Tuesday, 27 January 2009


To access Ray Carney's complete website, go to www.cassavetes.com

Subject: Shadows script available anywhere?

Dear Mr. Carney

I run an actors workshop here in Beijing China and was hoping to secure a copy of the Shadows script to adapt it for some scene work within the workshop. Has the script ever been published? Do you know if it is available in any format?


Patrick Pearce

RC replies:

Sorry. Never been published. Unfortunately, Gena Rowlands is not a very good custodian of her husband's legacy. It's really pretty sad. Sometimes, I think I spend more time, effort, and money honoring, preserving, and disseminating his work than she does. In fact, I know I do. But that's the way the cookie crumbles. She's a famous, millionaire actress who apparently has better things to do; I'm just a crazy fool for art.


Ray Carney

P.S. (for readers of the site): To read a new interview I recently did with a New Zealand magazine where I summarize the status of Cassavetes' work and Rowlands's attempts to suppress or withhold many of Cassavetes' manuscripts and film prints from circulation, click here.

A note from Ray Carney: I wrote the following "unsolicited, free business advice" email to a young independent filmmaker a few months ago, but decided to share it with other filmmakers in similar situations, who attempt to support themselves or supplement their income by selling VHS tapes or DVD disks of their work. -- R.C.

Subject: Free business advice

Dear XXX:

A bit of unsolicited advice, which you are of course free to ignore: As I see it, you (and most other indies) are cheating yourselves financially. You sell a DVD or VHS to an institution like Harvard, Yale, NYU, or Boston University via your web site (or your distributor's web site) for 20 or 30 dollars and they then use it over and over again in dozens of film classes for decades, and you never get another penny from the sale. You're making a big mistake financially.Universities in my experience often also do other things with the videos they purchase, even beyond classroom screenings I mean: E.g. They may rent your film out to students for rental fees. They may provide the video you sell to them for student screening events. They may use your work in other settings, as in some sort of video library arrangement. And they may do this without any additional payment to you, the filmmaker! In the video rental situation, which I have first-hand knowledge of, the institution may actually be turning a profit on your work, by charging rental fees, without paying you a penny more, or even telling you that this is being done with the copy you sell them.It's critical to rid your mind of the illusion that you are being "honored" by having your work purchased by universities for use in this way. Universities are, in this respect, in terms of their purchasing practices, businesses like any other business, and to put it bluntly, they are ripping you off. You are being cheated of your fair share in the profits of the fruits of your work. These institutions may be called "non-profits," but they themselves are not "giving away" these screenings. They are charging tens of thousands of dollars in tuition dollars for the film courses your videos make possible. And you are getting virtually nothing in return, beyond the twenty dollars they pay up front.My (completely unofficial, ad hoc, non-lawyer's) advice: You should advertise and license all regular-priced VHS or DVD sales as "for private, personal, home use only." And then you MUST create a separate "classroom screening or institutional use rate"at the 200-300 dollar level (or even higher). Or you should reserve "institutional and public" screening rights altogether and only authorize them on a case by case basis, where each public or classroom screening must be approved by you and paid for separately on a case by case basis.In summary:1) Good: Sell your work at a FAR HIGHER PRICE to institutions with classroom screening rights included, since you are authorizing the institution to pay you only once for dozens of screenings they will be conducting with the single copy.or2) Better: Withhold ALL CLASSROOM AND PUBLIC SCREENING rights and require separate payment each time the VHS or DVD is screened in a classroom or public setting. (I'd think a fair fee would be to charge $ 200 or so per screening).Well, that will be $400 for legal advice. Be sure to send the check in the next 30 days. Just kidding. Pass on the word to ALL INDIES. You guys are cheating yourselves by letting professors (and college bookers/purchasing agents) buy a cheap video and never pay you for the scores of screenings it will get in front of thousands of students for the rest of your lifetime.Just trying to make the system even slightly less unfair for the indie artist....

All best wishes,

R. Carney, Esquire

A note from Ray Carney: The following two letters continue the responses to my "Modest Proposal" mini-essay posting on the bottom of Mailbag page 97 about why film might not be the best possible medium for a contemporary artist to work in. I posted previous reader responses on the top of Mailbag page 98. -- R.C.

Dear Professor Carney,

I will join in the growing chorus of people praising the benefits of becoming a writer. Over the last year, I have gradually stopped writing screenplays and begun writing more prose. Consequently, I am more observant in my everyday life and developing a greater awareness. The writing process is almost always difficult, but isn't that reason enough to do it? How else does one grow if not from holding to the difficult?

Interestingly, and perhaps relatedly, I am no longer watching as many films as I once did. Books have simply become more satisfying to me, on both a mental and an emotional level. And I don't use them as a crutch for my short attention span as I did with movies.

Which reminds me: based on your recommendation, I read D. H. Lawrence's Phoenix I. The experience was like when I first discovered the films of Cassavetes - my whole consciousness was painfully, but joyfully, widened. I also read The Rainbow, which was as demanding for me as Henry James or Absalom, Absalom. It has a unique rhythm but the repetition exasperated me at times. What do you think of Lawrence's novels?

The Mailbag posts have been first-rate lately; keep up the great work!


Brian VandenBos

P.S. A gift recommendation: Balanchine's Jewels, performed by the Paris Opera Ballet (on DVD).
A reply from RC: Try the version of the "Emeralds" section of Jewels performed by the New York City Ballet. Was out on VHS years ago, and even if it hasn't made the transition to DVD (many of the greatest works still have not), it is an amazing performance. Emeralds is one of the greatest things the hand of man has ever created. Really. As good as Shakespeare or James. And those dancers (the NYCB in the 1970s) were the greatest ballet company ever assembled. Ever. So even if it's only on VHS, it's a life-changing experience. --R.C.

And this is a response to the same essay from David Ball, one of America's best and most thoughtful "younger generation" filmmakers. Ball is the writer-director of the extraordinary Honey, which I programmed in the Harvard Independent Film Festival last summer. (Search on the title in the site search engine to read my previous comments on it.) In recent years he has put his filmmaking career on hold (temporarily or permanently?) to become a lawyer and a teacher. Hence his reference to the law in his letter. -- R.C.

Hi Ray--

Happy New Year. The reality of the parent of young kids--I'm at home on New Year's Eve, but it's a holiday I always hated anyway, for reasons I'm sure you and I share. My favorite moments growing up were when Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve would cut to California at 12 p.m. Eastern, 9 p.m. Pacific, and people would yell "Happy New Year!" You're a better critic than I, so I'm sure you can make something more out of the Potemkin village that is our televised society than I can. I read your "Modest Proposal," (see the bottom of Mailbag page 97) and it's odd--that's the reason I wrote my novel (which I think I sent you) after making Honey. The sad news, however, is that literary fiction is deader than independent film, with even less money chasing it. Agents control everything, they have more power, and it's just as hard to reach your audience. I'm thinking of self-publishing, but damn--all this work for commerce on top of all this work for the art.

