Thursday, April 11, 2013

Letters to Prof. Carney


Please note that additional letters to Prof. Carney, with his responses, 
are available in the blog postings from November 2013 on. 

April 29, 2013 note from Ray Carney: I have recently added new material at several points on this page. Most of it is in the notes to previously published letters, including in the middle of the page, a lengthy new note in response to the letter from the student asking about studying with me in the Boston University film program. The most important additions make reference to the interview I gave titled "Let's Replace Film Production Programs with Majors in Auto Mechanics" that is reprinted on the "Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats—Being Banned in Boston" page, and make reference to the "Lynch Mobs—Secret and Surreptitious Meetings to Foment Students Against a Teacher" and "Playing with Souls/Death Threats—Cynical Administrative Power-games" pages elsewhere on the site (this last page is the one that mentions a death threat from a student who was provoked to make it because of lies an administrator told him about me in an attempt to destroy my reputation and turn my students against me.)

As noted above, additional pages of letters and replies are available on the blog pages posted in November 2013 and later dates. To anyone who wrote me, whom I asked for permission to publish your letter and who is wondering why I have not yet posted it, I apologize for the delay. I am crazy busy with my teaching and also trying to finish a major book on the films of Robert Bresson. I have already posted more than 130,000 words on this blog; approximately 20,000 people have visited the site (with hundreds and hundreds more every day); and a significant fraction of the visitors have written me letters of support that I have replied to. All of that has kept me extremely busy—kept me from "making more trouble at BU" (as my Dean would put it). But, as much time as I have put into it, the blog is something strictly for time I have left over after doing my other work. My teaching and my students come first, and always will. They are where my heart is. My writing is next in line after my students. The blog postings are a distant third, when I have a free evening or weekend. I am convinced that the blog is important to attempt to change the culture of fear and intolerance at Boston University, but I never forget that there are more important things, that my life is dedicated to a higher purpose. The blog is ultimately just about the pride and fear of bureaucrats who don't understand what education is about, or appreciate the educational mission of the university that pays their inflated salaries. —R.C.

Please note: Since Boston University administrators claim the right to read faculty and student emails sent through the university system (and since the Dean of the College of Communication has, in fact, read, commented on, and distributed copies of personal emails Ray Carney has written and received), Ray Carney highly recommends that anyone writing him who desires confidentiality not use the B.U. email system. He may be reached at his account via the name: raycarney1. 

Photo of Ray Carney by Mark Backus. All rights reserved.

Dear Prof.

Why is your web site [ -- a.k.a.] not updated for a long time? I especially love the Mailbag. I bet I read it a hundred times. It is so inspiring, and was my main source of information about new directors and filmmaking ideas. So why did you stop it?

Albert Ross

Ray Carney replies:

Dear Albert,

The web site was shut down in early 2008. Boston University held a gun to my head. My Provost, Dean, and Chairman told me they would “bring in the lawyers” if I didn’t “voluntarily” take it down. A new meaning for the word “voluntarily,” eh? It would have bankrupted me to fight them. They have lawyers on staff just waiting to take money out of my pocket. [In case the financial threat didn't suffice to force me to shut up, they also threatened to destroy my professional reputation by making internet postings against me. Nice guys, eh? That should give you some idea of what intellectual bullies BU administrators are. That's the kind of thuggish tactics they resort to, the kind of threats they make in private to pressure faculty members to do their bidding. And all done with the full knowledge and approval of the Boston University Provost (to whom I went to appeal the decision), the Boston University President (whom I informed about it), and presumably the Boston University Board of Trustees. So I was formally ordered to remove everything I had posted on the university server. I'm pretty sure BU's action sets some kind of record for the censorship of a faculty member's expression of his ideas in the U.S.--at least since the McCarthy era. (What was done to me was completely of a piece with Joseph McCarthy's views and methods.) My best guess is that I am and continue up to the present day to be the only faculty member in America formally forbidden to host a faculty web site on his university's server, and formally ordered to suppress and remove everything he had posted on it. That tells you a lot about the respect for faculty expression and faculty publication at Boston University. Or lack of it. See "Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats: Being Banned in Boston," and "A Tale of Two Schools," both available in the side menu, if you want to know more about the lengths to which Boston University administrators will go to shut up a faculty member and suppress ideas they disagree with. I've left out of the preceding the hours, days, months, and years of verbal abuse, screaming, name-calling, and other kinds of pressures and threats that BU administrators had recourse to.

