A cinematic Ralph
Nader, Noam Chomsky, and Marshall McLuhan rolled into one, Ray
Carney is a combination consumer advocate, media scourge, and
film visionary who pulls no punches in his attacks on the American
filmmaking establishment and the critics and reviewers who support
it. Over the past 10 years, in a series of wide-ranging lectures
and interviews, he has tirelessly crusaded for off-Hollywood
films and filmmakers.
When he is not stumping for independent film, Carney
is a prolific writer. He is the editor of the multi-volume Cambridge
Film Classics, and the author of more than a hundred essays and
eight books of his own, including the recently published "The
Films of John Cassavetes" (Cambridge University Press). He
is currently completing a critical history Of American independent
filmmaking from 1953 to the present
I caught up with him in his office at Boston University,
where he teaches courses on film and American studies. The text
that follows was edited from more than eight hours of conversation
on three successive afternoons.
Diane Cherkerzian (MM): Since the Academy
Awards are in a couple of weeks, would you comment on the state
of the art of contemporary film?
Ray Carney: Do you realize you just used the
words Academy Awards and art in the same sentence? Doesn’t that
feel weird? Besides being the world’s most boring TV show, the
Academy Awards obviously have nothing to do with art. It’s a three
hour commercial for bad movies. Actors who can’t act, writers who
can’t write, and directors who can’t direct get together and give
each other little trophies congratulating themselves on how wonderful
they all are. Hollywood is not about art. Art isn’t made by committee
or by testing different versions of something to see which one
the audience responds to the best.
But that’s old news. Everybody knows the accent falls
on the second word in show business. What’s inexplicable to me
is that American film schools go along with the whole thing. They
actually show schlock like Fatal Attraction, Alien, Thelma
and Louise, and Silence of the Lambs in film courses
and invite the directors to speak to their students! I may be out
of touch, but I was under the impression that the university curriculum
was one thing that was not supposed to be up for sale to the highest
MM: Are you saying these films shouldn’t
be screened in universities?
RC: No. Just take them out of the arts and
humanities courses. Screen them in the Business School. Study how
they were financed. Discuss how the casting, the writing, and the
ad campaigns were coordinated. Analyze them as wildly successful
marketing coups-since that’s what they are. Snake oil for the brain.
And while we’re at it, let’s get the library to re-catalogue all
those books about Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, and Ivan Reitman,
so that they are shelved where they belong–next to the books on
mass-marketing and public relations. I have no problem with that
MM: But you can’t deny that Hollywood has
an uncanny ability to put its finger on America’s pulse and involve
a viewer’s emotions. Movies like Forrest Gump, JFK, Fatal
Attraction, and Philadelphia obviously
spoke deeply to millions of viewers. The proof is that they took
in hundreds of millions at the box office.
RC: You’re just making my point-illustrating
how Home Shopping Club values have replaced artistic ones. We don’t
measure Picasso’s Guernica or Paul Taylor’s Esplanade by how much
money they rake in their first weekend. So what if a movie is popular?
The Big Mac is the most popular food in America. Norman Rockwell
is the most popular painter. Does that mean the English Department
should dump Shakespeare and replace him with Stephen King?
As far as emotions go, if art was just about getting
our feelings worked up, an auto accident or the cry of a baby would
be more important than Hamlet. It’s easy to get a viewer’s emotions
involved. Make a movie about a victim-especially a fashionable
one: someone dying of AIDS or rounded up by the Nazis. Only slightly
subtler, make a movie about a victim of some obvious social injustice.
Take an even easier route and rely on a suspense plot with constant
threats of violence. Stir and serve. I’ve just described 90 percent
of the movies made last year. That’s not art, it’s just playing
games with our evolutionary past duping our reptilian brain-stems
into pseudo fright/ flight or maternal/protective responses.
