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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: One of the three or four major cinematic "discoveries" of the past year for me was Randy Walker and Jennifer Shainin's Apart from That -- a film so original and different that its brilliance almost resists categorization. Randy and Jenny have recently informed me that they are now selling an Apart from That special edition DVD/CD/Art/Photo package. I highly recommend going to this link and checking out their offer. It's a terrific film and the entire package of material they are offering is almost irresistible. (To read an exchange between the filmmakers and Ray Carney on page 69 of the Mailbag, click here. To read the program note Ray Carney wrote for the screening of Apart From That at the Harvard University Film Archive, click here. -- R.C

A note from Ray Carney: Reluctant as I am to revisit old wounds and court opportunities to shed new blood (especially when it's my own!), I have to print this brief note from Mitch Hampton picking up the "Bad Babies/Original Sin/Twenty-percent" thread from a previous discussion. See the middle of Mailbag page 85 (accessible via the blue page number menus at the top and bottom of this page), if you don't know what he is referring to. And thanks, Mitch. I agree with you! The "twenty percent" are born that way! And the rest of us are born our ways, too! Even Baby Cha-Cha. Beauty may be skin deep, but DNA goes to the bone -- and is there from the start. Anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear, doesn't need to read Steven Pinker to know that. -- R.C.

Subject: no inborn innocence

Hey Ray:

Stumbling upon the Mailbag, I was so happy to see you defend the truth of how compromised, divided, and otherwise conflicted is the status of the newborn. You don't need the Catholic church to see that (one of the few things they got right): the most thoroughgoing evolutionary biologist and neuroscientist in all of their "materialism" sees that. Their research reveals what the poets (even Wordsworth, but not as much as Coleridge) always knew in their texts: how stubborn and ancient are our flaws. What's bred in the bone. Things like jealousy and attraction to fat and sugar in diet and homicidal aggression actually have roots prior to our socialization and experience. In a sense we have to grow into goodness. I think the reason why this is hard to swallow is that people think about how a newborn baby appears to them: it's kind of cute and doesn't really have a lot of agency in the world. thus they commit the non sequitur of "innocence". Also they falsely conclude that learned things are easier to change than "natural" things. I think we can change many things in ourselves, learned or not. But, when one considers its overwhelming neediness and how that carries over into adulthood....

Mitch Hampton

I received a 15-minute short film in the mail from someone I don't know and never heard of: Michael Duffey. The film is called "The New Math," and it is absurdly simple and small. A two-person love story. More or less just a conversation between a boy and girl. I wrote Mr. Duffey the following response, which may be of use to other young filmmakers, which is why I reprint it here:


I loved your "The New Math." It's really strong work. It's so simple but so complex emotionally. It kept me on the edge of my seat with the constant shifts and slides of tone and mood. Thanks for sending it to me.

But you realize, of course, that nothing will happen in your life or career until you make a feature (a feature as good as this short, I mean).

It's like the difference between writing a film review for a newspaper and a film book. A thousand reviews, the entire career of Tony Scott or Elvis Mitchell or Vincent Canby at the Times before them, equals nothing, nothing, nothing. One book can be everything. It can change film history or at least make a difference in the world. A zillion shorts later you'll just still be a guy no one has ever heard of and no one really cares about. A good strong feature under your belt and that may still be true (sorry--there are lots of neglected geniuses out there and you still might be one of them!), but at least there is a chance you'll be discovered by viewers and critcs and be appreciated -- a chance that you'll be Caveh Zahedi after A Little Stiff, Andrew Bujalski after Funny Ha Ha, or Mark and Jay Duplass after Puffy Chair. It's not necessarily heaven, but it's something. Something real. A chance to build an audience and to make more movies. But it will take a feature to make it happen. No number of shorts will do it for you.

So go for it, man! Shoot in digital and edit on Final Cut Pro and it won't really cost that much more than a short. Except in emotion and thought and love and caring and time. A feature takes your heart and soul and life. But that's why it matters. Just be sure you don't compromise. Any more than you did on this short. You have talent. You can do great work. If you put your whole soul and heart into it.

