Sunday, May 5, 2013

Losing Consciousness--Losing Invaluable Ways of Understanding

The day after I posted the excerpt from the interview I did with Shelley Friedman on the preceding site page (see the side menu for "Making a Living or Making a Life--The Purpose of an Education"), I received several requests for information about obtaining the entire interview. The complete text was indeed published in a book (My Life is a Movie), but since the book is now out of print and almost impossible to obtain, I have decided to post another section of the interview. This particular excerpt focuses on the ways in which, in  defining life in terms of systems of external power relations (mapped in terms of gender, ideology, class, race, etc.), contemporary critics and theorists inadvertently deprecate and downplay the interiority of experience. Relationships between individuals are mapped in terms of power, status, and achievement. Consciousness disappears. Experience becomes its outsides. The real danger of these theoretical approaches is that invaluable, irreplaceable forms of knowledge can be lost to the entire culture for a generation or more. Teachers of art in our universities have a great intellectual responsibility. 

For the record, the views articulated below were among many other ideas of mine that the Boston University Provost, the College of Communication Dean, the Chairman of the Department of Film and Television, the Film Studies program Director, and my colleagues in the Department of Film and Television explicitly objected to my having published on my university faculty web site and told me must be removed by a specific date under threat of the imposition of severe financial and bureaucratic penalties (including having my name and reputation smeared on the internet to destroy my reputation via a university posting against me, and bringing the full force of the university legal department against me to tie me up with legal actions that would bankrupt me if I refused to conform with the censorship demands by the specified date).

I will not name the names of the individual teachers who most vehemently objected to this section of the interview text, but it should not take too much imagination for a reader to see why particular colleagues might disagree with my comments about the limitations of ideological, gender-studies, and multicultural forms of understanding. I understood that, but I had not anticipated their readiness to use censorship to suppress things they disagreed with, nor the readiness of the BU administration to authorize and support their acts of censorship. 

Looking back on the events, I realize I should not have been surprised. It's a truism to observe that self-proclaimed worshipers at the twin shrines of "tolerance" and "otherness" are among the most vengefully intolerant of and unremittingly hostile to points of view other than those they already espouse. "Otherness" is only embraced if it manifests itself in officially sanctioned forms. An ideologue is an ideologue no matter what ideology he or she spouts. And the cowardice of administrators in American universities is proverbial. It would be a rare administrator indeed who would tell a professor of gender studies that he or she was out of order to censor and punish a colleague who had different ideas about life--and art.

As I describe in more detail on another page of this site (see "Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats--Being Banned in Boston," available in the side menu), I was told that I should never have said these things, should never have published them, and should never have posted them on my faculty web site, and that I would be punished for having done so. I was yelled at, mocked, and berated in public, in large meetings, in front of junior colleagues, and at other points in front of my own students in public places. I was told I was mentally ill. I was called names. I was told my ideas were dangerous. They had not been approved by the university administration. They threatened things said and done by other professors in my department. They were "uncollegial." They showed I was not "a team player." I was "sick" to have published them. I was "immoral" to have said these things to an interviewer. They were forbidden to be said. Students should not be allowed to see them. They must be suppressed. 

In the first of many months of screaming-at-Carney sessions devoted to the subject, I was told to remove this material from my faculty web site. I was yelled at, called names, and had my character and morals attacked for close to an hour for having published these ideas. In a second equally loud and equally emotionally abusive meeting (with many more sessions to follow), I was told that removing this interview or this section alone from the internet would not be enough. I was to remove my entire faculty web site and everything on it from the Boston University server. I was to take it down in its entirety. I would not be allowed to have a faculty web site at Boston University. I and my ideas were too dangerous to allow me to have one. I had said, and presumably would continue to say, things too controversial to allow students to see

To add one more dimension to the censorship policy, I would note that my Dean, the Dean of the College of Communication, met with me separately in a series of meetings in which he told me--peppered with foul-mouthed obscenities and personal attacks on me, my ideas, and my personality, as was his custom--that I was not allowed to communicate these kinds of ideas in class either. I could not raise them with my students. My ideas were, in my Dean's words, "controversial" (all I could understand is that he had been told this by one of the gender-studies faculty members since he would have no independent basis of judgment on the issues involved), and I was instructed by him in no uncertain terms to avoid the presentation of "controversial" ideas to my students. To forestall any illusions I had about appealing to higher authority, I was also told by the Dean that the University Provost was aware of and had formally endorsed the policy he was promulgating (and that particular unnamed students had been asked to "report" on my classroom conduct--talk about a witch hunt!). To drive home the point, at the Dean's instructions, a university lawyer also met with me and endorsed the in-classroom teaching censorship policy, which stands unaltered and unrepealed to this day.

