This page contains an excerpt from a lengthy interview with Ray Carney. In the selection below, he discusses film reviewing and the mass media. Note that many other statements on this subject are available in other sections of this site. The complete interview from which this excerpt is taken 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 difference between journalists and critics
Or, how advertising values pollute film reviewing

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Interviewer: I want to switch from the talking about the university to the mass media. What is your opinion of the coverage of film?

Carney: Well the good news is the media respond much more quickly to new ideas than professors do. The bad news is they are usually stupid ideas—or no ideas. In terms of film they tend to chase intellectual fire engines to a smoky brush fire on the edge of town. Think back on the films that got the most massive mega-media coverage in the past three decades: Lawrence of Arabia, The Devil in Miss Jones, The Godfather movies, Clockwork Orange, Last Tango in Paris, The Last Temptation of Christ, Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing, Blue Velvet, JFK, Schindler's List, Natural Born Killers, the Star Wars saga. The list doesn't exactly inspire confidence. They are the greatest expression of the human spirit in the second half of the twentieth-century?

The same principle governs film coverage that governs what gets on the front page: If it bleeds, it leads. The media respond to tawdry subject matter, sensationalism, hype, and controversy. In film, if you deal with a trendy social issue, a “sensitive” topic, a sexy subject, or offend some group and get picketed, you've got it made. On top of everything else, all but a handful of the thousand or more magazine, radio, and television reviewers are completely captive to the spewings of Hollywood publicists and press agents who create factitious, irrelevant journalistic “hooks” to get silly movies onto the entertainment news radar screen.

Interviewer: Why is that?

Carney: We live in a culture of publicity. An uprooted, lonely culture, where people don't have deep historical and social roots, deep personal convictions, or established values. The consequence is that they take their values not from their families or religious beliefs or from looking into their own hearts and souls, but on the basis of what other people are interested in. What's “hot.” What's new and exciting. What's on TV tonight.

Journalists are part of that cultural shallowness and trendiness. That's why a journalist's idea of “research” is to read press releases and take his lead from what other journalists have written. An editor's idea of a topic worth covering is a topic that has just been covered in some other forum—on television, radio, magazine, or newspaper. American journalism is a vast recycling operation. Once a topic appears in a major outlet—in the New York Times, say, or in Time magazine or on Oprah—it will make its way through the entire alimentary system excreted by one organ, reconsumed by the next, and reprocessed and repackaged one more time, to be reconsumed by the next one in the food chain. You see it if you watch TV for a week. Two thirds of what appears in every magazine or newspaper or evening news show is just a repackaging of something that the editor or reporter found somewhere else. There's this unending race to keep up with each other and avoid missing the Next Big Thing. In terms of film the result is predictable: Once a film or star or event gets covered by Entertainment Tonight, it's a lock that it'll be picked up by everyone, everywhere else, and covered at length, in exhaustive detail in every newspaper and television station in America.

On the other hand, if you simply make a good, strong, interesting, original film without a fashionable media “hook,” forget it. You don't stand a chance of being interviewed by The Times or being mentioned on All Things Considered. Substance is hard for journalists to see. Trends are easier to follow.

The heart sinks at the triviality of what constitutes “news” in America. There is lots of talk about how things have changed after 9/11, but I just don't see it. All that has happened is that 9/11 and its consequences have been tabloidized and melodramatized just the way Gary Conduit and JonBenet Ramsey were before 9/11. Journalists are still trying to beat each other to the punch with the next soap opera angle or scare tactic. Look at the front page of any newspaper or the CNN website on any day of the week. Where are the really important events of the century? Where is sulfur and carbon dioxide emissions and global warming? Where is world poverty? Where is the energy crisis? Where is the population situation? Where is a consideration of America's relation to the third-world—the issues that are the cause of the 9/11 events? Oh, those things get a think piece on the editorial page once a month. But day after day the drumbeat is about the sniper that stalked Baltimore. Before that it was about Elvis' birthday. And before that it was the O.J. Simpson trial or some other celebrity circus. Forget our devilish alliances with dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait; after 9/11 the really big story was the clearing of the World Trade Center site or the design of the memorial—as if that ultimately mattered. That's what we define as news.

