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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: The first three letters are all about Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, which is finally getting a very limited theatrical release approximately thirty years after it was completed. Not that unusual for good American films!!! (It still hasn't happened to Crazy Quilt or a lot of other great indie movies.) The critics and reviewers almost completely ignored it the first time round.

One other note might also be necessary. The first letter writer, Frank Perez who lives in Houston but sat in on my film classes for the past two years, alludes to the fact that a former student of mine, Hilary Weisman Graham, is a contestant on a nationally broadcast Fox Television reality show that (à la "American Idol") involves filmmakers competing for a development deal with Steven Spielberg. To read more about Ms. Graham, click here to go to the Fox television web site for the show. (She actually mentions classroom screenings of Cassavetes and Hal Hartley as early influences on her work on the Fox web site.)

Hey, Ray.

....I went to see Killer of Sheep last night and I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. I felt so tense during the movie, but no one dies, no one gets raped, and there isn't music underneath any scene to give off any bad feelings. I'm going to try to catch it again while I'm in Houston.....


Subject:Killer of Sheep 2

Hey Ray,

Went to see Killer of Sheep again last night with my brother and cousin. Henry Sanders was there and to my surprise, a few of the questions for him afterwards were really comments about how Stan doesn't better himself and that the film keeps him stuck in a loop of problems. And these weren't neutral comments either if you know what I mean. Also, to my surprise (but probably not to yours) was the fact that Sanders favorably mentioned Cassavetes about four times in the course of the Q and A with respect to how Cassavetes would let scenes play out and let the audience see the things that other films suppress. He was trying to say that scenes in Killer of Sheep functioned this way and that most filmmakers go the opposite direction for fear of boring the audience.

By the way, I caught half an episode of On the Lot and it was even worse than I had imagined it would be (I imagined a lot of faults). It was a promotion of anti-challenge, anti-risk, anti-new, and anti-art. These kids are being told to do things like Spielberg and to do things like Scorsese and to stick to a formula that's easy on the senses. You should hear the advice they give. The judges want the establishing shots and the slick images. But we both know that, I guess. It's just disturbing.

Also, thanks for Andrew's e-mail address. (A note from Ray Carney: Andrew Bujalski, the creator of Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, is gearing up to shoot a new film in the next month.) I followed your suggestion by contacting him and it seems I'll be helping out in one way or another.

I think he referred to the e-mails as the beginning of "the people willing to help list." I think that's the end of this e-mail. Just thought I'd write you before I tried to make myself busy. Hope everything is going well for you.


RC replies:

Just for the record, the comments of the "On the Lot" judges--and their aesthetics, if we can dignify them by calling them that--aren't really very different from those in most American university film programs, unfortunately. American film students are still taught to practice the same children's-book, murder-mystery, Harlequin Romance forms of stylistic and narrative dumbing down that Hollywood movies employ. Alas. (I could name names, but I'll just leave it with that, I guess. My past comments have already gotten me into enough trouble with my colleagues and Chairman.)

Yes, the American mythos of action, attainment, and accomplishment runs deep! See the opening paragraphs of my essay elsewhere on the site about the similar critique of Cassavetes' work throughout his lifetime, because of its narrative and dramatic rejection of individualism, competition, and achievement. (Click here to go there.) Since the characters in them weren't competing and struggling to get ahead, the movies were thought to be pointless and boring!!! Or depressing. As I say in that essay, it's the ideology of entrepreneurial capitalism, and it's stunning how completely Hollywood-trained viewers have swallowed it -- hook, line, and sinker. Hollywood is part of the vast American propaganda machine. We used to laugh at the governments of Russia and China for forcing their artists to toe the line of "socialist realism" and promote Politburo agendas in their work. Well, in America, we don't need the government as a hit man and enforcer. It's in the nature of capitalism that market forces do the dirty work. Politicians don't have to make filmmakers become propagandizers for captitalism; they choose to do it. And those (like Burnett) who reveal other ways of being-in-the-world, other relations of consciousness to reality that are not competition-based and achievement-centered, are not exiled to Siberia by government bureaucrats; they are exiled to an imaginative Siberia by viewers and reviewers. What's wrong with your movie? (They never think of asking what's wrong with their view of life -- and art.) Isn't it funny that these viewers and reviewers see the sheep in Burnett's movie and think how weird -- or how obvious the metaphor -- but they never see that they are the sheep in their own lives -- that they imaginatively just go along with all the Hollywood myths.

Glad you are going to be helping good Andrew. He is one of the most important young filmmakers out there, and he deserves all the help he can get.


