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Fake Independence and Reel Truth

Fake Independence and Reel Truth

Articles - Directing

Ray Carney

Ray Carney is a professor of film studies at Boston University and writes
extensively on independent film. His razor-sharp observations and insight
were featured in a two-part article in MM #13 and 14 and had our readers
buzzing for months. The following talk was recently delivered at the re-opening
of Seattle’s Grand Illusion Theater as an introduction to a screening of
John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, followed by a weekend festival
of independent works by Caveh Zahedi, Su Friedrich, Rick Schmidt, and others.
The second part of this article is in
MM #27-Ed.

We’re here to celebrate American independent film,
but I want to begin by observing what a bizarre concept an independent
work of art is. It’s weird because it’s redundant. What other kind
of art is there? All art is supposed to be independent. Independence
is its natural, its only true state.

That’s why we don’t talk about independent ballet
companies or independent ballerinas. We don’t describe symphony
orchestras or composers as being independent. We don’t debate the
pros and cons of painters and museums being independent. We just
take for granted that they are, and would stop paying attention
to them if they weren’t. It is only the corporate nature of filmmaking
in America that has made independence seem like something unusual.
Hollywood has created this nutty situation where the majority of
films are basically multi-million dollar business deals, so that
the ones that are not have to justify themselves as being some
kind of exception to the rule. So we invent this special category
called independent film. Then the American Film Institute can invite
retired studio hacks in to discuss the pros and cons of being an
independent as if it were something controversial and strange.
How totally cuckoo. Let’s never forget, the independent artists
are not the odd ducks in the history of art; the businessmen are.

Of course, a buzz word is a buzz word, and corporate
America recognizes the value of this one, so independence has been
turned into a mass-marketing trademark. Once it gets in the hands
of the ad men, the meaning leaks out of it, of course.

Everybody is an independent-so long as it sells tickets.
In Miramax’s definition of the concept, Tim Burton becomes indistinguishable
from Mark Rappaport. I had a student last week try to convince
me that Star Wars was an independent feature. It was in a course
on independent film I teach. In the first class I asked the students
to define what was independent about independent film. The answers
were all over the place: Some said it depended on the movie being
made outside the studio system. Others said it involved making
it for less than a certain amount of money. Others said it had
to be made by a young and unknown director. Others said it was
a film with a certain kind of style or content. One smart-aleck
student said it was any movie that had bad lighting and lots of
out-of-focus shots. I told them that, as far as I am concerned,
being independent is more about the state of your soul than your
budget. I don’t really care how a movie is financed or who produces
it. An independent film is any movie that uncompromisingly expresses
a unique, personal vision.

To say the obvious, most movies are the opposite
of being personal. They are as industrial in their design as amusement
park rides. And as mechanical. In the 10 years that separate Star
Tours from The Lost World, it’s become increasingly hard to tell
Hollywood and Disneyland apart. Filmmakers like Spielberg might
as well work for some hybrid called Disneywood or Hollyland.

Rather than being unique, most movies are recycling
operations. Of course the real recycling is not of pieces of plot
and character, but of intellectual and emotional clichés
that make their way through the American imaginative digestive
system to be excreted on the screen prior to being swallowed whole
again. There are really only five or 10 of these films made over
and over: the thriller with a twist ending; the movie about competing
and getting ahead; the boy-meets-girl romance; the buddy boys who
start out hating each other but grow to respect each other in the
end; I’m sure I don’t have to list the rest. The trick is to conceal
the fact that it is always the same few movies over and over again.
Do it just slightly differently, without really departing from
the formula. I call it the Chicken McNuggets syndrome. It’s really
always basically the same thing as last time, but you add a different
sauce or spice to make it look like a whole new meal. It’s a truism
to say that these films are mass-produced like cars, but that’s
a slander on Detroit. Our cars give us satisfaction for years.
They last a lot longer. They are put together a lot more imaginatively
than these films are.

You know it’s all formulas when people can get rich
teaching courses on how to make movies by recipe. I know someone
who goes around teaching a three-day seminar on how to write a
script. Can you imagine someone trying to tell you in three days
how to score a great symphony? Or choreograph a ballet? Do you
really think Guernica can be reduced to a paint-by-numbers scheme?
But people are convinced film is different. It just shows their
secret contempt for the art they claim to care about.

