Tokyo Twilight

As I argue in my chapter on It’s A Wonderful Life, Capra’s work is so opposed to the creation of symbolic truths that even an event or a word that a well-intentioned character wants to treat as a symbol is shown to resist being stabilized this way. With the noblest intentions in the world, Mary Hatch attempts to create enduring symbols of her faith in George’s vision with her “George lassos the moon” needlepoint. The only problem (which is, in Capra’s view, of course no problem at all, but a cause for celebration) is that her symbols won’t stand still the way she wants them to. Like the Granville Place, and like most of the other important events and objects in the film, “lasso” and “moon” continually shift and change their meaning. At George’s darkest hour, they completely reverse their original meanings: the lasso of his youth becomes a noose around his neck, and the moon transforms itself from an object of romance into the name of an unromantic dive in Pottersville, the Blue Moon Bar. Capra wants us to see that life moves out from under the symbols we would nail it down with–even our most idealistic and spiritually exalted symbols. Not even meanings made with love can stop life’s motion.
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Superstar - The Karen Carpenter Story

I want to pose some extremely basic quetions about the ways film criticism is done. One place to begin is to ask why American film criticism is devoted, almost without exception and certainly without ever reflecting on it as a special technique at all, to a “surface-depth” model of artistic expression. All of the scholarly commentators on Capra’s work (and on that of most other directors) assume, seemingly without question, that the function of criticism is to move from a relatively superficial and unimportant perceptual events (everything you actually hear and see on the screen) to a realm of profound, and invariably invisible or hidden, “deep” meanings. These commentators are critical Platonists. Their goal is to leave the phenomenal realm behind and move into a world of intellectual abstractions. As William James put it, they seek to dive behind the turbulent perceptual surfaces of experience and anchor themselves in unchanging conceptual depths.


Subject: site & brief question

Prof. Carney,

I like the site and your books, etc. But I’ll make this brief. Could you give me a list of films *within* the mainstream that you think have some value?

Before you start typing a “Lists are useless” sentence, I’ll explain why:

It seems to me that part of cinema’s advantage over other arts is its populism. But it’s also its downfall that many films, a number of the ones you champion, are very difficult to find. I’ve only been able to find the slightest number of them.

You champion Frank Capra as a “studio indie.” Surely he is not the only valuable studio filmmaker?

I doubt that you’d like Howard Hawks or people like that, but what about Samuel Fuller? Or Robert Wise? Or Robert Rossen?
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Breakaway - Bruce Conner

Capra’s work is closely, if unconsciously, related to that of avowed Method directors like Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan. It is not that the work of any of these directors dispenses altogether with technical or character acting (any more than Henry James’s work dispenses with fixed characters to give itself over to an exclusive depiction of free characters), but at crucial moments it gestures beyond what is depictable in that form of acting. Performances like those turned in by Barbara Stanwyck in even the earliest of Capra’s films and Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart in the later ones have a passionateness and an imaginative intensity in search of an adequate form of social expression (which can never bequite attained) that directly anticipates the performances of Montgomery Clift, James Dean, and Marlon Brando in their best work of the fifties. Read the rest of this entry »

Richard Pryor

Dear Prof. Carney,

Several months ago in the mailbag, back on page 43, you posted the following:

I love something Freeman Dyson once wrote. He was asked about SETI, the project to communicate with alien intelligences, extraterrestrials, and what we should beam back if we ever heard a signal from out there. He said something like: “If we want to get their attention, we should stream Bach, all of Bach, out into the universe. Of course, we would be bragging.”

I’m curious, hypothetically, what examples you would beam up in the way of film, writing, painting, and dance to show the range of human emotion on Earth (of course, Bach is a given). I know you’re not into favorites or top tens, but I’m interested in how you would communicate the range of “humanness” through our works of art by our best artists. How to best communicate to an alien intelligence what it means to be human? Maybe this is an impossible-to-answer question, but I’m asking and wondering about it anyway. What does it mean to be “human?”


