Ray Carney Moment of the Day #5

June 20, 2011

Lancelot du lac

Carney: Screenings where you show something beyond the students’ ability to understand it and you totally lose your audience. It doesn’t happen as much in a small course, where you’re working in a very intimate setting, and a large amount of trust is developed in the course of working together, but a large lecture course can be a killer. I remember one particularly nightmarish screening of A Woman Under the Influence where everything went wrong. It was in a gigantic required survey course for a group of about 500 Freshmen. I was a guest lecturer. That meant not only that most of the students weren’t film majors and didn’t want to be there, but that, because I was not the regular teacher, they had no emotional connection with me or the subject. They laughed all the way through it — when they weren’t shouting things at the screen.

Interviewer: Why would they do that?

Carney: Oh, that’s not at all an unusual a response from someone that age or in that situation. If I had had a clearer idea of the situation of the students in the course I would have chosen a different Cassavetes film — Shadows or a film by some other director. A Woman Under the Influence was something they couldn’t understand or emotionally identify with, especially at that event. They were boys and girls in their teens. They had no interest in or knowledge of the life of someone the age of their mothers. They thought the movie was exaggerated and silly.

You can tell an awful lot about what is going on inside a viewer during a screening. I always have my antennas out when I am showing a film. I sit in the room with the class. I listen to the students’ breathing. I watch their eyes. I study their body language, whether they are moving or still, sitting forward or back in their seats. But this particular screening didn’t take supersubtle perceptiveness. I could see it coming when I walked into the lecture hall even before the movie began. I was to speak following the screening. It was a special evening event and many of them had brought popcorn, soft drinks, and friends, assuming it would all be a big party—their one movie of the semester. I could tell things were wrong by the tone and mood. No one was listening as the regular professor introduced the film. The students were laughing, slouched back in their seats, calling things out to their friends across the aisle. A chorus of cheers went up as he sat down and the film began. From that moment on there was nothing I could do to wake up from the nightmare. I sat in the back of the room next to the regular professor, listening to the jeering. I watched at least fifty students get up and leave (probably the friends and roommates who had come along for the ride). When the cat-calls got really bad, I asked him if we could stop the film, but he told me he didn’t want to because there would not be time to screen it any other night. On reflection, I’m sure all he cared about was getting the event over as soon as possible. The last thing he wanted was to go through this on a second night. Talk about contempt for your own students and your own classroom. Of course it seemed like it would never end. When the lights came up to a chorus of sarcastic cheers, I had to walk slowly up the aisle, onto the stage, and deliver an hour-long lecture. I’ll put that up against any entrance Tom Noonan has ever made!

That was the worst because I was so personally involved, but I remember Bresson screenings at the Olympia Film Festival, including one of Lancelot de lac, that were almost as bad. Lancelot is a deeply spiritual work, but the audience laughed all the way through it, treating it as if it were Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Interviewer: How could they do that?

Carney: Audiences have problems with any artist who makes reality even a little hard to see. Isn’t that Wallace Stevens’ definition of poetry? It happens all the time. People laugh when they don’t have any other category to put an experience in. They assume it must be a joke. Especially young audiences nowadays who have seen so many smart-ass movies that ask you to laugh at everything. Movies like Happiness or Your Friends and Neighbors or Magnolia. I remember a screening of Dreyer’s Gertrud at the Harvard Film Archive where the audience hee-hawed all the way through the film. I’ve seen it happen at Paul Taylor dance performances. As soon as the dancing gets at all strange or tonally unclassifiable or resists simple understanding, people start guffawing. You can always tell this laugh, though, because it’s different from a real laugh — it comes from the head not the heart, as if the people laughing were not feeling it, but willing it, thinking their laughter.

Laughter is a way of protecting yourself so you don’t have to deal with something emotionally. If those girls in the lecture course actually let Mabel into their hearts and saw themselves in her, or if the fraternity brothers in the Bresson audience saw their own enslavement to abstract notions of style and macho-man behavior and mindless group allegiance, it would be too scary for them to contemplate. Bresson slows things down in ways that force you to look at them in new ways, and if you don’t want to do that — if you just come to a movie to waste your own time — it’s always safer to regard it as a joke.

You don’t have these kinds of disasters when you show Hitchcock or the Coen brothers. You frequently have them with Cassavetes, Tarkovsky, Bresson, Dreyer, or Ozu. I remember one of my own classroom screenings of Ordet where the students laughed or called out names every time Johannes came on screen. And a screening of Jeanne Diehlman where — goaded on by a vocal grad student who resented the fact that the film was so long — the students called out smart remarks at the screen, like “hurry up” and “are you going to do that again?”

Interviewer: What do you do in those situations?