But you don’t have to pay a thousand dollars to take
a course to learn the emotional formulas these films are based
on. The clichés are everywhere. We are up to our eyeballs
in them. We are bombarded with them on television, in the New York
Times Book Review, in Time magazine, at sporting events, on the
front page of the newspaper. They were not invented by Hollywood.
In fact, the movies are not really any worse than (or different
from) the rest of our culture. That’s what’s wrong with people
who demonize Hollywood (or television). Most of contemporary America
is organized around capitalist clichés about rugged individualism,
the value of competition, and the importance of material achievement
(not to mention a whole other set of emotional clichés left
over from 19th-century melodramatic novels). There’s no point in
blaming the movies for the trashiness of our culture. Look at what’s
on the bestseller lists or in the editorial columns of our newspapers.
Look at our fascination with celebrities, our obsession with "news," our
insane faith in science. Look at the malling of our museums. In
my hometown, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts recently mounted back
to back exhibits devoted to the work of Josef Karsh, a society
portraitist, and Herb Ritts, a fashion photographer-and crowds
flocked to see both. Their work is as stupid as a Hollywood movie-probably
worse.

But even though it flatters us to imagine our age
the worst that ever was, I don’t think things are any different
than they were a century or two ago. Rupert Murdoch and Jenny Jones
didn’t invent sensationalism. Before Jerry Springer, there was
P.T. Barnum; before interviews with women who married men who had
sex change operations, people paid money to see the Wild Man from
Borneo and the Fat Lady in the side show. Before the tabloids,
there was old-fashioned, over-the-fence, backyard gossip. CNN itself
is just a high-tech version of gossip. The only difference now
is that the whole world has become our backyard. Cheap substitutes
for thinking have always been with us.

The artist’s job is to free people from the clichés
and tell the truth. That’s a lot harder than it sounds. We prefer
the formulas because they satisfy our prejudices. Truth is always
challenging. As T.S. Eliot wrote, humankind cannot bear much reality.
D.H. Lawrence put it even better. He said we go through most of
our lives with parasols over our heads, with a painted sky on the
underside of them. We look up every once in a while and admire
the view. Of course it’s all a sham. But we don’t realize it until
something forces us to-until something breaks through the painted
picture to reveal what is really on the other side. It can be some
emotionally shattering experience that comes crashing down on us
and collapses our parasol. Or it can be some artist who slyly sneaks
up on us and slashes a hole in our parasols, so that we can see
past them. We briefly get us a glimpse of the real cosmos on the
other side. But Lawrence went on to say that since we’re not used
to it, the sight of the other side is almost always bewildering
or frightening. The parasol is no sooner cut open than we go about
sewing up the hole. We prefer the painted sun and moon and stars.

That’s a parable about almost all truth-telling art.
Precisely to the extent that it breaks through the clichés,
it’s going to meet with resistance. It’s not unique to film. Think
of the reception the paintings of Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Eakins
got in the 19th century. Or of Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps
early in this century. They were jeered at. The important critics
scoffed at them. A few years ago I had a conversation with a curator
at the Whitney Museum who said that could never happen nowadays.
The implication was that 20th century viewers and critics are so
much smarter and better informed than those dopey 19th-century
ones. But then how do we explain film events of the past 50 years?
The initial Paris screenings of The Rules of the Game were so disastrous
that the film was pulled from distribution and not screened for
the next 11 years-until it had an equally bad run in New York and
was withdrawn for a second time. Carl Dreyer’s crowning final masterwork,
Gertrud, was booed on its world premiere screening. I should say,
booed by the viewers who remained at the end of the film, since
more than half of the audience walked out before the movie was
over.

Even the film you are going to see tonight took more
than 20 years to be generally appreciated. There is no doubt whatsoever
that A Woman Under the Influence is one of the major works of American
film art-but when Cassavetes completed it, he couldn’t get anyone
to show it. Woman was scripted in the spring of 1972 and filmed
later the same year, completely outside the system (funding was
split between Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands, and Peter Falk). It went
into postproduction immediately after the shooting was complete,
and was finished by the end of the year. But as many an independent
has discovered, making the movie is only half the battle; getting
an audience to see it is a whole other war. For 18 months ("the
most discouraging time of my life," John told me), Cassavetes
went from city to city trying to convince an exhibitor to book
the film. The response was always the same: It was too long, too
boring, too sloppily made, too depressing. Not one distributor
in America would take a chance on it. Finally, more or less in
desperation, Cassavetes offered it to the New York Film Festival
in the summer of 1974. They didn’t want it, either. It was screened
for the selection jury and rejected. (According to the story John
told me one day over lunch, Molly Haskell led the chorus of objurgation,
telling him to his face that his film was "the biggest piece
of garbage I have ever seen.") It was only after John called
up Martin Scorsese, whose Italianamerican was scheduled for the
festival’s opening night, and asked him to withdraw his movie as
an act of solidarity, that Woman was granted a couple token screenings
a few nights from the end of the festival. The rest, as they say,
is history. Nowadays, the members of the selection board fight
each other to take credit for having discovered the movie. But
the truth is that if Scorsese hadn’t blackmailed the festival,
the world might still never have heard of Woman.

