Carney is Professor of Film and American Studies at Boston University.
He is the author of more than fifteen books in seven languages-most
recently: a book he calls "the autobiography Cassavetes never lived
to write": Cassavetes on Cassavetes (Faber and Faber/Farrar,
Straus, and Giroux); a study of Cassavetes' first film, Shadows
(British Film Institute/University of California Press) based on
a "Rosebud" conversation with Cassavetes shortly before his death;
and The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World (Cambridge
University Press), the first extended critical examination of the
British filmmaker's work in any language. He is one of the world's
leading authorities on American film and culture and a popular speaker
at film festivals around the world. He manages a web site devoted
to independent film and other art at: http://www.Cassavetes.com.
You seem to be a proponent of filmmakers commenting on the political
and social landscape (Mike Leigh being an example). Why do you think
this is important?
Hollywood separates personal and social issues because the producers
are afraid of alienating anyone. They are salesmen and every salesman
knows better than to discuss religion or politics. You might lose
a customer if you actually took a stand on anything that mattered.
Remember Antonioni's description of Hollywood? "Being nowhere, saying
nothing, about no one."
that doesn't mean that movies like Oliver Stone's that puff themselves
up with a lot of political and sociological heavy-breathing are
any better. Politics can be a form of escapism. Stone's social critiques
let us run away from our own lives, our personal problems, and blame
the system. His hell has other people in it. The problems in his
movies are always caused by someone else. Not you and me. That can't
be true since the world is made up of yous and mes. There's no one
else. The greatest movies ask people to examine their own lives,
not point their fingers at someone else.
you want an example of how a movie can be political without blaming
the system or victimizing its characters, look at Todd Haynes's
Safe. It never preaches. It never attitudinizes about social
problems. But it reveals that the way the world is organized and
understood affects the smallest individual act. It makes us think
deeply about the connections between society and personal life --
about where we live and how, about our felt need for order and clarity
and safety, about our fears of what we can't control. Haynes's movie
shows that the personal is political, and that's what makes it the
most subversive and radical American film of the past ten years.
Why do you think film critics don't usually put films within
a political or social or even economic context? Would it be helpful
for them to do so?
American film reviewing is a form of advertising and advertisements
are never political for fear someone might disagree with them. All
of the important film reviewers are extensions of the Hollywood
publicity machine. If that sounds too harsh, ask yourself why they
spend months covering the Academy Awards -- which is just a big,
self-congratulatory Hollywood company picnic. When was the last
time a work of art even got nominated? The reviewers are flacks
for the studios. The publicists create phony behind-the-scenes drama
for them to report, feed them celebrity gossip in press releases,
and fly them out to LA on all-expense-paid interview junkets. No
one dares to tell the truth about the system for fear that they
will be expelled from the club and denied the next big interview
with the next big nobody.
What is your biggest gripe with most film criticism today? Do you
see any indications of an alternative critical community evolving
to counter what you see in the mainstream press?
As my secretary says, "Don't get me started!" Since we haven't got
a week, I'll have to give you a short list of some of the most obvious
begin with the fact that Hollywood movies get reviewed in the first
place. You know, only about one book out of a hundred that is published
ever gets even a single-sentence mention in The New York Times,
but every Hollywood movie that plays in Manhattan is guaranteed
a review -- and often more than that: a review, a feature piece,
and an interview or two with the star on top of everything else.
What does that tell you about the power of the advertising tail
to wag the editorial dog?
the other hand, if the reviewers are going to let the advertisers
dictate what they cover, why not at least call a spade a spade?
Why don't they tell the truth? Why don't they say: "This movie was
planned and produced to cash in on a trendy social issue to generate
publicity; it features a big name star to suck in viewers and generate
media interviews; and it pushes a few non-threatening emotional
buttons but leaves everything unchanged in the end, in order to
give people a feel-good experience that will encourage them to recommend
it to their friends." Why not call the garbage garbage? When was
the last time a movie reviewer wrote what is obvious about ninety-nine
out of a hundred movies? That they were made for morons.
there is the shameless sucking up to celebrities. Are we all still
star-struck teenagers? Isn't it time for an adult reality-check?
