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Conversing with Rudy Wurlitzer: ‘A Beaten-up Old Scribbler’

Ed Harris in Walker (1987)

My conversations with Rudy Wurlitzer were not unlike a road journey itself with plenty of unplanned side trips along the way.

Cinema never replaced the written word; indeed the movies have relied heavily upon their first cousin in mass communication from the very start. “The power of the camera,” maverick filmmaker Sam Fuller once said, “is bold-face type” -- an accurate assessment that pretty much sums up the vast gulf between movies and literature.

In the ‘70s there existed a brief shining moment in the history of American film when a legion of screenwriters, aided and abetted by willing and capable directors like Monte Hellman, Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby and Robert Altman, attempted to mix the language of film with the rich character complexities of literature. The screenplays were provided by writers like Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo), Walon Green (The Wild Bunch, Sorcerer), Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy, Serpico, Coming Home), and frequent Altman collaborator Joan Tewkesbury (Thieves Like Us, Nashville). These screenplays, and many more like them, broke with the linear tradition of telling a story on film, expressing an aggressive disregard for the classical conventions of film and exploring what lurks beneath the trappings of genre, not unlike traversing Disneyland via its dark underground sewers where no one except rats ever lurked before.

Of the slim handful of contemporary filmmakers whose body of work shares a heavy debt and undeniable symmetry to ‘70s screenwriting, the iconoclastic independent Jim Jarmusch most certainly stands out. Jarmusch says that he prefers “to be subcultural rather than mass cultural”, asserting that he’s “not interested in hitting the vein of mainstream.”

The Johnny Depp western Dead Man (1995) is Jarmusch’s most artful work and a movie that did hit the mainstream vein, a complex screenplay in search of a novel with its references to (and explorations of) Native American mysticism, the American myths of origin, the words of poet William Blake, and the worlds between the living and the dead. But there’s a problem with Jarmusch’s screenplay for Dead Man. A big problem. Dead Man borrows heavily and substantially from an unproduced screenplay, Zebulon, by ‘70s screenwriting maverick and counterculture novelist Rudy Wurlitzer.

In a May 2008 interview with Joe O’Brien for Arthur magazine Rudy Wurlitzer, who turns 71 this year, characteristically speaks of Jarmusch’s plagiarism “without much bitterness and even laughs about it.” Wurlitzer’s longtime friend, director Alex Cox (Repo Man) is less forgiving: “Jarmusch just stole the idea, which was really shocking,” Cox told O’Brien. “I haven’t been able to speak to Jarmusch since that happened. Rudy could’ve sued him. I would’ve sued his ass.”

Like Alex Cox, if a movie maker had ripped me off as blatantly as Jarmusch did to Wurlitzer with Dead Man I would’ve been cooling my heels in a lawyer’s office faster than you can say “quick and quiet cash settlement to keep this out of court”. But over the course of five months, through a sporadic and protracted email correspondence with the reclusive author and two contemplative readings of his new masterwork The Drop Edge of Yonder (adapted from his Zebulon screenplay), I came to not only an understanding but an actual practical application of Wurlitzer’s Buddhist-suffused principles in my own life. It turns out that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Two-Lane Blacktop

In the spirit of full disclosure I must confess to being a lifelong admirer of Rudy Wurlitzer from my earliest days as a struggling Hollywood screenwriter (circa 1979-95).

Wurlitzer’s original screenplays for the cult classics Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Sam Peckinpah’s revisionist western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) represented groundbreaking territory in the young art of screenwriting. The terse, sometimes cryptic dialogue and the emphasis on tone and mood over a busy, twist-laden plot created an almost-perfect symbiosis of the literary mind and the conventions and commercial needs of Hollywood at that time.

The movie-going audiences in the days of Vietnam and Nixon were a much more literate and literary crowd than we’re likely to find today, the truth of that statement shored up by a quick glimpse at a few of the names whose books regularly lurked in the pop culture cosmos: Capote. Mailer. Didion. Updike. Michener. Bukowski. Vonnegut. Kesey. Wolfe. Roth. Miller. Those names are synonymous with literary legend now, but they were the subject of casual water cooler chit-chat a mere three-and-a-quarter decades ago, the generation that Rudy Wurlitzer and his fellow scribes were writing movies and novels for.

