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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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Subject: Please read this even if you may not care to

Mr. Carney,

I am writing today to plead with you to help me in any way possible. No, I don't need money. Well I do but I'm not a degenerate so I'm not going to ask you. The truth is I'm a huge fan of yours. Since I saw your intro in Rick Schmidt's Feature Filmmaking at Used-car Prices, I was hooked.

I wrote to you and you sent me back several articles and interviews that you had done. It made me very happy not to get a form letter back or a BU iron on patch stuffed in an envelope. I had already wanted to be a filmmaker before but this encouraged me even more.

That was about 7 years ago. Since then, I have tried to make films with people that have no passion. They've read every book about filmmaking but they lack the passion. I gave up on them two years ago and since have gotten into school with only one goal, to be in your classroom and out on the streets making film. I've taken the long way to get to this point but I'm tired of wasting time. I know how the college system can sometimes can be bureaucratic that's why I'm coming straight to you. I'm going to spend the next semester taking a couple extra classes at night and saving some money. Whatever you tell me to do, I'll do to get in.

I'm not going to make this any longer, but I want to thank you for your time and your fight. Hopefully, I'll see you soon.

Shane Ford

Ray Carney replies:


Thanks very much for the kind words.

I'm not sure I understand exactly what you are asking, but if it's about sitting in on my classes, I have a reply to a similar question on page 35 of my Mailbag pages. But maybe that's not what you are saying. In fact, I hope it isn't, since I'm not sure why you would want to do it and it would not be the best use of your time and energy.

If you want to learn more about art, study at the feet of the great artists. The artists are the real teachers. Not me. Not any professor. The artists. I learned virtually everything I know not in a classroom but in a theater or from a book, not from a teacher but from an artist. Not by talking to him or her, but from going to dances and plays, listening to music, watching movies, reading stories and novels. If you want to learn to make art, study the masterpieces. I have a page on the site where I make recommendations for entering grad students. Check it out. (Click here to go there). Study how Mozart's and Bach's music keeps you in the moment and apply it to acting. Study how George Balanchine or Paul Taylor organize their dance pieces and apply it to narrative form. Study how Cosi fan Tutti or Le Nozze di Figaro mix farce and lyricism, the Three Stooges and romance, and use it to explore questions about a work's tone. Study Chekhov's dialogue to learn how to write screenplay dialogue. Look at what Tom Noonan does in terms of pauses, shifts of beat, and emotional zig-zags and use it as a way to create drama.

These works are the only real teachers. Everything else is a waste of your time. Especially college, where too many of the faculty and students are no different from the people you've worked with on films. They are just doing what is required of them, doing their jobs. What a funny concept that is--a job! Doing a job is never enough. It's passive. Make yourself active. Plan your own course of study. Study at the feet of the artists. They are the wise ones, the ones you call the passionate ones. Steal their secrets and make something of your own out of them. The doing is what is important. That is the other problem with college. The passivity. It involves sitting still and listening to someone else's ideas. Not actively doing, thinking, puzzling through, enegetically dissecting, actively engaging with things. College will make you passive. It will suit you to do a job. It is the intellectual equivalent of TV. It keeps you in place. It makes you a recipient of knowledge not a creator of it. Don't go (back to) college. Make your own course of study. With the great ones. The artists.

Good luck!


Subject: Want to Discuss Bujalski, Cassavetes, Etc w/ You Next Week

Hi Ray, apologies for the weird subject line, trying to get past your spam defenses. Do you know that you'd get a whole lot less spam if you didn't literally post your email address on your webpage? Just post "raycarney -at-". People will know what to do and most spam robots will be stymied.

Anyway, I came across your work after reading an interview with Andrew Bujalski in which he mentioned your influence on his first film's success. From there I read each of the articles and interviews available on your site and then ordered your three collections available via paypal. I want to say thank you for making them available to me and taking the time to sign them. (Click here to learn about the collections of material.)

