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Did This Film Scholar Steal the Work of a Beloved Indie Filmmaker?

The Rate My Professors page for Boston University’s Ray Carney seems particularly divided, even for that contentious forum. It contains superlatives that range from “the most intelligent, thoughtful, and motivating figure I’ve ever encountered in my life” to “Worst. Professor. Ever.”

However, Carney’s student critics are the least of his worries right now. The film scholar has provoked the outrage of movie critics and enthusiasts by confiscating endangered works and production materials from beloved independent filmmaker Mark Rappaport. Rappaport, director of The Scenic Route (“a movie of great, grave, tightly controlled visual daring,” according to Roger Ebert) and From the Journals of Jean Seaberg (a “new kind of movie, and a highly entertaining one,” says Jonathan Rosenbaum) among many other works, issued a plea to the international film community in September to rescue his films from the scholar’s possession. According to his letter, Rappaport entrusted digital copies, video masters, and script drafts, among other materials, to Carney—who has in the past called Rappaport “the best-kept secret in American film” and “a genuine national treasure”—when he moved from the U.S. to France in 2005. However, when Rappaport contacted Carney this past April to return his property, Carney did not respond to his emails—or, later, to a court’s preliminary injunction. When the court entered a default against the scholar for Carney’s failure to respond to the charges, Carney hired a lawyer who claimed Rappaport gave him the rare materials as a gift. After a four month-long court battle, Carney contacted the director, saying he would return the materials if Rappaport gave him $27,000 for the trouble of keeping the materials for seven-and-half years. Rappaport did not continue the suit, citing its expense.

In the letter, Rappaport pleads, “Without the digital video 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.”

Carney, a powerful and influential scholar who has been deemed “a cinematic Ralph Nader,” has gotten into a fight over film possession before: He feuded with John Cassavetes’ widow Gena Rowland over his discovery of a first cut of Shadows (the result of a 17-year quest), which he claims is an improvised work and therefore does not belong to her company, Faces Distribution Incorporated. Reporting on that conflict, GreenCine Daily referred to Carney’s “eerie insistence on speaking on behalf of Cassavetes himself.”

Carney has long maintained an extensive website devoted to his work, and his past comments there are not helping him now. When Carney was emailed by someone looking for Rappaport’s contact information so that he could put together a screening of some of Rappaport’s old films, he published the exchange on his webpage. “Mark is a great friend and gave me almost everything he owned when he left New York for France,” Carney explained, “Thousands of pages and box after box of material. So I am now the ‘Mark Rappaport Archive.’” He then said that he is “not a rental operation” and so his “massive collection is of no use at all for your purposes.” “Sorry I can’t help or be more encouraging,” he added. As Roger Ebert tweeted this past September, “Yeah, sure, indie director Mark Rappaport ‘gave’ his life work to Prof. Ray Carney.” Ebert has called the whole Carney/Rappaport business a “disturbing story.”

Former supporters of Carney have since turned against the scholar in Rappaport’s defense, including Jon Jost of cinemaelectronica, who recently published a petition for Carney to return Rappaport’s “stolen film materials.” Jost, a self-avowed friend of Carney’s, writes that many attempts to contact his former email correspondent have gone unanswered, confirming his suspicions that Carney’s intentions are less than trustworthy.

Meanwhile, Carney has not responded to the increasing noise level on Internet forums to defend himself over the Rappaport works and is reportedly spending time in Vermont. He can’t be missing in action forever, though. He should be back at Boston University’s College of Communication in Spring 2013, to teach “American Independent Film.”

Re-posted from Slate.