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This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing. To obtain the complete text as well as the complete texts of many pieces that are not included on the web site, click here.

The Functions of Criticism
—Excerpts from an Interview with Ray Carney by Peggy Lamb

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....You've just finished your second book on John Cassavetes, a director whose films you at first found impossible to sit through. Is watching film a skill that can be learned?

RC: I better believe that it is something that you can learn and something that can be taught! Because that's my job—helping students learn how to see and think in new ways. That's what all teachers do—in math, physics, economics, or the arts. They show students new ways of thinking—not just new names and dates and facts—but whole new ways of understanding. And it's what art does too. It teaches us new ways of knowing, new ways of thinking about our lives. That's what all real learning consists of. But, of course, that takes a lot of effort, and, being human, we resist that sort of learning. We want to remain in our old habitual grooves.

That's why the work of a genuinely original artist like Cassavetes is almost always doomed to be misunderstood—at least initially. He shakes us out of our complacencies. He, at least initially, confuses and disorients us. We're always more comfortable with what we have seen before. That is why Hollywood is so successful. It never really challenges us. It never gives us anything truly new or different. Year in and year out it merely recycles old myths, clichÈs, stereotypes, story-telling formulas.

You said you stormed out of his work the first time you saw it. What made you go back and watch Faces again?

RC: It's part of the nature of art that it sticks in your craw. It may frustrate you, or bewilder you, but it stays with you. Cassavetes reached into me in some deep emotional way so that I couldn't get rid of him by simply dismissing him. I went back to Faces again and again, and only by the third of fourth time did I manage to sit through it. And suddenly I realized that I had this incredible experience—even as I had struggled not to have it.

He's an in-your-face kind of filmmaker. Michelangelo Antonioni once described Hollywood movies as “being nowhere, talking to no one, about nothing.” They always seem to take place on some fantasy island, full of beautiful people, where nothing important is ever really at stake. Cassavetes' movies are not set somewhere else. His hell doesn't have other people in it. His characters are us. That's why once his work gets its hooks in you, once you let it into your life, it's hard to get off the hook without coming to grips with it.

I've heard it said that last year's films were more intelligent: The Piano, Shadowlands, Remains of the Day? Do you agree?

RC: We're all so hungry. We're starving for something intelligent. And that makes us so grateful, so overly grateful, when something just a little bit above the average comes along—a Piano, a Schindler's List. They only seem intelligent, by comparison to the absolute idiocy of the rest of what's out there.

Does that sound too depressing? I'm really not negative. Every year, I see one or two unbelievable, amazing works. There are artistic masterworks being created in film in America every year! There are some astonishing artists out there. The problem is that almost nobody ever hears of them. Even most of the film professors I know are unaware of them. They have very small budgets, take out no ads in newspapers, and are almost entirely ignored by reviewers. So I'm afraid I'm a bit less grateful to Steven Spielberg that the American critical establishment appears to be. He may play the Hollywood pop/schlock/kitsch game a little better than average, but there's a whole other game out there being played by real cinematic artists, even if very few people seem to be aware of it.

Is it the duty of art not to imitate life, but to ask us to experience something new through art?

RC: If my students learn only one thing from me, I hope it is that art is not set somewhere off to one side of life! It is not an escapist entertainment, a refuge from our daily problems, a time-out from “real life.” It is a way of exploring and ultimately understanding the most difficult and complex experiences we have every day.

The duty of art is to question everything. To try to understand everything. The reason art exists is to allow us to examine everything about our emotions, our beliefs, our relationships with others, our culture. The great works ask every possible question about who we are, where we come from, where we are going. Art is the most complex and serious form of thinking about life that has ever been invented.

Unfortunately, almost everybody wants their art to be simpler than that. Over the past ten years or so, the function of art has been under assault from both the political left and the right. The left (under the flags of feminism, Marxism, and various forms of ideological analysis) wants to turn art into a kind of Affirmative Action program for promoting progressive social agendas. The right (under the banners of traditionalism, neo-conservatism, and values education) wants to use works of art to teach moral and political values. Needless to say, I have nothing against values or desirable social agendas in and of themselves, but the problem is that neither side can deal with the complexities of genuine artistic expression. Both sides want to make art into something easier than what it really is.

