Fake Independence and Reel Truth, Pt. 2: A look back at the criticism of Ray Carney


Ray CarneyCOM Film Prof.March 23, 1995PORTRAITRead Part 1

We want our knowledge easy. We want experiences that will snap like Legos into place with what we are already familiar with. But that’s what great art never does. It gets us out of our old patterns and into new rhythms. All growth, if it is important growth, is going to hurt at least a little. It wouldn’t be growth if you stayed the same. You have to work to know something. Anything short of that is just Musak. It’s cheap  knowledge, like the forms of thought in the newspaper or on television. Great art makes things hard on us. It makes trouble for us, because it denies us our easy, familiar categories. Because it shows us things in new ways, it makes them a little hard to see—especially at first. How can it possibly be financially feasible to run a first-rate independent theater? (I mean a real independent theater, not a Miramax/Disney/Sony Classics franchise with its guaranteed product stream of fake independent knockoffs.) The situation of the independent theater is similar to that of the independent restaurant surrounded by McDonald’s or Wendy’s outlets. People are so susceptible to saturation advertising, and so fond of the generic and predictable, that it is almost impossible for the independent to win the battle on the basis of sheer numbers. We have to hope there are enough people who taste their food before swallowing it to keep the real artists (of food or emotion) in business.

Let me make what will undoubtedly seem a crazy proposal. The best way to improve attendance at  independent theaters would be to charge more for tickets. Much more—say $30 or $40 a seat. You should have to pay a premium to see art films. What’s wrong with that? It makes perfect sense. Star Wars is like a Happy Meal. You can mass-produce both the meal and the movie so cheaply and sell them in such quantity that you can practically give them away. Art is different. You just can’t count on selling billions and billions. In line with the two kinds of restaurants, the independent theater should stop trying to compete with the mainstream theater on ticket price. It can never win that battle. There are too many economies of scale that favor the fast-food artistic operation. People should expect to pay more for the gourmet meal, and if they don’t want to pay it, they should be denied the chance to partake. If you aren’t willing to pay $30 to see Robert Kramer’s Milestones, Mark Rappaport’s Local Color or Scenic Route, or Su Friedrich’s Rules of the Road or Sink or Swim, you don’t deserve to see them. Every night of the week people throw down that much or more for a concert ticket, a ticket to a sports event, a dinner in a restaurant. Why in the world do they think $12 is the top limit for an experience far greater than any of those? It’s only the fact that we’ve unconsciously let Hollywood define our conception of what a movie can be that it seems ridiculous that a movie ticket should be the same price as a ticket to a play or a ballet. Why in the world shouldn’t it be? (Cassavetes once said to me—only half jokingly—that he wanted to charge $8,000 per ticket for Opening Night, since he figured that is what the film actually cost him when he divided the budget by the number of viewers who had seen it in the year after he made it.)

Beyond that, maybe the independent theater should present works more the way a theater or opera company does—selling subscriptions for an entire season, with the purchaser committing himself to a long-term involvement with the art form. That would not only be financially advantageous for the theater, but also change the way the viewer approaches the individual works. I buy lots of season tickets to opera, ballet, and theater with the clear understanding that I will be taken on a long journey in which some of the events will be more to my taste and others less so, some will be more traditional and conservative and others more experimental, some more memorable and others more ephemeral. Each individual work doesn’t have to hit a home run; you judge the success of the subscription on the basis of the entire journey. I’d buy a ticket for that sort of film subscription any day if I believed in the vision of the programmer. [Editor’s note: Carney is predicting the recent rise of subscription art houses, like The Cinefamily in Los Angeles, more than a decade before the idea took hold]

The problem in our culture is that, because Hollywood has polluted the atmosphere, film is never thought of as being in the same league with the opera, the ballet, or drama. It’s not given the same respect as the other arts, and most would roll their eyes at the idea of subscribing to a film series months in advance, and at a higher cost. Desperate financial measures are required to break the cycle that keeps film in an artistic ghetto—a poor relation to the so-called “real arts”—all the more since neither the government nor the major grant agencies are stepping in to assist with the funding and distribution of this art, as is done in every other civilized nation in Europe and North America. It’s a disgrace.

