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Questioning Film Culture—Inside and Outside the University

Interviewer: What films do you show in your courses?

Carney: They change from semester to semester because I'm pretty easily bored! But some of the filmmakers repeat even if the film titles don't.

Interviewer: Well, beyond the obvious choices, like Cassavetes, which filmmakers do you find yourself repeating?

Carney: Actually I've only taught one all-Cassavetes course in my life. I generally avoid showing his work since it's not as much of a learning experience for me as doing something new. I also end up seeing the films a lot at festivals and special events, and I don't want to wear them out by seeing them too many times beyond that.

Interviewer: What you mean by wearing them out?

Carney: Becoming too familiar with them. I don't want to take away the strangeness of the experience. There are lots of other filmmakers that I have been staying away from beyond Cassavetes. I adore Mike Leigh's early work, but I don't want to get bored with it and kill the mystery. I used to teach Renoir, Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Bergman, DeSica, and Chaplin a lot, but lately I've been letting them lie fallow. I figure if I give them a rest, and return to them in a few years, I'll see new things because I'll be a different person.

I sometimes try to explain this to students, but I think it's hard for them to understand since they haven't lived long enough to notice how their perceptions have changed over time.

Interviewer: What how does that come into your teaching?

Carney: Well, it comes in if they say they don't like some movie that I recommend or screen in a course. I generally say it's OK not to like it—that they should give it a rest, and look at it again in five years, and that it will be different because they will be different. But they are young. They live in a bunny hutch world where everything happens quickly, and five years seems like an eternity to them.

I tell them that every time you see a film you are a different person and that living a little more is often necessary to appreciate something. I tell them how I hated Faces the first time I saw it. Or how I couldn't understand the point of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Or how I resisted the vision of life in Opening Night—the despair and loneliness and limitations it placed on experience. It took me years to come to grips with those experiences. That's true of most of life. We fight certain recognitions. We aren't ready for others. We change our understandings of events as we go along. Why should art be different?

But to answer your question about directors I recently have been screening a lot: Kiarostami, Wilder, Tati, Rossellini, Sautet, Ackerman, Bresson, and Ozu. I am probably forgetting a few others. My idea of heaven changes from year to year, but for a long time now it's been an Ozu film festival. His work speaks to me so deeply. I remember something one of my professors said in a freshman literature course—how there were poets he grew tired of teaching year in and year out and felt the pleasure of reading had diminished, but how, for him at least, Keats always stayed fresh. Well Ozu is my Keats. Keats isn't bad either! Ozu's work always feels new, so I squeeze him in everywhere I can. The good news is that he made so many films that I don't have to repeat titles very often. The bad news is that they are hard to get—on film or video. America doesn't care enough about real art to keep them in circulation. But I have an amazing film booker who ferrets out secret stashes.

There is also my personal pantheon of American indie directors, which I cycle through in my indie course and add new names to every year. But I've named most of them already to you.

Interviewer: I didn't know you were so interested in foreign films.

Carney: I teach my department's International Masterworks course almost every year. [Laughing] My goal is to get as far from Los Angeles as possible—imaginatively and geographically! The single best thing that could happen to American film would be if the city and the reporters who make a living covering it slid into the Pacific. Where is the San Andreas fault when we really need it? If it's disgraceful that Hollywood movies get so much space in the media, it's even more disgraceful that they get so much space in the curriculum. The university is supposed to offer a perspective from somewhere above and beyond the hucksterdom of the culture, not be an extension of it. We have dumbed down film courses to what the students are familiar with and already understand.

