Film

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

From Two Lane Blacktop

Wurlitzer has a fondness for stories that are rooted in movement and the conflict to be found in forward movement.

It should be mentioned at this juncture that my conversations with Rudy Wurlitzer were not unlike a road journey itself with plenty of unplanned side trips along the way. In early August 2008 I mentioned to Wurlitzer that I was interested in locating a screener of Candy Mountain, a little-seen art house feature film that the author co-directed with Robert Frank in 1988. It was no easy task, seeing that the title has never been released on DVD, partially owing to the musical talents involved in the all-star cast: Dr. John, Tom Waits (introduced to Wurlitzer and Franks by Jim Jarmusch, oddly enough), Joe Strummer, Leon Redbone, and David Johansen (then of the New York Dolls). Even before screening the film it was obvious to me that the effort was a pop culture artifact that would have lasting appeal across many levels of collectors if rights clearance issues could be resolved. “As far as Candy Mountain goes, there seem to be some difficulties or a lack of communication about the music rights, involving musicians, lyricists, producers, etc.” Wurlitzer wrote from Hudson, New York, where he shares a home with his wife, photographer Lynn Davis. “I called one of the producers, who promised he would look into it, particularly as we agreed that after all this time there should be some accord. It was a strange film from the jump, a weird, multiple low-road co-production with a Swiss producer, a French and an American producer, all of whom didn’t get along, and then, of course, the two directors, Robert Frank (now 84) and myself, who parted company after the trauma of production. Given the hierarchy of film production, two directors always present a problem. Looking back on it, I probably should have stepped down as co-director, and actually at one point I tried to do so, as it was clear early on that there was room for only one person to walk that bridge and that was Robert.

Author: Rudolph Wurlitzer Book: Flats US publication date: 1996-03 Publisher: Serpent's Tail Formats: Paperback ISBN: 9781852424107 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/w/wurlitzer-flats.jpg Length: 160

DVD: Two-Lane Blacktop Director: Monte Hellman Film: Two-Lane Blacktop Subtitle: Criterion Collection Cast: James Taylor, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird and Dennis Wilson MPAA rating: N/A First date: 1971 US DVD Release Date: 2007-12-11 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/t/two-laneblackto.jpg

Author: Rudolph Wurlitzer Book: Flats US publication date: 1996-03 Publisher: Serpent's Tail Formats: Paperback ISBN: 9781852424107 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/w/wurlitzer-flats.jpg Length: 160

DVD: Two-Lane Blacktop Director: Monte Hellman Film: Two-Lane Blacktop Subtitle: Criterion Collection Cast: James Taylor, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird and Dennis Wilson MPAA rating: N/A First date: 1971 US DVD Release Date: 2007-12-11 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/t/two-laneblackto.jpg

DVD: Candy Mountain Display Artist: Robert Frank, Rudy Wurlitzer Director: Robert Frank Director: Rudy Wurlitzer Film: Candy Mountain Cast: Kevin O'Connor, Harris Yulin, Tom Waits, Bulle Ogier, David Johansen, Leon Redbone, Joe Strummer, Dr. John MPAA rating: N/A First date: 1987 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/w/wurlitzer-candymountain.jpg

DVD: Candy Mountain Display Artist: Robert Frank, Rudy Wurlitzer Director: Robert Frank Director: Rudy Wurlitzer Film: Candy Mountain Cast: Kevin O'Connor, Harris Yulin, Tom Waits, Bulle Ogier, David Johansen, Leon Redbone, Joe Strummer, Dr. John MPAA rating: N/A First date: 1987 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/w/wurlitzer-candymountain.jpg

“Also, given the low budget there was no bread for anyone, as well as no distribution know-how, and yet, finally, after all the hollering and whining and complaining, there’s an authenticity to the film, which was filmed as I wrote it: a kind of innocence and defiance, that given the usual miasma of Hollywood productions, I have come to increasingly value, particularly as half the movie was filmed on the edge of the wedge, in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, a place where I have lived off and on and hid out for forty some odd years, a haunting land that I increasingly cherish because of its stubborn insistence for being off the grid. God bless its Irish-Scotch protectors.” In late October I acquired a passable (bleached colors, mono soundtrack) VHS to DVD dub of Candy Mountain, and settled in late one night between deadlines to screen it on my laptop. Rudy was curious and eager for my advice on his options in exploring, along with the other producers, a DVD release of the film since I have business associates who work in the world of film preservation and restoration as well as rights clearances. In Candy Mountain, Kevin J. O’Connor (There Will Be Blood) stars as Julius, a not terribly likeable and rather dense musician wanna-be working on the fringes of the New York club scene. Julius hears about the Holy Grail that will grant one immediate access to the movers and shakers in the music world, a guitar from legendary but reclusive guitar maker Elmore Silk, and sets out on a quest to find the old hermit and acquire one of his instruments so that Julius can claim his rightful place among the hipsters. Lots of Joseph Campbell in there but also, more importantly, it is an “anti-road” movie because the road does not lead to a good place for Julius. When he finally catches up with Elmore Silk (Harris Yulin), a man swallowed up by his own mythology in the snow-blasted wilds of Nova Scotia, Julius interrupts a Faust-like bargain in the making with a shrewd Japanese industrialist. “As a writer who has depended on the journey or road mythos so often in his work,” I wrote Rudy at 1:00AM that night after finally watching the film without interruption by domestic duties, “you pretty much debunk it all in Candy Mountain. In the end, Elmore Silk takes the road that provides stability, a monthly check for the duration of his days and the road trip that Julian embarked upon is rendered null and void. The depth of what you are saying about the intersection of art and commerce is interesting and perhaps an allegory for your years of toil as a screenwriter.” Using the recent DVD re-releases of Two-Lane Blacktop and Walker as leverage, I assured Rudy that there would be no problem in convincing a distribution entity of the commercial value of the film for wide release in the DVD market. Wandering Trails and Tributaries