Sincere best wishes,
Ray Carney

The Boston University Newsletter, BU Today, recently printed an article about how the Medical School has adopted a policy of distancing itself from corporate pressures and influences in the education of doctors. I reprint excerpts below since they provide food for thought for almost all film programs in America (including my own). American film departments not only routinely accept but actively court corporate sponsorship and allow corporate influence to affect their course offerings and the projects their students get credit for doing. (See page 54 of the Mailbag where I give a few examples of how the corporate tail wags the educational dog in film programs.) Why is that less ethically questionable than the influence of drug companies on medical education? Why is this issue never discussed? (In fact, on the contrary: distinguished visitors come to the Boston University campus and tell the faculty that students should consider "product placement" in their films. Click here to read about that.) -- R.C.

BU Today
September 10, 2007

Med Campus to Big Pharma: Keep Your Distance
New policy aims to thwart influence of pharmaceutical industry
By Art Jahnke

Boston Medical Center and the Boston University School of Medicine have adopted a strict new policy to prevent conflicts of interest between doctors and pharmaceutical companies. The policy, one of the most stringent in use at academic medical centers, bans all gifts from pharmaceutical companies, prohibits interactions between sales representatives and medical students, internists, and residents, and enjoins the industry from directly supporting the continuing medical education of individual physicians.

"The new policy promotes the independence of our clinicians," says Elaine Ullian, president and CEO of Boston Medical Center. "It establishes the highest professional standard of rigor and integrity in the care of our patients."... The policy, which is effective immediately, bans meals paid for by medical companies from the Medical Campus, and it prohibits financial relationships between drug companies and physicians who serve on committees that select drugs for hospital use.

Frances Miller, a professor at the BU School of Law, who is married to a physician, says recent studies have documented the influence of medical marketing on patient care. "If you ask doctors if they are affected by this, 90 percent will say no," Miller says. "But if you track what they do versus what they say, it tracks very closely with the interactions they have with pharmaceutical marketing."

Jim Post, a School of Management professor of strategy and policy, teaches a course in corporate governance, accountability, and ethics; he describes the relationship between drug companies and physicians as "an insidious system that affects choices and patient care."

Change that last phrase to: "the relationship between the rich, powerful, and famous and the teaching of film in our universities is an insidious system that affects courses and student education" -- and you have my point. But the difference is that while the Medical School realizes the dangers of letting corporate agendas affect academic inquiries, the film department is falling all over itself to make deals to get funding and corporate involvement in the curriculum from MTV, HBO, and the Turner Broadcasting System. What is wrong with this picture? (Click here to read more by Ray Carney about the lamentable effect of the university jumping into bed with big media outlets and Hollywood superstars, inviting their representatives to speak on campus, and making them faculty members -- even as it neglects the real artists of the medium.)

A note from Ray Carney: I received an exceptional independent film in the mail from a young filmmaker named Matthew Porterfield. The title of the film is Hamilton. I wrote him the following response, which I am sharing with readers not only to indicate my enthusiasm for his work, but in case it may be of interest to other young indie filmmakers:


I received Hamilton on Thursday and looked at it last night (Saturday). I like it VERY MUCH! Thank you.

But can I share some thoughts and reactions.

I love:

1. The avoidance of the artificial shapings of stupid plot.

2. The way you depict a reality beneath, beyond, separate from words, thoughts, dialogue. Your characters hardly talk at all, and when they do talk, they don't say anything that matters. That's wonderful! That's like life.

3. The way you make events without building them around conflicts, struggles, fights, arguments.

4. How scenes are not organized around question-answer formats.

5. How we get to know the characters the way we get to know people in life -- with slow knowledge, partial knowledge, tentative, provisional knowledge.

6. The patience, the lack of artificial drama, the slow living-into-lives ways of relating to the characters by the viewer, and of the characters with each other.

