Ray Carney Moment of the Day #9

July 1, 2011

Cosmic Ray

Cynthia Rockwell: You’ve written several definitive books on John Cassavetes and his work—can you describe what it was that originally attracted you to his work?

Ray Carney: My taste in movies has always been a little weird. Probably as a result of coming to them pretty late. As a kid and a teenager, I lived far out in the country, and saw almost nothing. I went to a few movies in college [at Harvard], but really only began to get interested in film in my twenties, during my grad school years [at Rutgers]. But not Hollywood movies! You need to know some background to understand this. So bear with me, OK?.

Near the end of my college years, I had this epiphany about art as the ultimate form of human expression. All the time I was growing up, my family had had no interest in art at all. None. My father was a businessman; there was not one really good book or record in my house; and no awareness that arts like ballet or opera even existed. I began college as a math and physics major. I was a real science buff—pretty good at it too. Had won prizes and awards and scholarships. A fellowship from the National Science Foundation while I was in high school. The whole nine yards. I knew what I wanted to do with my life. It was all mapped out for me. But then magic happened. Due to an “artistic” Radcliffe girlfriend who threw my life into intellectual and emotional turmoil, I discovered painting, literature, drama, and the other arts. Meeting her and suddenly having this world opened to me was like being hit by a falling piano. I was mystified, bewildered, destroyed. It was a life-changing experience. And that’s an understatement!

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

Am I making it clear that this was some kind of insanity? I’ve always been obsessive about anything I am interested in. I realized years ago that if I weren’t interested in art, I’d probably be into drugs or some other compulsive behavior big time. Too bad it’s not making money or cleaning my house—I could use a little of that kind of obsessiveness! Even now, I will fly into a city and see five or six dance performances in a row or spend three consecutive days in a big museum—all day, from opening to closing! I always warn anyone who is foolish enough to come with me what they are in for. I will wear anyone out standing in front of paintings! My friends are so patient with me they should be canonized. Some people’s idea of fun is to get a four-day pass to Disneyworld, mine is to spend four days in a row in the Met or the National Gallery. I ran into Paul Taylor at an intermission in City Center a few weeks ago, and told him how I impulse binge on his works for three or four days at a time, matinees and evenings, back to back. It was a comical conversation. Here I was talking to one of my all-time heroes, and he smiled at me, I think he was laughing at me, and said: “How can you stand it?” Of course, I told him I couldn’t stand life otherwise. These sorts of experiences are the only things that get me through most of the rest of life.

But I got off track. Back to my salad days. Because of my art obsession, when I finally began going to a few movies in my graduate school years, I wasn’t looking for stupid sentimental story-telling and movie-star glamour—but for the same kinds of experiences the literary and musical works I loved gave me—turbulence, confusion, wildness, challenge, mystery, shock, magic.

Maybe it comes down to the fact that I got into film in a different way from most of the people I know. Almost without exception, all of the reviewers and directors I now know became interested in film because at some point or other in their teens or twenties they felt this powerful identification with some character or movie – or maybe with several characters or movies. They saw Citizen Kane and identified with the loneliness of the title character. They saw The Graduate and identified with the powerlessness of the Dustin Hoffman character. They saw Star Wars and felt like they were Luke Skywalker or Han Solo battling the Evil Empire. They saw Edward Scissorhands and felt the Johnny Depp character was them. They saw The Matrix or Titanic and felt in some deep part of their soul that they were living Neo’s or Kate Winslett’s life. They saw Thelma and Louise or Erin Brockovich and imagined that they were just like them. They could outsmart the stupid plodding men in the world. You get the idea. That wasn’t the way I became interested in movies. I’ve never approached a movie that way, and don’t now.

Cynthia Rockwell: What’s wrong with identifying with a character?

Ray Carney: It’s a child’s way of thinking. It’s playing with action figures, Halloween dress-up, a dolly tea-party, not what appreciating art is about.

Cynthia Rockwell: What do you mean?

Ray Carney: You know, you dress up your Barbie and “become her.” You hold a tea party with your little friends and play mommy and auntie. You take out your toy soldiers or your Hulk Hogan figure and slay the world. That’s not what experiencing art is about. We know this about other arts, but film appreciation is so infantilized that we forget it. You don’t experience Paul Taylor’s Esplanade or Picasso’s Night Fishing at Antibes or Bach’s Goldberg Variations to plug yourself into them that way, to feel better about yourself, to fantasize that you are strong and mature and powerful. Those works make demands on you. They test your powers of awareness. They expand your consciousness in unexpected directions. They are not Rorschach blotches that you project your fantasies of powerlessness into and get power by expanding within. They are not about flattering you by allowing you to feel sorry for yourself or to pretend you are more important than you really are. Art is not about that. It’s not about cheering yourself up with flattering, self-aggrandizing fantasies. That’s for kids. That’s dressing up and playing pretend. That’s playing with action figures. That’s reading a children’s story when you’re eight or nine. That’s the Halloween parade at school. That’s wearing your Superman underoos. That’s pop culture. That’s Hollywood.

Cynthia Rockwell: If you weren’t interested in those things, why were you drawn to the movies at all?

Ray Carney: I was attracted to complex, demanding, subtle emotional experiences that moved me into new ways of feeling and thinking. I didn’t find that in Hollywood’s cartoon-characterizations and emotional button-pushing and still don’t. Those weren’t the kind of movies I started going to or the kind of movies I go to now. But I found it in a few foreign filmmakers: Bresson, Tarkovsky, Fellini, Ozu, Rossellini, DeSica, Dreyer, Renoir, and some others. I became as consumed with their work as I was with Picasso’s or Parker’s. By sheer chance, I also stumbled into a few of what are now called “independent films”—though the term didn’t exist in those days—works by Paul Morrissey, Barbara Loden, Bruce Conner, Mark Rappaport, Robert Kramer, John Korty. Cassavetes was in that group: Faces, Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence. The American films were entirely different from the foreign ones, but just as consciousness-altering and exciting.

The rest, as they say, is history. As I look back on it, I realize that my timing couldn’t have been better. It was the early to mid-seventies, the greatest era in all of American film. I was incredibly lucky. The stars must have been aligned.

Cynthia Rockwell: Great story about meeting the girl.

Ray Carney: Yes, but, let me unsay everything I have told you. To tell the story this way is misleading. It makes it all sound much more organized and systematic than it really was. Meeting Aida, that was her name, was more a butterfly in Brazil experience. She was the butterfly and there was a hurricane a few years later, but I don’t know exactly how the two are linked. That’s where the story makes it too neat. By the time the changes were taking place in my life, she and I had broken up. And I didn’t know the storm clouds were storm clouds at the time. A lot of the art stuff was just a crazy new interest of mine along with a lot of other new interests. The things that happen to you in your twenties. My point is that my life was more random, more open-ended, than I am making it sound—less a path than a jungle of criss-crossing interests. But when you tell it, it becomes orderly. It’s a lesson for artists to learn from. Stories clean things up too much. They make them neat where they should be messy. My story is a lie because it seems too orderly. That’s why we have to get the mess back into our art and acknowledge it in our lives.

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