Film Criticism

A subforum to discuss film culture and criticism both old and new, as well as memorializing public figures we've lost.
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Foam
Joined: Sat Apr 04, 2009 12:47 am

Re: Film Criticism

#1176 Post by Foam » Tue Jan 26, 2021 12:15 pm

There's a mailbag post where Carney clarifies his thought on mainstream film:
You labor under a misunderstanding.

Many, many, many "mainstream films" are wonderful. I don't put them down. I don't denigrate them wholesale. I put down the cult of Hitchcock and Welles and Tarantino and the Coen brothers and a few others. First, because a director like Alfred H. is not really as interesting or deep as the critics say he is; second, because of the whole "cult" aspect of the following. It represents uncritical adulation and fosters the wrong sorts of critical values that end up misvaluing other works and directors. (E.g. do a search on the site for "cultural studies," "pop culture," "trash," "metaphor," "puzzle" or "mystery" or "suspense" or "clarity" or "sfumato" and you'll see some of my analysis of the failures of these incorrect critical values.)

I'd rather bless than curse. I do bless more than curse. You just haven't read my books I think. My web site is more of the polemical me. The books celebrate and love and adore many things, many actors, many directors. But I can't write about them all. I'm only one person with one life.

I love many of the filmmakers you name. Yeah, Bela Tar. Yeah, Visconti. Yeah, Murnau. I love Jacques Rivette. I love Jean Renoir. I love DeSica. I love Jean Vigo. I love Harmony Korine. I love Chaplin. I love Keaton. I love Preston Stuges. I love Billy Wilder. I love Chantel Ackerman. I love Ingmar Bergman. I love Robert Bresson. I love Yasujiro Ozu. I love Federico Fellini. I love Roberto Rossellini. I love Carl Dreyer. And too many others. Etc. Etc.

I love the acting of Robert Duvall. I love Bette Davis. I love Joan Crawford. I love Crispin Glover. I love Nick Cage. I love Chris Walken. I love Gena Rowlands. I love Ben Gazzara. I love Philip Seymour Hoffmann. I love Humphrey Bogart. I love Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I love Gene Kelly. I love Sean Penn. I love Jerry Lewis. I love Ingrid Bergman. I love Marlene Deitrich. Etc. Etc. And too many others.

I love Rebel without a Cause. I love Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I love Casablanca. I love Now, Voyager. I love The Earrings of Madame D.... I love Dark Victory. I love Vincent, Francois, Paul, et les Autres. I love Place in the Sun. I love An American in Paris. I love Swingtime. I love Top Hat. I love Intermezzo. And too many others. Etc. Etc.

I teach many of these works in my courses. I tell students about them. I show clips from them when I want to expain things about indie films.

But most of these people and works have their champions. Why should I waste my life being a voice in the chorus? I'd rather point out what others don't know, haven't seen, don't admire, or truly appreciate the genius of: Leigh's Meantime and Bleak Moments, John Korty's Crazy Quilt, Riverrun, and Funnyman, Barbara Loden's Wanda, Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky, Claudia Weil's Girlfriends, Robert Kramer's Ice and Milestones, Paul Morrissey's Flesh and Trash, Milton Moses Ginsbergs' Coming Apart, Peter Hall's The Homecoming, Midsummer Night's Dream, Olivier's Uncle Vanya, Engels' Weddings and Babies and Lovers and Lollipops, Shabib's The Chicken Chronicles, Clarke's Portrait of Jason, Penn's Indian Runner, Vince Gallo's Buffalo 66, and a thousand others --- ranging all over, from the work of John Cassavetes to John Korty to Andrew Bujalski to Mark Rappaport to Jay Rosenblatt to Su Friedrich to Mike Leigh.

But who cares about my list or lists? Go exploring!!! Make your own list!!!! You already have!

RC

P.S. And do you see that your difficulty getting the indie or alternative works proves the need for me to sing their praises? They are difficult to get because viewers, reviewers, and releasers haven't heard of them or don't think they will sell enough to justify a video release. So you can't criticize me for trying to solve the very problem you describe: the unavailability of those works. I am trying to make them more available! And the only way I can do that is to sing, sing, sing (as Benny Goodman puts it) their praises from every rooftop I can. If I spent my time writing about the virtues of The Palm Beach Story, Bette Davis's acting or Michaelangelo Antonioni's directing, I would be wasting it. And wasting my life. People know those things already.

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domino harvey
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Re: Film Criticism

#1177 Post by domino harvey » Tue Jan 26, 2021 12:33 pm

Foam wrote:
Tue Jan 26, 2021 12:15 pm
You labor under a misunderstanding.