I might as well add that even viewed simply from a practical basis,] their decision was beyond stupid, since the site got 50,000 hits a month, more than the main university pages did, and was the major source of students in my department, but when it comes to stupid decisions and stupid administrators, BU is full of them. They didn’t like what I wrote, and censorship is BU's all-purpose answer to anything it disagrees with.

But if you want some suggestions on films and filmmakers that I wasn’t able to list on the site, give a look-see at: Rodrigo Garcia (Nine Lives, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, and Ten Tiny Love Stories). He’s the best director of actors since Cassavetes. And Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Climates, Distant, Three Monkeys, Clouds of May, Once upon a Time in Anatolia) is my current heart-throb among foreign directors. Turkish. Just amazing work. And in terms of other contemporary work, there is always the gentle, sensitive, moving eyeball of Abbas Kiarostami, but I think I recommend him on the site already. Try Robert Bresson for a different kind of experience sometime too. As often happens, he is best known for his simpler, less great work (Pickpocket, Man Escaped, Diary of a Country Priest), but try the more complex films if you are feeling brave (Femme Douce, Lancelot of the Lake, L’Argent, and anything else in color). They are pure genius. Then there is also the short stuff of Jay Rosenblatt, and the work of Kelly Reichardt (anything by her--even her "making of" movie about Meek's Cutoff is genius-level work) and everything by Bill Viola—if you can find a museum or archive installation.

That should keep you out of trouble for a while.

* * *
Subject: teaching film production


I just found your page on the BU site [ a.k.a.] and needless to say found it fascinating. Your analysis is spot-on as far as it goes. But you neglect one factor in the formation of a filmmaker: vocation. If one is driven to be a filmmaker, whether or not one goes to film school, whether or not anyone sees one's work, makes no difference at all.

I went to a very good film school (UCLA -- whence Francis Coppola and Charles Burnett also came, so I would take issue with your statement that no good filmmaker has come out of a film school in the last 50 years). Nevertheless I could have gone to a bad film school and it still would have been hard to suppress my enthusiasm for the medium and my desire to make films. You are entirely right -- writing with pen and paper or on a keyboard is more immediate, more personal, and in many ways more rewarding, than hours spent on a film set. But film, unlike writing, is a collaborative art form. As such it is as exciting and as valid a medium as the theatre.

You're right too that Godfather is overrated by the academy, and that Star Wars and The Matrix are terrible. So what? These are the products of a corporate production line. They are not the films that you or I would want to make. Some of our students are not fooled by them, either.

Our job as academics (yes, I too have fallen) is surely to encourage those with a genuine vocation, to help those who are struggling (they are enrolled, and we are their professors), and to continue to do our own work - because that is what we do. Consider Grotowski's Towards A Poor Theatre. There is no shame in producing good art, any more than there is shame in being an auto mechanic or a plumber. [A note from Ray Carney: The writer's reference to "being an auto mechanic or a
plumber" alludes to something I said in an interview I gave several years ago--an interview that is reprinted elsewhere on the site. If you would like to read it, click on the entry "Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats--Being Banned in Boston," in the menu in the right-hand margin of this page, and scroll down to the interview text: "Let's Replace Film Production Programs with Majors in Auto Mechanics."]

We need all these skills!

Many thanks for your thoughtful pieces,

Best regards
Alex Cox

Ray Carney replies [edited for publication]:

Thanks for the kind words, and good thoughts, Alex.

Very true. I say you can't make an artist (they are born), but you can make an artist better. [Just as you can make an artist worse.] So few have the particular kink in their DNA, the doom of the artistic calling; but even fewer can move ahead without having to waste time unlearning a thousand stupid, wrong, silly things their teachers and the entire culture teach them.

I am the un-teacher… unteaching the mistakes everyone else teaches. The golf pro who corrects the errors of previous coaching.

The majority of the faculty here consists of incompetents, know-nothings, fools proud of their lack of wisdom,
fearful and scornful of any real truth that might sneak up behind them. [The film students are getting cheated. I've spent more than a decade fighting for their interests. They are paying a heck of a lot of money and are being defrauded. They deserve a lot better. They would storm the department office and demand their tuition dollars back if they understood the mediocrity of most of the people who are teaching them—but of course it’s in the university’s interest to keep them from finding out—so only the most perceptive of them will ever realize how much they are being taken for a financial ride.]

