Friday, May 1, 2020

Ray Carney's Commencement Address

  A senior Boston University administrator demanded that I remove, redact, or in the euphemism they employed at one point in their multiple objections to this posting "edit" (though it hardly matters what they called what I was being told to do, since it is an act of censorship no matter what name you give to it) significant parts of the text that follows, parts that discussed issues that should be of interest to any student or faculty member. I plan to explain the events surrounding these acts of suppression on subsequent blog pages, when I have time to make future postings. As other pages on this blog have described in detail, this is not the first time a Boston University administrator has intervened to control what I publish or, in other instances, say to interviewers. There have been dozens of previous instances extending over more than 15 years. The blog page that follows was subjected to other, even more lengthy objections, forcing even more significant excisions. It is not a happy day for the free exchange of ideas at Boston University under the leadership of President Robert Brown and Provost Jean Morrison. In this respect, it is hard to tell their university from John Silber's legendary reign of intellectual terror. In fact, it may even be worse when the intellectual iron fist is covered with a velvet glove. -- Ray Carney
I am going to be resuming my blog postings. There is lots of news to report. I thought I would begin with a message I sent out yesterday to the students in my Boston University Spring 2020 "International Masterworks" and "American Independent Film" classes, which I taught remotely, via email, for the past seven or eight weeks. What I wrote should be self-explanatory. I'd note that at a few points in what follows I have restored material I cut from the original mailing to my students. -- Ray Carney

A Farewell and Well-Wishing Message
to My Students from Professor Carney

As I’ve said several other times and in several other ways, I want to thank all of you for your dedication and hard work during this difficult time. If I can be so candid as to admit it, I’ve grown personally extremely fond of many of you in the course of the semester, and had genuine pangs of sorrow that I haven’t been able to be “closer to you” — not only physically but emotionally — for the past seven weeks. In case you haven’t noticed, I am what is sometimes called a “person person.” I may be a teacher, writer, and intellectual, but I get my energy from seeing your faces and hearing your voices—in person! Email is just not the same. And video (if I had been able to use it, which my location and internet connection speed factors don’t allow), I fear, would have been even worse because of the “mechanical unreality” of a visually jittery or auditorially delayed video interaction. (However weird it may sound to say it, communicating back and forth via email to my mind is actually more personal than that kind of video. I can “hear your voices” and almost “see your faces” in the emailed notes you have written me over the past month and a half.) But I have missed all of you, to different degrees, and dream of each of you coming back to visit my classroom in future years, when things return to normal so I can see you and talk to you in person again. (Yes, this is a figure of speech, but it is also literal; I actually have had dreams about being back in the classroom with you at some future time!)

When my classes meet in person, I always try to come up with something to say as a parting word in the final class and, since I bore myself when I repeat myself, I always try to make it different from anything I have said before. In this case I’ll share several thoughts I’ve often had, but that I’ve never told students before. The first, and most important, is to observe that we live in a world that almost always mistakes where value lies—and that one of the “secret goals” of this course has been to correct the mistaken definitions of what matters. The mistake most people make, especially as they get older, is to locate value and meaning in externals. You are the car you drive, the clothes you wear, your possessions, the job you get, the salary you make, the house in which you live, and all of the other externals of life—when in fact everything that matters is in us—in our sensitivities, states of awareness, depths of consciousness. I’ve tried to help you see that in my approach to film, where attending to what a character says and does (the plot, the narrative, the actions, the events) is less important than understanding and entering into their states of consciousness, appreciating their thoughts and feelings. But the principle is even more true outside the movies. Your great task in the next ten years of your lives is not so much to do something as to become someone—to build, develop, and refine your consciousness—your capacities of seeing (not just looking), listening (not just hearing), noticing, caring, loving, and feeling. You may think that you are born with these capacities or that at least by now they are firmly in place, but it is only half true. A lot of your sensitivities and states of awareness must be developed. Consciousness must be planted, nurtured, cultivated, grown just like a fine rose, just like your body grows. This is something most people don’t realize. They think they simply have whatever awareness they have, but that is not true; they have to develop it. (Think of how wine-tasters have to develop their senses of taste or Olympic judges have to learn how to see and assess what a diver or skier is doing. We all have tongues and eyes, but awareness and sensitivity must be practiced and learned.) There are a thousand million ways of developing your consciousness. Many of those ways involve being brave and daring enough to plunge into new experiences, to do things you have never done before, to dare to take your life in your hands and take chances with it. I don’t often talk about this part of my life with students, but when I was just out of college, about your ages, I went off and lived on a commune for a good stretch, then spent a considerable amount of time in a Zen Buddhist Monastery after that—and of course there were the years I spent getting my Ph.D., which was one of the greatest adventures of my life. (In those same years, I also did lots of amazing personal things including plunging into a lot of thrilling personal relationships—but we’ll keep that just between ourselves, OK?) So I am obviously encouraging you to live all you can, as daringly as you can, as bravely as you can in the next few years. Life is about much much more than landing a full-time “permanent” job. I’d even say that you should try to avoid doing that, locking yourself into something permanent or irrevocable, that you should try to avoid that stage of life, for as long as you can; or if you do take that kind of job, that you give yourself permission to change your mind a half-dozen times after that, about what you really are interested in and want to be doing. Don’t try to map it all out in advance; allow yourself to walk a zig-zag path, to make discoveries and change your mind every few months or years.