As I think I mentioned, when you're a lawyer and you file suit, people have to read what you've written and respond to it. That's part of what appeals to me about it. Of course, being the eminently impractical person that I am, I'm working on ways of reforming the California prison system--a totally broken, 8 billion dollar system that has defied the talents and best efforts of many more besides me... Perhaps my art really is born out of masochism, not optimism or imagination...
On a practical note, I'm definitely planning to send you a copy of the script. As for the DV tapes, is there a film school use for them? Ideally, as I think I mentioned, I'd love people to work with the performances as a means of learning editing--comparing their choices with the ones Josh Apter and I made. I appreciate the protection from the flood, but what I'd really like to see happen with the raw materials is that someone else re-engage with them. If you have ideas, great, but if not, I'll keep looking for a place for them.

Anyway, it's fitting to write you on New Year's Eve, since you were such a highlight of my year. Yes, the world is difficult, but you really are a light within it. I hope in the New Year that you don't forget that, and that you're rewarded for it a thousand times over.

David Ball

RC replies:


Sure send me anything you have. (And I haven't, to the best of my memory, received the novel, either.) I'm sure a few of the students would benefit from seeing all the DV tapes. I take your point about the roadblocks to successful publication (every author experiences them), but would reply first that they are no worse than the obstacles to distributing a film, and second that, as I suggest in the essay, published or unpublished, more filmmakers could do more creative work if they allowed themselves to think in terms of writing fiction or drama, and didn't limit their sights exclusively to creating screenplays and films. Thanks for your input. It's sterling, as always.

Best wishes,


Subject: Medio-crity


I thought you might appreciate this Harold Bloom article. It ties in with things you have written. Here's a teaser. Bloom is talking about the mediocrity of the American media:

"'Media-ocrity' is what I call it. It is awful what kind of media we have today. Nobody dared to stand up and criticize Bush when he unlawfully went to war on Iraq. It is depressing, and shows what direction this country has taken since he came to power - a power which did not rightfully belong to him. The media is not playing its role. The Bushites are bullies and for a long time nobody dared criticize them and just swallowed their propaganda and lies. People have become scared. In this kind of climate, nobody is interested in the critical voice. You ask about the role of the intellectual in America today and I have to say: What role? What intellectuals? There is no room for them in the simplified and dumbed down world of today's media. We used to play a role, and there are still a few left, but we are a dying breed. Nobody seems to be interested in nuance anymore."

Keep telling the truth on the site! It's the one of the few places, even on the internet, that I can go to to hear really "independent" information and ideas, not bought and paid for by America's culture of entertainment and commercialism. Thank you for maintaining it. Keep up the important work.


For the information of site readers, Jon Jost, one of America's leading independent filmmakers, has written me about a possible health problem which was recently detected, but which I don't want to post the details of on the site. I would encourage interested readers to sent him a "get well soon" greeting via his web site (url below). If you don't know who he is or know about his connection with earlier pages of the site, use the site search engine to search on his name ("Jon Jost") to find statements about his work and to read material he has sent for posting on the site.

Though I am leaving out the medical information, I am posting the end of his recent note because it includes information about some of his current filmmaking projects:

...... Anyway that's the hot news from here. Marcella is taking it very well, and while our philosophy muscles have had a nice little workout, we're feeling fine. In the last few years I have found myself wise-cracking, as is my habit, that at this age the next grand adventure is decrepitude and death, and lo and behold. So much for wise-cracks, now the reality. Aside from philosophy muscles, the rest are getting a nice daily workout too: we both swim vigorously for half an hour a day (nighttimes of late), do some exercises (me 80 pushups, 60 toe-touches, 60 squats), walk a lot. The cranium side is busy all day working at the computers, finishing up new film, PARABLE, shot in Lincoln area last spring - maybe it goes to Berlin fest (will hear latest tomorrow); OVER HERE premieres in Rotterdam festival in a few weeks. Was going to go if both were in fests, but not now, needless to say. Otherwise university and living in Seoul going well for both of us. Lots of other things to tell, but later.

Best to you. No maudlin sentiments please - not looking for them. Just wanted to pass along the word. I'll update once we've found out more and perhaps gone through the whole process. The lay-back recuperate period should give me time to finish up that damned shared-letter update....

Jon Jost
Professor, Graduate School of Communication and ArtsYonsei UniversitySeoul, Koreawww.jon-jost.com

An update: Jon subsequently wrote in to say that the diagnosis had turned out to be (as many
preliminary medical diagnoses are) a false alarm. But he noted (and I repeat for the sake of site readers) that it was actually a great gift to be given this sort of scare. It was, in his words, "a good philosophy lesson" to call him back to a consideration of ultimate things and to remind him about what really matters and what doesn't really matter in life. That's a lesson each of us can profit from. The world of film is absolutely obsessed with "trends" and "buzz" and "what's hot and new and exciting," and "who's in and who's out," and similarly superficial concerns -- and it is good to be transported entirely beyond that realm of silliness and triviality for a time -- to be reminded that it is the things of eternity that really matter, and that we should rise above petty worldly considerations as much as we humanly can and live for other reasons and with other purposes in mind. As I say elsewhere on this page and at many other points on the site, "do not squander your life." That admonition might, in fact, be said to be the entire reason this site exists. -- R.C.

I received this from a reader in the Philippines about a month ago:

Dear Prof. Ray Carney,

Belated Merry Christmas. I hope that the holidays as solemn as it was for me.

During one of my Christmas parties, I got together with some of my friend filmmakers. I discussed with him the value of truth in film, the importance of research to strength and build characters. As the conversation grown much more detailed, he asked me a bunch of questions (one which I answered so vaguely). And now the questions I will ask to you. :)

His Questions:

1. "How do you squeeze out truth from Non-Related characters? People like Historical heroes and True to live figures that you feel so passionately about."

2. "How do you make period films personal? Eras that you never went through or experience, but read about."

With all the writing classes and film workshops I attended, all I said was research. What a simplified answer to such questions. It got me thinking how Bresson did Pickpocket or how Dreyer internalized The Passion of Joan of Arc . The most experienced I did was converting a chain of events of an actual trial here in the Philippines. Maybe with your expertise with these people, you could help me and the filmmakers with the same problem.

A Happy New Year to you! I hope that next year will spring a change in the Independent Cinema scene there in the States. That would be a wonderful New Year's Wish..