Why interview Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg about the art of film,
as if they were thinkers, and knew anything about the subject? Why
do Charlie Rose and James Lipton fawn on Harrison Ford and Julia
Roberts, treating them as if they were great actors? Why are movie
stars never asked a single hard question by an interviewer -- like
why they are wasting their lives making junky Hollywood movies?
But since I'm a film professor, I'll give you two academic pet peeves:
fed up with professors who try to redeem crummy movies by finding
grandiose cultural metaphors and themes in them. You know, the ones
that argue that Showgirls is profound because it depicts
"the commodification of American life," or that no matter how boring
and trite A.I. is, we have to take it seriously since it
is freighted with "Metaphoric Significance." Give me a break. They
pitch their tents in some Joseph Campbell heaven of symbolic references,
thirty thousand feet above the actual experience of the work. There
is something profoundly wrong with a critic who cares more about
archetypal themes than individual feelings and experiences (just
as there was something fundamentally wrong about Joseph Campbell's
understanding of life). Orwell put it more simply: There are some
ideas so stupid only a professor could believe them.
I'm exasperated with professors who justify their interest in trash
with theories about how the works they show in class represent intricate
reworkings of genre conventions or are profound expressions of popular
culture. They conveniently ignore the fact that movies are not expressions
of popular but of corporate culture. They are calculated, manufactured,
mass-produced products created by multinational corporations to
make as much money as possible. That's a little different from nineteenth-century
patchwork quilts and whaling voyage scrimshaw.
something both the reviewers and the professors forget is that Americans
over the age of 40 don't go to the movies, and if they do, they
certainly don't take them seriously as expressions of anything.
It's easy to forget this if you are in the movie biz, but you get
a reminder every once in a while when you discover that your aunt
and uncle and cousins have never heard of the Coen brothers and
have no interest in finding out. The parents of most of my students
think they are wasting their time majoring in film. That's a good
corrective when we start waxing poetic about cinema as the twentieth-century
art form. Not to these realtor mothers and businessman fathers!
no accident that the demographic for Hollywood movies is so young.
They are not made for adults, but for teenagers and others in various
states of arrested development, like film reviewers.
to the formation of an alternative critical community, I just don't
know. Most journalists are hopeless. Jonathan Rosenbaum used to
be intermittently interesting thirty years ago, but lately he's
become an embarrassment: a testy, whiney, complaining old man. Academics
like David Bordwell and David James are hog-tied by their own limiting
academic ideologies, methods, and terminology. Professional reviewers
like David Denby, Anthony Lane, and Elvis Mitchell just aren't smart
enough about art and are too compromised by their job descriptions.
The artists are the only critics I really trust. If Caveh Zahedi
or John Gianvito or Gordon Erikson tell me something is worth seeing,
I'll walk barefoot over broken glass to get to it. I guess my hope
is that some of my own students will change the history of film
criticism in the next fifteen years. But I'll have to wait and see
if that happens.
What qualities must a filmmaker embody to be an artist?
All that matters is that they tell their own personal truths. The
beauty is that that can take a trillion unpredictable, unknown forms.
Reminding us how strange and miraculous our lives really are. How
weirdly and artificially structured society is. How mixed-up things
are. How extraordinary ordinary people are. Reminding us of the
love and kindness that never make the news. Showing us the heroism
of everyday life.
thing we know for sure is that the next great artist won't look
like the last. I don't want a filmmaker who makes Cassavetes or
Leigh or Ozu movies. Those filmmakers didn't become who they were
by imitating anyone else, but by telling the truth in their own
What directors in Hollywood are making films that transcend the
would be the last to know. Or care. As far as I'm concerned, it's
like asking who worked for Enron but transcended the corporate mindset?
I'm sure there might have been someone, but I would then ask why
they worked for Enron. Why not ask what non-Hollywood directors
transcend the studio mindset? There are many interesting artists
out there, but don't expect to see their faces on the cover of the
next issue of Premiere: Jay Rosenblatt, Sam Seder, Su Friedrich,
Charles Burnett, Chris Brown, Rob Nilsson, Harmony Korine, Chris
Smith, Lucas Sabean, Gordon Erikson, Paul Harrill, Josh Apter, David
Ball, Sherman Alexie, Terry Zwigoff, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky,
Caveh Zahedi, Jim Jarmusch, Eric Mendelsohn. I'm sure there are
dozens of others I don't know about. It's the hacks whose faces
Why do you think there has been a trend of anti-sentimental films
in recent years?
