This page contains an excerpt from an interview with Ray Carney. In the selection below, he discusses teaching film in the university classroom. 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.

“I don't teach content. I teach ways of knowing.”

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Interviewer: I want to continue our discussion about college teaching. You seem to have problems with the way film is taught.

Carney: Academic film study is an embarrassment. The intellectual shallowness and mediocrity of undergraduate film courses is tolerated only because they are enrollment builders. If the English department can pack 200 people into a film survey, it subsidizes smaller classes in Shakespeare and Milton and Faulkner. Most students take film courses just because they are light reading. A break from the rest of their “real” courses. When I started teaching film—this happened at Middlebury College—and picked up the course another professor had run for years I found out that the football coach had platooned in the entire team since the course was a known easy A or B. I discovered it only because some of the jocks were dumb enough to complain to me that the way I taught the course was making more demands than the previous teacher, and that the coach wasn’t happy about it!

But what does that tell you about film courses? The grading is easy. Jargonizing replaces real intellectual content. As the football team illustrates, the whole attitude toward the course is wrong. It's a vacation from real thinking. That's why I sometimes tell my most talented undergraduates to major in something else and take a few film courses on the side. They can easily get up film on their own.

Interviewer: Isn't that a contradiction to what you have devoted yourself to doing for a living?

Carney: No. It's a fulfillment of it. I have devoted my life to serious intellectual inquiry. And I am telling them to devote their lives to it. And if film courses aren’t serious or demanding, they should get out of them and do something more important with their brains.

Interviewer: Are you saying that they should not ever watch films or that they should teach themselves film?

Carney: The second. And it's not that hard to do. There’s really not that much to master. The entire field is only about eighty years old. There are fifty or a hundred works of genius and another couple hundred interesting but less important works. You could see most of them in a few years of video viewing and going to film archive screenings. You still have to do that anyway, even if you major in film at most universities since the films taught in most film courses are not the great masterworks—but the schlock and junk of pop culture. Go through the syllabi and count the masterpieces. You won't find many in most courses. So you'll almost always learn more by doing it on your own and reading Shakespeare or James in an English course. And, by the way, the fewer books of academic film criticism you read, the better off you'll be in terms of avoiding shortcuts to understanding.

Interviewer: You actually tell students to major in something else?

Carney: I don't want to cause students to have an identity crisis or have to start over at the beginning once they have invested a lot of time in a film major, so I don't say it to many of them. But in my office hours I have occasionally tactfully suggested it to some of my best students who are in a position to benefit from the advice. Say a very talented sophomore comes in and expresses dissatisfaction with the intellectual depth of the film courses she is taking. Why shouldn't I agree with her and suggest that she might get more out of an English or Art major? I'm giving her good advice. I'm not hired to be a salesman for any program, thank goodness. My job is to tell the truth.

The question comes up again when juniors and seniors ask me about going on to grad school in film. I caution them that most of their class work at NYU or UCLA or Columbia will involve looking at a lot of junky movies and learning a few German, French, and Russian terms to give what they are doing a patina of intellectual legitimacy. Comp lit or English lit or American literature and art programs usually allow film to be a component of graduate work, and those kinds of programs give students so much more in addition to film that it seems foolish to limit themselves—particularly if they are very sensitive and smart—by enrolling in a program that is exclusively film.

You can't know film if all you know is film. The arts are all one—just different ways of saying the same things—and the more you know about other arts, the more you can understand any one of them. It's a little like language study. If the only language you speak is English, you can't really understand how diction and syntax work. If you speak and understand several forms of art-speech, you will understand much more about each individual form. That's why even in the film courses I teach, I show my students paintings to help them understand the frame composition, or play music or dance pieces to help them understand principles of temporal organization.

On top of everything else, there is always the issue of getting a job at the end of grad school. It keeps me up at night. The system is so unfair to the smartest ones. There are very few pure film jobs to start with, just a handful each year, and the better the student is, meaning if he or she has really fresh ideas and approaches, the harder it will be to get one of them. Film departments are more gerrymandered with special interest one-issue-candidates than the Philadelphia City Council. You have your feminists, your third-worldists, your formalists, your queer theory person, and so on. And none of them has very much interest in or awareness of art. As I said before, they might as well be teaching sociology. That's where a Ph.D. in film studies will land you, if you are so lucky as to get a job at all. It's not worth it.

