Filmmaker Mark Rappaport.
Filmmaker Mark Rappaport.

For decades, Mark Rappaport has been championed by cinephiles and scholars. His distinctively meta and at times essayistic work has screened at major film festivals and art houses around the world.

And for years, one of Rappaport's biggest fans was Boston University film professor Ray Carney, who once called Rappaport "a genuine national treasure." As recently as 2010, Carney -- an iconoclastic scholar of indie cinema primarily known for his research on John Cassavetes -- hoped to teach an entire seminar dedicated to Rappaport's films, which range from a period of irreverent comedies released in the seventies and eighties (such as the acclaimed "The Scenic Route") to quasi-diary films produced in the nineties that include the imaginative "Rock Hudson's Home Movies."

Over the past year, however, the two men have become intrinsically linked for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of Rappaport's films. Instead, Carney has been involved in a dispute with the very artist he once championed, an irony that now poses a threat to both of their careers.

In the last six months, the Carney-Rappaport dispute has become an object of internet lore rife with speculation, curiosity and frustration. Determining the whole truth will require a degree of civility between the two men that doesn't yet exist, but here's the basic conflict: In 2005, Rappaport moved to Paris and left hard copies of his films in Carney's possession. Now, Rappaport wants them back, and Carney won't hand them over.

Of course, it's more complicated than that; the saga has reached a point where even the men can't fully enunciate the issues at stake. However, their story is instructive for the way it speaks to the slippery nature of dealings between artists and those who help them preserve their work.

Neither side disputes that Rappaport left his movies with Carney, who relished the opportunity to care for the filmmaker's work and even announced online that he was "the Mark Rappaport Archive." Although he did not rent or publicly screen the films, Carney evidently kept them in his possession, and in 2010 shipped a few films back to Rappaport upon request. E-mails from this time document an evidently cordial relationship between two cultured cinephiles engaged in a mutual adoration of film history. Their exchanges included a wide range of discussions about their favorite movies: They agreed about the mastery of Andrei Tarkovsky, butted heads about the hype surrounding Robert Bresson, and lamented the lack of student interest in late-period Jean Renoir. "They want the reality of the world," Carney wrote Rappaport about his recent crop of students, "but they can't see the reality of their imagination."

The story is instructive for the way it speaks to the slippery nature of dealings between artists and those who help them preserve their work.

That same assertion would soon apply to the allegations made on both sides of the ensuing spat. The details of the timeline are dizzying in light of how little progress has actually been made.

April 2012: Rappaport wrote to Carney asking for his entire collection back -- the filmmaker had found someone else to whom he wanted to transfer the collection. When he didn't hear from Carney right away, Rappaport filed suit against the professor (who has since said that he wanted Rappaport to cover the costs he had incurred for caring for the material before it could be returned). Carney claimed that Rappaport had gifted the material to him, giving the professor the right to ask for remuneration in exchange for the work. Rappaport saw it differently. "Even if he did spend money on it, that's not my problem," Rappaport told Indiewire a few weeks ago in a Skype call from Paris. "But this has been the first I've heard of him building the Taj Mahal to restore my documents."

August 2012: Carney wrote Rappaport to see if they could settle outside of court. Rappaport gave Carney an ultimatum, asking that he deliver the films to Rappaport's Boston-based lawyer the next day. Carney never replied. "He claimed I stole this material from him," Carney told Indiewire earlier this month. "There was no acknowledgement that I was going to be repaid for the costs I've incurred." The two haven't spoken since.  

September 2012: Rappaport went public with his complaints, crafting an open letter "to the international film community." He wrote, "There is much at stake here for me. Without the digital video masters, my films… 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." Rappaport closed the letter by imploring colleagues to "email this letter, post this on Facebook pages, and submit it to various blogs."

Ray Carney.
Ray Carney.

October 2012: Filmmaker Jon Jost, whose experimental narratives place him in a tradition similar to Rappaport, went one step further: Jost crafted a petition on calling for the return of Rappaport's work. It amassed over 1,000 signatures in a week, with industry heavyweights ranging from Gus Van Sant to Jim Jarmusch endorsing the appeal. The drama then surfaced in Artinfo, a prolonged discussion thread on the communal film site MUBI and Jost's blog, which further outlined Rappaport's plea for help. Rappaport also wrote to the dean of Boston University.

But nothing changed.

February 2013: Rappaport told Indiewire "there won't be any more updates," claiming he could no longer afford to bring the case to court and Carney's silence left the fate of the films in limbo. Jost felt a little more upbeat. "I think at some point Carney will decide that it's wise to be rational once in a while," he said in a phone call. "Morally, it's Mark's material. If Carney can come up with a document saying that Mark gave it to him, that's a different story."

March 2013: In early March, in response to a request for an interview, Carney snail-mailed me an essay many thousands of words long entitled "Resisting Blackmail: Standing Up for Principles." In the piece, Carney claimed that Rappaport's films came to the professor in a "dirty, disorganized and beat-up" fashion, "just the way you'd expect material destined for the trash to be." He then went on to claim he spent "tens of thousands of dollars" to restore the films. "There was no question that I owned the material free and clear," he said. Carney alleged that Jost's petition constituted cyber-bullying and that Rappaport's decision to contact Carney's employers at Boston University was a form of blackmail.

The situation has grown increasingly heated with each new allegation. Both sides have a tendency to shroud legitimate argumentation in juvenile laments. "He came out of the witness protection program!" Rappaport sarcastically gushed to me a few days after Carney posted a response on his blog. "Everything is a lie. The man has amnesia or something. I have documents that prove everything is a fabrication."

Carney, who eventually agreed to speak with me by phone two weeks ago, made nearly identical claims, to the point where I started to wonder if I was talking to the same person. "There have been so many misrepresentations and lies out there," Carney told me. "I'm not just trying to cover my butt. I'm trying to talk to you man-to-man here. Mark Rappaport knows that he's telling lies. The idea that I have blockaded and refused, that's not true."