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"Drop Edges of Yonder: The Films of Rudy Wurlitzer"

Updated through 5/6.

The series Anthology Film Archives is running from Friday through May 5, Drop Edges of Yonder: The Films of Rudy Wurlitzer, takes its name from Wurlitzer's 2008 novel and complements the relatively recent reprinting of his first three, Nog (1969), Flats (1970) and Quake (1974). And the series features more than films. Drag City has released an audio version of Wurlitzer's 1984 novel Slow Fade narrated by Will Oldham and, on Friday evening, Oldham and Wurlitzer himself, accompanied by musician Ben Chasny, will be giving something of a performance built on what Joe O'Brien, introducing his 2008 interview with Wurlitzer for Arthur Magazine, calls "a dark, masterful novel written in a more straightforward style than his earlier work. It is set in the divergent worlds of Hollywood and India, and finally Nova Scotia, and exudes a spiritual exhaustion tied in with frustrations with the shuck and jive of the film business." Wurlitzer and Oldham won't be winging it, as they'll have tomorrow night's performance at Basilica Hudson behind them.

"His screenplay for Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop [1971] is probably his best-known cinematic contribution," notes Anthology, "but there's far more where that came from, including Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid [1973], Alex Cox's Walker [1987], several collaborations with iconoclastic photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank, and Jim McBride's brilliant, woefully under-appreciated post-apocalyptic tour-de-force Glen and Randa [1971], perhaps the clearest filmic manifestation of Wurlitzer's unique sensibility." Should also mention that he's collaborated with the likes of Claes Oldenburg, Michelangelo Antonioni (on Two Telegrams, a project that was never realized) and Philip Glass and he's written Voyager (1991) for Volker Schlöndorff and Little Buddha (1993) for Bernardo Bertolucci. At any rate, following Saturday's screening of Glen and Randa, Wurlitzer will be on hand for a chat with Robert Downey Sr.

Nick Pinkerton, who's called up Wurlitzer for a piece in the Voice, notes that Nog "established his hallmarks: elliptical journeys across hostile landscapes; sharp, pelting sentences; snatched American vernacular; arbitrary rituals and meaningless inventories. Around the same time, Wurlitzer arrived in post–Easy Rider Hollywood, where 'open-ended' was briefly a salable script pitch, and a Beckettian novelist-cum-screenwriter not given to writing toward destinations could actually make a go of it. 'I thought, "Wow," this was great,' he said. 'I can write scripts that'll support these wacky novels that won't make any money at all. It was either that or teaching, and I didn't want to teach, so it was a good solution… for a few minutes, anyway.'" When those minutes were up, he withdrew to Nova Scotia, where "he made small films with neighbor, Robert Frank, 'just process for its own sake — there was no external map at all.' Anthology screens their feature Candy Mountain (1988), and shorts including Energy and How to Get It (1982), an improvisation from a rich lode of weird-Americana documentary footage."

Jonathan Rosenbaum has recently run a 1998 article he wrote for Written By and, like Pinkerton, sees in Wurlitzer's screenplays "the continuity with his novels." Unfortunately, "most of these scripts remain to be filmed," including "a powerful turn-of-the-century tale about former mountain trapper Boone Pike breaking out of Northwest Territorial Prison with a bullet in his heart and fleeing cross-country so that he can die with what remains of his family. Mountain of the Heart — like Wurlitzer's more recent (and perhaps second-best) western script Gold Fever, set in the mid-19th century — proceeds on an epic scale, in striking contrast to the minimalism of his early work, but it represents an evolution rather than a negation of what went before because the same concentration of language and incident is evident."

Update, 4/29: Steve Dollar talks with Wurlitzer for the Wall Street Journal: "'It's kind of like reading my obit,' said Mr Wurlitzer of the backward glances at his efforts. 'It's a little weird. I know I'm an old geezer but, hey, I'm still on this side of the grass. All of these things, they fly up and hit your windshield unexpectedly. When they first appeared, you can't say they were widely applauded. But now they seem to be more accessible in some ways. The chord they struck still resonates over time. We're in an intensely corporate culture now. so maybe there's a sense of what went before — a longing for something.'"

Update, 4/30: At Cinespect, L Caldoran reviews Glen and Randa, Two-Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid and Walker.

Update, 5/6: Craig Hubert interviews Wurlitzer for Bomb.

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This is welcome news as Wurlitzer is deserving of the attention for what he’s brought to film alone, much less his books and unmade screenplays. His scripts for Blacktop, Pat Garrett and Walker are top-notch and give the impression of a single artist behind the other notable ones who directed each film. I loved Candy Mountain when I saw it back in the late eighties or early nineties and would dearly like to have the chance to see it again as my memory of the specifics of the film have faded over time, leaving only the tone and a few scenes to keep the film in my mind. When I watched it I had no idea who Wurlitzer was or any expectations for the film other than being slightly interested in seeing Dr. John and Tom Waits, but I was completely taken in and wondered why I hadn’t heard anyone talk about it. I imagined that it was because the people making it simply didn’t rate as “auteurs” so it could be set aside as a quirky one off rather than anything more. Hopefully, events like this will further the appreciation of the screenwriters role in films and how they are artists in their own right.

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