In other words, I am NOT one of those people who want you to change your movie so that it "explains" more things. Or wants you to make the characters more like movie "characters" by giving them "characters" and "telling us who they are" and "what they want." And I don't want you to have ACTIONS and EVENTS. Ugh. All of that would be just terrible. In fact, it would actually destroy all that is interesting about your movie. In other words, I like your movie just the way it is. As strange and unusual as it is. I like it vague and loose and relaxed and slow and puzzling and opaque and unexplained. Don't change any of that.


I also have a reservation, a problem, a critique--if you don't mind me saying so:

Scenes are strong, but all of the same sort. There isn't enough variety, enough changeability, enough surprise or shifting.

Scene after scene seems to be the same "color." The same mood and feeling again and again. It's like music written all in the same key. It doesn't surprise me or delight me enough with unexpectedness. It doesn't shift and shimmer and elude me. It stands still. It's like eating a meal made of only one food. No matter how good the food is, you want other foods to contrast with it (or a swig of wine or beer to cut the taste and allow in contrasting tastes).

As I watched your movie, I thought of works like Wanda and Killer of Sheep which have many of the same virtues as Hamilton does. They are slow and uneventful and have freed themselves from fake drama and stupid crises and confrontations. But they also have whole spectrums of different colors and tones and moods. They keep jumping around, surprizing us, shifting tonally and emotionally from scene to scene. There is a comic moment followed by a grave moment. A silliness and then a seriousness. A hot moment followed by a cool moment. A talky moment followed by a quiet moment. A kinetic moment followed by a meditative moment. A sadness buried inside a happiness. A goofiness layered on top of a tragedy. A puzzlement inside a comfort. In other words, they have changing tastes. Different colors. Tones and moods that keep shifting within scenes and from scene to scene. Your film stands still too much. Your painting is a beautiful painting, but it is all in yellow. Your music is melodious, but it is all in the key of F minor. Or like rap music, it's all one tone, all played by one instrument, with one sound and voice. This stasis, this constancy limits what you can do and say.

Don't get me wrong: I still like your movie a lot, but I think if you had more colors in your palette, you could paint an even more amazing painting..... If you had more ingredients, you could make an even more fabulous meal. If you had more key changes, more tempo changes, more shifts of texture, your music could destroy the viewer and wring his or her heart even more. Does that make any sense?

To put it in a single phrase (stolen from Wallace Stevens): Life is motion.

Sincere best wishes,

Ray Carney

Matt Porterfied replied:


Thanks for taking the time to watch Hamilton and for sharing your critique. I think you're spot-on. I'm working on the second draft of screenplay now that we hope to shoot next summer, trying to maintain somewhat the same approach to narrative, while allowing for more diversity of scene and mood and the presence of finer, more precise detail. Don't know if you enjoy reading screenplays, but if you have any interest, I'd be happy to send it along after another draft or two.

Kind regards,

Subject: Some Recent films...

Hello Professor Carney,

I just watched one of the most interestingly devastating films, "two of us" by Claude Berri. The suspense was never outwardly expressed, it was only there through the uncomfortableness of some dialogue. There was also a great relationship caught on film. Anyway, I just finished the film and felt it all over. The most fascinating thing about it was how up until the last shot we are feeling the life and suspense of the little boy, but suddenly on an edit to a close up, we are brought full swing into the mind of the old man losing his best friend. The smile on the kids face is not what we feel (normally the case would have it this way) instead we feel the sorry and loss of this old man. The ending is reversed, we aim for a happy ending and family reunion but instead we feel an emotion that comes totally unexpected. The rain adds to the sadness. What's more, the shot from the bus is technically from the boy's point of view but as the old man gets smaller his emotional mindset gets much larger, Berri made me feel deeply for two people, the latter being so strong that I felt it in reality. Aye, it was pretty taxing and sad to say the least -- but what a film.

I hope that this email finds you well.
Benny Safdie

P.S I also saw Fat City in New York at the moving images museum and was reminded of your story regarding (how a film festival audience laughed at Robert Bresson's) Lancelot. The scene where Tully is cooking for Faye is so dramatic and heightened that people laughed, also the last shot is held for moments longer than any one wants it to be held and I saw people motioning for the credits. Seeing this made me upset at first but I realized that the film had successfully challenged the emotions these people where expecting to feel. Of course they shouldn't have acted the way they did, but it clued me in on what to look for.