The specific department meetings I am describing were really just the start of a long series of sessions of public criticism and abuse by BU administrators that extended over many years. Many other screaming and name-calling sessions followed, both in private and in public. Other ceremonies of public criticism, in front of faculty members and my own students, followed. Other attacks on my mental competence followed. The most recent one was, in fact, chaired only a few months ago by my Dean, Thomas Fiedler, the Dean of the College of Communication, in which, in front of my Dean, the Assistant Dean James Shanahan, and a Boston University lawyer Erika Geetter, I was berated by my Chairman (Paul Schneider) and mockingly asked, in a series of deliberately insulting rhetorical questions, why in the world I continued teaching, whether I was at BU only "for the money," why didn't I quit, why did I continue to work at the university? Another university administrator, Assistant Dean Shanahan, all but called me a liar to my face--repeatedly disputing my honesty and the veracity of my account of events (with no independent facts of his own to rebut what I told him, of course, simply as an expression of his personal conviction that I was indeed a liar). Chairman Schneider told me I was guilty of perjury (on the basis of absolutely no actual knowledge in his possession). And, to top it off with icing and a cherry, the university lawyer (the aformentioned Erika Geetter) and my department Chairman (Paul Schneider) both told me I was mentally ill. (I hope I am not leaving anything out of my account, because they certainly didn't!) Meanwhile, throughout the cascade of insults, accusations, and other verbal abuse, my Dean, who as I say was chairing the meeting, sat there and smiled, without ever once intervening to suggest that the name-calling, the accusations that I was a liar and a perjurer, and the charges that I was mentally ill were inappropriate, out of line, or unprofessional. 

[The preceding meeting and the events that took place during it are described in more detail on several other blog pages. As a starting point for the interested reader, I would recommend going to: "How (Not) to Conduct a Meeting—Shouts, Name-Calling, Personal Attacks, Threats, Punishments," available in the side menu of this page. The account of the treatment I received during my recent meeting with Dean Tom Fiedler, Assistant Dean Jim Shanahan, Chairman Paul Schneider, and Boston University lawyer Erika Geetter appears toward the end of the blog entry. It will show that I do not exaggerate the unmotivated, unsubstantiated administrative abuse that senior faculty at Boston University are subjected to. As was the case back in the glory days of the John Silber era, they are clearly presumed (and treated as being) guilty until they have proven themselves innocent.]

As the previous set of events, which to repeat took place only a few months ago, illustrates, the department meetings I am describing with respect to the following posting were only the beginning of a pattern of response Boston University administrators have adopted time and time again, and continue to adopt right up to the present. A faculty member's publications were being censored and suppressed. A faculty member's teaching, interactions, and communications with his students (which is what these postings were) were being controlled and limited. Only what administrators approved was allowed to be said, published, or communicated to students by a faculty member. Boston University administrators have done this for years to me. For an even more recent example see “How Marketing and Branding Considerations Limit What Teachers Can Tell Their Students--Or Suggest That They Read at Boston University," available in the side menu.   

For other, even more recent illustrations of university censorship against me, threats, and attacks on my character and reputation for taking unfashionable intellectual positions--as well as a little more on the functions of art and contemporary criticism--see another more recent blog posting, available in the right-hand menu under February 2014: "How Can BU Call Itself a University?" That page has some more thoughts about the limitations of ideologically- and culturally-centered film criticism, and describes other examples of Boston University's acts of censorship against me to prevent me from communicating my ideas to my students in the classroom, in emails to them, and in interviews with the media.

Is this what a university is supposed to be doing? Monitoring and controlling what its faculty members publish, what they say to students in class, or what they write to them in emails? Threatening to destroy their reputations with internet postings against them? Threatening them with bankruptcy via legal actions against them if they don't conform to the university's censorship demands? Well, it's what my university does to faculty who say things they don't like. It's how they treat their independent-minded faculty. And continue to treat them right up to the present. [To see how administrators at Johns Hopkins University treat "controversial" faculty publications, see another page on the blog: "A Tale of Two Schools," available via the side menu under the month of November 2013. The difference should tell you everything you need to know about what is wrong with the attitudes, policies, and actions of Boston University.] 