Many, many, many "mainstream films" are wonderful. I don't put them down. I don't denigrate them wholesale. I put down the cult of Hitchcock and Welles and Tarantino and the Coen brothers and a few others. First, because a director like Alfred H. is not really as interesting or deep as the critics say he is; second, because of the whole "cult" aspect of the following.
Big Ann Coulter "B. Hussein Obama" vibes here

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dustybooks
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Re: Film Criticism

#1178 Post by dustybooks » Tue Jan 26, 2021 12:54 pm

This is probably derailing too much, but I remember as a young film viewer just being very put off by the idea, repeatedly put across by Carney, that Hitchcock strictly made puzzle films that have no psychology or deeper meaning. (Also worth noting that Carney has at times railed against the idea of symbolism or metaphor altogether, which just seems like a strange way of limiting oneself.) It was so far from my experience of Hitchcock's work, and Hitchcock was so important to me as a gateway into other films, that I was perhaps unreasonably put off and irked by his remarks, and yet I couldn't stop reading and powered through pages and pages of his mailbag. Which means, probably, that his polemical remarks about AH had the desired effect.

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soundchaser
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Re: Film Criticism

#1179 Post by soundchaser » Tue Jan 26, 2021 1:00 pm

I think you could make the argument a lot of film criticism these days is overly focused on the puzzle (how many "Twin Peaks EXPLAINED!" videos are there on YouTube?), but I definitely don't get that feeling from Hitchcock either. Rear Window and Vertigo are sideways glances at middle-class American culture, masculinity, and human interaction that just happen to explore those themes through mystery, and you don't really need to probe the metaphors all that deeply to come to that conclusion. I'd be curious to read some of his discussion of metaphor to see why he lumps it in with "puzzle" and "mystery," though.

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dustybooks
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Re: Film Criticism

#1180 Post by dustybooks » Tue Jan 26, 2021 1:59 pm

soundchaser wrote:
Tue Jan 26, 2021 1:00 pm
I think you could make the argument a lot of film criticism these days is overly focused on the puzzle (how many "Twin Peaks EXPLAINED!" videos are there on YouTube?), but I definitely don't get that feeling from Hitchcock either. Rear Window and Vertigo are sideways glances at middle-class American culture, masculinity, and human interaction that just happen to explore those themes through mystery, and you don't really need to probe the metaphors all that deeply to come to that conclusion. I'd be curious to read some of his discussion of metaphor to see why he lumps it in with "puzzle" and "mystery," though.
I do have to agree with you that this sort of puzzle-oriented talk can be exhausting, and it even affects the discourse around films like Certified Copy at times, so I have to tip my hat to Carney for some prescience on that front, but I think he's unnecessarily snobbish about it. As for the metaphor bit, here's something pertaining to this from 2004 on his website:
Ray Carney wrote:Look at Mulholland Drive. And, for an even more depressing experience, look at the critical accolades showered on it. Film Comment devoted a large part of an entire issue to it. In celebration of what? A series of smart-ass tricks and games. Big friggin’ deal. That’s the best someone can do with a couple million dollars? I don’t care how the New York critics revel in it, or what they call it, it’s cynicism to me. You wouldn’t need all the emotional back-flips and narrative trap doors if you had anything to say. You wouldn’t need doppelgangers and shadow-figures if your characters had souls. I always think of something Robert Frost’s students said he used to ask over and over again in class: “Is this poem sincere?” Robert Graves had a similar bullshit test. He used to ask, “Is this poem necessary?” Those are not bad questions to ask about any work of art. Movies like Mulholland Drive and Kill Bill are not about sincerity or necessity but stylishness. We don’t learn anything important about life from them.

This adoration of cleverness, this love of wit isn’t something new. Lynch’s fan club didn’t invent this value system. Oscar Wilde was prancing down this runway a long time ago. The critics loved it then and they love it now. Look at the votive lights that have been tended at the Hitchcock shrine for more than fifty years. I was leafing through an old issue of MovieMaker where a good friend of mine, David Sterritt, was being interviewed and described Hitchcock as a “philosopher-poet.” That got my attention. That’s what a filmmaker should be. So I couldn’t wait to read his answer to the next question the interviewer asked – about what made Hitchcock’s work so great? I was all set for a poetic, philosophical answer. Then Sterritt said something about the way in Psycho the first thing visible in Sam and Marion’s hotel room is the “bathroom” and the way the driving in the rain scene involved “water and blades.” Get it? Marion is killed in a bathroom, in the shower, with water streaming down her body, by a blade, and – ta dah! – there are all these allusions to bathrooms, showers, and blades earlier in the film. Can you run that by me again? Is that the poetry part or the philosophy part?

It’s an immature notion of art. I can understand the appeal. Everyone went through that stage. I did too. In high school. The class read The Great Gatsby and when we were done, the teacher pointed out these metaphors. The green light and all those other references. I thought I had understood the novel before that. But then I suddenly realized how I had missed all this metaphoric stuff. I raced though the text finding all these things I hadn’t realized were there. It was like reading a different book. It was a heady experience. It was exciting. I had never known you could do that. There was all this hidden stuff, just waiting to be excavated. That must be what a work of art is. It had secret meanings. Wow. Amazing. I felt like an intellectual for the first time when I did it. But that was high school for gosh sake. I was just a kid. I got over it. A few years later, sometime in college I guess, I realized how trivial it all was. That it was all just a parlor trick. But there are apparently thousands of film reviewers and students and professors out there who never got over the green light at the end of Gatsby. Art is about finding hidden messages in invisible bottles thrown ashore by the artist. It’s that pattern that emerges when you connect the dots. Bathroom. Rain. Wiper blades. Shower scene. Knife blade. Get it? It’s all so clear. So crisp. So abstract. So tempting. It’s the pleasure of filling out a crossword puzzle or manipulating one of those cereal box decoder rings and cracking the code. “Look at what I can do. Look at the secret connections I can find.” It’s pretty intoxicating. Like finding the word that slips magically into 12 down and links with 5 and 7 across. It gives the critic all this power over the text. It makes him feel smart.

