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Ray Carney on The State of Independent Film, Part II

Ray Carney on The State of Independent Film, Part II

Articles - Directing

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 # 13-14 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’
A Woman Under the Influence, followed by a weekend festival of
independent works by Caveh Zahedi, Su Friedrich, Rick Schmidt,
and others. This is the second part of a two-part article. The first
half appeared
in MM #26. -Ed.

Surely I’m not the only person in America weary of
stylistic games and jokes. I can’t be the only one who wants a
movie to teach me something, to change me-not merely to spin around
chasing its own tail, no matter how stylistically virtuosic it
may be. Narrative jokes, tricks, and surprises are too easy, too
superficial ways of holding interest. This worship of empty stylistic
virtuosity is Hitchcock’s cinematic and Pauline Kael’s lamentable
critical legacy. Is that what art is about-thrills and chills?
Surprises and winks at the viewer? Most of my production undergrads
can do that before they arrive on campus-because it doesn’t take
knowledge, thought, insight, maturity. These movies whip up a frothy
soufflé of zippy effects, but leave you hungry in the end.
They don’t nourish our souls-just titillate our feelings. It seems
like such a revelation at the time, but there’s really nothing
to it. It’s all fake feelings.

Fake feelings are manufactured all the time outside
of the movies. Look at the craziness that parents are persuaded
to flip into, chasing after Beannie Babies or Nintendo games for
their kids, or at what happens at a political rally, or the Gulf
War patriotic frenzy that had all of America by the throat a few
years back, or at what goes on at sporting events. You’d think
civilization hinged on who won the Superbowl or the World Series.
You’d think whether the O.J. verdict was correct really mattered
to the future of the world. These emotions are not real; they are
synthetic, made-to-order.

For an illustration of how films can whip up and
exploit what I am calling pseudo-emotions, look at the whole thriller
genre. There’s not a real feeling in it. The emotions are plastic.
The only reason we fall for it is that it taps into some aspect
of our evolutionary past, some section of our reptilian brain stems
connected with fight or flight responses. I dare you to try to
turn off a suspenseful thriller after you have watched 10 minutes.
I can’t do it, either. But what does that prove? Suspense is the
cheapest trick in the book, and it means nothing-no matter how
gripping it may feel. Just because you feel an emotion doesn’t
mean anything valuable is happening to your heart and mind. The
emotions in most movies are about as deep as an experience at the
circus or an amusement park (though a friend who read this told
me that I am being much too hard on amusement parks and circuses).

Romance movies just use another set of tricks. Watching
them, I get a lump in my throat; I get goosebumps and the hair
stands up on my arms; sometimes I even cry; but it’s not deep learning,
just gimmicks. My students always say that a particular movie "is
so moving." So what? If you want to feel emotions, go to a
hospital emergency room on a Saturday night. Simply feeling an
emotion about a scene in Shine or The English Patient proves absolutely
nothing. You can get emotional hearing a baby cry, but that’s not
art. It’s biology. It’s something programmed in us. Shine and The
English Patient are cartoons for adults-no different from Schindler’s
List, Forrest Gump, or Bambi. They’re as simple-minded as a children’s
storybook. To put it more bluntly, they’re a pack of lies. There’s
not an original or truthful shot, scene, or line of dialogue in
all of Shine. It’s a sign of how even our film festivals have been
dumbed down to the level of the melodramatic mainstream that it
played at Sundance last year. I think it even won some kind of
award. Unbelievable. Thank you, Robert Redford, for bringing us
works like Shine and Four Weddings and a Funeral. It’s nice to
know that someone is out there fighting for the future of cinematic
art-making sure that 19th-century melodramatic hokum will live
on into the 21st century.

These films-Shine, The English Patient, Schindler’s
List-offer lite experiences-not learning, but simulations of learning,
with none of the trouble and pain and growth of the real thing.
We go in not to be tested and grow but to have our prejudices confirmed.
These movies are machines for mass-producing feelings, which roll
off their assembly lines in one-size-fits-all form. The characters
are generic; the dialogue is generic; the acting is generic; the
ideas are generic; the emotions are generic. Shine is a series
of emotional clichés-Rainman meets Mr. Holland’s Opus-one
little heart-throbbing manipulation after the other: Feel this,
feel that-click, click, click. Get it? Got it. It’s not real experience,
but button-pushing-like the joke about the comedians’ convention: "Number
23, number 18, number 3. Ha, ha, ha." These movies provide
low-impact emotional workouts and knowledge on the cheap. If this
is art, Norman Rockwell should be in the Louvre. It’s cooked up
from a recipe-about the level of an afterschool special on TV.
As with Schindler’s List, when it works, the goal is to make us
feel good about feeling bad. We can congratulate ourselves on the
nobility of our emotions.