It's why Boston U. has, for ten years and counting, been on a campaign, more like a rampage, to force me out, to make me quit. That's the real world at work again, in one more way…..

Cheers … and forgive the mad rush, I'm typing at the speed of consciousness. No time to twirl into a full lotus today.


* * *

Dear Professor Carney,

Why do you think filmmakers have to look at other people’s films? Yet you preach individuality and not imitating anyone. You contradict yourself! I don’t need to hear some professor use a lot of jargon to explain a movie to me.

George Papadreau

Ray Carney replies:

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a filmmaker or not. One life isn’t enough. Art is a way to live a thousand lives—to participate in a thousand different ways of being and feeling and understanding. That’s what art does—real art. Hollywood (the Coen Brothers, Tarantino, Lynch, Spielberg, and the whole stupid lot) just recycles old ways of knowing and being. It's always the same old burger, over and over again, with a slightly different spicy sauce. That’s why Tarkovsky and Bresson and Cassavetes frustrate viewers. They try to reprogram people's eyes, ears, minds, and hearts—but most people don’t want to be reprogrammed. It scares and confuses them. It drives them crazy and makes them mad. They run the other direction. They love the familiar. They love being drones. That's why if you’re a filmmaker yourself, it’s all the more important that you study how to make something really personal and different. Unless you just want to make crap like 99 percent of what everyone else makes—and that's what you will make if you don’t know any better. If you don't escape the programming system. If you don't study how to break out of the mental jails most people live their whole lives in. It’s in the nature of being imprisoned in the ordinary that you can’t see it, no more than a fish can see the water it swims in. A work of art can open the door of your cage just a crack and let you see the emotional and intellectual clichés you’ve been locked up in all your life. Read the newspaper; listen to the news; the clichés are everywhere. And most people don't even see them. Art—all art, not just film—is the way out. Go to the opera; watch modern dance; listen to jazz; skulk around a museum; read novels and stories and poems; go to plays. These experiences are windows into truer, deeper places than NPR and The New York Times have ever heard of.

* * *

I received an anguished email from a respected senior film studies professor teaching in another university who despaired about the state of contemporary film study—noting how the deracinated abstractions of “film theory” have replaced the understanding of art as a uniquely powerful and irreplaceably valuable human expression; observing how “gender and cultural studies” approaches to film have created a generation of students who value works according to their ability to pass “social and political correctness” tests; commenting on how in the American university the understanding of aesthetics has been superseded since the 1980s by an almost exclusive focus on race, class, and gender politics. He told me he was extremely discouraged—all the more because of the hostility of his colleagues to his own approach and their (often openly mocking) references to him as a “critical dinosaur”so demoralized that he was thinking of retiring and leaving the profession. Since his email names too many names and cites too many specific examples for his identity to be concealed, I cannot print it here. But, for what it is worth, an excerpt from my reply to him follows. — R.C.