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soundchaser
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Re: Film Criticism

#1181 Post by soundchaser » Tue Jan 26, 2021 2:08 pm

I figured he'd hate Lynch, which is a shame, but I don't necessarily disagree with his critique of that general approach to "solving" a film. I do think he's sort of missing the forest for the trees, though -- Mulholland Dr., along with some of Lynch's other great films, passes his hypothetical poem test because it creates moods, feelings, and experiences that could only be conveyed through film. I agree that the windshield wiper interpretation is a pretty facile one, but I don't think that's Hitchcock's fault.

(And yes, I agree with you on Certified Copy. The main joy of that film for me is its refusal to be grasped in those puzzle terms.)
Last edited by soundchaser on Tue Jan 26, 2021 2:31 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Mr Sausage
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Re: Film Criticism

#1182 Post by Mr Sausage » Tue Jan 26, 2021 2:28 pm

It’s odd just how anti-intellectual Carney can seem. His criticisms of Lynch sound like your average philistine dismissal of an experimental work. Or like people who read a poem and ask why the author couldn’t’ve just written it in plain English.

Speaking of poetry, Oscar Wilde had it right: all bad poetry is sincere. Think of every bad slam poetry reading you’ve heard: those people really, really mean every word. That’s why irony, ie. insincerity, is so widely used in poetry: it’s a way to qualify what’s being said, to show its limits, otherwise the poem becomes endless assertion.

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soundchaser
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Re: Film Criticism

#1183 Post by soundchaser » Tue Jan 26, 2021 2:34 pm

Film is inherently an insincere medium in that sense, I think. Why not just make a documentary? All this fancy-pantsing around with characters, themes, editing -- isn't it all just "smart-ass tricks and games"? How on earth can he stand the Astaire/Rogers musicals? And I realize that I'm taking Carney's argument well past its intended jurisdiction, but that does feel like a cliff edge of his own making.

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Foam
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Re: Film Criticism

#1184 Post by Foam » Tue Jan 26, 2021 2:49 pm

Carney was a big influence on my taste in cinema. I came to love cinema through watching a lot of the filmmakers he hates: Coppola, Scorsese, Lynch, Tarantino, the Coens, Welles. I still love all those filmmakers despite what Carney has written about them. At around the time I discovered Carney I had reached a roadblock in my taste and felt limited to appreciating the same old sorts of films. Kael, Sarris, the Cahiers critics, and Bordwell didn't really open me up to anything I hadn't already thought about, to some extent, by myself. But the way Carney explained what's great about Cassavetes and Capra and Dreyer and Tarkovsky and Leigh was totally different and alien for me--his criticism broke me out of my perceptual limitations and gave me new ways of experiencing film that I don't think I would have ever achieved otherwise. I'm grateful to him for that. I can honestly say I have never, not once, been disappointed in a film recommendation from him.

The more you read his work, the more you see that he's not really "against symbolism" so much as that he thinks it's kind of the entry-level way of viewing art often masquerading as the ultimate way of viewing art... a basic building block of artistic understanding that can get in the way of other ways of experiencing if you don't put it in its proper place and if you're not looking for those other ways. Like yeah, who would deny that there is symbolism in Stalker (a film Carney loves)? It's definitely there. But what Carney would emphasize about decoding the symbolism in Stalker is that this is the least interesting, most rudimentary thing about it. (To be fair, I would deviate from Carney and say the same thing about Lynch's work). My two cents about appreciating Carney's mailbag and books (if you are so inclined...) is, to use his own language, not get too hung up on what he curses, but try out what and why he blesses. It can be very rewarding.

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mizo
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Re: Film Criticism

#1185 Post by mizo » Tue Jan 26, 2021 6:25 pm

Foam wrote:
Tue Jan 26, 2021 2:49 pm
But the way Carney explained what's great about Cassavetes and Capra and Dreyer and Tarkovsky and Leigh was totally different and alien for me--his criticism broke me out of my perceptual limitations and gave me new ways of experiencing film that I don't think I would have ever achieved otherwise. I'm grateful to him for that. I can honestly say I have never, not once, been disappointed in a film recommendation from him.
Thanks for sharing this, and it does resonate with my own experience being his student. When he essentially forbids you from relying on so many basic tools of film analysis in your response papers (no metaphoric/symbolic discussion, no formal analysis of cinematography/editing/sound, no "cultural studies" readings, and ultimately, no summing up of a film's themes) you really feel left adrift. The consequence, though, is that interpretive skills you may not have cultivated much before, may not have even realized you had, start getting a robust work out. I think there's a lot of value in getting that experience, even though, in the moment, it was extremely frustrating for me getting papers returned densely marked up with rather condescending comments about the worth of my critical approach. Particularly when papers using those same critical tools were scoring much better marks from other professors. But I do feel I'm now much more sensitive to, for example, certain subtleties in tone and performance than I was before, and I've been able to appreciate certain films by the likes of Cassavetes and Mike Leigh that I would likely have dismissed before.

