BU caught in middle as filmmaker, professor feud
A battle over a movie archive gets stranger by the day
The arrangement seemed logical. Mark Rappaport, a critically acclaimed independent New York filmmaker, was moving to Paris and couldn’t haul all of his papers, videotapes, and film reels with him. Ray Carney, the Boston University film professor who had long championed Rappaport’s work, would take the material.
Just what they agreed to that day in 2005 has led to a dispute that has reverberated through the indie film world, spawned a lawsuit, and become a public relations mess for Boston University. Carney says the materials were an outright gift to him; Rappaport calls that preposterous, saying he would never give away such a sizable chunk of his artistic portfolio. The conflict has put the spotlight on Carney, 66, a controversial faculty member who has battled his colleagues for years.
“It’s a very odd situation,” said Tom Fiedler, dean of BU’s College of Communication. “Legally, there is no basis for Boston University to be involved. On the other side, I’m trying to find out what it is that I may be able to do to resolve what I believe could be harmful to the reputation of this school. We’re not looking particularly good in all of this.”
The dispute centers around Rappaport’s decision to ship boxes of his work to Carney at BU without the two signing a written agreement. Last May, when Rappaport could not get the material back from Carney, he filed a lawsuit.
The filmmaker dropped that suit in September, saying it had become too costly, but he did not give up his campaign. He has pressured Boston University and the international film community to get involved, spawning an online petition supporting his cause that has been signed by more than 1,250 people, including acclaimed directors Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting,” “To Die For”), Jim Jarmusch (“Broken Flowers”), and Susan Seidelman (“Desperately Seeking Susan”). The issue for the other artists is not that masterworks could be lost, but the principle involved.
“This isn’t ‘Titanic,’” said Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, who has spoken to Carney’s classes but signed the petition. “The value is aesthetic and artistic and historical.”
Carney, a divisive figure known for his strong opinions and books on the late filmmaker John Cassavetes, remained silent for months as the controversy grew. But he recently agreed to a two-hour interview to discuss the charges and how they relate to his problems at BU, where he has been a tenured professor since 1989.
Carney provided e-mail exchanges he had with Rappaport and thousands of words of commentary on the case in an essay titled “Resisting Blackmail,” in which he invoked the McCarthy hearings in describing how he has been treated by Boston University. He also criticized the Internet petition.
“I used to think of cyber-bullying as something that takes place between middle school fifteen-year-olds,” Carney wrote. “Now I know we’re all vulnerable. Welcome to the Internet, the place where anybody can say anything about anybody else, with no proof, no documentation, no evidence.”
Carney and Rappaport were once friends. The BU professor, educated at Harvard University, championed the filmmaker as “one of America’s most original and unclassifiable comic geniuses” on his website. Other fans of Rappaport have included Roger Ebert and longtime Village Voice critic J. Hoberman.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Rappaport, 71, makes films that are far from polished Hollywood blockbusters. Often using camp humor and archival footage, Rappaport is best known for “From the Journals of Jean Seberg” (1995), which combines fiction and biography to trace the actress’s rise and fall, and “Rock Hudson’s Home Movies” (1992), which uses classic movie clips to explore the gay subtext in much of the closeted actor’s work.
When he planned his move to Paris, Rappaport had placed some work with the Museum of Modern Art and the archives of the George Eastman House in New York. But there was more, including 16mm film reels, video masters, and scripts.
Rappaport said he gave Carney the work to “hold and safeguard,” according to a lawsuit he filed last May in Norfolk Superior Court. In an open letter to the international film community, Rappaport said he did it “with the understanding that [Carney] would return them to me upon request and that they remain at BU.”
Carney, in court filings and the recent interview, said the work was a gift and that the material he accepted was of a much lower quality than what Rappaport gave to MoMA and the Eastman House.
Yet Carney greatly valued the material, which, according to court documents, includes more than two dozen film reels, 16 videotapes, 14 scripts, and papers including rough drafts of Rappaport’s work.
He said that he renovated an outbuilding at his vacation home in Vermont to store the material. That job, he said, required new wiring, windows, roofing, and siding that cost him more than $40,000. (Carney declined to provide receipts for the work.) He said he also painstakingly cleaned the reels in his possession. In a 2007 post on his website, Carney proudly posted, “I am now the “Mark Rappaport Archive.””
In person, Carney can be charming. His gray hair is trimmed neatly on the sides and thick on top, and during a recent interview he wore a sport jacket and necktie. His office was cluttered with movie reels, piles of papers, and books on opera, free speech, and film.