Look, I’ll admit that I have the same visceral responses
everyone else does to Natural Born Killers, Reservoir
Dogs, and Pulp Fiction. I squirm. I cringe. I could
hardly watch the screen while the Bruce Willis character in Pulp
Fiction went back to his apartment. Even a no-brainer like Speed can
leave you breathless with its propulsiveness. But what does that
prove? These films are the best roller-coaster rides (in the case
of Tarantino, the best haunted houses) ever made. But if that’s
what you want, you might as well go to an amusement park. I remember
a conversation I had with a director over dinner a few years ago.
He said his goal was to grab viewers by the guts with the first
shot of his movie and not let them go for two hours. I asked him
where he had developed such a bizarre desire. Why would he want
to grab people by their guts? Why wouldn’t he prefer to touch their
minds and hearts?
|J. C. Wilbur in Blues for the Avatar.|
MM: I take it you are not a Tarantino groupie.
RC: You’re talking to the one critic in America
who isn’t ready to found a religion around him. I was willing to
suspend judgment after Reservoir Dogs, but it’s perfectly
obvious to me by now that he’s a lightweight. A flash-in-thepan.
The Tarantino cult will disband in a few years and search for another
Messiah, once he predictably fails to live up to his "early
promise "—just like the David Lynch cult did
MM: Why do you feel so negatively about his
RC: It’s only that in three films running
something like seven hours in all-he has managed not to express
one interesting insight into human emotion or behavior. If it weren’t
for daytime television, it might constitute some sort of record.
All there is in his work is the Grand Guignol campiness, the chiller-diller
suspensefulness, the kicky twists and turns of plot, and reversals
of expectation. It’s not much to go on, if you are beyond the age
of 18 (which, admittedly, most of his audience is not at least
What am I saying? Simply that his scenes are boring.
All he has to keep them interesting is the pop-schlock tones and
effects. There is not a single conversation in Pulp Fiction that
is interesting enough to stand on its own without some comic-book
effect to jazz it up. Without the harem-scarem jokiness and thriller
plot, even his teenage admirers would be bored out of their minds.
MM: At least you concede that it isn’t just
buckets of blood, as some mistakenly say. His work is funny.
RC: My problem with the humor is that it is
too shallow. The great comic masters-Chaplin, Mike Leigh, Elaine
May, Mark Rappaport know that comedy is a deadly serious form.
In their works, we laugh from the shock of recognition. We see
ourselves in extremely complex ways. The comedy is a way of suspending
a viewer within the complexity. Tarantino never uses comedy that
way. It’s always merely for a cheap laugh at some easy irony or
obvious incongruity-usually a sudden change of mood. The comedy
doesn’t reveal anything interesting. That’s why in Chaplin, May,
Leigh, and Rappaport the comedy draws us into states of intricately
multivalent sympathy with the characters, while in Tarantino, it
just makes us feel superior to them. The one kind of comedy makes
things more complex; the other kind, Tarantino’s, makes them simpler.
Tarantino’s comedy is similar to Altman’s in this respect. It reduces
and demeans, but above all it simplifies.
MM: How can you account for the critical praise
that’s been heaped on him?
RC: Oh, the critics are easy to buffalo. I
sometimes give my students a recipe for making a movie that New
York critics will champion. First, be sure you work in a well –
established genre and wedge in lots of references to other movies.
Play games with narrative expectations and genre conventions at
every opportunity. That always appeals to intellectual critics,
who like nothing better than a movie about movies. It makes them
feel important. Second, include a ton of pseudo-highbrow cultural
allusions and unexplained in-jokes. Critics love it when they can
feel in the know. Third, strive for the "smartest" possible
tone and look: as ironic, cynical, wised-up, coy, dryly comic,
and smart-alecky as you can make it. It’s important to avoid real
seriousness at all costs, so that no one can accuse you of being
sentimental, gushy, or caring about anything. That’s a mortal sin
if you want to appeal to a highbrow critic. If it’s all a goof,
like Pulp Fiction’s comic-book approach to life, no one
can accuse you of being so uncool as to take yourself or your art
seriously. If possible, make the story blatantly twisted, surreal,
excessive, or demented in some way. Make it outrageous or kinky.
