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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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I emailed the following reply to a reporter for a major national newspaper who called and wrote me asking for advice and input about some Hollywood movies. I print it here so that other reporters can PLEASE TAKE NOTE!!!! --R.C.

Dear XXX

Thanks for the call and the email, but I'm sorry I can't help you. Just not up my alley. I'm not a Hollywood person at all. Alas and yippee. My specialty is "art film," "independent film," "the predicament of the artist in America," "the (pernicious) forces of the market economy on creative expression," "self-censorship by artists in order to sell their work," "the ability of money and power to affect what journalists review," "the failure of the media to do justice to high culture," "the academic sell-out to pop-culture values," and that sort of thing. Probably anathema to (name of newspaper), I realize. The opposite point of view. And the cultural situation is dire. But you won't read about it in (name of newspaper) of course.

But if you ever have any questions about how artists can survive late-capitalist values, about how difficult (impossible?) it is to do important artistic work in a market economy (and get it reviewed and appreciated), and, more generally, about the uneasy relation of art and commerce in America, and how it affects what is taught in our universities, what films are made and reviewed, and the massive skewing of cultural values and misallocation of artistic resources that results, I'm your man.


Ray Carney

A note from Ray Carney:

By coincidence, the following email arrived in the same group as the request from the above reporter for an interview. If you don't think all of American business is mobilized to keep you distracted and "entertained," and that there is a difference between American film, television, journalism, and corporate interests, read the following. General Motors has asked me to encourage my students to participate. Of course, they are perfectly willing to reimburse you for the price of your soul. They offer red-carpet access to the stars and air-time on the internet. Who could turn that down? How much is your soul worth? Don't get left out of the hoopla. Hurry and apply now, or you might miss the chance of a lifetime to be famous for ninety seconds. --RC

Dear Professor Carney,

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for your students to gain valuable experience covering some of the world's most exciting pop culture events and the celebrities and trendsetters who attend them. Those selected to ride shotgun will have the opportunity to score exclusive interviews and play an instrumental role in covering the event alongside seasoned pros. I'd appreciate it if you'd share this opportunity with your students. I've attached a short blurb that you can cut and paste into an e-mail or department list serv or print out and post in department offices and classrooms. I will be calling to follow up in the next few days.

Thank you and look forward to speaking with you soon!

Kind regards,

Jacquie Goetz
360 West Maple Road
Birmingham, MI 48009
TEL: (248) 203-8126
FAX: (248) 203- 8018


Do you think you could interview the stars way better than the traditional media? Do you have what it takes to tell the story of these events in a brand new way (i.e. funny, quirky, just plain different from the norm)??

New video blogging site is looking for you to bring a point of view nobody else can - your own - to covering the Super Bowl, Grammys, and other big pop culture events. A General Motors production, igotshotgun is hitting the road in January with a crew of writers, producers, and specially selected citizen journalists to take pop culture lovers on a ride like never before: behind-the-scenes at the biggest entertainment and sports events where the cameras don't go.

Beginning December 15, 2006, you can visit and upload a video that demonstrates why we should pick you to ride shotgun to this year's hottest events. Convince us that you are the best person to interview the stars, rub elbows with professional athletes and entertain the world in the process. On the www.igotshotgun Web site, you'll also be asked to fill out a brief application telling us a bit about yourself and demonstrating your writing finesse. The events are right around the corner, so only the first 500 entries will be considered. You MUST be willing to travel and be available for the entire weekend of the big event to be considered. Finalists will be selected by appointment and interview only. For more info and official rules, visit

i got shotgun is a GM production

A response to a previous letter and reply on page 49 (click here to go there)

Subject: Thank you!

Dear Professor Carney,

Thank you for your wonderful response to my letter. It brightened my spirits to recognize that I'm much more creative than I previously thought. In fact, I immediately began having moments of creative recognition: reading my mother a Zen story that night; talking about the cold weather with a store clerk the next day; videotaping my sister's karate test.

