This page contains a short section from an interview with Ray Carney. The complete interview covers many other topics and is available in the Necessary Experiences packet. For more information about Ray Carney's writing and interviews, including information about obtaining three different packets of material in which he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of a writer, and the path of the artist, click here.

Shallow and Deep Ways of Understanding

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Cassavetes has been called the great cinematic poet of love. What is it like to write about a filmmaker whose work is about love?

I've read that description of Cassavetes' work dozens of times. If you ask Peter Bogdanovich or Martin Scorsese or Roger Ebert or even Gena Rowlands, that's what they'll say – that all Cassavetes' films are about love. It runs throughout French criticism too – that Cassavetes is the great philosopher of love – or words to that effect. But to tell you the truth, I've never understood what these people are talking about. It seems a very very shallow view of his work.

What do you mean? Isn't that just to say the obvious? The films are about men and women and love.

Well, to start with, “aboutness” isn't a very good way to understand any work of art. What is Hamlet “about”? A man who could not make up his mind? It's not “about” anything that way. It's not an essay, but an experience. Leave the “about” game to Polonius. Or Olivier.

But Cassavetes' films are about something aren't they? They aren't just art for the sake of art.

Yes. They are about life. I'm not saying they are not about anything. I am saying that if we are going to play the “about” game, “love” is not the right answer. It's a shallow answer. It betrays a high school understanding of Cassavetes' work. OK. There are men and women in the movies, falling into or out of love, but he is not making films that are obsessively, thematically, imaginatively centered around states of love or questions about love. When Martin Scorsese and Roger Ebert and Al Ruban and Gena Rowlands say that that's what his films are about, it shows that they don't really understand the movies in a deep way.

It's a little like saying Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is about joy. Or that Wordsworth's poetry is about nature. These are not just partial, incomplete, provisional answers. They are wrong answers. They are stupid answers. They show that whoever says them is not really seeing what is in the work, what it really is about.

Can you explain what you mean?

Well, Wordsworth talks a lot about nature, there are lots of walks in the country in his poems, but his poetry is not “about” nature. That's simply wrong. His poetry is about states of consciousness and special kinds of heightened insight and awareness. It's about strange fits of passion – not rocks and stones and trees. Nature is an accident, a convenient subject matter. It's not the subject of the poems. Ultimately, in some parallel universe, he could have written all of his poems about living in an apartment in London, and his poems would be no different. In fact, a couple books of the Prelude are about city life, showing that he could do that.

Beethoven may use the Schiller's “Ode to Joy” as a lyric in the final movement of the Ninth Symphony, but the symphony is not about “joy.” In fact when I listen to it, I hear very little joy. I hear a lot of other emotions – anger, argumentativeness, sadness, fear. The Ninth Symphony is about those feelings – no matter what words the singers are singing at the end – much more than it is about joy. By the way, that's true of all of Beethoven's symphonies. They are a lot more about his enormous, overweening ego, his barrel-chested, table-thumping bluster and swagger, the wonderful things that made him an impossible human being in most people's minds – than they are about the stupid titles they go by.

What about Cassavetes?

My point is that the love thing in Cassavetes is a little like the trees in Wordsworth or the Schiller lyrics in Beethoven. Male-female interaction gives Cassavetes something to work with. Something to react to. Something to bounce off of. Love is not at the center of his vision of life. The films are not deeply, essentially, profoundly about love.

What are they about?

All the stuff I talk about in my books. The things I've written about for the past twenty years.

Can you name some of them?

Read the epigraph to my first book, the American Dreaming book. It's an Emerson quote. That's the best summary of it.

Well, aren't you going to tell me what it is? I don't have the book here.

Neither do I, but I remember it, since it was the organizational principle of the entire project. And it's very short. It's from Experience: "Where do we find ourselves?" Emerson didn't, but I intended it to be a kind of pun.

What's the pun?

Where are we – in our lives or in the world? That's the meaning Emerson intended. But I also wanted it to mean how do we find out what we really are, what we want, what we need, what we feel? That's much harder to do.

That's what Cassavetes is interested in?

The central subject in all of the films is the exploration of sincerity and authenticity – what he called "phoniness" versus "honesty" or "truthfulness." Though he cut it from most of the final edits, most of his scripts actually have discussions of "phoniness." Cassavetes thought of himself as the least "phony" person in the world. And his work is an exploration of how we phony-up ourselves.

What does that mean?

How we fool ourselves or get mixed up about what we really need and want emotionally. How we lose track of ourselves, or what we are, in the Emersonian sense. And how we can "find ourselves" again, if we are lucky. Look at the salesmen and the housewives in Faces. That's what they are depictions of. How we fool ourselves about who we are. How we tell ourselves self-protective, self-deluding stories about ourselves. That's McCarthy in a nutshell: "Jeannie, Jeannie, I'm a nice guy." It's Louise: "I come from a musical background. I know how to dance my way." It's Tony in Shadows. "Tell her I love her. Tell her there's no difference between us." Cassavetes is interested in how our pride and sense of dignity get in the way of being real. We lose track of ourselves by trying to look good. Or by caring what people think of us. That's Nick in A Woman Under the Influence. Or Cosmo in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. We wear masks to hide from others and protect ourselves from being exposed. That's Hugh in Shadows, Zelmo and Jim and Minnie in Minnie and Moskowitz. It's Maurice in Opening Night or Robert in Love Streams. That's the master plot of all of Cassavetes' work. Exposing fraudulence and self-delusion. Finding out what someone really is. It's not about events; it's about character. About the layers of performance we try to hide behind. About the way we try to live by some fraudulent internal script, and about his attempt to get us off the page, onto the margins, to improvise – and in the process to really listen and see and respond without a script.

So that's what Cassavetes' films are about?

You insist on getting me to play the "about" game, eh? The problem is that the films won't be boiled down to a simple theme, even one as rich as that. There's just too much to say. Really. There's a lot more to them even than that.


OK. If you promise this is the end of it, here are some other things. They are about change and process. They are about staying free, avoiding being limited by social rules and arrangements. About possibility and open-ended definitions of selfhood. About the difficulty of expressing your dreams and desires – and the necessity to express them any way you can. About taking chances and the need to open yourself to new experiences and make yourself emotionally vulnerable after you have been hurt or wounded. They are about the need to break free of the past and live in a present-minded state of flowingness. They are about breaking down emotional and behavioral patterns. About how daring to live in a state of not knowing can free you. About plunging into things without knowing where they will lead. About cycles of loneliness, solitude, and non-communication and self-inflicted isolation and pain. I guess you could say they are also about Cassavetes' personality.

What do you mean by that?

In the Beethoven vein, many of the films seem to me to be about Cassavetes' desire to shock or outrage the viewer. Or confuse, bewilder, and surprise a viewer. They are about him thumbing his nose at conventions. Being deliberately outrageous. They are about tricking and testing us. Listen, that's enough for now. I have to beg off. I'm really getting bored talking about this. Anyway, it's in my books much better than I can say it to you. But I hope my point is clear. Following any of these threads through Cassavetes' work will get you a heck of a lot further than looking for love scenes or trying to find out his views on courtship and marriage. That's a waste of time. Leave it to the French.

This page contains a short section from an interview with Ray Carney. The complete interview covers many other topics and is available in the Necessary Experiences packet. For more information about Ray Carney's writing and interviews, including information about obtaining three different packets of material 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.