Alright a second farewell.

RC replies: Great art gives us new emotions, emotions we don't expect to feel, emotions for events and situations we haven't felt things about before, different emotions that we haven't experienced before. That's what art is and does. That's its essence. Bresson gives us experiences so unformulaic that audiences don't know what the hell to think or feel about them. That's not something weird and unusal and "Bressonian." That's art. Anything else is just a giving us clichés -- the same-old same-old, been-there done-that, déjà vu all over again. But because we are used to the clichés of non-art, because we live in the middle of our own set of emotional and intellectual clichés, we prefer the clichés, the formulas, the stupid death march of predictability to the end of life. That what art exists to break us free of.

Break your own work free. Break your heart and feelings free. Break your mind free. And keep going against all odds. The world will try to grind you down. Don't let it. -- R.C.

This just came in from a current Boston University student, commenting on two recent Mailbag postings.

I was just going through the "mailbag" on your site and found the "Freep, Drive-in Movie", question and response, which is really funny. (See Mailbag page 88, accessible through the blue page number menus at the top and bottom of each page.) What kind of an idiot would even write such ridiculous "film" questions to somebody they've never met or heard of, all in the name of a front-page story?......the reporters of the Freep, that's who. Working for them for a semester permanently turned me off to the journalism program (why I planned on that major in the first place is another good question altogether).

The film program, with all its problems, at least carries a smidgeon of intellectual content within it (mainly thanks to the studies aspect). Isn't a good film or book a much better example of "journaling" or documenting real life than an "objective" article about the war in Iraq (or even something as simple as an on-campus movie drive-in), completely devoid of any human touch?

Well, that is me ranting and going off on tangent. Anyway, the comment about Tarkovsky on YouTube was pretty spot-on too. (See Mailbag page 87, accessible through the blue page number menus at the top and bottom of each page.) As embarrassing as it is, since I come from a Russian family and my mom knows his work, I only watched my first Tarkovsky film (The Sacrifice) over the summer. (Next up is Andrei Rublev) It was challenging and crazy enough as it is, but the idea of anybody watching it online with all the distractions? Completely goes against everything the film encompasses and is totally weird.

Wow, this already too long. Hope to see you around sometime.

(Name withheld)

RC replies: Thanks for the good words. Glad the Mailbag gave you a chuckle. I am just trying to get people to think and not to just "accept everything the way it is." A university is about learning to question everything, everywhere, all the time. The world would be a better place if more people did that. That's called thinking. There are too many lemmings. We need more thinkers! -- R.C.

The Luce Program in Scripture and Literary Arts and the Humanities Foundation
at Boston University are pleased to present:

Filming Religion:
The Documentary Art of Helen Whitney

Tuesday, September 18, 2007, 5:30pm
Boston University Kenmore Classroom Building
565 Commonwealth Ave., room 101

Helen Whitney has spent a long and award-winning career making films. Her credits include Youth Terror: The View from behind the Gun for ABC, The Choice '96 for Frontline, and Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light for American Masters on PBS. Primarily, however, Whitney's work has focused on religion and personal experiences of faith. Such documentaries include Monastery, John Paul II: Millennial Pope (which won an Emmy), Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, and, most recently, The Mormons, which aired on PBS in April and May of 2007. In her current project, she explores the theme of forgiveness.

In this presentation, illustrated with clips from a number of her films, Whitney will give a retrospective of her life's explorations of religious faith. She will consider the allure as well as the challenges of capturing religion and spirituality on film, especially as she confronted these issues in her recent documentary The Mormons.

The talk will be followed by a light reception in the BU School of Management, room 426, located at 595 Commonwealth Avenue. This event is free and open to the public.

For more information, go to:
Or contact:
Professor Bryan Stone
Boston University School of Theology
or Cristine Hutchison-Jones
The Luce Program in Scripture and Literary Arts at Boston University


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