Both sides want to reduce it to story-book maxims. But we can't pull portable, excerptable meanings out of works of art in the way they try to. The experiences in works of art resist having handles put on them in this way. Neither the left nor the right seems to understand the first thing about how art really works, how complex and slippery its meanings are. (It's fitting that William Bennett would illustrate his ideas about values-education by recently compiling a child's story-book anthology. His ideas about how art communicates fall apart if you try to apply them to anything more complex than a children's book.)

You criticize traditional filmmakers such as Welles and Hitchcock for manipulating the viewer, telling us what to think with mood music, camera angles, and dramatic lighting. You credit Cassavetes with making us partners in the meaning-making process. But isn't film by its very nature manipulative? After all, Cassavetes does decide where to point the camera.

RC: Any work of art can only show you part of life, part of experience. But there are ways of exercising that power of selectivity that complicate our responses. And there are ways that simplify our responses. Most American films have reveled in the art of simplification.

What is more offensive to you? Bad films, or bad critics who praise them?

RC: I'm in danger of becoming a complete bore on the subject of critics and reviewers. In my opinion, the state of journalistic criticism in this country is appalling. I've written eight or ten articles attacking the critical establishment in America [including a 1986 New Republic cover story attacking New York Times critic Vincent Canby]. The problem is that 99 times out of 100 reviewers are more or less just extensions of the publicity machinery of the films they are reviewing. It becomes very hard to tell where the press release ends and the review begins. If critics don't exercise completely independent and free judgment about the works they review, then I don't know what the function of a critic is.

Sometimes I think that if there were simply a moratorium on journalistic reviewing for a year or two, the level of appreciation of American films would improve markedly. If you could just silence the Gene Shalits, Gene Siskels, and Roger Eberts—if we could just ask them to please be quiet, if we could just send them on vacation for a year, things would improve on their own. I figure the average viewer, if left to his or her own devices, would have a more sophisticated understanding of films and exercise more independent judgment than most the journalists do. But then again, I think the same thing about foreign policy, the defense budget, and Whitewater!

In a 1993 interview with Visions magazine, you said: “A film that you can understand on a first viewing is probably not worth watching.”

RC: I've never understood this desire to have things instantly accessible and intelligible. We don't expect to walk into a museum and understand the paintings at first glance. We don't expect to sit down with Henry James' The Golden Bowl and understand it on a first reading. We don't expect to sit through Stravinsky's Symphony in C and “get it” at one listening. (Really, we don't expect to “get it” at all in the way the movies allow us to take in meanings with a glance.)

Well, I don't expect the films that interest me to be any more obvious than a Picasso painting or a Balanchine ballet. I think reviewers have put us in this frame of mind. If a movie is somehow difficult or challenging, it's regarded as a defect. It would be better if it were more accessible, so it could reach more people. But that's the logic of politics and advertising, not of art. I don't want my films to be simpler and more obvious, any more than I want my friends to be simpler and more obvious. I don't want either of them merely to give me back my own ideas. I want them to challenge me, to move me to new places, to help me to see and feel in new ways. I want to learn from them, and that's always going to painful or difficult or take work. I want to have my life changed—in however small or large a way—by knowing them. Anything else is a waste of my time, and my life.

—Excerpted from “At the Other Movies with Ray Carney: An Interview with Peggy Lamb,” Boston University Today, May 8, 1994.

* * *

Challenging Truths

Excerpts from a 1994 Interview with David Sterritt

for The Christian Science Monitor

How did you come to write the book?

I've been interested in Cassavetes' work for a long time, ever since I walked into a screening of A Woman Under the Influence. I didn't even know who Cassavetes was at the time, but when it was over, I left the theater, went off onto a side street and up a hill into a nearby vacant lot, raised my hands in the air, and whooped out loud—that the hand of man could have created something so beautiful and profound, and that I had lived to see it.

