The Growth of a Film Artist: Part II
Ray Carney Returns to MovieMaker (Part II)
by Shelley Friedman | Published October 13, 2002
This article is a continuation of Shelley Friedman’s interview with Ray Carney, author of Cassavetes on Cassavetes.
Shelley Friedman (MM): What qualities must a moviemaker embody to be considered an artist?
Ray Carney (RC): All that matters is that you tell your own personal truth. The world the way you see and feel it—not the way anyone else does; not the way any other movie has ever shown it. And there is no right or wrong way to do it. Your movie can take a trillion unknown, undiscovered forms. It can be about anything: showing us how strange and miraculous our lives are, how weird society is, how extraordinary ordinary people are, how heroic everyday life can be, depicting the love and kindness that never make the news, or the mystery of what we are. The important thing is to copy no one.
Forget every film you've ever seen, everything you've been taught in film school. Film school is a curse. The one thing we know for sure is that the next great work won't look at all like the last one. I don't want to see another Citizen Kane. I saw that movie already. I don't want a moviemaker who makes Cassavetes or Leigh or Ozu or Tarkovsky movies. Those filmmakers didn't become who they were by imitating someone else, but by throwing chunks of reality up on the screen in their own unique ways.
MM: Some 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!) 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?
RC: I've written so much about the "guidepost" issue and devoted so many classes to it, that I'll skip it if you don't mind. Anyone interested can just read one of my books. As to the other part of your question: You want me to tell you how to tell fake emotion from real? You should be asking Charlotte Beck, not me. She's a Zen master who has 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, 99 percent of all of the emotions we experience in life and in Hollywood movies are what you are calling "fake."
Our culture is a machine for creating false feelings—a whole panoply of petty, personal, egoistic demands: our greed and 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.
We put ourselves on an emotional hamster track we can never get to the end of. And we love the whole insane race. The push and pull of the bustling, grabbing, self-centered ego has become our substitute for the soul, which we ball up and jam into an hour at church or synagogue once a week. There are good emotions—truer, deeper, more authentic ways of being—but the problem with Hollywood and television and the rest of the media is that the whole system is devoted to presenting, manipulating and exalting the self-destructive, self-centered feelings—not the valuable, good ones. In fact, as far as I can tell, movies organized around ego-centered emotions are the ones people love the most. Just like they love football games more than they love ballet. That's because they feed into a whole cultural system of programming. For more than you want to know about this subject, read the introduction to my Leigh book.
If limited to teaching the same three-hour class, Carney would make Elaine May’s Mikey & Nicky (1976); and Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) required viewing; As for directors who are making a difference today, Carney claims that actors like Tim Roth, on the set of The War Zone (1999), are producing the best work.
But let me add that I've discovered that when I call these feelings "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. They really got choked up when they wore a yellow ribbon during the Gulf War, or when they attached an American flag to their car more recently. 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. 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.
It doesn't have to be that way. Bad movies play on our emotional weaknesses, but great ones can move us beyond these clichés or show us their limitations. But don't look to Hollywood for that kind of movie. Look at Dreyer's Ordet or Gertrud. Look at Bresson's L'Argent or Pickpocket. Look at Cassavetes' Faces, which critiques the reliance on business values for personal interactions. Look at Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party, an absolutely brilliant dissection of the emotional role-playing we imprison ourselves within. Look at Tom Noonan's The Wife. These films reveal how unreal and self-destructive these feelings are.
MM: Sometimes it seems like so many films are becoming more like roller coaster rides of stimulation rather than windows into human experience. Even so-called "art films" many times gloss over the interior life of their characters and become cynical reflections of the moviemaker's unwillingness to grapple with deep questions. Why do you think this is?
RC: How beautifully you put that. I couldn't agree more. 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, which David Denby thought was one of the best films of the decade. Or Pulp Fiction, which every critic in American had multiple orgasms over. Or the complete works of John Dahl and most of what the Coen brothers have done. All those hard, tough, mechanical film noirs. Look at Mulholland Drive. All those smart-ass tricks and games. Big friggin' deal. That's the best we can do with a couple million dollars? I don't care how the New York critics revel in it; it's cynicism.
“Look at Mulholland Drive. All those smart-ass tricks and games. Big friggin’ deal. That’s the best we can do with a couple million dollars?” asks Carney
of David Lynch’s film, starring Laura Harring (l) and Naomi Watts.
You wouldn't need all the emotional backflips and narrative trapdoors if you had anything to say—if your characters had any real souls. I always think of something Robert Frost's students said he used to repeat over and over again: "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.
