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This page contains a brief excerpt from a lengthy interview with Ray Carney. In the selection below, he talks about the limitations of cultural studies approaches to film. (Other related discussions appear in this and the Mike Leigh section of the site.) The complete interview is available in a new packet titled What's Wrong with Film Teaching, Criticism, and Reviewing—And How to Do It Right. For more information about Ray Carney's writing on independent film, including information about how to obtain this interview and two other packets of interviews in which he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of a writer, and the path of the artist, click here.

The loss of the soul
Valuing groups and forgetting individuals

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Interviewer: The last time we spoke you focused on the business side of publishing. Today I'd like to talk about the academic side. How does your writing fare with students and professors? Is it academically in fashion?

Carney: That's the best way I've ever heard academia described. Thanks. I love it!

Interviewer: I'm confused. What do you mean?

Carney: All I mean is that your question understands something that took me years to learn. I'm so slow. I used to think great academic writing was about presenting radically new ideas and ways of understanding, but I finally realized that originality actually gets you into trouble. What is taught in the classroom, what is quoted in articles, what is cited in lectures is almost entirely determined by what's intellectually in or out of style. There are no fashion slaves like professors. Even Paris changes its hemlines every year. It takes a decade for a professor to come to grips with a new idea. A professional society like the Society for Cinema Studies [the leading academic film organization in America] is a guild, a club, a rule-bound organization. You might as well be back in the sixteenth century. The point is not to say anything really original or different, but to make your ideas fit into a “discursive system” that already exists—meaning to write footnotes to other people's footnotes. Move over Maimonides. Get outta' here, Thomas Kuhn. It's not about having fresh insights. It's not about new ways of thinking and feeling about art. It's about using the same buzz words and theoretical constructs that everybody else uses. You're supposed to take a trendy, meaningless, worn-out concept—like “the male gaze” or “diversity” or “otherness”—and apply it to a new text in a slightly different way. But not too different! And don't you ever question the term or the structure of understanding itself! It's like playing tennis. You're allowed to put a certain amount of “spin” on the ball, but don't dare suggest that the lines are in the wrong place. What is it William James said? What most professors call thinking is just reshuffling their prejudices. Well, that's a pretty good explanation of what delivering a paper at the SCS or publishing an article in Cinema Journal is about.

I guess you could see the answer to your question coming ten miles off. No, my work isn't in fashion, and I don't ever want it to be, because that would mean it would be out of fashion twenty years from now. God save me from fashion—academic or popular.

Interviewer: Can you be more detailed about why it is out of step?

Carney: My writing violates a lot of academic assumptions. First—knowledge in our universities is intellectually compartmentalized. Film is on one department; painting in another; literature in a third; philosophy somewhere else. My books mix them all up. I talk about Capra's figures in terms of Sargent's explorations of self-representation, and Eakins' paintings in terms of pragmatic philosophy. Students and teachers don't want that. They don't want discussions of other art. If they are in film, all they know and care about is movies. I also treat film as a high culture expression while most writers treat it as a form of popular culture. They have lost the concept of what real art, in the high culture sense, is and does. We live in a culture of reduced expectations, and even critics have scaled back their vision of what art can be.

Interviewer: Anything else?

Carney: Well, there's my interest in inner life—a concept which seems to elude a lot of academics. A lot of my writing is about imaginative events—for a character in a work and a viewer of it—tiny emotional and intellectual shifts of position, flickers of understanding, tonal flutters, microscopic adjustments of feeling and relationship. That's not the politically correct place to be—in the academy or out of it.

Our multiculturalist era has sold its soul to an externalized conception of experience. You are your race, your class, your ideology, your socio-economic status, your ethnic background, your generic sexual identity. The insides of experience disappear. Artists, works of art, and characters and situations become their outsides. It's one of the great intellectual and cultural losses of our time. We have lost our souls—in a far more frightening way than the Faust story imagines. We deny that they exist. I find this understanding of experience really scary, but I have to say most students and professors I talk to have a hard time even seeing it, since it's everywhere. They are like fish trying to see the water.