What wasn’t there, he said, is Rappaport’s material. He has much of the work in the storage building in Vermont and the rest at lawyer Warren Pyle’s office on Tremont Street.
Carney hired Pyle, who specializes in tenure retention cases, when the Rappaport dispute spread to BU. Carney’s colleagues in the College of Communication said they were concerned about Rappaport’s accusations.
“Anybody who Googles will learn that more than 1,000 people, including some of the most prominent people in film culture around the world, have taken the side of Mark Rappaport and accused one of my colleagues of theft,” said Charles Merzbacher, associate professor, and director of the film production program at the school. “We work everyday and all day here to build up a great program, and it’s just devastating to have that be the way people hear about us.”
Other colleagues floated their own theories as to why Carney would not send Rappaport back his work. “Someone said they think he’s a hoarder,” said Samuel Kauffmann, a longtime film professor at BU. “He’s a very isolated guy, and he’s such a contrarian that I think he’s just reveling in this. That’s all I can guess. Because it makes no sense.”
Carney said he is disturbed but not surprised to hear his colleagues talk this way.
“He’s basically saying I’m nuts but he’s presented it in a way that sounds like a kind of pathology,” Carney said with a chuckle. “I thought we left this behind in seventh grade: ‘Oh, and did you see his house? And his socks didn’t match.’ ”
Carney did say he worries about the Rappaport case. He fears BU might see it as a chance to drive him out of the school. He views himself as a lone voice who has battled the film and television department for years, facing off against those he describes as university leaders who don’t understand academic freedom and teaching colleagues obsessed with film production skills at the expense of analysis.
Carney’s multipage department memos are notorious, detailing everything from his negative views of colleagues to what he believes is unfair monitoring of the department’s photocopy machine.
“Contentious beyond reason” and “one of the most difficult people I’ve ever worked with,” said Merzbacher.
In 2008, Carney earned a strong rebuke from his colleagues after media interviews and Internet postings in which he questioned the value of college film programs, including BU’s.
After trying to get Carney to remove posts that others felt reflected poorly on the school and were inaccurate, the department voted unanimously to have Carney’s website removed from the university server. The site remains there but is no longer updated, he says.
This time, as the Rappaport case gathered steam, Carney’s superiors didn’t want to quiet him. They wanted to hear from the professor. Carney agreed to come to BU in December to meet with Fiedler and other administrators. There, he laid out his argument. Carney said that Rappaport never expected to get the material back.
He shared e-mails he and Rappaport exchanged in 2005 that, he said, showed the work was meant as a gift. He argued that Rappaport’s casual tone and dismissive approach toward the work — the filmmaker writes that some of it might otherwise end up in a dumpster — only confirmed his argument.
In one e-mail exchange, Rappaport tells Carney to use the films as he wishes. He also states that the works are becoming part of “The Ray Carney Orphanage for Forgotten Films.”
But nowhere in the e-mails Carney shared does Rappaport say the materials were a gift or, as Rappaport says, that he expected Carney to return the materials upon request. In the lawsuit Rappaport filed last year, the filmmaker wrote that he asked for the materials starting last April through voicemails left at Carney’s home and office, e-mails, and a letter delivered by Federal Express.
Rappaport, in a phone interview from his apartment in Paris, said that he last heard from Carney in 2010. The filmmaker needed some video masters for a film festival, and Carney sent him the tapes. In 2011, New York’s Anthology Film Archives programmed a retrospective of Rappaport’s work. This time, Carney did not respond to a request for a print.
“There was a little strange sensation that I didn’t want to think about,” said Rappaport. “I just put it aside. I thought, ‘Maybe he’s really busy.’ ”
In 2012, Rappaport got an offer from companies to stream several of his films online. Again, Carney did not respond to e-mails or phone calls, Rappaport said. That led to his filing suit.
Rappaport, in his open letter, described the stakes: “Without the digital masters, my films, everything prior to 1990 . . . cannot be made available for streaming, commercial DVDs, video-on-demand, or any electronic delivery system down the road. My life as a filmmaker, my past, and even my future reputation as a filmmaker are at stake.”
The case proceeded with a series of volleys, but on Aug. 20, Carney wrote Rappaport an e-mail that, he said, went against his lawyer’s wishes. He offered to return the materials “for a modest consideration, simply to cover my costs and the time and trouble of having stored the material for the past seven-and-a-half years.”
Rappaport wrote back the next day providing the address of his lawyer’s office. Carney never responded. So on Aug. 24, Rappaport wrote again. Carney responded on Aug. 27, but he did not deliver the work. Eventually, Carney’s lawyer asked Rappaport for $27,000 to make up for the storage and maintenance costs. Rappaport referred to the sum as “extortion” in his open letter.