Well, that's the journalistic world that film coverage takes place in. Is it any wonder the “Arts” pages never mention art, but focus on “Summer Movies” or “Star Wars movies” or “Sequels” or some other piece of idiocy? Neil Postman had it right: We are entertaining ourselves to death. Maybe that's why September 11th hit people so hard. Television actually aired two hours of reality that wasn't taking place far-away in Beirut. That's so unprecedented that it scared the shit out of most Americans. But just wait until we run out of oil in 2040 or coal in 2090. That should make the news when it happens. But no reason to rush the coverage, I guess. But I digress....!

Interviewer: It would be best if you tried to stay on the subject of film. I am trying to follow your argument. Are you suggesting that the films you named a while ago got a lot of media coverage chiefly because they were backed by corporate publicity campaigns?

Carney: Not necessary. That is one way to get massive press coverage, but not the only way. Another is to create the illusion that your movie is not just a movie but an “event” in the Harry Potter way. That also takes a lot of money. A cheaper way is to make your movie look like an extension of the newspaper or the evening news. That can be done on a tiny budget. And the newspapers will eat it up, because your movie will now be treated as “news” rather than entertainment.

Interviewer: What do you mean by that?

Carney: Make your film deal with some hot social issue or topic. Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg and Spike Lee do this all the time. When it comes to art, reporters don't know what to look for, so they rely on journalistic standards of importance. They apply the same standards of relevance to movies that they do to events in the world to decide whether to cover them. Most of the films that get big media coverage get it on the basis of their journalistic content. They are about important “issues” or “themes” or “subjects.” Of course that has nothing to do with their artistic value, but journalists don't have any other way to judge a work of art.

The fallacy of this is obvious is you switch to another art. It's as if the New York Times favored shows at the Met that included historical paintings or paintings that dealt with important people or social movements. The merely personal works of Sargent or Eakins or Rembrandt wouldn't deserve a major review. Most of English literature wouldn't make the cut either. Paradise Lost is the only great poem in English ever written about an important event—and the reason it is great is that is isn't really about the event!

The stupidity of film coverage is compounded by the journalistic fixation on popularity and financial success. If something makes a lot of money or is popular, it's thought of as being more important than if it is unknown or a financial failure. They measure art works the same way they measure something on the stock market. That's backwards, since great art is, almost by definition, almost never popular or financially successful. Once you have internalized those Wall Street values, you guarantee that Hollywood gets all the attention.

Then there's the quest after “newness.” I occasionally program film retrospectives for Boston movie theaters, and just as regularly hear that the Boston Globe won't be covering the event, because “those films were already reviewed a few years ago when they were first released.” The say there is no room. Then you look and the next week's issues of the paper contain ten or fifteen stupid reviews of ten or fifteen stupid new Hollywood releases.

Then there is something I call “the newspaper wars.” The silly, vain ways that newspapers compete with each other. They want to beat other outlets to the story, so they can have an “exclusive.” To hell with the importance of the story. What it really comes down to is issues of turf and territoriality. Like children in a sandbox. I once made the mistake of writing an article on a group of films for The Phoenix, which is one of the Boston Globe's “rivals” on arts coverage. It was made very clear to me that The Globe would not be covering the subject or talking to me about it, since I had worked for “the enemy.”

These stupid journalistic policies and rivalries have lots of real, important consequences. Specialty programmers at museums and archives simply can't afford to present events that the local paper is not going to cover, for fear that too few people will attend. I can't tell you how many times I've been told by programmers “Well, I think that's a great idea, but you know so-and-so won't cover it—either because he doesn't like those kinds of films or because he already covered something like that recently—so we can't do it. It would be commercially too risky.” They generally add that if some reporter I know can guarantee coverage, or if I can personally get an article into the paper, everything would be different. Shows are actually booked or cancelled as a result of whether the paper will regard it as being “newsworthy.” Lots of films don't make the cut.

