This page contains an excerpt from a lengthy interview with Ray Carney. In the selection below, he discusses American film reviewing. 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.

“Reporters and reviewers have a sacred trust as guardians of the public interest, and they have betrayed it.”

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Interviewer: What constitutes a “serious” film, in your view?

Carney: One with ideas.

Interviewer: But aren't you opposed to abstract movies?

Carney: There are ways of expressing ideas that are not abstract. Look at Sargent's or Eakins' painting. Look at Picasso. Listen to Bach. By a movie with ideas, I don't mean a preachy Stanley Kramer or Oliver Stone movie. I don't mean one like American Beauty where the characters wear signs around their necks telling you how messed up they are. I mean a movie that's about something. One that has a point of view. One where the filmmaker shows us what he or she thinks about life, what he has noticed, what he cares about. One that helps us live. One that has something to tell us about our lives. One that puts us through an experience that transforms or enriches or chastens us in some way.

These movies are few and far between. But journalists have completely lost this conception of moral and social seriousness. Some of them confuse it with historical importance—as if a movie needed a big theme to be serious. But more often they aren't even looking for this kind of movie, wouldn't recognize it if they saw it, and prefer anything else. The intellectual reviewers want a frivolous, empty, game-playing movie. And the popular reviewers want an “entertaining,” “gripping,” or “romantic” bedtime story.

Look at the films the newspaper reviewers cover. The films they praise. Thrillers, romances, mysteries, genre-movies, adventure movies. These movies don't show us anything about life. They aren't about anything—except playing tricks with movie genres and conventions! What is Pulp Fiction about? What is L.A. Confidential about? What is Red Rock West or Blood Simple about? What do you learn when you watch them? Nothing! What do they teach us? Nothing! How do they change our understanding of ourselves? They don't. They play games with narrative form. They do stylistic backflips. They trick our expectations. They shock and tease us.

We're in an Alexandrine age where style has replaced substance. The movies the reviewers hold up for praise basically consist of a series of stunts and games and tricks. The point is shock value and keeping the nonsense moving right along with razzle-dazzle editing, sound, music, and special effects.

Instead of telling the truth about the emptiness, the vapidity of the razzle-dazzle, reviewers have bought into the whole thing. Rather than critiquing these movies' styles, the reviewers imitate them. They have developed zippy, peppy writing styles that do the same thing verbally that these films do formally and narratively. Open any day's newspaper. Read the film reviews. I defy you to find one idea, one insight into life, one truth, one sincere statement. What's there instead? Jokesy metaphors. Wise-cracking word play. A witty ending line. It tells you a lot about the implicit contempt the reviewers have for what they are doing. It's all a goofball lark. A joke. A chance to demonstrate how clever they are. The writing is more about them than the film. Blame it on Pauline Kael.

Interviewer: Why do you say that?

Carney: She started it. The gushy breathlessness of her prose, her showoff metaphors, her revelry in shock value, her celebration of mindless, visceral excitement is where it all started. Most reviewers are still under her influence. Of course, I know you can't really blame her for their excesses. What her influence shows is that she tapped into a vein of campy cultural cynicism that was waiting to be turned into a gusher of purple prose.

What is the most celebrated cinematic form of the last decade of the twentieth-century and the first decade of this one? The thriller. The suspense flick. Those are the films that garner the most praise, particularly from so-called sophisticated reviewers. But what is it to be a thriller? The form indicts itself. It's the Enron of cinema—a form devoted to creating the illusion of substance around nothingness. No truly intelligent movie relies on suspense or mystery to hold a viewer's attention. Mystery and suspense are trivial, artificial ways of creating interest. They tap into our reptilian brains. But does anyone say this? No, they praise the pacing and editing—the mindless excitement of it all, the way this thriller is slightly different from that one, as if they were giving style points in an Olympic diving competition. What Mandarins we have become.