Subject: A Killer of Sheep, really something special.

Hello Professor Carney,

I just saw a screening of Killer of Sheep at the MFA.  It was really something special.  The moments  such as the two guys going down the back stairs with the Engine were like moments of magic.  These all exited within a film that also depicted, as sincerely as I can imagine, the hard lives that the subjects of the film were leading.

The scenes with the children also had the same feeling as the engine scene.  The one thing I am struggling with are the sheep that keep getting shown after various incidents.  I noticed it happened more as the film progressed.  Now that I think more about the film, one scene really stands out.  The scene where they finally get the car running and then all pile in and go for a ride only to get a flat tire.  I am sure I will be thinking about this film for some time, I just needed to order some of my thoughts about it.

It is always nice to see such a sincere film.  All it was concerned with is telling a story close to the filmmaker and doing it with passion.  When you can sense that through the film, you know that you are watching something special.

I hope that all is well and that the summer is going well.  I am recovering from that odd four day run with only clouds and no rain, it put an odd feeling around everything.   The threat was there, but it never happened and maybe that is worse.  Anyway, I can't wait for the Harvard screenings. (Click here to read about the "under the radar/emerging talent/Next Wave" film festival Ray Carney curated.)

All the Best,


RC replies:


Good to hear from you.

Yes, it's sincere, but how does it get that? The framing, the positioning of the camera, and the editing of scenes (shot length, how a scene is structured, how the drama is organized) are the keys. Study them. Forget "sincerity." It will not get you very far as a filmmaker. Study the style.


Subject: A new analysis.

Hello Professor Carney,

I see what you mean.  I have been thinking more about the film and My first reaction was the sincerity, but that really was due to the work of the filmmaker.  The way the whole film was shot right in the lives of these people,  there was never any regard for placement or location.  We just moved with the characters.  There was a freedom that then transferred to the audience.  Also the foreground and point of view type shots put us in a certain state of mind.  The looseness of the camera also added to it, but it never really veered in the direction of documentary.  It hovered.  I remember the one zoom at the end of the film.  It was real, it was sincere.  No more cuts to the close; it only made sense to zoom in.  The lighting was even and simple.  The black and white was controlled.  the shots were never really wider than they had to be, and the 4:3 kept things in rather than unrealistically stretching them.

To me we were seeing the world in the same fashion as the main character, who I assume to be the director.  The sincerity I felt was the doing of the look and feel of the film.  It all made logical sense and you absorb the feeling through every sense in you body.  I heard it in the sound design (which is pretty remarkable) I saw it in the lighting, and the nature of story.  You switch from the freeform of the life of the children to the life of this man who tries to hold onto freedom within his life.  The camera was loose and was always concerned with perspective.  The acting also added a lot.  It was not really natural, it was pretty stylistic.  This added to the other-worldy feeling of the whole thing.  Maybe that was the sincerity that I felt.  The whole thing was a stylistic and controlled portrayal of reality.

Aye.  Thanks for forcing me to take the next step in appreciating this film.



RC replies:

Subject: stealing fire, re-inventing the wheel


Thanks for taking my comment in the spirit it was intended! All I'm trying to do is push you into insight, rather than merely patting you on the back! Good. You're started. You're getting there.....

Study the "purchasing the engine" scene. Why is the other character (the "smoothie") there? Study the "carrying the engine down the stairs and putting it into the truck" moments. Why not compress them? What is the effect of stayingwith them for so much time and detail? Study the "going to the races" scene. How would getting into the car bedifferent if it was in close-up and without the background of the kids? Why are there so many children in the film, anyway? What is their narrative function? Why does Burnett keep forgetting Stan's story and go off on tangents following them? Study the sheep-herding and butchering and cleaning-up scenes. Why are they in the film at all? Why are they in master shot? Why are they silent (except for the Paul Robeson and Dinah Washington singing)? What is the effect of the juxtaposition of the music against the images? Do this to every scene in the film! Study, study, study. Indie filmmakers must (as Newton or Einstein once put it): "Stand on the shoulders of" previous indie filmmakers. Study Wanda. Study Faces. Study Mikey and Nicky. Study Ice and Milestones. Study Local Color and Scenic Route. Study Crazy Quilt. Study Trash. Study Shakespeare Wallah and Autobiography of a Princess. Study, study, study. Learn from them. Master their lessons. Much greater than the stupid non-lessons of Hollywood. Much more important than the bloated pretentiousness, the stilted melodramatic rhetoric of Citizen Kane. Much deeper than the boozy, laconic, tough-guy macho sentimentality of John Ford. More meaningful than the roller-coaster thrills and chills and the sterile, hollow, visual virtuosity of Alfred Hitchcock or the button-pushing cleverness, showboating visuals, and narrative trickery of the Coen brothers. Ignore the kitsch, the fake art. Study the real thinkers and artists -- the indie masters of the past fifty years of American film: Korty. Cassavetes. Burnett. Kramer. Rappaport. Loden. May. Ivory. Ginsberg. Morrissey. Weill. And all the others. Study the style. Tear it apart. Put it back together. Study, study, study. And then, after you've mastered it, leave it all behind.