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 simple. 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. I tell the boys who want to equate Michael Jordan with Suzanne Farrell that they have to ask what they learn from the experience. Does it change or enrich their understanding of life? Or does it just play into their preexisting emotional clichés? 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.
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 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.
“If I were limited to teaching one two or three-hour film class for all eternity—my one shot to change the history of American film—I wouldn’t show any movies!”
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 just a miniaturization of them—right down to the smutty adult leers the little boys have for the little girls. The emotions are just as meaningless and self-destructive as the ones in adult movies. The kids are just tiny capitalists and the goal is to turn the kids watching them into little consumers, too—as they run off to McDonald's to collect the mugs, action figures and stickers.
MM: What does the future hold for indie moviemakers with the rise of desktop moviemaking? Do you see any interesting moviemakers out there working in digital video?
RC: All of the young filmmakers I know are working in digital, since they can't afford film! Well, maybe not all, but most of them. The advantage of digital is that you can massively over-shoot. I just got off the phone with a friend who told me he shot 30 hours of footage for his new movie. It would have been out of the question to buy and process that much 16mm film.
The downfall of most low-budget indie work is the acting. By necessity, young filmmakers usually have to use students, relatives and other non-actors in their work. If they are limited to one or two takes because of the cost of film and processing, the results can be embarrassing. Massive over-shooting allows them to compensate. They can shoot until their actors are too tired to "act," or put down their actorly mannerisms and start being real. My friend said he even shot some stuff like a documentarian, filming his actors when they weren't acting, when they didn't realize they were being filmed. Cassavetes did the same thing. It can make a real difference. As Renoir said, the whole scene is saved when the girl playing the servant thinks the shot is over and lets out a sigh.
Having a smaller crew and less equipment can also make things less intimidating. The mood is different. You can improvise. You can do a scene over and over again. You can take chances. You can have fun, play around, experiment. Chaplin shot this way and it's always good for the work. And, of course, the PC has revolutionized editing, to take away a little of the time pressure and cost from that part of the process.
But I'm convinced that, no matter how cheap filmmaking becomes, there won't ever be a glut of masterpieces. Technology does nothing by itself. Better, smaller, cheaper cameras don't make better art; better artists do. In 17th-century Holland, oil painting was a cutting edge technology, but it took Rembrandt and Frans Hals to do something amazing with it. The digital revolution will probably quadruple the number of feature films made in a given year, but most of them will still be garbage, just like most of them are now.
Look at the first video revolution 10 or 15 years ago—when Beta and Hi-band 8 became cheap. What is its legacy? Porno flicks. There won't be any more artists born in a given year just because movies become cheaper to make. That particular form of insanity is in your DNA, and you either have it or you don't. Pen and paper are the ultimate low-budget technology, but how many great novels and plays and poems are written every year? I don't see a stream of Shakespeares being produced just because writing is inexpensive. Emotional clichés still lurk like landmines waiting to destroy you. As a violinist friend used to say, it's a poor musician who blames his instrument. A real artist can use whatever is available. Picasso could have created masterpieces with a burnt stick and a piece of chalk. In fact he did; we call them charcoals. Cassavetes could have used a cheap, old-fashioned VHS camera and created a scene that was worth watching. In fact he did. In the last 10 years of his life he used to film scenes at home that way just for the fun of doing it. Michael Almereyda made three amazing movies with a Pixel-cam—one of those $69 dollar video cameras for kids that records on audio tape that they used to sell at KB Toys: Another Girl, Another Planet, The Rocking Horse Winner and At Sundance, a documentary about the Sundance Film Festival.
It's a faulty analysis that locates the problem in the cost of the production. The harder nut to crack for young filmmakers is distribution. How does a young, unknown filmmaker get a movie into a real theater or on mainstream TV (the Internet doesn't count), no matter how it is made? The rub, of course, is that the more original the work is, the harder it will be to sell it to the corporations that run those enterprises. It might offend someone. It might not be "entertaining" enough. It might require you to think a little. It might be different! The distribution problem won't go away.
The life-or-death struggle every artist fights is not with technology, but with our commercial culture. The businessmen, the accountants, the advertising guys always want to get their fingers in the pie—suggesting cuts, trying to speed up the pacing, pandering to some imaginary demographic—and it's the death of personal expression. If anyone ever tells you to do something because someone else won't understand what you've done, you know they are talking nonsense. Generic truth—what "they" want, need or feel—is not truth anymore. Truth can only be what you feel. The more personal your work, the more idiosyncratic and eccentric, the more truth is in it. Don't ever let anyone talk you out of that.
