This page contains an excerpt from an interview with Ray Carney. In the selection below, he discusses PBS's confusion of kitsch with art. 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, which covers many other topics, inside and outside of the classroom. For more information about Ray Carney's writing on independent film, including information about how to obtain the complete text of this interview or two other packets in which he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of a writer, and the path of the artist, click here.

“Television is a visual medium that defeats the communication of complex ideas.”

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Interviewer: Have you ever thought about bringing your ideas to a larger audience via television? Couldn't you program a television history of film that was focused on artistic values and treated the form seriously?

Carney: Oh, yeah, get me on Bill Maher. That will help his ratings! But seriously, I have thought about it. I discussed the idea of hosting a show where I screen movies and talk about them with two producers, one in London and one in Boston. But problems always arise. The institution and the form resist this kind of serious inquiry.

Interviewer: Can you say more about that?

Carney: Television is a visual medium that defeats the communication of complex ideas. I learned that when I did the Beat show for the Whitney. There was a lot of TV coverage. People used to come up to me and say “I saw you on the tube last night. You were great.” I'd ask them to tell me one thing I said. They'd reply: “I don't remember, but I loved your tie.” That sums up the effect pretty well. Like my old marching band teacher used to say, “It don't matter how you play. All people remember is whether you marched in a straight line.”

Anytime I've been involved with the planning and production of a television program, I have been let down by the glibness of the production. A few years ago I worked as an advisor to the “American Cinema” series that the New York Center for Visual History produced and the Annenberg School released. It was on PBS a couple years later. Every single time I proposed doing something complex or said something complex in an on-camera interview, I was told it assumed too much knowledge of film on the part of the viewer, referred to things outside of the scope of the program, or took too long to explain, and the idea was vetoed or the statement edited out. When I saw it, I thought the series was really quite dreadful.

My problem is that I am too interested in education! I'm a professor, after all. As I've already explained in terms of the classroom, merely showing a bunch of indie and foreign art films is not sufficient. You need a whole support system to bring the viewer along with you. You need to present the films in a particular sequence, introducing each of them, discussing them after the screening, using highlights and clips to make points, dealing with potential misunderstandings and simplifications. I've never met a TV producer willing to make that kind of commitment to educating his audience. In my youth, PBS used to be called ETV, educational TV. I gather they hated that label and fought hard to shake it. But I never understood what was wrong with it. I would like to restore it to being as demanding and exciting as a real classroom, with real intellectual challenges and demands. No Ken Burns movies allowed.

Interviewer: How about some young film reviewer bucking the system and changing it—on television or elsewhere?

Carney: Television producing and magazine editorship are like the tenure system at most universities. The system weeds out people who are really original; it suspects anyone who is too different from anyone else. The institutional constraints on mainstream reviewing are incredible. If you consistently told the truth about Hollywood movies or the Academy Awards hoopla or America's cult of celebrity, you'd be fired for being “negative,” “elitist,” and “out of touch” with your readers. Your editor would be all over you for not covering the big stories—reviews of blockbusters and celebrity interviews. The tougher and more truth-telling your approach, the more doomed you'd be. On top of that, your pieces would have to be written above the level of the understanding of a sixth-grader. Newspapers don't want insight, they want glibness—and, of course, celebrity interviews and Academy Award hoopla to keep readers happy.

Some of my film students think they can ju-jitsu the system. But the system is not stupid. It's triviality is not accidental. The goal is not to rock the boat, shake up the existing order of things, or change anything. If you started to ask hard questions of the people you interviewed—like why they acted in such crummy movies—the Hollywood publicists would keep you from getting any more interviews. You'd be blackballed. It's happened to lots of interviewers. If you wrote virulently negative reviews of a studio's entire release schedule, they'd pull their ads or try to penalize your paper in some way. Every reviewer knows that going in, and most of them speak honestly in private about how the studios pay their salaries, commercially speaking. Like Ebert, they will include in a few reviews of non-studio films as sops to their sense of intellectual integrity and viewers who are interested in such things, but they know enough not to do too many at any one time, and not to bite the hand that feeds them. Reviewers make all sorts of internal calculations about what they can and cannot say and how far they can go at a given moment.

Interviewer: You're not saying that there is some kind of conspiracy to give favorable reviews to Hollywood movies and keep art films out?