How can Boston University President Robert Brown let these things happen? Is he just not paying attention? Is he just asking the perpetrators for their side of things,  expecting them to bust themselves? He or any of his representatives have sure never asked me or any of the other numerous faculty and student witnesses (and since many of these events were conducted as deliberate ceremonies of public humiliation, there have been dozens of witness to almost all of them) about any of these events, even after being informed of them by me and by the university Ombuds via hundreds of pages of reports I have filed reporting them. He has done nothing, absolutely nothing to stop them or redress past wrongs. He is clearly not interested in the truth of what has gone on (and continues right up to the present to go on) at administrative levels under him (virtually all of it taking place in the time he has been President, and absolutely none of it addressed, dealt with, or even acknowledged). 

Welcome to the "new BU." The John Silber days are alive and well. -- Ray Carney

Innocence and Idealism

Some media/cultural critics talk about sentimentality as a by-product of an industrial society unable to feel without “emotional guideposts.” Like we have to be told where to take pictures at Disneyland!

Look, we live in a consumer culture. Americans are consumers. Trained from birth to buy, buy, buy to fill their spiritual void – like the little girl I saw in the supermarket the other day pushing a tiny cart with a flag on it that read “shopper in training.” It’s kind of cute when they’re two, but it gets spooky when they turn twenty-two and define themselves in terms of the shoes and jeans and jackets they buy.

Our culture trains people in consumption, with objects just being the tip of the iceberg. The trivial part is buying things – cars, clothing, computers; the important part is buying values and emotions. We are trained from birth to mimic, to imitate, to take our feelings, ideas, beliefs, and meanings from outside ourselves. When you do that long enough you forget what you really need and want and feel.

If Americans can buy invading a country, toppling its government, and unleashing civil war as being a noble, heroic act, it’s clear that they’ll buy just about anything as long as it is marketed in the right way – with a designer label, a sentimental story, or, in the case of Iraq and a lot else, an appeal to their ideals.

Ideals and sentimental stories are terrific marketing devices. Benetton and Nike showed that years ago in terms of objects, but TV shows and movies and the evening news have been doing it decades longer with values. Hollywood is the greatest marketer of ideals in the history of the world. They’re selling and Americans by the millions are buying. Look at the popularity of Titanic and The Matrix and Shrek and Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

Why do you think those films were so popular?

Because America is the most idealistic culture that ever existed in the history of the world. It was founded on dreams of democratic decision-making, individual rights, personal fulfillment, and free expression. And these films present ideal, idealized visions of life and personal expression. Totally American and totally phony, superficial, stupid.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with the ideals themselves. I believe in them myself. What I object to is the fact that they have been hijacked by marketers, corporations, government leaders, and filmmakers to sell us things – and have been dumbed down in the process. They have been co-opted by corporations and government officials to serve unidealistic ends. They have been turned into slogans and marketing strategies to pursue cynical, manipulative, selfish purposes. That’s the story of Hollywood filmmaking. But that’s trivial of course. It’s also why we are in Iraq. It’s why such stupid people get elected year after year. It’s why Americans don’t see what their culture is really doing abroad. In being turned into marketing ploys, complex ideals have been translated into children’s bedtime stories. They have been disconnected from reality. American foreign policy becomes a series of emotions unrelated to facts, feelings without knowledge. As I said before, that’s my definition of sentimentality. The sentimentality of our movies is the least of our worries. The sentimentality of our culture is absolutely terrifying.

Why don’t people see what is being done?

Because America is a naïve, innocent, childlike culture. That little girl with the shopping cart is us. We are being manipulated. And we love it. We want to be turned into shoppers. We want to be told what to think and how to feel. We want the easy version of experience.

I don’t follow.

The ideals America was founded on, and is, at least in theory, still devoted to, represent complex contracts with experience. They put challenges to us. They make demands on us. They ask us to do difficult things. When they are turned into marketing slogans and bedtime stories – in the movies, on the evening news, in American politics – they suddenly become simple and easy and painless. Even a war can be painless if someone else is sent to fight it. Because of the immaturity of our culture – the shallowness of our educational system, the demagoguery of our politics, the cravenness of our media – people accept the fairy-tale version of the ideal.