Two-Lane Blacktop, considered the greatest road movie ever by scores of film aficionados, was bestowed with the Criterion Collection DVD treatment in 2007 (currently ranking in the top 5,000 movies and TV releases at Amazon.com), and Walker, Alex Cox’s bizarre, hallucinogenic 1987 biopic of William Walker, the American adventurer who appointed himself President of Nicaragua in 1856, from a screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer, was released in a deluxe Criterion DVD package in 2008, complete with fresh commentary by Wurlitzer and Cox.

Indeed, there is something of a Rudy Wurlitzer renaissance going down in the pop culture zeitgeist; not only through the Criterion releases but also through a well-deserved re-examination of Wurlitzer’s long-forgotten work as a masterful novelist, with independent publisher Two Dollar Radio preparing to re-release the out-of-print novels Nog (1969) and Quake (1974) in late 2009. Two Dollar also plans to release Wurlitzer’s Flats (1971) and Quake in a single “69 turnover” edition (two books in one binding) which pleases Wurlitzer immensely because both novels, the author says, “seem related as they were written back-to-back expressing a sort of post-apocalyptic vision that I was consumed with in those days.”

“I’ve been thrashing around through various recapitulations of the past,” Wurlitzer wrote in October 2008, “now that my youthful publisher wants to re-release Nog and Quake, as well as film folk wanting to know more about Two-Lane Blacktop and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. I find the process strange and more than illusive as I have immense trouble remembering who I was way back then, given all my obscurations, not to mention who the hell I am now. So it goes.”

The paradox behind Wurlitzer’s contemplative “recapitulations of the past” is that one of the recurring narrative and stylistic tendencies in the author’s work (five novels and nine produced screenplays) is a fondness for stories that are rooted in movement and the conflict to be found in forward movement. With The Drop Edge of Yonder Wurlitzer is the weary traveler looking back on his journey, a journey, Wurlitzer writes of his protagonist mountain man Zebulon Shook, “that he is unable to track, without a beginning or end with no boundaries to guide him.” In that respect, Drop Edge is one of the most revealing autobiographies-written-in-the-form-of-historical-fiction, a rare genre, to be sure. The restless wanderer in this contribution to Wurlitzer’s canon is looking for the end of the road, not the limitless possibilities of it that Kerouac promised.

Wurlitzer, who was 19-years-old when Kerouac’s seminal work was first published by Viking Press and cast an undeniable influence on his writing and that of hundreds of other authors either directly or indirectly. (Encouraged at the least through an encouragement of experimentation in the structure and form of a fictional narrative and the urging of young people to go “on the road” and experience life to its fullest before the responsibilities that come with maturity take hold.) Today he looks back on Kerouac’s influence on writers with something that resembles chagrin, noting the “romantic deluded myths he represented for me when I was barreling along western by-ways not knowing east from west, only going ‘further’, as the other sage would have it.”

Solidifying the Kerouac connection is Wurlitzer’s long association with Robert Frank, the Swiss-born American photographer and fringe filmmaker who shares in the Beat lineage for his work as the director of the 1959 film Pull My Daisy, written and narrated by Jack Kerouac and featuring Alan Ginsberg and other Beat movement luminaries. (Frank’s best-known film was the 1972 Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues. “It’s a fucking good film, Robert,” Mick Jagger reportedly told Frank, “but if it shows in America we’ll never be allowed in this country again.” The Stones sued to prevent the release of the documentary. A copyright battle ensued and in the end a judge intervened with the ruling that the film can be screened no more than five times per year and only in the presence of Mr. Franks). Wurlitzer wrote two short films for Robert Frank, Keep Busy (1975) and Energy and How to Get It (1982) featuring appearances by William S. Burroughs and Dr. John.

“Seems like a hundred years ago, those days,” Wurlitzer muses in a November 2008 email, “and maybe they are that ancient, given how much it has all changed.”

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