It's a way of bursting the bubble, revealing that the Empire has
nothing on under its clothes. Black comedy surfaces when options
for normal truth-telling are blocked or frustrated by the mainstream
the expansionist, optimistic, go-go Elizabethan period-so much like
our own Reagan-Bush years, Kyd and Marlowe wrote these brilliant,
dark, sardonic comedies-the two parts of Tamburlaine, The
Jew of Malta, The Spanish Tragedy. At the height of the
Eisenhower snooze-fest and the Kennedy-Camelot love-in, Kubrick
gave us Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove. In the
peace-love-Woodstock era, Altman and Penn unleashed Mash
and Bonnie and Clyde. Todd Solondz, Paul Thomas Anderson,
Sam Mendez, and Neil LaBute flourish because they tell us something
we need to hear. They tell us that the dominant culture is screening
out important truths. They tell us that its mass-produced feel-good
products represent massive, life-denying acts of repression. And
Appendix to my Leigh book has a lot more about this. Films like
Magnolia, American Beauty, Your Friends and Neighbors,
Happiness, and Naked are a purgative. An enema to flush
out the sentimental crap. They are a necessary rejection of the
fraudulence of Hollywood. Their causticness, irony, satire, cynicism
is positive in this respect. These works are the last refuge of
the truth-telling, caring heart-in hiding, forced underground by
the happy-face fakery of American culture in the pre-9/11 decade.
that doesn't mean that these films are great works of art. I wouldn't
say that of Marlowe's or Kyd's work either. Shakespeare was the
great artist of their era-because his art, like all great art, came
out of love and kindness and sympathy and caring, not sarcasm and
satire and illusion-shattering. It isn't enough to show what is
wrong. You have to find a way to affirm what is right, without denying
what is. You have to find a way to love life in all of its imperfection.
That's what Rembrandt and Frans Hals do. That's what Lenny Bruce
did. In film, that's what Cassavetes managed to do and Su Friedrich
and Tom Noonan and Mike Leigh do, but it's beyond LaBute and Solondz.
Their films are mean-spirited, ungenerous, spiritually stingy, and
emotionally closed. They take cheap shots. They are afraid. Before
they can be artists they have to learn to risk more and love more.
Some media/cultural critics talk about sentimentality as a by-product
of an industrial society unable to feel without "emotional guideposts."
(Like we have to be told where to take pictures at Disneyland!)
What to you distinguishes genuine emotion in art from fake emotion,
i.e., genuine human empathy from manipulated sentimentality? How
do we get back to the genuine in film-free from guideposts? Isn't
all film a manipulation? Isn't any emotion real?
I've written so much about the "guidepost" issue and devoted so
many classes to it, that I'll skip it if you don't mind and refer
anyone interested in it to my writing.
to the other part of your question: You want me to tell you how
to tell fake emotion from real? You should be asking Charlotte Beck,
not me. She's a Zen Master who's written books about the subject.
Beautiful books. I'm not as smart as she is, but I'll take a stab
at an answer by saying something that may sound weird. As far as
I am concerned, ninety-nine percent of all of the emotions we
experience in life and in Hollywood movies are what you are calling
"fake." Our culture is a machine for creating false feelings-a
whole panoply of petty, personal, egoistic demands; our greed and
obsession with possessions and appearances, from houses to cars
to clothing; our need to keep up with the latest gadgets, trends,
news, and events; our concerns about glamour and charm and what
other people think of us; our feeling that we need to fight, struggle,
and compete to get ahead-and a million other self-destructive fears
and insecurities. They are everywhere. And they are all unreal.
