Monday, March 30, 2020

Excerpt from GARAGE MOVIE re: John Cassavetes

An excerpt from my book GARAGE MOVIE: MY ADVENTURES MAKING WEIRD FILMS. In this excerpt, I talk about how I first got interested in the films of John Cassavetes and also when I first crossed paths with Cassavetes on Cassavetes author Ray Carney:


FLASH BACK TO: a couple months before the Tracey Jacobs rejection. It was Christmas of 2004 and Santa Claus gifted me with a Criterion Collection box set of John Cassavetes films. This was, in all seriousness, a life-changing moment. I popped Cassavetes’ first film Shadows into my DVD player and I never looked back. Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night—I watched each of John’s films over and over again. I was obsessed.
On eBay, I managed to find rare VHS copies of both Minnie and Moskowitz and Cassavetes’ last film Love Streams. I watched those over and over as well. It was like entering a new dimension, locking myself in my room at night, turning out the lights and escaping into the world of a Cassavetes movie.
Cassavetes’ films were so different from what I was used to. Most Hollywood movies were “plot-driven”, but Cassavetes’ films were the most character-driven works one could ever find. In fact, ‘character-driven’ isn’t quite the correct term. I would say his films were more like ‘human-driven’, which was a radical departure from Hollywood where the “humans” in movies are more like dehumanized pawns strategically used to tell a good story…or, in other words, a means to an end. Cassavetes, however, didn’t give a damn about entertaining an audience with a good story. All he cared about was capturing human behavior in its purest form.
Now, there is a misconception that Cassavetes’ films were “improvised”, but the fact is that they were all scripted and well-structured in their own unique, non-Hollywood way. They seemed improvised because Cassavetes was so talented at capturing real human behavior on the written page. Of course, his scripts weren’t etched in stone by any means. Actors—with the guidance of the director—were free to explore the complexities of their characters and alter their dialogue or actions as they saw fit. The script was always subject to changes and was never bound by a tight plot. In fact, ‘plot’ was a dirty word. Reality was more important than plot, the latter of which, if you think about it, is really the opposite of reality; it’s un-reality.
Indeed, Cassavetes’ main interest lied in non-contrived reality while Hollywood was more interested in contrived character arcs, plot beats, Acts, well-established character conflicts, clear-cut character goals etc., all of which are elements of a false reality. Cassavetes wanted to deliver audiences from this Hollywood-induced unreality and reintroduce them to reality.
As for me, I apparently craved this reality. For a period of several months, Cassavetes’ films were my addiction. I literally could watch nothing BUT Cassavetes. Hollywood movies were suddenly so stupid to me, with one-dimensional characters or ‘types’ with canned emotions, Hollywood feeling, not real human feelings that you would experience in everyday life.
 The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was probably my favorite of all Cassavetes films. The Criterion Collection contained two different versions of the film and I watched both versions multiple times. Again, Cassavetes didn’t just write a script, shoot it and end up with the same vision he had from the outset. His filmmaking was more explorational and his vision was in a constant state of flux throughout the process of shooting a film and even throughout the process of editing it. If the editing process took him in a different direction from what he had in the script, well, he would simply go with it and pleasantly surprise himself with an end-product different from anything he had initially envisioned. If he wanted to explore two different creative pathways and end up with two versions of his films? Well, why not? Hollywood, of course, wouldn’t approve of this explorative process; they would want one version of the film finished on deadline, then they would promote the film, distribute the film, hope to make a lot of money off the film and on to the next. Cassavetes, however, liked to take his time and the filmmaking process was more interesting to him than making an end-product that would hopefully be a “hit” (i.e. a financially successful movie). In this sense, he was the epitome of the anti-Hollywood filmmaker. His filmmaking style was unprecedented at the time, especially in America. He completely subverted the Hollywood model of what a movie should be.
Anyway, it sounds sappy, but I watched so many Cassavetes films over the course of about a year that it felt as though Cassavetes himself was holding my hand the entire time, functioning as a kind of spirit guide, walking me through the spiritual experience of a lifetime.
