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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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A note from Ray Carney: I received the following email from a very thoughtful young artist who reads the material on the site. He is puzzled by some of my judgments about recent indie works, particularly my praise of Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs, which appears at the bottom of page 64 of the Mailbag (accessible via the blue page number listings at the top and bottom of this page).

But his letter is of much more importance than as stating position for or against a particular work. It raises important questions about what makes a film good or bad, what we value in artistic experience and why. I encourage other readers and viewers to weigh in with responses and opinions on this and other indie works. What makes a film matter? What is frivolous about recent indie work? What do American films need to do to be important?

What is ultimately at stake is the question of how seriously we should take art. I personally believe that art matters. It matters immensely. I believe that art educates us, inspires us to be better human beings, gives us new powers of awareness and sensitivity and caring, and helps us live our lives. Good art is a force for truth and morality. And bad art gives us negative instances of all of these things. It lies to us. It misleads us. It inculcates insensitive and careless understandings of experience. It drains our energies and dulls our perceptions. It lulls us to sleep morally. It betrays our better selves. Art is not just entertainment. Art is not just showing a slice of life. Art should help us understand our lives. Art should help us live our lives -- more imaginatively, more sensitively, more compassionately.  Art should change our lives. Art should matter. How can film do that? How do particular films avoid doing that and take the easy way out instead? If you have an interest in this subject or opinions about what makes films important (or unimportant), please share your views with me and with readers of the site. And, if possible, please cite specific examples, pro and con, of films that really truly matter and of films that don't. I will post the best responses on these pages.

Perhaps it is helpful to consider and compare "touchstone" examples of "classic" indie films made by the previous generation with indie works from the current younger generation to provide some perspective on the current situation. How do films being made more recently compare with the following indie gems?

John Cassavetes' Shadows (both versions), Faces, Husbands, Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Love Streams
Bruce Conner's Vivian and A Movie
Mike Leigh's Bleak Moments, Kiss of Death, Abigail's Party, Meantime, High Hopes, and Life is Sweet
Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger
Tom Noonan's What Happened Was and The Wife
Claudia Weill's Girlfriends
Su Friedrich's Sink or Swim and The Rules of the Road
Caveh Zahedi's Little Stiff
Todd Haynes's Safe
Rodrigo Garcia's Nine Lives
Shirley Clarke's Portrait of Jason
Paul Morrissey's Trash, Flesh, and Heat
Jay Rosenblatt's Human Remains
Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky
Robert Kramer's Ice and Milestones
Mark Rappaport's Local Color and Scenic Route

The list is by no means complete, but these and other works represent the masterpieces of English-language independent filmmaking of the past fifty years. These works (and a few others) define the great tradition of cinematic expression American critics, reviewers, and filmmakers should be poring over, studying, discussing, and learning from. But have the younger generation's flmmakers learned their lessons? Have they sat at the feet of the masters? How many recent films even attempt to be as stylistically daring and thematically ambitious as these works? Are recent American indie works failing to engage themselves with important aspects of experience--are they merely low-budget versions of Hollywood "entertainment"--as this letterwriter argues? What do our films need to do to make themselves matter more?

Even if we disagree about Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs, let me make it clear that I resoundingly agree with the letterwriter about the shallowness and triviality of much recent American independent film. I am frustrated and puzzled by its narcissism, the emotional callowness of its protagonists, its focus on romantic relationships and male friendships as if "hanging out" was the whole purpose and meaning of life (romance and friendship matter, but are not the only things that matter, and are certainly not the most important things that matter), its reduction of life to games and play and camaraderie and self-absorbed self-obsession. I agree with the letterwriter that these films often represent a "slacker" view of life that is something that should be subjected to critical analysis, not something that should be uncritically celebrated.

Click on this link for a brief discussion of this issue on an earlier page of the Mailbag pages. And, more generally, read through the preceding ten or fifteen pages of the Mailbag (accessible through the blue page menus at the top and bottom of this page), as well as the entire "Independent Film Pages" section of the site (accessible via the blue ticket icon in the left menu) for more reflections about the strengths and weaknesses of recent American independent film and further considerations of what ultimately makes a film important--or unimportant.

