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Carney on Cassavetes

Film critic Ray Carney sheds light on the work of legendary indie filmmaker, John Cassavetes.

By Cynthia Rockwell

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Ray Carney's book "Cassavetes on Cassavetes" is available for purchase through Amazon.com.

Ray Carney is well known for his attacks on the Hollywood filmmaking establishment, and the journalists, critics, and film professors who, in his view, support it "by conducting sycophantic interviews with airhead movie stars, inviting celebrity directors into the classroom, and generally functioning as unpaid publicists for every studio blockbuster that comes along."

He is also generally recognized to be the world's expert on the life and work of the so-called "father of the American independent movement," actor-writer-director John Cassavetes. He has just published three new books about the filmmaker: "Cassavetes on Cassavetes," described as "Cassavetes’ spiritual autobiography"; the "British Film Institute Film Classics" volume on Cassavetes’ first film, "Shadows," which reveals new facts about the making of the movie, and a viewer’s guide titled "John Cassavetes: The Adventure of Insecurity." He is a Professor of Film and American Studies at Boston University, Chairman of the Film Studies program, and Director of Graduate Admissions. More information about his work is available at the web site devoted to independent film and art he maintains at www.Cassavetes.com

CR: You've written several definitive books on John Cassavetes and his work -- can you describe what it was that originally attracted you to his work?

Carney: My taste in movies has always been a little weird -- probably as a result of coming to them pretty late. As a kid and a teenager, I lived far out in the country, and saw almost nothing. I went to a few movies in college [at Harvard], but really only began to get interested in film in my 20’s, during my grad school years [at Rutgers]. But not Hollywood movies.

You need to know some background to understand this. So bear with me. Near the end of my college years, I had this epiphany about the importance of art as the ultimate form of human expression. All the time I was growing up, my family had had no interest in art at all. None. My father was a businessman; there was not one really good book or record in my house; and no awareness that arts like ballet or opera even existed. I began college as a math and physics major. I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I was very good at math and it was all mapped out for me. But then magic happened. I discovered painting, literature, drama, and the other arts (a lot of it due to an "artistic" Radcliffe girlfriend). It was like being hit by a falling piano. I was mystified, bewildered, destroyed. It was a life-changing experience.

I went to grad school to take a Ph.D. in English literature, and by this point was completely flipped out, totally obsessed with art. There’s no proselytizer like a convert. I would invite friends to my house on Saturday nights and force them to sight-read Shakespeare. I read the complete "Faerie Queene" out loud to another girlfriend. It’s the longest poem in English -- hundreds of pages of tiny type and it took months (she must have had the patience of a saint to have put up with it). I worked my way through Beethoven, Armstrong, Parker, Basie, Ellington, and Goodman. I hacked a path through the deepest, darkest, late Henry James. I went to used record stores and got every LP Lenny Bruce had ever recorded. I didn’t have much money, but even on a graduate student’s budget, I managed to scrape together enough to go to the ballet every week (sitting up in the fourth ring nosebleed seats at Lincoln Center where the groups of tour bus sightseers talk throughout the performance). I saw every Pinter or Chekhov play that came through New York. Getting to a dance piece by Paul Taylor or George Balanchine was more important than eating or paying the rent.

So when I finally began going to a few movies, I wasn’t looking for stupid sentimental story-telling and movie-star glamour -- but for the same kinds of experiences these other works gave me -- turbulence, confusion, wildness, challenge, mystery, shock, magic. I found it in a few foreign filmmakers: Bresson, Tarkovsky, Fellini, Ozu, Rossellini, DeSica, Dreyer, Renoir. I became as obsessed with their work as I was with Picasso’s or Parker’s. By sheer chance, I stumbled into a few of what are now called "independent films" -- though the term didn’t exist in those days -- works by Paul Morrissey, Barbara Loden, Bruce Conner, Kenneth Anger, Mark Rappaport, Robert Kramer, John Korty. Cassavetes was in that group: "Faces, Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence." They were entirely different from the foreign films, but just as consciousness-altering and exciting. The rest, as they say, is history. As I look back on it, I realize that my timing couldn’t have been better. It was the early to mid-seventies, the greatest era in all of American film. I was incredibly lucky. The stars must have been aligned.

CR: Your newest book, "Cassavetes on Cassavetes," has an interesting structure. It is a posthumous autobiography of sorts, drawn from years of archived interviews with the filmmaker, but interwoven with Cassavetes' own words is a considerable amount of your own description and critique of the man's work and methods. Was the book always conceived as a biography or did the concept evolve over years of research?

Carney: If you don’t toss and turn in your sleep and change your mind a trillion times while you’re working on a project like this, you aren’t alive. You’re not allowing yourself to learn anything. I knew Cassavetes personally and thought I knew all there was to know about him. After he died I spent 11 years talking to people who worked with him. Everything I thought turned out to be wrong. And my understanding of his films changed totally as a result. I realized that they were much more personal than I had thought. A lot of the events in them were veiled portraits of events in his life or emotional events connected with his marriage to Gena Rowlands. Every time I talked to another person, I saw new things. I kept rewriting the headnotes up until the night before the book went to the printer. I’m still rewriting them -- scribbling things in my own copy of the book -- as I realize new things. No one will ever see that material, but writing through my confusions is the only way I can come to grips with them.

