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The Strange and Sad Saga of How Filmmaker Mark Rappaport Lost His Movies (And What He Can Do To Get Them Back)

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 10, 2013 at 10:09AM

For decades, Mark Rappaport has been championed by cinephiles and scholars. His distinctively meta and more recently essayistic work has screened at major film festivals and art houses around the world. For years, one of Rappaport's biggest fans was the Boston University film professor Ray Carney, who once called Rappaport "a genuine national treasure." As recently as 2010, Carney hoped to teach an entire seminar dedicated to Rappaport's films, which range from an earlier period of irreverent comedies released in the seventies and eighties (such as the acclaimed "The Scenic Route") to diary films produced in the nineties that include the imaginative "Rock Hudson's Home Movies." Over the past year, however, the two men have been spotlighted 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.
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Mark Rappaport's "Scenic Route."
Mark Rappaport's "Scenic Route."

According to Carney, e-mail exchanges from 2010 in his possession prove that Rappaport readily gave his films to Carney and implied that he would have otherwise thrown them out. Carney won't allow those exchanges out of his possession but claimed that, after sharing them Boston Globe journalist Geoff Edgers, the reporter ascertained that Carney was in the right.

As usual, of course, there are multiple versions of the truth. In Edgers' Globe article, he asserted that "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."

Carney may be legitimately baffled by those who have characterized him as the villain in a situation involving a filmmaker whose work he once celebrated, but he remains unwilling to give up the films unless Rappaport meets an ever-changing list of conditions. Asked what it would take for him to reach a resolution, Carney said he wanted at least $10,000 to cover legal fees he had previously incurred in addition to a retraction of Rappaport's allegations against him.

I asked Rappaport, who now refuses to reach out to Carney directly, if the arrangement might be amenable. Rappaport said he would offer Carney $7,000, insisted that "I have nothing to deny," but would "agree to state publicly that everything was returned safe and sound, as I originally sent it, for considerably less than his original asking price." Inadvertently forced into the role of interloper, I sent the response to Carney, who scoffed at it. In an e-mail that he later decided to publish on his site, Carney called the offer "just another veiled (or not-so-veiled) set of threats, the tenth or twentieth or hundredth in a series. That's all he has available to him. Threats… Nothing new in that, of course." But then his tone shifted: "I wish Mark well personally. I just feel a little sorry for the hole he's dug for himself at this point."

Regardless of who dug it, "the hole" in question has made it virtually impossible for those interested in Rappaport's films to discover them. The collection includes features like "The Scenic Route," which the late Roger Ebert called "a movie of great, grave, tightly controlled visual daring, and you have never seen anything like it before." With neither Rappaport nor Carney making progress toward resolution, such praise may take on a folkloric dimension while the films in question fester somewhere in Boston.

Every new development deepens the bitter tenor of the dispute. Carney's financial demands have fluctuated wildly: He told Artinfo he had spent around $27,000 to restore Carney's films, whereas the Globe reported the sum at $40,000. In our recent exchange, Carney said it was "in excess of $30,000." Citing these shifting figures, Rappaport said, "the guy lies as easily as he breathes. He'll say anything to anyone."

"It's deeply personal, layered and most likely beyond the scope of what we're seeing in the exchanges here."

Regardless of the terms under which he gave his films to Carney, Rappaport's anger is beyond dispute.

"Carney cavalierly hijacked a major portion of my work and my life and, dare I say, my legacy," he wrote in one of his online updates. At one point, Carney released a photograph to the court showing materials that Rappaport claimed to look unopened, which appeared to conflict with an earlier claim that he had destroyed or given away some of the films, leading Rappaport to accuse the professor of perjury.

But Carney claims he has enough evidence against Rappaport's claims to keep the situation out of courts for good. "I've tried to be noble about this," he said. "A lot of good it's done me."

And yet the murky nature of the films' legal status may point to the place where a potential solution lies: outside the courtroom and in the hands of a third party, away from the public stage where the ugly drama has so far unfolded.

"I think it's deeply personal, layered and most likely beyond the scope of what we're seeing in the exchanges here," said entertainment lawyer Steven Beer. "This disagreement seems perfectly suited for mediation where the parties can sit down with an experienced, impartial professional who can help architect a solution that's between the parties and private -- as opposed to being aired in public before the industry."

Beer singled out organizations like the Directors Guild of America as the ideal focus point for figuring out a solution. "When working with artists and professionals in the creative realm, it's not uncommon for individuals to be passionate and for misunderstandings to happen," he said. "Artists and creative people have all kinds of business relationships that should, but aren't always, done in the best matter."

Beer added that taking the situation to court -- and then to a public forum -- may have only worked against the interests of both sides. "I hope the parties can see their ways to address their differences with a professional in a managed forum -- the sooner the better -- instead of wasting time and money on litigation," he said. ""What goes on here happens all the time -- transactions or relationships aren't always appropriately noted. The opportunity to resolve them in expedited mediation can be an attractive alternative."

For the time being, Carney and Rappaport continue to fester and rant with no end in sight, and nobody benefits: not Rappaport or Carney, nor fans of their work. Until some piece of the current equation shifts, nothing changes, least of all the gridlock that has remained in place for a year this month. But the overarching solution, as always, remains simpler than every exasperating minutiae.

"I don't give a flying fuck what happens to Ray Carney," Rappaport told me last month. "I just want my films back."

This article is related to: Mark Rappaport, Ray Carney, Jon Jost, Features







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