RC replies:
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Bleak Moments

States of consciousness are impersonal, because thoughts and feelings (at least in the shorthand terms in which these films render them) are generic. Inner states inevitably lack the variety of expressions. There are no fat intentions or thin intentions, no embarrassed or glib visions, no hesitant or assertive abstractions. Visionary forms of presentation lack the idiosyncrasy of individual expressions. Our visions are more or less alike; it’s the nonvisionary aspects of our lives (our personalities, bodies, gestures, facial expressions, tones of voice) that make us different. In this respect, a person’s ideas, theories, goals, motives, and philosophies are the least personal (and least unique) things about him.
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La Jetee

Consider the argument between the old married couple, Norma (Maureen O’Sullivan) and Evan (Lloyd Nolan), in Hannah and Her Sisters. Norma has been on a drinking binge and has been flirting with a younger man at lunch. For a few minutes, as their daughter Hannah (Mia Farrow) looks on, Norma and Evan verbally abuse each other, dredge up horrid accusations of past sins and infidelities, and generally indicate all of the dissatisfactions in their marriage that we are meant to feel that they have kept successfully suppressed up to this point in the film. There is a scene quite similar to this one in each of Allen’s serious films. It is a scene in which hypocrisies are exposed, dirty laundry is aired, secrets characters keep from themselves and each other are suddenly revealed, and the characters are radically “deepened.” But notwithstanding all of the raised voices and agitated gestures, real danger is seldom present. (This is not to say that reviewers don’t know how they are expected to respond to Big Dramatic Moments. This scene in Hannah and Her Sisters, to cite only one example, was singled out for praise by almost every reviewer. The trouble is that a reviewer is not supposed to take an artist at his intention, but to judge whether he or she succeeded in realizing it.)
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Ghost World

Why do you think there has been a trend of anti-sentimental films in recent years?

The epilogue to my Leigh book talks about this. It’s a way of bursting the bubble, of revealing that the empress is wearing a pushup bra. Black comedy surfaces when options for truth-telling are blocked or frustrated. Society always tries to paper over its imaginative San Andreas faults. One of the jobs of an artist is to reveal the gaps and inconsistencies in the cultural cover story. Artists have been doing this for centuries. In the expansionist, optimistic, go-go Elizabethan period – so much like our own Wall Street greed-crazed Reagan-Bush years – Kyd and Marlowe wrote these brilliant, dark, sardonic comedies – Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, The Spanish Tragedy. That was in 1590. At the height of the Eisenhower snooze-fest and the Kennedy-Camelot-preppie touch football game, Kubrick made Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove. In the peace-love-Woodstock era, Altman and Penn unleashed Mash and Bonnie and Clyde. Altman has been turning over Betsy Ross’s stitching and forcing us to look at the bad side for more than thirty years. Someone has to do that from time to time.

Todd Solondz, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sam Mendez, and Neil LaBute flourish because they tell us something we need to hear. America is a relentlessly upbeat, optimistic culture. A sentimental culture with an immature view of life. Look at how 9/11 affected us. That’s a sign of our immaturity. We see things in terms of black and white, good and evil, us versus them. These filmmakers correct our vision. They make the darkness visible.
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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.
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Lost and Found Department
Chasing Shadows
Ray Carney

At the beginning of Citizen Kane the dying Charles Foster Kane whispers the word “Rosebud,” and a reporter scurries about for a few days and pieces together his life story from the two syllables.

If only life were as simple as the movies. In the late 1980s, a few years before John Cassavetes’ death, I had a series of “Rosebud” conversations with him. The American independent filmmaker told me things about his life and work that he had never previously revealed. Our discussions covered a lot of territory, but one of the things I spent the most time querying him about was the fate of alternative versions of his films. Because Cassavetes made most of his movies outside the studio system and financed them himself (paid for from the salary he made acting in other directors’ films), he was free from the constraints that limit Hollywood filmmakers. He could take as long as he wanted to shoot his projects, spend as much time as he needed to edit them, and if he was so inclined, re-shoot or re-edit them as much as he wanted. In short, Cassavetes made films the way poets write or painters paint. The result was that at various points in their creation, most of his works – including Faces, Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence, and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie – existed in wildly differing versions, with different characters, different scenes, and different running times.
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