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This page contains a short section from two pieces by Ray Carney. The first is an email from a student journalist in England with Carney’s answers to the student’s questions. The second piece is a brief excerpt from an interview Ray Carney gave to filmmaker Shelley Friedman. For more information about Ray Carney’s writing on independent film, including information about obtaining three different interview 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'm a student journalist in Brighton, England and i'm trying to write a feature on puzzle-like films, for example Mulholland Drive.

I got your e-mail address from a fellow student who said you might be able to help, so if you can, here are my questions:

Why do you think people enjoy films like these?

People are stupid about art. They would rather waste their lives playing games, doing crossword puzzles, watching tricks than facing reality, dealing with harder questions. Puzzle-films are a way of flattering themselves that they are smart and hip and "with-it." These movies are for teenagers who are too young to understand much about life or too intimidated by the complexity of adult life to grapple with it.

Is there a reason more films like this are currently emerging (e.g. new Russian film the Return)?

People are afraid of the world, of their lives. Game-playing is a form of avoidance. These films are forms of escapism, ways of dropping out of reality, of avoiding life. I say if you can't deal with reality take drugs, go on sexual binges, jump out of an airplane, go up in a rocket. Those escapist responses will at least lead to more complex outcomes than sitting through a stupid movie and arguing about it with your friends afterwards. Put down the decoder ring and go outside!

Is their ability to be interpreted subjectivly a good thing, like with a piece of art? Or is this just an excuse for a loose plot?

To think that "subjective interpretation" is something in these works' favor is completely to misunderstand how real art works and affects us. We don't leave Bach's B-minor Mass, Picasso's Night Fishing at Antibes, or Paul Taylor's Esplanade arguing about what things mean. Complexity of interpretation is different from multiplicity. Lynch's work is shallow, trite, silly. An ink blot or a cloud allows for "multiple interpretations," but that doesn't make it a work of art. The great works of art do not play games. They do not tease us. They are not coy, arch, or ironic.

Any other info/opinions would be fantastic. Hope you can help and thanks very much for your time,

Anthos Chrysanthou

In the interview excerpt below, Ray Carney talks more about Mullholland Drive and the “puzzle film” phenomenon, and goes on to discuss other kinds of film that make meanings in other ways. The complete interview, which was conducted with filmmaker Shelley Friedman, covers many other topics that are not included here. For more information about Ray Carney’s writing on independent film, including information about obtaining the complete text of the following interview, which is included in the Necessary Experiences packet, click here.

Excerpts from
The Seductions of Stylishness

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Sometimes it seems like even so-called art films many times gloss over the interior life of their characters and become rather cynical reflections of the filmmakers’ unwillingness to grapple with deep questions. Why do you think this is?

I agree. Of course, cynicism never goes by its own name. It is always called something else: smartness, stylishness, coolness, playfulness, wit. Look at L.A. Confidential. David Denby called it one of the best films of the decade. Or Pulp Fiction, which every critic in America had multiple orgasms over. Or the complete work of John Dahl or the Coen brothers. Highbrow critics absolutely love hard, mechanical film noir. The quantity of inner life, the truth, the depth of the experience in the film never enters into their calculations. In fact the more cynical, manipulative, and tough the movie – the more heartlessly witty and hard-edged it is – the more they like it.

Why do you think that is?

Well, for Denby and Anthony Lane and other self-styled “intellectual” journalists, it’s a reaction against all the smarmy, sentimental gush that they have to sit through every other day of their lives. It’s what they feel sets them apart from the sappy, stupid, Leonard Maltin-Gene Shallit-type critics who like Titanic or Pearl Harbor. To be wised-up, cynical, and “smart” in this way is their definition of what it is to be an intellectual. It’s a high-school definition, but they don’t realize it.

These films are as much about flattering the viewer as Hollywood movies are, but it’s just a different kind of viewer. These critics can feel intelligent because they get the cinematic in-jokes. They can feel clever because they appreciate the narrative or visual cleverness. The more the whole experience has a patina of Penn and Teller knowingness and cynicism to it – you know, “Hey, it’s all stupid, but watch me pull another friggin’ stupid rabbit out of a friggin’ stupid hat” – the more they like it. They think these movies reveal how manipulative other movies are. They think they reveal how everybody who falls for the sentiment in other movies is a donkey. Everybody but them! They and the filmmaker are insiders. Hey, lighten up, it’s all just hocus-pocus-dominocus.

There’s also a gender component to it. It’s no accident that most of these critics – and the filmmakers they adore – are men. It’s a boy thing. A teenage boy thing. “Look at how tough I am. How unsentimental I can be. I’m a real guy.” The same critics who canonized Lynch in the 1980s and Tarantino in the 1990s loved those half-jokesy, glossy, ironic horror films by Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, and Brian DePalma in the seventies. Twenty years later, they still haven’t grown up.