Made up. Crazy. Cuckoo.
put ourselves on an emotional hamster track we can never get to
the end of. And we love the whole insane race. The push and pull
of the bustling, grabbing, self-centered ego has become our substitute
for the soul, which we ball up and jam into an hour at church or
synagogue once a week. There are good emotions-truer, deeper, more
authentic ways of being-but the problem with Hollywood and television
and the rest of the media is that the whole system is devoted to
presenting, manipulating, and exalting the self-destructive, self-centered
feelings-not the valuable, good ones. In fact, as far as I can tell,
movies organized around ego-centered emotions are the ones people
love the most. Just like they love football games more than they
love ballet. That's because they feed into a whole cultural system
of programming. For more than you want to know about this subject,
read the Introduction to my Leigh book.
let me add that I've discovered that when I call these feelings
fake, my students get confused. They say people really
feel these emotions. Their pulses really beat faster
during the ending of The Matrix. They really cry at
the end of Titanic. They really care who wins in Erin
Brockovich. They really feel elated when a villain gets
blown up in the Star Wars movies. They really got
choked up when they wore a yellow ribbon during the Gulf War, or
when they attached an American flag to their car more recently.
And my students are right. To the people who experience these feelings,
they are real. But that doesn't mean they aren't fake. Maybe it
would be better to call them mental emotions, since they
are created by our thoughts. They are in our heads. That's what's
wrong with them. They represent postures, stances, and attitudes
that make us feel good about ourselves. Even as we torture ourselves
by casting ourselves in this endless, draining struggle, these emotions
flatter us. They inflate our importance. We struggle so we can feel
we are getting ahead. We keep up with the Joneses so we can feel
superior to them. Even as it hurts them, people love to create self-justifying
emotional dramas this way.
doesn't have to be that way. Bad movies play on our emotional weaknesses,
but great ones can move us beyond these clichés or show us their
limitations. But don't look to Hollywood for that kind of movie.
Look at Dreyer's Ordet or Gertrud. Look at Bresson's
L'Argent or Pickpocket. Look at Cassavetes' Faces,
which critiques the reliance on business values for personal interactions.
Look at Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party -- an absolutely brilliant
dissection of the emotional role-playing we imprison ourselves within.
These films reveal how unreal and self-destructive these feelings
Sometimes it seems like so many films are becoming more like roller-coaster
rides of stimulation rather than windows into human experience,
and even so-called art films many times gloss over the interior
life of their characters and become rather cynical reflections of
the filmmakers' unwillingness to grapple with deep questions. Why
do you think this is?
People would rather have simple emotions. They want thrills and
chills, but just as they want happy endings, they want easy, predictable,
controllable excitement. It's why video games are so big. It's the
remnants of our evolutionary past. Our animal brain stems and our
fight-or-flight limbic systems.
my film classes, I sometimes do a unit on ballet and modern dance
to show students the expressive power of gesture and movement, and
some of my boy grad students -- with great sincerity and conviction
mind you -- tell me that they don't get much out of the Paul Taylor
or Balanchine tapes, but they "know what I mean," since they feel
"the exact same things someone at the ballet does" when they watch
the quarterback scramble in a football game. I have the awkward
job of informing them that, no, they don't understand what I am
trying to show them. As great as Lawrence Taylor was, the experience
of watching him was fundamentally different from what Paul Taylor
offers. Burt Bachrach may bring a tear to your eye, but that doesn't
make him Bach.
issue of whether you feel something or not is not a sufficient test
of the value of a work. Our feelings are too primitive. Too simple.
I can get excited by the final minute of a Final Four playoff game.
But I don't mistake it for a work of art. I tell the boys who want
to equate Michael Jordan with Suzanne Farrell, that they have to
ask what they learn from the experience. Does it change or enrich
their understanding of life? Or does it just play into their pre-existing
emotional clichés? Does it leave them thoughtful and deeper or just
breathless and excited? If they want that, you're right, they might
as well go on a roller-coaster ride. Great art is not about revving
us up. That's what a sales conference or How-to-Make-a-Fortune-in-Real-Estate
seminar is for. The greatest art is more likely to take us through
an experience that humbles and abashes us -- that chastens, bewilders,
and hushes us into silence at what we suddenly realize we have failed
to see and experience up until then. That's pretty different from
a video game or a roller-coaster ride.