Consider freedom. It can’t simply be given to someone. We are not born free. We have to achieve it. We have to struggle for it – against a thousand alien entanglements. We are up to our eyeballs in clichés, conventions, received ideas, provincialisms, bumper-sticker substitutes for thought. It’s hard to break free of all that. And it takes more than effort and will-power. It takes intelligence, knowledge, sensitivity, awareness. You can’t just will yourself free. That’s what most Americans don’t seem to understand and the political and corporate marketers have no intention of telling them. Americans want the easy, know-nothing path to emotional and intellectual freedom. “Tell me who to be. Tell me what to think. Tell me how to feel. Tell me what to buy.” That’s the context within which the Hollywood selling of meanings and emotions and the public’s willingness to buy them has to be understood.

The mistake is to look to movies for any answers at all. All movies can really do is point out problems, pose questions, set us tasks to do. They can remind us that we need to work on our lives. They can ask us to open our consciousnesses to new ways of knowing and feeling. They can inspire us to try harder. But they can’t give us answers. They can’t do the work for us. We have to do it all. Nothing can lift that burden from our shoulders. And that takes time and work and thought. It’s not quick and painless. People don’t want that kind of movie. That’s an art film! [Laughs].They want to pay their ten dollars and get ten conventional, predictable emotions in exchange, and if possible an answer or two about how to live their lives.

Anyone who wants anything else to give him or her values is in big trouble. You can’t buy them or buy into them or you become just another consumer. You are just asking to be sold a bill of goods.

Make no mistake about it: there are thousands of emotional snake-oil salesmen just waiting to sell you cheap, shoddy, knock-offs of American ideals and values. [Like a carnival barker:] “Step right up, ladies and gentlemen. The line forms on the left. In the front we have William Kristol, Richard Perle, and Carl Rove, leaning against each. On the right there’s Jack Welch and Rupert Murdoch and Bill O’Reilly and the McLaughlin group shouting at each other. Charlie Rose is next to them, smiling at how entertaining it is. And for the ladies, in the row right behind them, we have Steven Spielberg, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, Oprah Winfrey, Oliver Stone, Dr. Phil, Ron Howard, and Tom Hanks holding hands and speaking quietly and sincerely.”

But, listen, I can’t talk about this any more. It’s too sad, too depressing. America could be so great and the world could be such a different place if we lived up to the ideals that we profess to believe in. We could be doing really wonderful things to end poverty and hunger and slaughter and demagoguery and we’re not. We’re only making things worse. It hurts to think about all the missed opportunities year after year, decade after decade. I believe in Emerson, but I’m afraid Tocqueville may have been closer to the truth.

Anyway, I’ve already written so much about this desire to look to movies and television as sources of value that anyone interested should just read my Capra or my Dreyer or my Leigh or my What’s Wrong… and How to Do it Right book or something else I’ve written.

Manufactured Emotions

What to you distinguishes genuine emotion in art from fake emotion, i.e., genuine human empathy from manipulated sentimentality? How do we get back to the genuine in film – free from guideposts? Isn’t all film a manipulation? Isn’t any emotion real?

You want me to tell you how to tell a fake emotion from real one? You should be asking Charlotte Beck, not me. She’s a Zen Master who’s written books about the subject. Beautiful books. I’m not as smart as she is, but I’ll take a stab at an answer by saying something that may sound weird. As far as I am concerned, ninety-nine percent of all of the emotions we experience both in life and in Hollywood movies are what you are calling – and what I am calling – “fake.” Our culture is a machine for creating plastic feelings – a panoply of petty, personal, egoistic conflicts, needs, and demands: our obsession with possessions and appearances – from houses to cars to clothing; our need to keep up with the latest gadgets, trends, news, and events; our concerns about glamour and charm and what other people think of us; our feeling that we need to fight, struggle, and compete to get ahead – and a million other self-destructive fears and insecurities. They are everywhere. And they are all unreal. Made up. Crazy. Cuckoo. Destructive of what we really are and need and feel.