Subject: Inconvenient Truths

…. You can never forget that many of the students you and I have, particularly the undergrads, are self-selected non-thinkers, non-readers, non-intellectuals. Back in high school, they turned off the main academic path, the difficult, uphill path of greatest resistance—they left behind their high-functioning classmates, who were wrestling with complex ideas and systems of knowledge—taking AP courses in calculus, organic chemistry, English literature, and European history—and talked some faculty member into letting them borrow one of the school’s video cameras to make a movie for course credit. Or, worse yet, to sit in the dark watching Hollywood movies for course credit. Think about it. They preferred watching movies to reading books. Given the kind of movies they were interested in watching, the kind of movies they chose to spend their time with to avoid reading and thinking—splashy, flashy junk like The Matrix or Run, Lola, Run or Memento or Taxi Driver or Fargo (they weren’t watching Late Spring or Wanda or Safe or Love Streams)—that in itself tells you a lot about them before they ever show up in your classroom. Those are the people you and I are attempting to work with. (Unless it’s the even dumber pool of college students who choose to major in watching TV to get their degree; who choose to write their dissertations about gender-stereotyping in The Simpsons.) And that is the pool that the next generation of professors is drawn from. Those are our students—and, ten or fifteen years later, they are our colleagues. To give them full credit, they may end up knowing a little sociology, a little cultural history, a little bit about business and advertising—but they know nothing about art. No one has ever exposed them to a real work of art. They don’t even have the concept that there are works of art. They are artistic ignoramuses. It’s not their fault; everything in our culture has programmed them to think sociologically and ideologically. They have never even heard the message you are trying to communicate, before they walk into your classroom. And when they become professors they still haven't heard it; they are still artistic ignoramuses. They still haven’t seen or thought about the great works of art; they still don’t understand the concept of art. [Note to site readers: Prof. Carney has a brief discussion of how art is what is lost in the translation when works of art are treated as sociological or political documents--and how ideological approaches to art (and film theory approaches to films) equate experience with its outsides, its impersonal aspects, and the fluxions and transformations of individual consciousness are forgotten or downplayed--in an interview reprinted on another page of the site. See the following page: "Losing Consciousness--Losing Invaluable Ways of Understanding," available in the side menu.] A few months ago I was talking to a gender studies professor at my own university and told her I was over the moon with the fun of teaching Renoir’s work in a course, and she replied—-it was not a joke—“I’m not interested in stuff from the 90s.” Get it? She didn’t know who Renoir was. And of course, if I had explained it to her, she wouldn’t have cared. I had a similar interaction with [name omitted: a gender-studies film specialist] at UCLA. When I mentioned Cassavetes’ Faces to her, and started talking about his vision of women, thinking that that was  something she would have a lot to say about, only a few minutes into the conversation (though she tried to conceal the fact from me) I realized either that she had never seen Faces or had seen it so long ago she didn’t remember anything about it. One of the supreme masterworks of American film. One of the greatest studies of male-female relations in all of art. But a work that willfully resists and ultimately defeats ideological analysis. So it was of no interest to her. She didn’t  have to look at it.

Now, of course, there will always be a few film students who are (or can be converted into) real thinkers, real appreciators of art. (Needless to say, mouthing Film Theory cant doesn’t count as thinking.) A saving remnant who can be moved beyond the seductions of kitsch and the alluring claptrap of abstraction. But, given the nature of film culture, and the nature of film education (which, you are absolutely right, has indeed replaced the study of art with the promulgation of ideology), those students will always be in the minority. Never forget that they must feel as isolated and alone and alienated as you do. That means that they need you as much as you need them. You are performing an invaluable service in not cutting your soul to fit the reigning intellectual fashions; in defending your intellectual principles and values; in offering your students, however few of them appreciate it, a higher and nobler vision of what human expression can be. Don’t let the culture, or the siren-song of larger enrollments and higher student evaluations, corrupt you. As we used to sing at college: Illegitimi non carborundum! Translation: Stay rough and unpolished and old-fashioned and uncool and unhip!! Keep your corners--and your eyes and elbows--sharp!! But seriously, you and I must continue to steer by the pole star we see, even if only we can see it. Stand by your principles. Defend your vision. The culture needs us now more than ever. We may be the monks in the dark ages (and our pay and appreciation may be as low as theirs!); but there will be a dawn.... A revolution only takes one. But it does take one.... 

Ray Carney
* * *

Dear Professor Carney,

I have all of your books. I have read everything on your Cassavetes web site []. I have seen the movies you show in your courses. Your ideas are cool. You rock! I want to come to Boston to study with you. Do you have any suggestions on getting in? Anything you can say to make it possible?

—xxxxx [name withheld at the decision of Prof. Carney]

Ray Carney replies:

Dear xxxxx,

Thanks for the kind words. Thanks for the compliments. I need all the love I can get! Don’t we all? But, but, but — you are forgetting something very important. I am not the Boston University film department. There are fifteen or twenty other teachers you would be forced to take courses with, and (this is the important point): virtually every one of them believes—and teaches—the diametrical opposite to what I do, and shows other kinds of movies in their courses with other kinds of approaches to them—and, worst of all, would actually punish you if they heard you spouting my ideas or endorsing them.

You don’t say whether you would be applying to be a grad student or an undergraduate, but it doesn’t really matter. Read my “Inside Boston University” blog. The other professors hate my ideas. They can’t stand me. With a passion you wouldn’t believe. I know since I myself can’t believe it! They have tried to stop me from doing what I am doing for years. They have tried everything in their power to fire me, to force me to quit, to keep students from taking courses with me, and—this is the worst in my opinion—to punish students who express interest in the kinds of films I like or who favorably mention my books or critical approaches.

