Ray Carney and Off-Off-Hollywood

Dino Manrique's picture
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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. )

Dino Manrique's picture

Update: Ray Carney Sighting on YouTube

I've long wanted to know how Ray Carney is like in person, so when I saw a letter-writer mentioning Carney on Youtube at his Mailbag -- you can see my own letter to Carney by the way on the middle of the web page Laughing -- I immediately searched for his name on YouTube, and there he was, in an experimental film by Anne Yao: http://youtube.com/watch?v=f-o_7vT6dTM

The footage is more of Yao's encounter with Carney, and like those who commented on the video, I think it would be great to see Carney in a video interview. Perhaps his students and those close to him would do us film buffs a great favor? Wink

good post. i like it how

good post. i like it how carney is not afraid to speak his mind about films and artists that he likes or doesnt like. most of my favorite films are those that move me emotionally. but at the same time, kubrick, woody and tarantino also have their own merit. still, the fact that carney champions lesser known films is important, because the more voices in cinema there are, the better off the art as a whole will be.

Dino Manrique's picture



The Gift of Ray Carney

Dino, I just want to thank you for introducing Ray Carney to me. He opened my mind and soul when it comes to viewing films. I understand life more now due to him.

Some of the things I realize after embracing his words. I discovered that there is a thin line between life and films. We should ALWAYS incorporate life in films and vice versa. Art is a lesson that teaches us everything, both directly and indirectly. It asks and gives question we never get from number or formulas. Thats why Carney never liked formulas or theories because it belittles the true essences of ourselves. In making and viewing a films, we journey not with the story but with the character (this together with society, the country and the world). With his idea of films, we tackle questions of culture and generation. And for me, that is better than any twist and turns plot minded cinema could and will give us.

I encourage anyone to read Carney. For some, it will take time to give in. (It took Film Artist JP Carpio a whole year) But when you finally remove consciousness, cinema will never be the same..

Keep on unfolding and preaching the truth Dino! :)

-- Raymund Cruz

link to his site: http://people.bu.edu/rcarney/

"I ask question more than give answer"
- Mike Leigh

Dino Manrique's picture

Raymund, glad to know I

Raymund, glad to know I brainwashed another soul. j/k. :) Seriously, what you said is very true. There is indeed a symbiotic relationship between art and life. The more we recognize this, the better each one (art & life) becomes. :)

Re Carney, too bad he is being persecuted in his own department for his non-conformist views. And I thought the U.S. -- not to mention its academic institutions -- was one of the bastions of independent thinking. Hope things turn out okay for Prof. Carney.


Sigh Sigh Sigh!

Other forms of corruption. I hope Carney survives this.

-- Raymund Cruz