In September, after failed negotiations to agree on the amount Rappaport would pay, the filmmaker dropped the case because, he says, he could no longer afford his lawyer. Carney argues that Rappaport dropped the case because the filmmaker realized he couldn’t win.
Though the case disappeared, Carney’s trials were just beginning.
Jon Jost, a filmmaker and blogger who had been on friendly terms with Carney and Rappaport, had sent e-mails and left phone messages for the professor last summer. He asked Carney to explain himself and demanded that Rappaport’s works be returned. The professor did not respond.
This angered Jost, who responded by creating the petition in October and publishing private e-mails Carney had sent him. The e-mails included Carney’s criticisms of colleagues, complaints about how he felt he had been treated by BU — no raises, research funding cut, classes assigned terrible times — and an 8,052-word letter from September 2011 to Fiedler.
“The BU film and television production program is not first-rate,” Carney had written to Fiedler. “Neither its faculty nor its students justify that distinction. It is a quite marginal, second- or third-rate program, with a large number of quite marginal second- or third-rate faculty and students.”
As the online campaign grew last fall, Carney’s friends grew impatient. They felt his silence on the Rappaport matter — he took months to meet with Fiedler and ignored e-mails from intermediaries — hurt his reputation.
Boston-born director Andrew Bujalski pressed Carney to speak up. “Ray is no stranger to feuds or controversy, but the kind of villainy he was being accused of here, outright theft and extortion, seemed out of character to say the least,” he said.
John Gianvito, a filmmaker and Emerson College associate professor, also urged Carney to speak.
“They were starting to say, ‘Let’s have his tenure revoked,’ and so I just said, ‘Ray, you know on the surface the principle is fairly sacrosanct that an artist should be entitled to their work, and if you don’t provide another narrative, it just stands to reason you’re holding back an artist’s work,’” Gianvito said.
Both were relieved to hear Carney’s side, though not surprised at the backlash against their friend.
Gianvito, for one, suspects that Carney’s problems are rooted in his inveterate desire to provoke — by, for example, declaring Orson Welles a fraud at a dinner with film buffs. He points to Carney’s focus on Cassavetes, the late, pioneering indie director of “A Woman Under the Influence.”
“And I think he practices a lot of the values many people associate with John Cassavetes’s work,” said Gianvito. “Their unruliness, their stubbornness, their intensity.”
At Boston University, Carney inspires great loyalty from some of his students.
“Once I took a film studies class with Ray Carney,” said director Benny Safdie, a 2008 graduate. “I only took film studies classes with Ray Carney.”
And Carney said he has no intention of leaving his tenured post at BU. He loves teaching.
“I have the best job in the world,” he said. “I get to show the masterworks of the history of film to young minds.”
Carney said that for years, he has been an outcast in his department. He said he has been yelled at by other professors in the hallways and spent months in meetings in 2008 listening to colleagues attack him.
Other professors say they have tried to steer clear of Carney. They are glad he does not often attend faculty meetings. Kauffmann said Carney’s difficulties at BU have begun to overshadow his reputation as a teacher and accomplished academic.
“Right now, I feel like people are getting the sense that BU hired this crazy person and yet, the reality is, when he was hired and for probably a good eight years after that, he did amazing work,” said Kauffmann. “He was going to champion the independent and disparage anything commercially successful. Ray sort of created this Ray Carney island and found it very difficult to get off that island.”
In December, Carney met with Fiedler and Paul Schneider, film and television department chairman. Presented with Carney’s argument that Rappaport offered him the materials as a gift, the school decided it could not simply side with the filmmaker, but did not like the way the case reflected on the university.
They told Carney he had to make some kind of public statement. That came in the form of the “Resisting Blackmail” essay.
Contacted recently, Fiedler said he has made it clear he hopes Carney will work out “a resolution that would satisfy both sides.” He concedes there will be no consequences if he does not.
Carney said he would be open to returning Rappaport’s work, but not without being compensated. Meanwhile, he said he is committed to writing projects.
Carney declined to be photographed; he also chose not to let a reporter observe one of his classes.
“I take my teaching VERY SERIOUSLY, I guess you’d say,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Many of my colleagues, given that I am teaching in what is more or less a vocational training school, don’t care in this way. They pretty much phone in their classes. But I just can’t do that, and that’s the way I have do it. Teaching is the most fun I have outside of my writing. And I have to protect the sanctity of the teaching space for the good of the students. Gotta give them their fifty grand worth . . . or my tiny sliver of it.”