But I’d emphasize that even after Woman was doing
fairly well commercially, virtually none of the major American
critics appreciated it. Here’s a representative contemporary critical
opinion from a dusty old edition of Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies
I found on my shelves: "Typically overlong, overindulgent
Cassavetes film." Maltin gave it two stars out of a possible
four. To put that into perspective-on facing pages two stars is
the same as Woman’s Prison and Won Ton Ton the Dog that Saved Hollywood,
one star less than The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, and
two stars less than The World According to Garp. Here’s the write-up
on Woman from an old edition of another standard reference book,
Halliwell’s Film Guide. Leslie Halliwell doesn’t use stars, but
makes his opinion perfectly clear-again I quote: "Insanely
long case history in close-up, with all parties constantly on the
brink of hysteria. Hard to sit through."

What can we learn from such off-base judgments? One
thing is that when a film leaves accepted formulas behind, most
critics get confused. It isn’t, as my curator friend felt, that
earlier viewers and critics were stupider or less knowledgeable
than we are. The fact is that an original work is always going
to be at least a little disorienting because it’s not going to
fit into our existing categories. As Marshall McLuhan said, when
real revolutions come along, they don’t look like breakthroughs-they
look like chaos.I’ll provide a concrete example-a personal confession.
I have written four books on Cassavetes’ life and work-two in English,
one in French, and one in Japanese (no American publisher has shown
interest in issuing English versions of the last two)-but let me
confess publicly that I stormed out of the first Cassavetes film
I ever saw. It was Faces. The movie confused and offended me. It
violated everything I took for granted about how movies were supposed
to present things. The shots weren’t beautiful; the lines weren’t
elegant. The acting and scripting seemed somehow out of control,
even a little dangerous-sweaty and in-your-face. The characters
were too extreme. I couldn’t figure them out. Scenes were hard
to follow. I didn’t know where they were taking me. In short, Cassavetes
didn’t play by the rules of filmmaking I was familiar with. I left
10 or 20 minutes into the movie convinced I had been looking at
one of the stupidest and most poorly presented films I’d ever seen.
For some weird reason, I went back a week or so later. But I walked
out again, more convinced than ever. Then I went back again (for
reasons I still don’t understand), and it was only on the third
time that I was able to sit through to the end of the movie. But
even then I didn’t know whether I liked the film or hated it. It’s
now years later and there is no doubt in my mind that Faces is
one of the five or 10 greatest works in all of American film. But
it took me a very long time to realize it. (And, to tell the truth,
Faces wasn’t the only time this has happened to me. I’ve fought
some of John’s other movies tooth and nail also. Resisted them
almost to the death, before I belatedly appreciated the originality
of what I was seeing, sometimes weeks later.)

One of the reasons I can tell such an embarrassing
story is that I told this to John once to apologize for my stupidity
about his work, and he said the same thing had happened to him
when he first went to see A Place in the Sun. He said he walked
out on Montgomery Clift’s performance and only later realized that
what he most couldn’t stand about it was precisely the quality
that he eventually learned the most from. John had a hilarious
routine he used to do to characterize this viewing situation. He
would mimic a viewer watching one of his films just after the lights
in the theater went down. He would slouch down in his chair, writhe
in pain, and flail his hands in front of his eyes, as if to protect
himself from the fury of an atomic blast, shouting (in-between
his cackling laughter): "A new experience. No! Save me! Anything
but that!"The point is that it’s easy to praise original,
innovative film in the abstract, but the particular case can test
our patience. We cry out all of our lives for masterpieces, but
face to face with one, we invariably reject it. The problem is
that the next masterpiece never looks like the last one. By definition,
it breaks the mold; it gives us new ways of knowing different from
those we are accustomed to. It sees the world with fresh eyes.
It shows us things we haven’t seen before-and perhaps don’t want
to see. That’s why when the next Rules of the Game, Gertrud, or
Faces appears, it won’t look like The Rules of the Game, Gertrud,
or Faces. That’s why there’s more than a decent chance we’ll walk
out, shaking our heads and saying: "No. No. That’s not what
I really meant at all."

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. We’re here
to dedicate a theater, but given these realities, 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 dollars 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 dollars 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 $7.50 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.

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-wining 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 Caukin cuteness is everywhere-on MTV, in advertising,
in reporting. Why should the movies be any different? (Continued
next issue)
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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