I thank this writer for initiating this debate. Nothing is more important to the future of American film art than that artists, viewers, and reviewers consider what really matters--and what doesn't--in artistic expression. Is the current generation of indie filmmakers living up to the examples of the past? Are they really making films that matter?  Or are they merely being cute, staring at their navels, hung up on their trivial slacker lives and loves--in a word, making films that will deserve to be long forgotten in 100 years? Or are they making films that will continue to help us understand ourselves and live our lives? --R.C.


I just caught your post on Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs and was genuinely surprised by your reaction to the movie, particularly in light of recent conversations we've had about some of the lesser tendencies in the work of today's young filmmakers. It's hard to argue with your points about the film's actors - their performances are generally unexaggerated and subtle. What I think the movie lacks is any semblance of actual knowledge behind its drama. Not knowledge as it is usually presented in art film, knowledge as grand, abstracted meaning; I'm talking about knowledge as simple insight. Insight into behavior, into motivation, into basic human nature; or as it's cultivated in narrative art: insight through structured characterization.

The film's naturalistic style, brought about by its commendably uneventful plot, underdetermined characters and understated performances, ultimately feels like a veneer which masks a hollow foundation: much like any given Hollywood movie, Hannah Takes the Stairs seems to create drama for nothing but its own sake. For example, it seems to me that the movie's overarching narrative, Hannah's haphazard careen from boyfriend to boyfriend, is largely utilized more as a plot device to foster conventional dramatic interactions than as any kind of tool to provide any significant insight into Hannah or any other characters' existence. Or, for that matter, the fundamental dilemmas of real people like them. What are the imaginative issues raised by the presence or behavior of any of these characters? I really don't know, and I've yet to see a single review of the film which even attempts to broach this subject. Particularly in comparison to the issues figured by Marnie, Funny Ha Ha's similarly indecisive lead, the figure of Hannah leaves me with very little with which to work in terms of placing or understanding her character in any relation to reality.

The movie seems to lack any significant reference points to the problems of real life, small or large, personal or systemic. It captures much of the stylistic hallmarks of the naturalistic narrative, but appears to lack any of its social import. In fact, the issues depicted in the movie often seem to lack any real reference even to each other (i.e. late in the film, several characters deliver long monologues about personal dilemmas, ones strangely lacking any prior evidence of their presence in the narrative, indicated neither by dialogue nor behavior, not even by the slightest innuendo). A great number of scenes seem mostly aimless or pointless; the problem arising not that they lack overriding purpose in advancing the plot, but that they make no effort to show us anything about the characters' behavior, personalities, or intentions that haven't already been well established. At least until the film's ending, where the "true" selves of the male and female leads are revealed through long monologues, a philosophically problematic Hollywood convention. Much of this general clumsiness could be simply attributed to loosely reined in improvisations, but it nonetheless strikes me as a weakness of the film.

Am I missing the big picture here? Am I being a fuddy-duddy or aesthetic conservative to feel these things? Even the craziest, most elliptical moments or scenes in work from the likes of a John Cassavetes or a Mike Leigh always seem to serve a larger dramatic purpose. Behind any of their choices there's always an overwhelming, pressing personal or social issue that the artist is attempting to depict, or at least understand. I just don't see that in Swanberg's latest movie -- he's cultivated the style, but not necessarily the thought or feeling which guides it.

Despite containing a handful of honest moments (admittedly more than most movies), the movie's perception of depth of character doesn't really run much deeper than the average episode of MTV's The Real World. Like the average youth-oriented television show, the characters are freed almost entirely from the pressures of reality, leaving each with plenty of spare time to bop around and gaze at their own navels. In and of itself this is not a problem; persons of this sort certainly exist in life. However, it becomes an issue when this flightiness is depicted repeatedly without the narrative ever really entering the territory of its inevitable consequences.

This weightless view of the world is echoed throughout the narrative. Consider the movie's depiction of an office atmosphere, which far from being the least bit tedious, bureaucratic or oppressive, acts mainly as a playground for the characters to throw toys at each other.

Similarly, the incessant presence of toys or games in nearly every scene isn't really used to depict anything significant about the characters beyond their basic inclination to goof off. An inclination, I might add, which seems to go largely unanalyzed, except to be wholly celebrated. This puts it in stark contrast with the critique of similar behavior offered in Andrew Bujalski's or the Duplass Brothers' own work.