But there is a crucial distinction to be made here - I didn't learn any of that from him. I learned it because I had to, because he tossed me into the deep end and expected me to fend more or less for myself. I'm not an avid reader of his writing, so maybe he explains his own approach in more detail there. In the classroom, he was frequently disorganized and inarticulate, and the weekly four-hour seminars I took with him regularly degenerated into extended, bitter, uncomfortably hostile rants about the insipidity of Hollywood films, the shallowness and stupidity of most audiences, and the conspiracy of academics invested in Marxist/feminist/colonialist thought who were out to corrupt young minds away from what he advocated: the purity of basking in artistic genius. Writing response papers for him seemed to be a game at guessing his own opinions. The only times he seemed really favorable towards my writing were when I essentially parroted back a point he'd made in class, with some elaboration or textual reference, and completely suppressed my own viewpoint.

Now, to be candid, my own viewpoint would almost always have been negative, since I disliked virtually all of the films he screened in that class (I frequently wondered if our tastes had any intersection at all, or if they were just mirror images of each other). But that doesn't mean it would have been uncharitable. I have plenty of training in writing extensively and analytically on films I dislike. There's just an incredibly pressure in his class to adopt his own ideas and throw out any others. It's a bit like a cult!

He once did this weird purity test thing in class where he asked anyone who thought Hitchcock was a great filmmaker to raise their hand. Me and a couple of others did (it was a small class). He looked displeased, said "I disagree," and I guess that was that. And, yeah, as someone who loves Hitchcock, I'd say his comments about him are completely asinine. Does anyone else feel he's missing the point of what Sterritt says? It's not supposed to be a key for unlocking the film, it's more like a musical motif that contributes to the web-like texture of the whole narrative. And observations like that are a starting point for deeper analysis of what the shape of the film enables it to communicate or reveal to us. I have a suspicion Carney really has a tin ear for these kinds of elaborate formal strategies, and thus prefers works of much more haphazard design. Which would be fine if, again, he wasn't so dogmatic about one being better! (Also, him calling Sterritt "a good friend of mine" - while it may of course be true - reminded me of how he would casually say "my good friend Martin Scorsese" or "my good friend Brad Pitt" or, most hilariously, when he said "my good friend Lena Dunham" only to think again and say "actually, she's not really my friend")

All this, combined with the way he cynically takes advantage of young students' anti-conformist sentiments to poison them against Hollywood and academia, his weird power games, his disparaging comments about particular colleagues, as well as other inappropriate remarks, made for what I felt to be a really noxious learning environment, and it's hard for me to be too positive about him. I don't mean this as a contradiction of your experience, Foam - I think it's great you were able to gain so much from his work - just an honest account of my own.

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Foam
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Re: Film Criticism

#1186 Post by Foam » Tue Jan 26, 2021 7:29 pm

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Mizo. Yours are not the only horror stories I've heard. As much as I admire and have learned from his work, there's absolutely no excuse for his open condescension and the way he plays favorites with students. I should be clear that I've only interacted with Carney through a few unremarkable email exchanges. I'm a naturally formal and analytical learner, so I think if I had taken one of his classes and been exposed to his Zen master-esque "throw you into the deep end" approach I would have likely drowned in resentment. Why would I want to learn anything from such a cruel person? Reading through his website and books slowly and being able to reject this or that comment at first, come around to it later, and chew on his overall method as a whole, at my own pace, with no real pressure, was probably the only way I could have ever gotten anything out of his work. I will admit I was predisposed to throw in my lot with him because I always thought Hitchcock was overrated and was somewhat relieved to finally find an articulate cinephile who was also bored/annoyed by his films. Further, I could sense that when Carney went all in and waxed rhapsodic about a film that he really was having more intense experiences in his filmgoing life than I was. I wanted those experiences as well, and that's probably why I was willing to knuckle down and ignore the things about his work that alienated me at first.
mizo wrote: I have a suspicion Carney really has a tin ear for these kinds of elaborate formal strategies, and thus prefers works of much more haphazard design.
I used to suspect this as well, but I've had to decide against it. Let me know if I'm misinterpreting you, but one of the biggest misunderstandings about Carney's work is to think that he favors a kind of anally exclusive and highly restricted type of chaotic "realism" over anything remotely like "formalism." The problem with this is that Carney doesn't only love Cassavetes and Mike Leigh and the mumblecore filmmakers. He also loves--as you can see from the post above--Keaton, Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer, Rappaport, Capra and many others who aren't remotely realistic in the usual sense. In some interview or blog post he rails against doing a psychological analysis of Mabel Longhetti as if she were a real person. He emphasizes that Mabel is more of a semiotic function composed of tones of voice, gestures, and facial expressions than a person. I've often seen people complain that A Woman Under the Influence doesn't make them feel like they are seeing something "real." They feel like they are seeing someone acting. But I think Carney realizes this and would argue that you are supposed to be aware of the artificiality and made-ness of even Cassavetes' films. He's not so much interested in "realism" or something that's haphazard as he is in aesthetic styles that are "long-hand" rather than "short-hand." For whatever all that's worth.
mizo wrote:(Also, him calling Sterritt "a good friend of mine" - while it may of course be true - reminded me of how he would casually say "my good friend Martin Scorsese" or "my good friend Brad Pitt" or, most hilariously, when he said "my good friend Lena Dunham" only to think again and say "actually, she's not really my friend")
Yes, these sorts of comments on his blog have always raised my eyebrows. Along with the claims that, after a particular blog posting, he's received HUNDREDS, MULTIPLE HUNDREDS of emails immediately in response!