--Raymund Cruz

RC replies:


As the smiley face in your note indicates, you realize that I can't possibly respond, in adequate detail, to your friend's questions. But let me say something more general by way of response:
Tell your friend that the greatest, most important teachers -- of film, of painting, of poetry, of sculpture, of literature, or of any other art-- are NOT professors and critics, but THE ARTISTS themselves. If you want to know how films work, don't read David Bordwell, don't read Roger Ebert, don't read some stupid critic or reviewer, but sit at the feet of the masters. Study with Ozu, study with Tarkovsky, study with Rossellini, study with Chaplin, study with Bresson, study with Leigh, study with Cassavetes, study with Capra, study with Wilder, study with Jerry Lewis, study with Bruce Conner and Jay Rosenblatt and Su Friedrich. Similarly, if you want to learn how to write, read, read, read: Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, James, Oates, Munro, and a thousand others.
The artists are the real visionaries and teachers. Not the teachers. (Trust me! I know hundreds of film professors and very few are very perceptive about art. In fact, most of them are not even teaching art. They are teaching sociology or philosophy or puzzle-solving in their courses.)
Too few production students (and faculty) in university film production programs understand this obvious truth. Too many of them regard "film studies" and "film history" courses as tiresome, laborious "requirements" that they or their students must slog through in order to get a chance to do the "real thing" -- which supposedly involves picking up a camera and hitting the streets to make a movie. (Of course, "film studies" has itself helped to create this situation by leaving genuine artistic, moral, and personal concerns behind and turning itself into a lot of jargon-clad stupidity and abstract French and German theorizing. See the article I reprint
on this page for more on that subject.) But students (and production teachers) who haven't deeply pondered the masterworks of the past are working at a terrific disadvantage. They have to re-invent the wheel. They have to discover what generations of artists are just waiting to teach them. They could stand on the shoulders of giants, but all too many of them prefer to remain artistic know-nothings. (I count being influenced by Hollywood and kitsch -- like the work of Tarantino or the Coen brothers-- as being a "know-nothing." If you allow yourself to be influenced by a cinematic pigmy, your view of life and art will be diminished, not enlarged.)

Art is the great teacher. Tell your friend to study how other artists have addressed his questions, and then to set off down his own path, with the benefit of their guidance and suggestions.

Ray Carney

The following letter is from a current Boston University student. It alludes to my mention of Steve Martin's biography on the preceding page of the Mailbag and several other comments about stand-up comedy on other pages:

Hello Professor Carney,

Well things have been hectic and productive and amazing. I am just finishing the final touches on the final film for my production class and it is coming along well. It is starting to feel complete and it is a great feeling. Anyway, I have been reading your mailbag and I have noticed repeated references to stand up comedy. I had no Idea that you were so appreciative of stand up comedy, and funnily enough I try to be a proponent of the form.

Maybe it is not me, it is a character I play named Ralph Handel. He is a business man who "works the circuit" after hours and simply does not understand what a joke is. He thinks he knows and the audience is under the impression that he knows because he is confident of him self but things don't go as they plan. Ha. Needless to say whenever I perform it is like seven minutes of black, I become this person and afterwards I end exhausted and battered. I try not to break character the whole night so on and off stage I am accepted as this guy. I even call and book under the names of my characters (there are actually two). I would love if I could show you some of the performances and I actually made a film with Josh about him. It turns out it is a pretty divisive film. People seem to hate this guy and it is a very realistic portRayal of a completely fictional character so I guess it doesn't sit well. I remember the last performance I gave as him being mired by comedians making fun of me for an hour. It was an odd experience to have the dimensions mix sort of. Anyway, I hope that all is well and if you will be in your office anytime this week or next I would love to stop by and catch up.



I only give an excerpt from my reply:

2) .... If your film (or your performance) is not hated or shunned by part of your audience, you're not doing anything valuable. If you are not making people uncomfortable, getting under their skin, puzzling them, or making them wonder what is going on, you're working too superficially. I always avoid movies that get unanimously positive reviews. There has to be a lot wrong with a movie when that is the response.

3) Yes, fascinated with comedy. It is one of the major new art forms, like jazz and film. In fact, I wrote a book about stand-up, but never published it. It was before its time, in the late 1980s, before most people took stand-up seriously as an art.... I have it in a drawer somewhere..... if I haven't thrown it out!

Subject: The Story of Stuff

Dear Ray,

I just watched a 20-minute film online that was very powerful - Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff, about the costs and consequences of our consumer-driven culture. I know you can't watch it on the ancient computer you have, but it's downloadable (supposedly) and can be shared with friends for non-commercial use. If I can figure out how to get it on to a DVD, I'll mail you a copy.

It's great seeing someone using film in a powerful way to create awareness. Leonard made this film very simply, with animated graphics of the consumer-driven system, with herself doing the onscreen narration and a few sound effects added in the background.

Jane Shuyler

RC replies:

Thanks, Jane.

As you note, I can't access this, but I shall post it for those who can. Not having seen it, I really can't say anything except to note, generally, that consumption is not just about objects. It's an attitude toward life that can exist in the complete absence of cell phones, computers, automobiles, and fast-food restaurants. Off the top of my head, I'd say that "consumption" has two central emotional components: The first involves feeling an emotional void in your life (because of the loss of particular spiritual and social values in modern society) and attempting to fill it by acquiring something that has a purely intangible or abstract value. Something that signifies meaningfulness (even if it really means nothing). The second emotional component involves making yourself passive to the world -- "consuming" a pre-existing, pre-fabricated experience, not creating it or working it into existence. (The labor of making an experience is the central element in earlier culture that is denied by consumer culture.) In this sense, to become a consumer is about choosing to sell your imaginative independence for a state of dependence. These sorts of consumers are everywhere in our culture.

Well, that's my "one-minute" bite of wisdom for the day. Wonder how it ties in (or doesn't tie in) with Annie Leonard's....


Excerpts from an interesting exchange with author and film curator Michael Chaiken about Cassavetes' influence on Norman Mailer and Arthur Penn. I am deleting many interesting observations Chaiken makes that I don't have space to include, in order to focus on the preceding issue for the sake of future historians of the independent movement. Chaiken and Paul Cronin, as noted in the exchange, also have a new book coming out with University of Mississippi Press, based on interviews they did with Arthur Penn. It has not yet been published, but looks extremely interesting, based on what Chaiken says about it. -- R.C.

Dear Ray,

I had a question for you in regards to John Cassavetes relationship to Norman Mailer.

This past summer, I had organized a tribute to Norman in NYC. I had interviewed Norman at length and had asked him about the influence of John Cassavetes on his films. His answer was an unusual one. I recently saw the Dick Cavett Show interview with Cassavetes/Falk/Gazzara. Cavett makes passing reference to some kind of incident between John and Norman that took place during an earlier appearance. I was curious if you knew what Dick was referring to.

Here is a link to an excerpt of the interview I did with Norman where we discuss Cassavetes among other filmmakers. As well, I'm attaching the article that eventually came of this interview which appeared in Film Comment in their July/August 2007 issue.

I'm currently in NYC with Paul Cronin. Together we just completed a collection of interviews with Arthur Penn. Paul has been hard at work on a meticulously researched and revelatory documentary about the Columbia student revolt of 1968.

Michael Chaiken

RC replied (excerpted):

.... I'm very familiar with the Cavett remark and once (years and years ago) myself asked Mailer about it, but got no satisfactory reply. I was arranging a screening of his complete directorial work back in the early 1980s for a class on indie film I was teaching and had to deal with him directly about the bookings. He claimed he didn't remember. So in short I have never been able to track it down and the meeting between the two men may just be a myth.... First, because Cassavetes did not travel in the same intellectual circles that Mailer did back in the 1965-1970 period, and they lived on different coasts, so the face-off seems unlikely for that reason. Second, because Cassavetes was a notorious "bullshit artist," especially when it came to his own machismo, and it sounds like exactly the sort of thing he would have made up to impress Cavett or someone else. On both counts, I'm inclined to file it under "myth." The person to ask would be Cavett. Where did he hear about it?