Carney: In the Bresson and Dreyer screenings that took place elsewhere, I couldn’t do anything but change my seat and try to sit as far away from the rowdies as possible. After the A Woman Under the Influence screening, I threw away my lecture notes and made the audience’s ridicule, their rejection of sincerity and seriousness, their implicit contempt for the art of film the subject of my talk. When it happens in my own classroom, I can do a lot better. I stop the film in mid-reel and have the students analyze their responses. Why are they ridiculing the film? I’ve had this very discussion with them — about how easy it is to know exactly how to respond to a scene in Hitchcock and how much harder it is to understand the tone or meaning of a scene in Gertrud or Ordet or Solaris — and what that difference tells us. Sometimes, if it’s just a few yahoos and not the whole class that is the problem, I’ll take them out into the hall and talk to them in private.

Interviewer: Are you able to succeed in showing them how they went wrong?

Carney: Sometimes yes; sometimes no. The discussions can get very heated. Everything in our culture, everything in most of these students’ pasts has trained them to believe that their emotional responses can’t be wrong. Their facts may be, but not their emotions. It’s a legacy of the sixties that if they feel it, it must be right. Or at least it must be “respected.”

Not to mince words, what I am basically telling them is that their emotions are wrong. That they are immature. I don’t say that directly, of course, but they pick up on it. And they’re right. That’s what I am telling them. I try to reach them with various analogies, like how their taste in music is different from and presumably more advanced than their little brother’s. Or how the books they read have changed over the years. We talk about the emotional programming of our culture and how it encourages comic, ironic, or sarcastic responses. We talk about why works of art might resist easy understandings, and how they might actually want to put us in tonally unresolved situations. We talk about how a work teaches you how to respond to it, how it uses formal devices to adjust its emotional register, and how it distorts artistic experiences to interpret them simply in terms of your own set of private associations and frames of reference.

Interviewer: Does the discussion convince them?

Carney: Not necessarily, but it upsets them, and that might actually be better. I’d rather reach their hearts than their minds anyday. Tocqueville was right. The idea that there is an aristocracy of sensibility, that your own personal responses might be wrong, is a hard concept for people to grasp in our I’m OK You’re OK, everyone is entitled to their opinion culture. It can be years before some of them really understand.

Teachers of courses in feminism or multiculturalism — who are talking about similar forms of cultural emotional programming — know enough to limit their enrollment to members of the special interest group to avoid the “how dare you criticize my feelings” syndrome from people who don’t agree with them, but I don’t have that luxury. As with any discussion, there are always a few students who refuse to learn anything and argue to the death that everyone is entitled to his own response. But there are others who tell you years later that particular class was the most important discussion they ever participated in.

Interviewer: It’s interesting because I don’t think I’ve ever heard this issue dealt with. Usually it seems that the professor tells the students what the movie means or what its historical importance is and the students simply write it down and regurgitate it. Very seldom does a class let you deal with the interpretive process itself, actually to discuss or reflect on why your reactions might be different from the professor’s.

Carney: Or it happens the other way around. The professor simply echoes the students’ interpretations of what they are seeing. “Ah, yes, that’s an interesting point. Thanks for mentioning it.” He doesn’t ever say, “I think you missed the point. The work doesn’t want us to do that to it.” It’s dangerous territory for a teacher to get into. And it raises larger issues. My classes are full of value judgments — made both by me and my students — judgments about the value of a particular work; judgments about right and wrong ways to respond to it; judgments about how Hollywood panders to viewers’ base instincts and self-aggrandizing understandings of themselves; a whole slew of judgments, judgments, judgments. And there is a strong aversion to judgment in our culture in general and in the classroom in particular. Given the age of most students, “open-mindedness” and “non-judging” are their supreme values. It’s a stage we all went through. When you are young, and don’t know very much about anything, and are not in a position to judge it, it seems as if all the problems of the world would end if the adults simply stopped judging each other or anything else. And here I come in — making judgments a mile a minute, not only about works of art, but about how viewers should respond to them, scene by scene.

Most classroom discussions generally take their values from the students. Most professors don’t want to get out of step with their students for all of the obvious reasons. They court student approval and live in fear of student evaluations — since much of the tenure and promotion system is based on them. So they are not about to rock the boat by telling their boy students that The Matrix panders to their feelings of powerlessness, their Walter Mitty dreams of saving the world, and their nostalgia for their youth; or telling their girl students that they are being shamelessly manipulated by Titanic and Shrek; and on and on.

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2 Responses to “Ray Carney Moment of the Day #5”

  1. Townes said

    Ray Carney is brilliant. I highly recommend checking out the recommended viewing page on his site, http://people.bu.edu/rcarney

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