So I tell them to study something else and learn the film part on the side. Not only are there more jobs if you get a degree from an English department, but if you teach in an English department youll be less ideologically constrained by your colleagues. When you teach a film course you'll be pretty much left alone to do whatever you want.

Interviewer: But doesn't that kind of thinking go against your principle that students should not tailor their academic work around career considerations?

Carney: That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that film study is a shallow, intellectually insubstantial field, but that even students who know that use the career argument to justify getting an advanced degree in film, because they think they need it to get a teaching job. What I am telling them is that the career argument is fallacious. They won't be able to get a meaningful job at the end of the process. So why not major in something with more depth, with a greater body of interesting work that you can learn more from? It will be far more personally enriching to spend a few years reading Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Eudora Welty, and Stanley Elkin than looking at a bunch of Hollywood movies. And even if you don't get a teaching job in the end, knowing how to read literature and think about art can enrich the rest of your life.

Interviewer: The last thing you said touches on something that I have wanted to ask you about for a long time now because it puzzles me but keeps coming up. It's that when you talk about studying art, you are generally not talking about studying the history of it or the cultural side, but about encountering a work of art in some sort of special way. You frequently say things like “we have to learn how to look” or “how to read.” That's what I would like you to say more about. Let me add that the conceptual problem I have with that is that reading a book or looking at a movie would seem to me to be the most natural thing in the worldlike walking or talking. We have read books and looked at movies all of our livesso what is there to learn? In other words, I can understand studying literature or film to learn the history of the field, but when you say “knowing how to read literature or look at film can enrich your life,” I just don't follow.

Carney: Good question. Let me take a stab at answering it by mentioning a letter I read by Henry James the other day in which he was trying to account for the fact that so few people seemed to be able to understand or appreciate his novels. I think the one that he was talking about was The Awkward Age, but it doesn’t really matter. He talked about the decline of the ability to pay attention, the loss of the capability to focus on and work through the challenge of his sentences. He said readers apparently could only hear what screamed “look at me” and what asked only a few seconds of their time to get the message and that his writing did not plug into those ways of knowing. Well, if James felt that way in London of 1898, imagine what he would be saying now when everyone from London to Los Angeles is bombarded with the thirty-second commercial screams, MTV rapid-fire editing, late-breaking news bulletins, and infomercial awful acting around the clock.

Interviewer: What does that have to do with it?

Carney: I'm saying that James was right. We have lost—or are losing—the ability to pay attention in certain ways, especially in the kinds of attention that great art requires. In my courses I teach people how to pay attention. I don't teach history or sociology or cultural studies. I don't teach content—facts, dates, names,  events—but forms of attention. I teach students how to pay extremely close attention to events they couldn't even see when they started the course. I teach ways of knowing. Ways of seeing. Ways of thinking and feeling. Those are the actual titles of some of courses I have taught in the past. Note the plural. There is no one right way to do know or pay attention. No single method of watching a film, any more than there is a best way to make one. There are many ways. Every work of art embodies its own unique special ways of knowing. Every work asks us to approach it in its own way, and teaches us how to understand it. Like a person.

Interviewer: Can you be more specific about what you tell students?

Carney: Not really. Because it isn't in the telling. I can’t do in words what takes a semester to happen in a classroom. Actually it usually takes longer than that. A lot of the best undergraduates write me a year or two after they graduate and tell me they are finally beginning to understand what we were doing in class. I can’t teach you ways of knowing by describing it. If I could, I might as well cancel my classes and hand out a summary sheet. It would save everybody a lot of time and trouble. I am not teaching ideas or abstractions. I take students on a voyage. I give them experiences that re-wire their brains. I know that sounds funny or weird, but I mean it literally. They really have to build new neural pathways, new capacities of responsiveness. Not new theories or terms or abstractions—but new capacities of responsiveness. The goal is to see and feel differently at the end of the process. I don't teach ideas. I teach a skill. My teaching is functional.

Interviewer: Functional?