The problem is everywhere. I got a mailing from Oxford University Press a few weeks ago advertising two new books: Introducing Film and Key Film Texts written by two film professors, Graham Roberts and Heather Willis. Oxford is the major high-brow, academic press in the English-speaking world. These books are textbooks for college students. According to the blurb, Key Film Texts focuses on fifty canonical, critically important, core works as the foundation for a film student's education. When I got the mailing and read the blurb, I was really excited. I couldn't wait to get my hands on the second book. My mind was racing. What a neat idea. I started creating my own mental list of the fifty works I would include if I could rove over all of film culture, with no restrictions, works from any country and any period. I couldn't wait to see what the authors had picked. Well, I got the book. Both books actually. Here they are. [Holding them up.] They both deal with basically the same set of films. So I'll confine myself to the Key Film Texts one.

Are you curious? Do you want to know what the fifty key film texts are? Brace yourself. I'll read from the table of contents: Taxi Driver, Star Wars, Annie Hall, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Do the Right Thing, Jurassic Park, Reservoir Dogs, Titanic, Gone with the Wind, The Blair Witch Project, Bringing Up Baby, The Matrix, Face/Off, The Godfather, Psycho.... Let's see, that's sixteeen, a third of the total.... Do I need to continue? Keep in mind, this is two professors writing for Oxford University Press. This is as serious as it gets academically. We're not talking about the writing of Pauline Kael or Leonard Maltin or some piece of journalistic hack work. This is not a mass market paperback written to cash in on interest in Hollywood schlock—but an academic listing of fifty seminal, central works for university film study.

OK. Let's stop and consider what's not on the list. What didn't make the cut. Here's the book. You can check what I am telling you by looking in it. The “Key Film Texts“ do not include one Bresson movie, not one Ozu movie, not one Renoir, Cassavetes, Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Kiarostami, or Rossellini movie. I guess Roberts and Willis would say they had to make some hard choices. It must have been a tough call: Ordet and The Sacrifice and Equinox Flower barely got nosed out at the finish line by Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Titanic. And by two John Ford movies and three Hitchcock movies, of course. They rank right up there with Spielberg on the list in terms of multiple selections. A single title by those three artistic geniuses wouldn't have been enough.

But wait a minute, there's more.... [pulling another mailing out from under a heap of papers on his desk] .... here's a flyer I got it a couple months back but never opened. What's it say on the front? Studying Contemporary American Film: A Guide to Movie Analysis, by Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland. Another brand new film textbook from a top drawer academic press. Oxford again. Let the record show, I am breaking the seal on the flyer, opening it for the first time before your very eyes. Silence. A drum-roll please.....

I'll give you the highlights from the book description. [Reading:] “How should the student set about analyzing contemporary American cinema? This book takes an innovative approach to film analysis: each chapter examines the assumptions behind one traditional theory of film, distils a method of analysis from it, and then analyzes a contemporary American movie. All students of film will find this book ideal for writing clear, well-structured, detailed analyses of American movies and American filmmaking technique.” The author bio reads: “Thomas Elsaesser is one of the world's leading film scholars.” OK. Got that? Now let's see what films are discussed. Are you ready? Are you sitting down? Here's the table of contents. [Reading again:] Classical/Post Classical Narrative: Die Hard; Deconstructive Analysis: Chinatown; Cognitive Theories: Lost Highway; Realism in the Digital Image: Jurassic Park and The Lost World; Post-Oedipal Narratives: Back to the Future; and Feminism, Foucault, and Deleuze: The Silence of the Lambs.” It's too good for me to be making this up. It would take a Borges. But, I must say, it does look like Jurassic Park gets the academic Gold Medal. It made the cut in all three books. That Spielberg. What a genius.

Am I the only film professor in America who thinks there's something wrong with this picture? Isn't education supposed to involve going in the opposite direction? Not having the teacher go slumming down in the artistic neighborhoods where the students imaginatively live, but bringing them up the mountain—dragging them up kicking and screaming if necessary, even if they dig in their heels and resist as many of them do—to show them what the human spirit is capable of when its liberated from commercial calculations. Why is everything so dumbed down to the level of the Hollywood-addled viewer?

Interviewer: Well, why do you think it is?

