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Fake Independence and Reel Truth, Pt. 1: Ray Carney’s incendiary film criticism feels as vital today as it did 15 years ago

Fake Independence and Reel Truth, Pt. 1: Ray Carney’s incendiary film criticism feels as vital today as it did 15 years ago

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Ray Carney COM Film Prof. March 23, 1995 PORTRAITAs Filmmaker Magazine reported in its latest issue, the seminal expert on John Cassavetes’ oeuvre, Ray Carney, has refused to relinquish control of a cache of experimental film prints belonging to the avant garde filmmaker, Mark Rappaport. In a letter to Boston University, where Mr. Carney teaches, Rappaport wrote: “This is not a legal matter between Carney and me. The man has clearly and willfully stolen my material. He may mewl incessantly about me having ‘given it him as a gift,’ but this is blatantly not true.” Until Carney, or Boston University, responds publicly to Rappaport’s accusations, we should withhold judgment. That said, the matter is disconcerting—in no small part because this isn’t the first instance of Carney claiming ownership of a filmmaker’s materials. As Slate reported last fall, Carney “feuded with John Cassavetes’ widow Gena Rowland over his discovery of a first cut of Shadows (the result of a 17-year quest), which he claims is an improvised work and therefore does not belong to her company, Faces Distribution Incorporated.”

While we await developments, though, we at MovieMaker want to look back in our archives at a series of articles Mr. Carney wrote for our magazine in 1998. In the turmoil of scandal, it’s sometimes easy to forget how a man built a persona worthy of infamy. In Carney’s case, though, it’s easy to remember; we have documentation. Not only was Carney a champion of Cassavetes (with his book Cassavetes on Cassavetes, he single-handedly re-introduced American audiences to the father of truly independent cinema), he was also an incendiary critic. I was stunned and heartened by the brashness of his perspectives on the state of cinema in the 90s. (When I read Michael Haneke eviscerating Schindler’s List in the pages of the Hollywood Reporter last November, I figured he was the first to call out Spielberg for romanticizing the Holocaust; he wasn’t.) These articles may have appeared 15 years ago, but they feel as vital as if they were written last week.

 

Part 1

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. Fox News and MSNBC themselves are just high-tech versions 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 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 (in the case of Stravinsky, audiences actually rioted). 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.

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 post-production 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 (Gena Rowland won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Mabel). 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 received, and one star fewer than The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, and two stars fewer 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.”

Read Part 2
Read Part 3
Read Part 4

 

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