Ray Carney Hacks Up Hollywood

An Interview with Ray Carney

by Diane Cherkerzian | Published May 31, 1995

Ray Carney

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 bidder.

John Cassavetes directed wife Gena Rowlands in Faces.

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, andPhiladelphia 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 work?

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 not emotionally).

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.

M.J. Knecht in Rick Schmidt’s Blues.

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 likeJFK, Malcolm X, and Quiz Show, they are forced to reevaluate historical events.

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 difficult material.

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 be dangerous?

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 Attraction.

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 and scramble.

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 place.

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

~ by revolutionwithin on October 6, 2009.

3 Responses to “Ray Carney Hacks Up Hollywood”

  1. Wow this is a really fascinating interview and it challenged my thinking and encouraged me to maintain my artistic integrity. i hope i can somehow do this within the commercial realities of cinema so my films get seen 😉

    There is a way to do this now I think… more than ever with the internet and social technologies connecting a filmmaker directly to his audience…

    hope so

  2. Hey bro,

    If you liked this, I think you might benefit from Carney’s “10 Anti Rules of filmmaking” – its definite food for thought. I know what you mean about being challenged to keep to one’s integrity.


  3. […] While its screenplay was written by Paul Schrader — who had also written Taxi Driver and would later go on to write the adaption of The Last Temptation of Christ — this 1977 film by novice director John Flynn is vile fascist propaganda without a shred of redeeming value or artistic value. That Quentin Tarantino considers Rolling Thunder one of the Twelve Greatest Films of all Time, and even named a short lived project Rolling Thunder Pictures makes me suspect that the film critic Ray Carney was right after all. Tarantino is a lightweight. […]

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