Carney: Well, a lot of it is things we've already talked about. Hollywood has polluted the American imagination and film professors are influenced by a lot of the same movie ads and reviews as Joe Sixpack. On top of that you have to keep in mind that playing to the expectations of an audience and getting an enthusiastic response is an important part of teaching. Many teachers want to be “hip” and show their students that they are interested in the same things they are. Every teacher is a bit of a showman at heart and loves to teach what “works”—what gives a relatively quick and easy intellectual and emotional payoff. If you show films by Ozu and Bresson, there's going to be resistance—it's a given—there has to be—and it's going to take a lot more time and effort to get a payoff than if you show something that the students already know and like—say something by Lynch, Stone, or the Coen brothers. Your student evaluations will be better because those films are much more “teachable.”

Interviewer: What do you mean?

Carney: The meanings are right on the surface, waiting to be unpacked. As far as I can tell it's the main reason Welles and Hitchcock have dominated film study for the past thirty years. They made films that are easy to teach. See that “No Trespassing” sign? Listen to that music. Look at those shadows. Watch the tracking movement of the camera. See how it communicates loneliness, emptiness, estrangement, death. Look at the birds and the lighting in Norman Bates' office. Look at the safe. Listen to the boy's-best-friend-is-his-mother dialogue and note the misogyny and veiled perversion. See how easy it is to do? Wow. We sure are smart.

It's bing, bing, bing. Those meanings are quick, easy, and clear. Just add water and serve up—instant profundity while you wait. You don't have to know anything—about art or life.

Interviewer: Wait a minute. You can't say this doesn't take knowledge. To do those things you have to know about how films use symbols and metaphors. You have to know about lighting and musical orchestrations and tracking movements.

Carney: That's trick knowledge—quick, easy, prefabricated, one-size-fits-all knowledge. It's not real knowledge like life's, but a children's game simulacrum—one of those Highlights can-you-see-the-face-in-the-bark-of-the-tree drawings. That goes for all symbolic knowledge, by the way. It's all fake knowledge—sermons hidden under stones, just waiting to be found and translated into what my middle school history book called Big Ideas and Basic Concepts. Even in seventh grade when I read William Shirer I realized that real historical knowledge was less clear, more slippery, more elusive than this connect-the-dots idea of what things mean. Symbolic knowledge is invisible ink/decoder ring knowledge. That's why you can teach it so quickly and a student can learn it so quickly.

The knowledge Noonan and Kiarostami and Tarkovsky offer is entirely different. You can't open up and unpack their images and events the way you can Hitchcock's. They offer slow knowledge, living with something rather than seeing into it; vague, fuzzy knowledge; changing, revised knowledge. That's real knowledge. Of course that's also why Noonan and Kiarostami and Tarkovsky will never be as big as Hitchcock and Lynch and the Coen brothers. People prefer imitation knowledge to the real thing. They love symbols and metaphors. The Hitchcockian, Wellsian kind of knowledge is as seductive as a drug experience. The teacher gets this massive rush from showing how much power he has over the text, and the students get their rush from discovering how easily they can do the same thing the teacher does.

Interviewer: I'm a little confused by your attack on symbols and metaphors. isn't looking for metaphoric and symbolic meaning what film study is about?

Carney: I hope not. I hope it's about understanding life. But to do that you have to know a lot about life to start with and a film has to draw on your knowledge of life. I'll adapt something Robert Lowell once said about modern poetry. Films like Blue Velvet and Blood Simple and Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers and Mulholland Drive have miles and miles of formal cleverness—tons of narrative and visual tricks, jokes, and stunts—but their knowledge of life is an inch deep. That's why teenagers can enjoy and understand them, and why these movies get the same dependable response from young and old, rich and poor, year in and year old. Hollywood has raised this “being nowhere, saying nothing” game to a fine art. I once had dinner with a big producer who actually bragged about this quality of his work. He said that to avoid losing foreign audiences, he made sure that his films required no knowledge of anything. That way whether he showed them in Timbuktu or Tehran, everyone “got” the movie. But it's equally true of most so-called highbrow films. They ask nothing of you in particular and consequently gives nothing to you in particular. You, the individual unique you, don't bring anything different from anyone else to the banquet. They invalidate my point about returning to a film when you have lived more and seeing different things in it, because with these films you don't have to have lived or know anything in particular about life to understand them. All you have to know about is lighting and editing. Their effects are sterile, hermetic, self-referential—trivial, in a logical sense. It doesn't take any real knowledge to unpack the meaning of camera angles, editing rhythms, music, lighting, or The-Idiot's-Guide-to-Freud symbols in David Lynch's work.

