September 21, 2003|The Rattlebrain Theater Company resides at a bustling intersection of Denver's 16th Street Mall in the basement of what appears to have once been a church. Backstage, with a little kid functioning as the company's receptionist for some reason that will best remain a mystery to me, I sat on a tatty sofa in what's essentially a catacomb, the "blue room," to meet NPR regular, Louisiana State English Professor, and founder of EXQUISITE CORPSE alternative literary magazine, Andrei Codrescu. An exile of Ceausescu's Romania, Codrescu found refuge in among the thinkers and bohemians of the American Sixties: William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg his spiritual and literary advisors in the new world, Codrescu sought with his life and career to redefine what Transylvanian poet and philosopher Lucien Blaga called "Mioritic Space"--an idea taken from Romanian folklore about the Romanian character defined by his geography, distilled by Codrescu into the idea that thought is its own nation and the poet, forever in exile, the only creator of its shifting borders.
A decade after achieving cult success with the small, quirky documentary Road Scholar, Codrescu finds himself gathering research and steam to make Big River Blues, an examination of Mississippi Blues particularly suited to the throughlines of the man's life and life's work: poetry, geography, and the dislocation of the disenfranchised artist. In person, Mr. Codrescu is compact and vaguely infernal in appearance, his gaze intense from behind small wire-frame glasses, and his voice deep with the command of a practiced public speaker. With a deep accent familiar to listeners of NPR, Mr. Codrescu offers a slight pause after every question--the mark of a thinker who understands the importance of choosing his words carefully. When we finished, he apologized for not being more eloquent--the mark of a man who understands the disarming influence of humility. I started by quoting Jacques Rivette's thoughts on art and the artist's role and asking the writer/philosopher/filmmaker to comment as, around us, Rattlebrain's stage managers and performers came and went.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: "The role of a work of art is to plunge people into horror. If the artist has a role, it is to confront people--and himself first of all--with this horror, this feeling that one has when one learns about the death of someone one has loved."
ANDREI CODRESCU: Well, that's extreme but it's certainly part of it--to create this sense of horror and surprise in an audience and I certainly get very, very bored with creations, with writings, that seem too well made. Writing, though, there's the possibility of it creating itself as you go along that you don't find so much in film, you have to work with people, a collective endeavour to a large extent, so there is a certain degree of predestination that robs so much of that art of the breath of inspiration that could appal.
But you'd mark a difference in documentary film?
I would. Making Road Scholar and the kind of film that it was allowed for more surprises along the way--we started with the best intentions and they either didn't materialize or we found better things along the way. The best things in that film, and I wonder if this isn't true in any film, are the things that just happened and we were lucky enough to capture them. They were certainly not part of the original concept and they had the wonderful effect of causing us to need to constantly change our schedule, to create this wonderfully surprising experience beyond the business of terror and what the Greeks called "pity"--feelings of embarrassment, awkwardness, you know, the entire range of it. I'm not against seeing an audience squirm, but of course you want something more than just that, those reactions are easy.
Interested in more than the provocation...
My good friend Tim Bergen, a poet, says, "If a work, if a poem works up and down and sideways, the rest of the dimensions will take care of themselves." So whatever it is that is in there that surprises and horrifies and does all those things should also work in an "up" dimension, the healing dimension, while having its roots good and solid in Hell--in fleurs de mal.
Clarify for me the relationship between film and poetry, then. Baudelaire, who you mention, to me was always a scene-setter--a cinematic poet full of surprise and tableaux.
It's the way that most people in the United States get their culture nowadays, film is, and in fact I don't think that contemporary poetry could actually live without film--I mean, the really good ones. Frank O'Hara was really a film fanatic, you know, his poems are full of cinematic references and rhythms--that lovely poem where he says, "Mothers, let your children go to the movies." (laughs) He not only refreshed American poems in a very serious way, but he managed to overthrow the commonly held conservatism of certain literary types that think that popular culture, movies, is somehow detrimental to art. I don't think there's any writer anywhere at this point who doesn't have the movies, probably, embedded in there. My favourite O'Hara poem talks about this terrible film about ants--I can't recall the name of it? A very young Charlton Heston...
The Naked Jungle?
(laughs) Yes, yes--you're a fan of ant movies? I just remember them yelling, "Marabunto, Marabunto!" as the ants are coming.
What's not to like?