life is everything. What else is there? The rest is capitalism and
cars and houses. You're sick if you care about those things. I'm
not opposed to some of the multiculturalist and feminist agendas,
but it's something that filmmakers who focus on sociological issues
and institutions need to ponder-that our imaginations, our dreams,
our emotions are the only things that really matter. You can have
all the equal-pay-for-equal-work statutes in the world, but if your
imagination is impoverished, you are poorer than a ghetto kid squealing
in the spray from a fire hydrant. We need films that recognize that
what a teenage girl thinks and feels and dreams is far more important
than the clothes she wears or the car she drives. That would be
a rare movie!
most of the children's films I've seen have adopted our culture's
depraved adult values. The kids in them are just little consumers.
And of course, the goal is turn the kids watching them into little
consumers too-as they run off to McDonald's to collect the mugs,
action figures, and stickers. That's why Treasure Island and
The Arabian Nights have more to say to a child's soul than
a whole library of I Have Two Mommies books.
What does the future hold for indie filmmakers with the rise of
desktop filmmaking? Do you see any interesting filmmakers out there
working in digital video?
All of the young filmmakers I know are working in digital, since
they can't afford film! Well, maybe not all, but most of them. The
advantage of digital is that you can massively over-shoot. I just
got off the phone with a friend who told me he shot thirty hours
of footage for his new movie. It would have been out of the question
to buy and process that much 16mm film.
downfall of most low-budget indie work is the acting. By necessity,
young filmmakers usually have to use students, relatives, and other
non-actors in their work. If they are limited to one or two takes
because of the cost of film and processing, the results can be embarrassing.
Massive over-shooting allows them to compensate. They can shoot
until their actors are too tired to "act" or put down their actorly
mannerisms, and start being real. My friend said he even shot some
stuff like a documentarian, filming his actors when they weren't
acting, when they didn't realize they were being filmed. Cassavetes
did the same thing. It can make a real difference. As Renoir said,
the whole scene is saved when the girl playing the servant thinks
the shot is over and lets out a sigh.
a smaller crew and less equipment can also make things less intimidating.
The mood is different. You can improvise. You can do a scene over
and over again. You can take chances. You can have fun, play around,
experiment. Chaplin shot this way and it's always good for the work.
And, of course, the PC has revolutionized editing, to take away
a little of the time pressure and cost from that part of the process.
But I'm convinced that no matter how cheap filmmaking becomes, there
won't ever be a glut of masterpieces. Technology does nothing by
itself. Better, smaller, cheaper cameras don't make better art;
better artists do. In seventeenth-century Holland, oil painting
was a cutting edge technology, but it took Rembrandt and Frans Hals
to do something amazing with it. The digital revolution will probably
quadruple the number of feature films made in a given year, but
most of them will still be garbage, just like most of them are now.
Look at the first video revolution ten or fifteen years ago-when
Beta and Hi-band 8 became cheap. What is its legacy? Porno flicks.
There won't be any more artists born in a given year just because
movies become cheaper to make. That particular form of insanity
is in your DNA, and you either have it or you don't. Pen and pencil
are the ultimate low-budget technology, but how many great novels
and plays and poems are written every year? I don't see a stream
of Shakespeares being produced just because writing is inexpensive.
Emotional clichés still lurk like land mines waiting to destroy
a violinist friend used to say, it's a poor musician who blames
his instrument. A real artist can use whatever is available. Picasso
could have created masterpieces with a burnt stick and a piece of
chalk. In fact he did. We call them charcoals. Cassavetes could
have used a cheap, old fashioned VHS camera and created a scene
that was worth watching. In fact he did. In the last ten years of
his life he used to film scenes at home that way just for the fun
of doing it. Michael Almereyda made three amazing movies with a
Pixel-cam. One of those sixty-nine dollar video cameras for kids
that records on audio tape that they used to sell at KayBees. Another
Girl, Another Planet, The Rocking Horse Winner,
and a documentary about the Sundance film festival.
a faulty analysis that locates the problem in the cost of the production.
The harder nut to crack for young filmmakers is distribution. How
does a young, unknown filmmaker get a movie into a real theater
or on mainstream TV-the web doesn't count-no matter how it is made?