Look at how many of these movies use the pull of mystery or suspense to keep us interested. The easiest, most infantile way to hold anyone's attention. They draw on our reptilian flight or fight responses, not more complex, mixed-up, gray-scale adult emotions. Look at the Mulholland Drive craze of six months ago. There's about one of these a year. A few years ago it was Pulp Fiction. Then it was Magnolia. I'm sure by the time this is out, there will have been three more nominees for most overrated films of the decade.

And everyone falls for it! Film Comment puts Mulholland Drive on the cover and devotes not one, but two feature pieces to the film! All you apparently have to do to sell this sort of thing to a New York critic is put in a lot of flashy, stylish references and chic cinematic in-jokes; give your work a knowing, hip, fashion-magazine visual and acoustic smartness; put in some spooky-dooky music; add some mysterioso point-of-view camera work; and hang it all on a trickily disjointed or convoluted narrative line. Mix and stir the ingredients together and what do you get? A puzzle film that Philip Lopate and Amy Taubin treat as a masterpiece because it allows them to show off their own smart, hip ability to piece all the nonsense together. Attitude admires attitude.

Stylistic razzle-dazzle replacing content is not new of course. Henry James wrote about it a hundred years ago. It's what American advertising and salesmanship and television have always been about. But what's changed is that the critics no longer decry it. Rather than standing outside the style system, they aspire to become part of it. As Lopate's and Taubin's Film Comment pieces illustrate, they are in a mad race not to be out-hipped by the next critic. “Print my appreciation of it! No, print mine!”

Look at Mikey and Nicky if you want to see a doppelgänger movie that knows a lot about life and requires you to know a lot about life to understand it. A movie that isn't a pack of stylistic in-jokes and editing shock tactics. Of course, it's much harder to write about May's film. It's not a game-playing movie and the critic can't play a clever critical game with it. There are lots of films like that. You can't understand Love Streams, Wanda, or The Wife either unless you know a lot about men and women and the differences between them. An awful lot. So guess which set of films gets the rave reviews. And gets screened in film courses.

Interviewer: I'm getting a clearer idea of why you tell students to study literature instead of film. They can avoid all this.

Carney: Only in your dreams. Film study doesn't have a monopoly on quick fixes. In fact I discovered most of what I am telling you at the very beginning of my career when I was in the English department at Middlebury College. One of the jobs they fobbed off on new faculty members was team-teaching the required survey of literature course with a bunch of other professors. I did it for six years. The good part was reading The Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare and Paradise Lost over and over again. The bad part was constant squabbles with the other professors about what novels we would have the students read. It was almost exactly the same battle as what I have just described in terms of film study. They were just as much addicted to easy “teachability” as any film professor.

Interviewer: Can you give an example?

Carney: Well, I pushed to get Jane Austen into the course, but was told she didn't “work” in class. Her novels were too much a matter of delicate tones of voice and subtle play of wit. Bronte and Joyce, on the other hand, were teachable. Lots of metaphors. Emma and Sense and Sensibility couldn't make the cut; the students read Wuthering Heights and Portrait of the Artist. Something similar happened with Henry James. I tried to get Daisy Miller bumped off the reading list and replaced with An International Episode. No dice. I tried to get some of James' late short stories—“The Given Case,” “The Story in It,” “The Beast in the Jungle,” or “In the Cage”—put in place of The Turn of the Screw. Lost that battle too. Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw are absolute clinkers—tedious, predictable, pot-boilers—and the titles I wanted to substitute are subtle, interesting, and complex; but I never stood a chance, precisely because you can't do the sort of metaphorical and psychosocial circus tricks with the complex works that you can with the simple ones.