Interviewer: But it is called the newspaper. It's supposed to report news.

Carney: That's the wrong way to decide what art gets reviewed. It's equivalent to saying that the Globe won't be reviewing a Hopper show at the Museum of Fine Arts because some of the paintings were already reviewed in some other show five or ten years before. It's just one more example of the way Hollywood has polluted reviewers' brains. A reviewer would see the fallacy of not covering a show of painting or sculpture or music a second time because the presumption is that there is always something new to learn from those other arts, but since it's just a movie, they can't see why in the world it would merit a second look or a second opinion.

Pauline Kael actually used to brag that she never saw a movie twice. The implication was that if you had to see it twice to understand it, it was a failure. That logic self-confirmingly defines out of existence any and every intelligent film ever made. Any artistic work worth its salt has to be seen twice or ten or a hundred times to be understood. That's not my opinion; that's a given. The news-hound journalists have it backwards. If they were really interested in real news, the important spiritual news, as Ezra Pound put it— the news that stays news, they should abandon the endless quest for the next big thing and start reviewing old movies. The older the better. The effect of applying “news” standards to a work of art has almost comical consequences. Once in a while a really worthy film or filmmaker will briefly make the A-list—the way Mark Rappaport has with some of his recent work—but it is invariably for the wrong reasons. Rappaport has been making amazing works for twenty-five years, then is finally “discovered” because his eighth or ninth film can conveniently be hung on some gender-politics meat hook.

Interviewer: But aren't editors and producers constantly on the lookout for interesting new work?

Carney: In theory. But you have to understand who is making these decisions. The editors commissioning pieces for the leading magazines and the television and radio producers for the interview shows are not specialists in film. They have never even heard of most of the major American filmmakers of the past forty years. And they certainly have not seen their work. All they know is what they read in trade papers, on the wire services, or see on TV. And those outlets are controlled by the Hollywood publicists.

The results are predictable. Oliver Stone and Spike Lee get on Charlie Rose and Fresh Air and Todd Haynes and Su Friedrich don't. Look through the pages of even so-called “intellectual” magazines and journals like The Nation, Mother Jones, Partisan Review, The New Republic, The London Review of Books, Utne Reader, or The New Yorker. I'll bet you money you can't find a single mention of Bruce Conner, Su Friedrich, or Jay Rosenblatt in the complete run of all of them. Three of the most important living filmmakers! Heck, I don't think you could find a mention of Paul Morrissey or Cassavetes or Robert Kramer or Mark Rappaport or any major filmmaker of the past thirty years. But you'll find dozens of articles about Spielberg and Lee and Stone. Look at a few years of The New York Review of Books—America's most important large circulation intellectual journal. Compare the depth of its coverage of books and political issues with the simplicity of what it runs about movies.

[A postscript: As confirmation of my remarks, as I was checking this interview for publication a new issue of The New York Review of Books just arrived in my mailbox. It is a journal that might, in a given year, only find space for five or six film reviews. Guess what film made the cut and is featured on the cover of June 13, 2002 issue? Spiderman. Need I say more? —RC]

The literary editors of the magazines I have named don't know there even is a problem. They don't realize how shabby and uninformed the pieces they publish are. All they know is that writers like Philip Lopate, David Thomson, or Roger Ebert are in demand, meet deadlines, and provide lively copy. And another middlebrow piece gets into print, where Hollywood defines the limits of the cinematic imagination.

Interviewer: What do you mean defines the limits of the imagination?

Carney: I mean that our culture takes the word of people who are paid to write about movies, and paid to write a certain quota of their reviews about Hollywood releases as if they were neutral, objective, high-minded seekers after truth. But they aren't. Journalists do not survey film from on high. They are highly biased and limited in their perspective. They mouth the Hollywood point of view. They are part of the PR apparatus—even when they think they are rebelling against it.

Interviewer: Explain that.