But I want to tell you that the second best way to have life-altering, mind-expanding, consciousness-deepening and identity-enlarging experiences is through art. Not through the junk on the internet, or pop culture, or Hollywood movies, or television. But by exposing yourself to precisely the kinds of original, iconoclastic, unconventional, demanding, challenging works of art that we have been looking at this semester. Note that I said demanding, challenging works because the challenges they present are what force you to grow new brain cells, to develop your sensitivities in new directions and not leave them where they are! Seek out the hardest, most difficult and most challenging works you can find—and not only in film, which our time together has of necessity limited most of our attention to. Beyond living a daring brave life, art is the second-best way temporarily to become other people, to live other lives, to experience other ways of being and feeling. It is a far better way than drugs to expand your mind!

Again, to repeat, I am talking about art, not Hollywood or pop culture entertainment, which only recycles clichés and keeps us more deeply mired in the mud of our old, conventional, trite, received ways of thinking, feeling, and being. And, as I hope our class assignments and discussions repeatedly illustrated, I am also talking about avoiding transforming works of art into the intellectual clichés of contemporary theoretical criticism, whose methods are in denial of, or at outright war with, precisely the kinds of consciousness-altering experiences that great art offers and sui generis forms of expression that great art employs. Cultural, ideological, and every other form of “thematic” criticism takes away the complexity of a work of art’s presentations of unique and different understandings of experience and unique and different forms of consciousness (in the case of film, not the consciousnesses of the characters, but the states of consciousness figured by the form and style of the film itself)—translating the consciousness-altering multi-mindedness of different works of art into the mono-mindedness, narrow-mindedness, single-mindedness of the critical method, a method that only understands meanings that can be framed in terms of abstract cultural, social, and psychological generalizations. There’s no shifting of awareness, there are no genuinely new experiences and understandings allowed by those critical approaches. They turn consciousness-altering artistic gold into boring, politically incorrect—or even more boring, politically correct—lead. They turn imaginative difference into intellectual sameness.

[For more thoughts about the "loss of consciousness" in contemporary critical methods, and what I there call the "externalization" of value, see this other page on the site.]

So as my final word to all of you, I want to encourage any of you who want to expand their lives and consciousnesses to dare to look at as much daring, iconoclastic, unusual, non-mainstream art as possible. In the last month, after experiencing a particular work I assigned, many students have written me private, personal notes asking if I could recommend “more things like it,” or “other films by women,” or “other works that will challenge” them in the same ways. So this is my response, but it is not going to be confined to films, since I am convinced that other arts have as much to teach us as even the best films do—or to tell you the truth I am convinced that other arts actually have more to teach us. Film is a new art, a shallow art, where 90 percent of the movies made are not going to be expanding your consciousness but leaving it where it is—or even contracting it.

So here is my highly personal, highly biased list of viewing and listening recommendations. I’ve limited the lists to things you can read, view, or listen to in this “social distancing” era; once it abates, I’d add that you should seek out live, performed music, drama, opera, dance, and of course paintings, sculptures, installations in any and every museum and gallery accessible to you.

Note that in what follows, I am going by memory, so there may be a misspelling here or there, but these works can all be easily located. I do not recommend streams of any of the performed works or films. Invest in yourself, do yourself a favor, and get a Blu-ray disk where it is available, or a DVD where not, and see the work on a big screen TV with a good sound system! See the work close to the way it was intended to be seen. Not on a jittery-imaged, tiny-screened, mickey-mouse-sounding computer!