About the only way a real independent film can get attention from the general public is through the free publicity of newspaper or magazine pieces. It’s out of the question for it to compete financially with the mainstream marketing mavens. Studio advertising budgets alone are 10 to a 100 times the amount of the entire production budget of most truly independent works. That is why, to a large extent, the fate of the indie is in the hands of journalists. I can’t say the situation inspires confidence. Most journalists are not interested in art anyway, and are too bombarded with celebrity-studded press releases and awed by the opportunity to participate in pseudo-events (star interviews, gala ceremonies, private screenings, and press junkets with free meals in fancy hotels) to see what a con-game the publicity whirl is. Sony Classics donates some of their profits to AIDS research, and suddenly a film is not just a movie but a news event that gets covered in Time or on CNN. “Once it becomes news, we have to cover it,” one editor told me. “Our readers expect it.” The result: even more free publicity for multimillion-dollar business deals that don’t need or deserve it.

Journalists are not bad people, just overworked and harried individuals who gratefully print what the Miramax distribution machine excretes. They simply don’t have the time or inclination to buck the tide or check things out for themselves. Heck, given their deadlines, they hardly have time to think. I had the luxury of going back again and again to Faces, until it had pummeled me into submission, but what if I had had a deadline for a review in the weekend issue of the paper? Pauline Kael once bragged that she never had to see a movie more than once to know if it was any good, and that she almost never did go to see anything twice. Read her reviews of Faces and A Woman Under the Influence if you want to see the result. Art takes time. Real growth and insight are always slow.

I have a theory about how a movie gets to be covered in the newspaper. Most journalists’ idea of a great movie is, not surprisingly, a movie that looks like Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism. Their idea of great art is a film with a discussable historical or current events subject, a movie with a newsworthy person or event in it, one that deals with an obvious “issue.” The more the movie resembles an article in the newspaper the more attention it will get in the newspaper. At least that’s the only reason I can fathom why movies about Richard Nixon, Larry Flynt, Malcolm X, the JFK assassination, or astronauts are treated as if they actually mattered. (If you ask me, it’s the secret of Oliver Stone’s and Spike Lee’s critical success.)

Most newspapers treat the movies as if they were about as important as the society pages in any case. You can tell from the way The New York Times heads their Sunday movie section: Arts and Leisure—as if Bergman, bridge, and bowling were more or less in the same league. The joke about my hometown paper, The Boston Globe, is that they head their movie section Arts, Etc., but there is always a lot more Etcetera than Art. It’s really not that different from Jesse Helms’ or Jerry Falwell’s views of the unimportance of art. Art is for sissies or children. Real men don’t do art. It’s not the real world. It’s all a kind of Disneyland.

The few exceptions that do get extensive journalistic coverage are invariably for the wrong reasons. El Mariachi got covered because it had a tiny budget. A Woman Under the Influence got some coverage because it could be plugged into debates about feminism. Sex, lies, and videotape got discussed because of its title.

The other reason films get to be written about and known is because of what I would call tricks. They have a glitziness that grabs people’s attention, but doesn’t repay it. Tarantino is a good example of this sort of flash. Or look at John Dahl’s work or that of the Coen brothers or David Lynch. Their works aren’t about anything, except displaying their own cleverness. What do we learn from these sorts of movies? What do we have to know to understand them? How do they deepen our knowledge of life? Those are the questions we should be asking. They are the only questions that matter. But the works of these directors require  nothing of us and offer us nothing in the way of knowledge. They just perform continuous stylistic,  narrative, and verbal backflips to hold our interest. It’s all empty, meaningless stunts—not instruction, not
wisdom, not spiritual insight.

They are all a goof, a game, a lark-fundamentally no different from an episode of “Letterman,” “Conan O’Brien,” or “Saturday Night Live.” Everything is “as if.” Nothing is real; nothing is at stake; nothing is ultimately serious. Everyone involved in the process—from the director and writer to the actors and the viewers—treats the whole event as completely weightless. It’s all Zero-G acrobatics with not even a pretense that it matters. These films reflect the culture of unreality we live in, and its all-American triumph of style over substance. Appearance has replaced reality. Outsides have replaced insides. The goal is to look (and sound) good, rather than to do or show anything morally good.

The postmodern dream has come to pass. These directors skate across surfaces and revel in their own deliberate superficiality. That is why these films are all ultimately ironic in tone. It’s the curse of postmodern culture. Where nothing is real, irony is the supreme virtue. At least the ironist is wised up to the unreality of it all. At least the ironist is not taken in by the fraudulence of the game. It’s not just the movies, of course. The Jack Nicholson smirk, the Macauly Culkin cuteness is everywhere—on MTV, in advertising, in reporting. Why should the movies be any different?

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