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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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"The kindness of strangers" department (a note from Ray Carney): I have been searching for an on-line copy of (or a link to) the text of Frank Lentricchia's "Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic," which appeared in Lingua Franca in 1996. Can any site reader help me locate it? Here is one section of it that I've managed to find (actually that a friend sent to me); but the whole article is useful, and I would love to post it or a link to it on the site. It's a statement about the profound limitations of race, class, gender, and ideological approaches to art. (Though Lentricchia is a literary critic, and all of his references are made to literature, his words go double for film study in the academy today. Change "literature" to "film" and "reader" to "viewer" in the following and his points are just as true.) - R.C.

“…[S]even years ago, I lost my professional bearing and composure. The actual crisis occurred in a graduate class, just as I was about to begin a lecture on Faulkner. Before I could get a word out, a student said, “The first thing we have to understand is that Faulkner is a racist.” I responded with a stare, but he was not intimidated. I was. He wanted to subvert me with what I thought crude versions of ideas that had made my academic reputation, and that had (as he told me before the semester began) drawn him to my class. And now I was refusing to be the critic he had every right to think I was. And I felt subverted. Later in the course, another student attacked Don DeLillo’s White Noise for what he called its insensitivity to the Third World. I said, “But the novel doesn’t concern the Third World. It’s set in a small town in Middle America. It concerns the technological catastrophes of the First World.” The student replied, “That’s the problem. It’s ethnocentric and elitist.” I had been, before that class, working hard to be generous. After that class, I didn’t want to be generous anymore and tried to communicate how unbearably stupid I found these views, but had trouble staying fully rational. There was an explosion or two of operatic dimension. I wasn’t the tenor hero; I was the baritone villain.

So I gave up teaching graduate students. I escaped into the under-graduate classroom --- in other words, slipped happily underground in order to talk to people who, like me, need to read great literature just as much as they need to eat.

I’m a teacher who believes that literature can’t be taught, if by teaching we mean being in lucid possession of a discipline, a method, and rules for the engagement of the object of study. I believe that the finest examples of the object cannot be ruled and that, therefore, professional literary study is a contradiction in terms. Great writing is a literally unruly, one-of-a-kind thing, something new and original in the world of literature, which (like all cultural worlds) is dominated by the conventional and the rule-driven: the boringly second-rate. Where then is the teacher? In my classroom, I assume, but cannot prove, that there can be illuminating conversation about the peaks of unruly originality, from Homer and Dante to Joyce and Proust. I assume such conversation cannot be replaced by what goes on in the sociology or the economics classroom.

We do not, after all, tell economists that all economic data and systems are actually disguised examples of novels, poems, and plays. Yet this is precisely the form of absurdity that the professional study of literature has taken. The situation in the literary wing of the academy is that those who (when teenagers) spent the days and nights of their lives with noses happily buried in imaginative literature now believe they must look elsewhere, to academic disciplines, for the understanding and values of their happiness. And look elsewhere they do, with holy zeal. They embark upon a course and leave their happiness far behind…

Over the last ten years, I've pretty much stopped reading literary criticism, because most of it isn't literary. But criticism it is of a sort-the sort that stems from the sense that one is morally superior to the writers that one is supposedly describing. This posture is assumed when those writers represent the major islands of Western literary tradition, the central cultural engine-so it goes-of racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia, and imperialism: a cesspool that literary critics would expose for mankind's benefit. ... It is impossible, this much is clear, to exaggerate the heroic self-inflation of academic literary criticism.... The fundamental, if only implied, message of much literary criticism is self-righteous, and it takes this form: "T. S. Eliot is a homophobe and I am not. Therefore, I am a better person than Eliot. Imitate me, not Eliot."

–“Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic” by Frank Lentricchia. Lingua Franca, September/October 1996, p. 64.

Ray Carney at the Rotterdam Film Festival
Photo by Anke Teunlssen (Amsterdam) / January 2004

BREAKING NEWS! Within hours of posting the preceding request for help, a regular site reader, Klaus, who lives in Cologne, Germany, sent me a pdf of the entire text of Lentricchia's essay. Click on this link if you want to read it. As I said above, film students and film professors should mentally change every reference to "literature" and "literary" to "film" and "cinematic" and the meaning will stay the same. When you have read this, and thought about the argument, I'd recommend reading Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation" for additional insights about the limitations of "cultural studies" forms of interpretation. But Sontag and Lentricchia really only scratch the surface. There is much more to say about about the limitations of race, class, gender, and ideological analysis being applied to great works of art, and what is left out of the account when that is done, so when you've read both Lentricchia and Sontag, and thought about the issue and made some notes, write me an email summing up your ideas. I'll publish the most insightful. -- R.C.

In gratitude and acknowledgement of his contribution, I reprint Klaus's email to me below:

Re: Complete text to Letricchia's "Last will"

Dear Mr. Carney,

I'm glad I can help you. (you helped me over and over again, after all: your website, especially the mail section is one of the big sources of encouragement for me, and my work)

Well, not much time now; one of these days I'll write you a more detailed and comprehensive "thank you"-letter. (The first I wrote is on page 5 of your mailbag section...) I was looking a little bit and I actually found the Letricchia-text.

Keep on fighting!

There are people out there, who need to SEE that it IS (and can be) done!!