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domino harvey
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Re: Film Criticism

#1187 Post by domino harvey » Tue Jan 26, 2021 10:03 pm

It is completely disingenuous for Carney to pretend there aren’t plenty of deep and insightful critical takes on any given Hitchcock film beyond his almost surely bastardized example. There is in fact no other director quite so thoroughly discussed in academia, which is I suspect where Carney’s real problem with him lies.

I don’t doubt that Carney does indeed like many of the Mumblecore adjacent films he praises and I’m glad you were able to get something out of his class, Foam (though I sincerely hope as one film lover to another that you come around on ol’ Alfred H.). But as mizo highlights, I worry any potential good being done by him is overshadowed by the bad habits (anti-intellectualism, contrary oppositions, &c) he’s engraining in his students and showcasing for the majority of his audience online

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mizo
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Re: Film Criticism

#1188 Post by mizo » Wed Jan 27, 2021 3:31 am

Foam wrote:
Tue Jan 26, 2021 7:29 pm
mizo wrote: I have a suspicion Carney really has a tin ear for these kinds of elaborate formal strategies, and thus prefers works of much more haphazard design.
I used to suspect this as well, but I've had to decide against it. Let me know if I'm misinterpreting you, but one of the biggest misunderstandings about Carney's work is to think that he favors a kind of anally exclusive and highly restricted type of chaotic "realism" over anything remotely like "formalism." The problem with this is that Carney doesn't only love Cassavetes and Mike Leigh and the mumblecore filmmakers. He also loves--as you can see from the post above--Keaton, Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer, Rappaport, Capra and many others who aren't remotely realistic in the usual sense. In some interview or blog post he rails against doing a psychological analysis of Mabel Longhetti as if she were a real person. He emphasizes that Mabel is more of a semiotic function composed of tones of voice, gestures, and facial expressions than a person. I've often seen people complain that A Woman Under the Influence doesn't make them feel like they are seeing something "real." They feel like they are seeing someone acting. But I think Carney realizes this and would argue that you are supposed to be aware of the artificiality and made-ness of even Cassavetes' films. He's not so much interested in "realism" or something that's haphazard as he is in aesthetic styles that are "long-hand" rather than "short-hand." For whatever all that's worth.
This is a very good point, and I think I would defend Carney against charges that his approach simply valorizes "realism" and "authenticity" for their own sake. The trouble is, it's so hard to pin down what he does value! He's got this hard and fast belief that a really great film is of ungraspable, irreducible complexity, and any critical analysis must confront the fact that it will never encapsulate all of the film's mystery. But he also takes this to mean that one can't make any general statements about a work of art, its nature and its accomplishments. Every masterpiece, for him, is like a fish in a rushing river. You leap in to catch it with your hands, but it always eludes you. It sort of calls all critical analysis into question, and indeed I had a minor crisis as a result of being in his class, where I started to wonder whether film criticism had any real purpose.

As far as I can tell, the main effect of this belief on his critical practice is that it gives him license never to consider the big picture, the film's overall structure and dominant effect. This is really what I was trying (maybe failing) to get at in the line you quoted. He seems to pass from moment to moment, fixating on small instances where tonal registers are juxtaposed or emotional overtones become complicated, glancing off of these minute observations right onto the next one, never stopping to ask how they might matter in the larger context of the film. I understand the reticence to talk in terms of "messages" (and I think the real fault of the "puzzle"-oriented critical methods other posters have discussed is how heavily they are centered on decoding some "message" from the filmmaker to the viewer). But to replace that with nothing at all? It perplexed me, until I read one of his interviews with Cassavetes where Cassavetes makes a similar claim for his own films - that he creates characters who are irreducibly complex and paradoxical, and that his films are designed to resist generalization. It seems that Carney has taken that (dubious, I would argue) statement of artistic intent and applies it as a standard to measure every film against. It's as if he's formulated a (pretty nebulous) critical apparatus entirely around an off-hand boast by his favorite director, mixed with some ideas taken from Emerson, and others from Susan Sontag. That seems to be his approach in a nutshell, insofar as I can define it.

