You don’t forget a “Rudy Wurlitzer.” And the name comes up in the most interesting places: In accounts of ’70s young Hollywood, on a Philip Glass opera, or as the screenwriting credit for Two-Lane Blacktop. It was he who gave that 1971 road movie its gearhead code-talk, and provided star James Taylor with deadpan-comic dialogue: “Here we are on the road.” “Yup, that’s where we are all right.”
He grew up in New York, but was born in Cincinnati, where the Wurlitzer music company was founded in 1853. You can see jukeboxes sporting the family name in the greasy spoons lining Two-Lane’s Route 66—and today, on the phone from his home in Hudson, New York, he talks about writing in terms of “striking chords.”
The family fortune dwindled, and he spent his twenties in the Army, bohemia, Columbia, the Sorbonne, and Majorca. His first novel, Nog, was published in 1969, and 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.”
Complimenting the recent reprint of his first three slim novels—Nog, Flats, and Quake—Anthology Film Archives hosts a retrospective of his film work, plus Will Oldham’s live reading, to musical and visual accompaniment, from Wurlitzer’s 1984 novel Slow Fade, “about the dark side of the film business.” (It will be, Wurlitzer says, “a performance, rather than some old geezer reading his book.”)
The continuity between Wurlitzer’s fiction and screenwriting attests to the free hand he wrote with, and the fidelity of his directors. The porous-egoed protagonists of his novels, slipping between first and third person, parallel Warren Oates’s identity-scavenging character in Two-Lane, who tries out a new backstory on every hitchhiker he meets. The idea of social disintegration carries through Flats, Quake, and his first produced screenplay, Glen and Randa (1971), in which savage innocents puzzle over relic Captain Marvel comic books in an Edenic post-apocalyptic West.
Wurlitzer wrote of lawless countries, post- or pre-civilization. (When I say I’ll try to do his work justice, he laughs: “There is no justice, man.”) His Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) script went to Sam Peckinpah, who made it his final Western—a protracted elegy where almost every scene plays like The End, with James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson fading into Bob Dylan’s score and a dusty ride-off. Wurlitzer’s skeletal vignettes are given life by Peckinpah’s detail work, and a cast of actors who casually suggest complete character biographies the moment they appear on-screen, immersing the viewer in a shared history of the old New Mexico Territory. And Wurlitzer never wrote better colloquial talk: “I got my shotgun full of 16 thin dimes—enough to spread you out like a crazy woman’s quilt” and “This town’s got no hat size, nohow.”
The shrinking hat size in Hollywood was increasingly apparent to Wurlitzer, who recalled “The hierarchies became more crystallized. . . . There were too many people in the room.” Withdrawing more frequently to hideaway Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, 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. (“We went out to Wendover, Utah, to film this guy who was a disciple of Nikola Tesla’s. . . .”)
“I feel grateful for having been alive in those days and been able to work that way,” said Wurlitzer of wide-open L.A. “Now it’s a completely different game.” He continued to write scripts, principally for European directors—the exception is Alex Cox’s 1987 filibustering “Western,” Walker—but those early-’70s films have their singular aspect, as records of extraordinary encounters. Returning to Two-Lane, he commented on the film’s “theatrical dynamic” between professional actor Oates and the “innocence” of the amateurs, Taylor, Dennis Wilson, and Laurie Bird: “Different chords to help the energy of the film.” That uneasy tension, between intuition and studio professionalism, is what made Wurlitzer’s uncompromised screen work—and the brief parenthesis during which such work was possible in Hollywood—so unique. He was an invaluable X factor, collaborator, and enabler, and his minor chord resonates still.