A private (or not-so-private) message for Reg Harkema (since I don't know how to reach you directly): Several months ago, I was told you were going to give me some of your work -- including Monkey Warfare, possibly -- and that you gave the material to an intermediary to pass along to me; but I wanted you to know that nothing ever reached me. This happens all the time. Many things given to others to give to me never make it into my hands. So it's always best to send anything to me directly at the address on the web site or to email me about providing a private address. All best wishes. -- Ray Carney

Subject: Husbands - Quick Question

Hello Mr. Carney,

I've been a big fan of yours ever since I discovered John Cassavetes and then read your writings in turn. I just have two quick questions for you, both regarding Husbands. One is that I'm looking for a copy on DVD or VHS of the legendary Dick Cavett show episode with Cassavetes, Falk and Gazzara. I've done some hunting on my own, but so far haven't come up with any leads. Do you have a copy of this episode that you might be willing to sell/share or else know how I can go about obtaining a copy? The other thing I'm looking for I believe may be harder to obtain. It's Cassavetes' unpublished novel Husbands. Do you know if it's possible for me to get a copy of this anywhere?

Any help in regard to these two questions would be very much appreciated. Thanks!

Adam Horowitz

RC replies:


Flattery will get you almost everywhere! And everything. But not this, alas. I have both things (and at least 100 others that the world doesn't know about, many of them gifts from the filmmaker, including an unknown Cassavetes film!), but I would be thrown in jail or fined or threatened with another lawsuit if I started copying and distributing them. Gena and Al would surely see to it. (I just LOVE their gratitude for all the work I've done over the years!!!) I'm sorry to say that neither is otherwise available --anywhere, any way. (Though I did use some of this material in a course I taught a year ago. See page 8 of the "Syllabi" section of the site for a listing of some of the things I've shared with my students. The syllabus for this course is accessible via the top menu on this page, or more generally via the top menus of any of the pages in the "About Ray Carney" section.)

Forgive the brevity of my response. I have answered this question, or a version of it, many other times on the site. Search on the terms "Husbands" and "novel" or "Dick Cavett" or "unpublished" using the blue ticket search icon in the left margin, or else just skim through the previous ten or fifteen pages of the Mailbag, where I am sure I deal with it at least once or twice more, for a slightly more complete response.

All sincere best wishes.



Hi Ray,

I've been a big fan ever since the 1991 Eastman House screenings of John's films in Rochester, NY, and I have read nearly everything you've written on John's work, the artistic process, and Carl Dreyer. We've occasionally corresponded over the years and you have always been generous with you thoughts.

I keep coming back to John's work, as well as yours, for many reasons, but I think chiefly because you understand that art REALLY matters on a soul-spiritual there-is-dignity-in-life level. (And I don't mean religious) In a world where the tinny and glitzy stand as art, you understand that the human element in art is the crux of the thing, the reason for doing it at all. The extraordinary compassion and acceptance of reality and downright living and particularity in John's work never fails to move me.

I have read the work of Charlotte Joko Beck -- I think you are familiar with her work as well -- and have found her to be a source of enriching strength. Do you know the work of Robert Sardello? Are you familiar with the writings of Derrick Jensen? (Endgame vols. 1 and 2, Walking on Water, A Language Other Than Words). He too is a very compassionate and thoughtful writer who -- similar to Cassavetes -- scares the shit out of me simply by his ability to write the truth and is not afraid of making the reader uncomfortable.

My thoughts for you -- In the face of a culture that is dying -- and it really seems to be so -- in which it is hard to imagine the culture surviving all that much longer -- why make art? Why make films at all? Or plays featuring wannabe actors who just want to find a TV gig? Why become another dying cog in a dwindling culture -- art, film, business, education, whatever -- in which the only thing that matters is money and notoriety? In a country in which all ideals are sold to the highest dollar amount, from the crooks in the government, the corporate powerboys who can never get enough money or power, to the racist and bigoted media for hire -- why bother?