In modern dance and ballet (and if you don’t know dance, remember that dance is not about creating characters or telling a story, but about expressing ideas and feelings with movements, gestures, and interactions. The story, if there is any at all, is only there to help you see deeper into, and feel more intensely about, the movements, gestures, and interactions):

—the work of Anna Theresa de Keersmaeker, especially her Rain (which is available on a Blu-ray disk)
—the work of Christopher Wheeldon, especially and most recently (it only came out on Blu-ray a week or two ago) his Within the Golden Hour (and if you do acquire this Blu-ray, disk, another piece on it by another choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, called Medusa)
Carmen.maquia by Ballet Hispanico (but be sure to have seen the opera of Bizet’s Carmen first—see the next list for information about that)
The Paul Taylor Dance Company in Paris (the title of a DVD)
—Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty (both on Blu-ray — preferably in the Royal Ballet / Royal Opera House productions)
All are suitable for family viewing.

In opera:

The most dependable, top-flight opera productions in the world right now are being mounted by The Royal Opera House / The Royal Opera in London. I recommend that those be the ones you view. For starters search out, in Blu-ray preferably, boxed sets that include groups of, or separate productions of, any and all of the following operas. (FYI: The Royal Opera sells a massive Blu-Ray box set that has all of the following titles in it.) Then listen, listen, listen. Carefully. Sensitively. That’s what opera is about, not the absurd, exaggerated plots and characters. Not the bizarre costumes and makeup and wigs. Similar to what I said about dance: the characters and plots, such as they are, and all the visuals, are there only to help you to get deeper into the music.

—Mozart, Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutti, Nozzi di Figaro
—Bizet, Carmen
—Rossini, The Barber of Seville and La Cenerentola
—Verdi, La Traviata, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore
—Puccini, La Bohème, Madam Butterfly, Tosca, Turandot
All are suitable for family viewing.

In literature (the following are all terrific collections of short stories that can be bought for a song, used or new):

—Pam Houston, Cowboys are My Weakness (not about cowboys!)
—Melissa Bank, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing (not about hunting and fishing!)
—Ellen Gilchrist, Collected Stories
—John Cheever, The Stories of John Cheever (a terrific one volume collection)
—Eudora Welty, The Collected Stories
—Edna O’Brien, The Love Object (selected stories)
—Alice Munro, Selected Stories or My Best Stories
—Joyce Carol Oates, Faithless and Will You Always Love Me?
—Stanley Elkin, Stanley Elkin’s Greatest Hits
Henry James, The Ambassadors (by a million miles, the hardest item on the list, but I am including it because it is a novel about what I am describing: about the cultivation and growth of consciousness)

And now, last and honestly least (since film is the newest and shallowest of all of these art forms, one that really can’t hold a candle to any of the above), a few recommendations in film:

International films, most in foreign languages, subtitled into English:

—Works by German filmmaker Maren Ade, beginning with Forest for the Trees and Everyone Else, viewing her films in the order in which she made them because they get harder and harder, more and more cryptic, as she goes on and you need the earlier works to understand the later.
—Works by British filmmaker Joanna Hogg. Unrelated, Archipelago, Exhibition. Same thing, her first three films should be seen in the order in which she made them. You can skip what follows.
—Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant (a social-distancing film!) and Climates
—Jacques Tati’s Playtime
—Harold Pinter and Peter Hall, The Homecoming
Jean Renoir, Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game
—Hirokazu Kore-eda, My Little Sister and Still Walking
—Yasujiro Ozu, the films made between 1952 (The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice) and 1962 (An Autumn Afternoon), again ideally seen in roughly chronological order.
All are acceptable for adult family viewing, but would be too challenging for anyone under the age of 18.