Indeed, it would be difficult to find a comparison more revealing of the film's sentiments concerning the ramifications of twenty-something puerility than in juxtaposing Hannah Takes the Stairs' parting shot with that of The Puffy Chair. The growing appreciation of carefree frivolity and self-styled "randomness" standing over any real moral or ethical considerations stands in my mind as a primary failing of my generation and, with precious few exceptions, its creative output thus far. It is an issue that concerns me deeply. At one point this was a concern of yours too, given your essay on the films of the Beat Generation, where you observe:The Japanese edition of <i>American Dreaming</i>

"Shadows and Pull My Daisy define alternative paths for the first generation of American independent filmmaking - a path of frivolousness and a path of responsibility. While Shadows uses figures like Lelia and Ben to complexly interrogate the adequacy of Beat stances and claims of freedom, Pull My Daisy smugly, self-satisfyingly wallows in them. Frank's film simply buys into Beat postures, while Cassavetes' attempts to understand them and explore their emotional causes and consequences. Shadows is the rarest of works from that period - a film that analyzes the fraudulence of Beat posturing, even as it appreciates why figures would want to protect themselves in this way. Imaginatively positioning itself half-inside, half-outside the Beat milieu, it reveals what is wrong with attempting to be hip and detached, while continuing to love the characters despite their flaws."

If one were to rewrite this paragraph substituting Funny Ha Ha for Shadows, and Hannah Takes the Stairs for Pull My Daisy, I think you'd have a fairly accurate snapshot of the current lines of thought operated along by this group of young American independent filmmakers.

But I digress...

.... Hannah Takes the Stairs has a number of admirable qualities about it, but as someone intimately familiar with both the realities of being a young person today, and the possibilities of the filmic form to depict these realities, the movie as a whole just strikes me as relatively contrived and anemic. (However, I do have faith that there will be a time when Swanberg's vision matures sufficiently to encapsulate some of the greater issues overlooked by his current film.)

I would really like to know your thoughts on these issues, so if need be, take a few days to respond to this. I'm mainly just flabbergasted by the near-unanimous praise this movie has received thus far, particularly in light of my fondness for many seemingly similar works. So any additional clarity you could provide would be of great help.

A note from Ray Carney: The above posting was up for only an hour or so when the first response came in from a reader. Michael Brett speculates that there is a sweetness and naïveté to the work of the younger generation of American independent filmmakers because they haven't suffered enough in their lives or "become aware of the horrifying limitations of their choices or modes of communication." I invite other readers to respond to the material above or to Michael's observations. His letter follows:

Subject: the movies

i too saw burnett's killer of sheep in los angeles the other night and it was great...truly beautiful and inspiring. every last moment of it is strong and etched with deep humor and sadness and tenderness... .every face, every line, every scene....thank you for another dead on recommendation.

it was a pretty packed house and at the q&a there wasn't too much for anyone to say that wouldn't have been superfluous but you could feel that people knew they had seen just something genuinely miraculous. hopefully they won't forget...they probably won't anytime soon... i won't...

then....when i got home... i watched morrissey's heat and trash...i'd never seen them...unbelievable...andrea feldman was incredible not to mention pat ast, sylvia myles, woodlawn and everybody else. it'd be great to see andrea feldman interact with one of the characters in a duplass or bujalski film wouldn't it? what would happen then? it'd be some different kind of college for sure... the scenes in trash are miracles....there's nothing to hold them together...nothing.... except the people...they could go anywhere and they do go anywhere...and heat which seemed more like a movie movie is wild as hell but somehow so emotionally true and moving...i can't get over andrea feldman though...where did she come from...

it really seems that for all the tattoos and cool record collections that all these kids have today the level of conformity is ridiculous...these people

in these two films are so bravely and exuberantly themselves it's awe inspiring...what the hell went wrong. morrissey should be knighted or the hell did he put such chaotic life on film...who the hell takes risks like this anymore? that's what these younger filmmakers are sorely lacking...any wildness for life and the consequent consequences...

cassavetes took it even further and showed what that wildness and non conformity looked like pitched against hard and tough resistance. none of these people in these films are particularly nice and hardly any of them are passive..