Wurlitzer was suddenly cool to my enthusiastic response about getting Candy Mountain into the right distribution hands. “I’m touched by your generous gestures toward Candy Mountain and the fact that you stayed up past midnight to watch it,” Wurlitzer wrote. “Right now I think it is best to be somewhat cautious and wait for more focus from the others, because of all their different factions and their shifting and distracted disarrays.” “On another level for me personally,” the writer observed, “is how much I value your insight into the film, giving me the opportunity to reflect on it once again as I find myself in a kind of transition state, between acts, as it were, sitting on that long bench in front of the Trail’s End Saloon, looking backwards, dazed and somewhat confused by all those drifting tracks in the sand that go into measuring old journeys and by the byways (Who the hell was I in those old days and who am I now?), those kind of ruminations which I hardly ever indulge in, preferring to push on toward the horizon, toward the present, however misty and deluded and cracked my onward engine might be … It’s all somewhat like the film, which seems, as I think about it, to represent an exhaustion with romantic myths of the road, as well as all those other myths of origin that go into inventing this culture’s deluded brochures – as the song goes, The road ain’t what it used to be … all the wandering trails and tributaries that make up the thru-line of a life and lives lived; at their best, a furious embrace of the present, on the chosen margins that avoid commercial culture. Which is not to say that one isn’t faced with livelihood issues. And so on. Keep the wind in your sails, even if there’s no wind.” The plan was to write-up Rudy Wurlitzer and The Drop Edge of Yonder in either my September or October column but life, as it has an annoying and redundant tendency to do, got in the way. On 31 August 2008 my terminally ill mother passed away rather unexpectedly (“always a primal event”, Rudy kindly wrote in his condolence note) and I was suddenly catapulted into an unpleasant battle with my mother’s elderly and wealthy sisters for control over her meager estate (“I was spared some of that when my Mom went out at ninety-four,” Rudy wrote, “along with most of her coin, which was considerable, but at least it spared me all the contentious wrestling.” Wurlitzer hails from the Wurlitzer jukebox and organ family empire). Furious phone calls to lawyers were made, legal aid agencies conscripted, and dispatches by U.S. Mail ominously presaging an epic blood feud flew back and forth between my aunts and me. The trenches were dug for a long, protracted battle with neither side a guaranteed victor. In my jagged past I might have endured the warfare just for the visceral satisfaction – a motive one never wants to reveal to a judge; but something came over me one Sunday afternoon mere hours before an appointment with a probate lawyer -- motivated in no small part by Wurlitzer’s interesting low-key reaction to having his Gold Rush era ghost story raped and pillaged by Jim Jarmusch -- which caused me to assume a long-view from atop my battle-ready encampment and ask myself if tossing all of that energy and weaponry in that direction, toward the soul-numbing negativity and heated animosity invested in civil litigation, was worth the effort if the same forces could be mustered into a more positive and lucrative venture. The answer, ashamedly, was painfully simple. I placed a call to my legal field commander and cancelled our planned assault. Something good will eventually come of my decision to invoke what Wurlitzer calls “the action of no action” instead of the easy and bloody path to warfare because the ineluctable workings of karmic law operate that way as the tangled road of The Drop Edge of Yonder, published in April 2008 by Two Dollar Radio, proves. When Rudy Wurlitzer first began shopping his original screenplay, Zebulon, around Hollywood, the legendary Sam Peckinpah expressed an interest in directing but had no studio deal in place; before he could secure a deal, the boozin’ and brawlin’ Peckinpah succumbed to a fatal heart attack on December 29, 1984. The marvelous Hal Ashby (The Last Detail, Harold and Maude, Being There) next developed an interest in helming the production but Hal died of complications from liver cancer on December 27, 1988. At one point, Wurlitzer tells me, director (Under Fire) and film editor (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) Roger Spottiswoode planned to mount a U.S.-British-Canadian co-production of Zebulon but those plans soon flew south as well. Later, Wurlitzer almost had financing complete to direct the movie himself in Canada but “couldn’t get it on”. And then there was the whole matter with Jim Jarmusch. “After a while I just dropped it because the venture started to feel cursed,” Wurlitzer told Arthur magazine. But the novel that emerged from the lineage of directors felled by death and one tempted by the bitter fruits of intellectual property theft, “is sufficiently different,” Wurlitzer believes. “And in a way, the good part of it is after awhile I felt compelled to write my own version to get away from what had essentially been contaminated, not only just by Jim, but by the long journey of the script.” The end result is a novel that we hope is not the swan song of one of America’s most idiosyncratic novelists and screenwriters, but if the last note from the road must suffice with The Drop Edge of Yonder then it is a fitting conclusion to a stellar career.

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