If the average middlebrow viewer would be offended by it, that
makes it all the more appealing to this sort of critic, since shocking
the Philistine is what this conception of art is about. Finally,
glaze it all with a virtuosio shooting and editing style and a
certain degree of on-rush in the plot. Keep the nonsense moving
right along, so no one will stop and ask embarrassing questions
about what it all means. Every other interest is abandoned to keep
the plot zigging and zagging-psychological consistency, narrative
plausibility, emotional meaning.
It all seems pretty adolescent and Spy Magazine-ish
to me, but when you’re done, you’ve got Pauline Kael’s all-time greatest
hits, and the New York and Los Angeles Critics’ Circle Awards winners
for the past 30 years: Bonnie and Clyde, Mickey One, Clockwork
Orange, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, The Fury, Blood
Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, The
Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Blue Steel, Near
Dark, Blue Velvet, Heathers, Reservoir Dogs, Red
Rock West, Natural Born Killers, Bad Lieutenant, King
of New York, The Last Seduction, Pulp Fiction.
I probably left a few out.
MM: Tarantino aside, aren’t you being blatantly
unfair to other serious movies? They aren’t merely roller-coaster
rides. People think when they watch them. They make complex moral
judgments. They learn things. With films like JFK, Malcolm
X, and Quiz Show, they are forced to reevaluate historical
RC: These movies are to thinking what sound
bites are to political debate. How much real thinking do we do
in the course of any of the ones you have named? Lee and Stone
and Redford don’t change anyone’s mind about anything. They don’t
twist our brains into knots. On the contrary, they make things
easy to understand, easier than life–or real art ever does.
The lighting, the music, the acting, the narrative
events keep a viewer in the clear about what he is supposed to
know and feel in every shot. You are not actually allowed to think
on your own, trusted to draw your own conclusions, for a minute.
All there is button-pushing: idea number one, number two, number
three. Of course, it goes without saying that if you are told what
to think, you are not really thinking at all. Thinking is an active
state, not a passive one.
Maybe I’m just slow or something, but in the presence
of a real work of art-a poem, a painting, a ballet-I’m never able
to understand things in the Stone or Lee way. I’m uncertain exactly
how to feel. I have contradictory responses. The experiences a
work of art offers are not simple or easy. They’re hard and challenging.
You have to wrestle with something that won’t come clear for a
long time-that won’t ever come as clear as these movies do. You
have to do a lot of work.
MM: What about a really serious movie like Schindler’s List? Certainly it forces people to work through
RC: I’m afraid I can’t see much difference
between Spielberg’s serious movie and his boy’s book movies. Schindler’s
List depends on Spielberg’s inflatable, one-size-fits-all myth
about how a clever, resourceful character can outsmart a system.
Is that what the meaning of the Holocaust boils down to-Indiana
Schindler versus the Gestapo of Doom? That’s what Spielberg’s entire
world-view amounts to, as far as I can tell.
Stylistically, it’s the same old comic-book sense
of life: Schindler’s List depends on the same formulaic
responses to formulaic characters and situations that Jaws did.
We live in a culture of mass-production and one of the products
we manufacture the best is synthetic emotions and experiences.
The Hollywood studios are brilliant at massproducing stock feelings.
They have perfected the art of canning them.
MM: I’m not sure I understand what you mean.
How can you call an experience or a feeling synthetic?
RC: Velveeta-experiences are everywhere. It’s
done all the time in the human-interest stories on the evening
news or in the newspaper. Wall-to-wall fake feelings. Or look at
what happened during the Gulf War. A whole nation was worked into
a frenzy of pseudo-emotions. In fact, I sometimes think that Americans’
obsession with live television-the IranContra hearings or OJ’s
Bronco going down the freeway – is a reflection of how starved
we are for real experiences. At 0J’s trial, there is at least the
possibility of some reality breaking through-of something unscripted
and unplanned happening. The hope is that, if only for a second,
something truly real will be visible.
MM: What does this have to do with film?