Look at Mulholland Drive. And, for an even more depressing experience, look at the critical accolades showered on it. Film Comment devoted a large part of an entire issue to it. In celebration of what? A series of smart-ass tricks and games. Big friggin’ deal. That’s the best someone can do with a couple million dollars? I don’t care how the New York critics revel in it, or what they call it, it’s cynicism to me. You wouldn’t need all the emotional back-flips and narrative trap doors if you had anything to say. You wouldn’t need doppelgangers and shadow-figures if your characters had souls. I always think of something Robert Frost’s students said he used to ask over and over again in class: “Is this poem sincere?” Robert Graves had a similar bullshit test. He used to ask, “Is this poem necessary?” Those are not bad questions to ask about any work of art. Movies like Mulholland Drive and Kill Bill are not about sincerity or necessity but stylishness. We don’t learn anything important about life from them.

This adoration of cleverness, this love of wit isn’t something new. Lynch’s fan club didn’t invent this value system. Oscar Wilde was prancing down this runway a long time ago. The critics loved it then and they love it now. Look at the votive lights that have been tended at the Hitchcock shrine for more than fifty years. I was leafing through an old issue of MovieMaker where a good friend of mine, David Sterritt, was being interviewed and described Hitchcock as a “philosopher-poet.” That got my attention. That’s what a filmmaker should be. So I couldn’t wait to read his answer to the next question the interviewer asked – about what made Hitchcock’s work so great? I was all set for a poetic, philosophical answer. Then Sterritt said something about the way in Psycho the first thing visible in Sam and Marion’s hotel room is the “bathroom” and the way the driving in the rain scene involved “water and blades.” Get it? Marion is killed in a bathroom, in the shower, with water streaming down her body, by a blade, and – ta dah! – there are all these allusions to bathrooms, showers, and blades earlier in the film. Can you run that by me again? Is that the poetry part or the philosophy part?

It’s an immature notion of art. I can understand the appeal. Everyone went through that stage. I did too. In high school. The class read The Great Gatsby and when we were done, the teacher pointed out these metaphors. The green light and all those other references. I thought I had understood the novel before that. But then I suddenly realized how I had missed all this metaphoric stuff. I raced though the text finding all these things I hadn’t realized were there. It was like reading a different book. It was a heady experience. It was exciting. I had never known you could do that. There was all this hidden stuff, just waiting to be excavated. That must be what a work of art is. It had secret meanings. Wow. Amazing. I felt like an intellectual for the first time when I did it. But that was high school for gosh sake. I was just a kid. I got over it. A few years later, sometime in college I guess, I realized how trivial it all was. That it was all just a parlor trick. But there are apparently thousands of film reviewers and students and professors out there who never got over the green light at the end of Gatsby. Art is about finding hidden messages in invisible bottles thrown ashore by the artist. It’s that pattern that emerges when you connect the dots. Bathroom. Rain. Wiper blades. Shower scene. Knife blade. Get it? It’s all so clear. So crisp. So abstract. So tempting. It’s the pleasure of filling out a crossword puzzle or manipulating one of those cereal box decoder rings and cracking the code. “Look at what I can do. Look at the secret connections I can find.” It’s pretty intoxicating. Like finding the word that slips magically into 12 down and links with 5 and 7 across. It gives the critic all this power over the text. It makes him feel smart.

 Clear Mysteries

The only problem is that that’s not what you do to art or what real art does to you. When you watch a Cassavetes or Noonan movie, even for the tenth time, you are not doing a crossword puzzle. You are not playing connect the dots. You are not turning over stones looking for sermons underneath them. The meanings are not hidden in that way and they are not revealed or decoded in that way. Oh, there are probably people who try to do this to Cassavetes – just as they try to do it to Rembrandt and Balanchine – but that doesn’t make it right. The meanings in his works aren’t those kinds of meanings. They don’t snap into place with a satisfying click. The computer programmers talk about “fuzzy logic.” Well, Noonan’s and Cassavetes’ and Leigh’s and Rembrandt’s meanings are murky, fuzzy meanings. I was just teaching Mike Leigh’s Meantime in class yesterday. I was trying to show the students how the film is a triumph of not spelling things out, not pinning them down, not clarifying its meanings. Leigh gets us to the same place life at its best does. The effect is extraordinary. And so different from Hollywood. In the Renaissance, they called this “sfumato,” smoky meaning. That’s not something against it. That’s what is great about it. The meaning is not clear and distinct like an idea, but fuzzy like an experience. You don’t “get” it like a New Yorker cartoon. You undergo it; you live with it; you live into it. It’s the difference between mysteries and acts of mystification, between the real complexity of life and the bogus fakery of bad art.