Are we that desperate to feel something? Are our
lives that out of control that we need this degree of emotional
reassurance and predictability in our works of art? Are we this
addicted to emotional formulas that we need a fix of these fake
feelings every Saturday night? Do viewers actually enjoy having
their buttons pushed in this cynical way? I hope things are not
that bad. Yet I have to admit that when I eavesdrop on the conversations
of the couples streaming up the aisles as the credits roll, it
seems that most of them absolutely adore being passive and manipulated
like this. They like being put on intellectual autopilot. They
enjoy turning on the cruise control, sitting back, and being taken
on a mindless, impersonal, emotional ride.

How different a film like A Woman Under the Influence
is. As a viewer of that movie, you have to work. Cassavetes tests
your powers of response. You have to come to grips with difficult,
unclassifiable experiences. You have to figure things out. It’s
not clichés. It’s not a cartoon version of experience. It’s
not cruise control, but an Indianapolis 500 of feelings, demanding
continuous emotional lane-changing and gear-shifting every few
seconds as you navigate hairraising, hairpin emotional turns. It’s
not high school understandings of life. You have to know a lot
about men and women and children and marriage and life in general
just to understand what is going on, and you learn new things as
you watch the film. The film makes demands on you. You have to
think about what you see. You have to work through it emotionally.
It deliberately challenges you. It defeats your expectations-all
those formulas we try to impose on experience. It doesn’t scream
its meanings at you. It doesn’t simplify everything. It shows you
things that are subtle and slippery and elusive. You have to really
rise to the occasion, just as you do in the subtlest and most delicate
moments of life. Cassavetes makes adult movies-not in the degenerate,
pornographic sense of the term-but movies you have to have experienced
a lot to understand, movies that take emotional maturity and subtlety
to keep up with.

Everything about A Woman Under the Influence challenges
us. Nothing is formulaic. Consider the main character, Mabel Longhetti.
She’s impossible to pin down. We can’t bring her into focus. She
won’t fit any of our stereotypes. She has so many different facets
to her personality. So many different selves. She reminds us how
boring and predictable the characters in mainstream movies are.
She reminds us that there are no characters in real life. No one
in this room is a character like someone in a mainstream movie.
Mabel is a chameleon who becomes different things with different
people. That’s also why she stirred up critical debate. Each critic
tried to catch her in one net or another-she was a victim, she
was a feminist, she was oppressed, she was free-but she slipped
through each one’s grasp. It’s a wonderful place to get a character
to-beyond reductive categories. But it’s also confusing and dangerous-especially
if you want good reviews. Cassavetes gets his film to a place beyond
the bumper- sticker ideological slogans that pass as a substitute
for thinking-a place a lot like life.

While there are only five or 10 generic Hollywood
movies, there is no one kind of independent film. They come in
as many flavors, sizes, and shapes as there are artists. That’s
why it is easier to say what independent films are not than what
they are. I can tell you some things they aren’t: They aren’t about
fancy camerawork and razzle-dazzle visuals. They leave that to
TV commercials. They aren’t about pretty photography and gorgeous
shots. They leave that to the manufacturers of calendars and postcards.
They aren’t necessarily about telling a suspenseful, gripping story.
They leave that to writers of murder mysteries. You don’t read
Shakespeare for the story. You don’t go to Chekhov to find out
how it ends.

These films aren’t about grand sociological generalizations
and clanging symbols either. They leave that to Time magazine think
pieces about 2001, Apocalypse Now, and Thelma and Louise. Independent
films may even violate conventional notions of morality-the infantile
punishment of villains and rewarding of heroes that you find in
most mainstream movies, because they call us to a higher morality,
where what matters is not rewards and punishments, but subtleties
of sensitivity and kindness and love.

The best way to describe these films positively is
to say that they give us new powers. They give us the ability to
see and feel in new ways. Watching A Woman Under the Influence
is like seeing family life through a microscope, suddenly being
able to see things that we live most of our lives not noticing;
suddenly being able to feel in new ways. We see butterfly flickers
of emotion in characters’ faces; we hear verbal flutterings with
super-sensitive ears; we see and feel emotions we never realized
existed.

People think that great works of art give us big
ideas, but that is not correct. We can leave that to Spike Lee,
Oliver Stone, Star Wars and 2001. Really great films give us experiences
which ideas are entirely too coarse and rigid to take in. As T.S.
Eliot said of Henry James, these artists have minds too fine to
be violated by an idea. Ideas are an easy way of knowing. These
films don’t tell you what to know, where to look, what to feel,
or what to conclude about what you see. They make you work. Rather
than giving you thoughts, they make you think. They give you experiences
too mobile and slippery to be boxed up in an idea.