(laughs) Yes, the ants come down out of the hills and eat everything except Heston and his object of desire--and I read this O'Hara poem that is so in awe of it that it makes the film something that it is not when you actually watch it. The road goes two ways, then, you know--where prosody makes a film and film makes the poem. It's the junction where critics find themselves as more than reporters, but involved in the creation of a third entity entire that is not the movie and not the writing, but a phantom more magical than either one.
Your revision of Blaga's concept of Mioritic Space to define the artist's boundless intellectual boundaries--how does that fit into the idea of film's diffusion?
That's an interesting idea because that theory was subverted a couple of times by philosophers. Originally Blaga envisioned this as a kind of psychological space for the Romanian nation--the borders of this imaginary national space drawn from the transmigration of sheep from the mountains into the valleys, a process that took a whole season--and I extrapolated that to define a space that traced a nation bounded by any art or group so that it becomes a kind of temporary zone, a place for exiles. It's a paradox you know, a cohesive identity floating in time and relative space for artists in exile who don't have a time or space or borders, yet manage a cohesive identity and possibility for movement and expansion. Now, of course, culture is incredibly portable--American culture especially is heavily exported--into places like Romania where you have the very real problem of having six people line up for a Romanian movie and a line of three-hundred people to see Bad Boys II. Somehow those powerful flows of culture--if you can somehow reverse them so that the power of those autocratic cultures can reach us through these barriers of language and history with all-powerful machines like marketing.
It's a tough call--striking that balancing between positive diffusion and destructive intellectual imperialism.
A tough call, a tough call, but the notion of Mioritic Space is more a theoretical space that helped Blaga define something that took nationalistic overtones before I recovered it for people on the outside. Film is almost the boundary destructor, you know--it's bigger than theoretical space, it's literal space.
The words that you use to describe an exile's nation of shifting intellectual borders, it describes to me the process of moviegoing--of achieving an intellectual and emotional space through art that touches on mythology. It ties in with your new film's exploration of the mythopoeia nursing the birth of Delta Blues.
I listened to American Blues before I even came to this country because they were part of that underground culture. We had typed poems of Alan Ginsberg and smuggled tapes of various contraband music--the first tapes came into the country around 1963, 1964--it was The Rolling Stones and The Beatles--but then a few connoisseurs began to play this other music. The blues were just unbelievably strange and compelling, you know, we didn't understand the story or the English, but there was something in them that corresponded to the terrible melancholy of human existence coupled with this release that the music offered simultaneously. The first place I went to in Detroit was a club called "Checkmate"--I heard Muddy Waters in there, and met my ex-wife there, so blues became a real formative metaphor for me of being born again in this country. Living here, going to Detroit and New York and Chicago--that was just the fabric and the soundtrack. And then moving to New Orleans was of course like being dipped into the source waters.
The root of the Blues--displacement, exile--tell me more about your own experience as an exile and how that fostered sympathy in this musical form.
Exile was a very complex experience, one that at least in the beginning for a number of years is heartbreaking. People older than me, from another generation, sometimes they never recovered. They lived in two worlds until their death--permanent blues. But that wasn't the case for me because I came to America in the mid-Sixties and the entire country was in exile from itself, I mean, generations in exile from one another--half the young people against the war in Vietnam, the other half in Vietnam. This country was rent chest to crotch, children wouldn't speak to their parents, so a large part of my generation were either in literal or metaphorical exile--they were restless, they traveled quite a bit, they experimented with distance, time, inner space. To be a literal exile in a world of metaphorical exiles was very interesting and really, very advantageous.
The Sixties were an amazing period in film in the United States.
I agree, I agree--I was hungry to experience culture as much as I could and I was lucky that I could do that without experiencing the rejection that other generations of immigrants and exiled have had to face. I'm terrified now for people who come today to this country, it's a very changed place, there's no immediate, obvious shelter--they have no place to go psychologically and intellectually. This is not to say that the bigger culture that the blues are a part of don't support feelings of alienation--of oddness in speaking a language you don't know and reforming your body and face to adapt to a new expression--is no longer there, but it's an underground culture. In the mid-Sixties, and you see this in film and music and poetry, it wasn't underground--it was frank. My mother, you know, she never recovered from her experience as an exile.
The mid-Sixties almost exist for you as an alternate reality, it seems.
Absolutely, yes, and that connection to movies as being an alternate reality that you suggest--there is a lovely passage in one of E.L. Doctorow's books that describes movies as alien beings that have invaded our world. There is a sense for me, I had the sense and I still have the sense that I like being in theatres but I don't like coming out--the parking lot looks much more alien. The people look much less dimensional--everything seems willowy and alien, it takes a long time to re-enter. It's one reason I really don't like to go to the movies. I go, because I love them, but I don't like to leave. In that essential way, you know, the movies are memories--my memories of the Sixties, maybe, I don't know. It's hard to visit them because you have to leave sometimes and leaving is hard.