Assisting with this “spiritual experience” were Ray Carney’s books on Cassavetes, my reading of which coincided with my viewing of the films. I re-read much of Cassavetes on Cassavetes, but I also read Carney’s book The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism and the Movies, a British Film Institute (BFI) published book called Shadows, and a self-published book called John Cassavetes: The Adventure of Insecurity. Both the films of John Cassavetes and the writing of Ray Carney went hand-in-hand. Carney’s books were almost like an extension of the films themselves, meaning you got way more out of the viewing experience with his writing complementing them. Or, in other words, I guess what I’m saying is that Cassavetes and Carney were a package deal and many Cassavetes fans are in denial of this; in fact, many fans don’t even like Carney. Personally, I think they’re envious trolls, most of which are critics who could only dream of writing the masterpiece that is Cassavetes on Cassavetes. I thought and still think Carney is brilliant. He’s a bit of a controversial figure and he’s made several people upset in his passion for artistic truth, but I will always see him as nothing more than absolutely brilliant. Even if he tore new assholes in each frame of my own films, I would still think he was brilliant.
The amazing thing (and what-I-deemed serendipitous) was that Carney literally lived a mere five minutes away from me. One day in March 2005, I was out walking my Bassett Hound Anthony just down the street from my house and I saw this man rolling down the street on his bike. As he came closer, he started looking familiar and then he waved, smiled and said ‘hello’. I suddenly realized, holy shit, that was just Ray Carney! At the time, I had been drowning myself in all things Cassavetes, reading all things Carney as a kind of study aide to the films, and then, boom, there was the man himself riding right past me on his bike. It was so surreal. Too surreal. Serendipitous for sure. I felt a strong pull to contact Mr. Carney.
The next day, I wrote Ray a letter and sent him a VHS copy of my short film Sympathy for Hitler’s Soul. A few days later, I received an email from him thanking me for the letter. He said he enjoyed the film and, more specifically, he said, “You leave people thinking.” Wow, I couldn’t believe what I heard. Ray Carney thought my film was thought-provoking? It was very difficult getting a compliment from a guy like Ray and I received (what I saw as) a compliment. That made my day.
I emailed Ray back and forth and probably bothered the hell out of him because he was such a busy man, but he eventually invited me to sit in on his American Independent Film class at BU. I told him, yes, I would love to sit in on his class! Of course! I was honored by such an invitation.
So back to BU I went as a non-student and sat in on Carney’s class. He showed a film called Human Remains by an experimental filmmaker named Jay Rosenblatt. This film was about past world dictators, like Hitler and Stalin, and explored Hannah Arendt’s concept “the banality of evil”. It was quite brilliant and you can tell it was brilliant because I said “quite” and that’s a word smart people use. The film used what-is-called “found footage” of the dictators, so no actual “filmmaking” was necessary at all. Just editing of “found footage”. And voice-over done by actors.
After the class, my plan was to introduce myself to Carney, but he darted out of the room very quickly and I didn’t have a chance. I figured I would shoot him an email later, so I exited the classroom, walked out into the hall, but then I saw him coming back my way with a teacher’s assistant by his side. I gave him a wave, he took notice, and I told him who I was. He said, “Oh, I saw you [in the classroom]! Glad you came!” And then he told his assistant, “This is a very good filmmaker right here!” referring to me. I gave him an “Oh, shucks” look, but hearing those words certainly made my day. No, not my day; they made my week…month…year…lifetime…my entire stardust existence! Ray Carney, the mastermind who brought us Cassavetes on Cassavetes, thought I was a “very good filmmaker”. This was surreal.
The next day I sent Carney another email with my reaction to the Rosenblatt film. I quickly received a reply saying, “Wow! How deep! And how much I agree with you!” Then I went and sat in on his next class and he read my response aloud to the entire class like it was the most brilliant thing ever written. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Was I dreaming? This was Ray Carney, a super-difficult dude to impress, perhaps one of the most difficult men to impress in the entire world. And I was impressing him?
Thus ensued a period of a couple months where I would sit in on Carney’s classes, have email correspondence with him and very often cross paths with the film scholar while he was biking. He would post several of my emails on his website (it was back then), I guess because he deemed them deep enough and worthy enough.
The connection with Ray was meant to be. For what? Perhaps for nothing else but validation from somebody I respected. But it was definitely meant to be. I realize that Ray Carney is a controversial figure in the film criticism world, no doubt about that. And, boy, the administration at Boston University does NOT like him in the least, mainly because their visions of what the BU film program should be differ so greatly. But I will say this and only this: with what limited interaction I’ve had with Ray, I have only seen him to be an extremely kind and brilliant man. He has an anti-Hollywood persona, there’s no doubt about that. And he’s no bullshit, pure truth, and this comes off as abrasive to people, probably because they’re so used to bullshit in our society. But I would vouch for Ray any day. Maybe I’m just saying this because he was supportive to me and my work, but, again, Ray was never anything but kind when I interacted with him and nothing less than brilliant.