.... Can't look at the interview you reference. Computer is too old and creaky.....

.... The Penn movie I am most interested in is Mickey One. Did you ask Penn about that? What a weird wacked-out Fellini-influenced flick!....

Best wishes,


Michael Chaiken replied:

Chaiken replied:

... I was still programming films at the International House Philadelphia. This was around the time of your monumental discovery of the original version of SHADOWS. We had designs to screen it in Philly, but alas. . . . Since Philadelphia, I've moved to NYC and started work with Albert Maysles. I'm programming here and there for Lincoln Center and writing some for Film Comment.

.... Cavett is still around. I hope to have a chance to ask him about this soon. The Museum of Radio and Television (recently renamed The Paley Center for various vague reasons) want to screen the infamous Gore Vidal, Janet Flanners, Norman Mailer appearance with Dick doing some kind of live commentary.

I found Mailer's answer strange because he was dismissive of Cassavetes--- though admitted 'scorn and envy' figured largely into his opinion. He felt JC was 'too close to scripted films' which he wanted to get away from (his later film 'Tough Guys Don't Dance' a different animal altogether). I again prodded Norman about Cassavetes during the Lincoln Center appearance. His answer was pretty much the same as the one he had given me earlier.

Here is an excerpt from the online interview where Norman talks about Cinema 16, Cassavetes and Warhol.

* * *

You were one of the editors of Irving Howe's Dissent magazine along with Cinema 16 film society founders Amos and Marcia Vogel in the Fifties. Did you attend any of the Cinema 16 screenings?
Yeah, I used to go there. That was an interesting place, and I was fascinated with the poetic documentaries Amos used to show. That probably had a lot of influence on me in one way or another. It wasn't that I was totally innocent of documentaries when I started making my own films. It was that I thought that most documentaries were locked into one essential difficulty-that very few people can act when they are playing themselves. I truly believe that half the people alive are natural actors, but when you have to play yourself it really turns you inside out psychologically. It's very unpleasant. If you are playing yourself then you stiffen up. What I found is that practically everyone who is in a documentary who is playing themselves is very stiff. So I got the idea, why not use these techniques? I loved the camera techniques in documentary, particularly that of Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers, so I thought, "Why not use them for fictional situations?" The cameramen I worked with loved it because they got to try anything. So yes, I did go to Cinema 16, but don't ask me what films I saw. I do remember seeing Cassavetes and Maya Deren.

Did you know Cassavetes? I'm curious to hear what you make of his films.

Cassavetes' work I never really liked. I always thought it was false improvisation. It was semi-improvisation. They knew where the scene was going. My whole feeling was that the one thing you didn't want-the lock I wanted to get out of-is the knowledge of when a scene is coming to an end. Primarily because when a scene comes to an end a skilled actor puts the book down. That's exactly what I wanted to avoid. I wanted to be able to cut to the middle of a scene and swing into another scene. The cutting in Maidstone shows that all over the place. Of course, Cassavetes' stuff was much more successful than mine so obviously envy and scorn were intrinsic elements in this, but I felt his stuff was too close to scripted movies.

After Cinema 16 closed, you attended some of Jonas Mekas's screenings at the Filmmaker's Cinematheque.

Mekas definitely had an influence. I saw films by Stan Brakhage, Ron Rice, Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger. Of course, I didn't have a close relationship with any of those guys. We were all simpatico, but casual. We'd see each other at gatherings.

Was Warhol any kind of direct influence?

I hated Warhol's work. Hated it. I thought he was on to something, but it wasn't worth it. Although, I thought one of his movies, Kitchen [65], had something in it that was incontestable. If in a hundred years from now they wanted to know what the bottom side of 20th-century culture was like, all they would have to do was see that movie. The boredom, the aphasia, the apathy, the endlessness of repetitive action, the sense that you don't know where you are going, the vicissitudes of modern drugs were all in that movie. That was damn good, but very hard to look at. See, I didn't like Warhol as an artist. I thought he was the most overrated painter of the 20th-century. However, I thought he was a genius at understanding public taste, which I resented because I certainly had very little skill in that direction.

* * *

.... MICKEY ONE is a masterpiece. Sadly, a bit of a lost film and one not readily available. There is lots of talk about MICKEY ONE in the book as it remains one of Penn's most personal and misunderstood films. At the time, the American critics just trashed him. The stuff Penn has to say about Hollywood is virulent. And justifably so. He makes a great case for the independents in his scathing critique of the mechanization and commercialization of the American film industry. The book is a collection for University Press of Mississippi and starts from his first serious interview with Cahiers du cinema in 1962 through to a new interview Paul and I did with him this past summer. We used only those interviews/lectures which have either never before been in print or from foreign sources which have never before been translated into English. We'll be sure to get a copy to you when its published.

We asked Penn about Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke and others. Why, despite his disdain for
Hollywood, he never went in a similar direction. His answer was complicated, owing a lot to the success of THE MIRACLE WORKER and the relative freedom which that gave to him-- the fact that he was capable of working through the studio system, without ever really feeling a part of it (most of his working life was spent between NYC and Stockbridge, MA). In the book, Penn characterizes himself as a director somewhere between the guys who totally sold out to Hollywood and Cassavetes....

Michael Chaiken

Subject: Purchasing Cass on Cass from Australia

Hi Ray

I live in Australia, where it's tough to find your books. I'd like to purchase Cassavetes on Cassavetes from you. Is this possible? How much is shipping and whatnot? Good luck with the challenges you're having at Boston University. Tertiary education is just as stagnant and dull here in Australia, not sure if that should be a comfort or a concern! The only thing I've learned in three years of university I got from the library, including your Films of John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh. I'm dying to read the latest book on Cassavetes and the nature of genius you're working on.


Fraser Orr

RC replies:


Thanks. I agree with you. Film discussion and commentary is in a bad way in our universities, as is most arts education and most humanities teaching in general. There are a few academic fields where minds are still alive -- continuously searching, wondering, and questioning everything -- I'm thinking of medicine, biochemistry, astrophysics, history, physics, and a few other areas. But in the humanities, most of the teachers and students have lost that sense of real exploration and discovery. In its place they take refuge in formulas and formulaic approaches: multiculturalism, feminism, cultural studies, gender studies, and all the rest. It's all moribund, and film criticism is the worst of the lot. The problem is they think they know the answers before they even ask the questions. Real learning is always about not-knowing, about exploring real mysteries, not pretend ones.

.... (Details about how to get my books in Australia are omitted.)....

Keep going to that library. There is an adventure of learning to be had, even if it is not taking place in the classroom. I'm re-reading all of Shakespeare myself right now. That's my current adventure, and there's not a classroom in America where I could have it as well as I can on my own, swimming through the heaving, surging sea of language he creates.