I am a young filmmaker and have finished one short film, with a second now in the can. (My short will be playing at Slamdance 2006 and is available at if you'd like to see it. It's entitled MY MOM AND DAD by Andrew Brotzman.) Your writings influenced the direction I took with my second short, which is radically different from the first, and I'd like to talk to you about the inconsistencies I haven't been able to reconcile between your requests/demands of filmmakers and the things they say they look for specifically. I see eye to eye with you on the bulk of your criticism, but other essays and interviews about and with filmmakers like Terrance Malick, Robert Altman, and David Gordon Green lead me to believe that they are executing their films with the exact goals that you talk about (excluding, in some cases, their specific choice of narrative). I'm sure you're familiar with their points of view and I'd be interested in discussing these things with you. Are you at all available for a chat on Thursday the 22nd around noon? I'll be traveling through Boston from New York and would love to meet you, talk to you about my filmmaking, and get some of these things cleared up that have been troubling me for you'll get a free lunch out of it.

If for whatever reason you'll be at the Mutual Appreciation screening tomorrow in NYC, let me know. I'll be there.andrew brotzman

Ray Carney replies:


Thanks for the kind words. Two dear friends are showing their work at Slamdance: Dina DeCola and Karin Wandner, the actors-directors-writers of Five More Minutes. Look out for it. It's very good. And very daring. A brave work. That's so rare.

I'm not sure how to reply to your note. To start with: I'm sorry that I won't be in Boston over the term break. I flee to the country and hide out and try to get some writing done. So lunch won't work out. But I am a bit confused by your concern, if I understand you correctly, that my ideas are different from Terrence Malick's or Robert Altman's or David Gordon Green's. I don't know exactly what you are referring to, but if they are saying something different, praise be. Vive la differance! It would be a boring world if everyone said the same things in the same ways. Art would be science not art. Heck, I'm sure I contradict myself on alternate Tuesdays. So what? There are many windows in the house of art. Many different views, many different ways of making art. That's the point. It's as individual as our DNA, as different as each one of us. Only factories like Hollywood turn out ten or twenty kinds of similar products (thrillers, farces, romances, quests, costume dramas, etc.) on similar assembly lines, made in similar ways to create similar kinds of experience. That's why they are not works of art. And who wants to work in a factory? Or buy factory-made products. That's McDonald's and Applebee's, not home cooking -- let alone gourmet cooking!

What is important is to make YOUR movie. Not Altman's or Green's or Malick's -- or mine! The kind of movie ONLY YOU can make. Anything else is factory work. Even if you are imitating a master, it's not YOU. Tell YOUR truth in YOUR way. That means in the end throwing away everything you have been told by everyone. Everything.

Of course it can be beneficial to hear what others think. But the best way to do that with art is to look at an artist's work. Not their interviews, but their work. Don't pay attention to what they say, but look at what they do. That's why I wouldn't worry too much about what Altman or Kubrick or even Cassavetes says. Look at what they do if you want to find out what they are thinking.

But in the end you have to throw it all away and go down your own path. That's why lunch with me, even if it were possible, is not really important. Anyway, what could I say at a lunch that I haven't said in the millions of words I've already written in books and essays or spoken in interviews? I promise you: the lunch would be a disappointment. I'm a very ordinary person. Nothing special. My work is the best I can be. It's actually more interesting than I am as a person. Even when I talked with Cassavetes, I thought this half the time. I would sit there and think to myself "but his films are so interesting and what he's saying right now is so ordinary -- or wrong!" : ) In my books I open a vein and let it all come out. In my life, nothing that exciting is really going on. It's all very boring most of the time. That's all you'd get out of a lunch with me. The boring part. What I call the peanut-butter part. As as first year graduate student, I went out to lunch with a faculty member I was ga-ga about in terms of his writing and all he talked about was the difference between different brands of peanut butter. Of course, there are exceptions--people that I'd study with no matter what they talked about--but I'm not one of them. I once knew a Zen master that I thought was interesting no matter what he talked about. I remember telling a friend I'd study with him even if all he taught was farming. But I'm not a Zen master! I'd end up talking about farming and just plain bore you.