Interviewer: I've read an essay where you call this a “sociological understanding” of experience.

Carney: Right. I wrote a few pieces for Partisan Review and The Journal of American Studies—I remember one was a review of a dictionary of literary criticism published at John Hopkins and another was a review of the work of David James—where I went into detail about the difference between social science and artistic understandings of experience. My Leigh book has a lot about it also. But the only academic response I've seen has been bewilderment.

Interviewer: Has that come out in conversations with professors?

Carney: I can tell how puzzled they are from what they write about my work. There was this comical review of my Leigh book last year from a British professor named John Hill. I sort of felt sorry for him. He was clearly in over his head, unable to understand my approach. He alludes to his confusion in the review. He says that he picked up the book convinced he already knew what Leigh was all about. Leigh was a social satirist-in other words, someone who dealt with externals in what I call a sociological way. Then he read a few chapters, and his jaw dropped because I never mentioned any of that, but instead talked about all these tonal shifts in the moods of scenes, these changes of relationship between characters, and these emotional adjustments between the viewer and what is in the film. He said he was so baffled by what I was saying that he went back and watched one of the films again to make sure I was talking about the same movie.

I was in stitches reading the review. He was Antony and I was Cleopatra. I completely boggled him! Maybe Prof. Unrath and Lola-Lola would be a better comparison, since what I did to Leigh was not only bewildering but slightly scandalous. My writing gets that sort of response a lot of the time.

* * *

Carney: Can I say one more thing about the social studies approach? I'm convinced that one of the reasons that Cassavetes' work has not caught on with American academics is precisely that you can't do the John Hill thing with it. It's hard to treat the films as social critiques. They resist that sort of understanding.

Interviewer: Can you explain that?

Carney: It's similar to what I said about Leigh. You can subject a Cassavetes movie to social analysis, but it doesn't take you very far or its gets you tangled up in contradictions. Faces won't yield to that approach. Shadows won't. Love Streams won't.

I'm always being reminded of that at screening events I run. People try to understand Shadows chiefly as a racial drama and get all tangled up ideologically by the failure of the characters and events to map themselves “correctly.” To my surprise, something similar happened recently at a Love Streams screening. I conducted a Q and A, and a professor stood up and made a statement contrasting Robert Harmon and Sarah Lawson's wealth (as indicated by Robert's tuxedos, big house, and fancy car, and Sarah's shop-till-you-drop consumerism, designer clothes, and jet-set travels) with Albie's family's social and financial position (tiny house, cheap clothes, beat-up car, need to take temp jobs to make money, etc.). He used the contrast to offer generalizations about what Cassavetes was trying to tell us about the social and ideological stratification of Los Angeles.

Interviewer: What's wrong with that?

Carney: It leaves out too much of what's in the movie. He and I had not seen the same movie. His generalizations left out all the interesting moments—all these amazing conversations between Robert and other characters. They are not about the outsides of life (money, cars, houses, power), but the insides (souls, spiritual states, subtle emotional states of openness or closure). On top of that that once you start mapping the characters on a financial grid, you get tangled up in all sorts of other crazy issues—like, for example, why the ideological oppositions suddenly collapse at the end, when Robert is paired off with Margaret and Sarah with Ken.

Or you have to deal with all sorts of irrelevant issues. Think of the other films. If you start focusing on the fact that Mabel and Nick Longhetti are working class or that Minnie is a middle-class WASP and works in a museum and Seymour a working class Jew who parks cars, you are changing the experience in fundamental ways. Economics is not the real subject of Minnie and Moskowitz—no more than it is in It Happened One Night.

Social class, gender, race, ideology, etc. are never determinative in Cassavetes' work. Class and other social factors are just devices to create certain kinds of drama. They are a creaky wooden scaffold for Cassavetes to stand on while he builds the interactional cathedral. They allow him to get places emotionally, to paint frescos that he could not get to without the scaffold, but they are not the cathedral. The same goes for Leigh.