Your words frighten me because I know them to be true and it means that I have a "pathless wood" ahead of me. But there is no other way. I've come too far and learned too much to go back. For all the times that I feel unsure of myself, there are also times when I'm overcome with the excitement of possibility. I know that there must be jobs out there that aren't mindless and corrupt. Reading E.O. Wilson's The Creation has me thinking about environmental conservation, so I may try to find work in that area. Or perhaps I'll teach English abroad. We shall see.

I cannot thank you enough for your time, energy, insight, and encouragement.  I will cherish your letter and revisit it whenever the going gets tough.  Take care.


Brian VandenBos


You're welcome. Thanks for the inspiring and perceptive reply. You are right to quote Dante. Life, for anyone who takes the road not taken, who dares to step off the beaten path, as every creative individual must, IS a "pathless wood." But it is also a great adventure of discovery. Bon voyage!


Prof. Carney,

First I want to thank you for your site. It's an inspiration to my generation of artists. I am young but enthusiastic and your words are the most encouraging and inspiring I've ever read. Thank you. But I wondered if you would have time to answer a question. Whenever I read your words about listening to music, and how much music can teach a filmmaker or other artist about form and structure, I want to turn on the radio and listen to something by Mozart or one of the composers you mention and get out of it what you are telling me, but I have to make an embarrassing confession. It's that, frankly, most classical music is long and boring to me. It just sounds like a lot of violins playing that goes on and on and on. Maybe that's too harsh. Sometimes it can be sort of inspiring or emotional and can make me think exciting things, but I don't get something that relates to what I am doing out of it. I think I don't really get what is going on in the music (that is why I am bored) and I know I don't get how it can help me be an artist. There must be more to this music than what I am getting out of it. You warn one of the people who wrote you not to "day dream" while listening to classical music. But what else is there to do, except feel good and think about things and stuff? So can you please tell me what to listen for? How to listen to classical music?  If this is a dumb question, just ignore it. But I don't have anyone else I can write to about something like this. Thanks, professor. You are awesome and your site is awesome.

Corey Lantham

RC replies:

Dear Corey,

Thank you for the kind words about my writing. I need all the praise I can get! : )

You shouldn't be embarrassed to ask the question you do. It is an EXCELLENT question. Let me start by saying that you are very honest to admit what you don't know or admit that you don't enjoy something that you are "supposed to." That's the most important first step. Most people want to bluff their way though life or art, and pretend they know or feel or think things they don't. But we are not born knowing these sorts of things. I was not born knowing how to listen to classical music! I had to study it. I had to listen to a lot of it before I could understand how great it was. In fact, when I started out I'll bet I was much much less knowledgeable than you are. I'm sure of it.

As a digression, I'll tell you that's what's so neat about being a professor. Whenever I work with students, teaching them various things about art, it keeps me honest,  because it reminds me how little I knew about the same things when I was their age. How dumb I was. In fact, I'm convinced that I was much dumber and more clueless when I was their age than any of my students are. We all have to start at the beginning. We all have to go along the same path, every inch of the way. Nothing is given to us in life. We have to earn it. No one is born knowing how to listen to Mozart any more than they are born knowing physics. And Mozart is more complex than physics in fact! But also more rewarding to the soul.

It's really too bad that everyone  in our culture isn't taught these things in school: How to listen to music, how to look at a painting,  how to enjoy a ballet. We require science or math or language courses in high college and college, but we don't require courses about the arts. And the fact is that the physics or chemistry or French we learn will probably never be used again for the rest of our lives. It will be forgotten a year or two later. But if we were all taught how to look at a painting or how to listen to an opera or understand a ballet in high school or college, we could enrich all of the rest of our lives. We could go to museums and really enjoy it and get something out of it for the rest of our lives. To use your example, we could listen to Mozart or Bach on the radio while we were driving and do more than be inspired by it. We would actually understand what we were listening to. Yet most people graduate college knowing more about football than how to listen to a chamber piece, or how to look at a sculpture, or how to listen to jazz.

