My site NotFilmSchool got squatted by some arsehole. Not that I ever updated it, but still, what a jerk!
Carney: The meanings are right on the surface, waiting to be unpacked. As far as I can tell it’s the main reason Welles and Hitchcock have dominated film study for the past thirty years. They made films that are easy to teach. See that “No Trespassing” sign? Listen to that music. Look at those shadows. Watch the tracking movement of the camera. See how it communicates loneliness, emptiness, estrangement, death. Look at the birds and the lighting in Norman Bates’ office. Look at the safe. Listen to the boy’s-best-friend-is-his-mother dialogue and note the misogyny and veiled perversion. See how easy it is to do? Wow. We sure are smart.
It’s bing, bing, bing. Those meanings are quick, easy, and clear. Just add water and serve up—instant profundity while you wait. You don’t have to know anything—about art or life.
Interviewer: Wait a minute. You can’t say this doesn’t take knowledge. To do those things you have to know about how films use symbols and metaphors. You have to know about lighting and musical orchestrations and tracking movements.
Carney: That’s trick knowledge—quick, easy, prefabricated, one-size-fits-all knowledge. It’s not real knowledge like life’s, but a children’s game simulacrum—one of those Highlights can-you-see-the-face-in-the-bark-of-the-tree drawings. That goes for all symbolic knowledge, by the way. It’s all fake knowledge—sermons hidden under stones, just waiting to be found and translated into what my middle school history book called Big Ideas and Basic Concepts. Even in seventh grade when I read William Shirer I realized that real historical knowledge was less clear, more slippery, more elusive than this connect-the-dots idea of what things mean. Symbolic knowledge is invisible ink/decoder ring knowledge. That’s why you can teach it so quickly and a student can learn it so quickly.
The knowledge Noonan and Kiarostami and Tarkovsky offer is entirely different. You can’t open up and unpack their images and events the way you can Hitchcock’s. They offer slow knowledge, living with something rather than seeing into it; vague, fuzzy knowledge; changing, revised knowledge. That’s real knowledge. Of course that’s also why Noonan and Kiarostami and Tarkovsky will never be as big as Hitchcock and Lynch and the Coen brothers. People prefer imitation knowledge to the real thing. They love symbols and metaphors. The Hitchcockian, Wellsian kind of knowledge is as seductive as a drug experience. The teacher gets this massive rush from showing how much power he has over the text, and the students get their rush from discovering how easily they can do the same thing the teacher does.
Interviewer: I’m a little confused by your attack on symbols and metaphors. isn’t looking for metaphoric and symbolic meaning what film study is about?
Carney: I hope not. I hope it’s about understanding life. But to do that you have to know a lot about life to start with and a film has to draw on your knowledge of life. I’ll adapt something Robert Lowell once said about modern poetry. Films like Blue Velvet and Blood Simple and Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers and Mulholland Drive have miles and miles of formal cleverness—tons of narrative and visual tricks, jokes, and stunts—but their knowledge of life is an inch deep. That’s why teenagers can enjoy and understand them, and why these movies get the same dependable response from young and old, rich and poor, year in and year old. Hollywood has raised this “being nowhere, saying nothing” game to a fine art. I once had dinner with a big producer who actually bragged about this quality of his work. He said that to avoid losing foreign audiences, he made sure that his films required no knowledge of anything. That way whether he showed them in Timbuktu or Tehran, everyone “got” the movie. But it’s equally true of most so-called highbrow films. They ask nothing of you in particular and consequently gives nothing to you in particular. You, the individual unique you, don’t bring anything different from anyone else to the banquet. They invalidate my point about returning to a film when you have lived more and seeing different things in it, because with these films you don’t have to have lived or know anything in particular about life to understand them. All you have to know about is lighting and editing. Their effects are sterile, hermetic, self-referential—trivial, in a logical sense. It doesn’t take any real knowledge to unpack the meaning of camera angles, editing rhythms, music, lighting, or The-Idiot’s-Guide-to-Freud symbols in David Lynch’s work.
Look at how many of these movies use the pull of mystery or suspense to keep us interested. The easiest, most infantile way to hold anyone’s attention. They draw on our reptilian flight or fight responses, not more complex, mixed-up, gray-scale adult emotions. Look at the Mulholland Drive craze of six months ago. There’s about one of these a year. A few years ago it was Pulp Fiction. Then it was Magnolia. I’m sure by the time this is out, there will have been three more nominees for most overrated films of the decade.