My best wishes from here.
Klaus Findl (Cologne, Germany)

A note from Ray Carney: Even more than being a student of art, I'm a student of people. One of my deepest, most abiding interests is people -- the twists and turns of human existence and the kinks and complexities of human personality. To put it simply: There is nothing more interesting to me in the whole world than people, than hearing them tell the stories of their lives, their hopes, their fears, and their dreams. That's why I almost always ask people who write to me to tell me more about themselves. The stories are always fascinating. In the brief time that the site has been up, I've received scores of responses to the request, and have published many of them on earlier Mailbag pages. Today, by coincidence, two more site visitors, one who lives near Albany, New York, one who was raised in Saudi Arabia, sent me emails within minutes of each other, telling their stories, or at least a tiny part of them. I wanted to add their emails to the Mailbag and share them with others. There is always value in sharing, communicating, trying to understand someone else's life and point of view. -- R.C.

Hey Ray,

You asked me about myself, and I didn't know what to say, so I've started keeping this running document where I'll put notes as they occur to me or happen to me.

11-16-07, 12 midnight:

I'm reading page 96 of the mailbag and seeing again a place where you refer back to something from a previous page, not with a convenient hyperlink as any contemporary blogger would, but with real directions, which you doubtless have to think about yourself as you give them. And I like it. I'm sometimes sick of the clickyness of the internet. It's too easy. The web you're weaving with your mailbag is not easy. There are no shortcuts (though I see you have given some new avenues on the left-hand side). You seem to hold the whole thing in your head, down to the keywords one should search for to find this or that particular item. It's impressive to me. Maybe "pointless" to others. Inconvenient, anachronistic, oldschool, outmoded, obsolete? Well, I've never been very organized, myself. I have to reach for a technological metaphor because unfortunately that's what I've surrounded myself with, all too much as I am slowly and surely learning, but a lot of people I know rely on fancy itunes libraries to keep track of the music on their hard-drives, while I somehow keep a floating list of files and folders in my head. I just know where to click because I live with it, work with it, and breathe with it every day. Sometimes I get lost, true. But then finding what I was looking for after a more intense search becomes a treat, as does the challenge of the search itself. I don't spend much time with digital music anymore, but that is one arena my muddle logic can be seen happening in. I'm the same way on paper, to the puzzlement of some professors and delight of others.

Yes, there's something about me: I'm in college. I won't say where, because it doesn't matter. I have no skeleton in my frame of reference to hang it on, no rank to assign it, even with two others to compare it to (I've transferred a few times now). College is a strange thing for me. I'm almost embarrassed to talk about it, which is maybe why it's important to try. I have to say that as a whole, I don't like it. I never had any grand illusions about it to begin with; since I was cynical from the start, perhaps it had no chance to win me. But I will not say I have not had valuable experiences during my time as an undergraduate. And I don't think my problems are original or unique, though my experience of them and reactions to them might be. The most important thing I've learned in college is that I am very lazy, because even if I might think that I see things quicker than other students, I stop there far too often, letting it be enough to have gotten things fairly 'right' the first time. I have no urge toward perfection, not even a personal kind of perfection. Or maybe it's that I do have that, but not for the assignments given to me. In my defense, I think a lot of it comes from a fear of not having enough time for things. My greatest desire, my biggest fantasy, is to have a year free and clear of responsibilities, in which I might go to a library and engorge myself. College makes me rush, and settle, and jump through a lot of shallow pointless hoops that aren't even on fire. I am a person who, if my mind fails me for a week during which an important essay is due, I will not be able to piece together hackwork just to get a passing grade, rather I have a self destructive impulse to let it go, to submit and admit to my mind's weakness, rather than give in something I couldn't call true. I don't beg for second chances or give excuses, I just give nothing, and live with the fear and doubt and shame this also gives me. I'm not sure what this must sound like to a college Professor who is weeks away from grading lots of papers yourself, but you're not mine so I can talk about it. And you were a student once and you're a writer and maybe you know something I don't about conquering the uncooperative mind, or maybe yours just always worked right when you needed it to, I don't know. I give explanations for myself, as I understand myself at the time, and if it's about a failure to do something someone else wanted me to do, the person I'm telling often calls these explanations 'excuses,' and I don't think it's fair. I used to have a fetish for forgiveness and second chances, a deep and twisted part of me that was forged in my childhood, as far back as I can remember. Intentional failures, intentional pushings-of-edges to see where the possibility of forgiveness ended and the inevitability of punishment came in. I've stopped looking for second chances but haven't replaced that with an urge to succeed, at least not on the terms it seems everyone else is operating under. If I have anything going for me it's curiosity, and a tolerance for new experience. But I've found that tolerance is not enough, I need to develop a thirst for it, because it is all to easy to confine myself, to place a little circle around me where I'm allowed to walk, and everything beyond I just look at and "appreciate" from afar. Meanwhile my circle is dead with stale air and no action. I have no illusions about myself; I am the first to point out my limitations and inadequacies. The ones I don't tell to others I at least point out to myself. This doesn't mean I work to fix them all the time. Most of my life is just living with them, living with myself, getting along. I teeter between despair and an irrational defense of myself, a defense of things I admit are 'problems' in that they limit me and how I can interact with the world, and yet some deep part of me needs to defend them, maybe just because they are "me," they are what I know of myself, and to denounce them would just be another move into self loathing. It's a puzzle, but I suppose the only real answer is, instead of arguing with myself inside my head, to try other things. If action would preceed thought, and I was the doer of those actions, then that self defensive part of me would have something new to defend, maybe something better. Inaction is my deep problem, and my acute awareness of it doesn't help the matter. Being aware of one's own problems and then continuing to do them, what is this sickness? I guess it's a step up from a lot of people who seem completely oblivious to the destructive ways they live their lives. And yet, so many of these people seem to 'get ahead' of me, in terms of leading independent lives (over which they have some deeper level of control). In so many ways I feel like a naïve child; nothing is sure, nothing is understood. I like this part of me, mostly, don't misunderstand me, but it sure doesn't help me get anywhere, even to 'good' places. I'd like to say I'm an artist, but I'm not. I have not earned it with work, sacrifice, with pure need translated into action. I am a giver-upper, a never-tried. I have no place and no role to play, in the structure of society as I know it. All the ones I land I screw up or am in the process of doing so. I am of that sad breed who say "someday," every day. And yet I KNOW I AM. And I feel like someday (there I go) I will snap and pour out a flood of whatever. The snapping and pouring is always my grand modus. I only have the arena of school papers and bad high school poetry to attest to it, but I am never one to logically plan and preprepare. All of my output is floods and gushes from somewhere else. I am a facilitator of chance opportunities for this to occur in; I merely provide a mood or a place, and then it just happens, or it doesn't. Lately, with school, it just doesn't. Or it does when not needed. My gushings will not be scheduled, and they lately will not keep inside page length parameters. I fear that maybe it is actually the final spurts of my mind's life, the frequency dying down, becoming erratic. Or maybe it signals a butterfly transformation into something better.