Carney: Well, even to give a movie like Austin Powers a bad review is to be part of the promotional system for the film. Imaginatively speaking, it's a zero-sum game. For every column-inch or television minute devoted to Hollywood PR, that's so much time or space denied to the coverage of artistic work. Television and magazines are not intellectual supermarkets. They are fast-food restaurants serving a very limited, pre-selected menu that is calculated to appeal to the maximum number of mainstream viewers. They are not reporting on the universe of film. They filter out ninety-nine percent of what is out there and only let what fits their preconceived notions get through. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Interviewer: How about if a filmmaker sent her movie on video to Roger Ebert or Leonard Maltin or someone like that and got him interested in the film? Wouldn't that be a way of breaking through the wall of indifference? Ebert could write something about the movie—either in a review or just as a paragraph the filmmaker could use to promote the film with other reviewers.

Carney: It doesn't work that way. Ebert or any of the leading reviewers—any of the people who are on TV or who write for USA Today, Time, Newsweek, or any other big magazine—won't mention your film unless it is already in national release. They justify the policy by saying that there is no point in reviewing something that readers or viewers can't get to see. But of course it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. The only movies that fulfill the reviewers' requirement—that open in five or ten or a hundred cities—are mainstream Hollywood films. The fringe indie works are effectively screened out of the reviewing process. The reviewers have adopted a policy that is biased toward covering Hollywood product and against indie work. The studios might as well be paying their salaries, and in a certain sense they are. No editor in America has ever thought of challenging the Hollywood hegemony. Open up Time magazine next week if you don't believe me. The reviews are only for mainstream movies. It's completely de-coupled from quality. The reviewer ends up helping those who don't need help, and ignoring everyone who does.

The indie filmmaker is confronted with the classic “how does an inexperienced waitress get experience?” problem. No American reviewer will review your work until it has opened, but the indie is the one person in the system who can't persuade a group of theaters to book it until it has been favorably reviewed.

Interviewer: But the idea that the movie has to be in a certain number of cities to justify coverage in a national media outlet makes sense.

Carney: Not to me. The art critics cover shows of paintings that are in a museum in only one city. The dance critics cover performances that not only occur only in one city, but generally occur only once or twice, and usually are over by the time the review appears. Film critics should review important movies not only if they are only in one theater, but even if they are in no theater nowhere! Of course to appreciate why you should do that, you have to break out of the “two thumbs up” definition of film criticism.

Interviewer: What do you mean?

Carney: I mean that the root of the problem is that every film reviewer I know defines his job incorrectly. Without realizing it, they have all internalized the Hollywood value system. They define reviewing completely cynically as a form of advertising. The function of a film review is no different from the function of a car review. It tells you whether you should or should not buy a particular product. Like a cereal ad, the film critic gives you facts about the movie so you know whether you'll like it or not. It's not criticism. It's the logic of salesmanship, and once you have internalized it, the rest follows. It would make no sense to review a film that was not playing in ten or a hundred cities. You'd be sending people to “buy” something (or warning them not to buy it) that they couldn't find anyway. And there would be no point in doing that. But that's not what reviewing is about. That's not the function of criticism. That's the function of advertising. Right now Roger Ebert does function as a celebrity endorser. He's the George Foreman of cinema. Only instead of selling mufflers and grilling machines, Ebert sells tickets to The Matrix or Men in Black. That justifies his policy of timing his endorsements of products so that the endorsement appears only once the product is actually available on the store shelves. But criticism is not about recommending or not recommending something. Or that's only it's most trivial, unimportant function.

Interviewer: What is its function?

Carney: It's about understanding our lives and the ways we express ourselves at this moment in history. That's why it's valuable to read a piece in Time about Joel Shapiro's sculptures even if they are only being presented in one city. That's why it's valuable to read a piece about what happened at the New York City Ballet after Peter Martins took over, even if you don't live in New York. That's why it would be valuable to read an essay about Tom Noonan's contribution to American film even if his film is not playing in a local mall. You'll see the other two essays. Unfortunately you'll never see the third one. We need to break reviewing away from the Hollywood advertising model and return it to being a form of criticism. Otherwise the reviewer is just an adjunct to the ad campaign/action figure/Happy Meal budget. Which is what virtually every reviewer in America is!