I’m not making this up. It’s been going on for ten years. Look at the blog. It describes some of the major events. A few years ago a group of department faculty organized a write-in campaign to try to get me fired. The Film Studies director (Roy Grundmann) has told students not to take courses with me. The Chairman and other faculty members have done the same. And, if a student ignores the warnings and chooses to study with me, or perish the thought, asks for me as his or her advisor, the Film Studies Director refuses to write him a letter of recommendation—to punish him or her, to keep him or her from getting a job or getting into grad school. My Dean and program Director have tried to prevent me from communicating with students. My Chairman has censored the web site you like so much—forced me to remove things from it and then suspended it—that’s why it hasn’t been updated for years. Even only a week or two ago, when the Boston Globe did a story about my College, three of my colleagues were actually designated to say bad things about me so that the reporter could publish them in the newspaper. (I only know that because the reporter told me what had happened and read me the horrible things they said about me.)

I can take it; I’m a survivor; but students end up being the victims. It’s just not the kind of situation you want to get yourself mixed up in. It’s hard enough for me to deal with it. In fact, you want to know a secret? I’m not dealing with it very well myself! I don’t want you to have to face the consequences if some faculty member sees you carrying around one of my books or if you quote something I said in another teacher's class. Please don’t take anything I've said personally. I’ve told the same thing to at least a hundred other applicants over the years. I’d love to have you as a student, but you’d be out of your mind to involve yourself in this. It would just be awful; and I’d feel guilty (even if none of the other faculty members do). My colleagues are capable of pretty much anything; they're really out of control; and it’s just not worth it for you to get involved.

But please believe that I send you my sincere best wishes. Keep up your reading and, even more importantly, keep up your viewing of great work. The junk gets all the attention--in the newspapers and magazines and on the internet, but there are amazing things being done in silence, secrecy, and stealth. That’s the way genius is. It works alone in the dark--and you can’t keep it down--no matter what you do. It will always find a way. Even Jesus only had twelve followers; but he found a way. Keep going. It matters. All the more in the world we find ourselves living in. (And please continue to write me about your future discoveries--critical and artistic.)


[To site readers: For information about how the BU situation became so polarized, so ad hominem, and so nasty, see the following site pages (available in the right-hand menu): "Lynch Mobs--Secret and Surreptitious Meetings to Foment Students Against a Teacher," "Playing with Souls/Death Threats--Cynical Administrative Power-games," and "Letter to the University Ombuds--Events That Almost Defy Belief...." Those pages describe how the College of Communication Dean, the Chairman of the Film and Television Department, the Film Studies Program Director, and several other BU administrators or faculty members, over a period of years, participated in a systematic campaign to attack my teaching and publications, by holding a series of secret and surreptitious meetings with students that had the effect of pitting them against each other in warring camps in order to pressure them to make statements against me and my work. The willingness of these administrators and faculty members to use students as pawns in their own personal power-struggles--and knowingly to abuse their good faith and trust--is, obviously, shocking and reprehensible; but that is unfortunately the situation these authority figures were willing to create in their efforts to attack me and my work. They know no shame.]  

* * *
Dear Mr. Carney,

Thanks for your work. You are the most intelligent film critic I’ve come across. I was wondering what new American filmmakers do you recommend? What film festivals are the best? What internet blogs and newspaper critics do you read? I want to keep up but don’t know who to believe. I trust your recommendations.

John O’Brien

Ray Carney replies:

I'm the wrong person to ask all these questions to. I don't read film reviewers (I wouldn’t dignify them by calling them “critics”—I save that term for people who have more knowledge and a deeper perspective). I don’t read newspapers or magazines, unless I’m trapped in a doctor’s office. I don’t surf the internet; I’ve never read a film blog; and I’ve never viewed a film on-line. (I’m hopelessly behind the technological curve; don’t laugh but I still have a dialup modem and even accessing email is a stretch for me!) All I watch on my TV is my own DVDs and Blu-Ray disks. (I don’t have cable—I signed up for it a decade or so ago, but cancelled. It felt like I had a big sewer pipe pouring into my living room, and I couldn’t stand the idea of subsidizing the production of more sewage.) I don't even click on the IndieWire links that show up in my email inbox everyday for some reason. (Someone must have signed me up without my knowledge.) I’m hopelessly out of touch, out of it, and—you want to know a secret?—delighted to be that way. I live most of my life high up in a beautiful ivory tower, far away on another planet hundreds of light-years from earth imaginatively speaking, communing with the masterworks of the past. There are only the tiniest number of things from the present that I allow into my private Taj Mahal.