I don't have an answer to the distribution question. All I can tell you is that every week I have videos sent to me that are better than anything broadcast on HBO or PBS, accompanied by letters describing how the filmmakers can't get them screened or how, even if they have won an award at some festival, they can't get distribution. The indie films that get lucky, the ones you hear about, are almost always picked up for the wrong reasons. Not because of their intrinsic merit, but because they deal with some flash-in-the-pan controversial theme, have sexual content or appeal to a special interest demographic (gays or blacks or feminists or whoever). If you don't play to a special interest, forget it. When The Believer gets picked up, it's not a vote for art; it's a business calculation of how many talk shows the distributor thinks the director can get onto because of the "hot" issue. That's why most of the people who claim to want to help the indie movement are actually part of the problem.
MM: You explain in Cassavetes on Cassavetes that Cassavetes had this "mind's eye" view of himself, which is defined as how you perceive yourself before "society forces compromises or self-censorship on you." Which moviemakers today seem to hold true to their mind's eye view?
RC: My hope is in the actors. Some of them have become filmmakers by default, usually out of disgust with the roles offered to them in mainstream movies. Others are willing to work for nothing in an independent film written and directed by someone else, just for a chance to be able to do something really interesting and creative for a change.
I trust both groups of actors. Face it, most born-in-the-bone directors are rhetoricians. They are seduced away from truth in the pursuit of flashy, razzle-dazzle, special effects. Look at David Lynch's work or that of the Coen brothers: it's all rhetoric. Actors, by the nature of their calling, have a simpler, purer conception of art. They have dedicated their lives to individual, personal expression—to what you are calling "holding onto your mind's eye view"—against all the bureaucratic and social forces leagued against it, attempting to level and homogenize it.
That's why many of the best contemporary directors are actors. I'm thinking of people like Tom Noonan, Steve Buscemi, Sean Penn, Vince Gallo, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman. Their work is really good.
MM: In this time of economic hardship, what do you recommend for people just entering a career in moviemaking?
RC: I'm always uncomfortable with the notion of a "career" in anything. American society is structured so that it opulently rewards certain roles (lawyers, doctors, celebrity actors and athletes, wheeler-dealer businessmen, stockbrokers, producers) and ignores or financially penalizes others (teachers, nurses, mothers, caregivers, ministers, artists).
That never changes, in good times or bad.
I think we focus too much on the financial side. That's Hollywood thinking. If you're a real artist, you can make art with no money:
Red Grooms used house paint and plywood to make his art. Paul Zaloom sets up a card
table and moves toy soldiers around. Todd Haynes used Barbie dolls. I had a friend, Freddie Curchack, who made shadow puppets on a sheet. An artist who complains about not having enough money is not an artist, but a businessman.
MM: If you could make one film required curriculum for American film audiences, what would it be and why?
RC: If I were limited to teaching one two or three-hour film class for all eternity—my one shot to change the history of American film—I wouldn't show any movies! I'd have the students listen to Bach's Double Violin Concerto and ask them to try to get that into their work. Or read Stanley Elkin's Greatest Hits. Or look at Degas' paintings. Those are things I already do in my classes, and I'm convinced that many of the students learn more from doing that than they do from looking at any movie.
If you absolutely required me to screen something, I'd use my three hours to show short films. They're better than most features, and would at least demonstrate that a movie doesn't necessarily have to tell a stupid "story," be "entertaining" or any of that other rot Hollywood would make us believe.
MM: What would you show?
RC: Bruce Conner's Permian Strata, Valse Triste and A Movie; Jay Rosenblatt's Human Remains, Period Piece and Restricted; Su Friedrich's Sink or Swim and Rules of the Road; Shirley Clarke's Bridges-Go-Round; Mike Leigh's Afternoon, Sense of History and The Short and Curlies; Charlie Wiener's Rumba. And any 10 minutes from Tom Noonan's What Happened Was, Caveh Zahedi's Little Stiff, Mark Rappaport's Casual Relations, Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky, and Ozu's Late Spring.
The least the students would learn is that a film doesn't have to look like a Hollywood movie. that Hollywood is a tiny and ultimately unimportant rivulet flowing away from the great sea of art. The really smart ones would learn something about artistic structure and how the greatest movies use something other than action to keep us caring and in the moment—that the worst way to make a movie is to organize it around a sequence of events. Plot is the biggest lie we can tell about what life is really about. MM
Ray Carney is Professor of Film and American Studies at Boston University and the author of more than fifteen books on film and other art, including the critically acclaimed Cassavetes on Cassavetes and The Films of Mike Leigh. He runs a web site devoted to independent film and other art at http://www.Cassavetes.com.
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"Actors, by the nature of their calling, have a simpler, purer conception
of art", so says Ray Carney in a 2002 interview, where he allows us to infer that the future of cinema lies with actors.