On top of that, as you correctly say, all the arts are connected. Knowing one is not enough. The more you know about how other arts work, the more you can respond to any one of them. That goes for future artists and viewers both. I've often dreamed of a college that would allow the students to major not in film, not in literature, not in dance, not in music, or any other particular art--but in art in general. It would be my version of a language school where students would major in "the language of art." The curriculum would be based on learning to speak the languages of ALL the arts. That could be a real enrichment of students' souls and an enlarging of their minds that the graduates would benefit from every day of the rest of their lives. As far as I can tell, there is no such major in existence at any university--and no likelihood of it ever being created. Everything is so specialized and institutionally compartmentalized in our universities, and the faculty would be too threatened, too afraid their individual departments would be adversely affected to allow it. That's why your question is perfectly understandable. We award degrees in film to people who graduate knowing nothing about poetry, degrees in dance to people who graduate knowing nothing about painting, degrees in music to people who graduate knowing nothing about drama. It's a real shame. A real loss for our future artists, since their educations are so compartmentalized. Each art is sealed off from the others.

But that doesn't make it any easier to answer your question in an email! The right way to do this would be for you and me to listen to some classical pieces together in a course and to work through them, tearing them apart, playing sections of them over and over again and comparing notes, but that is not possible in an email. And it is not possible for me to do that even with my own students, since my own university's curriculum is as compartmentalized as every other university's, and my film and literature students have themselves bought into the compartmentalization and are not really--I mean deeply, intensely--interested in other arts beyond the one they are majoring in.

So I'll have to give you three fall-back recommendations:

1) Take a semester-length (or year-long) intro to music course--the basic Music 101 "music appreciation" course--in your university. Every major school offers one. That is the best and easiest thing to do.

2) If you can't do that because you're not enrolled in school, take the same kind of course as a night or weekend course as an extension student.

3) Finally, if you can't do either of the above, you'll have to spend about a hundred dollars or so on supplies (books and CDs) and teach yourself. That may seem like a lot, but think of how much you spend in college on every course you take. Divide your tuition by the number of courses you take every year. Every college student pays thousands of dollars for each course he or she takes. And this is only a hundred or so. You can do the same thing as number 1 or 2 on your own. That, in fact, is how I learned what I know about music (beyond playing an instrument). What you have to do is get a basic "intro to music" textbook and a set of CDs that are designed for use with it. Go to or or and look for any of the following combinations of books and CD sets.

Joseph Kerman, Listen (Bedford)
Joseph Machlis and Kristine Forney, The Enjoyment of Music (Norton)
Roger Kamien, Music: An Appreciation (McGraw Hill)
Craig Wright, Listening to Music (Thompson / Schirmer)

Note: You have to get BOTH the book and the CD set. Either alone will not fill the bill. Make sure you are getting the "complete" edition of both. The CD sets are generally 6 or 8 CDs in length. Avoid the "short" or "brief" versions of the CD sets or the books (except for Kerman, which I think only comes in a "brief" edition, if I remember correctly). You want to do this right.

OK. It's now a month or so from now. What you want to do, now that you've gotten both, is to work through the book and the listening instructions systematically. This will take time and effort. Work. But it can be done. It must be done. And it's fun!

Most of these books are organized historically, but after reading the introductory chapters and doing the introductory exercises, you don't have to start with Gregorian Chant or work through the music historically. You can jump right into Bach or Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms or whatever grabs your interest and move around back and forth in either direction. But the important thing is that, before you are done, you listen to each and every one of the pieces on the CDs at least four or five times back to back and read the section in the book that explains that piece before or during each listening. This is crucial. The listening and reading the account in the book of that particular piece I mean. The doing it over and over again.