I talk about this at length in my Leigh book and my Cambridge Cassavetes book. At one point in the Cassavetes book I contrast the kinds of meanings made by The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Citizen Kane. Cassavetes’ movie makes unclear, partial, hesitant, tentative meanings. Welles’s makes sharp, clear, distinct ones. When the smoke goes up the chimney at the end of Kane it is the opposite of a smoky meaning. It’s as clear as a bell. Of course that’s why people love Kane. They have the fun of “getting it” loud and clear.

 Art as Ideas Versus Art as Experiences

Is the clarity of the meanings why people enjoy films like these?

People would rather play games, do crossword puzzles, watch tricks than face reality and deal with hard questions. It’s a form of intellectual escapism. Decoding puzzle-films is a way of flattering themselves that they are smart and hip and “with-it.” These movies are for teenagers who are too young to understand much about life or for adults too intimidated by the complexity of adult life to want to grapple with it.

Appreciating great art is totally different from doing a crossword puzzle. My pal David Sterritt should not be asking what he can do to Hitchcock, but what Hitchcock can do to and for him. Ultimately, it all comes down to how much the work can show us about life – the density and complexity and flow of reality that it captures and exposes us to. Reading Joyce Carol Oates and Alice Munro and Eudora Welty is like living life on steroids, on speed, on hyperdrive. Let me emphasize what I just said: not reading about life, but living it. I have experiences like the ones I have in life – just as slippery and elusive and changeable – but even more interesting than the ones life usually provides, because they come at me faster, and they are richer, more complex, and more demanding than those in my everyday life. Hack your way through Oates’s “Missing Person,” “Goose Girl,” and “American, Abroad” if you want to see what I mean. I happen to be teaching all three of them this week. They are like doing emotional rock-climbing. You build new emotional muscles, you stretch yourself in new directions, you feel new things, as you gingerly pick a path through them, word by word, sentence by sentence. My What’s Wrong… and How to Do it Right book is all about this sense of art.

David Sterritt should ask what Psycho can show him about his desires and needs, his relationship to his lover, his family, his life. The answer would be: very little. And that, if you want to know, is why Hitchcock is not a great artist but an entertainer with just enough cleverness and panache and visual dazzle to impress the pseudo-intellectuals. His works are kitsch. Fake art. Pretend art.

Is there a reason filmmakers are making so many movies with visual games and narrative surprises? Movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Run, Lola, Run?

There are dozens of these films and they are some of the most influential movies among my students. In addition to the ones you’ve named, I’d add Memento, Suture, Waking Life, The Truman Show, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The Matrix also falls into this category. Oh, I just thought of some more. There are so many. But to answer your question, I’m of two minds about the popularity of these works.

On the one hand, I know that many young people go to these movies out of a sincere desire to have a deeper and more thoughtful experience than they can get in an ordinary dramatic film. They want to grapple with questions about the ultimate nature of reality and our place in it, about how the world’s systems of understanding are organized, about “what it all means.” For that kind of viewer these movies provide a cosmic, panoramic, intellectual experience. Watching them is less like watching a normal movie than going to church or reading philosophy.

Although films like Magnolia and American Beauty and Boogie Nights are different in some ways, that sense of enlarging your perspective, of actually learning things, things that you don’t learn in a regular movie is a large part of their appeal too. Because of the size of their casts and the generational scope of their stories, young people feel that they are getting a larger, deeper, more comprehensive vision of the world than the one in a Hollywood movie. They have the feeling that these movies give them an inside view of the world of adult life, a view of hidden realities that they otherwise don’t have access to. Watching these movies feels like being able to hear what your parents talk about when their bedroom door is closed. Watching them feels like having the secrets of adulthood revealed to you.

Now I can understand and sympathize with both kinds of appeal. When I was young, the only difference was that I went to books as much as to films to try to break the codes of the world. For sociology, I read Paul Goodman and Vance Packard and Alfred Kinsey and David Reisman and the Hite Report. For philosophy, I read Ayn Rand, Herman Hesse, Carlos Castenada, Alan Watts, Nietzsche, and Lin Yutang. [Laughs] I know, I know. I was young! It’s a totally embarrassing list! I sat through My Dinner with André to get the same philosophical rush I did from the books. And I watched The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to see what adults did after I went to bed, what they really thought and felt and said when kids weren’t around.