You were right at the beginning of the most fruitful and best time for the arts in the United States in the mid-1960s all the way through to around 1982--a time where not only in film, but also in literature, painting, the artist was the prime mover.
Do you think so? But isn't the independent cinema is a lot healthier now?
I think that the definition of independent cinema has changed.
That's interesting, that's true--there's less an artistic push than a desire to please a mass audience with its soft middle. You may be entirely right and it's certainly true about all the formerly socialist countries. They had fairly healthy movie industries before their capitalist emancipation, right, where the metaphors for emancipation and rebellion had some importance in a larger milieu possibly than the slickly packaged entertainments mandated by the western model. That feeling of peril is lost. At my heart I am still a writer and a poet and not a filmmaker--that process of making movies is too collaborative for me--I can't approach the beast with the right mind.
Are you familiar with Stan Brakhage? He used to scratch the lines of poetry into his negatives.
Yes, right. There was a period in the late-Sixties into the Seventies where poets and painters and musicians worked at combining themselves with one another, pushing the limits of definition. I saw a lot of Brakhage then, I used to hang out at Jonas Mekas' place back then. Writers learned a lot from filmmakers, poets learned a lot from both, the painters, rumour had it, always had the materials to go for quite a bit without having a conventional frame of reference.
The early avant-garde sometimes even painted directly onto the prints. There's an interesting parallel, you know, to B-movies at the time or just before that would scratch their special effects into the celluloid.
That's fascinating, that's true--you have this evolution in this being that is almost animal. Again, O'Hara wrote about his friends, the painters, and he tried to apply some of their techniques to force an evolution. But the problem with language is that it's referential no matter what you do with it, I mean, you cannot have an abstract well of words without it being extremely unproductive.
Something Gertrude Stein attempted?
Right, but with Stein even it's hard to look at but it makes terrific hypnotic sense when read out loud. But the power of words is its referentiality. It makes it possible for poetry to link to the other arts in almost no other way. I've seen very bad poetic movies, of course, but there are very good ones, too--Godard and Fellini. The beauty of that period of time is that it created this collaborative community of artists you know--the beauty and the end, I guess, because hermetic art, while you work at a high pitch and it spawns beautiful offspring, is really a fragile creature.
That implied competition--almost a brinkmanship--it's what pushed the Blues to innovate, isn't it?
Yes, exactly. In New Orleans it started out as contest between piano professors competing to see who could make the most interesting movies, draw the most vivid styles--and the losers would actually move, bringing these new styles with them across the country. There's a sort of live Darwinian aspect to it, you see, this feral liveliness that comes from playing in the whorehouses in Storyville. One thing that I tell my students is that one goal is to understand how art used to be the work of polemical gangs engaged in active engagement, attacking as well as elaborating, publishing their own books and bullying their own space, and now art is in the business of making white-collar professionals.
When did you come of "cinematic age"? What I mean by that is when did you see films as transporting rather than just distracting?
I had a boss in a bookshop that I worked in when I lived in New York, a great movie lover and the first guy to make me see movies the right way, I think you'd say. He lived in the movies--when he wasn't at work he'd be in Times Square watching the movies, afternoon lunch, after work, sleep, and then another show before he came into work. Reality didn't have any cachet for him, you see--movies had the real weight and heft. It's almost possible to look at them as a new species of beings because so much of our world is imaginary, based on images.
There's a Clive Barker short story called "Son of Celluloid" that has a cancer absorb the desire of generations of moviegoers and manifest itself as something predatory and starving in the flesh of Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne.
I wrote a book called The Disappearance of the Outside that deals with many of these issues--this idea of varieties of imaginaries that are constantly proposed. There's one that contains the overwhelming majority of controlling images that are used predatorily by the powers-that-be as it were--and then there are the subversive images and the ways that those two groups link and interact. It's protean, a moving imaginary where the subversive becomes the mainstream and vice-versa. You also need with film to consider the "self-generating imaginary" that can pervert the conscious imaginary evoked by filmmakers, marketers and advertisers: a big subject. Context means everything. Follow work that you admire, seek people that instil in you that horror that you talk about--and your work flowers. Publish in the National Poetry Review and your work loses all vitality right there on the vine. (laughs) I didn't realize you were going to ask me hard questions.