I sort of had an epiphany, after the class had ended, while reading Henry James' The Aspern Papers (and knowing how much Carney loves James). It's a story that reads almost as if every detail was conceived sequentially, as it was being written, with none of the meticulous pre-planning that can allow for a careful weaving of motifs or mirroring of incidents and images like you'd get from a writer like, say, Nabokov (or from Hitchcock, for that matter). That's not to say that there's anything wrong with the story. It features James' typically acute sensitivity toward perception and the layering of emotions. But the aesthetic pleasure one gets from a perfectly symmetrical structure, where every aspect is interrelated and purposeful, driving towards a cumulative effect, is totally absent from it. It's more like a shaggy dog story (albeit an uncommonly lovely one). Many of its best moments, its grace notes, seem like isolated anecdotes simply existing in a stream of incident, rather than elements contributing towards something greater. I think there is a distinction to be made between artists, like James, who favor the "stream" approach (I'd include Cassavetes and many of Carney's other indie favorites here) and artists, like Hitchcock, who make use of much stronger organizing principles (and whom Carney would disparage as makers of puzzles). You're right of course to point out that Carney nevertheless admires some meticulous aesthetes like Ozu and Bresson, but it seems to me that they might straddle the line. When he applies his typical indifference to narrative form, they come out looking exactly like the flowing stream of incident. Of course, if he were less myopic, he could also apply this to Hitchcock and find a mastery of tonal play, but that would spoil his simplistic dichotomy.

Anyway, sorry if all my ranting is a pain to read. Obviously, my experience with him has weighed on my mind for a while, and I'm relishing (maybe too much) the opportunity to hash it out. Please don't think I'm trying to convince you (or anyone else) to dislike those writings of Carney's that have meant something to you. Having trawled through some pretty nonsensical texts printed between the covers of Cahiers, and still found worthwhile points like diamonds in the rough, I can certainly appreciate how pieces of valuable and inspiring insight can be gleaned from flawed sources.

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colinr0380
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Re: Film Criticism

#1189 Post by colinr0380 » Wed Jan 27, 2021 5:14 am

I have been really enjoying this discussion and whilst I do not really have anything to add regarding Ray Carney and what seems to be a somewhat judgmental seeming approach that he takes towards different films and filmmakers, I do have some sympathy for the points he is making. But at the same time I feel a strange sense of pity as well that certain films have to be placed in opposition to his points, and seemingly that is that. No chance of ever approaching things with a fresh mind, and open mindedness should be a key quality to any critic. But I guess that at least he acknowledges that lack of interest.

I wonder how much of this relates to the pressures of academia and being the foremost Cassavetes scholar. That Carney has had to 'build his brand' in order to achieve a certain name and standing within the organisation, and inevitably even if successful (especially if successful) the certain traits that he is known for end up calcifying around him, just as they do with any well known figure in any field. It does not seem as if Carney is particularly constricted by that, quite the contrary, and I doubt even if he wanted to that he would ever repudiate Cassavetes and therefore his own commitment to the filmmaker at this point, but I wonder how much that working culture has an effect on pushing people into even more extremist positions just to keep developing themselves and an ever narrowing, almost solipsistic, argument.

I think that we all have that in us to a certain extent. Investment in something by its very nature (and especially when money, livelihoods, jobs, book deals and status gets involved) has the power to change us, or at least bias us beyond pure dispassionate qualitative judgments, and not always for the better. That's why I would not begrudge Carney his attitudes (or Armond White, or even Pro-B for that matter, even if I think they are nutty!), because they are seemingly being true to themselves (Or at least I hope they are and its not all a performance because that would be awful. Not for us, but for them) They are probably not going to change in response to criticism, and more than likely will strengthen their stance in response to negativity, so in the face of that it really comes down to ourselves as their audience. What do we take from them? Can we take the good points they make and filter out some of the performative surrounding stuff as just being the wrapping around their actual content?

(Although I may have a different perspective if I were paying to attend his class and instead of learning to speak with my own voice instead having to mould myself into Carney's rigid sounding way of thinking. But that gets into a whole other area of studying subjects that are rather amorphous, subjective and 'fluffy', and trying to get a good grade for them, as compared to more objectively assessable subjects where there are certain 'correct' approaches or answers. And also that would get into my own 'bias' as a student that I want a good grade out of the class for future prospects perhaps more than just being there to enjoy the 'fun of pure learning' with idiosyncratically memorable, but arguably impractical for any wider discourse, tutors!)

That's really what we should be doing with all critics however, good and bad. Recognising where they are coming from and how this may affect their judgments of the material that they are talking about. Reading widely and a variety of different perspectives on a particular thing always helps, and if the cultural artefact being focused on is of worth at all it is usually enriched by any thoughtful, positive or negative, perspective brought to bear on it. It may be less about how good or bad the critic's approach is, but how useful their ideas may be to their audience. Even in rejecting someone's approach, we still are still considering it to some extent. Even if we consider it worthless!