But the great artists never will. Study their work. Steal their secrets. But make YOUR kind of movies. The ones only you can make.

Best wishes,


A response from the same writer to the preceding reply:

Thanks for the generous reply, I appreciate it. Sorry to hear we won't be able to meet this time around, but mainly I just wanted to say that your writing and POV on film has been eye-opening to me, and the film's you've exposed to me have been literally life-altering experiences.

The thing that I suppose confused you about my email is that you have been a harsh critic of Malick and Altman specifically, and have made very clear statements about what it is you wish filmmakers would do. However, when I read interviews with them (Altman especially) it's almost as if they have read your writing and are trying to follow it chapter and verse. I'm not saying I am at all eager to make films similar to theirs (I'm not), it's just that I enjoy some of their films greatly and have had difficulty reconciling their films, their statements, and your criticisms of them (excluding, as I said, their choices of narratives, which are at times intentionally predictable). My question to you is does this matter? And why do you find Altman's material so heinous, given his expressed desire to achieve his films in a manner similar to those you admire? (Ignore his choice of narrative for a moment).

Thanks for your correspondence.

Ray Carney replies:

Dear Andrew,

Ah, I see I misunderstood what you were saying. You mean we all spout the same THEORY but believe in different kinds of MOVIES. Same ideas, different results. I guess the only response I can make is to say trust the tale and not the teller. Look at what the filmmaker makes, and not what he says. It all goes to show that theory doesn't count for very much, I guess. I can't tell you how often I've gone to events, banquets, lunches, cocktail parties with famous Hollywood filmmakers, real hacks I mean, who spent the entire time telling me how "subversive" their hack slasher movie was, what a radical critique of capitalism was embedded in their stupid romantic comedy, what double meanings resided in their thriller. They had all the theory down pat, like a college professor; but their movies were worthless anyway. I'm sure Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg talk a good game too. I'm sure their theories are as radical as mine. Probably more radical in fact. But that just goes to show that talk is cheap. And buzz words can be thrown around by anyone. As they say, even the Devil can quote scripture. So all I can say is for you to let the work of art, the movie itself, be your teacher, your guide, your instructor. Not me. Not the theories. Not the fashionable buzz words.

But as to what I think of this or that particular fashionable, media approved, Charlie Rose sanctioned filmmaker, from Spielberg to Stone to Ron Howard, there's just too much to say in an email. My books have a lot on this subject, and future and forthcoming books will have more. That's the best I can do for now. But to repeat my previous email to you: IT'S NOT WHAT I THINK THAT MATTERS. It's what YOU think. It's what YOU are. It's what YOU can give the world that no one else on earth can. In the end, when all is said and done, your goal should be to forget me. Forget my theories. Forget my buzz words too. They are only to inspire you to dare to go your own way, to throw a quick light on something or other, to force you to think on your own, to go down your own path your own way. That's the goal.

Go, man, go!


Ray -

Thanks again for the Dreyer book, very much looking forward to reading it over break. Finally saw Love Streams, finally finished Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies, both of which were truly excellent. I have some questions about some of Love Streams stylistic elements that weren't really covered in the book, but I'll save them for class. Do unpublished chapters exist on Husbands or Opening Night?

Anyway, I wanted to ask about your feelings regarding performative style in film. Even within your personal canon of great movies, all of which seemingly refute conventional notions of dramatic / idealized acting, I still feel there's some kind of divide in regards to acting styles. In one camp, one could probably place figures such as Cassavetes, Morrisey, late May, early Jarmusch, up through Andrew Bujalski. In the other camp I'd posit artists like Leigh, Dreyer, Bresson. The key difference between the two groups, I think, is that the former have a nearly inscrutable looseness to the performances in their films, one that masks the fundamental structures and meanings of each scene, let alone the entire film. Acting in the films of the second group, while still largely refuting conventional dramatic presentation, seems in comparison pared down to semi-essential structures (Bresson's "models," Bleak Moments' introverts, etc.), which for me, ultimately yield easier readings of the work. Not to mention, the flow of the former just seems to feel more like real life. Still on the fence as to which category people like Renoir, Ozu and De Sica would fit.