for these young filmmakers the stakes aren't high enough yet...they haven't been kicked around enough yet....their dreams haven't been stomped on and abused enough yet...hopefully they won't....what's it gonna take...they haven't spent enough time with characters that stand to rupture their whole cohesive stammering society yet...hopefully they know they're out know they're in there...i don't know if they've become aware of the horrifying limitations of their choices or modes of communication...or even become aware that they're just choices after all...i think they're still to enamored of the sweetness of it all...maybe when they're desperate...after years and years of unfulfilled possibilities and emotional loose ends...miscommunications and disappointments...they'll be closer to where this society stands communicatively as a whole... then maybe they'll be able to film that...that desperation for expression...  beyond all the baggage...

but i think the whole culture is a lot less threatened and rewarding of a certain type of passivity...or doesn't'd be interesting to see where it goes though.... they're all good films still, i think...they hint at a problem whether it's passivity of expression or aimlessness or indecisiveness...they hint at it...with warmth and love... and that's a hell of a lot better of a step in the right direction than cynicism and defeatism to be sure...hopefully they can move on to bigger and better problems now...come to think of it would be interesting too if the characters in these films interacted with some gangsters...or scott rudin or somebody....or even just an aggressive bill collector .... or even better somebody challenging and actually interesting who doesn't fit into the just got out of college thing...

wouldn't it? who knows?  maybe now they just need a little protecting and coddling...people aren't made of glass though and resiliency may not be sweet but it's hard earned...everything is not okay....

Michael Brett

RC replies: I leave it for my readers to respond, but as a bit of inside information, for what it is worth, Andrew Bujalski is currently working on a film project with the producer whom Michael Brett mentions in his letter (the impossible, the maddening, the insane Scott Rudin -- the representative of all that has gone wrong with American film), so maybe, as Milton says of Adam's dream, Brett will wake to find his crazy, untrammeled speculation has come true. Andrew will be converted into a poet of tragic fear and trembling. His songs of loving, caring innocence will be converted into paroxysms of horrific wounded experience. What a pleasant thought. But maybe that's what it takes to make the deepest art. I always tell people that Cassavetes succeeded only because he failed--so colossally and repeatedly.--R.C

Another response to the above posting about what makes art matter, this time from Mike Gibisser, the writer-director of Finally, Lillian and Dan, one of the best movies of the past year. I invite other site readers to add their responses to any of the postings on this page. -- R.C.

Dear Ray,

I feel the need to chime in, due largely perhaps to the fact that I happen to be one of the beneficiaries of your "blurb-machine" as of late.... But that's sort of the point and it took me awhile to understand it today, as I attempted to fashion some sort of academic response to the debate, weaving together quotes from some recent reading into a vague thesis. I've abandoned this path and would rather just present them one by one with a brief addendum.

Andrei Tarkovsky from Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews: "Art should never teach, but show life as it is, in the extended sense - offer one's experiences to one's contemporaries to judge. To be allowed to go beyond this - to make art 'useful,' as if one were a prophet - you must gain this right to do so by first becoming sufficiently aware spiritually. And maybe one can never gain this right, never be sufficiently aware."

Bertold Brecht in Writing Truth: Five Difficulties: "First of all we strike trouble in determining what truth is worth the telling... it is not untrue that chairs have seats and that rain falls downward. Many poets write truths of this sort. They are like a painter adorning the walls of a sinking ship with a still life... it is not easy to realize that their truths are truths about chairs or rain; they usually sound like truths about important things. For it is the nature of artistic creation to confer importance. But upon closer examination it is possible to see that they say merely: a chair is a chair; and: no one can prevent rain from falling down."

John Dewey, in Art as Experience: "Craftsmanship to be artistic in its final sense must be 'loving'; it must care deeply for the subject matter upon which skill is exercised. A sculptor comes to mind whose busts are marvelously exact... For virtuousity they are remarkable. But one doubts whether the maker of the buts had an experience of his own that he was concerned to have those share who look at the products. To be truly artistic, a work must also be esthetic - that is, framed for enjoyed receptive perception. Constant observation is, of course, necessary for the maker while he is producing. But if his perception is not also esthetic in nature, it is a colorless and cold recognition of what has been done, used as a stimulus to the next step in a process that is essentially mechanical."