Carney: Not at all. It's not a plot; it's just laziness and stupidity and the normal human impulse to go along with the crowd and not ask more searching questions about what matters and what doesn't. My problem is less with the journalists than with the system. Journalists are just what they are—reporters who are pressured to write under deadline, without the opportunity to do adequate research. You know the saying–love the sinner, but hate the sin. Most journalists have no secret agendas. They are trying to do a good job. But they are so inundated with Hollywood PR and their taste has been so programmed by mainstream entertainment and other journalists' praise of it that they simply can't think straight. Or see what is really important. We live in a PR world. Look at the Krispy Kream donut phenomenon. Look at how the shape of eyeglasses changes every couple years. Look at the Pier One/Starbucks/Martini culture. No realm is exempt from it. Even countercultural values are manipulated by advertising agencies and publicists. Look at Jane magazine if you don't believe you can do that. Punks buy CDs too. It takes incredible independence of intellect to buck such a pervasive publicity system–because it's ultimately a system of thought control. If you are a journalist and aren't incredibly independent and energetic, the system is going to write your piece for you. That's true of all of life. It's hard not to be swept up in the current. It's hard to paddle in a different direction. Intentions have nothing to do with it.

Let me give you an example. Two weeks ago I got an email from a reporter with a public radio show called Studio 360. He said he was putting together a broadcast about “movies that deal with time,” and could I help him by recommending some titles and filmmakers, and doing an interview about them? Well, to tell you the truth, my first thought was that the idea of doing a thematic show was dumb. It reminded me of those boring literature books we had in middle school that had sections called “Animal poems,” “Stories of faith and trust,” and “Family values.” Of course I didn't tell him that. I just thought how could I respond and still get him to do something really interesting. So I wrote him something about the force of cultural history and memory and desire and the pressure of the past on our emotions, blah, blah, blah, recommended he focus on the work of Mark Rappaport and Mark Daniels and Bruce Conner and Chris Marker, and proceeded to contact the filmmakers to tell them to expect him to be in touch with them.

Well, a few days later the guy wrote back and said he had run the idea by his producer and the producer nixed my list of works and said he should focus instead on Run Lola Run, Memento, and Timecode. Now it's not hard to figure out what happened in the interim. The reporter forwarded my email to his producer, who didn't recognize any of the names or titles I recommended, and substituted filmmakers and works he knew in their place. Since it was NPR, he picked the kind of glitzy, pseudo-art, trick movies that NPR listeners fall for. The kind pseudo-intellectuals like Charlie Rose and Terry Gross take seriously. Last year it was Being John Malkovich, the year before it was Happiness, the year before that it was L.A. Confidential. This year I guess it's Run Lola Run and Memento. Fake art every last one of them. Kitsch for the PBS crowd. Pretend danger and edginess and originality. Jane magazine transposed to film. It eliminates all of the really interesting films and figures—like Rappaport—who aren't making flashy, gaudy, trick films. The reporter invited me to talk about those films. That's the problem in a nutshell.

Interviewer: What did you say?

Carney: I turned him down, and asked him not to contact me again unless he was interested in real art. I know I was stupid to get so upset about it. When I told Rappaport what happened (and apologized for wasting his time) he just said: “Welcome to the real world, Ray.” He's experienced this sort of thing a lot more than I have.

This kind of thing happens so often that I repeatedly vow that I should stop responding to media inquiries altogether. It's always a waste of time. Even on the rare times that they let you talk about something that matters, they invariably hack it up into sound bites so that you don't have more than thirty seconds to formulate an intelligent idea. How would this interview look if you limited all of my answers to three sentences or less?

Interviewer: Has the Studio 360 show aired?

Carney: I have no idea. I don't even know if it is broadcast in Boston. Or what time or station it would be on. I've never listened to it. Even one other time when I was interviewed on it. I have better things to do. I can't be bothered wasting my time listening to glitz.

Interviewer: But how can you know what the show is like if you haven't heard it?

Carney: Because it's NPR. It's completely predictable. A prep-school yuppie idea of culture. I don't have to listen to it to know what it's like. That email reply, and the list of films they wanted to cover, tells me everything I need to know. Run. Lola, Run! What else is there to say? It's hip. It's “with it.” It's cool, clever, knowing, and “smart”—in the dumb way. It's foreign too. [Doing a voice:] “We love foreign films!” The show is a broadcast version of Vanity Fair. Or the Sundance Institute. Or most of what is on PBS.

