Carney: There was this
comical review of my Leigh book last year from a British professor
named John Hill. I sort of felt sorry for him. He was clearly in
over his head, unable to understand my approach. He alludes to his
confusion in the review. He says that he picked up the book
convinced he already knew what Leigh was all about. Leigh was a
social satirist—in other words, someone who dealt with externals in
what I call a sociological way. Then he read a few chapters, and his
jaw dropped because I never mentioned any of that, but instead
talked about all these tonal shifts in the moods of scenes, these
changes of relationship between characters, and these emotional
adjustments between the viewer and what is in the film. He said he
was so baffled by what I was saying that he went back and watched
one of the films again to make sure I was talking about the same
I was in stitches
reading the review. He was Antony and I was Cleopatra. I completely
boggled him! Maybe Prof. Unrath and Lola-Lola would be a better
comparison, since what I did to Leigh was not only bewildering but
slightly scandalous. My writing gets that sort of response a lot of
at least he appreciated the originality of your
Carney: I think I gave
you the wrong impression. He hated and despised the
book! He was jeering at it. Mocking it. As far as he was concerned
Leigh was a social satirist. End of story. He hated the fact
that I didn't ratify his pre-existing understanding. That's what I
mean by the fact that academics don't want something new. They say
they do, but when you give it to them, they cry bloody murder. They
really want the same old thing applied to new works over and over
Interviewer: Why did
you call his review comical a minute ago?
Carney: Because of the
internal contradiction. Here is this “radical chic“ professor
priding himself on his admiration for a filmmaker who questions
established values and understandings, but who can't stand it when a
critic puts his own understandings into question. When I suggested
that Leigh was doing something far more radical than he imagined, he
couldn't handle it. He had a nervous breakdown. He's a perfect
imitation of a character in a Leigh movie—someone who thinks of
himself one way—as a radical; but who is actually the opposite—a
timid, intellectual conservative. He's Mr. Butcher in
Grown-Ups. He's Barbara in Meantime. He's the social
worker in Home Sweet Home. He's Keith in Nuts in May.
But he doesn't know it. Of course people like this never do.
I was rolling on the
floor laughing with tears in my eyes when I read the review because
it was such a performance out of a Leigh movie.
you're saying that Leigh is not a social satirist?
not what I am saying. Leigh's work has tons of social satire
in it. It's obvious. Anybody can see it. Look at the characters I
just mentioned. The satire is easy to see. But what would be the
point of writing a book about something that Beavis and Butthead
could get from the films without my help? Why would I waste my time
My goal is to deal with
subtler, more interesting, more complex aspects of the films. To
treat them as satire is too limited. It turns works like Nuts in
May and Home Sweet Home into Saturday Night Live
sketches. That's, in effect, what that Hill wants to do to them.
Well, I wouldn't have devoted years of my life to films that are
that obvious. My work deals with the difference between Leigh and a
SNL episode. That difference makes all the difference in the
Interviewer: I don't
Carney: The social
satire is the trivial part of Leigh's work. It's there, but the
films get to much more complicated understandings. Barbara is
satirized, but she is not just satirized. She is treated more
complexly than that. You might say that the satire is just a way for
Leigh to work up a head of steam. It's an emotional motor to get the
film up and running. It gives him a basic structure to organize the
narrative around. But then the real film begins—which fleshes out
the experience much more complexly than social satire can deal with.
My Leigh is a lot more interesting than Hill's. But Hill can't allow
himself to see that.
He isn't the only one
to do this of course. Harmony Korine said something similar to me
about Leigh and we had these long telephone conversations into the
night about it last summer.
did he say?
Carney: That he didn't
like most of Leigh's work because he thought the movies were just
bleeding-heart, liberal, anti-Thatcherite critiques of how the
middle class didn't really understand or care about the poor.
Interviewer: What is
your response to that?