The films you are about to see this weekend are parasol-slashers,
but that does not mean that they are negative. In fact, most of
them offer euphoric experiences, because they are liberating. As
Emerson said, the poet is free and makes free. These artists show
us ways out of the clichés, the fakery, the synthetic feelings,
the canned identities that our culture overflows with. That is
the real reason this gathering is an occasion for celebration.

The preceding should suggest why the real nature
of cinematic independence is not bureaucratic, but emotional and
intellectual. It matters less how and where these films were made
than that they break the chains that bind us (as Horace said was
the function of all art). They break us free from the fabric of
lies, simplifications, and half-truths that our culture is woven
of.

What is it to be an independent filmmaker? I want
to propose a series of definitions in the hope that at least one
may be meaningful. Cassavetes once said to me that he thought of
himself simply as a reporter, and that is not a bad definition.
Of course, being this kind of reporter means that you file reports
from the emotional front that avoid the intellectual clichés
and emotional formulas that most professional reporters employ.
Ezra Pound said that the only difference between an artist and
a journalist is that the artist reported news that didn’t become
obsolete. News that stayed news.

Another way to think of independent filmmakers is
as anthropologists-anthropologists who don’t go off to Borneo or
New Guinea to study mating rituals and family customs, but who
stay at home and study their own culture.

Another way to think of real art is as endless question
asking. These filmmakers are little Socrateses who are never satisfied
with a pat answer. They keep asking ‘Did you notice this? This?
This?’ They dare to ask questions to which they really, truly don’t
have answers. And they ask the hardest possible questions: Questions
about our uncertainties, fears, and insecurities. Questions about
our ability to give love and to receive it. Questions about our
loneliness or our alienation from our emotions. Questions about
why we may not be happy even when we have everything we want. Questions
about what ultimately matters in life.

Another way to think of artists is as explorers who
travel and map unknown inner worlds. While the Hollywood filmmaker
knows where he or she is going every step of the way, storyboarding
scenes days or weeks in advance of the shooting, and going in each
day with a set of predetermined points to make in each shot, real
artists set off down a road they can’t see to the end of. They
work in the dark, feeling their way step by step, learning new
things as they go along. In our smug, know-it-all era, it is clear
that artists are almost the only the real explorers left, and that
they come back with the only news that really matters. But we might
as well accept the fact that Ted Koppel will never devote a panel
discussion to Mark Rappaport’s or Robert Kramer’s explorations.
Barbara Walters will never interview Caveh Zahedi or Su Friedrich
and ask them where they have been traveling emotionally. It’s so
easy to deal with factual discoveries, and so hard to deal with
emotional ones, that it’s not surprising that the more important
kind of exploration is almost completely ignored. We know so much
about facts and events, and so precious little about ourselves.
Sometimes I think we’re downright scared of looking ourselves in
the eye. We’d always rather look outside ourselves-cruise the Internet,
travel the world-than sit still and listen to our own hearts.

But my favorite metaphor for thinking about artists
is as students and teachers. (Since I’m a teacher, I admit that
my occupation probably biases me.) Like students and teachers,
above everything else, real artists must be humble and willing
to learn. They must open themselves up and make themselves vulnerable.
That’s not a very fashionable stance. We live in a culture that’s
devoted to being "cool," in control, and above-it-all.
The goal is to be wised-up and "in" and smart. That’s
another source of Tarantino’s cachet. His movies are so hip and
knowing. Well I have news for him. Real art is about not knowing.
It’s about being humble. It’s about admitting how little we understand
about who we are and what we need or want. The greatest films are
made by artists who dare to plunge into their uncertainties, their
places of fear and doubt.

Again, Cassavetes can stand as a model of this kind
of artist. He went into his films genuinely willing to learn from
the process of making them. He used them to explore parts of his
life he didn’t understand. He had a sense of wonder at all they
taught him about life. Let me tell you a little story about one
of his greatest works that will make clear what that means. This
is the first time I’ve ever told it. I’m not sure how many of you
know about the early part of his career, so I’ll briefly summarize
it. John made his first film, Shadows, as a no-budget indie production,
more or less entirely on his own in New York. The film didn’t do
that well commercially, but John managed to get some attention
by giving interviews. When all was said and done, he was offered
a studio contract to make two low-budget features on the West Coast.
He was young and naive, and jumped at the chance, and moved to
Los Angeles actually believing he could do the same thing he had
done as an independent, only this time with a decent budget, a
professional crew, and a whole studio support system. He thought
it was a dream come true.

