feeling increasingly frustrated when what you said one day in class suddenly came back to meYou said, "Great art is always about love"That phrase has been resonating ever since....and I realize now that I am not sure I truly understandThe more I think about it, the more I get a feeling or sense of what you mean but I cannot clarify it into a concise thoughtWould you mind helping me out a littleI know it isn't easy to explain over email and you are probably very busy...but I would appreciate it so much if you could.

I really hope you understand how much your class and your lectures helped me towards understanding film, art, and hopefully more about lifeI am just one student of many...but your influence as a teacher was singularly importantThank you.

~Candy Soo

Ray Carney replies:

Candy Soo,

Of course I remember you!!! Last May I even went to some dumb award presentation where you had named me as a favorite teacher or something in hopes of thanking you for it, but you stood me up. You weren't there! : )

I think what I meant was to say that the greatest art is ultimately positive, not negative. It loves rather than hates. It loves its characters rather than sneers at them. It cares rather than dismisses. So it's an act of love.

Here is something I said in an interview shortly after that class that might clarify the thought. I was saying that certain filmmakers don't love enough in their work to be great artists:

Why do you think there has been a trend of anti-sentimental films in recent years?

The epilogue to my Leigh book talks about this. It's a way of bursting the bubble, of revealing that the empress is wearing a pushup bra. Black comedy surfaces when options for truth-telling are blocked or frustrated. Society always tries to paper over its imaginative San Andreas faults. One of the jobs of an artist is to reveal the gaps and inconsistencies in the cultural cover story. Artists have been doing this for centuries. In the expansionist, optimistic, go-go Elizabethan period - so much like our own Wall Street greed-crazed Reagan-Bush years - Kyd and Marlowe wrote these brilliant, dark, sardonic comedies - Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, The Spanish Tragedy. That was in 1590. At the height of the Eisenhower snooze-fest and the Kennedy-Camelot-preppie touch football game, Kubrick made Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove. In the peace-love-Woodstock era, Altman and Penn unleashed Mash and Bonnie and Clyde. Altman has been turning over Betsy Ross's stitching and forcing us to look at the bad side for more than thirty years. Someone has to do that from time to time.

Todd Solondz, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sam Mendez, and Neil LaBute flourish because they tell us something we need to hear. America is a relentlessly upbeat, optimistic culture. A sentimental culture with an immature view of life. Look at how 9/11 affected us. That's a sign of our immaturity. We see things in terms of black and white, good and evil, us versus them. These filmmakers correct our vision. They make the darkness visible.

They tell us that the dominant culture is screening out reality. They tell us that its mass-produced feel-good emotional costume jewelry is junk. That Hollywood is devoted to systematic, life-denying acts of repression. Magnolia, American Beauty, Your Friends and Neighbors, and Happiness are purgatives. Enemas to flush out the sentimental crap. Their causticness, irony, and satire are positive in this respect. They are the last refuge of the truth-telling, caring heart in hiding - forced underground by the happy-face fakery of American culture in the pre-9/11 decade.

But that doesn't mean these films are great works of art. I wouldn't say that of Marlowe's or Kyd's plays either. Shakespeare was the great artist of their era - because his art, like all great art, came out of love, trust, and sympathy, not sarcasm, illusion-shattering, and cynicism. The work of Altman, LaBute, Solondz, and the others is too purely negative. It isn't enough to show what is wrong. You have to find a way to affirm what is right, without denying what is. A lot of their work is mean-spirited, ungenerous, spiritually stingy, and emotionally closed. They take cheap shots. In other words, they are afraid. Before they can be real artists they have to risk more by loving more, or daring to tell us what they love. That's dangerous for an artist. It's always easier to mock and sneer, particularly if your audience is people in their late teens and early twenties because satire is what they are most comfortable with at that age.

There is more on this on my web site at the following url link:

Best wishes to you in Hong Kong! Let me know if you are ever back in Boston.


Dear Professor Carney,
I recently discovered the genius of John Cassavetes while taking a film course entitled "Images of Women in American Film 1960-1990." I was blown away by A Woman Under the Influence. Screening the film for the film club I advise at
Weymouth High School, where I teach, was one of the high points of my career. The kids also were fascinated by the film, and a rabid discussion followed. Subsequently, I began a quest to learn everything I could about Cassavetes.  I found your book, and also your website. In perusing your website, I found your essay regarding the first print of Shadows to be fascinating. I noted your comment that anyone hoping to see the first version of this film needs to sit in on one of your classes when you screen it, and was wondering when you were next screening it, and if I might impose upon you to sit in on your class to view the film. Thank you for your scholarship and for your time.
John Pappas
Language Arts Department
Weymouth High School

Ray Carney replies:

Thanks John. That's a Greek name isn't it? Reminds me of the time I flew to Tarpon Springs, Florida to speak to a Greek organization run by a guy named John Pyros. The only time in my experience any group of Greeks has shown the slightest interest in Cassavetes. Strange, eh? Other ethnic groups are better at supporting "their people." You know the groups I mean. Well, that's my experience at least. So it's nice to get an inquiry that is an exception.

As to your question: I feel I've answered it a gad-zillion times already: Yes, you are welcome to come if I show it. But no, it won't be shown anytime in the near future in my classes. My grad students (and most of the undergrads, who are--speaking frankly--slightly more "hip" to "what's happening") are just not interested in seeing it. I showed it last year and half of them slept through the screening, or at least didn't seem to give a darn. Conducting a post-screening discussion was like pulling teeth. I honestly believe that if I announced a course tomorrow on "Behind the Scenes: John Cassavetes' creative process: the examples of Shadows, Faces, Husbands, Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Love Streams" (all films that I have four or five screenplay versions of and/or multiple edits of in my possession to share with the class and discuss), it would not enroll enough students to be offered. The grad. students (and most undergrads, also) would rather take courses in Tarantino, The Matrix, the Coen brothers, Hong Kong cinema, film theory, Japanese anime, feminist film ("Images of Women in Film"?!), Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Star Wars -- or practically anything other than Cassavetes. And my Dean would prefer that too. Fashion slaves all. That's the reality in which I live. I've resigned myself to it. So no pulling teeth. No Shadows first version screenings.

Sorry to be discouraging, but them there's just the facts, ma'am. As a fellow teacher (and "Film Club" advisor), I'm sure you know the feeling. Sometimes what matters most to you and me is completely irrelevant to them. And to most of America. (I have yet to see a single report in the mass American media on the discovery.)

All best wishes,


Hello, Mr. Carney:

My name is WJ Bookman, and most of my  life I'm concerned with what we call "cinema" and everything related to it. I came upon your website and read a few of your articles. Interesting. If I may, I would like to ask a question (and I hope I'm not out-of-line), which it would be grateful if you could answer:  From reading your open letter to the next generation of filmmakers, a question(s)came up to mind, Does life equals cinema? Is cinema's role to imitate life? What is the role of cinema?

Seeing that you have written a great many books and that your thoughts and comments are published, I would feel honored to get a response from you.

Thank you for your time.

Until then,

WJ Bookman

Ray Carney replies:

I'm not sure what your question means. Of course life isn't film. And film isn't life (which is what I think you meant to ask). But film must capture the truths, the experiences, the feelings of life. Or else it might as well be chess. Which is what Spielberg, Stone, and Coen brothers movies are. But film doesn't capture the forces of life by merely imitating them, by putting little versions of life up on screen. It is art after all. It must find a way to translate life into shots, sounds, sequences, movements, images. Read my book on Leigh. My Cassavetes books too. They explain how art can capture and represent life's energy, fluidity, and flow.


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