Carney: I know it can be hard to understand because I was just trying to explain this to a part-time teacher I hired to teach in the fall. It was for a course called Understanding Film that I myself taught for almost ten years. He was asking me how I taught it when I had it. Of course I told him that the goal was not to imitate me. How he taught it was up to him. I said I picked smart people, people I knew and trusted, to teach a course. And let them teach their way. I told him that he should teach out of his own interests and passions. But he kept asking how I had taught the course, so we had an interesting conversation about it.

I told him I wasn’t interested in teaching film history, or genre study, or the history of the indie movement, or institutional facts about Hollywood or technological changes in film production methods. I wasn’t interested in teaching students facts about the life of a director. Or discussing his or her body of work. I almost never discussed a film in generalities or abstractions. I almost never wrote dates or names on the blackboard. If a student needed that, she could get it out of a book.

I told him I taught students how to see. How to hear. How to feel. You couldn't get that out of a textbook. I taught modes of perception—what to look at, what to listen for, ways of thinking about it.

Interviewer: But what needs to be taught? If you keep your eyes open, you see what is in front of you. If you pay attention, you hear what is on the soundtrack.

Carney: Oh, no. It's the opposite. We see and hear everything through pre-existing habits. Kenneth Burke called them terministic screens. Most of my students can’t see or hear a thing when they step into the classroom. Or I should say what they see and hear is wrong. They are like the people who go to a play and applaud the scenery or the costumes. They are looking in the wrong places, looking in the wrong ways.

Interviewer: What do you mean?

Carney: Well, think of someone going to the ballet or modern dance. I go to a lot of dance performances, and there are very few people who can see what is going on in front of them. They get excited over the height of the jumps. Or the speed of the leg movements. Their viewing habits are from the Olympics. They miss all of the dancing.

Interviewer: That’s a contradiction. The dancing is right in front of them. They are seeing it. They aren’t missing it.

Carney: But they are not really seeing it. I just mentioned the Olympics. You have to learn how to see even that. You are not born able to see it. Everybody has had the experience of watching a skating or diving or gymnastic performance on TV and then hearing Bart Conner or Kristi Yamaguchi comment on it. That the timing was off in this part, or that someone’s body was bent when it should have been straight—and you realize you didn't even see what she is talking about—the thing that that skater or diver did or didn't do. I don't mean you didn't notice it. You didn't see it. That perception did not register on your retina or go into your brain. It's not that you had blinked at the wrong instant or weren’t looking in the right place. You were looking but you didn't experience it. E.H. Gombrich talks about this in terms of the myth of the innocent eye. Hubel and Weisel talk about it in terms of neuronal structures in the retina and brain. The judge or the expert commentator has changed his or her capacities of sense perception with years of looking and noticing. Why should we expect a work of art to be less complex or subtle than a double axel or a routine on the parallel bars? Bach’s brain was different than yours or mine. That’s what I teach: re-wiring your brain—seeing, hearing, noticing in specially heightened ways. Since they don't have the advantages Bach had, most people have to be taught. How to see. What to see. How to hear. What to hear. I’m not teaching ideas. They are easy to learn and useless—since they leave our ways of knowing untouched. I’m changing my student's modes of perception. I do brain surgery in class. The changes are slow and incremental. But they are possible. And it can't be learned abstractly. You can't read a book about it. It doesn't happen that way.

Interviewer: But there are books on Olympic sports and on ballet.

Carney: And my point is that reading most of them would be just as useless in doing this as reading most books about film! You would learn the history of the ballet or the sport. You would learn the names of the particular performers, or companies and choreographers. You might even learn the names of a few steps or positions by looking at pictures. But it would hardly help your actual seeing process at all.

Interviewer: I can see why the history and biography part mightn’t help, but why wouldn’t looking at pictures of steps or positions? Or, in terms of film, why wouldn’t reading a discussion of film noir lightingor looking at a photograph of it? Or John Ford’s landscapes?

Carney: Because there is a fundamental difference between abstractions and ideas and perceptions and experiences. They are totally different types of information. They are stored in totally different parts of the brain. Not only are the steps or positions as they are actually happening not going to be exactly like the pictures in the books, but they are coming so rapidly and changing into other steps and positions so quickly that you could never get to a point of enjoying and understanding ballet or diving that way. Static images are different from dynamic experiences. If you studied dance or diving photographs, all you would ever be able to do is pick out some frozen moment out of time. But since dance is in time, doing that would be actually a step backward. You’d be de-temporalizing the experience.