Superficial Profundity and Profound Superficiality

But at some point you leave those understandings behind. What’s the bible verse? “When I was a child I saw as a child, but now I am a man and I see as a man.” Well … something like that! [Laughs] At some point you learn that the strangeness of the human heart can be more surprising and less predictable than all of quantum theory. In a word, you realize that experiences can be much more complex and interesting than ideas.

At that point you realize that Spike Jonze’s mysticism for the millions is just a lot of eyewash. You realize that Magnolia’s vision of adulthood as a repository of dirty secrets is a superficial way to understand adult life. You realize that Anderson’s invocation of suppressed depths, his obsession with revelations and breakdowns, are just cheap ways of attaching drama and interest to otherwise fairly shallow, boring characters and situations. All of his major characters are wearing masks, hiding dark secrets. That seems revelatory when you are 18, but it’s a high-school notion of depth, a child’s understanding of what it is to be an adult.

David Lynch’s and the Coen brothers’ work is no deeper. I blame it on Hitchcock. And all those critics who force-fed his work to generations of undergraduates. And Welles. It’s the lamentable legacy of all of those critical paeans to Citizen Kane – the fallacy of thinking that truth is in the depths, when it’s really on the surface. It’s not the things adults hide that matter; it’s the things they show. The great mystery of life is not the invisible, but the visible. What makes us fascinating is not what we don’t say, but what we do. But it takes a while to realize that.

Films like What Happened Was and Faces and Mikey and Nicky and Wanda make the work of Jonze and Anderson and Solondz and Lynch look like Sesame Street. They don’t rely on shock tactics and surprise revelations. They don’t need special effects, narrative tricks, or revelations to make things dramatic. The characters don’t have to have deep, dark secrets in order to hold our interest.

The salesmen in Faces are fascinating not because of what they hide from us, but because of what they show us. There is no mask to remove, no hidden truth to unveil. What makes them interesting is not what they aren’t, but what they are. Cassavetes’ characters are mysterious because they don’t have any mysteries. They are deep because everything you need to know about them is on the surface. If they had secrets they would be easier to understand. In our love of depths, we’ve forgotten that the surface is the most complex place there is.

This search for secrets is just another version of the “decoder ring” understanding of experience. My real fear is that, culturally speaking, we are losing extraordinarily valuable forms of understanding.

Losing Consciousness

What does that mean? How can you lose a way of understanding?

It’s a real danger. Young people in the current generation have intellectually been worked over for so long and to such an extent that they are in real danger of losing the awareness that there can be anything deeper than these shallow versions of profundity. There are dozens of cultural forces and factions working to limit their consciousnesses: from the multicultural ideologues who teach them to measure things in sociological terms, to the allegorists who want them to translate their experiences into abstractions, to the pop-culture slumlords who want to deny them their intellectual and artistic heritage by ignoring or downplaying the high culture masterworks – the greatest achievements of the human heart and mind.

All of the interesting aspects of art, all the things that make art art drop out of the analysis: style, tone, and performance among other things. I just read a thesis proposal on Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita from a student who apparently has never grappled with the idea that style can bend or color the content of a work. She treated the novel like it was a story in the newspaper. Nabokov was writing about a dirty old man molesting an innocent pre-teen. And she, of course, was interested in writing about the cultural history of men who exploit women. I thought of the Robert Frost quote that “poetry is what is lost in the translation.” Well, the novel was what was lost in her translation of it into sociology. I wish she were an exception. I just read a set of papers about Buffalo 66 that did the same thing. The weirdness, the extravagance, the pushiness, the insecurity, the swagger of the film’s style disappeared. It became a boy-meets-girl love story. When I have students read Stanley Elkin or look at Mark Rappaport movies, they do the same thing. They treat the works like they were equivalent to the events in them, and talk about the characters like they were real people. Estelle should get a life, and Bernie Perk, he sure is a weird druggist. They can’t deal with the stylization. They blow right by it. They read right through it. But the style is the reason the work exists.

Reminds me of two essays I got in a literature course when I was first starting out at Middlebury. Both from the same student. The first was about “moody, broody Hamlet, who missed his dad so much.” The second was about “poor, old, neglected, unloved King Lear.” Like Hamlet was a boyfriend who should go to the college counseling services and get some help, and Lear was some lonely old guy who lived down the street! I guess she could next do Othello as a victim of racism. That’s not what Jan Kott meant when he called Shakespeare “our contemporary”! [Laughs] That’s not why we read the plays.

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. The contemporary psychological and sociological steamroller levels everything in its path. The style gets flattened. The Shakespeare in the play disappears. We see how ridiculous it is to do this to Lear and Hamlet – at least I hope we do! – but we seem to think it’s OK to do it with a lot of film. Must be the seductions of photographic realism. Anyway, that’s what I mean by saying these students are being denied their intellectual heritage by a 60-Minutes, 20-20, Dateline approach to art. It’s a terrible loss.

