Ray Carney and Off-Off-Hollywood
Back in the mid-90's, I frequented Book Sale branches at least once a week and one day, came upon an issue of MovieMaker Magazine (May/June 1995) worth 12 pesos. (I think this was at the Fiesta Carnival -- now Shopwise Supermarket -- Book Sale branch). Inside the pages of this issue was a picture of a man, geek-like in appearance. This man was Ray Carney. Reading that issue permanently changed my ideas about cinema.
The article was Diane Cherkerzian's interview with Carney entitled "Conversations Con Carney: A Chilly View of Hollywood" and Carney was saying blasphemous things about cinematic personas which I held in high esteem at the time like Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock, and of all people Quentin Tarantino (I jokingly dubbed myself then Quentin Manrique). He was saying that these people were actually Hollywood! And the filmmakers whom he was recommending were filmmakers that you wouldn't usually find in your run-of-the-mill film texbooks -- names like John Cassavetes, Elaine May, and Mike Leigh. The ironic thing was that just some weeks before I encountered Carney, there was a retrospective of Mike Leigh (or was it Cassavetes?) at the then U.P. Film Center (now U.P. Film Institute) and, because I was still clueless, I didn't go!
At any rate, I thought to myself, here was a man who was saying that the alternative filmmaking which I thought was alternative filmmaking was not really alternative. There was cinema which was more alternative. If Allen et al were Off-Broadway. There was still an Off-Off-Broadway of cinema -- Off-Off-Hollywood, as it were. It was shocking, but fascinating. And slowly, I eventually got what he was saying.
Fast forward to around five years later, and I again encountered Carney on the Internet. His articles, I found out, were archived in the MovieMaker Magazine website, and that he had his own website. I downloaded articles from both. In particular, I initially downloaded what could be considered the best introductory articles (all originally published in Movie Maker Magazine) to his critical philosophy: The Path of an Artist, Part I, The Path of an Artist, Part II, and The Path of an Artist, Part III.
Eventually, I posted these articles on the Freefest yahoogroup with titles like 'Allen, Kubrick and Hitchcock S*ck!' (just to be sensational and catch the attention of everyone ;)) and one of the people who read these posts was filmmaker JP Carpio. Like my initial reaction, JP was shocked that most of his sacred cows were being butchered by this man with a funny-looking tie. JP's journey was longer for, as he would like to share, it took him a year to come around and see that maybe this guy had a point. (Yup, it's my fault! j/k :)) At any rate, JP is now the most passionate Carney and Cassavetes disciple in the country and has read most of Carney's works and has seen almost all of Cassavetes works.
And I think this is how it is with all filmmakers, including myself, who encounter Ray Carney -- they will try to distance themselves from him but time and again, they will come back. I think the secret of Carney's allure, especially to young filmmakers, is that he espouses one of the most basic tenets of the arts: truth-telling.
But what exactly is Carney's philosophy? It's called Aesthetic Pragmatism, a term whose provenance is Pragmatism, the philosophy of Carney's favorite philosopher, William James (brother of the great novelist Henry James). Simply put, aesthetic pragmatism says that art is not meant to be a source of knowledge, but something which should be experienced. That art creates new ways of experiencing things and these experiences help us become better human beings. That truths are not simple, but complex, and multivalent, or multi-layered, contradictory, etc.
Definitely art is not metaphorical. For Carney, looking for symbols and metaphors in a work of art is a high school pre-occupation which art lovers and everyone should grow out of. And I think he has a point. Art should first and foremost hit you in the gut, remind you how it is to be human, and that, indeed, that's how life is.
Art, for Ray Carney, is a way of negotiating the world, and making this world a better place to live in. As you may have already surmised, Carney hates cynicism, satire, post-modernism, marxism, structuralism, post-structuralism and all those isms which posit works of art and human beings in boxes with clear labels. For him, these kinds of critical approaches are too easy. Life, and thus art, for Carney is much more complicated -- so full of hemming and hawing, pauses and silences, diversions and digressions, ambiguities and contradictions, that there is no ism or school of thought which can definitively and fully encompass our experience as human beings. (If you want to read a more comprehensive discussion of Carney's aesthetic philosophy, read this long excerpt from Carney's book Two Forms of Cinematic Modernism: Notes Towards a Pragmatic Aesthetic. If you don't have enough time to read all his articles, but at the same time want to fully grasp what Carney and Aesthetic Pragmatism are about, then this is the article to read. Since this is a long article you may want to copy and paste it on a Word document and print it out.)
But you may ask, isn't Carney's philosophy just another ism which purports or projects itself to be the end-all and be-all of criticism? Well, the great thing about Carney -- even though some may find him arrogant (others may call it proactive conviction though) -- is that humility is a corollary to his philosophy and thus the latter makes room even for this seeming contradiction. Even he has, on occasion, said that the only person you should trust is yourself. You cannot even trust him, or other artists, for that matter. There's only your own voice to depend on. The important thing is for you to express this voice in whatever way you can. Use dolls, paper dolls, hand shadows, puppets, pen, pencil, paper clips, clay, low-end video cameras, your body, etc. to say what you want and put your imprint on this world. It therefore follows that even your life can be your art; it can be your canvass or pen and paper, and you can be creative with your every choice and every action. Live life from your truest self, and your life becomes, literally and figuratively, a living art. (In more "pragmatic" terms, take whatever you can from Carney and other artists, and run with these lessons.)
(P.S. Another MovieMaker issue (March/April 1995) which I bought at the same time for the same price (!) had Oliver Stone (whom Carney doesn't like :)) as the cover and an article on John Cassavetes entitled "The Courage of John Cassavetes" written by Rustin Thompson. You may see all of the relevant images here. )