Fraser Orr replied:

Hi Ray,

Thanks for your reply. Can I ask you a question about Shakespeare? I've read most of his "major" works, and have enjoyed some of them. But I feel I've missed the way he uses language to express his ideas, as you discuss on page 91 (and 24) of your letters. I was taught that the themes of his work, characters, and plot were the important part of Shakespeare, and the language was basically a nice way of depicting these. I only learned what iambic pentameter actually was last year! How can I go about uncovering where the beauty in his language lies? Is it better to use an annotated book and read along with the definitions it gives, or just leave all that aside and go it alone?

I also have to ask, though I'm not sure you can answer, what was the important event that occurred in the Spring of 1997? You've made a number of comments about developments the scientific community and organized religion is missing out on, and they always pique my interest, but I've nowhere to go to investigate them further. Is there anything you can tell me? If not a straight answer, a path you could show me?

Thanks again, sorry for asking so much!

Fraser Orr

RC replies:

Oh, Fraser, how I wish you didn't live on the other side of the planet! It would be so wonderful to have you come to my office at the end of the day and for us to work on Romeo and Juliet or Julius Caesar, slouched over our texts together for a couple months. I dream of having a student who is interested, I mean really interested, in doing something like this, not for credit, not for a grade, not to score points with me, but for the sheer fun and challenge of doing it. You realize, I am sure, that I can't possibly give you an answer in an email. Too much depends on so many different things. But let me, in all humility, make the feeblest attempt at a response:

1. About editions. The old George Lyman Kittredge edition is the one I use, just because it was the one I used in graduate school. But any recent edition will do for you: The Arden is terrific. The Pelican and Penguin and Signet editions are perfectly adequate. The only one to avoid is the Oxford. All you need is something that glosses basic words and phrases, so pick the one that has the longest (and most accessibly laid out) footnotes.

2. About things like "themes" and "metaphors." Run the other way. Shun them. And don't read a
word of the introductions or afterwords. They will poison your mind and pollute your reading experience.

3. About the "beauty" of his language. That's another classroom idiocy. Any "beauties" in Shakespeare are not the kind that get into Bartlett's Quotations, but the kind that Yeats described with his phrase "a terrible beauty is born." Real beauty is more often "terrible" (in Yeats's sense of the word) than "pretty" in the postcard sense. So put beauty, terrible or pretty, aside also. Gorgeousness is for sissies. And (as a corollary) that means don't worry about "iambic pentameter" (or absence of it) either. Don't worry about the scansion. Another school room dodge.

4. Have I scared you, or confused you, sufficiently? What is left, you ask? Just this: The meanings and how those meanings are said. But that's a lot. It's everything. Each play is like an echo chamber of ideas about a series of related issues (Romeo and Juliet is, for example, about ideas of love and human relationship; Julius Caesar is about ideas of honor, truth, morality, and sacrifice for an abstract cause.) You can only figure out what the play is going to put into its echo chamber by reading it and paying attention to what ideas and issues come up again and again.

5. But now you're finally ready to read the play and get something out of the language. Read Romeo and Juliet and watch how each character's language plays these interests out in different "keys" and "melodies" and "colorations" from moment to moment to moment. It's all in the language. Romeo and Juliet will have sexy language about love and human relationships, romantic language about love and human relationships, coarse and disillusioned language about love and human relationships, fearful language about love and human relationships, tender language about love and human relationships. Sometimes characters will interact and play out their love and relationships with others kindly, sometimes harshly, sometimes nostalgically, sometimes legalistically, sometimes cautiously, sometimes bravely, sometimes mechanically, sometimes idealistically, sometimes generously, sometimes selfishly, etc. etc..

This list is too simple and too reductive of course, but do you see what I am getting at? Do you get what Shakespeare is doing if he is doing what I describe? It's NOT about the plot! It's NOT about the events! It's NOT about character psychology (oh, what a trap this last one is, the biggest trap of all, but I don't have time to explain why.) Get rid of those things. Ignore them.

6. It is as if in each play Shakespeare tells us everything he sees and knows about that subject ("love and relationships" in Romeo and Juliet; "honor and morality" in Julius Caesar) and then uses the play to compare, to contrast, to analyze his knowledge, by comparing and contrasting all those different ways of talking about that subject. And given that he was the smartest person the planet has ever been lucky enough to give birth to, the result is mind-blowing and consciousness-expanding. The reason I call the plays echo-chambers is that reading them is like hearing Mozart take a set of harmonies and melodies and move them through every key, every harmonic variation, every metric shift; but with Shakespeare the effect is even more electrifying than it is in Mozart, because it is about something, about things we experience or wonder about every day, every hour of our lives. When you've finished Romeo and Juliet (I mean finished reading it for the fourth or fifth time), you've heard every possible view of love that you ever thought of, and then you've heard a hundred more that you haven't heard of.

7. But I suddenly realize I've left out a step. Much of what I am calling the "views" on a subject that Shakespeare offers in each play is not in the content of the lines, but in their shape. Not in the meaning but in the style, the form of the utterance -- in the syntax, in the diction, in the references and allusions. In other words, is the statement slangy? Is it elegant? Is it clumsy? Is it pretentious? Is it tortured in its logic? Is it glib? Is it philosophical? Is it abstract? Is it practical? Is it logical? Is it contradictory? Is it ridiculous? Is it comical? Etc. Etc.

I better stop before I can't. About your other questions, I'm sorry I can't say more. I was cautioned by someone directly involved with the 1997 events that I may have already said too much about them; and, in terms of your second question, the connection between science and religion (boy, talk about an unfashionable subject; talk about something that nobody else wants to talk about....) would take way too long to explain (and more physics than you might be ready to hear about in any case). It's OK to leave a few things unsaid. My ninth grade math teacher always said: "A word to the wise is sufficient," and sometimes just a word or two gives us more to work on imaginatively than an entire treatise on a subject.

Fare onward, voyager,


This just in about film schools and being a film student by Werner Herzog. It was sent to me by important independent filmmaker Paul Cronin, who is also the author or editor of numerous books of film criticism, commentary, and biography, including a book of interviews Cronin conducted personally with Herzog published by Faber, which I highly recommend. Herzog's first paragraph and his last two sentences are especially worth pondering. A lot of time and money are being wasted by aspiring filmmakers. To cite the "Evening Gatha" I quoted on page 88 of the Mailbag (go to that page to read the complete statement): "Do not squander your life." -- R.C.

Werner Herzog on Film School

"I personally don't believe in the kind of film schools you find all over the world today. I never worked as another filmmaker's assistant and I never had any formal training. My early films come from my very deepest commitment to what I was doing, what I felt I had no choice but to do, and as such they are totally unconnected to what was going on at the film schools - and cinemas - of the time. It's my strong autodidactic streak and my faith in my own work that have kept me going for more than forty years.