Cassavetes was an outcast during his life, his films were often (and are still) mocked. If people as a whole are too comfortably stupid to save themselves, cannot open their eyes and will never regain compassion or be able to back away from the blind power and money fantasy that brings them to their TV each night, why bother making art at all???

Sorry for the speech, but I am haunted by this question and can't seem to get past it enough to keep working.


Jack Florek, NJ

RC replies:

Of course I remember your other letters to me, Jack. Good to hear from you again!

And I remember the Eastman House Cassavetes screenings too! Did you know I organized that festival? I arranged those screenings. It was a national tour of John's films I (and a few administrators at the Walker Art Center and Pacific Film Archive) put together following his death. And (just to tease you!) the year was, unless I am misremembering, not 1991, but 1990! I actually have the program I wrote for those screenings posted on the site somewhere. Let's see if I can find it.... ah, yes, here it is! (Click here to read the souvenir program.)

And, surely, you must have seen Derrick Jensen's name on the site already. I love his work! He's a truth-teller and I love all truth-tellers. Fundamentally, deep down, under all the details, he's trying to do the same thing I am -- except he's better at it and has a bigger canvas and a broader brush! He has the whole planet for his playground and subject. I'm just a tiny humanist and art lover.

We live in a culture of unreality, and Jensen dares to puncture the soap-bubble. Pop! Zing!That's always shocking and upsetting of course. It's what no one wants, but what everyone needs. I have a big recommendation of his work on page 41 of the Mailbag, and one of the site's most dutiful readers, Lucas Sabean, has a response to my recommendation and a quote from Jensen on page 55 of the Mailbag. (Click here and here to read both pages, or navigate to them via the blue page number menus on the top and bottom of any of the Mailbag pages.) And of course I know Charlotte's work also. She's another truth teller--with a gentler, sweeter, milder way of saying it. But truth is truth. And she's as devoted to it as he is. Or as John was.

But on to your question. I really don't know what to say, since the answer is so obvious, and you already know it. I'm sure you do. As to "why become a cog in a dying culture?"-- DON'T!!!! As to what possible reason there is to mount "plays featuring wannabe actors who just want to find a TV gig?" THERE IS NONE!!! As to why people should waste their lives chasing after "power and money and notorieity?" THEY SHOULDN'T!!!!

Whether the planet is dying or thriving, whether there is another fifty years or another fifty million years ahead of us, THOSE ANSWERS DON'T CHANGE!!! Those things are always a waste, always have been a waste, and always will be a waste of our souls, our minds, our spirits, our hearts, our creativity, our love, our precious, short lives. (And no matter how long or short the life of the planet, the life of the galaxy, or the life of the universe, our personal lives are always short. That never changes.) DOING THOSE THINGS -- MAKING MONEY, PURSUING FAME, CHASING AFTER SUCCESS - ARE A WASTE -- ALWAYS AND EVERYWHERE, no matter what the future holds, for anyone and everyone, on any planet, in any galaxy, in any universe. But you know that already. You must know that.

So what is the alternative? You know that already too. It is to live the other way. To build our souls in the way Charlotte talks about. To devote ourselves to life-affirming values and principles in the way Jensen calls us to. To laugh with God in the way Meister Eckhart describes. To dance with the vibrations of the universe the way the Shakers did. To humble ourselves to serve the poor and needy like Mother Teresa did. We must see our connection with everyone, everywhere; our lack of separateness from every living thing, as Buddha taught us. We must become as little children as Jesus told us to do. We must make ourselves "a football to the universe" the way Emerson told us to do. We must take our lives in our hands by abandoning hope and living in reality. We must brave everything by risking everything and plunging headlong into experience while rising above it at the same time. We must tend our souls.

And creating -- or more modestly, deeply appreciating -- art is one of the ways of doing this. But so is working in a soup kitchen. And so is being a caring teacher, or a good, loving mother or father -- or a kind son, daughter, friend, or lover. There are many paths. None of the right paths is necessarily better than any of the others. Art is only one path. One choice among an infinite number of right paths. But, of course, none of these paths, including the path of the true artist, is about making money. None of them is about becoming rich or famous. None of them is about impressing people. None of them is about achieving something or getting somewhere. Those things are part of the world's value system, not the soul's, and those things only lead away from the true paths. So what's the problem? Even if we only have five minutes more to live, we can still give love and compassion. Even if we only have five minutes more to live, we can still purify our souls, and help others to purify theirs. Even if we only have five minutes more to live, we can still affirm the wonder and mystery and beauty of the universe. We can still laugh with God.

Ring a bell. Lend someone a hand. Go, man, go.

Ray Carney



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