Don't get sidetracked. Your goal is NOT to learn about the composer's life. NOT to learn the history of the symphony or the string quartet. NOT to learn dates and facts about the French Revolution or Romanticism or Modernism. Your goal is to tune up your ears and brain to hear specific things in specific pieces. To hear keys (G major versus D minor), harmonic shifts (from major to minor, chromaticism, suspensions and resolutions of various sorts), meters (duple, triple, etc.), texture, syncopation, organization (rondo, sonata allegro, fugue,  minuet, canon, and a dozen other forms and structures), etcetera. That's  what matters. That's the reality. The rest of the stuff (the ideas, the sociology, the dates, the names, the biographical facts, the historical events) are fictions. They don't exist. They are invented by professors. They are unimportant and trivial. The music is what matters--the style, the form, the organization, the structure of the hundred or so pieces of music on those CDs is what you are attempting to master. Work on them. Work through them. Tear them apart. Put them back together again. It will tune your hearing. It will put new wrinkles in your brain. It will develop your acoustic attention span. It will deepen your acoustic memory.

If you need encouragement as you are studying the "formal" aspects of musical expression, if the study of musical style seems dry and technical, ponder this statement by musicologist Antony Hopkins about the relation of form and meaning. Take it to heart. Form is consciousness. Consciousness is form. What most people call "content" (the plot of a movie or play, the personalities of the characters, the statements they make) is trivial compared to the profundity of its structure, form, and style:

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 importantlife 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

As I say in my letter to the entering grad students in my program (click here to go there), it is important to do this "brain-training" (tuning-up your perceptual abilities--what you can see, hear, and understand in all of the arts) as early in life as possible, since neuronal growth slows once you are out of your twenties. It's much harder to re-wire your senses and cognitive capacities when you are older. That's why kids learn things faster than adults. And why you can't learn a language or learn to play the piano as well late in life. But, of course, it is never really too late to start. Work, work, work, on this stuff. If you work through one or two of the above books and CD sets, you'll be well on your way to being able to understand the language of music. A whole new world will open to you.

Fare onward, voyager!


P.S. After you've done the above, write me again--in a year or two--and I'll tell you what to do after that. There is a lot more you can do. The above is just the beginning of a wonderful journey. I can give you a dozen more exercises to do, and books to read. And don't forget about the other arts while you are working on music. Painting, drama, dance, poetry, and sculpture have lessons to teach too.

A note from Allan MacInnis to Ray Carney:

I don't know if you follow the work of Don McKellar, but he and Harkema have often worked together - though Harkema is very much a Godard fan. He directed one previous film that has seen release, A Girl is a Girl. My interview with him is here: (They spelled my name wrong).

Recommended to my readers. Don McKellar and Reg Harkema are major figures, even if Steven Spielberg has never heard of them.--R.C

A note from Ray Carney:

I heard the following anecdote (with thanks to Daniel N. Robinson) a few days ago and wanted to share it with my readers. Having just received the annual royalty statement summarizing the worldwide sales of one of my books, which amounted to a grand total of four copies and 65 cents in royalties, I needed a good laugh:

There were two philosophers in ancient Greece. Aristippus was known as a flatterer and sycophant. He held a comfortable position in the court of Dionysius in Syracuse and devoted his days to hedonistic revelry, being feted and honored by the court. There was another philosopher named Diogenes who had devoted his life to telling the truth to everyone he met. He was reviled and scorned by the court and forced to live on the streets and scrape by as best he could.

One day the two men met -- fat, jovial, well-fed Aristippus in his regal robes and skinny Diogenes, sitting on the curb in tatters, preparing a Spartan meal of lentils. "My honored friend," Aristippus opined, "if you could only learn to flatter Dionysius, you would not have to eat lentils every night." Diogenes replied: "My dear Aristippus, if you could only learn to live on lentils, you would not have to flatter knaves and fools like Dionysius every night."


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