"A pianist is made in childhood, a filmmaker at any age. I say this only because physically, in order to play the piano well, the body needs to be conditioned from a very early age. Real musicians have an innate feel for all music and all instruments, something that can be instilled only at an early age. Of course it's possible to learn to play the piano as an adult, but the intuitive qualities needed just won't be there. As a young filmmaker I just read in an encyclopedia the fifteen or so pages on filmmaking. Everything I needed to get myself started came from this book. It has always seemed to me that almost everything you are forced to learn at school you forget in a couple of years. But the things you set out to learn yourself in order to quench a thirst, these are things you never forget. It was a vital early lesson for me, realising that the knowledge gleaned from a book will suffice for the first week on the set, which is all the time needed to learn everything you need to know as a filmmaker. To this very day the technical knowledge I have is relatively rudimentary. But if there are things that seem too complicated, experiment; if you still can't master them, hire a technician.
"Filmmaking is a more vulnerable journey than most other creative ventures. When you are a sculptor you have only one obstacle - a lump of rock - which you chisel away on. But filmmaking involves organisation and money and technology, things like that. You might get the best shot of your life but if the lab mixes the developing solution wrongly then your shot is gone forever. You can build a ship, cast 5000 extras and plan a scene with your leading actors, and in the morning one of them has a stomach ache and can't go on set. These things happen, everything is interwoven and interlinked, and if one element doesn't function properly then the whole venture is prone to collapse. Filmmakers should be taught about how things will go wrong, about how to deal with these problems, how to handle a crew that is getting out of hand, how to handle a producing partner who won't pay up or a distributor who won't advertise properly, things like this. People who keep moaning about these kinds of problems aren't really suited for this line of business.

"And, vitally, aspiring filmmakers have to be taught that sometimes the only way of overcoming problems involves real physicality. Many great filmmakers have been astonishingly physical, athletic people. A much higher percentage than writers or musicians. Actually, for some time now I have given some thought to opening a film school. But if I did start one up you would only be allowed to fill out an application form after you have walked alone on foot, let's say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of about five thousand kilometres. While walking, write. Write about your experiences and give me your notebooks. I would be able to tell who had really walked the distance and who had not. While you are walking you would learn much more about filmmaking and what it truly involves than you ever would sitting in a classroom. During your voyage you will learn more about what your future holds than in five years at film school. Your experiences would be the very opposite of academic knowledge, for academia is the death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion."

To read other thoughts by filmmakers about the importance and function of film school, click here and follow the relevant links at the top of the page you are taken to.

A note from Ray Carney: Received this from Bradley Rust GRay co-director and co-writer of the amazing recent independent film, In-Between Days (which if there were any justice in the world would win an Academy Award for Best Picture). Brad paid me one of the most unusual compliments I've ever received, but one that is warmly appreciated nevertheless-- R.C.

From: Bradley Rust GRay (and So Yong Kim)

I was cleaning the clutter from our bathroom and decided to put only film books by the toilet... (which in our house is the reading place of honor). so we have Bresson's Notes on the Cinematographer, Tarkovsky, Herzog on Herzog, the new Lynch book, and a Cassavettes book which I just found on our shelf and so anyway, I was looking at the cover and then was like, hey that name looks familiar. So anyway, we've been appreciating your work and not knowing it. Except So took your book with her this morning while she's editing, so I'm left with only the others in the loo.


Brad &So


Your note made my day! And week! So I am judged worthy of being placed "by the toilet." A supreme honor, not in the least lost on me. I keep Henry James's Notebooks in a rack there myself, next to Zen books by Bernie Glassman and Charlotte Beck, Samuel Schoenbaum's William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life, a fat Oxford dictionary of etymology, and a few other choice items deemed worthy of frequent reference and consideration. Read Martin Luther. He talks about the value of "toilet-reading" and thinking!!! : )

Keep making great movies! And send me anything you have done after In-Between Days. What a masterwork. I learn at least as much from you and So as you could ever learn from me and John.
Keep going. Keep working. Keep telling the truth. It matters more than either of us will ever know. It matters to eternity.


A concluding note from Ray Carney: Because of demands I have received from a dean, my department chairman, Charles Merzbacher, and my colleagues that I remove things from the site, I have been thinking about the meaning and importance of free inquiry and expression in the academy. I wanted to share some of my reflections with readers of the site, many of whom are fellow academics or artists who teach at other universities and who may find themselves wrestling with similar issues if they speak their principles. – R.C.

1. There is a lot of lip service paid within American universities (and American culture) about the importance of "tolerance" and "diversity," but it is crucial never to forget that the manifestations of diversity that matter most are not external but internal. Racial, religious, and gender differences are only the outward and visible markers for imaginative and intellectual differences. If we do not allow the free and unfettered expression of “other” ideas and beliefs, all of our claims to support “otherness” are superficial and unimportant.

2. Granting someone the freedom to express thoughts, ideas, and beliefs we already subscribe to and agree with is not real freedom. The only freedom that counts is the freedom for individuals to say things we disagree with, things we may be convinced are “wrong.”

3. It is not evidence of weakness for an academic institution to allow intellectual differences of opinion; it is evidence of strength. Weak, insecure cultures fear and limit independent expression; strong, confident ones encourage and support it. Sick institutions resist suggestions for change and penalize the proposers; healthy ones thank and reward them. The more points of view a university allows, the greater and more creative the institution.

4. We live in a capitalist culture devoted to and organized around acts of “publicity” and “public relations,” but it is critical that we not confuse good publicity with good publishing. Academic articles, essays, interviews, and books may or may not bring favorable attention to an institution, but the intellectual value of a work is unrelated to its public relations value. The search for truth is not about pleasing people, saying flattering things, or making departments look good.

5. There is virtually no value for a writer (or a reader) in publishing things that have already been said by others, in promulgating forms of understanding that everyone already agrees with and subscribes to. The publications that matter are those that attempt to change existing understandings and organizations of knowledge. The search for truth is not incidentally, but necessarily, argumentative and corrective. In the words of William Blake: “There is no progression without contraries.”

6. Ideas and suggestions for improvement that apply only to others (other universities, other areas of inquiry, other courses, other students and professors) are as weightless and contentless as the Superbowl halftime show. If our ideas count for anything, they must address issues relevant to our institutions, our courses of study, our understandings of what we are doing. News from nowhere about nobody living nowhere is fake news. Truth that is always about someone else doing something else is not truth; it is Hollywood escapism.

7. Why are we afraid of new ideas? Why do we criticize the proposer for being “uncollegial?” It is a remnant of our tribal past that alternative points of view are viewed as personal attacks and threats. New and different understandings are not only the purpose of intellectual inquiry but the joy of life.

8. To call someone “uncollegial” is, in the contemporary university, almost always code for attempting to silence them. It's a way of criticizing their expressions. It is an attempt to control, censor, and penalize them for having new ideas.

9. To penalize new ideas and understandings by subjecting individuals who come up with them to financial, administrative, or bureaucratic retribution has a fatally chilling effect on the truth–seeking, truth–telling mission of a university. The institutional message will not take long to be disseminated: conformity, complaisance, and agreement will be rewarded; honesty, originality, and independence will be penalized. Only the strongest and most courageous (or foolhardy) professors will persist in the pursuit of truth under these circumstances. The university will have become a business. PR values will have replaced the search for truth.