You can lose a whole way of understanding in a single generation. Scientists and mathematicians realize that. They know that if you discontinue research in a certain area of knowledge, you can cut off progress in it for the next century. Musicians know it. How many people beyond musicians still understand the nuances of something as basic as sonata-allegro form? What every well-educated person in 1791 Vienna “spoke” has become a lost language. English professors, at least ones in the older generation, understand that you can lose ways of reading, forms of linguistic awareness and sensitivity. Well, in film study, we’re in danger of losing delicate, subtle ways of understanding film. They are being replaced by simpler, cruder forms of knowing – Marxist, feminist, psychological, sociological, metaphorical, symbolic, and dozens of other mechanical, preformulated forms of understanding.

You want another example? Most of my grad students can’t understand meanings that won’t stand still. They try to nail everything down. [Laughs] D.H. Lawrence calls it nailing Christ to the cross. And most of them can’t understand meanings that resist clarifying themselves – meanings that are bent and colored and inflected by tones and moods. All their training has programmed them to deal with meanings that don’t shift and change, meanings that are flat and simple and monotonic and “on the nose.” All their classroom experiences have been devoted to treating meaning as something abstract and atemporal. They have lost the ability to deal with fluid, flexible, multivalent, unresolved forms of experience.

Well, that’s what I am talking about. Those are enormous cultural losses. Tragic losses – of inestimably important ways of thinking and feeling.

Why do you think the students are getting worse?

Well, I wasn’t actually arguing that the students are getting worse. The Middlebury example shows that literalism has been around for a long time. What is getting worse is the teaching. It’s the teachers who are the problem. The students just do what they are taught to do. In the past professors who taught arts – fiction, dance, drama, poetry, etc. – used to root out this naïve realism and move students beyond it, but now as far as I can tell, they encourage it, because it plugs into so many contemporary ideological projects – like reading texts as honoring multicultural diversity and “otherness.” A racial reading of Othello not only wouldn’t be laughed at today, but probably encouraged. The student would then be told to do a feminist reading of Othello’s relationship to Desdemona.

But, you know, maybe teaching hasn’t really changed that much. Leon Edel’s writing on Henry James, Richard Ellman’s on James Joyce, and A.C. Bradley’s on Shakespeare show that even a long time ago big name academics were unable to read great literature. There have always been flat-minded readings and weak readers among both students and professors. There is no reason to wax nostalgic that earlier generations of teachers and students were great at dealing with the subtleties of style and tone.

Style and tone are hard to grapple with. They always have been and always will be. We are always more comfortable with clarity and literalism than ulteriority and indirection and inflection and grace notes and “bending.” The fluidity of temporal experience always presents a challenge – in art and life. The shift and flow of meaning in a complex work of art is always going to test our capacities of responsiveness. We’re not good at dealing with change, indeterminacy, and in-betweenness.

It relates to our evolutionary past, to how our brains have been wired to process information. We are much better and more comfortable dealing with stasis. Our brains are tuned to grapple with objects rather than experiences, with fixities rather than fluidities. We conceptualize life in terms of adjectives and nouns rather than verbs and adverbs. Our brains have been programmed to freeze experience into ideas, conclusions, predictions. We sort, arrange, and categorize – we close down cognitively – when we should stay open and responsive to the flow of experience. That’s just the way the mind works. It has a certain amount of survival value, which is why evolution has bred it into us, but it gets us into a lot of trouble in the rest of life, especially in complex social experiences; but that part of us won’t change until evolution changes it. Or until some Zen Master comes along and helps us see our rigidities.

And there’s a kind of evolutionary reward system at work in the classroom too. My argument is that the current generation of students has been rewarded for their mistakes – rather than being told they are wrong – because of the influence of all of the sociological understandings they have had thrust at them by the media and by their teachers. And, at the opposite extreme, films like The Matrix and Pulp Fiction and the glitziness of MTV visuals have desensitized them to the sheer strangeness of style. The result is a particularly pervasive and damaging 21st-century form of critical flat-mindedness.

In the interview excerpt above, Ray Carney talks about Mullholland Drive and the “puzzle film” phenomenon, and goes on to discuss other kinds of film that make meanings in other ways. The complete interview, which was conducted with filmmaker Shelley Friedman, covers many other topics that are not included here. For more information about Ray Carney’s writing on independent film, including information about obtaining the complete text of the preceding interview, which is included in the Necessary Experiences packet, click here.

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© Text Copyright 2004 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.