We put ourselves on an emotional hamster track we can never get to the end of. And we love the whole insane rat-race! The push and pull of the bustling, grabbing, self-centered ego has become our substitute for the soul, which we let peek out a few times a year at church or synagogue or when we listen to classical music. Our desire to be “entertained” by a movie or that it have high drama or a thrilling plot is part of the same shallow, meaningless, endless quest for synthetic excitement, glamour, stimulation. Bad art is organized around the same titillating, animalistic emotions as bad living. There are valuable, good, real emotions – truer, deeper, more authentic ways of being and feeling and knowing – but the problem with Hollywood and television and newspapers and the rest of the media is that they are devoted to presenting, manipulating, and exalting the self-destructive, self-centered, artificial, trivial feelings. In fact, as far as I can tell, movies and experiences organized around ego-centered emotions are the ones people love the most. Just like they love football games more than they love ballet. It’s because the fake emotions plug into our reptilian brain stems and are reinforced by a whole cultural system of programming. Bad art is a vast emotional recycling operation. It recycles pre-existing, mass-produced, artificial feelings already out there in the culture. Good art creates entirely new and different feelings – original, unexpected, surprising ones. If that is hard to understand, all I can say is that my Leigh book has more than you want to know about this subject. It’s also what I was trying to explain in my Cassavetes books when I argued that his work – like all great art – asks us to think and feel in fresh ways. Nothing is prefabricated or plastic.

But I’ve discovered it is a hard concept to get across. When I call the feelings in other films fake, my students get confused. They say people really feel these emotions. Their pulses really beat faster during the ending of The Matrix. They really cry at the end of Titanic. They really care who wins in Erin Brockovich. They really feel elated when a villain gets blown up in the Star Wars movies. In life, people really get choked up when they put an American flag in front of their house or a yellow ribbon on their car. And my students are right. To the people who experience these feelings, they are real. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t fake. Maybe it would be better to call them mental emotions, since they are created by our thoughts. They are in our heads. That’s what’s wrong with them. They represent postures, stances, and attitudes that make us feel good about ourselves. Even as we torture ourselves by casting ourselves in this endless, draining struggle, these emotions flatter us because they inflate our importance. We struggle so we can feel we are getting ahead. We keep up with the Joneses so we can feel superior to them. Even as it hurts them, people love to create self-justifying emotional dramas this way.

Bad movies play on our emotional weaknesses, but great ones can move us beyond these clichés or show us their limitations. But you can’t look to Hollywood for that kind of movie. Look at Bresson’s Lancelot or Femme Douce. Look at Dreyer’s Day of Wrath or Gertrud. Or look at Cassavetes’ Faces, Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, Rappaport’s Local Color, or Noonan’s The Wife – four absolutely brilliant, extended dissections of the emotional unreality we imprison ourselves within. These films reveal how pervasive and self-destructive fake feelings are.

The Seductions of Stylishness

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 Riesman and the Hite Report. For philosophy, I read Ayn Rand, Herman Hesse, Carlos Castaneda, 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 Wes 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 feminists and ideological theorists who define experience as external power relations, 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. The form is the meaning.

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 part of Shakespeare 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, Lacanian, deconstructionist, sociological, metaphorical, symbolic, and dozens of other mechanical, preformulated forms of understanding.

You want another example? Most of my students can’t understand meanings that won’t stand still. They try to pin 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.


Safe Danger

So many films are more like roller-coaster rides of stimulation rather than windows into human experience.

That’s true. People love to be taken on an amusement park ride. You know why? Because the danger is fake. There are a few thrills and chills, but they don’t last long and you always end up back in the light. It’s not really demanding and confusing. You don’t need to worry because it’s not really like life. It’s safe danger – like a game. People want that. They want simple, manageable emotions. They want easy, predictable, controllable excitement. Don’t spoil my date. Don’t make me ask real questions about my life. Hey, lighten up, will ya? The best of Bresson’s, Rossellini’s, De Sica’s, Ozu’s, Cassavetes’ work gets our emotions to places that aren’t manageable in this way. We can’t walk away laughing.

But you are forgetting that people respond strongly to Hollywood films.

