Ray Carney Moment of the Day #11

July 3, 2011

Last Chants for a Slow Dance


Hi Ray,

I’ve been a big fan ever since the 1991 Eastman House screenings of John Cassavetes’s films in Rochester, NY, and I have read nearly everything you’ve written on John’s work, the artistic process, and Carl Dreyer. We’ve occasionally corresponded over the years and you have always been generous with you thoughts.

I keep coming back to John’s work, as well as yours, for many reasons, but I think chiefly because you understand that art REALLY matters on a soul-spiritual there-is-dignity-in-life level. (And I don’t mean religious) In a world where the tinny and glitzy stand as art, you understand that the human element in art is the crux of the thing, the reason for doing it at all. The extraordinary compassion and acceptance of reality and downright living and particularity in John’s work never fails to move me.

I have read the work of Charlotte Joko Beck – I think you are familiar with her work as well – and have found her to be a source of enriching strength. Do you know the work of Robert Sardello? Are you familiar with the writings of Derrick Jensen? (Endgame vols. 1 and 2, Walking on Water, A Language Other Than Words). He too is a very compassionate and thoughtful writer who – similar to Cassavetes – scares the shit out of me simply by his ability to write the truth and is not afraid of making the reader uncomfortable.

My thoughts for you – In the face of a culture that is dying – and it really seems to be so – in which it is hard to imagine the culture surviving all that much longer – why make art? Why make films at all? Or plays featuring wannabe actors who just want to find a TV gig? Why become another dying cog in a dwindling culture – art, film, business, education, whatever – in which the only thing that matters is money and notoriety? In a country in which all ideals are sold to the highest dollar amount, from the crooks in the government, the corporate powerboys who can never get enough money or power, to the racist and bigoted media for hire – why bother?

Cassavetes was an outcast during his life, his films were often (and are still) mocked. If people as a whole are too comfortably stupid to save themselves, cannot open their eyes and will never regain compassion or be able to back away from the blind power and money fantasy that brings them to their TV each night, why bother making art at all???

Sorry for the speech, but I am haunted by this question and can’t seem to get past it enough to keep working.


Jack Florek, NJ

RC replies:

Of course I remember your other letters to me, Jack. Good to hear from you again!

And I remember the Eastman House Cassavetes screenings too! Did you know I organized that festival? I arranged those screenings. It was a national tour of John’s films I (and a few administrators at the Walker Art Center and Pacific Film Archive) put together following his death. And (just to tease you!) the year was, unless I am misremembering, not 1991, but 1990! I actually have the program I wrote for those screenings posted on the site somewhere.

And, surely, you must have seen Derrick Jensen’s name on the site already. I love his work! He’s a truth-teller and I love all truth-tellers. Fundamentally, deep down, under all the details, he’s trying to do the same thing I am – except he’s better at it and has a bigger canvas and a broader brush! He has the whole planet for his playground and subject. I’m just a tiny humanist and art lover.

We live in a culture of unreality, and Jensen dares to puncture the soap-bubble. Pop! Zing! That’s always shocking and upsetting of course. It’s what no one wants, but what everyone needs. … And of course I know Charlotte’s work also. She’s another truth teller – with a gentler, sweeter, milder way of saying it. But truth is truth. And she’s as devoted to it as he is. Or as John was.

But on to your question. I really don’t know what to say, since the answer is so obvious, and you already know it. I’m sure you do. As to “why become a cog in a dying culture?” – DON’T!!!! As to what possible reason there is to mount “plays featuring wannabe actors who just want to find a TV gig?” THERE IS NONE!!! As to why people should waste their lives chasing after “power and money and notorieity?” THEY SHOULDN’T!!!!

Whether the planet is dying or thriving, whether there is another fifty years or another fifty million years ahead of us, THOSE ANSWERS DON’T CHANGE!!! Those things are always a waste, always have been a waste, and always will be a waste of our souls, our minds, our spirits, our hearts, our creativity, our love, our precious, short lives. (And no matter how long or short the life of the planet, the life of the galaxy, or the life of the universe, our personal lives are always short. That never changes.) DOING THOSE THINGS – MAKING MONEY, PURSUING FAME, CHASING AFTER SUCCESS – ARE A WASTE – ALWAYS AND EVERYWHERE, no matter what the future holds, for anyone and everyone, on any planet, in any galaxy, in any universe. But you know that already. You must know that.

So what is the alternative? You know that already too. It is to live the other way. To build our souls in the way Charlotte talks about. To devote ourselves to life-affirming values and principles in the way Jensen calls us to. To laugh with God in the way Meister Eckhart describes. To dance with the vibrations of the universe the way the Shakers did. To humble ourselves to serve the poor and needy like Mother Teresa did. We must see our connection with everyone, everywhere; our lack of separateness from every living thing, as Buddha taught us. We must become as little children as Jesus told us to do. We must make ourselves “a football to the universe” the way Emerson told us to do. We must take our lives in our hands by abandoning hope and living in reality. We must brave everything by risking everything and plunging headlong into experience while rising above it at the same time. We must tend our souls.

And creating – or more modestly, deeply appreciating – art is one of the ways of doing this. But so is working in a soup kitchen. And so is being a caring teacher, or a good, loving mother or father – or a kind son, daughter, friend, or lover. There are many paths. None of the right paths is necessarily better than any of the others. Art is only one path. One choice among an infinite number of right paths. But, of course, none of these paths, including the path of the true artist, is about making money. None of them is about becoming rich or famous. None of them is about impressing people. None of them is about achieving something or getting somewhere. Those things are part of the world’s value system, not the soul’s, and those things only lead away from the true paths. So what’s the problem? Even if we only have five minutes more to live, we can still give love and compassion. Even if we only have five minutes more to live, we can still purify our souls, and help others to purify theirs. Even if we only have five minutes more to live, we can still affirm the wonder and mystery and beauty of the universe. We can still laugh with God.

Ring a bell. Lend someone a hand. Go, man, go.

Ray Carney


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