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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 following message just arrived from Rob Nilsson, one of the greatest American indie filmmakers. His work will be screening at the Mill Valley Film Festival (Bay Area, San Francisco, California) in October 2007. (And screening at the Harvard University Film Archive in November. Stay tuned for more information about that event.) Following the Mill Valley screening information, I include a brief reflection he sent about the state of the art. In addition to being one of the "grand old men" (sorry, Rob!) of American filmmaking, he is also one of the senior philosophers of our aesthetic moment in history. His words are worth deeply pondering. --R.C.

Mill Valley is coming right down the pike. Here's the schedule in case you want to post it on your site.


World Premiere- Oct. 5, 7:00 PM, CineArts@Sequoia Theatre, 25
Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley, California- Party to follow

2nd Screening- Oct. 11, 9:15, Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center,
1118 4th. St., San Rafael, CA

USED (2nd to last 9 @ Night Film Cycle Feature)

World Premiere- Oct. 13, 7:15- Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film
Center, 1118 4th. St., San Rafael, CA

GO TOGETHER (Last 9 @ Night Film Cycle Feature)

World Premiere- Oct. 13, 9:15- Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film
Center, lll8 4th St., San Rafael, CA- Party to follow

Tickets can be purchased from the Mill Valley Film Festival starting Sept. 16.

So on we go. Life is long but human vanity is endless. Have the Arts ever been in more miserable shape? Big doings out here putting fashion, motorcycles, jewelry in Art Museums. Copying New York. But you know, the Art World deserves what it gets. Multiply Duchamp and Warhol by several million pretenders and you have the plastic arts. And who is responsible for this lamentable suicide?

Cinema? The guerrilla heroes live in their caves and are occasionally recognized. The mainstream pours its effluent over the young who just don't have the education to resist.

Well, the human animal is nothing if not consistent. Before the Enlightenment, War could be for State and Religion. After, War could be for Liberty and the People. Who killed more? Whoever had the better technology. I'm satisfied with this as a workable bromide. But it's meaningless because we still have to try to make art. Knowing how impossible it is doesn't free us from our responsibility.

As I said. On we go.


RC replies: Rob-- Great to hear from you! Bet you didn't know that I was offered the opportunity to curate part of the Guggenheim Museum's "Motorcycle" show a few years back. The curator who talked to me joked about "Thomas Krens's midlife crisis" as being the reason for the show, but, of course, he went along with the whole stupid idea, just like all good soldiers do. People follow orders and march in a straight line, even when they know better. Everyone is afraid to stand up for anything. That's the way the world works. Keep kicking against the pricks. -- Ray Carney

P.S. I turned the offer down flat. There are some things I won't do no matter how much someone pays me. Always been weird that way.

A note from Ray Carney: I print the following letter as a "word to the wise," a lesson that each and every one of us can learn from. It is a deep letter from an important person with a lifetime of worldly accomplishment behind him. It is the story of a life, the story of many lives, the story of a culture where too many live the Faust legend and sell their souls for dollars.

I have a plaque on my wall, just above my writing table. It was given to me by a friend. It has a beautiful inscription in calligraphy. I read it every time I sit down to work and re-read it at odd moments when I am searching for a thought or a word, and when I feel aimless or discouraged or want to give up. It says:


Evening Gatha
Let me respectfully remind you -
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by, and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken ... to awaken.
Take heed. Do not squander your life.

This letter takes its place with the Evening Gatha inscription. May the writer have the courage and strength to go on in the right direction -- the hard way, the path of greatest resistance, against all of the forces in our culture to soften and compromise and despair (our feelings of "powerlessness" are part of the system of control and conformity). To reverse the biblical formulation: The flesh is willing, but the spirit can be so weak -- too weak to go on. Don't allow yourself to give up. I say to every reader of the site: "Take heed. Do not squander your life." -- R.C.

Subject: Film, advertising and the end of art

Dear Professor Carney,

I discovered your site yesterday whilst surfing the internet and have spent most of my free time since devouring it. This has proven to be both an exhilarating and terrifying experience. Exhilarating because your perspective is a breath of fresh air in a mind-numbing sea of mediocrity that confuses slickness of execution with art; terrifying because I've happened upon it at a time in my life when I am grappling with the challenges of committing myself to the pursuit of my art.

I'm looking at resuming my commitment after 25+ years working in advertising as a creative director. I was quite successful. You may even be familiar with some of my work (though I suspect you watch little, if any television). Max Headroom for Coca Cola. The original Saturn Launch campaign (the car, not the planet). Work for Levi's. And a lot more.

Advertising is very seductive for a person who hopes to make a living creatively. You get to "be creative." If you are successful you receive the adulation of your peers. You make a lot of money, get to eat in the best restaurants and stay in the best hotels. You get to travel all over the world. And you do all this while creating something that most people claim to hate.