The rub, of course, is that the more original the work is, the harder
it will be to sell it to the corporations that run those enterprises.
It might offend someone. It might not be "entertaining" enough.
It might require you to think a little. It might be different!
life-or-death struggle every artist fights is not with technology
but with our commercial culture. The businessmen, the accountants,
the advertising guys always want to get their fingers in the pie
-- suggesting cuts, trying to speed up the pacing, trying to pander
to some imaginary demographic-and it's the death of personal expression.
Generic truth -- what "they" want, need, or feel -- is not truth
anymore. Truth can only be what you feel. Every week I have videos
sent to me that are better than anything broadcast on HBO or PBS,
accompanied by letters describing how the filmmaker can't get them
screened or how, and even if they have won an award at some festival,
they still can't get a distributor. The indie films that get lucky,
the ones you always hear about, are almost always picked up for
the wrong reason -- not because of their intrinsic merit, but because
of some controversial theme, or sexual content, or potential appeal
to a special interest demographic (gays or blacks or feminists or
whatever). And if you don't play to a special interest, forget it.
It's not a vote for art. It's a business decision on who the distributor
thinks he can fleece. That problem won't go away.
You explain in Cassavetes on Cassavetes that Cassavetes had
this "mind's eye" view of himself, which is defined as how you perceive
yourself before "society forces compromises or self-censorship on
you." What filmmakers today seem to hold true to their mind's eye
My hope is in the actors. Some of them have become filmmakers by
default, usually out of disgust with the roles offered to them in
mainstream movies. Others are willing to work for nothing in an
independent film written and directed by someone else, just for
a chance to be able to do something really interesting and creative
for a change.
both groups of actors. Face it, most born-in-the-bone directors
are rhetoricians. They are seduced away from truth in the pursuit
of flashy, razzle-dazzle, special effects. Look at David Lynch's
work or that of the Coen brothers. So much of it is rhetoric. Actors,
by the nature of their calling, have a simpler, purer conception
of art. They have dedicated their lives to individual, personal
expression -- to what you are calling holding onto your "mind's
eye view" against all the bureaucratic and social forces leagued
against it, attempting to level and homogenize it.
why many of the best contemporary directors are actors. I'm thinking
of people like Tom Noonan, Steve Buscemi, Sean Penn, Vince Gallo,
Tim Roth, and Gary Oldman. Their work is surprisingly good.
In this time of economic hardship, what do you recommend for
people just entering a career in filmmaking?
I'm always uncomfortable with the notion of a "career" in anything.
American society is structured so that it opulently rewards certain
roles (lawyers, doctors, celebrity actors and athletes, wheeler-dealer
businessmen, stockbrokers, producers) and ignores or financially
penalizes others (teachers, nurses, mothers, caregivers, ministers,
artists). That never changes, in good times or bad.
think we focus too much on the financial side. That's Hollywood
thinking. If you are a real artist, you can make art with no money.
Red Grooms used house paint and plywood to make his art. Paul Zaloom
sets up a card table and moves toy soldiers around. Todd Haynes
used Barbie dolls. I had a friend, Freddie Curchack, who made shadow
puppets on a sheet. An artist who complains about not having enough
money is not an artist, but a businessman.
only reason to make a movie, paint a painting, or write a poem is
to try to explore and understand something that matters to you.
God knows, it's the only reason I write my books. If I were in it
for the money I would have thrown in the towel and declared bankruptcy
a long time ago. The filmmakers I know who don't have enough money
to make a movie are busy writing short stories or putting on plays
with their friends. The beauty of that is that when you are able
to get things together to make a movie, you have something to film.
You have tested it by tinkering with it and writing it out. You
have already workshopped it and seen where it needs to be revised.
I tell students who say they can't afford a high quality video camera
or sound equipment to put on a play in their livingrooms or hide
out in their basements and write a novel. If they tell me they're
not interested in doing that, then I know they're not artists. They
are more interested in having a career than a life.
Sometimes it seems like we have a very "everyone for themselves"
attitude in the film industry in the U.S., which leaves little room
for cultivating a master-student relationship. Also, to be unique
and progressive as an artist often seems to imply to trash, not
build upon, the past. Do you agree with this observation, and if
you do, do you see any filmmakers out there trying to build upon
a sense of film tradition and history in their individual styles?