Let me be clear about this. My colleagues were right. It is harder to teach Austen than Joyce. It is harder to teach An International Episode than Daisy Miller. It is harder to teach Cassavetes than Hitchcock. But that's not what's wrong with the first group of works and artists, but what's wrong with critical methods that exclude them and favor weaker works. When weak works yield more to our methods than strong ones, it should tell us that it is time to change our methods. If you had a metal detector that detected tin cans but passed over gold coins, you should adjust the device, not change the valuation of tin cans.

Interviewer: How have you succeeded in making “unteachable” works “teachable”?

Carney: I haven't! Every teacher who has tried anything a little more demanding than the obvious can tell you horror stories about screening adult films—[Laughing:] Better scratch that sentence before I get into trouble with my Dean—I mean about screening films that require adult perceptions, adult experiences, adult sensitivities. Tom Noonan and I were just swapping stories about this. He was telling me about times when the audience to one of his plays was so out of it or hostile that it was almost impossible for him to make his entrance and go on with his performance, and I told him I had had lots of experience dealing with hostile audiences myself.

Interviewer: What do you mean?

Carney: Screenings where you show something beyond the students' ability to understand it and you totally lose your audience. It doesn't happen as much in a small course, where you're working in a very intimate setting, and a large amount of trust is developed in the course of working together, but a large lecture course can be a killer. I remember one particularly nightmarish screening of A Woman Under the Influence where everything went wrong. It was in a gigantic required survey course for a group of about 500 Freshmen. I was a guest lecturer. That meant not only that most of the students weren't film majors and didn't want to be there, but that, because I was not the regular teacher, they had no emotional connection with me or the subject. They laughed all the way through it—when they weren't shouting things at the screen.

Interviewer: Why would they do that?

Carney: Oh, that's not at all an unusual a response from someone that age or in that situation. If I had had a clearer idea of the situation of the students in the course I would have chosen a different Cassavetes film—Shadows or a film by some other director. A Woman Under the Influence was something they couldn't understand or emotionally identify with, especially at that event. They were boys and girls in their teens. They had no interest in or knowledge of the life of someone the age of their mothers. They thought the movie was exaggerated and silly.

You can tell an awful lot about what is going on inside a viewer during a screening. I always have my antennas out when I am showing a film. I sit in the room with the class. I listen to the students' breathing. I watch their eyes. I study their body language, whether they are moving or still, sitting forward or back in their seats. But this particular screening didn't take supersubtle perceptiveness. I could see it coming when I walked into the lecture hall even before the movie began. I was to speak following the screening. It was a special evening event and many of them had brought popcorn, soft drinks, and friends, assuming it would all be a big party—their one movie of the semester. I could tell things were wrong by the tone and mood. No one was listening as the regular professor introduced the film. the students were laughing, slouched back in their seats, calling things out to their friends across the aisle. A chorus of cheers went up as he sat down and the film began. From that moment on there was nothing I could do to wake up from the nightmare. I sat in the back of the room next to the regular professor, listening to the jeering. I watched at least fifty students get up and leave (probably the friends and roommates who had come along for the ride). When the cat-calls got really bad, I asked him if we could stop the film, but he told me he didn't want to because there would not be time to screen it any other night. On reflection, I'm sure all he cared about was getting the event over as soon as possible. The last thing he wanted was to go through this on a second night. Talk about contempt for your own students and your own classroom. Of course it seemed like it would never end. When the lights came up to a chorus of sarcastic cheers, I had to walk slowly up the aisle, onto the stage, and deliver an hour-long lecture. I'll put that up against any entrance Tom Noonan has ever made!