Of course doing this slowly sucks out your soul until you are a lifeless husk. You may lose the ability to understand the truth, let alone be able to tell it after a career of telling lies. I recall a story, perhaps apocryphal but still telling, about an art director who, after a life spent in advertising decides to pursue his first artistic love -- painting. After months spent working on many canvases he finally works up the nerve to show the work to a respected critic he knows. The critic looks at the work and shakes his head. It's all kitsch -- just awful. By spending his life in advertising he's lost the ability to perceive -- or tell -- the truth. This, of course, is my great fear.

In the course of my career I have worked with many commercial directors who went on to become movie directors. Ridley Scott was one of these directors. He shot several of the Max Headroom spots for me. At that time -- the mid 80's -- I wanted to BE Ridley Scott, as did every art director I knew. I happened to run into another English director I was working with at the time by the name of Howard Guard at a restaurant in London and we ended up having dinner together. He knew I wanted to direct commercials and asked who I admired and when I mentioned Ridley immediately took me to task for my shallowness. He pointed out that Scott had admired Kubrick and tried to model his own approach to filmmaking on Kubrick's career. Guard observed that in his opinion Kubrick was ultimately a superficial and empty filmmaker, and Scott was the same. While that may make sense for commercial directing, it is anathema for anyone hoping to create film art.

Naturally I ignored him, since my goal at that point was to be a commercial director. When I finally achieved that goal several years later I lasted about 4 years before I returned to advertising because I found that being a commercial director is a shallow and superficial "craft." There is no art to it at all. I'm sure this comes as no surprise to you, but having been fixated on doing this for so long it took the wind out of my sails. After that I worked in advertising for another 10 years until I finally couldn't stand it anymore. I had my epiphany when I was standing before a tray of just-cooked "Funky Fries" that had a mass of slowly congealing fat beneath them. My son was only 3 years old at the time and I realized that I was engaged in the business of selling poison to children.

A month later I was gone.

Interesting, isn't it, that commercial directors have had such success in Hollywood? Ridley Scott is an obvious example. Michael Bay. David Fincher. The list goes on. Since their careers before Hollywood were based on helping sell things by creating one elaborate visual artifice after another, it just makes sense that they would continue in that mode once they moved to Hollywood. And that Hollywood would delight in it.

At least some of them know they've only traded one lie for another. Tony Scott's increasingly desperate attempts at creating "art" through camera and editorial and other post-production tricks suggest he senses something is missing. He's just incapable of identifying it. This renders his films completely unwatchable, in my view, because not only is one denied the guilty "pleasure" of watching a Hollywood movie, his tricks ultimately fail at disguising the utter emptiness of the films he's made. He completely misses the point.

David Fincher is someone I think might actually have been a filmmaker capable of creating art had his career gone differently -- and he might still. He is a child but trying desperately to grow up. He knows that the usual Hollywood fare is just dreck. He attempts to make films within the system that are not of the system. He fails at that, of course, as anyone must. He ends up with something that is neither fish nor fowl. Interesting failures. He lacks self-knowledge that would enable him to make a work of art that would allow him to relax his control enough to let a truth squeak out.

Hollywood shares many qualities with the advertising industry. Indeed, they might be reasonably perceived as two heads of the same Hydra. Hollywood is about money, and nothing else. Everything that is done there, every decision that is made, everything that is created is ultimately at the service of money. Now, I actually don't have a problem with that as long as no one is pretending otherwise. Where I take issue is with the notion that somehow "art" can sneak out of this money-making machine. We end up with Steven Spielberg, who wants desperately to be seen as an artist but who is apparently incapable of understanding - let alone capturing - a genuine moment or emotion. How anyone can utter the words "art" and "Spielberg" in the same sentence with a straight face is beyond me.

What Hollywood creates is the celluloid equivalent of the best selling novel -- the mystery, thriller, science fiction or fantasy summer read whose only purpose is to pass some time in an entertaining way and extract money for having done so. While it is possible to admire the craft of the writers and filmmakers who do this work, in the same way as it's possible to admire the craft of fine leatherwork or pottery, it ain't art.

We now have wonderful digital technology that puts the machinery of filmmaking into the hands of anyone who takes a notion to make a film. The irony is that the first thing everyone does is to try and make their own action/horror/war movie -- using every trick in the book to try and apply a Hollywood production patina to their DV movies. People have become convinced that the only way to make a film is the Hollywood way, that somehow their own thoughts and feelings and emotions are inadequate and that only the "official" three act structure, hero's journey and character arcs can be used to create a film. Many young people hope that if they can only make a DV movie well enough Hollywood will notice and bring them into the inner sanctum.