Who Am I? Where Do I Live? What Am I Doing?

I am a male human being, aged twenty-two years, living in the capital district of New York. Used to live down near the city, was born down there actually, and didn't do enough with that opportunity. I live in my head. I have no friend that I didn't meet originally through the internet, including the girl I'm going to marry. So, with a lot of reservations, I have to like the internet. In real life, I am an inacter. I never approach, I never engage. I absorb, and react, and wait. I don't know what's stopping me, and figuring that out is the biggest question I deal with in my life. Fear, probably. Fear, basically. Not sure of what.

You, Ray Carney blew my mind up. I was always ready and waiting, but you were the first to give me a direction to go. It always puzzled me how I could go to a used record store and find a lot of amazing music I'd never heard of before, and it was all just available and there for the taking-but go to a video store and it's all just copies of the same bullshit, the same pap. Comparing the two situations, I was forced to conclude that maybe it really was just an empty field, maybe there were a few 'good' directors in a sea of crap. And back then my idea of 'good' was the usual, Hitchcock, Kubrick, and the stuff that was happening at the time, American Beauty, Magnolia, just that kind of stuff. And then I found your site somehow and saw names I'd never heard of. That was enough for me. My curiosity did the rest. Would you believe I went through every single page on your site, every word, and made a list of every name you ever happened to mention? And I was totally green. The ones I couldn't place from the context I guessed. For the longest time I thought Paul Taylor might have been a playwright. Ah well, I learned. Your site has pretty much functioned as a grand syllabus for my artistic appreciation, within every genre. Two things originally resonated with me; your pragmatist sensibility (before I knew pragmatism existed) and the way you didn't privilege one art form over another. Obviously film is the focus, yes, but it was obvious you were invested in them all, to some degree. That eclectic sense jived with me big-time. That's how I think, that's who I am. And maybe it's a problem because I spread myself too thin, finding no time to master any individual project before wanting to explore something else. This modern life, so much temporal anxiety, I can't stand it. So to answer, What am I doing? I am living as best I can, fighting constant urges to give up, to let myself fail so I can start over with a clean slate, before remembering that there is no way back and the slate was never clean to begin with. I have to make my mark however I can even if it's in the smallest corner, on top of the boldest other chalk slashes, it has to happen. Like young Faulkner I do not yet know the form it will take.



I'm currently reading Absalom, Absalom!

The Sacred Fount was the first Henry James novel I ever read, because of you, and if you will believe it, it didn't confuse me. I am so used to thinking the way the narrator does that it felt like reading a book about the way my own mind operates. Eerie and illuminating.

I just watched Little Fugitive for the first time last night, and the batting cage scene blew my mind up. I can't really say why with words.

I've been slowly buying Jon Jost's work, as I earn money. That reminds me I need to send him a check for Bell Diamond. If your readers don't know, he's started selling reasonably priced dvd copies of his work now. Used to be just 70 dollar vhs tapes of a few of them from some company available.

Well, I just spent two hours writing this, instead of polishing a draft for school. I thought it would just be a few notes but that gushing happened again. Ah well, to me this is a "real-life priority," as my friend noted when I told him what I was doing just now. I hope I didn't bore you. And I don't expect you to fill an entire page of your mailbag with my gushing, but you are of course free to post any part of it if you want to.

Really though, when can I read your Henry James book? Is it a sore subject? Publishing woes? Do a paypal PDF file through your site!