That was the worst because I was so personally involved, but I remember Bresson screenings at the Olympia Film Festival, including one of Lancelot de lac, that were almost as bad. Lancelot is a deeply spiritual work, but the audience laughed all the way through it, treating it as if it were Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Interviewer: How could they do that?

Carney: Audiences have problems with any artist who makes reality even a little hard to see. Isn't that Wallace Stevens' definition of poetry? It happens all the time. People laugh when they don't have any other category to put an experience in. They assume it must be a joke. Especially young audiences nowadays who have seen so many smart-ass movies that ask you to laugh at everything. Movies like Happiness or Your Friends and Neighbors or Magnolia. I remember a screening of Dreyer's Gertrud at the Harvard Film Archive where the audience hee-hawed all the way through the film. I've seen it happen at Paul Taylor dance performances. As soon as the dancing gets at all strange or tonally unclassifiable or resists simple understanding, people start guffawing. You can always tell this laugh, though, because it's different from a real laugh—it comes from the head not the heart, as if the people laughing were not feeling it, but willing it, thinking their laughter.

Laughter is a way of protecting yourself so you don't have to deal with something emotionally. If those girls in the lecture course actually let Mabel into their hearts and saw themselves in her, or if the fraternity brothers in the Bresson audience saw their own enslavement to abstract notions of style and macho-man behavior and mindless group allegiance, it would be too scary for them to contemplate. Bresson slows things down in ways that force you to look at them in new ways, and if you don't want to do that—if you just come to a movie to waste your own time—it's always safer to regard it as a joke.

You don't have these kinds of disasters when you show Hitchcock or the Coen brothers. You frequently have them with Cassavetes, Tarkovsky, Bresson, Dreyer, or Ozu. I remember one of my own classroom screenings of Ordet where the students laughed or called out names every time Johannes came on screen. And a screening of Jeanne Diehlman where—goaded on by a vocal grad student who resented the fact that the film was so long—the students called out smart remarks at the screen, like “hurry up” and “are you going to do that again?”

Interviewer: What do you do in those situations?

Carney: In the Bresson and Dreyer screenings that took place elsewhere, I couldn't do anything but change my seat and try to sit as far away from the rowdies as possible. After the A Woman Under the Influence screening, I threw away my lecture notes and made the audience's ridicule, their rejection of sincerity and seriousness, their implicit contempt for the art of film the subject of my talk. When it happens in my own classroom, I can do a lot better. I stop the film in mid-reel and have the students analyze their responses. Why are they ridiculing the film? I've had this very discussion with them—about how easy it is to know exactly how to respond to a scene in Hitchcock and how much harder it is to understand the tone or meaning of a scene in Gertrud or Ordet or Solaris—and what that difference tells us. Sometimes, if it's just a few yahoos and not the whole class that is the problem, I'll take them out into the hall and talk to them in private.

Interviewer: Are you able to succeed in showing them how they went wrong?

Carney: Sometimes yes; sometimes no. The discussions can get very heated. Everything in our culture, everything in most of these students' pasts has trained them to believe that their emotional responses can't be wrong. Their facts may be, but not their emotions. It's a legacy of the sixties that if they feel it, it must be right. Or at least it must be “respected.”

Not to mince words, what I am basically telling them is that their emotions are wrong. That they are immature. I don't say that directly, of course, but they pick up on it. And they're right. That's what I am telling them. I try to reach them with various analogies, like how their taste in music is different from and presumably more advanced than their little brother's. Or how the books they read have changed over the years. We talk about the emotional programming of our culture and how it encourages comic, ironic, or sarcastic responses. We talk about why works of art might resist easy understandings, and how they might actually want to put us in tonally unresolved situations. We talk about how a work teaches you how to respond to it, how it uses formal devices to adjust its emotional register, and how it distorts artistic experiences to interpret them simply in terms of your own set of private associations and frames of reference.