Yeah, and they get worked up over the Super Bowl too. That doesn’t make it art. In my film classes, I sometimes do a unit on ballet and modern dance to show students the expressive power of gesture and movement, and some of my boy students – with great sincerity and conviction mind you – tell me that they don’t get much out of the modern dance or ballet tapes, but they “know what I mean,” since they feel “the exact same things someone at the ballet does” when they watch a linebacker or tackle scramble in a football game. I have the embarrassing job of informing them that, no, they don’t understand what I am trying to show them. Lawrence Taylor was not doing the same thing as Paul Taylor.

The issue of whether you feel something or not is not a sufficient test of the value of a work. Our feelings are too primitive. Too easily elicited. I can get excited by the final minute of a Final Four playoff game. But I don’t mistake it for a work of art. Art is less about feeling than seeing, thinking, and understanding in new ways. Less about emotion than knowledge. The cry of a baby can make me feel sad, but it’s not a work of art because it doesn't teach me anything. Burt Bachrach may bring a tear to your eye, but that doesn’t make him Bach because he doesn't give you new ways of feeling. Art teaches us things; art is about learning things; art is about changing how we see and feel, not merely pushing emotional buttons and recycling existing understandings. I tell the boys who want to equate Michael Jordan with Suzanne Farrell, that they have to ask what they learn from the experience of watching Michael Jordan. Does it change or enrich their understanding of the rest of life? Or does it just play into their pre-existing emotional clichés? Does it give them new forms of thought--not just new thoughts, but new forms and styles and modes of thinking. New ways of knowing. Does it leave them thoughtful and deeper or just breathless and excited? If they want that, you’re right, they might as well go on a roller-coaster ride. Great art is not about revving us up. That’s what a sales conference or How-to-Make-a-Fortune-in-Real-Estate seminar is for. The greatest art is more likely to take us through an experience that humbles and abashes us – that chastens, bewilders, and hushes us into silence at what we suddenly realize we have failed to see and experience up until then. That’s pretty different from a video game or a roller-coaster ride.

As you said before and your roller-coaster comparison implies, these films lack complex, interesting, adult inner life. The only inner life most popular movies have is defined by thrills and chills, suspense, fear, or mystification. That tells us everything we need to know about them. What kind of inner world is that? It’s the inner world of a shark. A dog, a horse, a baboon has a more complex consciousness than that.

Inner life is everything. What else is there? The rest is capitalism and cars and houses. You’re sick if you care about those things. I’m not opposed to some of the multiculturalist and feminist agendas, but it’s something that filmmakers who focus on sociological issues and institutions need to ponder – that our imaginations, our dreams, our emotions are the only things that really matter. You can have all the equal-pay-for-equal-work statutes in the world, but if your imagination is impoverished, you are poorer than a ghetto kid squealing in the spray from a fire hydrant. Treasure Island and The Arabian Nights have more to say to a child’s soul than a whole library of I Have Two Mommies and My Uncle Lives with a Man books. We need films that recognize that what a teenage girl thinks and feels and dreams is far more important than the clothes she wears or the car she drives, or what her sexual politics and job are. It's her imagination that counts, not her job or pay. Those things may matter, but they don't make you free--just as they are not, ultimately, the source of your imprisonment. It's what's inside you that counts. No act of Congress or Supreme Court decision can give you anything in that way. The real glass ceiling is in our heads. And a good part of our imprisonment is our substitution of generic, external capitalistic measures of value and ideological or sociological forms of analysis in the classroom for an appreciation that the inner world, the slippery, subtle, heaving sea of individual consciousness is what really matters--in our understanding of both life and art. A generation of students is being misinformed and misled by their professed liberators.

Even most of the children’s films I’ve seen have adopted our culture’s depraved adult values. The kids in them are just little adults. Their minds and hearts do not represent an alternative to adult values, but a miniaturization of them – right down to the smutty adult leers the little boys give the little girls. They are just tiny capitalists, and the goal seems to be to turn the kids watching them into little consumers too – as they run off to McDonald’s to collect mugs, action figures, and stickers. In other words, the emotions kids’ films tap into are just as meaningless and self-destructive as the ones in adult movies.

--Excerpted from "An Interview with Ray Carney about Art, Life, Hollywood, Independent Film, Critics, Professors, Universities, and How to Make a Fortune in Real Estate." The complete text was published in My Life is a Movie (New York: Solpix, 2005). The interview was conducted by Shelly Friedman. Note that several typos have been silently corrected and a few sentences have been rewritten or added to the text to improve clarity.