And one more note from the underground from me:

"Bach is harmony. A total, mind-bending harmonic view of life. Much deeper than a melodic or rhythmic view." you, page 72

And here's where the 'notes' come in. I want to draw you out, perhaps challenge you, on this. I agree that a harmonic view is important. But melodic is to harmonic what rhythmic is to polyrhythmic; so what say you about a polyrhythmic view? Doesn't it require a similar moment-by-moment accounting for -- differently, yes-- with perhaps less morphing to the completely new, and more hypnotizing trancelike repetitive aspects, yes (depends on the source, really), but similar nonetheless? Equally mind-ful, but in a different way, calling on a different set of brainsections? And also, what about a view of music that accounts for harmonies and dissonances of texture , not just of, ah... (and a night without sleep catches up to me)... notes? Music is perhaps the one realm where I feel like I have a leg up on you, in some ways, at least in terms of an expansive view of what 'counts' (as you do for the independent film works you talk about which no one else knew existed). Oh you've got the classic composers on lockdown, you have, most likely, all the jazz (I know you've mentioned texture and timber in terms of Billie) but what about everything else ? Now I don't want to reaally get into it, because it might get too messy, and really there's too much to account for, but I just hope that you don't consider everything not of those two esteemed modes (classical --in the layman's sense, for i admit that's all I am as of yet when it comes to it-- and jazz) to be the aural equivalent of Hollywood schlock. Of course all I have to go on is what you've written here, and I know that's just a fraction of "you," so I could be very mistaken. I am, of course, very interested. Thank you!


PS. Bach IS an alien. Pass it on.

The following is from Ahmed Khawaja, who was raised in the United Arab Emirates. Please make allowances for the fact that he grew up in another country. (Ah, how much happier the world would be if we weren't so divided and at odds linguistically, culturally, and tribally. But much of that is in our genes, I think. We can't blame it all on language, culture, and tribe.) But Ahmed's letter also illustrates another point -- the love of art among non-American students. As I noted in a reply in the middle of page 96 of the Mailbag, this love of real art (not the the work of the Coen brothers, not the films of Tarantino, not those of Lychn or Hitchcock or Kubrick! -- not the love of kitsch -- but the love of real art) is almost unknown in America, where pop culture and fake art (kitsch) has filled all the imaginative (and journalistic) space available. Ahmed's letter shows how the love of art still survives in older, wiser cultures--in Europe, in Asia, in the Middle East. -- R.C.

Good Morning Prof. Carney,

Your words mean a great deal, and I wish one day I can write as quick and as concise as you do, with as much spirit and sincerity. Each of your responses is like a short essay on its own, whomsoever writes in, and I'm always intrigued and in awe of your expansive website. Every word seems carefully chosen, and there's nothing gone to waste. You're a poet and a pusher, and at the risk of sounding like one of those Dylan fans, you inspire us to keep going on and distance ourselves as far away from the mean hands of obscurity. Sadly, even back home (the UAE), we suffer of commercial excess, and seemingly so, this appears to be the state of most developing countries that adopt globalizing standards and neglect the most essential of things in any city: a decent library to serve as a social unit, something like the Boston Public Library, where people want to spend time immersing themselves with knowledge.

Most or all my films were ordered off the internet, spending tons of my father's money, and graciously so; reading books (coffee table books, criticism, etc.) was certainly essential to learning about films, indexing numeorus titles and directors names into my brain. The first "old" film I saw was here at the Brattle, a year and a half ago, and I've been hooked ever since.

But film or high learning still wasn't anything engendered as a staple of the human experience by a school curriculum. I was brought up in the American School, and it was great, but most did suffer from that sense of film as something to temporarily mediate our attentions, gargling down popcorn, and being with friends. I'm even baffled when a good friend of mine says he's never been to a theatre alone. It remains a communal experience to many, and I believe this really is a world wide sickness that began here with television. And not to say that TV's bad; today it most certainly is, besides TCM, and the whole 70's generation of filmmakers were informed by TV as a sort of cinematheque. I myself grew up watching Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy on regular Arabic TV channels in wonderful prints, and to this day I wonder how they got them; had I not been exposed to them, what would road would I have taken today? I grew up with shows from the 60's and onward. What saddens me is they don't even show old cartoons anymore; Hanna Barbara have been taken away from children.

It's difficult to inspire most to look into the past and discover, as in the thrills of archeology. I felt tremendously lonely in my love for cinema back home, but here in Boston, I find many who are enthusiastic and love it the way I do, and that too is a reassuring feeling. The summer at the HFA was tremendous; not only the Indie program, but everything else. Some of the films I saw were ones I'd always read about and wanted to see, i.e. Cousteau's "Silent World."

When people ask, "How's film going; what genres will you make fims in?" I risk sounding pretentious, since I can't answer those questions, and simply say I love everything from Charlie Chaplin to the few good films of today, and sometimes there are many, as in last year or even this year, but everything is planned out so we have to wait until Fall for the Oscar material to come through, and watch people pile in to see trash during the summers, with the exception of one or two films.

Thanks again,


Subject: greeting and praises

Good Afternoon (well here in the Philippines) Mister Ray Carney,

I'm Raymund Cruz, A recent college graduate from the Philippines . I just want to reach out my deepest thanks for changing how I view Films. Before, during my years studying Production Design, I was very much grounded with the beauty of the image. Films like Amelie or The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover, were my champions and basis for great story telling or cinematic masterpieces. I have drifted away from truth. I tried looking for it by studying plays, some from Samuel Beckett, Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov.

As a frustrated filmmaker, I asked around directors on how they instruct their actors. Most were from Television, which meant structured reaction and staged blocking. I visited their shoots and worked for them as a member of the staff. Still, I couldn't understand why they had to react in beats or how they have to look at a certain way. So my search was not yet satisfied.