This is my second book on Cassavetes. The earlier one was published about ten years ago and is now out of print. After Cassavetes' death in 1989, I organized a number of retrospectives of his work at film festivals in Europe and America and had the chance to talk with most of the people who had worked with him over the years. They told me some amazing stories. One reason I wrote the book was simply to let others hear some of the war stories from those who had been down in the trenches with him. And then Sam and Larry Shaw gave me some absolutely astonishing behind-the-scenes photographs to use as illustrations.

Would you describe the book as criticism or intellectual biography?

I don't know how I'd describe it. I have detailed critical discussions of six of the films, but in the largest sense, it is an attempt to explore the mysteries of the creative process, to understand where these wonderful, strange movies came from. I was stalking demons. And maybe I snared a few, but that's for the reader to judge.

Your contention, expressed in the first sentence of your introduction, is that Cassavetes was one of the greatest artists of the century, ranking with Picasso, Stravinsky, and Balanchine. If that is the case, how do you account for the fact that his work is still so unknown to the average, or even the considerably above average, viewer?

Well, you have to consider how films get known. Cassavetes made small-scale independent movies. The advertising budget for the average studio picture is three or four times what his entire production budget was. And as far as radio, television, and newspaper coverage goes, something I call the Nightline rule applies: movies tend to get discussed to the extent that they lend themselves to journalistic debate. Filmmakers like Oliver Stone and Spike Lee are almost guaranteed saturation coverage because every talk show in America can organize a panel discussion about their work, while a genuine work of art that doesn't plug into current events or mobilize any of the various special interest groups that drive the world of journalism is doomed to be ignored. If Henry James and Emily Dickinson were writing today, they wouldn't get discussed on “Fresh Air” or “All Things Considered” either. Their work isn't socially relevant enough, which just goes to show how irrelevant social relevance is as a yardstick. It's only by accident that genius is going to coincide with the fashionable journalistic theme-of-the-month.

When I think of the movies that do get discussed to death—films like Schindler's List, Malcolm X, JFK, and Philadelphia—I can hardly believe anyone takes them seriously. Does anyone beyond the age of high school actually learn anything from them? As far as I can tell, people go to them precisely not to learn to grow, but to have their received ideas reinforced. They want to have their prejudices confirmed, and to be able to feel good about their virtuousness. We can congratulate ourselves that we're not like most of the people in the movie—we're not anti-Semitic, homophobic, racist, stupid or insensitive. But is that what art is about—confirming our clichÈs, and patting ourselves on the back? Cassavetes doesn't let us off the hook so easily. His hell doesn't have only other people in it. He forces us to examine our own lives—to recognize the little lies we tell ourselves, our petty emotional sellouts, our small infidelities. He tells us things we probably don't want to know about ourselves.

Many viewers have had a hard time with his films. Husbands and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie , for example, had large numbers of walk-outs, and elicited lots of complaints from viewers.

Mainstream Hollywood movies are easier on the viewer because they are organized melodramatically. They have heroes and villains. Characters are presented with clear-cut moral choices. They are given a series of actions to perform to achieve their goals. Cassavetes didn't operate in the realm of melodrama. His characters and scenes are never black and white. Their problems are not clear-cut but fuzzy. His characters can have terrific intentions and still hurt one another or betray themselves. I can understand why audiences prefer the other kind of movie. People would rather be taken on a roller coaster ride. They would rather be taken out of their own lives into a realm of clarity and resolution. That's why they call it entertainment! But great art goes the other way. It takes us deeper into our lives. It forces us to look at the places we want to avoid: the points of uncertainty and confusion.

Do you have an explanation for why even so many serious critics and reviewers failed to recognize the greatness of his work?

Well, some of them did! You were one of the small number of reviewers to celebrate Cassavetes' achievement during his lifetime. The recognition of great art is always a chancy proposition. The greater the work, the greater the demands it's going to make on a viewer, because the more likely it is going to violate the forms of stereotypical thinking that even sophisticated critics rely on to navigate through a complex experience. It's inevitable that works that push buttons and recycle last year's emotional fashions are going to look better than works that propose new ways of knowing. Cassavetes offers breathtakingly new ways of understanding life, so it is not surprising that he should have left most of the critics gaping. I should add that academic criticism of the past couple decades seems especially unsuited to the appreciation of works of artistic genius, so it's not that surprising that most film professors still haven't discovered his work either.