* * *

Interviewer: I think I understand.

Carney: Good. It's hard to get this through to the John Hills who expect something so much less from works of art. Most film professors are so committed to ideological readings, that if you offer them something else—in my mind, a more complex and slippery understanding of experience—all they hear is gibberish. It really puzzled me for a long time why it was so hard to explain it to them.

One way I explain the problem to myself is to say that while I'm interested in unique, non-repeatable individual experience, they care less about people as individuals, than as culturally defined group representatives. Their position has always seemed paradoxical on the face of it to me—since why would someone care so much about an aggregate if they didn't care intensely about the individuals who make it up? It doesn't make sense. But that seems to be part of their value system. Another way I explain the difference to myself is to say that while they are doing history or sociology, I am doing ontology.

There's a place for both approaches of course—but the problem is that they don't seem to have a clue as to why I would want to do something different from what they are doing—or to appreciate how limited their “sociological” approach is, how much of the inside of human experience it leaves out.

Interviewer: When you say “they,” I take it you are referring to more than the professor who slammed your Leigh book in that review.

Carney: [Laughing:] “They” are everywhere. It's a friggin' movement! But not always hostile or sarcastic the way the Hill guy was. Sometimes the response is really quite touching. I remember this senior professor taking me off to the side, very confidentially and kindly, ten or fifteen years ago when I was just a young buck, after I had given a talk on The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, telling me that my approach was flawed in that I failed to understand that the film was a generalized cultural expression of post-Vietnam anomie and post-Watergate skepticism. Guess he thought I was too young to remember the seventies. He meant it in the kindest possible way, as a bit of fatherly advice that could help my career and improve my work. I bit my tongue and smiled and nodded and thanked him, but I could hardly believe my ears. I was stunned. He had missed everything I was trying to say about Cassavetes' movie. Everything.

Interviewer: What do you mean?

Carney: Well, what I thought I was doing was offering an alternative to the cultural studies bag of tricks. But he clearly thought I just didn't know how to do it the cultural studies way, and needed a little guidance. It made me realize how hard it was to get people to look outside the box they were trapped in.

Interviewer: What's the difference in terms of the film?

Carney: Well, once you drop Cosmo and Cassavetes into the Cultural Studies acid bath, they're gone. Dissolved, liquefied, melted into a series of pre-existing, impersonal, ideological structures. Conceptions replace perceptions. All of Bookie is gone—all of the weird, tortuous slowness, darkness, digressiveness of the cinematic experience. What was dark becomes light. What was puzzling becomes clear. The digressions now have a point! Everything in the movie that resisted interpretation because of its irreducible concreteness and tangibility suddenly becomes interpretable because it is made representative, abstract, generic! The movie is not strange and mysterious any more! [Switching into a gangster voice:] “It's Nixon and Watergate, doncha' see?” [New voice-of someone confessing to a crime he didn't commit (?)] “Ah, yes, I see. I suddenly remember. It's coming back. It's all so easy and clear now. Where do I sign?”

That professor wanted me to kill Cosmo a second time. To collaborate with the gangsters in treating him as a cultural representative, a semiotic function. [Gangster voice again:] “Get 'em to sign a form-17 and a form-223, then get 'da bum outta' here!”

I'm sorry if I am going on and on. But can I say one more thing about this whole approach?

Interviewer: No problem. I'm enjoying the impersonations!

Carney: Sorry to disappoint you. I don't think I have any more in me. All I wanted to add is that a side-effect of the historical or cultural studies approach is that value judgments—questions of ultimate value—drop out. That's another way I'm out of step with the professors. I believe criticism is ultimately evaluative—sometimes explicitly, but always implicitly. Sociology is limited to being descriptive. The cultural studies critic may judge the society that the work “represents” and “reveals,” but does not judge the work itself, which is why no film or television show is too banal, too ridiculous, too programmatic to waste students' time with.