My journey continued. That was until I came across two individuals, JP Carpio and Dino Manrique. Both are avid supporters of your articles and findings. They directed me to your website and ALAS!, I have found the golden treasure. I have since read less a bout Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick; And read more about John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh (Mike Leigh is now my fav director because my concepts are social satires). You have given me a new energy with how to experiment and confidence. I have ordered your Cassavetes on Cassavetes and Films of Mike Leigh. I'm expecting it next year. :)

But I do have a question Sir Carney, I am starting my first venture into directing. I am directing a short film next month. I'm applying the technique of Mike Leigh, in which there are no written lines but only a rough sequence treatment and a concrete back story of the characters. I was just wondering how he sets up his shots. I watched Abigail's party and Life is sweet . I was amazed with how the editing captured the fluid exchange between the characters. How do you control improv if everything is spontaneous? Do they rehearse right before takes?

Questions aside, I continue to spread your words into the egroups of our film community . The Carney followers are steadily growing opting for the Honest films rather that the hip and violence. I hope that one day I have enough money to go to Boston and attend your classes. Just curious, do you have any short courses or seminars that I could apply in? I'm afraid with my small pay check, I cannot afford to live in the States and pay for tuition. Maybe the cheaper class could mend my dilemma.

Hope to see you soon. Will update you with all the events here in the Philippines . Please do visit us here. More power!

-- Raymund Cruz

Dear Raymund,

Thanks for the good, kind words. As I say often, each of us can use all the love we can get. But to cut to the chase, and to your question: How I wish you had been near Boston for the last four or five days to be able to attend the events I just held at the Harvard Film Archive. We showed something like 15 hours of Rob Nilsson's amazing work, with him and some of the actors present to discuss it and answer questions about it. And guess what? Almost all we talked about were the kinds of things you are asking about. He works very similarly to the way Mike Leigh does. He talked, at length, about the use of improvisation, the creation of character through backstory, the use (and abuse) of rehearsals, the importance of spontaneity (and the control of it in the filming process), and--this is very important--how the editing process is used to winnow, select, rearrange, and organize the raw material he captures. (One of his editors also flew in for the events and talked about that part of it.) Documentary filmmakers do this all the time, and fiction filmmakers have a lot to learn from their so-called non-fiction brethren. How I wish you could have been there to hear the various discussions. (We had extensive Q and A sessions following each of the nine films.) It's impossible to respond by email to explain all of what was said, but I do have two suggestions: First, the Archive events were filmed. A documentary filmmaker recorded almost everything Rob (and everyone else) said for a documentary film he is making. So once that is available, that will be a way for you to hear Rob's account as if you had been at the events. But that is months away, so more immmediately, I want to recommend a book for you to read: Paul Clements's The Improvised Play (Methuen, 1983). It is long out of print (isn't everything good?), but it should be available from a big library through interlibrary loan or from a used-book website like It has some of the answers to your questions. Clements talks at length and in detail about Leigh's working methods. (My Mike Leigh and Cassavetes on Cassavetes books, of course, supplement Clements's account, so I'm glad you are going to be reading them too.) Short of those books, all I can say is to invite Rob Nilsson, Mike Leigh, and Jon Jost to visit the Philippines and hold master-classes on this subject. All three would have important (and different) insights to communicate to critics, students, and artists who were ready to receive them. I add that last caveat, since all too many students and critics I know or work with are too closed-off, too mired in the hidebound, old-fashioned, stupid Hollywood studio models of creation, unfortunately. They are still trying to be little Hitchcocks and Kubricks and Lynches, and are creating kitsch as a result. What foolishiness. What madness. What bad advice they are getting from their teachers and friends. All best wishes. -- Raymondo Carney

An excerpt from a note to me from the always-worth-paying-attention-to Arthur Vibert:

Dear Ray,

.... I've just finished 25 short videos featuring sock puppets and my own odd take on things. I know you don't "do" online video so I will send you a DVD. I'm assuming I can find an address for you on your site so I will get a copy out to you after Thanksgiving.

Watch it at your leisure - I know you have a vast stack of work waiting for you.

I hope you have a thoroughly enjoyable Thanksgiving.

Warmest Regards,
Arthur Vibert

An excerpt from my reply:


Great to hear from you!.... Finishing up four days with Rob N. today. What larks! What craziness. To quote Bill Blake: The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.......

And I LOVE sockpuppet art! Two favorite artists in my whole life: Paul Zaloom and Freddie Curchack. If you don't know who they are, file them under "sock puppets (and related forms of art)"

May we meet in this life or the next. Keep going, good Arthur. It matters!


P.S. I forgot to mention him above, but while I'm at it, I might as well add Red Grooms to the list of artistic innovators. Who says all of the forms of art are known?...... New arts are always being invented and the best is yet to be done. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention another "sockpuppet masterpiece" that I was just talking to someone at 2 AM last night in a bar about: Todd Haynes's Barbie doll masterpiece Superstar.... Oh brave new world, that has such people in it.... How much more there is to be learned, to be discovered, to be done. How wonderful, how miraculous, how multiform is life..... Only mainstream film is boring and predictable. There is all of existence before us -- uncharted, unexplored, unexpressed......

Arthur Vibert responded to the above with his customary words of wisdom. My only reply to the following is to say (apropos of the third paragraph): Yes, Arthur, many of them (and not just the film students, but the faculty as well) DO fight it. With a passion. They prefer what they know. And they know what they prefer....... Zemeckis's Beowolf (see paragraph four) apparently defines the furthest stretch of their imaginations. I feel sorry for them. Genuinely and sincerely. But the artists out there, the real artists, not the businessmen, will always see past those limits in a single glance and find a way. They always have. There is a world elsewhere. --R.C.