What's weird is that other journalistic reviewers understand this. It's only the film reviewers who are so polluted by Hollywood that they can't get their minds around it. Read the automobile reviewers. They review models that no one in the entire readership of the newspaper will ever buy. Specialized, one-of-a-kind, hand-made cars. They review car shows in Detroit, a thousand miles away from their readership. They do it because they don't want to limit themselves to being two thumbs up or down consumer reporters. They do it because they know that even rare, non commercial, experimental vehicles have something to tell us about the ones we normally buy. I just want the film reviewers to treat their job as seriously as the car show reviewers. Tell me what Tom Noonan is thinking and feeling this year. Or what Mike Leigh is. It doesn't matter if their movies aren't playing anywhere. Or won't be released for ten years. What they have been feeling for the last twelve months is more important news than most of what is on the front page in the same period.

Interviewer: What would happen if you sat down with a few of these producers and editors and told them what you've told me—pointing out the importance of breaking reviewing free from the advertising mentality and covering specialized, limited release, non-studio work?

Carney: I have said this to reviewers over the years, but they can't get outside the advertising model of reviewing enough to understand it. When I ask them to cover real indie film—not the Miramax, studio-promoted knock-off kind-they tell me how little power they have to make or break a film. “It's not me, Ray. It's the viewers.” They say that the fact that a film is playing in a 100 or a 1000 theaters at once and has a thirty to fifty million dollar advertising campaign behind it makes it “critic proof.”

But that's just another kind of cynicism. They can sleep easy by telling themselves that they have no real power. But if that is true, it is all the more reason they should completely break free from the advertising model of promoting big box office works. By their own logic, Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks films don't need a review and their review won't matter—so why write about them at all. At around that point and they generally tell me that they are already doing everything they can possibly do. At this point in the argument, every single journalist I've ever talked to—from Roger Ebert at the top to the lowliest weekly shopper's guide reviewer hack at the bottom—tells me that his paper is really an exception to my strictures. That, although he agrees with me about all the rest of the media's Hollywood addlement, it doesn't apply to him and his work. Every single one feels that. So there's clearly not going to be a lot of soul-searching after I have spoken to them.

As far as the reporters and editors for the big circulation media go—the Time and USA Today editors and Charlie Rose and Fresh Air producers—I don't live in New York and go to the same dinner parties. So I've never talked to them. I probably couldn't get a lunch with most of them. But if I did, I doubt they would take me seriously. They'd probably write me off as some sort of special interest crank. The Rupert Pupkin of the indie movement.

Interviewer: Why wouldn't they understand?

Carney: They aren't film critics. They haven't seen these other films. They are completely indocrinated by Hollywood notions of entertainment filmmking—which pseudo-indies like Oliver Stone conform to. Beyond that, it's only human to assume that something you have never heard of can't be that important. I encounter that all the time. I often complain to journalists about how unknown many of the great indie filmmakers—present and past—still are. The editor or producer invariably asks me for a few names. And when I say Morris Engel and Barbara Loden and Paul Morrissey and John Korty from the past or Caveh Zahedi and Jay Rosenblatt and Tom Noonan in the present generation, I can see their eyes glaze over right in front of me. They don't say it, but I can watch them thinking it: “Oh, a bunch of names I never heard of. They can't really be that important.”

But you want to know what's even more discouraging? Once in a while an eager beaver producer or reporter will ask if I can send him a tape or two to look at. This picks up on what I told you about how you can't give someone a film education in one easy lesson. I used to think that would do it—putting a tape or two into their hands would convince them—but it generally has the opposite effect. When I give them Human Remains or Sink or Swim or Scenic Route, that's the last I ever hear from them! I know what they are thinking: “They aren't real movies!” “They aren't entertaining.” “They are artsy.”