The whole system is dedicated to frivolousness. The level of discourse is so low, so debased, that when Charlie Rose interviews the director and star of Silence of the Lambs and The New York Times runs “think piece” features on it, no one laughs. Then they plead that they don't have time or space to cover some no-budget independent film. The very idea of taking film seriously—as if movies really mattered, mattered as much as the stock market or mapping the genetic code—becomes unthinkable.

Interviewer: But, by your own admission, most films are frivolous!

Carney: That's why it's all the more important that reviewers have standards rather than collapsing into the “everything's horse manure” attitude they currently have. It's not hard to understand how they get the way they are. I can't imagine a more depressing and demoralizing job. To have to sit through a Hollywood movie every afternoon of the week—with the prospect of continuing to do the same thing every week of the rest of your life—it's like damning yourself to hell before you actually go there. It's not surprising that after spending a good part of their working lives watching movies that are horse manure, they conclude that nothing really matters. So when they view a film that is even a little more “gripping” or “thrilling” than the average, they sing its praises. If it's all trash, so you might as well grade it on its flash. In a word, they become cynical—though the cynic is always the last to see his own cynicism.

Interviewer: Why do you call it cynicism?

Carney: They are settling for too little. They are not asking enough of art or life.

Interviewer: But what these reviewers describe is all that most people want—an exciting story, a scare, a lump in their throat, a tear in the eye, a happy ending. They don't expect anything else. The reviewer is just giving people what they want.

Carney: Well, there you go! You've just given another definition of cynicism. That's my point. We have lost the ideal of film being anything more than an entertainment. The idea of a movie really mattering in any way, of being of any real importance to anyone, of being more than mere escapist adventure for men or a Harlequin romance fantasy for women becomes unimaginable. I speak with a lot of people—I'm talking about ordinary working people, not students and professors—after screenings, and the notion that films can reveal their lives to them or offer transformative experiences is a novel concept to them. They come up to me after a post-screening discussion and tell me that they have never even imagined that a film could be what I am implying Faces or Milestones or Safe or Funny, Ha, Ha is. These are people who go to lots of movies and read lots of reviews—and they tell me they have never seen a film treated as really mattering in this way.

It's easy for academics to forget this. They live in a universe where people talk about art and occasionally include a film in the category. But my point is that movies are just not accorded this kind of importance in the media. On the rare occasions when they are treated as having any degree of importance, it is invariably for the wrong reasons. You know: Everyone should see Schindler's List to avoid a repeat of the Holocaust. Or they should see Malcolm X or Ali to learn about the civil rights movement. Or watch Pearl Harbor or Saving Private Ryan to understand World War II. That kind of fake pseudo-importance replaces actually, really mattering in anyone's life.

Interviewer: But you have to remember that the films most reviewers write about are not “transformative.” They are escapist adventures and romances.

Carney: That begs the question. You are not supposed to dumb down your approach to the level of the lowest, meanest object you review. In fact, most films are not worth reviewing at all. But that's part of the cynicism—that newspapers review virtually every mainstream Hollywood release, then skip the noncommercial independent films that only play at a single theater. No space for that. It's as if the fine arts reviewers began reviewing the black velvet paintings peddled on the sidewalk in front of the Whitney and then said they didn't have enough space left to review the Biennial. As if the editor of The New York Times Book Review filled up the pages with reviews of Tom Clancy, Stephen King, and romance novels and then said there was no space to review poetry.

But the real issue is not the number of column inches devoted to Hollywood in the newspapers or on television every week. That's discouraging of course; what is at stake is loss of an ideal, a larger vision of film mattering, film as a form of truth.

Interviewer: I'm not sure I understand what you mean.

Carney: The idea that a film can be more than fantasy entertainment has been lost. The idea of that kind of seriousness has been lost in our culture. Film reviewers are the ones who are ultimately responsible.

Interviewer: What does film reviewing have to do with the loss of an idea?

Carney: Do you know what Gresham's law is?

Interviewer: No.