Carney: That may be in
the films; but that it isn't the important part of them. It's like
the stupid symbolism in William Faulkner. Or the life-is-meaningless
existential statements in Samuel Beckett. The real Faulkner and
Beckett begin at the point these high school aspects of their work
My reply to Harmony was
to say look at any of the films really carefully. Look beyond the
surface structure. Take Meantime. At first glance it may seem
to be pitting “fake” bourgeois characters against “authentic”
underclass ones in a fairly formulaic and mechanical way. Barbara
and her husband live in a nice house but are messed up emotionally;
Colin and Mark and their parents are rough and uncultured, but are
emotionally honest and real. OK. That's the Hill/Korine
understanding. That's the abstract structure the film is built
around. I agree it's there. But the thing is that that's not what an
intelligent viewer is really paying attention to or most getting
from the film when he or she is watching it. There is lots of more
complex stuff going on.
transactions between the various characters—Colin and Mark, Barbara
and Maevis, Barbara and Colin, Barbara and Mark, Coxy and Haley, and
between the viewer and the characters—all those sliding tones and
shifting feelings that have nothing to do with the chunky jewelry
structure. They take place underneath it, behind it, independent of
it—and are much more interesting than it. The anti-Thatcherite stuff
is just a device to organize the movie around. It's not the most
interesting part of the movie.
It's the surface-depth
thing I've written so much about. I find the surfaces of Leigh's and
Cassavetes' and Noonan's and May's work amazingly complex—the
slipping, shifting emotional transactions between the characters.
While someone like Hill just blows past them in a search for the
film's “deep” structures. The problem—as in life too—is that the
depths are less interesting than the surfaces. But people
like Hill are so blinded by their search for profundity, for
messages, for social generalizations that they don't notice the
surface stuff—the sliding emotions, tones, relations.
Interviewer: I know
you have been in touch with Leigh. You told me he wrote you a nice
note about the Cambridge book when it was published. Have you asked
him about this aspect of his work? Does he understand it the same
way you do?
Carney: I haven't asked
him, but it doesn't really matter to me what he would say. Even if
told me outright that all he was interested in was making a
Thatcherite critique—even if he said that he was just showing
the fraudulence of the petty bourgeois and the nobility of the poor
in Meantime—I wouldn't care. Because that not where the real
movie is moving me. As D.H. Lawrence said: Trust the tale not the
But I don't think Leigh
would disagree with me. In fact, that's why I think he feels really
frustrated that critics approach his work in this narrow,
tendentious, social-satire way.
And if that's what he
were interested in doing, he wouldn't put so much time and effort
into getting the acting into such complex, nonformulaic places. If
all he was interested in doing was satirizing the middle class, the
conversations in his films wouldn't be so tonally slippery. His work
would be closer to Ken Loach's.
Anyway, look at movies
like Kiss of Death, Career Girls, and Topsy-Turvy.
They leave the overclass/underclass structure completely behind.
What do you do with them if you are John Hill? You'd simply have to
The big problem is that
people like the Hill guy should have become sociologists or
historians. They are in the wrong field. They just don't understand
or have any interest in art or how are works.
Hill ridiculed me for
even using the word “art.” It's out of fashion. To him, it's elitist
and connoisseurish—Bernard Berenson and [doing a refined voice:]
“strolls among the masterpieces” and all that sort of bosh—which
only shows how primitive his notion of art is. The nutty
yanking-around I described in Leigh sure ain't a stroll among the
masterpieces! I'd expect my undergraduates to do better than that.
He also attacked me because I talked about the “truth-value” of a
cinematic experience. Hill and all the other cultural studies
critics see the function of a text as at best “revealing codes” or
“deconstructing the reigning social structures.”
This page contains
a brief excerpt from a lengthy interview with Ray Carney. In the selection
above, he talks about the limitations of cultural studies approaches to
Mike Leigh's work. (Several related excerpts appear in the Academic
Animadversions section of the site.) 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. 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.