MATT BURNS is the author of THE WOMAN AND THE DRAGONJOHNNY CRUISEGARAGE MOVIE: MY ADVENTURES MAKING WEIRD FILMS and several other books. Check out all his books at his Amazon author page HERE.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Bright Side of Corona Virus

The corona virus is now officially a pandemic. On Wednesday evening, President Trump announced that there will be a European travel ban starting Friday. Nobody will be allowed to travel from Europe into the US. The exception being the UK.

Universities are closing and students are being sent home. All large gatherings nationwide have been cancelled. The NBA has postponed its season. The Saint Patrick’s Day parades have been cancelled. Disneyland has closed. Stocks are plummeting in an unprecedented manner…

Things seem bleak, indeed. Even apocalyptic.

But is there a bright side to all of this? There may just be.

First, it may give birth to unity. Over the past few years, we have witnessed an unprecedented amount of division in our nation. Democrats Vs. Republicans. Progressives vs. Conservatives. Anti-Trump vs. Pro-Trump. Pro-impeachment vs. Anti-impeachment. Pro-gun-control vs. Pro-second amendment. The list is exhausting and goes on and on. Is it possible that we will now (possibly) transcend these divisions and unite with the one simple, common goal of staying healthy? Because that’s all that really matters in the great scheme of things. Doesn’t it?

Second, the corona pandemic may slow us down, which is probably a good thing. We don’t even know it, but we go through life like zombies, racing around from one place to another, never really thinking about what’s the meaning of it all? We’re programmed to be on the run all the time. But now maybe the virus will slap us out of our somnambulant lives, wake us up and make us think about what’s really important and what really matters.

Third, we may stop placing so much of our faith in economy. With the stocks plummeting like they are, maybe this is a way of drawing attention to how much worship we put into the Almighty Dollar. Money is material and, more importantly, fleeting, something that can apparently disappear in a snap. Perhaps we will walk away from this corona pandemic realizing that we should place our faith into other things, like maybe a real God instead of the false one worshipped on Wall Street.

Fourth, the corona pandemic may reconnect us with nature…because, really, being alone in nature will probably be one of the safest places to be during this corona craziness. It will force us to unplug from civilization and take a deep breath of fresh air. We will get our feet dirty again, with soil from the earth, instead of concrete and tile. It could be a much-needed period of grounding.

Fifth, we will walk away from the corona pandemic with more gratitude than we’ve had in a very long time. We take so much for granted, especially basic things, like all the food that lines the supermarket shelves. Over the past couple days, it’s been an unsettling sight to see these shelves suddenly scarce or even bare. When have we ever needed to worry about having enough food to eat? Not for a very long time—that’s for sure. When corona is all done and over, we will certainly have more gratitude for the most simple things in life (yes, even toilet paper).