I don't know if you watched any of On the Lot this Summer. The producers found what they considered to be 50 or so promising directors and put them into a production crucible from which one shining talent would emerge --American Idol style -- triumphant, to take his place beside Steven Spielberg at Dreamworks Studios with a One Million Dollar Contract (and what is he supposed to do with that, one wonders?). A note from Ray Carney: Indeed, I am familiar with the show since one of my former students, Hillary Weisman Graham, was a finalist on it. To read my views about it, click on the links to the following Mailbag pages: 43 (where I write a letter to one of the show's publicists), page 78 (where I print a comment about it from one of the site's readers), and 80 (where I respond to a reporter's inquiry about the show.) I was also, incidentally, mentioned on the show's web site, though they omitted any reference to my objections to it. How surprising. How strange. Re: the "million dollar contract." That was as much a fraud as the rest of the show -- and the rest of American television. All million dollars would go toward the "rent" of the office space, the "retainer" for the required "representatives" (agents and publicists), and the office "staff" (switchboard operators, secretaries, and office managers) The winner would not actually be getting a penny toward making a movie. But, as someone once said, Hollywood is less about making movies than making deals. What's not to like? That's the "Mark of the Burnett" way. Blue smoke and mirrors masquerading as reality TV. As real as anything on the Evening News, for sure. -- R.C.

The ultimate irony here was that these filmmakers were all directed to come up with their own ideas, script them and shoot them and then put them up for all of America to watch and vote on. But real Hollywood, as you know, doesn't work like that. You don't get to make "your" movie. Do these young directors really believe that some studio is going to hand them 50 million dollars and tell them to go ahead and make "their" movie? Of course not. There will be a bunch of hand-wringing suits along for the entire ride, making sure that their investment doesn't go awry, that they have a decent chance of making a nice profit.

The more outside money involved in an artistic endeavor, the less control the artist has over the work, until ultimately it ceases to be art and becomes product.

Anyway, as I've been writing and shooting and cutting I've been wrestling with a lot of this. I came upon your work as I was being tempted by the "dark side" and found the strength I needed to resist. Whether what I ultimately create is art or kitsch at this point in my life is not up to me. All I can do is work as truthfully as I am able to tell my story. For me, anyway, that's enough right now.

From out of the darkness, into the light
"Self Portrait with Beret, Unfinished,"
Rembrandt Van Rijn
Musée Granet, Aix-en Provence

Regardless of how the work is ultimately judged, I will know that, for once, I've tried to create something honest. We'll see if advertising has left me with enough of a soul to achieve that. Thank you again for your excellent work.

Arthur Vibert

"God Bless My Dutiful Readers" Department: The letter from Arthur Vibert was up on the site no more than three minutes, when the first response came in from one of my regulars. -- R.C.


The Arthur Vibert note is absolutely STUNNING AND AMAZING!!!!! What more does anyone need to know than that? Bravo for his courage, insight and honesty, and good luck to him in his attempts to create art. Surely you had a response, even if only to say Bravo!!!! Standing ovation!!!!


RC replies: I agree, agree, agree. Bravo to you, Arthur, for being so honest, and bravo to you too, Marty, for understanding it so quickly and being brave enough to express your feelings so passionately! -- R.C.

A note from Ray Carney two weeks later: Many other readers wrote in to thank me for posting Arthur Vibert's letter, saying how much it meant to them to hear from someone who had worked in a commercial field, and how his words inspired them as artists to continue along "the path of greatest resistance." Since I didn't post them, I wrote him and told him about some of the other letters I had received. His response follows:

Dear Ray,

I have been deeply moved by the various comments you've made about my letter. As you know, there are times when one feels very alone in this process, so to receive the kind of acknowledgement, support and encouragement you (and Marty) have offered is invigorating and inspiring.

Thank you for that.

I'm glad that the letter was useful to younger artists. There are not many voices that encourage people to take the hard path in our culture. I didn't set out to be one of those voices, but if I've helped fight the good fight I'm happy. When one is younger it is often difficult to articulate the reasons why it is a mistake to pursue advertising or Hollywood film making or other culturally approved forms of "art." Somewhere along the line the idea that art for its own sake was enough became a cliché and so we're left with an aesthetic that places commercial art in all it's forms at the top of the cultural pyramid. It's not surprising that many younger artists are confused. Especially when the temptations are so great.

Spielberg collects "art" in the form of Norman Rockwell paintings. That tells us everything we need to know about the man and the culture that reveres him.


