Sunday, August 02, 2009

Rudy Wurlitzer and going nowhere.

A few months ago I wrote about the strange road movie, Two Lane Blacktop. I opined that it was for aficionados of movies in which nothing happens.

Erik Davis, a writer whose blog I follow because he wrote the best book ever on Led Zeppelin's fourth album, has a piece on the writer of Two Lane Blacktop, the excitingly-named Rudy Wurlitzer. Wurlitzer is famous for writing a 1969 book, Nog, which no one had ever heard of at the time (apart from an article in the Village Voice). As the waves of zeitgeist wash up and down the beach of popular culture, they sort the artifacts into neat rows, leaving them juxtaposed in arrangements that look almost willful. The waves have re-sorted Nog, and now Nog has always been a very important book.

From Erik Davis' article, it appears Davis likes Wurlitzer because Wurlitzer is a sort-of Buddhist. He says, "In Nog, Wurlitzer tries to write the dissolved and dissolute self, and he does so from within the hedonistic abyss that lurked at the heart of the freak counterculture." About Two Lane Blacktop, Wurlitzer says, "So that became for me an innocent 'road to nowhere' process, a rider riding, a driver driving, a kind of 'tone poem' that sought to pull the rug out from underneath winners and losers, or beginnings and ends. The race itself. The phenomena of 'moving on'." He goes on, "And then, as fate would have it, right after that experience a producer asked me to write a western. Who could turn down the opportunity of working on a western?" That led him to write the screenplay for Samuel Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid.

Writing about the "dissolved self", then, is about Moving On, and a Western is about "a different kind of emptiness". I've watched plenty of Westerns, from Hollywood-vehicle Alias Smith and Jones to cultcher like High Plains Drifter, and either way I've never really understood what they were about. I assumed it was some wrinkle in the masculine soul, and I'd just have to do without understanding it, so I like to read how it really is.

Wurlitzer's longest speech in the article is:

Somewhere in the early seventies I wrote a piece for an obscure literary magazine. The title was: “The First Two Pages of Louis L'Amour.” I was enamored with Louis L'Amour's first two pages, which were almost always about a man riding through the vast phenomena of open Western space. A rider, riding, without intention, into emptiness, with no beginning, no end or assigned direction. Off the map. East equal to West or South or North, the rising sun usually behind, the setting sun in front, leaving civilization behind, riding always within the mysterious rhythms of unannounced form and emptiness. The open range, silent and spacious, the rider never having a particular name or identity or defined boundaries, inside or outside. So it was just riding, always riding. But then, inevitably, after these introductions, Louis L'Amour, needing to hook the reader, would set the trap of 'self', the rider finding himself inside the entertaining and seductive prisons of plot, character and story, to what James Bugental calls the 'self-and-world construct system.' And so inevitably the reader would be squeezed and manipulated into a grid of good and evil Judeo-Christian myths that so mark the Legends of the Old West."

Now, that may be a wonderful insight, but to me it seems to be trying far too hard. Whenever I pick up a book where a rider is riding without intention into emptiness, with no beginning or end, I don't assume he is an unfilled vessel. I assume the writer hasn't a clue, and has sat down at his typewriter to bang out a story and is hoping one will come to him shortly, which of course it always does, sometimes good and sometimes not so good. I feel the same vibes when a writer says that "the house was surrounded by fog" or "and he woke up in a dark room". The writer simply hasn't thought of anything yet, and so the world of his book is without form and void, like our world before God thought up any words. (When He did, it was the beginning, of course: In the beginning was the word.) Unlike God, who deleted all the bits before the words came, Louis L'Amour and many others just leave them there.

But Wurlitzer's explanation is so much more expandable, I guess. "Operator error" may be something I love to assign, but it's not nearly as descriptive.

More weirdly, Wurlitzer had an involvement with another film I've seen recently, Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. (It looks like I didn't write about that here.) I found it rather funny – a man on a doomed journey takes a bullet in the heart. A native American fails to dig out the bullet and realizes his new friend may still be functioning, but in reality he is a dead man walking. He's determined to get him to a place that will give him a proper send off back to his spirit people in a canoe, and after a number of encounters he succeeds. It reminded me of a science fiction story I read many years ago about a man rescued from a burning house by aliens. They put him in a zoo on their home planet, which he doesn't mind because, hey, at least it's not a burning house. After a couple of months, one of them tells him that they've managed to solve the last life support problems and make the environment exactly match that of Earth's. He distractedly tells them 'that's nice' and then horror dawns on him -they rescued him from a burning house, which means they are about to throw the switch and torch his happy zoo habitat.

I don't think Jarmusch's film was supposed to be funny, but it just had that Fantasy And Science Fiction vibe. Anyway, it turns out that Jarmusch didn't buy Wurlitzer's idea for a film "about a mountain man who gets shot in the heart after breaking out of jail, then becomes obsessed with saying a final goodbye to his family in the northwest. The script tracks him until he finally finds his wife and son, and then ends with his death and his body floating out to sea in a burning canoe". But some time later, Jarmusch made Dead Man.

I guess that's showbiz.

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