RC: Well, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, Steven
Spielberg, and most Hollywood directors are masters at plugging
into the emotional fad of the moment. They whip up the same sort
of instant, artificial emotions that the Super Bowl does. Schindler’s
List, Malcolm X, and JFK cycle the viewer through
a series of predictable, cliched, plastic feelings. But it’s all
just a bad simulation of real experiences and emotions. Virtual
unreality. The ideas are prefabricated, the experiences are formulaic,
and the emotions are superficial. Which is why it’s all forgotten
a few hours later.
The superficiality of the experience is in fact what
many viewers love about Hollywood movies. They take you on a ride.
You climb into them, turn on the Cruise Control, and sit back.
Not only are events, characters, and conflicts entirely predictable
(most movies are their trailers), but there is nothing really at
stake for anyone-actor, director, or viewer-in any of it. It’s
like a roller-coaster ride in this sense too-a few pre-programmed
thrills and chills and then all is well. When it is over, you leave
the theater and go home untouched by any of it. Anything that has
happened has taken place entirely on the surface. That’s what Antonioni
meant when he said Hollywood was being nowhere, talking to no one,
about nothing. It all takes place on a fantasy island. It’s all "as
if." There’s no real danger or threat in any of it.
MM: What does that mean? How can a movie really
RC: John Cassavetes did it with every movie
he made-which is why he got into trouble with critics. His movies
get under your skin. They assault and batter you. His hell isn’t
reserved for other people. Cassavetes puts us on screen and forces
us to come to grips with what we are. It is too easy to put the
blame on someone else. Husbands and A Woman Under the
Influence won’t let us locate the stupidity or cruelty somewhere
else. They have neither heroes nor villains, but only in-between
characters, because that’s what we are.
Spielberg could have done it with Schindler’s
List if he had dared to make a movie sympathetic to the SS.
You may smile, but I’m not joking. How about a movie that deeply,
compassionately entered into the German point of view in order
to reveal how regular people with wives and children could be
drawn into committing such horrors? How about a movie that showed
that, at least potentially, we are them? A film that didn’t locate
the bad guys in an emotional galaxy far away? Of course, Spielberg
could never make that film even if he tried to, because it would
require too much insight on his part. And if he did make it,
it would certainly not get Academy Awards-because it would not
merely cycle through Good Housekeeping approved responses. It
would make viewers really have to think. And thinking, real thinking,
is always dangerous. They might be forced to realize things about
themselves that they would rather avoid. They just might be made
to squirm a little.
MM: Why don’t viewers detect the falsittes
you are describing?
RC: Sometimes they do. Maybe it’s a matter
of knowledge. Even the most untutored viewers detect the phoniness,
the formulaic packaging when a film is close enough to their lives
that they can compare it with something they know’ That’s why Reality
Bites bit the dust at the box office. The teens it was supposed
to appeal to were precisely the group that most sniffed out its
fraudulence. It’s also why most Hollywood directors have the good
sense to make characters sufficiently different from their viewers’
ordinary experience that the viewer suspends disbelief. The
Crying Game worked because most audiences had no experience
of its gay milieu. Inform yourself by viewing Gregg Araki’s Three
Lonely People in the Night or All Fucked Up,
and The Crying Game becomes almost as cartoonish as Fatal
MM: Do you think people would prefer the Araki
movies if they saw them?
RC: Unfortunately, no. I have no illusions
that Araki will ever be as well-known as Tarantino or Stone. People
prefer artistic tricks to true discoveries. Truth is messier and
more complex than a gimmick. Flash is preferred to real insight
because flash gives the illusion of insight without requiring the
actual effort of learning anything new. It’s a fact of psychic
life that our ideas and emotions are organized to resist fundamental
change. Real art is always going to be resisted, because its experiences
will never neatly fit into pre-existing categories. It makes us
work. We can’t just sit back and take it in. We have to wake up
Art doesn’t give us pre-cooked, pre-digested experiences,
but raw, rough, unclassifiable ones. In fact, if you can say what
emotions you feel while you watch a film, you probably aren’t having
an emotional experience in the way I mean. Real emotions defy verbal
summaries. And they leave us more confused than analytic. Thinking
in a new way is more likely to bewilder than to enlighten us, at
least at first. If an experience is truly original, it puts us
in places we’ve never been before and may not want to be. To paraphrase
Mick Jagger: art gives us not what we want, but what we need.