Arthur Vibert

A note from Ray Carney: I received this inquiry from a reporter at the Boston University student newspaper, The Daily Free Press (which goes by the nickname of The FreeP). I get so many of these inquiries and usually reply in a politely deferential way, but every 1000 or so, I decide to call a spade a spade and give the reporter a more candid, more honest response. Her note to me and questions in black are followed by my replies in blue:

Subject: Freep: Drive-in movies

Hi! I'm writing an article for the Daily Free Press pertaining the Drive-In movie on Friday night. I've enclosed a few questions that you can answer via email. If it would be more convenient for you to answer them by phone that would work also. Thanks!
All the Best,
(name withheld)

Why do you think Knocked Up and Boondock Saints were chosen for this year's movie night?

---Never heard of either of them. And haven't heard of the event you describe either. What is "the Drive-In movie on Friday night?" Or is there a typo in what you wrote?

What aspects of Boondock Saints give it such a popular status?

---It's not popular with me or anyone I know, so I guess it depends what you mean by popularity. But no matter what you mean, the question you should be asking, as a college student (and not a mere middle school fashion-slave or high school trend-follower), is why does popularity matter, what makes things popular in our culture, and how other stupid, time-wasting things have become popular? Those would all be more valuable questions, questions more at a college level than a middle school or high school one.

--Here's a question for you: Why is the FreeP film coverage so brain-dead?

Best wishes,

Ray Carney

Dear Prof. Carney,

Several months ago in the mailbag, back on page 43, you posted the following:

I love something Freeman Dyson once wrote. He was asked about SETI, the project to communicate with alien intelligences, extraterrestrials, and what we should beam back if we ever heard a signal from out there. He said something like: "If we want to get their attention, we should stream Bach, all of Bach, out into the universe. Of course, we would be bragging."

I'm curious, hypothetically, what examples you would beam up in the way of film, writing, painting, and dance to show the range of human emotion on Earth (of course, Bach is a given). I know you're not into favorites or top tens, but I'm interested in how you would communicate the range of "humanness" through our works of art by our best artists. How to best communicate to an alien intelligence what it means to be human? Maybe this is an impossible-to-answer question, but I'm asking and wondering about it anyway. What does it mean to be "human?"


RC replies:

Dear M,

A delightful cheesecake of a question. I mean it's like contemplating the dessert menu at a French restaurant, and being told you can order everything you want at the same time. The usual disclaimers apply of course: Any selection I suggest will be partial and unfair and subject to all sorts of spur-of-the-moment biases --but here's a quick, top-of-the-head, tip-of-the-tongue go at a "Top Ten" list of the ages for you.

1. Rembrandt's self-portraits, including and climaxing with the Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul. (A postscript: Regular site visitor Marty thoughtfully sent in this url for readers who are interested in looking at some of the self-portraits on the internet. If you can't see the paintings in person, I recommend spending some time clicking around on this web page, or better yet, buying a book that contains reproductions of these paintings. There are several available. The 100 Rembrandt self-portraits tell the story of a life, a culture, and a soul, as deeply as it has ever been depicted. They represent one of the most profound and searching studies of the human spirit ever conducted by a human being.)

2. J. S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, Keyboard Concertos, Violin Concertos, Well-Tempered Clavier, and Goldberg Variations.

3. George Balanchine's Jewels (Emeralds, Rubies, Diamonds), Serenade, Agon, The Four Temperaments, and Stravinsky Violin Concerto.

4. Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, Roberto Rossellini's Voyage in Italy, Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring, Robert Bresson's Femme Douce and Lancelot of the Lake, Carl Dreyer's Day of Wrath and Ordet, John Cassavetes' Faces, Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice, and Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky.

5. Mozart's piano concertos, everything from K.271 on, and his late symphonies, from number 35, the "Haffner" on.

6. All of the novels and short stories Henry James wrote between 1896 and 1909.

7. Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu.

8. Shakespeare's Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, and Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, and The Three Sisters.

9. Verdi's operas (no time to choose which ones).

10. Emerson's Essays.

Oh, I'm so sorry, I'm doing a terrible job at this. I just can't limit myself to ten entries. I've left out some of the most amazing stuff! So here are a few more things that have to be broadcast into eternity, a few more genius-level performances to be preserved forever and ever:

11. Haydn's String Quartets, from around Opus 33 on.

12. All of Louis Armstrong's work with "The Hot Sevens" and "The Hot Fives."

13. Igor Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements and Symphony in C.

14. Cervantes' Don Quixote, Dante's Divine Comedy, and Euclid's Elements (less for its truth than its beauty, its content than its form).

15. The complete stand-up comedy recordings of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.

Well, I've still not really finished. Too many other masterworks remain. But I better stop before I can't. Gives new meaning to "Ars longa, vita brevis!" But regarding your reference to the "others" out there: Don't worry. They have already read, viewed, listened to, all of this and more. They're not so stupid as the NASA/JPL scientists suppose. They don't need a Carl Sagan etch-a-sketch drawing of a man and a woman sent in their direction to know what makes the world go round. --R.C.


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