What is your assessment of the current state of academic criticism?

The appreciation of great art requires three things that seem to be increasingly uncommon in our universities: First, a profound humility in the face of the work; second, a willingness to engage oneself in a sustained act of attention, an intimate, personal encounter with the most complex form of expression known to man; and third, an acknowledgment that the artist might have things to tell us that we don't already know.

Most contemporary academic criticism is the opposite: It is not humble, but superior, skeptical, smug, and knowing. The critical stance does not involve intimacy with the text in all of its particularity, but flying 50,000 feet above it in a realm of ideological abstractions, swooping down on it only occasionally, for selected evidence to bolster a predetermined position. Most importantly, it does not involve lovingly opening oneself to the work, learning from it, but more often than not, debunking it: exposing its so-called “complicity with the reigning ideology,” and, as far as possible, reducing the work to its political, social, and material origins.

Academic criticism is basically a mirror of the rest of society. We live in an age of cynicism and doubt, so its probably not that surprising that our criticism should be the same. We live in an era in which the social sciences are triumphant—in which all of life is understood in terms of trends, averages, audiences, and demographics—so it shouldn't be that surprising that most academic criticism unconsciously imitates the social sciences. It has sold its soul to our century's three idiot village explainers—sociology, psychology, and ideology. The only problem is that the greatest art is precisely what won't be reduced to such terms. The most complex aspects of our minds and feelings are not reducible to generic, impersonal, average forms of understanding.

That's why most academic criticism doesn't even deal with real art. It is most comfortable talking about average expressions: kitsch and pop culture. Like the other social scenes, it specializes in the study of average authors, average expressive effects, and average viewers.

Genius will never be accounted for by generic explanations and sociological causes. The slipping, sliding complexities of art-speech are what are inevitably lost in the translation to generalizations about race, class, and gender. Great art is the eccentric, personal expression of unique—and uniquely precious—states of awareness.

In the book, you express reservations about most of the major movements in contemporary criticism, including popular culture studies, and feminist, Marxist, and Multicultural approaches to art. Could you say why?

The problem with each of these approaches is that it attempts to simplify or nail meanings down in one way or another. Characters, events, and expressions are turned into types, representatives, symbols of static, schematic, virtually allegorical understandings. That's OK if you are dealing with Beavis and Butthead or a Spielberg movie, but the greatest art can never be understood in such terms. Cassavetes puts meanings in motion. His films dissolve static understandings. Noonan, Zahedi, and Cassavetes capture spiritual and emotional states of streamingness, presenting the feel of life as it's actually lived at its most complex and exciting. It's a wild, propulsive race of experiences that will never be reduced to big ideas, Citizen Kane symbols, pop-culture archetypes, or ideological generalizations.

What is the current video situation with Cassavetes' work?

In a word, it's a disgrace. Even at this late date in the video revolution and five years after Cassavetes' death, none of his films is available on videodisc, and five of his most important movies (Shadows, Faces, Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, and Love Streams) are unavailable on videotape or disc. Apparently the owners of those works, Universal, Columbia, and Buena Vista, don't think there is enough profit in it for them to bother releasing them. It's a sad reminder that for all of the studios' big talk around Academy Award time about their devotion to the art of film, what they are mainly devoted to is the bottom line—which is why the art of film is in such a sad state in this country....

—Excerpted (in an abridged form) in: “A New Look at John Cassavetes,” The Christian Science Monitor, Tuesday, May 10, 1994.

To read more about fads and fashions in academic criticism, click on “Multicultural Unawareness” in the Carney on Culture section, the essays “Sargent and Criticism” and “Eakins and Criticism” in the Paintings section, “Day of Wrath: A Parable for Critics” in the Carl Dreyer section, “Capra and Criticism” in the Frank Capra section, and all of the other pieces in this section.

This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing. To obtain the complete text as well as the complete texts of many pieces that are not included on the web site, 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.