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The Film Festival Fallacy

Carney: [Following a string of questions about the hundreds of interviews he conducted researching his Cassavetes on Cassavetes book.] Forgive me if I say that I think there's a mistaken premise in this whole line of questioning. It's the notion that if only Gena Rowlands or Seymour Cassel or Ben Gazzara or someone else who knew Cassavetes personally would talk freely and at length about him and his work, Cassavetes' films will be opened to us. I call it the film festival fallacy—the idea that if you want to really, really understand a movie you should ask the stars or crew members about it. That if you can get them to introduce the movie or come up afterwards and discuss it in a Q-and-A, you have thrown light on it.

Interviewer: I don't understand. What's the fallacy?

Carney: Proust talks about it in his “Contre Sainte-Beuve” essay—that just because someone was married to an artist, or went out drinking with him, or, in this case, acted in a movie he made, they have some special, deep insight into the artist or his work. It's just not true. Gena Rowlands or Seymour Cassel or Ben Gazzara can contribute facts and memories of events. They can contribute their own personal knowledge of Cassavetes the man. I don't want to put those things down. They are of some value. But it is limited. And Gena's or Ben's or Seymour's knowledge of the films as works of art—or their understanding of what parts of Cassavetes' heart and soul they came from, of the deep creative struggle of editing them and creating meaning, of how they connect with his life, and how we should understand them—is no better than anyone else's.

Interviewer: How can you say that? That seems ridiculous. Those people were there when the films were being made. They saw it all happen.

Carney: I can say it on the basis of a lot of experience talking with them! As well as a little bit of knowledge of how art is created. The sitter doesn't necessarily understand what Sargent is doing to them, doing with them—just because they were there when the painting was painted. In fact the sitter may be the last to understand. Even if Sargent kept up a stream of patter while he created the painting. The patter is not the art. You may be right there, but you can't see what is going on inside. A crew member or actor who was on the set of Cassavetes' films can contribute certain facts and memories of events that have some interest, but that person does not necessarily have a deep insight into the meaning of the work that they are helping to create. No more than my students and teaching assistants necessarily understand what I am doing in a course just because they are in it. My students and TAs can report facts and events from the course. They can report what I said. But just because they were in the room when something happened, or because they knew me personally, they don't necessarily have anything particularly valuable or deep to say. And that's just teaching. The creation of a work of art is an even deeper, murkier kettle of fish.

Proust's way of putting it is to say that the person the world knows and the artist are different people. That's not to say that the person and artist are different, but the person the world knows is different from the artist who creates. Henry James has a wonderful short story about this called “The Private Life.” Emily Dickinson puts it her way: “The soul selects its own society.” Not society's society. That's what makes Charlie Rose and James Lipton and the Sundance Channel intros and Premiere magazine and Peter Bogdanovich's comedy routines and impersonations irrelevant. Q-and-A's turn movies into chit-chat and gossip and anecdotes. Who cares? You might as well save yourself the trip and stay home and watch Entertainment Tonight. Chit-chat and gossip about Picasso's lovers have nothing to do with how he painted his paintings. They don't touch the place art comes from.

Interviewer: But how can you say this? Your Cassavetes on Cassavetes book is a series of anecdotes and stories. How can you say you are not interested in them?

Carney: I hope it's not just a series of anecdotes. I am not really interested in facts or events. I am not interested in gossip. None of that matters. That stuff is just an accident of life. It could all have been different. I am interested in soul. That's what everything in the book is about. The facts are just a way to sketch the shape of Cassavetes' soul at any given moment. That's what Entertainment Tonight is not interested in and incapable of doing in any event.

But I don't have to appeal to some theory about artistic creation. I can appeal to experience. I've spent days with Seymour Cassel. Weeks. He understands Chet and Moskowitz and the films they are in less well than a perceptive viewer. He is too close to the characters, too close to the experiences, to see what Cassavetes is doing with them. It's not a sign of the seriousness of our interest, but of the immaturity of film culture, that we are so hung up on celebrity interviews.

Interviewer: So you're saying we have to ask Sargent himself what his paintings mean? Or Cassavetes about his films?

Carney: No. That's not what I am saying. It's true that Sargent is probably a much more reliable reporter of many of the meanings of his work than his sitter is. And that undoubtedly Cassavetes understood infinitely more about his work than the actors or crew members on the shoots did. But even the artist is usually too close to his own work to see it clearly. Think of how your boyfriend or girlfriend behaves and expresses themselves. Think of how they can get on your nerves or tickle your funny bone. Think of how you almost certainly understand things about them that they doesn't understand about themselves. They may understand a little of what they are, but they are too close to themselves to hear their own tones of voice, to understand what their fears or anxieties really mean.

Well, in a similar vein, a viewer can see a similarity between Cassavetes and little Phil in Gloria that Cassavetes himself might not have understood or intended. A viewer can see parts of Cassavetes' personality in the subject and editing of Shadows that Cassavetes might not have realized were there—his chutzpah, his need to impress, his desire to shock. If we're really sensitive to what it offers, the films tell us a lot more than the movie stars in the Q-and-A ever talk about. A lot more even than the director can. They speak from a deeper place. That's where the critic comes in. That's where I come in. That's why there are headnotes in the Cassavetes on Cassavetes book. They are about Cassavetes' soul—something Seymour Cassel would be the last person to be able to describe.

Text Copyright 2002 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.