In short, a pandemic like corona may be what we need to finally shake our current (and narrow) concept of what reality is and we will open ourselves up to something much broader and of greater importance.

There is always good that can come out of something so grim.


MATT BURNS is the author of THE WOMAN AND THE DRAGON, JOHNNY CRUISE, GARAGE MOVIE: MY ADVENTURES MAKING WEIRD FILMS and several other books. Check out all his books at his Amazon author page HERE.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Is Being "Woke" a Joke?

“If you say, ‘Yeah, there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says, ‘Whiner.’ And if you say, ‘No, there was no sexism,’ about a bazillion women think, ‘What planet do you live on?'”

-- Elizabeth Warren after dropping out of the 2020 presidential race

Elizabeth Warren blames sexism for the reason why she didn’t do well as a presidential candidate, but is this true? I would argue (as would many others) that the real reason she didn’t do well in the 2020 presidential primaries is because she was a poor candidate who ran a weak campaign.

Warren started out strong enough, but then her campaign quickly spiraled into a desperate display of identity politics, starting with when she, out of the blue, accused political opponent Bernie Sanders of saying (in 2018, during a private conversation) that a woman could never be president. When Sanders denied all of this during one of the primary debates, Warren approached him with a hot mic and said, “Did you call me a liar on national TV?” The whole confrontation seemed contrived and hardly anybody believed her. They could smell the desperate cheap shot a mile away. It was obvious Warren wanted to make herself out to be a victim of sexism in order to give a little more gas to her campaign, which was basically puttering out like a dying engine at that point. It didn’t work.

Warren didn’t learn her lesson, though. Her identity politics reached a level of absurd desperation when, later in January, she promised to allow a nine-year-old transgender child choose her secretary of education. This proposal was such an egregious display of pandering to “woke” culture that you may have thought you were watching a political satire. But you weren’t. She was serious.

In short, Warren didn’t fail as a presidential candidate because of sexism; she failed because she didn’t run on much except an unhealthy dose of identity politics that ultimately reached the level of absurdity.

Sexism undoubtedly exists—there’s no question about it—but Warren’s cry of sexism as the reason why her campaign failed is unhealthy and dangerous. It makes women out to be victims in a situation where they’re not. Recklessly fueling a culture of victimization like Warren does (and many others do in this day and age) ultimately leads to the disempowerment of those “victims”. When you’re convincing people they’re a victim, you’re doing them no favors, and when you’re doing this for the sole purpose of political gain, it’s devious and destructive.

Such a weaponization of victimhood is a microcosm of what’s wrong with woke culture in general. On the surface of wokeness, there is a veneer of well-intentioned social justice activism. But go beyond that surface and you find, in many cases, an encouragement—even a celebration—of victimhood, which, in turn, disempowers the individual. In other words, wokeness is like an energetic vampire that feeds off the life-force of people, sucks them dry until they’re disempowered victims.

Does this mean that social justice activism is bad? No, there is definitely such a thing as a healthy dose of social justice activism. It’s questionable, however, whether being “woke” is always healthy. As seductive as wokeness is for people who want to be good or for people who want to at least appear to be good, there is a dark side to woke culture. Energetic vampires like the many politicians we see rising into the public eye today view social justice activism as an opportunity to exploit a culture of good intentions and use it to empower themselves while disempowering others.

What’s left in the wake of wokeness is a culture of victims dependent on those who desire to rule over them. Indeed, that’s the intention: create powerless victims who look to you to be saved. You become their father or, even better, you become their God.

MATT BURNS is the author of several books, including such novels as THE WOMAN AND THE DRAGON, JOHNNY CRUISE and WEIRD MONSTER, and such memoirs as GARAGE MOVIE: MY ADVENTURES MAKING WEIRD FILMS and JUNGLE F’NG FEVER: MY 30-YEAR LOVE AFFAIR W/ GUNS N’ ROSES. In addition, he has published a book of political/social essays THE BURNZO PAPERS and a book of poetry. Check out all his books at his Amazon author page HERE.