Ray -

You sound absolutely giddy. What a delight. And yes, only mainstream film is boring. Which is why I find myself continually scratching my head wondering why SO MANY PEOPLE want to be part of it.

I was watching "Next" because my wife ordered it and it had Nick Cage in it. He seems to have an uncanny knack for picking the worst possible roles, which is astonishing for someone who can be so good. Maybe he owes a lot of money. Anyway, my wife finally kicked me off the couch because I kept blurting out the dialog BEFORE the actors. One of my more annoying habits. Not really that hard to do since it consisted of one cliché after another dangling off the standard 3 act structure. The problem is, once one understands how it works it's all predictable - even the "trick" endings.

What I don't understand is why young people who aspire to film making feel so good about mastering the 3 act structure and the hero's journey and all the rest of it. Do they really aspire to making more of that crap? It's all so... industrial. Like a REALLY well-paying blue collar job masquerading as something far nobler. And I find it even more remarkable when they vehemently fight any suggestion that there might, just possibly, be a better way.

Zemeckis was talking about the "new" art form of "performance capture" linked with 3D. That being, of course, Beowolf. Art indeed. 150 million dollars worth of "art."

I'm envious of your time with Rob Nilsson. What a treat! And thank you, as always, for your warmth and support.

As you say, it matters.



And now for a different view of reality, an altered state of consciousness, a trip to the parallel universe defined by fame, power, and money that all too many earthlings call home ....

Reality-check department. Meanwhile the corporate filmmaking beat goes on. This just in. An opportunity for feminist filmmakers and other "real women" (whatever that is supposed to mean) to participate in "this very exciting challenge" to "jump-start their careers and land a coveted job working at a Hollywood production company"!!!! (All bolding guaranteed to be present in the breathless original.) -- R.C.

Dear Professor Carney,

Your students are invited to participate in the Dove Cream Oil Body Wash Ad Contest. The makers of Dove, the brand recognized globally for embracing real women in its advertising, are once again looking for aspiring female filmmakers to create the next Dove ad. The brand created the contest to recognize the talents of real women and help make their ad making dreams a reality. Last year's contest helped selected ad creator Lindsay Miller jump-start her career and land a coveted job working at a Hollywood production company.

Contest Overview
The makers of the new Dove Supreme Cream Oil Body Washes want to hear how real women define luxury and are challenging women to use their creativity and talent to create a 30-second commercial to share their point of views. To help Dove pick two grand prize winners, America is invited to vote online for their favorite ad. The two ads that best capture the essence of the new products and the brand's philosophy will be revealed during a commercial break in The Oscars® on Feb. 24, 2008.

How to Participate
Starting today students can learn more about the contest by going to The contest begins on December 5, 2007 at 12:00 a.m. EST and runs through January 9, 2008 at 11:59:59 p.m. EST.

Students can bookmark the page and go back on Dec. 5 when the contest officially begins.* A step-by-step tutorial and editing tools will be available on the site making the project easy for both beginner and advanced filmmakers. Sample videos from last year's contest finalists will also be posted for easy reference.

Contact Information
If you have any questions about this opportunity, please feel free to contact Jessica Axelrod at 212-642-7757

We appreciate you sharing this news with your students. Please encourage them to participate in this very exciting challenge.

Best regards,
The Dove Team

Meanwhile, back on the home front, Boston University students hone their pitches. -- R.C.

November 27, 2007
Reality TV Wants to Hear from BU
(reprinted from BU Today)
TruTV network holds pitch-fest on December 5
By Jessica Ullian

Garland Waller, a COM assistant professor of film and television, is encouraging students from all over BU to pitch their reality-television ideas to TruTV on December 5..... TruTV, the new version of Court TV scheduled to launch in January, is currently touring colleges around the country soliciting pitches for new reality shows. On Wednesday, December 5, network executives will be in the George Sherman Union from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., inviting BU students, faculty, staff, and alumni to step up and showcase their best ideas.

"I'm both apprehensive and wildly thrilled," says Eleanor Greene, a part-time master's student in the College of Communication and the assistant director of research in the Office of Sponsored Programs. Greene plans to pitch a show called The Marrying Kind, which profiles people who have been married three or more times, with interviews with their therapists, children, ex-spouses, and divorce lawyers. "This will be only the third time I have ever pitched something and the first time I've pitched when it counts," she says. "This will definitely be a step up, so to speak."

When TruTV launches in January, it will broadcast several programs currently playing on Court TV, such as the crime-investigation reality show Forensic Files, but the network is looking for new and different types of programming, according to Garland Waller, an assistant professor of film and television at COM, who collaborated with TruTV to bring the College Pitch Tour to campus. "They really believe that young people in the academic world rarely get a chance to say, 'What about this idea?'" Waller says. "They don't know exactly what they're looking for, but they'll know it when they hear it."

Participants will have 10 to 15 minutes to make their pitches, which must include a written treatment covering the format, the characters, and potential storylines. The TruTV Web site suggests bringing photos or videos of potential characters as well. Judging will be based on originality of concept, clarity of structure and format, compatibility with TruTV's mission, and the project's overall feasibility.