Of course, there are a few American filmmakers whose work I try to keep up with. Andrew Bujalski is a friend and is always interesting, and I try to keep up with what he is doing. Jay Rosenblatt generally sends me his things as he finishes them, and I look at them and let him know what I think of them. So does Frank Ross—a terrific ultra low budget filmmaker whose work deserves to be much better known. Joe Swanberg can be good too. And Mike Gibisser. And So Yong Kim. And Tom Noonan. And Todd Haynes and Kelly Reichardt, of course—who are, for my money, the two smartest American feature filmmakers now working. I keep up with all of them, and with a few others, as much as I can.

But, but, but … I have to say, in all candor, that though I thank you for your kind words, I’m more than a little out of sympathy with the point of view of your questions — with your interest in keeping up with new ideas and films. Forgive me for saying it, but it represents one of the things that is most wrong with American culture—and with film culture. The problem is with the pursuit of the new—with the American obsession with the newest, hottest, latest, greatest; with all the ink that is spilled over who got the opening or closing nights at Sundance, Telluride, Toronto, Rotterdam, or Berlin; with the crazy focus on who’s hot and who’s not; with all the water cooler discussion of what Manhola Dargis thought of Terrence Malick’s latest…. This heedless, pointless, breathless race to keep up with the future, this pursuit of the newest, coolest, and latest—it’s an endless, stupid, pointless treadmill that never stops and that keeps you running just to stand still. It’s an American cultural sickness. And it’s everywhere—from the lines that form to buy the newest iPod or latest model cell phone, to the eyes all glued on the new hit TV show and the new smash movie. And it’s all created by the advertisers, the news outlets, the TV and radio stations, and the film magazines and blogs to keep you standing in line, tuning in, and reading them—to make you think it’s important that you keep up … But it’s a complete waste of your time—and of your life. Break free of the spell. Declare your emotional independence. There are only ten or fifteen important filmmakers—at most, probably fewer than that—alive at any one moment, and only a hundred or, let’s say to be charitable, two hundred movies in the entire history of the art form that merit being seen more than once. That’s just the way it is. Real insight and discovery are very rare. Breakthrough, reconceptualizing genius is incredibly rare—in music, in painting, in biology, in physics, in any field of human endeavor. Everything else is just the shallowness of the new, the triviality of the news. Life is too short to waste it keeping up with hot picks and fashion faves that will be replaced by new hot picks and new fashion faves every week, every month, every year.

Anyway, what is it you expect to gain by keeping up with new works? Real art never gets old; it’s always new. And it’s a fact that real art is almost never in fashion, never in the news, even when it is new; that’s why it doesn’t go out of fashion, or stop being news, when it’s old. Forget about keeping up with the latest and greatest and coolest. You'll never keep up anyway. Go back and look at the monuments of unaging intellect: Look at Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud, Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky, Barbara Loden’s Wanda, Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy, Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, Robert Bresson’s Femme Douce, Yasujiro Ozu’s Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, John Cassavetes’ Faces, Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, Mike Leigh’s Meantime. Turn off the “news” and tune in the “olds.” The really smart artistic stuff—Bach or Mozart or Brahms or Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald or Lenny Bruce or Henry James or Emily Dickinson or Rembrandt or Hals or Velazquez or Pablo Picasso or Igor Stravinsky or Anton Chekhov or Harold Pinter—never gets old; it is always waiting there, ready to bring you the latest breaking, up-to-the-minute emotional news, wherever you are coming from, whoever you are.

Ray Carney
* * *

Subject: Disrespecting the art

I just saw the letters page on your blog. Why do you tell filmmakers to read books? What a crock. Film is its own art. Don’t you respect it? Do you think directors should just film things that have been in books? You need to take film more seriously. Books are dead. You are back in the print generation. This is the image generation. Who reads books anymore? Films do not need to be based on books to be good. You should treat films with more respect!  