I'm committed to a different notion of criticism—one in which students weigh and evaluate the differences between what mass-culture expression can do and what individual utterance can. Every time we look at a film together, I want them to ask life or death questions about it: What is the value of this work? Does it really matter? Will it still matter in a thousand years? If so, how and why? Does it compromise itself in any way? Does it soften and temporize and try to please? Is it captive to cultural clichés? How does it compare with the simplifications and sentimentalizations and banalizations of popular culture and Hollywood film? Are its insights and understandings trivial or profound? Does it reveal truths we need to hear? Do we agree with it? Does it take us through experiences that transform us in some way? How?

I want the study of art to be personal and moral and engaged. That means, above all, that it's not about someone else, somewhere else, doing something else. It's about us. It's about changing us. I take art as seriously as I take life. In art or in life, I don't want to waste my time with mediocrity and superficiality and silliness—which is what most movies shown in film courses are. That's why I almost never show the sort of junk you see in most other film courses, and on the rare occasions I do, it is only to use it to tease out a contrast with the other kind of work. Of course, this is heresy to most film professors. Or nonsense.

Interviewer: Why do you say that?

Carney: Because I curate the Prado, but they run the Norman Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth, and Jeff Koons side shows! “Step right up, ladies and gentlemen....”

Most film professors don't have any interest in art or understanding of the incredibly complex ways art can work on our minds and emotions. They don't have any category to contrast mass-culture expression with. They have no values beyond those embodied by assembly-line mass production systems of creation and consumption—or the sociological study of such systems. The notions of extraordinary, challenging, complex expression that I am devoted to, simply don't exist in their imaginative universe.

Interviewer: Can you explain what you mean by “art”?

Carney: There really is too much to say, and I have already said most of this many times over—in reviews, in interviews, in the new preface to the Wesleyan edition of my Capra book, in my Mike Leigh book, in all my work on Cassavetes. But for someone who looks at a film in the cultural studies way, my books might as well be written in a foreign language about a foreign language—art-speech!-that they don't even know exists. And that they certainly can't understand.

Interviewer: By “art-speech” you mean “style” don't you? You practice stylistic criticism.

Carney: That's a limiting way of putting it. It makes it sound as if the style of a work were something added to it, as if there could be content that pre-exists style. The content is the style. The work is its form. There is nothing else. Remember the Robert Frost story about the man quizzing the woman who said the world was resting on a tortoise. The man smiled and asked what is the tortoise resting on? The woman said another tortoise and don't patronize me: It's tortoises all the way down. Well, it's form all the way down. There can be no content that is not contained. No consciousness separate from expression—in specific forms and styles.

Interviewer: Can you explain that again, please?

Carney: Let me try one more way. Cultural studies critics treat a work of art like a newspaper—or a window. They look right through it. And what do they see? Cultural archetypes, stereotypical gender roles, power structures—male-dominated, Western-centered, of course—and oodles of other completely predictable things. But, as far as I am concerned, to do that to Cassavetes or Leigh is like using a Monet painting to study botany. Or a Sargent to document Edwardian haberdashery. These critics do it because they think they are making the work more important, by freighting it with grand social significances, but they are actually trivializing it. A great work of art releases energies much more complex and subtle and slippery and important than the mechanical archetypes and metaphors they find in it. I am interested in those energies.

This page contains a brief excerpt from a lengthy interview with Ray Carney. In the selection above, he talks about the limitations of cultural studies approaches to film. (Other related discussions appear in this and the Mike Leigh section of the site.) The complete interview is available in a new packet titled What's Wrong with Film Teaching, Criticism, and Reviewing—And How to Do It Right. For more information about Ray Carney's writing on independent film, including information about how to obtain this interview and two other packets of interviews in which he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of a writer, and the path of the artist, click here.

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© Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.