To learn how to watch danceor diving, you have to watch it. And watch it. And watch it. Preferably with a very good teacher at your side saying, “Look at that. Look at that. Look at that.” Over and over again. And then, very slowly you might start to see things for yourself on your own. See them not as ideas but experiences. Temporally. Changing. Shifting. Not standing still the way pictures in books do. Or ideas do.

While perception is about motion and change, ideas stand still. I think that’s one of the reasons that stupid metaphoric and symbolic approaches to movies are so popular. They appeal to the idea part of the brain, even as they betray the temporality of the experience of the art.

Interviewer: So, as I’ve heard you say, you are bringing time back to film analysis?

Carney: Yes. But it's not just a temporal issue. Ideas block the view even at any one instant. I go to museums a lot and forever end up behind or next to someone standing in front of a painting but not really seeing it. They only see some set of ideas their college art teacher told them. You know, some girl telling her boyfriend: “This is Monet's water lilies painting. It's impressionist. It's an attempt to show what the light really looked like on the water at a certain moment. Monet was losing his vision by this point too. See how fuzzy everything looks.” She is not even seeing the painting. She is only seeing the ideas someone gave her. The vibrancy of the colors. The tactile feel of the brush work. The size, the scale of the canvas is left out. My goal is not to teach the students to think differently. Thinking is too late. You actually have to see and hear things differently.

Interviewer: Can that be done?!

Carney: It goes on all the time in a less directed way. Think of any interest or hobby you’ve ever had. Think of learning to drive, and how after a few months or years, you get into the rhythms and sounds and spatial feel of a car so that you can sense the situation you are in. Think of learning to sail or kayak, and how you start noticing currents and eddies and swells and puffs. You not only react to the water and air differently, you see and feel them differently. Think of cooking and how after you have done it for a long time textures and colors and smells start to have very complex meanings—meanings that you can't necessarily verbalize. Your senses actually change. You can see or hear or smell things you couldn't before. Something really changes in the chemistry of your brain.

And none of this can be willed. You can't force yourself to see differently any more than you can force yourself to be more intelligent or more sensitive. It's not volitional. It's not a matter of consciousness. It can't be acquired abstractly, or else reading a book about it would be the same thing as having these experiences. The changes occur by working through difficult, challenging, experiences. You have to live through them. It isn't enough to learn about them. And the more emotional the experience, the faster the change. You have to do it; you have to let it do something to you. And once these changes start to occur, you don't have to try to see in these ways, you see in these ways without even trying or thinking.

That kind of growth is very slow. Ideas are quick. That's why we prefer them. But all changes that involve consciousness are shallow and short-lived. The illusion of learning. Re-writing your neurons is glacial by comparison. It takes a lot of time to change what you see and how you process it. But it’s a deep, enduring change. I can't give you or anyone else the experience by describing it abstractly since it doesn’t take place at the level of awareness.

Interviewer: Then how can you teach it?

Carney: Someone who is really interested in this should just sit in on my classes. That’s how I do it. The classroom is where all happens. I have auditors every semester who come in to see how it is done. I do hundreds of in-class exercises—a whole sequence of programmed events. Too many to list. Many physical. It's important to involve the body and the emotions.

During screenings, I have students call out something every time there is a cut or a lighting effect or every time a certain kind of shot appears on screen. I yell things out while films are screening. I show short clips over and over again and have the students catalogue the beats and tonal shifts. I give them scripts and have them act out scenes they have not seen before, then project the film version and have them compare what they have done with what a professional actor or director does to the scene. It goes on and on. After a few months they don't have to think about these things. They see and hear differently.

Look at my Leigh book or some of the chapters in my Cambridge Cassavetes book. Reading them won’t re-wire your brain, but it will at least walk you through the process of observing things in a slightly different way.

This page contains an excerpt from an interview with Ray Carney. In the selection above, he discusses teaching film in the university classroom. 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.

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© Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.