Carney: Well, imagine a financial system where for every real dollar and coin in circulation, there are a hundred or a thousand counterfeit ones. Gresham's law says that the real money will cease to have any special value. The counterfeits will replace it. That's the state of film analysis, discussion, and appreciation in the mass media. For every intelligent, serious essay or opinion, there are a hundred or a thousand gushy, mushy, soft-headed radio, television, magazine, and newspaper reviews, interviews, and feature-stories. Stories more focused on celebrity gossip than acting. More interested in a film's popularity than its capacity to change lives. More concerned with how much money it raked in on its opening weekend than how deeply it affected anyone. These reviews rank films in terms of roller-coaster thrills and chills rather than human values.

It's really a scandal, but no one notices. Reporters and reviewers have a sacred trust as guardians of the public interest, and they have betrayed it, sold their souls to the highest bidder—without realizing it of course. You know we think of the public interest as protecting our pocketbooks or protecting us from political corruption, but protecting and honoring our imaginations, the meaning of our lives and our art is an equal or greater public interest. In the Gresham's law of the imagination, counterfeit ideas and emotions have replaced real ones to the point that people have forgotten what the real ideas and emotions look like. Look at Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party if you want to see the results.

Interviewer: Can you explain what you mean by counterfeit emotion?

Carney: I mean that all of this takes place beneath the realm of consciousness. When you have so much fake expression, real expression is squeezed out. Think of what advertising does to our values. Think of what the drumbeat of deceitful, bad acting—in life and art—does to our understanding of ourselves. We are barraged with fraudulent expression—in movies; in politics; in infomercials trying to sell us something; in press releases and business sales conferences; and in the onslaught of hype and distortion associated with American journalism. We live in a culture of unreality, a world of media hype, glitz, distraction, and evanescence—of thirty-second sound bites, bumper sticker sloganeering, black and white contrasts, synthetic emotions, pose-striking, and flashy attention-getting. Virtually everything on the evening news, advertising, and journalism is an expression of that fraudulent value system.

The job of the critic is to position him or herself somewhere outside of the distortions associated with that force field—not to become an extension of it. And that's what ninety-nine out of a hundred film reviewers are—cogs in the Hollywood publicity machine—less media critics than studio snake-oil salesmen. Elmer Gantry as thinker.
When the language of art and criticism becomes indistinguishable from the language of salesmanship, the loss is incalculable. When certain forms of attention are not exercised, they begin to disappear. When language is not used with care and thought, the language of care and thought dies. We're talking about part of our culture dying—or being forced into hiding on the fringes. The best part.

I'll give you an example that sums up the situation. I'll base it on the lead reviewer for my hometown newspaper, The Boston Globe. But the reason the example matters is that the same generalizations apply to almost every reviewer in America. The reviewer's name is Jay Carr, but his reviews are indistinguishable from the ones written by hundreds of others every day. His reviews have an enormous commercial impact. The Globe's circulation is around a million. More on Sunday. Carr writes virtually everything that appears on film in the paper, frequently three or more reviews in a single issue. He also appears on the newspaper's cable station, reaching hundreds of thousands more viewers that way. His print and TV reviews determine the viewing habits of thousands of readers every week. His picks and pans directly affect the reception of virtually every movie that plays in the city. Museum curators and specialty film programmers read the financial fate of their programs in the paper each morning. They will tell you in confidence that they shape their programming in terms of what might or might not “appeal to Jay.”

But as unfortunate as Carr's commercial impact is, his imaginative impact is worse. His words affect how hundreds of thousands of people think and feel about film. After ten or fifteen years of him, it's no wonder that people have forgotten what intelligence really sounds like or what intelligence at the movies looks like. His writing is an unending stream of puns, jokes, snide comments, fake emotions, pseudo-insights, and every other form of hyped-up verbal snap, crackle, and pop. Reading a week of him is, for me, like reading a couple dozen bad student papers in a row. Or like listening to a series of political speeches on the Fourth of July. Or listening to a stream of real estate infomercials on television. You start to forget what words really mean. Things that should be kept apart start to blend and blur and glom together like cotton candy.