American films. (To the girls in my indie film course who were affected by screenings I held of Su Friedrich’s Sink or Swim and Rules of the Road, Elaine May’s Ishtar and Mikey and Nicky, Mira Nair’s Hysterical Blindness, and Claudia Weil’s Girlfriends, these are the films you have been asking me to tell you about and they are all terrific):

—Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig, Nights and Weekends (an astonishing work, but definitely not for family viewing)
—Andrew Bujalski, Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation
—Aaron Katz, Quiet City
—Elaine May, The Heartbreak Kid (not to be confused with the Hollywood remake)
— So Yong Kim, In Between Days and Treeless Mountain
—Mary Bronstein, Yeast
—Kelly Reichardt, Wendy and Lucy and Certain Women (the first is easy but still great; the second is very challenging and must be seen more than once but is worth putting thought into)
Nicole Holofcener, Lovely and Amazing, Friends with Money, and other works
John Cassavetes (seen in this order or close to it), Shadows, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, Love Streams, Faces

But a reminder again: I talked about developing, deepening, enriching your consciousness and how this must be your real project for the rest of your life—not making money or acquiring possessions. And about how consciousness does not grow on its own, and how you must push yourself into new states of awareness and sensitivity, and about how these kinds of works can contribute to it. That also means that if you try any of these films, books, or performances and don’t “get them,” you should not reject them. Not understanding or liking them only means that you are not yet ready for them. That your consciousness has not developed enough to appreciate them at this point in your life. Keep trying—just the way I asked you to do on the films we looked at in class, where maybe the first viewing didn’t “take,” but a second viewing, or a new way of thinking about a film that I provided, made you appreciate it. That will be the story of the rest of your life. (Only Hollywood movies can be understood the first time by more or less everybody, because they are movies for children, even if the children are adults.) My point is that you must push yourself to expand your awareness by “working on” these works (and a thousand others I am not listing—the preceding lists are only starting points of course). If you are bored by La Traviata or Within the Golden Hour or Everyone Else, put them aside and give them another try six months or a year later. Your sensitivities will (or certainly should!) develop and deepen in the interim—and then use them at that point to move yourself, your consciousness, even further. Challenging yourself is the only way to grow—though of course challenge of this sort is the same thing as fun. Giving up on these kinds of works will only leave you where you are. Returning to them and wrestling with them is the path of growth. Just as is the case in every other aspect of life, if you can’t do something, or understand something, the cure for that is to do more of it, and expose yourself to it more, not to run away from and avoid it. These works may challenge you, some of them definitely will challenge you, but that is the reason they will make you grow. Our consciousnesses grow only when we exercise them, when we emotionally stress them, when we experience shocks, resistances, and difficulties in the ways not only art, but life frequently imposes on us. The difficulty of some of these works is what will make you learn from them, just as the difficulties in life are the sources of most spiritual and emotional growth. I never understood it when my high school coach said “no pain, no gain,” in fact, I never believed it and don’t believe it now as an athletic maxim; but emotionally it’s a law of nature. All learning is ultimately emotional, much more than intellectual. Bones and brains both grow under stress. As I said in an early class as an explanation of my question-asking Socratic method, asking someone a question but denying them the answer, putting them in an intense, even desperate, state of needing to know but not-knowing, grows neurons by the bushel. Giving them answers makes them passive and dumb; knowing puts our brains to sleep. Wrestle with these works. Struggle is good; knowing is bad. 
[I have omitted several paragraphs of material at this point that only apply to the courses]

Well, I guess this is adios amigos! I will miss all of you. And if anyone wants more viewing, reading, thinking, feeling, consciousness-raising, sensitivity-developing recommendations, after they have exhausted the starter-set on this handout, write me and I’ll send you more. It doesn’t matter if it’s five years from now. Write me. And even if you don’t need or want more recommendations, write me anyway, this year, next year, or the year after, and tell me how you are doing. I care. I really care.

With fondness and appreciation for all that you have given me as students,

Prof. Carney

Professor Ray Carney teaches American and European art film and interdisciplinary American Studies at Boston University. He is the author or editor of: Henry Adams, Mount Saint Michel and Chartres (Viking Penguin), Henry James, What Maisie Knew and The Spoils of Poynton (New American Library/Signet), Rudyard Kipling, Kim (New American Library); The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism and the Movies (Cambridge University Press); The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World (Cambridge University Press); Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer (Cambridge University Press); American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (Cambridge University Press); American Dreaming (University of California Press at Berkeley); Shadows (British Film Institute/Macmillan); Cassavetes on Cassavetes (Faber and Faber/Farrar, Straus); Autoportraits (Cahiers du cinema), The Adventure of Insecurity; Necessary Experiences; Why Art Matters; and numerous other books, essays, and editions, published in more than ten languages. Professor Carney is currently completing three publishing projects: Unknown Masterworks of American Independent Film; The Lesson of the Master: Henry James' Late Style; and a three-volume treatment of the early, mid-career, and late films of Robert Bresson intended to transform the understanding of his work.