MM: Is that your definition of art?
RC: Well, art does lots of things in lots
of different ways, but one of the things it can do is to point
a way out of some of the traps of received forms of thinking and
feeling. Every artist makes a fresh effort of awareness. He offers
new forms of caring. He can point out the processed emotions and
canned understandings that deceive us. He can reveal the emotional
lies that ensnare us. He can help us to new and potentially revolutionary
understandings of our lives.
MM: Can you give a positive example of how
a film can do that?
RC: Sure. It’s more fun to praise than to
criticize, anyway. The only problem is that Hollywood has such
a hammer-lock on our imaginations that the major works of film
art are still largely unknown-even to most film professors.
John Cassavetes’s Faces is an example of a
film that simply leaves behind most of the ways other movies organize
and present experience, as if Hollywood had never existed. At a
stylistic level, it literally shows us life in a new way – ignoring
all of those old cliches about how scenes should be shot and edited:
all that stuff about using intercut shot/ reverse-shot close-ups
for conversations; star-system hierarchies of importance for actors;
melodramatic conflicts and confrontations between the characters
to generate drama; and the reliance on an action-centered plot
to keep the whole thing zooming right along
At the level of experience, Cassavetes shreds most
of the myths that American life and film are organized around:
the worship of personal glamour and power; the myth that outward
actions and the belief that we prove ourselves by competing with
each other. That’s what it means for a film to reject old formulas,
cliches, and myths and present new forms of understanding in their
MM: But Cassavetes is a depressing filmmaker.
Many viewers walk out of his movies. Does something have to feel
bad for it to be good?
RC: You know why people leave his movies?
Because they won’t simplify the experiences they offer and tell
viewers what they are supposed to know and feel every second. They
force us to come to grips with experiences that we have to work
to understand. In short, he’s not Altman. He doesn’t offer easy
ironies or intellectual shortcuts to knowledge. He doesn’t flatter
us and allow us to feel superior to his characters and events.
His work is depressing only if you refuse to give up your old ways
of understanding. It’s frustrating only if you refuse to learn
from it. His truths seem fierce, only because we resist them so
fiercely. Otherwise, his work is a joyous, spiritually exultant
viewing experience-because it opens the door to the discovery of
new truths about ourselves.
MM: How does the assaultiveness and intensity
of Faces differ from the shock value of Tarantino’s work?
Aren’t both filmmakers using what you called "tricks" or "gimmicks
to hold our attention?
RC: It’s a trick if it is there simply to
stoke up the drama, to chum our emotions, to grab and hold us.
It’s not a trick if it’s in the service of a profound insight.
It’s not a trick if it opens up new understandings. Cassavetes
is not interested in shocking, but in enlightening us. We feel
the shock because we register the insight. In Tarantino, there’s
nothing but the shock itself.
If you want a crash course on the difference between
gimmicks and revelations, watch Pulp Fiction and Elaine
May’s Mikey and Nicky on successive nights. May creates
characters who have a superficial similarity to Tarantino’s in
their guttersnipe jitteriness, and scenes that similarly defeat
our expectations, but she does it not to astonish us, but in the
service of showing us astonishing things about ourselves. She’s
not playing with genre conventions. She doesn’t use narrative surprises
or shifts of tone to hold our interest. She doesn’t use gore to
scare us. She gives us a scary, wonderful, shifting conception
of who we are. She imagines experience as having a mercuriality,
onwardness, and open-endedness that is exhilarating and terrifying.
Like Tarantino’s, May’s scenes can be both shocking and screamingly
funny, but the difference is that in May these extremes of feeling
are almost accidental side-effects of the insights her work provides.
In Tarantino, the shocks and the jokes are ends in themselves.
They reveal nothing. They are all there is.
Mikey and Nicky shows us what great art does. It
gives us new ways of knowing. It gives us new emotions, new brains
and hearts, new eyes and ears. It blows our old, tired selves away
and makes us, at least for a while, newborn, in a new world. 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.