I have just realised that I have probably tried to 'solve' Carney like a Lynch film! But while I think that looking for a puzzle to unlock in every film can be the wrong approach and blinds a viewer to just the pure enjoyment of imagery, performance, tone and so on; so is not looking to explore a film more deeply and wanting everything to only exist on the surface. Why not do both? Twist and turn the film like a diamond, both marvelling at the beauty of the object but also if one so wishes also explore the construction of it as well?

We all as the audience get out of it what we put in, which might be different depending on your individual life circumstances at the time (level of knowledge, this being the first film of its kind you have seen, things going on outside the film that may distract our full attention, or coming again to a film where you were once distracted with fresh eyes, etc, etc. Or to put it another way if The Great Gatsby was the thing that first taught me about imagery used metaphorically that would be a significant moment to me, maybe more significant than it would be to someone already familiar with that idea through other work before they encountered Gatsby, so it would be less novel to them. And then we might see such metaphorical imagery done better and with more subtlety, or conversely blundering and heavy-handed elsewhere that helps us put Gatsby, and every other work, into an ever deepening and greater context. Judging whether the work is good or bad just for featuring that kind of imagery might be more subjective based on personal interest and experience), and that is really what makes criticism so fascinating because there are so many ways people have to approach these otherwise fixed pieces of art. We don't all experience things at the same time, or in the same cultural instant. Many perspectives on an otherwise shared artefact that might just be us reflecting on ourselves and our foibles using the object of art as a mirror for greater understanding, both of ourselves, of others and the world beyond. Recognising that may help us to explore this process even further and maybe even avoid being trapped in our own niches.

Yet specialisation is also worthwhile. The opportunity to look deeply into a subject by directly focusing onto it to the exclusion of everything else has its merits too. But then take that specialisation and send it out into the world where Cassavetes and Hitchcock can both exist as part of film culture, and scholars specialising in both can be appreciated for the insights that they bring to bear, whilst we hold an awareness that one scholar might not have much to particularly say outside of their specialist area (although arguably they might have the most interesting perspectives due to coming at things from such an outsider perspective). In that sense I understand Carney when he talks about not needing any more scholarship about classic Hollywood and instead wanting to spend his valuable time on the more overlooked things and the roads less travelled. I like trying to do that myself. But venturing out to explore new territories should not mean entirely forsaking the world back at home as well, not least because we often bring that 'old world' with us into the 'new' one.

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Mr Sausage
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Film Criticism

#1190 Post by Mr Sausage » Wed Jan 27, 2021 10:26 am

“colin” wrote:I have just realised that I have probably tried to 'solve' Carney like a Lynch film! But while I think that looking for a puzzle to unlock in every film can be the wrong approach and blinds a viewer to just the pure enjoyment of imagery, performance, tone and so on; so is not looking to explore a film more deeply and wanting everything to only exist on the surface. Why not do both? Twist and turn the film like a diamond, both marvelling at the beauty of the object but also if one so wishes also explore the construction of it as well?

It does sound like Carney follows Wordsworth’s dictum, “we murder to dissect”. So he engages in a rhapsodic criticism that never needs to parse how a film is using its parts to generate significance.

Nabokov himself had a kind of fear of meaning; he was always railing against generalities and the kind of larger meanings and ideas many critics and artists engage in. With some good reason, too. But in his own criticism you saw a hesitance to consider any larger purpose or significance to the endless, lovely aesthetic detail he would highlight and consider. But Nabokov did have an exquisite appreciation for the beauty with which an artist could work up symbols. In particular his Ulysses essay from Lectures on Literature does a terrific job showing how Joyce works up symbols of ever larger complexity with elegance.

While there is an arid form of criticism that amounts to mere symbol hunting, there is also a profound form of criticism that lets you see the magnificence with which a great artist constructs significance through symbolic forms.
Anyway, sorry if all my ranting is a pain to read. Obviously, my experience with him has weighed on my mind for a while, and I'm relishing (maybe too much) the opportunity to hash it out. Please don't think I'm trying to convince you (or anyone else) to dislike those writings of Carney's that have meant something to you. Having trawled through some pretty nonsensical texts printed between the covers of Cahiers, and still found worthwhile points like diamonds in the rough, I can certainly appreciate how pieces of valuable and inspiring insight can be gleaned from flawed sources.
I’ve been enjoying your posts. They’re insightful and considered.

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Re: Film Criticism

#1191 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Jan 27, 2021 10:48 am

I totally sympathize with the notion that great movies are "irreducible" -- but that does not mean they can't be analyzed. I just reject the notion that the examination of any one facet is the only "correct" (or worthwhile) way to look at the movie.

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Re: Film Criticism

#1192 Post by JSC » Wed Jan 27, 2021 10:58 am

I'll add a brief Wilde aphorism, if I may.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.