Interviewer: Does the discussion convince them?

Carney: Not necessarily, but it upsets them, and that might actually be better. I'd rather reach their hearts than their minds anyday. Tocqueville was right. The idea that there is an aristocracy of sensibility, that your own personal responses might be wrong, is a hard concept for people to grasp in our I'm OK You're OK, everyone is entitled to their opinion culture. It can be years before some of them really understand.

Teachers of courses in feminism or multiculturalism—who are talking about similar forms of cultural emotional programming—know enough to limit their enrollment to members of the special interest group to avoid the “how dare you criticize my feelings” syndrome from people who don't agree with them, but I don't have that luxury. As with any discussion, there are always a few students who refuse to learn anything and argue to the death that everyone is entitled to his own response. But there are others who tell you years later that particular class was the most important discussion they ever participated in.

Interviewer: It's interesting because I don't think I've ever heard this issue dealt with. Usually it seems that the professor tells the students what the movie means or what its historical importance is and the students simply write it down and regurgitate it. Very seldom does a class let you deal with the interpretive process itself, actually to discuss or reflect on why your reactions might be different from the professor's.

Carney: Or it happens the other way around. The professor simply echoes the students' interpretations of what they are seeing. “Ah, yes, that's an interesting point. Thanks for mentioning it.” He doesn't ever say, “I think you missed the point. The work doesn't want us to do that to it.” It's dangerous territory for a teacher to get into. And it raises larger issues. My classes are full of value judgments—made both by me and my students—judgments about the value of a particular work; judgments about right and wrong ways to respond to it; judgments about how Hollywood panders to viewers' base instincts and self-aggrandizing understandings of themselves; a whole slew of judgments, judgments, judgments. And there is a strong aversion to judgment in our culture in general and in the classroom in particular. Given the age of most students, “open-mindedness” and “non-judging” are their supreme values. It's a stage we all went through. When you are young, and don't know very much about anything, and are not in a position to judge it, it seems as if all the problems of the world would end if the adults simply stopped judging each other or anything else. And here I come in—making judgments a mile a minute, not only about works of art, but about how viewers should respond to them, scene by scene.

Most classroom discussions generally take their values from the students. Most professors don't want to get out of step with their students for all of the obvious reasons. They court student approval and live in fear of student evaluations—since much of the tenure and promotion system is based on them. So they are not about to rock the boat by telling their boy students that The Matrix panders to their feelings of powerlessness, their Walter Mitty dreams of saving the world, and their nostalgia for their youth; or telling their girl students that they are being shamelessly manipulated by Titanic and Shrek; and on and on.

Interviewer: Is there anything else we didn't cover about college film study?

Carney: Well, I know it's pretty trivial, but you want to know my pet peeve? The film department whoredom after celebrity speakers. Why do film professors invite movie stars into the classroom at all? And then fawn on them while they are there? I thought universities existed to question the commercial values of our sick society, not for professors to turn their classrooms into the touring company of Entertainment Tonight. If Steven Spielberg asked to come into my classroom, I'd either turn him down or subject him to a grilling about the fraudulence of his work that he'd never forget. So I'm not holding my breath on him asking!

The celebrity suck-up goes on at every school I know of, including my own. The Dean of an important film school called me a few months ago and was dropping names of famous directors and actors who had given presentations at his school. He was trying to talk me into coming and lecturing, but it had the opposite effect. I thought why would I want to go somewhere that the students were being brain-washed into taking Tom Cruise or Oliver Stone seriously—as artists or thinkers? But I have to confess that my own university is no different. Just last week, I received this press pack about Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and the huge collection of material about him the school library recently acquired. All it made me think was all of the ways the money and time spent courting him and his collection of adventure movie memorabilia could have been better spent. Hollywood doesn't have to storm the barricades; universities roll out the red carpet and fight each other to get millionaire movie stars and producers to accept honorary degrees at Commencement. Move over Charles and Fergie.

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

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