Josh Harvey

Ray Carney replies:


Sorry to give offense. But I have some bad news for you. Then I have some worse news. First, film is not a major, mature art. It is too young, and has accomplished too little, imaginatively speaking, to be considered a major art form. You’ve been brainwashed by Hollywood publicists and advertising agencies. Oh, sure, there are a few masterworks, and a few master-level artists who have made movies; but even counting their work, film is only this tiny rivulet if you compare it with the vast Amazon and Nile of the other arts. [A note to readers of the site: Prof. Carney has more detailed discussions of the preceding point in two interviews that are reprinted on other pages of the site. To read the first interview, in the menu in the right-hand margin of this page, click on "Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats--Being Banned in Boston," and scroll down to the interview titled "Let's Replace Film Production Programs with Majors in Auto Mechanics." To read the second interview, go to the page titled: "Making a Living or Making a Life--The Purpose of an Education."]

Second, even more important, point: With the fewest of exceptions, film is just too expensive, and too much of a group experience, for filmmakers to be free to take the kinds of chances that artists working in other forms of expression are routinely able to take. Filmmakers need to speak to too many people at the same time, and need to speak too intelligibly and too clearly, too publicly and brazenly, to them in order to get a return on their enormous expenses, to dare to reveal the most personal, secret, private truths, to be free to take really dangerous stylistic chances.

Oh, there are a few exceptions—a few crazy, doomed directors who aren’t afraid to take the same stylistic chances that the highest-level painters, composers, performing artists, and writers routinely take—I’m thinking of filmmakers like Cassavetes, Tarkovsky, Bresson, Dreyer, and maybe Kelly Reichardt in recent American film—but it’s just out of the question for most filmmakers to skate that close to the edge. It is just too dangerous. It would be courting disaster, just asking to fail commercially and be mocked and hissed critically. The problem with film is that if you fail in a big way, if you fail spectacularly, nobody will give you money for your next film. But real art is about failure; real art is about trying to say too much, going too far, being too extreme. That extremity is just what a filmmaker can almost never risk—or only the bravest and most foolhardy can risk.

That then is the answer to your question about why I recommend that young filmmakers look at other arts—to see how far out you can get, how thin the air can be and still survive to tell the tale, how uncompromising a work can be to get to a place of truth. Filmmakers can learn a lot by listening to Charlie Parker play, by studying an old Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce performance, by watching a Suzanne Farrell pas de deux, or by listening to the singing of Maria Callas or Anna Netrebko when she first started out. And they can learn by reading. Since reading is within everybody’s budget and doesn’t take travelling to a big city to experience, I often use it as a way to teach film—when my department Chairman will let me put together a course of this sort, which is almost never unfortunately; but when I’m not allowed to do it in a course, I can still meet with students in private in my office and recommend things for them to read in the summer.

The most daring, most extreme, bravest writing is of course the best writing to use for my purposes. So I sometimes send students to Henry James’s The Sacred Fount or Awkward Age or The Golden Bowl or the two Library of America volumes of his late stories. Or I send them to Swan’s Way, the first volume in Proust’s Recherche du Temps Perdu.

But, Josh, you are right about one thing: The print generation is dying off and many of my students simply can’t manage that level of reading on their own. They can’t pull it off. Late James and Proust are just too hard. So you’re right about that. They are products of the image generation, and print—at the very supreme level of achievement I am talking about, of course—puzzles and frustrates them. I’m with you there. But that doesn’t mean that I give up on bringing them up to that level; it just means that I have to work a little harder to help them get there. I have to teach them to read. But I don’t mind doing that since I am already teaching them how to watch and think about movies. At the highest, the extreme, the supremo level of excellence, the only level I am interested in, understanding a challenging film takes a lot of work too. It is a skill, like playing baseball or learning to play chess, that takes practice and effort and refinement. It takes work. But, at this level, work is the same thing as fun. So what’s not to like? We have a lot of fun together.

And I call that respecting the art. I call that paying the greatest works of art the greatest possible respect. Teachers who ask less of their students, and less of film, are the ones guilty of disrespect. They are the cynics. They are the compromisers. They are the politicians. They are the wage-slaves. They have cut their expectations and methods to fit the cynicism—and stupidity and compromises—of the times they live in.

But I realize I’m probably boring you by now. Too much Yoda; too little soda. Too much truth and too little sweetness and fizz. Suffice it to say that, as far as I am concerned, if a film student only knows film, he or she doesn’t really know enough, even about film. I stand by that idea. I’ve devoted my life to it. And will continue to devote my life to it.

Best wishes,


Additional letters to Prof. Carney, with his responses, 
are available in the blog postings from November 2013 on.