Kevin Gonzales (COM'08) plans to pitch a show called The Mailroom, which follows four young people working entry-level jobs in the mailrooms of major talent agencies in Hollywood and New York. "The mailroom is known as the boot camp of Hollywood, where the long hours and miserable pay could eventually become a promotion to an agent or executive," Gonzales says. "I've run the idea past a lot of my industry friends, and they loved the idea, based mostly on their own experiences."

When the pitch tour is finished, three semifinalists will be selected to go to New York and pitch their ideas to a panel of industry professionals. The winner will receive a $2,500 development fee and work with experienced producers to create a pilot.

Waller's students were required to craft pitches for next week's event, providing a needed push into the professional world for Gonzales and other students. "If this hadn't been part of my class grade, I probably wouldn't have participated because of the time constraints," Gonzales says. "Luckily, Professor Waller has the real-world know-how to realize what an opportunity this is."

A note from Ray Carney: For thoughts about pitch sessions for student filmmakers, see the top of Mailbag page 54, the bottom of Mailbag page 62, and the letter about USC on Mailbag page 76. Also see this page.

A note from Ray Carney: a student reader of the site who asked not to be identified by name, sent me the following quotations from Abbie Hoffman for posting as his response to the material near the bottom of Mailbag page 94 and most of page 95 . At your service, monsieur! -- R.C.

"Democracy is not something you believe in or a place to hang your hat, but it's something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles." - Abbie Hoffman

"Sacred cows make the best hamburger." - Abbie Hoffman

"There is no such thing as an innocent bystander." - Abbie Hoffman

"When decorum is repression, the only dignity free people have is to speak out." - Abbie Hoffman

"Morality seems to enter the picture only when individuals interact with each other. It's universally wrong to steal from your neighbor, but once you get beyond the one-to-one level and pit the individual against the multinational conglomerate, the federal bureaucracy, the modern plantation of agro-business, or the utility company, it becomes strictly a value judgment to decide who exactly is stealing from whom. One person's crime is another person's profit. Capitalism is license to steal; the government simply regulates who steals and how much." - Abbie Hoffman

"All the isms lead to schisms which lead to wasms." - Abbie Hoffman

"I believe in compulsory cannibalism. If people were forced to eat what they killed, there would be no more wars." - Abbie Hoffman

(excerpted from: 'Reflections on Student Activism')

An excerpt from a note from Bruce Kehler, alluding to the comments about imaginative impoverishment from Norman Mailer that I cite on the preceding page of the Mailbag. -- R.C.

Professor Carney -

Thank you ... for the thoughts on Mailer and our current sad states. I often wonder how much longer it all will last. Sometimes it pains me to think of this world of pop in which nothing is different. And then I come to my senses and, as you also recently noted, retreat from the arms of despair, and realize that the world of pop is only one bad imaginative version and there is so much truth waiting to be told and waiting to be seen....

Thanks again and all the best -
Bruce Kehler

Photo by Mark Backus / Summer 2005A Modest Proposal. Reflections on the cultural hype about the glamour and importance of being a filmmaker and how film schools take advantage of it for financial gain. (A work–in–progress by Ray Carney.)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the challenges of being an artist who works in the medium of film. So much cant has been written in the past few years about how cheap it has become to make a film and how easy it is to be a filmmaker. Everybody has heard the pitch. The argument runs that with the advent of digital cameras and disk storage, the price of the basic equipment and stock is one–tenth or one–twentieth of what it was a decade ago. Postproduction can now be done on a home computer with software that costs less than what it used to cost to rent an editing suite for two hours. A film that would have cost $100,000 to make in 1980 can now be created for a tenth of that amount – or less. D.I.Y. low–budget indie filmmaking is being heralded as the new democratic art form. Anyone who wants to make a movie can now afford to. And anyone who wants to see it can view it for free on the internet. The golden age of cinema has come.

Well, at least that’s the hype. The trouble is that it’s wrong. It ignores or glosses over the unpleasant realities. Filmmaking is still not that quick or that easy. In fact, it’s still pretty hard and slow. Being able to buy a camera for $5000 does not solve most of the problems. Feature filmmaking, even of the low–budget variety, still requires at least five or ten people (and generally more than that) working together – from actors to crew members to editors to musicians - to create even the simplest work. Making a feature still takes weeks or months – from planning it, to shooting it, to editing it, to attempting to interest viewers in seeing it – no matter how modestly you budget and schedule it. Five or ten people each working for three or four weeks can add up to a year of man– and woman– hours. It’s a lot of time and effort. It ain’t quick and easy. It’s slow and difficult.

The kicker, the thing I’ve been thinking about the most, is that even after you and a dozen friends have each spent months of your time creating this thing, even after your D.I.Y. film has been completed, what have you done it for? Even after hundreds of hours have been devoted to the project, after five, ten, or fifteen people have poured their hearts, minds, and souls into the effort – will anyone ever see your movie – other than you, your actors, your crew, your boyfriend or girlfriend, and your parents?