10. I’ll conclude with three examples to put a little flesh on the bare bones of the preceding generalizations:

a) Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, and Albert Einstein, three of the greatest physicists of the twentieth–century, were legendary intellectual adversaries. Einstein was convinced that Bohr’s and Pauli’s understanding of physics was fundamentally wrong, and spent much of his scholarly life attending conferences (e.g. the 1927, 1930, and 1933 Solvay Conferences), making statements, and writing papers pointing out what he felt were mistakes or contradictions in Bohr’s and Pauli’s ideas and experimental results. Bohr and Pauli did not treat the differences as being merely intellectual. They were convinced that Einstein was being deliberately unreceptive to their ideas, since they threatened his own, and they regarded Einstein’s comments as personal attacks. Beyond that, because of Einstein’s prestige, they were genuinely afraid that their intellectual life’s work was in danger of being discredited or relegated to a secondary place as a result of his criticisms.
The point of telling the story in this context is to note that Einstein had a close relationship with Princeton University for the last two decades of his life, via his appointment as a member of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, and several members of the Princeton University physics department were supporters of the views of Bohr and Pauli, so when Einstein was at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, he was implicitly or explicitly criticizing the views of members of the Princeton University physics department. But it is worth noting that no one involved in the theoretical argument , which was waged for more than twenty years - neither faculty members in the Princeton physics department, nor the administration of Princeton University or the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, nor Bohr and Pauli themselves -- no matter how convinced they were that Einstein was "wrong" or was being "unfair" to their intellectual position --ever suggested that Einstein should be prevented from expressing his views in any way and in any forum he chose. No one suggested that he should downplay his criticisms for the sake of being "collegial," or that he should keep his comments "private" or out of the public eye.

That is the way great intellectual institutions function. They do not censor or censure individuals for thinking differently. They do not cultivate conformity and agreement. They do not try to hush up intellectual disagreements. They allow the debate to take place. They encourage the expression of different points of view. That is what academic freedom is about. The story says a lot about Einstein's, Bohr's, Pauli's, Princeton University's, and the Institute for Advanced Study's understanding of the fundamental nature of intellectual expression. (For the record, history now shows that Bohr and Pauli were, in fact, right, and Einstein was mistaken in his criticisms of their work; but, as everyone involved understood back then, being "right" or "wrong" has no bearing whatsoever on whether an intellectual should be allowed to express his or her ideas. In fact, the Einstein example proves that, as John Stuart Mill argued, expressing a controversial or "wrong" idea may do more service to a society or an institution than expressing an accepted, correct, "right" idea. See my mention of the subsequent discovery of "quantum entanglement" below.)
b) In the mid–1990s one of the most influential literary critics of his generation, a senior professor in the Duke University Department of English named Frank Lentricchia launched a series of attacks on the graduate students in his own program and, in the end, refused to continue teaching graduate courses because of his objections to the inadequacy of their preparation. He went public with his objections in numerous interviews, lectures, and articles, including a 1996 essay in Lingua Franca, a large–circulation academic periodical. (An excerpt is posted on the top of Mailbag page 97, accessible via the blue page numbers at the top and bottom of this page.) Did Duke University penalize Lentricchia administratively or financially for his statements? Did it censure him or attempt to censor his criticisms? On the contrary. He was praised for raising important issues that others had been afraid to talk about. That is how a strong, healthy academic institution treats new and controversial ideas, even when they represent critiques of its own programs.

c) In 2001 and 2002, Cornel West, one of the world’s leading scholars of American and African–American Studies, a professor at Harvard University, mounted a scathing critique of the university’s policies on promotion, tenure, and publication, couched as an attack on the beliefs and policies of specific members of the faculty and administration. He took his disagreements public in a series of interviews with the press (including The New York Times) and on national television and radio (including appearances on nationally syndicated talk shows on PBS and NPR). In 2004, West published a book, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, that continued his attacks on specific individuals at Harvard. As in the Princeton and Duke instances, at no point did Harvard tell West that he was not allowed to – or had no right to – express his opinions and ideas in public. That is what a public intellectual does. That is what a great university does, even when it itself is being criticized. It does not censor the statements its faculty make or punish them for what they say.

The Einstein, Lentricchia, and West accounts – and there are hundreds of similar instances featuring lesser–known figures that might be cited – illustrate the point that institutions like Princeton, Duke, and Harvard do not merely “tolerate” the expression of differences of opinion. The very thing that makes these and other schools great is that they encourage this sort of free expression. That’s in fact proved by the consequences of these three contrarian expressions. Einstein’s attacks on Pauli and Bohr – mistaken, unfair, and personally motivated in part as they may have been – ultimately led to one of the fundamental breakthroughs in quantum mechanics – the discovery of what is now called “quantum entanglement.” Lentricchia’s animadversions about his grad students’ intellectual limitations launched a wide–ranging debate throughout American academia about the limitations of “cultural studies” approaches in the appreciation of art. And West’s attacks on Harvard’s administrative policies led, in the course of several following years, to changes that resulted in Harvard becoming a better and stronger school than it had been before West went public with his criticisms.

* * *

Mailbag postings and site updates will be suspended – temporarily or permanently – until a disagreement with those who work with me and supervise my work at Boston University – most notably, my Chairman, Charles Merzbacher, and the faculty members of the Boston University College of Communication Department of Film and Television - about my right to express my ideas can be resolved.

For more insight into this difference of opinion, please see the postings on the bottom quarter of Mailbag page 95, the reply to the letter from Ahmed on the middle of Mailbag page 96 (near the “You Write What You’re Told – Corporate News” graphic), and the note on the bottom quarter of Mailbag page 98 (the relevant section begins where it says “Howard Zinn Lives On”). To read one of the pieces on the site that was most vehemently and fiercely objected to being posted on the site by my colleagues (though many, many other pages and statements on the site were also objected to), click here. In a recent meeting of the entire department convened by the chairman, my colleagues spent the best part (or should I say the worst part?) of 50 minutes attacking me for posting this piece, with not a single dissenting word being uttered by anyone in the entire meeting on behalf of respecting my freedom of expression. (I can’t resist adding as a humorous note that I myself always thought of the piece as being semi–comic in nature, but they sure weren’t laughing at the meeting; and Chairman Merzbacher and a previous dean were sure not laughing when they instructed me to remove other material.)

Readers may, of course, continue to submit news and information, responses to previous postings, and general observations, and I will continue to read them and respond to them privately as well as I can. (Please see page 1 of the Mailbag for information about the amount of mail I receive and the limitations on my ability to respond in detail to each inquiry.)

No matter how things turn out, I want to express my sincere gratitude to the tens of thousands of readers – students, professors, artists, and others – from all over the world who, for almost ten years, have supported the site, sent along fascinating material for me to post, and shared their ideas and experiences with me and readers of the site. You are the real heroes of this story. You made it all possible. This has truly been one of the great intellectual adventures of my life. Thank you.