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Wigs by Leonard
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Re: Film Criticism

#1193 Post by Wigs by Leonard » Tue Feb 16, 2021 12:52 pm

The Siskel Film Center in Chicago just announced a virtual version of their Talking Pictures Lecture Series, featuring three 5-8 week programs of lectures. There's Jonathan Rosenbaum on "World Cinema of the 1940s," Sergio Mims on "Images of the Black Male in American Cinema," and "Sayles on Sayles." The Rosenbaum is the first to kick off, on February 23. I caught a few of his lectures when the Siskel did a complete Orson Welles program, and I probably don't need to tell you that it's a fantastic experience.

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Re: Film Criticism

#1194 Post by therewillbeblus » Fri Feb 19, 2021 7:01 pm

Speaking of criticisms of Hitchcock from upthread, I just came across an article talking about Raymond Chandler's oily letter to Hitchcock following a screening of Strangers on a Train, where apparently Hitchcock didn't use much of his content from a few submitted scripts after being ghosted. Anyways, this is the letter:
Raymond Chandler wrote:December 6th, 1950

Dear Hitch,

In spite of your wide and generous disregard of my communications on the subject of the script of Strangers on a Train and your failure to make any comment on it, and in spite of not having heard a word from you since I began the writing of the actual screenplay—for all of which I might say I bear no malice, since this sort of procedure seems to be part of the standard Hollywood depravity—in spite of this and in spite of this extremely cumbersome sentence, I feel that I should, just for the record, pass you a few comments on what is termed the final script. I could understand your finding fault with my script in this or that way, thinking that such and such a scene was too long or such and such a mechanism was too awkward. I could understand you changing your mind about the things you specifically wanted, because some of such changes might have been imposed on you from without. What I cannot understand is your permitting a script which after all had some life and vitality to be reduced to such a flabby mass of clichés, a group of faceless characters, and the kind of dialogue every screen writer is taught not to write—the kind that says everything twice and leaves nothing to be implied by the actor or the camera. Of course you must have had your reasons but, to use a phrase once coined by Max Beerbohm, it would take a “far less brilliant mind than mine” to guess what they were.

Regardless of whether or not my name appears on the screen among the credits, I’m not afraid that anybody will think I wrote this stuff. They’ll know damn well I didn’t. I shouldn’t have minded in the least if you had produced a better script—believe me. I shouldn’t. But if you wanted something written in skim milk, why on earth did you bother to come to me in the first place? What a waste of money! What a waste of time! It’s no answer to say that I was well paid. Nobody can be adequately paid for wasting his time.

—Signed, ‘Raymond Chandler’

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Re: Film Criticism

#1195 Post by DarkImbecile » Sun Feb 21, 2021 6:48 pm

Wigs by Leonard wrote:
Tue Feb 16, 2021 12:52 pm
The Siskel Film Center in Chicago just announced a virtual version of their Talking Pictures Lecture Series, featuring three 5-8 week programs of lectures. There's Jonathan Rosenbaum on "World Cinema of the 1940s," Sergio Mims on "Images of the Black Male in American Cinema," and "Sayles on Sayles." The Rosenbaum is the first to kick off, on February 23. I caught a few of his lectures when the Siskel did a complete Orson Welles program, and I probably don't need to tell you that it's a fantastic experience.
I signed up for the Rosenbaum series, and it’s already paid off before the first session: I’d never seen Sturges’ Christmas in July, and it is both thematically interesting in the context of 1940s cinema in a way I’m very interested to hear Rosenbaum explore, and — more importantly — exquisite cringe comedy, like an hour-long black and white predecessor to the “Scott’s Tots” episode of The Office. If only there had been
SpoilerShow
a shot of the department store guys trying to take back the doll from the little girl in the wheelchair... it was set up so perfectly that I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been shot but kept out of the final product by the studio.

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Re: Film Criticism

#1196 Post by MichaelB » Sun Feb 21, 2021 7:03 pm

Raymond Chandler wrote:Regardless of whether or not my name appears on the screen among the credits, I’m not afraid that anybody will think I wrote this stuff. They’ll know damn well I didn’t. I shouldn’t have minded in the least if you had produced a better script—believe me. I shouldn’t. But if you wanted something written in skim milk, why on earth did you bother to come to me in the first place? What a waste of money! What a waste of time! It’s no answer to say that I was well paid. Nobody can be adequately paid for wasting his time.
Hitchcock actually agreed with Chandler that his name should be removed from the credits on the grounds that virtually none of his work remained in the final screenplay, but he was overruled by Warner Bros on the not unreasonable grounds that Chandler's was by far one of the biggest names attached to the film. (Patricia Highsmith was pretty much unknown, and the screenwriters who actually had a substantial input into the adaptation, Whitfield Cook and Czenzi Ormonde, were hardly marquee names either.)

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Re: Film Criticism

#1197 Post by Glowingwabbit » Mon Mar 01, 2021 11:24 am

Not sure where to post this but an English translation of Serge Daney writing that was announced awhile ago is coming Feb 2022. Ignore the "buy" links as they aren't working yet.

https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/cinema-house-and-world

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