Let’s be honest about this. The reality is that for 99 out of 100 ultra low-budget films made by first-time or "no name" directors, that is the only audience they will ever have. Ever. One work in twenty (or even fewer than that) will make it into a festival, where -- assuming that it is not made by a "name" director and does not star a "name" actor, it will be given a single morning or afternoon screening in front of, most likely, fifteen or fewer viewers. (That is, if you are lucky -- I've been at many festival screenings, even of the work of well-known indies -- I won't give their names lest I embarrass them, but I am thinking of filmmakers well-enough known that you have heard of them -- where the filmmaker and I and maybe one other person were the only people present in the whole theater). An even lower proportion of low-budget indie films will ever be booked to play in a regular movie theater for a paying audience at an evening screening. (In that case, the filmmaker will consider him or herself lucky if a total of 100 tickets are sold over the course of two weekday nights before the film is yanked and replaced by the next one on the screening schedule.) For that, you and ten other people spent a year of your lives? For that, you chose film because it was the most powerful and influential medium of contemporary expression? Oh, I know what you’re thinking. You can post your film on YouTube for free. You can offer the DVD for sale on a website. But again, let’s get real. How many views does an average low budget independent film get? How many DVDs does it sell? Ten? Twenty? A hundred? Wow. A hundred. In fact, to sell a hundred DVD copies of a given title in a single year would be a dream come true even for many well–known independent filmmakers I know. They don’t say this in public or in interviews because it would sound too depressing, but if they sell five or ten copies of one of their films in a month, it’s a big month. Virtually none of these films ever makes a profit. None of them has a "sustainable" business model. For every Blair Witch, there are 100 unknown, unviewed titles.

Given the bleakness of these facts, I have a modest proposal. Why not switch to the ultimate low–budget, low–tech form of creation? Why stop with a cheap camera and a desktop computer editing program? Why not make your work of art with a twenty–cent pencil and a one–cent piece of paper? Why not become a writer? Why not write a short story? A novel? A play? If you are a student, drop out of the film department and transfer into the creative writing program of your university. If you are not a student, put your camera down and pick up a pencil and paper and write something. The freedom, the empowerment you will instantly feel will be amazing. You suddenly won't need five friends and four actors to help you express your vision of life. You suddenly won't be limited by equipment and sets and uncontrollable noises and other people's schedules. You suddenly won't need to find someone to do the music or to clean up your sound track. You suddenly won't have your work spoiled by the ineptness of your actors or the irresponsibility of crew members not showing up. You can write the great American novel (or short story or play) on your sofa or in the neighborhood Starbucks. You can do it on a rainy day. You can write something wonderful. Really wonderful – on your own. And it will cost nothing but whatever you have in your heart and soul.

Now I know the response, because whenever I have suggested anything like this to frustrated young filmmakers – most of whom (comically, tragically, pathetically) have been spending years of their lives saving up their money to buy the right equipment and software and trying to locate the right actors to act in a film they intend to make some day – or when I have said it to young filmmakers who have made a film but been unable to get it into a single movie theater, the reply is always something to the effect that: “I don’t want to be a writer; I want to be a filmmaker.” When I push them and ask why in the world they would say that, they reply with things in the vein of: “Film is the great modern art.” “Film reaches millions of people.” “Film speaks to people in a way that writing doesn’t." "Images are more powerful than words.”

Well, I have news for them. They’re wrong. It just ain’t so. They’ve been brainwashed by the Hollywood publicists who want to convince everyone that The Godfather and Star Wars and The Matrix changed the history of civilization. They didn’t. It’s a PR lie. And, even more lamentably, it’s a lie repeated and perpetuated by most film departments in various student orientations to drum up enrollments. And it’s an even bigger lie when it’s applied to the predicament of the D.I.Y. filmmaker. To spend years of your life making a movie and not be able to show it on a big screen in a movie theater; to make it and have to post it on youtube where you’ll get 100 views in an entire year; to make it and sell a grand total of fifty DVDs on your web site – is not to be powerful. It is not to be at the center of twenty–first century culture. It is not to influence multitudes. It is to be irrelevant. It is to waste your time and your life.

But you don’t have to be irrelevant. You don’t have to waste your time. You can make something beautiful and true and profound if you sit down and write a short story or a novel or a play. You can make something more beautiful and true than the film you aspire to make (and forever have to put off making) will ever be. And you can do it on your own, faster and better than you could ever make a movie. You wouldn’t be shackled with all of the limitations and cumbersomeness of equipment and filmmaking methods – cameras, sets, costumes, lighting problems, sound issues, and multiple set–ups that break every conversation into tiny pieces. You wouldn’t have to worry about the amateurishness of your actors. You wouldn’t have to worry about clearing music rights. In a short story, a novel, or a play, you can do anything! You can have old people for characters. You can have magical events and characters who are more charismatic than the greatest actor who ever lived. You can set your story in any country – or on any planet – you want to without having to go there or get permission to film there. You can tell the secrets of your heart. You can talk about the weirdness and the stupidity of life without any limitations. Aren’t those the only important reasons to create a work of art? And you can do it all much better, much faster, and much more easily than you ever could in a film. You can do it for the price of a tablet and a pen.

And the final point is that your chances of publishing a short story or an essay in a mid–level magazine or journal or local newspaper are infinitely better than the chances of getting your movie into a theater. Your work can actually be appreciated and discussed by others. Don't be brainwashed by Hollywood or by the culture into thinking that film is the only game in town. You can do wonderful things with writing, and can do them so much faster and more easily than with film. You can tell important truths about your experience and your culture. And you can communicate them to thousands, even millions of people. Isn't that what being an artist is about? Don't be hung up on film as the only, or the best way to do it. It isn't.... (Unfinished…. to be continued… I solicit reader reaction and input, particularly from film students, and will publish the best and most interesting responses – R.C.)

To read related thoughts on how filmmaking is taught in our universities, click here and follow the associated links on the page you are taken to.


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