Ray Carney
Prof. of Film and American Studies
Boston University

P.S. An update:


"We, the full-time faculty of the Department of Film and Television, believe that numerous statements made by our colleague Ray Carney on his university-hosted website cast our department, its faculty and student body in a false light. We therefore ask that Ray Carney immediately remove his website from the University's servers. Should he not complete this step by our next faculty meeting on February 12th, we intend to write a letter of censure which we will post on the departmental website."

Voting in favor of the motion: Charles Merzbacher (Chairman), Robert Arnold, Roy Grundmann, Mary Jane Doherty, Sam Kauffmann, Cathy Perron, Garland Waller, John Bernstein, Jeremy Murray-Brown, Paul Schneider, Geoff Poister, Christopher Cavalieri, Debbie Danielpour, and Scott Thompson.

Following the vote, Chairman Charles Merzbacher emphasized that if the motion did not suffice and Professor Carney did not voluntarily take down the site, the next step would be for the department "to bring in the lawyers" to force the site to be taken down.

To complete the record, I should add that at the department meeting at which this resolution was drafted and voted on, as well as at two other formal department meetings, faculty members of the Department of Film and Television devoted the entire available time (a total of between three and four hours spread across three different days and meetings) to screaming at me, calling me derogatory names, making sarcastic remarks about my work and my ideas, and attacking my personality, my honesty, and integrity in front of the entire assembled faculty, while the department Chairman Charles Merzbacher said and did nothing to moderate or reign in the emotionality, the nastiness, and the ad hominem nature of the attacks. (When, near the start of the first of the three meetings, I attempted to reply to a particularly vicious personal remark, and to suggest that it was egregiously unprofessional and unethical for such a ceremony of public criticism and humiliation to be conducted by the department against one of its faculty members (not to mention for the Chairman to be encouraging the most junior, untenured faculty members to conduct such attacks against an experienced, senior faculty member), I was told that my response was not wanted -- specifically: that the speaker "had heard enough from" me already, and that I should "shut up;" so, although I subsequently made a few, brief passing remarks, I sat through most of the rest of the verbal abuse in the three meetings in silence.)

It should be obvious that it would take more than a few sentences on my web site, or in interviews I have given, to elicit this degree of venom and viciousness. This debate is not really about the web site; or I should say that the attempt to censor and suppress the web site is only the "cover story" or the "thin edge of the wedge." My Chairman and many of my colleagues have been retaliating against me in various ways for four or five years for my attempts to improve the program and, specifically, for my expressions of concern about: the lowering of admissions standards; the low intellectual content in some of the course offerings; the grade inflation and distortion of values that creeps in when overly much reliance is placed on student evaluations to assess faculty performance; and the lowering of standards for, and violations of procedure in faculty promotions. For four or five years, I have argued that various aspects of the film program and its admissions standards are intellectually deficient, and that the program is doing a disservice to admitted students with its course offerings and its lack of intellectual and financial support for their personal and professional development. I have made dozens of constructive suggestions for improvement. Most of my ideas have not only been ignored, but openly ridiculed and mocked (witness the meetings held about the site, and described in the preceding paragraph, as an illustration). But the response has gone beyond mockery. I have been "punished" in various ways in retaliation for expressing my views: reassigned administratively to marginalize my duties and responsibilities; penalized in my annual evaluations; docked financially in my pay; had film classes moved to inappropriate classrooms; been publicly ridiculed and reviled in department and program meetings; and, most unethically of all, had my work criticized and myself personally attacked by faculty and administrators in front of students in an attempt to undermine my reputation and status as a teacher and mentor. This is the context in which the department's protest against the web site must be understood. The vote to censure me or force me to take down the site is just one more event in this longer sequence.

In summary: The response of the Boston University, College of Communication, Department of Film and Television to new or different ideas and expressions about film, film education, and film study is to attempt to censor the expression and to publicly abuse and censure the speaker. Is that what a university is supposed to be doing to its professors, its students, its thinkers? Censoring and censuring them? Is this the finest, best vision of what free intellectual inquiry and academic expression is supposed to be about? These acts of retaliation and vindictiveness stand as a warning to all present and future Boston University faculty and students: Be careful, be very careful, if you think differently, if you dare to say something other faculty members or department administrators don't agree with. They will get angry with you. They will criticize and revile you. They will retaliate against you and try to intimidate you. They will attempt to get you to withdraw or recant your statements. They will try to suppress them or keep them from being heard. And they will censure you if you continue expressing them. The point is clear. College is about learning to think like everyone else, to think in "approved" ways, with "approved" concepts and forms of expression. It's about saying things people agree with. It's not about grappling with new ideas and thinking for yourself. At least not at Boston University.

* * *


1. My department Chairman, Charles Merzbacher, asserted his right to censor what I publish on my web site. He assured me that this policy has been approved by the Dean of the College of Communication and the Provost of Boston University.

2. Chairman Merzbacher asserted his right to change the grading standards in my courses. He assured me that this decision has also been approved by the Dean of the College of Communication and the Provost of Boston University.

3. I learned that College of Communication faculty and administrators have held meetings and conversations with students and complained about my work to them, telling the students themselves to complain, coaching them in what to say, how to say it, and what to complain about, and telling them not to reveal the name of the faculty member or administrator as the source, in flagrant abrogation of established procedures and grave violation of accepted codes of professional conduct and collegial behavior. (My sources for this information have been principled and high-minded students troubled by the ethics of these meetings and conversations, upset at the way students were being manipulated and used to settle scores with other faculty members, unhappy at the situation in which they or others were placed by someone in a position of authority and power over them. I invite additional reports from other students who are aware of these events or of others in which derogatory statements have been made about, or letter-writing campaigns organized against, a faculty member. Anonymity will be guaranteed.)

I list these items (and those that precede them on this page) more in sadness and disappointment than in anger. The lesson I take from them is that patterns of behavior run deep and authoritarian policies change slowly. Boston University still has a long way to go to move beyond the policies of the past. Many faculty members and administrators have not left old ways of thinking and behaving behind. A university should not be censoring the publications of its faculty members, on the internet or elsewhere; it should not be interfering with the grading policies and teaching methods of highly accomplished and successful teachers; it should not be pitting faculty and students against each other, using students as pawns, manipulating them, and spreading malicious (and false) charges, rumors, and gossip in an attempt to undermine the reputation of a faculty member; it should not be berating, dressing-down, and conducting vicious personal attacks on a faculty member at department meetings; and it should not be administratively and financially punishing, ridiculing, and harassing a faculty member to get back at him or her for the honest, principled expression of differences of opinion on curricular and policy issues. Such egregious violations of professional standards of conduct and ethical behavior should give pause to any faculty member who currently works at Boston University or who is contemplating accepting a position there. The new administration at Boston University can and should do better. (To view a small selection of the responses Ray Carney has received from artists, students, and faculty members at other institutions to this situation, continue reading the next page in Ray Carney's Mailbag -- page 102.)

1 comment:

nathan said...

"So put beauty, terrible or pretty, aside also. Gorgeousness is for sissies. And (as a corollary) that means don't worry about "iambic pentameter" (or absence of it) either. Don't worry about the scansion. Another school room dodge."

What an anti-intellectual stooge. Poetic theory another threat to our souls?