It's almost 5 a.m., so this may not be making any sense. Maybe it didn't make any sense to begin with. Am I wrong to sense this dichotomy? Is it there, but insignificant? If it does exist, does it make one or the other set more interesting or valuble as artists? Should I not even judge such obviously brilliant filmmakers against one another? I ask partially out of academic interest, and partially out of selfishness.... Very unsure about what type of direction I want to push my own work -- I feel very differently on different days. All in all, as usual, I'm very confused... not necessarily a bad thing, but troubling nonetheless.

(My apologies for the preceding grammar.)

- Alex

Ray Carney replies:


Good to hear from you. Too much to say about a complex subject. Intellectual categories, oppositions, alternatives are useful. They can force us to clarify our experiences. Keep digging. Keep categorizing. Then throw the categories away after you've used them up.

On the subject of film acting, all I'll say is that it always surprises what a mystery it still is. How film scholars, critics, professors have ignored it, downplayed it, overlooked it to focus on visual stylistics, lighting, camera movements, symbols, metaphors. How can they be so stupid? How can they miss the boat so completely? It's like watching a dance but forgetting about the movements and steps and talking instead about the costuming or props. Or listening to an opera and forgetting to talk about the orchestration and notes and key changes, and trying to talk about the characters' psychology and events. It's missing the boat. So anything you discover will be news.

The professors have missed the boat for so long about so many aspects of art.....

Forgive the brevity of this reply. Miles to go.... etc.

I hope you have a restful and restorative break.

Best wishes,


A response from the same writer to the preceding reply:

Thanks for the long reply. Seriously. You're absolutely right. Which is why I'm forced to direct these questions at you instead of my peers or any of the other professors in the program... Even the acting and directing teachers don't really seem to get it. Did I ever tell you about the course I took on Renoir here? He was treated more or less as a strictly political filmmaker. "Rules of the Game" is apparently a tract about pre-WWII aristocratic corruption, etc. Some structural elements regarding camerawork and "coupling of figures" were mentioned... That was about it.

Have a "restful and restorative" break yourself! Couldn't have put it any better what I am desperately in need of at the moment. That said -- will definitely continue pestering you about this subject in class next semester.

Happy Holidays!
- Alex

A note from Ray Carney:

I received a DVD of Frank V. Ross's Quietly on By in the mail unconscionably long ago. I'm embarrassed to admit that -- what with one thing and another -- I didn't sit down to look at it until the other night. That was my loss. It's really wonderful. I don't think it's been released yet, but if you have a chance to catch it at a festival or special screening, by all means do. And let me know what you think.

Quietly on By is a delicate mood piece centered around the life of of a sensitive but lonely and lost central figure. Aaron is in mourning for a love affair that didn't work out and a life that seems to be on hold. This is the territory many recent films, including some of the works of Wes Anderson, have mined; but what makes Ross's film special is the authenticity of the characters, performances, and setting. Nothing is heightened or exaggerated (except perhaps for the very first scene, which I could imagine being eliminated to the film's benefit) and none of the characters or their relationships is cartooned or caricatured.

Ross beautifully captures the longing and aimlessness of a certain emotional moment all of us have experienced in our lives. All of the performances are strong, but look out for one actor in particular, the one who plays Mike in the film. He steals the movie. He's amazing! He operates at a completely different level from the others, as good as they are. I predict great things for him.

A postscript: I went to Ross's web site (click here to go there) to look up this actor's name, but unfortunately (and somewhat strangely), it isn't listed in the film's credits. Well, he's still worth looking out for anyway. And so is the entire film.


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