It's that stupid assumption that if it's a movie, it should look like Hollywood, and the even stupider one that everyone is qualified to be a critic. That everyone's opinion is as valid as everyone else's, so that everyone functions as a self-appointed expert, as if film were no more complex than baseball or politics. It really shows contempt for the art. If these reporters were writing on something they really respected—say, economics or football, and Alan Greenspan or Bill Parcells told them something that violated their common sense understanding of the field, they would ponder it, study it, think about it. But when it comes to movies, if I tell them they are writing about the wrong filmmakers or that they have let the Hollywood publicists skew their values, and that they are trapped in childish “entertainment” notions, they just think I'm a nut. Or a professor.

Interviewer: You seem to have a problem with a movie being entertaining.....

Carney: It depends what you mean by that word. If you mean something that is interesting, fascinating, gripping because of its complex truthfulness, then I would argue that I am not opposed to that kind of entertainment. Haynes and Bresson and Tarkovsky are entertaining in that way. When I choose to read Henry James rather than watch television in the evening, it's because I want to be entertained much more than television can entertain me. But that is my own personal definition of the word. Most people—including all of the reviewers I read—mean something entirely different. They mean some kind of machine-gun editing that mimics MTV and a breathless sequence of plot events that mimics Hollywood movies. Those conventions involve various forms of sensory assault, various kinds of artificial stimulation that are the opposite of having an artistic experience.

Interviewer: What do you mean by that?

Carney: The stimulations of rapid fire editing and violent plot events defeat thought. They work you over. They make you passive. Art is the opposite. It makes you active. When I watch The Sacrifice or Safe—or when I read Henry James's The Sacred Fount—I am forced to become a responder, a creator, a maker—pondering, wondering, meditating, living though complex experiences complexly. I am living as complexly as when I am experiencing events in my own life. Tarkovsky and Haynes and James don't give me the Oliver Stone rush of a cocaine high. They don't bludgeon me into emotional passivity like Spielberg. They don't assault me with events the way a James Cameron movie does. They wake me up and bring me to life and make me think and work to understand what is going on. That's the kind of entertainment I love, but it's the antithesis to the kind of entertainment Hollywood movies provide. I do hate films that are entertaining in that way, because it's a way of preventing them from mattering. Or having an effect on you that continues after the movie is over. That kind of entertainment is a way of making sure that a film stays irrelevant. It stays separate from you life.

Interviewer: How can you tell the two kinds of entertainment apart?

Carney: I don't know how to describe it any better than I already have. It's like the two ways a girl can be seductive. One way is the Brittany Spears music video way, where she plays directly to you, selling herself and her wares with a series of codified, conventional “seductive” gestures and movements. That's what Hollywood entertainment is. It's in your face, pushing at you, telling you how to understand it, calculating how to flatter you and play on your emotions. It's trivial. A set of clichés. A cartoon experience.

The other way to be seductive is like someone you meet at a party who is simply being herself. She may seem to be the opposite of seductive on the surface—she may be difficult to talk to; she may disagree with you; she may be shy or elusive or standoffish. She is not trying to be seductive. She is not selling an emotion or an image of herself. She is not simplifying herself to be anything in particular. She is not smoothing herself down to be easy to understand or appreciate.

The first kind of seductiveness may seem exciting at first, but it's boring after just a few seconds. Because it's a lie. It's a simplification of what anyone really is. It's a series of conventions. The second girl is much more interesting because she is much more complex. She communicates a much more complex reality—not a pared—down cartoon version of herself, but her whole complex self—even as it may resist your understanding of it, fight your appropriation of it, and challenge your powers to keep up with it. But that's really interesting. That's real seduction—not the shallow, teenage MTV version. That's what real art does. That's what the greatest independent films do. Not the Miramax, studio financed knock-offs, but real indie works. In not trying to seduce you, in not dumbing themselves down to be appealing, they are really seductive, really appealing, really entertaining in the most complex way.

This page contains an excerpt from a lengthy interview with Ray Carney. In the selection above, he discusses film reviewing and the mass media. Note that many other statements on this subject are available in other sections of this site. The complete interview from which this excerpt is taken 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.