Rob Nilsson said something very interesting in a Res column. He
said that film schools should be abolished and all the young people
should go find some low-budget independent filmmaker whose works
they loved, apprentice themselves to him or her, and give their
tuition money to the filmmaker. Of course, the proposal was half
in jest. He knows it will never happen, and that it sounds insane
to most people. But I would love to have young filmmakers take him
seriously. It could change the history of American film.
school is a waste of time anyway. In fact, it's counter-productive
in most cases because the wrong things are taught-like explaining
away your characters' mysteries by providing unnecessary background
information, and teaching you how to keep the stupid plot moving
along. Who says you have to have establishing shots or over-the-shoulder
shots? Who says a scene has to be lighted or edited in a certain
way? It really shows contempt for the art. You'd never tell a musician
he had to compose for particular instruments and play in certain
keys, or a painter what colors to use or what size canvas to paint
on. So at the end of the process, another class of no-nothings is
turned loose in the world to compete with each other for a Hollywood
of the students I teach give up on film after they graduate anyway.
And the ones who go to LA and fight and fight to get a job and starve
for a while end up pushing a dolly or stringing wires on some big
budget production that no one involved with gives a damn about.
And those are the so-called lucky ones! They could have made their
own feature their own way if they had apprenticed themselves to
an indie filmmaker, but instead they go off to work in a factory
every morning, and become a tiny, unimportant cog in an enormous
studio machine. What a waste of a life. They had it right in the
sixteenth century. The guild system was a much better way.
Why do you think so many filmmakers are drawn to teaching, besides
the schedule flexibilities?
Well, the pay is better than working in McDonald's! Lots of
filmmakers come so they can use equipment for free or get students
to help them with their films. But I'd like to think there is a
higher, nobler reason-the dream of being part of a community of
like-minded, soulful, spiritual searchers. Universities are the
last of the monasteries -- the last shelter from the capitalist
way of measuring everything in terms of popularity and profit. That
makes them a wonderful place to be. But of course I'm talking about
an ideal university. There are so few of them left. Most university
film programs-especially the best-known ones, like NYU, UCLA, and
USC-do not represent an alternative to the business sickness of
our culture, but are devoted to training people to enter and compete
within it. It's like I was saying, they'd rather give their students
a job than a life. I am fighting that struggle in my own program.
A fun question: If you could make one film required curriculum for
American film audiences, what would it be and why? Why is this film
innovative or unique?
If I were limited to teaching one two-or three-hour film class
for all eternity. My one shot to change the history of American
film, I wouldn't show any movies! I'd have the students listen
to Bach's Double Violin Concerto and ask them to try to get that
into their work. Or read Stanley Elkin's Greatest Hits.
Or look at Degas' paintings. Those are things I already do in my
classes and I'm convinced that many of the students learn more from
doing that than they do from looking at any movie.
you absolutely required me to screen something, I'd use my three
hours to show short films. They are better than most features, and
would at least demonstrate that a movie doesn't necessarily have
to tell a stupid "story," be "entertaining," or any of that other
rot Hollywood would make us believe.
What would you show?
Conner's Permian Strata, Valse Triste, and A Movie;
Jay Rosenblatt's Human Remains, Period Piece, and
Restricted; Su Friedrich's Sink or Swim and Rules
of the Road; Shirley Clarke's Bridges Go Round; Mike
Leigh's Afternoon, Sense of History, and The Short
and Curlies; Charlie Weiner's Rumba. And any ten minutes
from Tom Noonan's What Happened Was, Caveh Zahedi's Little
Stiff, Mark Rappaport's Casual Relations, Elaine May's
Mikey and Nicky, and Ozu's Late Spring. That's about
three hours of stuff. The least the students would learn is that
a film doesn't have to look like a Hollywood movie. That Hollywood
is a tiny and ultimately unimportant rivulet flowing away from the
great sea of art.
really smart ones would learn that the greatest movies use something
other than action to keep us caring and in the moment-that the worst
way to make a movie is to organize it around a sequence of events-that
plot is the biggest lie we can tell about what life is really about.