A Commentary on Ray Carney’s “The Religion of Doing” (1994)
Ray Carney’s The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies (Cambridge University Press, 1994), has recently helped me to crystallise some thoughts I have been pondering on film style, and my own positive or negative reactions to the aesthetic approaches of particular directors. It has also prompted a re-questioning of my own approach to making films. What follows is a commentary on “The Religion of Doing”, the concluding chapter of Carney’s book.
The following quotes lifted from the chapter from relate to Cassavetes’ body of work, but I think there are indicators and lessons that we can apply to a broader range of films and filmmakers whose styles are unconventional, messy, or even incoherent.
‘The American critical tradition is premised upon a conception of artistic expression entirely different from that to which he (Cassavetes) subscribed. Almost without exception, American film critics take for granted that art is essentially a Faustian enterprise – a display of power, control, and understanding. In a word, their conception of artistic performance is virtuosic. They prize mastery, arrangement, and prowess. They assume that a work’s greatness is traceable to its ability to limit, shape and organize what the viewer sees, hears, knows, and feels in each shot’ (Carney 271).
Writing on cinema, from academics, critics, and fans, most often focuses on the ‘virtuosity’ of not only the director, but also the writer, and the cinematographer’s (and every other part of the crew) ability to ‘manipulate what the viewer knows and feels’ (272). Assessing a film and the performance of its creators is reduced to evaluating the extent of their ‘control and mastery’ (272). How does this standard method of gauging the effectiveness, or even brilliance, of a film extend to those directors who exhibit a lack of control within their own work, and whose style might be erratic, jarring, tonally inconsistent, and arrhythmic?
Some of my favourite filmmakers exhibit these latter tendencies. I am thinking of directors such as Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci, or Doris Wishman or James Glickenhaus, as well as fairly middle of the road figures like John Hough, or lo-fi mumblecore filmmakers like Joe Swanberg or Kentucker Audley. Clearly, these directors are completely diverse stylistically and thematically. Why then, do they tend to resonate with me artistically far more than ‘Masters’ such as Hitchcock, Lang, Welles, Kubrick, or the Coens? Why have I placed them all together within the same sentence (which must be the first time in history they have been collected together)?
The answer for me is in the narrative, character, and visual ‘gaps’ their films contain, into which the viewer (me, in this case), can insert themselves and ponder the set of varying potential ‘meanings’. Their films are given ‘meaning’ by the viewer filling the gaps left by their looseness. This looseness is a result of both intentional creative choices taken by the director, as well as sometimes enforced by the logistical or financial constraints under which they are making their films. The cinematic Master, who maintains absolute perfect control over the creative direction of their movies, does not aim for textual gaps, in which interpretation of the image or moment can vary.
In relation to the Masters like Hitchcock, Lang, Sternberg, and Welles etc, Carney writes;
‘the virtuoso tradition is essentially a celebration of knowing. [Their] films create worlds in which everyone and everything of importance can be understood, and is understood. Characters are presented and scenes arranged in certain shorthand ways to facilitate understanding – to eliminate mysteries and uncertainties…the screenwriters, actors, crew, director, and the viewers all participate in a community of psychological, emotional, and intellectual knowing. A large part of the critical and commercial appeal of such works is precisely that they allow the viewer and reviewer to feel that they are part of this cult of complete and perfect knowledge. The central narrative project of these works involves moving from being “out’ to being “in”, from confusion to clarity, from doubt to certainty’ (272/273).
Cassavetes, Carney writes, was fundamentally opposed to this conception of both the process of creating movies, as well as their ‘function’ (273). For Cassavetes, the whole process and purpose was to ‘get lost’, and be ‘forced to break your old habits and understandings, giving up your old forms of complacency’ (273). Cassavetes cultivated this atmosphere both on set in how he made his movies, and on the screen in what ended up as the viewing experience.
The directors I admire are not necessarily attempting the same results as Cassavetes. Some, especially Glickenhaus or Hough, appear on the surface to be attempting to achieve some form of mastery and control over their pictures, given how they often replicated more critically successful commercial films. Their enforced financial constraints, and ensuing logistical difficulties helps to create the general atmosphere of incoherence in their finished works (I reject all accusations that they lack talent, by the way). Others, like Fulci and even Swanberg, achieve a level of control and mastery but for artistic different aims, and where narrative ‘looseness’ is the art.
Carney continues: ‘What is wrong with knowingness is that it removes us from the stimulating turmoil of experience. It separates the individual from the scrambling confusion of living because it figures a set of understandings worked out in advance of the event’ (273). Carney is probably accurate when he suggests that Masters such as Kubrick ‘did their living and thinking, and when they reached a certain point of clarity and resolution they summarized it in their work. They used the filmmaking process to paint by numbers they had determined before they ever studied the dailies’ (276). Cassavetes, by contrast, used the process of making films as life, rather than about life.
There are a couple of things to say about this. Firstly, I am not certain it is possible to apply the same analysis to the filmmakers I have mentioned as being some of my favourites. Most of them were/are creating from a position of attempting to achieve a particular effect, even if that is something as loose and vague as improvising a character and narrative situation through an actor’s performance. Instead, I think Carney’s analysis here is useful for us as viewers of film. Rather than watching films to know, or to give over to the Master’s control of what we see, hear, and how we respond, we can watch to interact and to see viewing itself as an active participation that can have varying and unexpected results. This process, if undertaken properly, is a creative one, and involves the removal of intellectual consideration from the act of viewing in favour of instinctive feeling. (In Artists in the Audience, Greg Taylor explores some of these creative approaches to viewing far more deeply and considered than I am attempting here).
Secondly, my approach to making films aligns with that of Cassavetes (by coincidence only – I would not call myself a fan of Cassavetes, if only because I am unfamiliar with a lot of his work). Rarely do I enter into a project with well defined narrative aims. The key to making this a successful creative method is to be more open and accepting about the process and to do so with greater intention. I need to be willing to work within the uncertainty of the process, and to work to drop all anxiety about its effectiveness or to concern myself too much with the final product or results. Too often in the past I have undertaken a project with the aim of achieving a particular effect or end product, but also with a vague but active, organic, and open minded investigative and responsive approach. I am unsure how successful the results have been in these cases where I have combined methods. They have been useful as an exercise, but less so as a finished film. This last sentence itself may be evidence of too much anxiety about process.
(I realise that I am talking to myself here, and that this last paragraph might not be of use/interest to anyone else).
Carney writes that ‘the Faustian filmmaker sets out to display an intellectual and emotional mastery of experience, to follow a plan of action, to bend experiences to make a series of predetermined “points” ’ (280). For Cassavetes, however, ‘there is only exploring and moving on, with no end to the process of experiencing, and no goal to reach’ (280). The finished film was not important, and what mattered was the experience of production, with the finished film ‘examples of the experiences themselves’ (280).
This is a programme of action to bring to the viewing of films that deviate from total creative mastery, and a way of engaging with movies that do not fit traditionally recognised patterns of artistic ‘quality’. And for me if no one else, it is a method and ethos I should become more comfortable with when making films of my own.