John Berger in The White Bird: "One is obliged to acknowledge a coincidence or perhaps a congruence. The evolution of natural forms and the evolution of human perception have coincided to produce the phenomenon of a potential recognition: what is and what we can see (and by seeing also feel) sometimes meet at a point of affirmation. This point, this coincidence, is two-faced: what has been seen is recognized and affirmed and, at the same time, the seer is affirmed by what he sees. For a brief moment one finds oneself - without the pretensions of a creator - in the position of God in the first chapter of Genesis. ... And he saw that it was good. The aesthetic emotion before nature derives, I believe, from this double affirmation...

The aesthetic emotion we feel before a man-made object... is a derivative of the emotion we feel before nature...All the languages of art have been developed as an attempt to transform the instantaneous into the permanent. Art supposes that beauty is not an exception - is not in despite of - but is the basis for an order... The notion that art is the mirror of nature is one that only appeals in periods of skepticism. Art does not imitate nature, it imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature. Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally."

You, on page 65 of the Mailbag section of your website: "A brief afterthought on your (and your friends') commitment to art as love: Yes and no. Yes, love is necessary. Yes, the greatest art loves its characters, even the flawed fallible characters... But it is necessary not as an end in itself, but because it allows the artist to take another even more important step. The step to deep inward knowledge and understanding. As Henry James once put it: Thackery doesn't love Becky Sharp because he knows her, he knows her because he loves her. Knowledge is the ultimate goal."

As I mentioned, it took me the longest time today to come to the fact that what I had to say was far from academic; for me it is at once the most frustrating and magical part of the debate at hand. It seems, for the most part, that we all fight for the same things in films, or art in general; we all want honesty, beauty, truth, love and knowledge, acceptance, recognition, communion. And not only those separately, but their congruence. And we (setting aside my discomfort at blindly lumping myself into the group), all of us, the ones giving it any thought, are the fighters, raging against the callow, the shallow, and the mechanical.

And it is difficult work.

Upon reading the post yesterday ... I got the sinking feeling in my stomach that comes with a bad review (Was he talking about me? My movie is out in the world, could I be the one?), and got subsequently into an argument with a dear friend of mine, the two of us having our own dramatic history of love and its loss. We exhausted ourselves trying to convince one another of the same exact point which I grasp only vaguely at best but revolves somewhere around the fact that masterwork or not, good or bad, the things we do matter, so long as there exists the intention to be true and the desire to be better.

Was I the one whose work was vastly inferior? Does it matter? Should I try to convince you, or you try to convince me?

We're all so much the same.

Now I don't know Joe Swanberg from the anonymous writer of the letter, nor have I seen "Hannah Takes the Stairs." Perhaps it was all navel-staring. I don't know. The mention that it had a "handful of honest moments," though, asks for further discussion, posing the question: is a moment enough?

Of the above quotations, the words that really strike a chord with me are Berger's on the "point of affirmation." This, I believe, is what I really hope for in film; I want those "coincidences" where you might as well be staring at a horizon line, strings might as well be swelling, time might as well just stop:

-The moment where Phil asks Penny "Did you ever love me?" in Mike Leigh's All or Nothing
-The moment where Vera realizes she is going to jail in his Vera Drake
-The moment where the wind turns the wanderer around in Andrei Tarkovsky's The Mirror
-The moment where the couple passes on the stairs in Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love
-The moment in his Happy Together where the couple dances in the shower stall and I could go on, but to leave the list with one that is actually American:
-The moment where Johnny attempts to record the TV show for Ashley in Phil Morrison's Junebug

Tarkovsky sought the spiritual; Brecht asked for political truth. Both, however, wanted not only these, but the congruence of these and a sort of beauty, a recognition. A something else. A moment, perhaps?

As you stated you resoundingly agree with the writer of the letter on the importance of art, and it seems that you both want nearly identical things from the films you see. You found this congruence, maybe, in "Hannah Takes the Stairs." He did not. The space between the two is at once miniscule and large enough to fit an elephant in the room. It is the space between Miles Davis' notes. The pauses between the lines in the films of John Cassavetes.

I've never felt I understood what makes one a masterwork and another a nice try. Is there a formula one can follow? Are there pre-requisites that must be met for it to qualify? Is, again, a moment enough? We all look for our guts to get stirred up, but that seems to come down to the very thing that is at the root of all this commotion: personal taste. It is the same thing that makes the argument impossible. And the same thing that makes it incredible.

What then do I want out of film, art, experience? I want what those guys want, only a little different.

-Mike Gibisser


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© Text Copyright 2007 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.