This isn't such a radical point. It's pretty obvious. Look at what is on PBS week after week. Who's their house filmmaker? Ken Burns! What does that tell you? Who is their house interviewer? Charlie Rose. Who is interviewed on the Newshour? Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, not Noam Chomsky and the editors of The Nation. I'm not the first one to notice these things. Everyone talks about it. Everywhere except on PBS!

Interviewer: Are there any exceptions? Any good shows on PBS?

Carney: I don't watch enough to know. But wait, there is one I've seen three or four times that I love. It's called Theater Talk. In Boston it's relegated to some awful time slot like Sunday at eleven PM or something like that, but it seems to be a really interesting show.

Interviewer: But they need to create entertaining shows to stay on the air, don't they? Everything can't be highbrow.

Carney: Theater Talk is not highbrow. It strikes me as pretty lowbrow in fact. They talk a lot about Broadway plays and the opinions of popular drama reviewers in New York newspapers and magazines and stuff like that. But terms like highbrow and lowbrow are meaningless. Let's call a spade a spade and just say some shows are smart and some are dumb. And I don't think this dumbing down is really a matter of ratings anyway; it's more a question of values. Ken Burns gets a better time slot than Theater Talk because the PBS producers feel that he is doing something more important since he plays into all these popular myths of what matters culturally—a whole set of feminist, multicult, sociological beliefs about American democracy and racial and sexual diversity. Clichés all. Theater Talk doesn't seem to be equally important because it doesn't punch those fashionable buttons. The producers are wrong, but they don't know it. So ultimately we're talking about value judgments, not ratings. The two can be interconnected, of course, since the viewers are often plugged into the same set of clichéd value judgments that the producers are, but the starting point is the value judgments.

Let me give you two more examples, which show how this works when ratings have nothing to do with it. They took place about a year apart, three or four years ago. They are pretty similar. The first one was when a fellow wrote me and said he was putting together a biographical dictionary and would I be the advisor for film? The second was when I was asked to be on the editorial board for a film dictionary. To make two long stories short, in both cases I argued for something that would not just re-cycle Katz or Halliwell [two standard film reference books], but would radically redraw the map of the past fifty years of American film. I wanted both books to leave out the hacks and put listings of real artists and works of film art in their place. I pushed really hard for it. Lots of letters. Lots of phone calls. Well, I probably don't need to tell you the outcome. Suffice it to say I now have both books on my shelves and they look like every other biographical dictionary and film reference book ever published. Long entries on Stanley Kramer, nothing on Robert Kramer. Mention of A Fish Called Wanda, no mention of Wanda. Big discussion of Spike Lee, no mention of Charles Burnett or Billy Woodbury. We're not talking ratings. We're talking values. Both were university presses. I was told people buying such a book “expected” certain people and events to be covered in it, and would be “dismayed” at finding unfamiliar names and titles in their place.

Interviewer: So there is no way out?

Carney: I really don't know. I personally break away from the system in a peanutty way by writing books and essays and grousing this way in interviews! But our culture is dominated by other voices, so what I say doesn't make very much of a difference.

Interviewer: What do you mean?

Carney: I mean who will ever see this interview? I've been thinking about that. It will never be published since it criticizes everyone who will be in charge of deciding whether it should get into print—from professors to editors to book publishers. I can live with that or I wouldn't be giving it. I have no illusions about changing the world. But don't get me wrong. I don't feel negatively about this situation. It's actually wonderful.

Interviewer: How can that be?

Carney: Well think of it like this. The world we live in, the public part of it at least, is organized to value commercial things, things that make money, things connected with rich, powerful, or famous people and successful, important enterprises. Those are the people, things, and events that the culture pays attention to. The ones that get on TV and radio, and into our newspapers and magazines. But there is this whole other class of people and events that isn't connected with money or power or celebrity. Cultural widows and orphans. Poor, lost lambs. Little artistic babies that don't have anyone else to look out for them. Since there's nothing in it—no financial reward, no fame or glory—very few other people are able to do it. But since I have a regular job as a teacher, I can afford to spend my free time this way. That's really lucky. I get to take care of the things that the rest of the culture doesn't value.

This page contains an excerpt from an interview with Ray Carney. In the selection above, he discusses PBS's confusion of kitsch with art. The complete interview is available in a new packet titled What’s Wrong with Film Teaching, Criticism, and ReviewingAnd How to Do It Right, which covers many other topics, inside and outside of the classroom. For more information about Ray Carney's writing on independent film, including information about how to obtain the complete text of this interview or two other packets 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.