I feel incredibly lucky to have picked a filmmaker who was complex enough to bear this kind of scrutiny without becoming boring or conventional. There are very few questions worth devoting years of your life to. Most of them are religious and have to do with life and death. But where art comes from in our psyches and how it works its magic on others is on the same level. How did Rembrandt get so much of what it is to be human into his portraits? Where did Bach’s music come from? Where is Shakespeare in his plays? "Cassavetes on Cassavetes" is my attempt to grapple with these sorts of questions. How is a great work of art made? What does it cost emotionally? What confusions does it embody? The headnotes are my stabs at an answer.

CR: In "Cassavetes on Cassavetes," the filmmaker mentions several directors he admires, including Frank Capra and Carl Dreyer, both of whom you've also written books about. Did Cassavetes inspire you to study these filmmakers or does this simply reflect a connection between their work and your own personal artistic interests?

Carney: Great minds think alike! But seriously, I just write about things that I love and don’t understand. It’s no different from obsessing about a person you are in love with. You can’t stop wondering. What makes them tick? What makes them so amazing one minute or so annoying the next? Writing is just a way of thinking and feeling more clearly than daydreaming.

Capra may seem like the odd man out in all this talk about "art," but I find his work complex and tragic. When I went to the library to try to read something about it, all I could find was this ridiculous, reductive pop culture analysis -- all that stupid stuff about how he believed in the American dream and the common man, as if he were the cinematic equivalent of Norman Rockwell. That had nothing to do with my experience of his films. So I realized I’d have to write my own book if I wanted to figure out why they affected me so deeply. You know the saying -- if you want to go to a party, give a party? Well, I wanted to read a book about melodramatic expression, so I wrote one.

CR: While it's clear from "Cassavetes on Cassavetes" and the "Shadows" books that you greatly admire Cassavetes and his work, you also make a point to describe how Cassavetes could be a pretty awful man at times. Do you include this information simply to give a fair assessment of the man's life, or do you think it relates to his work in some way?

Carney: Stanislavski’s "My Life in Art" meant a lot to me as a college student because it went behind the scenes to show what it really took to make art. Not the Mickey Rooney "let’s-put-on-a-play" version of creation, but the real doubts, fears, and pains that go into doing anything difficult and brave. I didn’t want to simplify things in the "Shadows" book or in "Cassavetes on Cassavetes." There are a lot of different people, different moods and feelings, in every one of us. A lot of contradictions. We can be good and bad, generous and selfish, perceptive in lots of ways and clueless in others. My portrait of Cassavetes is deliberately cubistic. It’s fragmented and unresolved. That’s the only way it could be true. It’s up to the reader to decide how to feel about Cassavetes in the end.

CR: In addition to being a respected critic and author, you are a professor of film studies at Boston University with a teaching style that many of your students describe as "inspirational." Can you draw any connections between your own teaching philosophy and Cassavetes' philosophy of filmmaking? Or your approach to film criticism?

Carney: I don’t know anything about the inspiring part. I’m just a very emotional person. All my teaching is just my own attempt to understand these amazing things we call works of art. It’s an extended conversation with students in which I often think I learn more from their comments than they do from mine. All I do is point out things: Did you hear that tone in her voice? Did you see how he hesitated in his response? Did you notice the way the next shot wasn’t what we expected? I’m just like one of those architectural tour guides who points out things to look up at. It’s up to the student to make something out of those millions of little observations.

CR: Do you think there's an advantage to studying or working in film in New England, outside the hubs of New York and Los Angeles?

Carney: Art can be made anywhere. Some of the greatest contemporary films are being made in Iran. New York has lots of artists to talk to and lots of art to see, and that’s in favor of it. But it’s a fashion-conscious city, addicted to money, power, and business values, and impossibly expensive to live in for a starving artist. That’s all against it. Why anyone would live in Los Angeles, I’ll never understand. There’s nothing there. You might as well choose to live on the moon. But I guess you could make art there too. It would just be harder, since the air is so thin and life is so unreal -- which is probably why it hasn’t happened yet.

Boston is not bad, though the fashionable parts of the city are too tame, too yuppified and conservative for my taste. Too Harvardized. Too many intellectuals and stockbrokers -- if there’s a difference anymore. Neighborhoods like Dorchester and Roxbury and Chelsea are better places to live in that respect. I’m interested in films that are in touch with the lives of people who are not intellectuals or artists. Works with roots in a community of caring people. Works anchored in local neighborhoods and ways of being. All the things Hollywood avoids and hates with a passion. They know it’s always easier to present grandiose David Lynch metaphors than it is truthfully to show how a particular mother and son really interact on a specific day.

CR: Can you list any contemporary filmmakers whose work you admire?

Carney: Tom Noonan, Abbas Kiarostami, and Mark Rappaport are three favorites, though Noonan has only been able to release two movies ["What Happened Was" and "The Wife"] in 10 years. He filmed a third three or four years ago, but doesn’t have enough money to finish it. And even if he does, no distributor has shown a jot of interest in picking it up. Then there’s Charles Burnett, Su Friedrich, and Jay Rosenblatt. "Killer of Sheep," "To Sleep with Anger," "Sink or Swim," "Rules of the Road," and "Human Remains" are all amazing movies. I don’t read newspapers or newsmagazines, but they give me the emotional news I need to keep going. These artists and others are writing the history of the present. As Ezra Pound put it so long ago, they write the news that doesn’t get old like the newspaper, the news that stays new -- forever.

For more information on Ray Carney, visit http://www.Cassavetes.com. John Cassavetes's films "A Woman Under the Influence," "Big Trouble," "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie," "Shadows," "A Child is Waiting," "Faces," among others are available for purchase at BuyIndies.com.