Well, I probably don’t have to tell you what happened.
The predictable result was two mediocre movies and a total, unmitigated,
career disaster. The studios had talked a good line, but when final
cut time came around, they wanted their kind of picture, not his,
and on both films John got into incredible fights with his producer,
and eventually got thrown off the set of the second picture and
blackballed from working in the studios. He went back to his big,
new house in the Hollywood Hills and sat at home licking his wounds,
unemployed and unemployable. He could hardly believe the way he
had been treated and what had happened to him. He was young and
idealistic and inexperienced, and had never had a run-in with the
kind of men he had had to work with on these two pictures-high-powered
studio producers and executives whose only interest was power,
money, and the bottom line. Art was a dirty word to these guys.
John was treated pretty badly, but he was so different from these
men that even when it was over he still couldn’t really understand
why they’d done to him what they had.

So what did he do? He decided to make a movie about
them. The result was Faces-the film I walked out on. John made
the movie to try to figure out what made these guys tick-how they
could be so entertaining, and so much fun to be with, in some ways,
and so awful in others. He wanted to understand what they were
like when they were home with their wives eating supper. He wanted
to understand what their sex lives were like. He told me he was
puzzled all the way through the movie: he wrote the script to try
to come to grips with them; he shot scenes in dozens of different
ways to try to figure out how they might have acted in different
situations; he played and replayed the footage on an editing table
to try to figure out what it was like to be them.

But Cassavetes also told me that a strange thing
happened as he made the movie. As he wrote, directed, and edited
it, his bitterness and rage dissipated, and he began to feel a
deep compassion for these men. He started to realize things that
he hadn’t before. He let his film teach him, and he gradually changed
his mind about these men. He still saw how awful they were, but
where he had begun by despising them, he began to feel sorry for
them. He saw how they tortured themselves even more than they tortured
other people. He saw how unhappy they were, how emotionally needy
they were, how insecure, how desperate for love and approval. In
short, John eventually came not only to understand the men who
had ruined his life, but almost to love them. He came to see them
with kindness and sensitivity.

That’s what it means to use film not to tell a canned
story in the Hollywood way, not to make a set of points you’ve
already arrived at, but as a means of understanding life. That’s
what it means to humble yourself before your material, and genuinely
let yourself learn from it. Is it clear how different this is from
the way films are usually made-not only by mainstream directors,
but even by many independents? It’s obvious to me that Robert Altman,
for example, whatever his other considerable gifts, is incapable
of this sort of openness to his material. He has clearly figured
almost everything out before he steps onto the set. His goal is
to score points-not to look, think, and actually learn or change
his mind in the process of making the movie.

To open yourself as completely as Cassavetes did
in front of a set of experiences you don’t understand and use film
to work through them is to grapple with deep mysteries of human
personality. By mysteries I mean something entirely different from
the acts of mystification in Hitchcock, DePalma, Lynch, the Coens,
or their clones, of course. There’s a lot of mystification in contemporary
film-the deliberate withholding of information to thrill or titillate
an audience, but no real mystery. The mysteries in thrillers can
always be cleared up by the final scene, which is to say that they
aren’t mysteries at all in the sense in which I mean. Cassavetes
explores mysteries of who and what we are that won’t be resolved.
His mysteries have the profundity of life.

All of the filmmakers being shown this weekend ask
us to become explorers along with them-to enter into a different
kind of viewing experience, not to sit back and register a series
of predetermined points and meanings, but to open ourselves to
any and all possibilities, and genuinely go on an adventure of
discovery.

I do a lot of interviews, and I frequently get asked
the question of where is independent film heading? What trends
are there? I always answer the same way by saying that it is an
illegitimate question. It treats art as if it were like advertising
or politics or Wall Street, as if it were a matter of demographics
or trends or business cycles. The truth is the opposite. True artistic
creation is solitary in its essence. It is not done by a group
but an individual. It is one heart speaking to one heart. And it
doesn’t ultimately depend on funding or support groups or government
grants. (Though those things certainly don’t hurt!)

There’s a lot of talk about how technology will make
it better for filmmakers of the future, but I don’t think the future
of independent film depends on technology either. Real artists
can use anything. If 35mm film is not available, they will use
16, and if 16 is not available they will use 8; if 8 is not available
they will use video or even a still camera. In Another Girl, Another
Planet, Michael Almereyda made a feature film with a 69-dollar
child’s pixel-cam. It’s terrific. Todd Haynes used Barbie dolls
when he couldn’t afford actors. Superstar is pretty amazing too.
A real artist can use finger paints-like my friend Stan Brakhage-or
finger puppets-like Paul Zaloom. The best student film I ever saw
in my life was a series of still slides projected on a screen with
a desynchronized voice-over narration. One of the best artists
I know uses his hands to make shadows puppets on a sheet hung on
a rope. Talk about low-budget production! It doesn’t matter. Where
there are men and women devoted to telling the truth about life,
great art will continue to be made. 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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