Let me give you an example: A few days ago I heard Carr nostalgically refer to Notting Hill as a “sophisticated romantic comedy.” He said it with real reverence—in the vein of: “We've fallen on dark days. Will Hollywood ever make a film as good as Notting Hill again?” I had to mentally pinch myself and remind myself that he was not talking about Top Hat but a silly Hugh Grant vehicle. What has happened to language when something as adolescent as Notting Hill can be invoked as an Arnoldian touchstone? George Orwell described this situation a half century ago. We're always looking for “newspeak” in the wrong place. It's right in front of us in the paper every morning. And the fact that we can't see it, or we insist on its innocuousness is proof that the battle for our hearts and minds is over.

Interviewer: But at least he was criticizing whatever film he was reviewing at the time.

Carney: But look at how screwy the logic is. He was knocking one piece of junk by praising another piece of junk. It makes it look like he has standards; but if you know the film he is invoking as the Golden Age standard, you see what a shell game the whole thing is. He can sleep at night by thinking he is standing for something; but what he is standing for is just another kind of Hollywood movie.

The basic problem with journalistic reviewing—and you can see it in Jay Carr's work, in Leonard Maltin's, Joel Siegel's, Joyce Kulhawick's, David Denby's, and a hundred others'—is that rather than subjecting Hollywood expressive conventions to scrutiny and questioning, the reviewer merely accepts the conventions. Rather than dissecting the deficiencies of Hollywood's narrative forms and styles, Carr and other journalists toast them. They are cinematic fashion slaves, complete prisoners of convention. They are not critics, but consumers. That is the opposite of criticism. Criticism is analysis. Criticism is an exercise in intellect. Criticism involves attempting to understand a work's forms and structures and what they do to us. Criticism involves opening yourself to the experience of a work while simultaneously holding yourself one inch outside of it in order to study how it does what it does. You allow yourself to catch the fever, even as you study the etiology of the disease.

Interviewer: But Carr doesn't always praise Hollywood movies. He frequently criticizes them and writes negative reviews. That represents a valuable critical function, doesn't it?

Carney: It counts for nothing. Even the most virulently negative reviews these mainstream critics offer are completely captive to Hollywood forms of understanding. In fact, their so-called negative criticisms usually consist entirely of pointing out where a film fails to fulfill its genre commitments, where the pacing flags, where the characters do not fit into the mold. He may criticize individual films, but he never actually criticizes the system of expressive clichés they are part of. In fact, rather than critiquing the Hollywood conventions or leaving them behind, the negative review actually ends up uncritically affirming and upholding them all the more.

Interviewer: Can you give an example?

Carney: Let Carr stand for all of them. Rather than trying to understand the lamentable influence of the thriller form on Americans' understanding of their lives, Carr revels in it—grading the films on the degree to which they are or are not “successful.” Rather than examining the sad emotional vicariousness of romantic films—particularly for female viewers—Carr celebrates it. That's not criticism, it's cheerleading. And when the review is negative, it's just as enslaved to conventions. You know: “About a Boy could have been a better romantic comedy if only it had....” “The Thin Red Line could have been more gripping if only Malick.... ” Do you see the intellectual morbidity of the formulation? It's entirely captive to conventional values of what constitutes the “right” level of pacing and eventfulness and characterization. The truth is that there is no “right” speed for a scene to progress. No “right” way to create a character. No “right” way to use a camera or edit. Anyone who thinks there is, is wrong, wrong, wrong.

The result, in terms of really interesting work, is judgments that are guaranteed to be the opposite of the truth. The more original the film, the less likely it is that Carr or any mainstream review will appreciate it. The more conventional its forms and meanings, the more likely he will admire it. What's at stake is more than just a matter of wrong opinions. Language and thought are the real losers. You start to think with bogus concepts. Hollywood terms like “gripping” and “compelling” and “fast-paced” and “exciting” and “realistic” and “well-acted” and “charming” and “entertaining” invade your brain. None of Bresson would pass that test. None of Tarkovsky. Nothing by any filmmaker who doesn't merely recycle conventions.

This page contains an excerpt from a lengthy interview with Ray Carney. In the selection above, he discusses American film reviewing. 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.