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The Search for the Real -- October

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Dear R _______,

I am on a plane in L.A. about to take off for Jackson, Mississippi via Atlanta. I have been going back and forth between Jackson and L.A. on my days off for four weeks now in order to teach. I am teaching both undergraduate and graduate students in film, creative writing and performance. I taught film at NYU last year so I am used to teaching production classes in a film program, but teaching creative writing and performance is new to me. If I were teaching these subjects in a conventional MFA format I think I would know exactly what to do, but I am trying to do some things a little differently. The main difference is that I like to organize my classes as unified groups that work on a single group project that will have a life outside of the classroom. What I mean is that the film classes will work on individual pieces that will eventually be put together into a feature-length film; the creative writing class will do a series of writing projects that will add up to a collective series of monologues or pieces that will hopefully feel connected by theme, place and certain similarities of character. In addition, there is a performative element in the writing classes where they each read a short piece each week, Spalding Gray-style, and are recorded on video. Eventually there will be a larger adaptation project where the students will take some source material (probably poems by Komanyaaka) and merge it with their own lives in order to make a video that both uses their own experiences and elevates them by merging them with something larger than those experiences -- namely, Komunyaaka's experiences in the Vietnam War.

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I'm also happy to report that the efforts of the first of these kinds of classes has resulted in a collaborative feature film called Tar, which will premiere at the Rome Film Festival (headed this year by former Venice curator Marco Muller). Not bad. I'm so proud of my NYU roots; it's nice to see my peeps' work come together like this. I hear James Van Der Beek in Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 is trying to outdo me as an NYU teacher; well, now he has something solid to compete with. The New York Post has also been sniffing around for academic gossip because they can't write about me stumbling out of clubs. I think Tar says it all: They can kiss my ass.

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So, I reread Holy Land and interviewed D.J. Waldie for a project I'm doing with my students at CalArts. I can see even more clearly how this book is in line with what I want to do with much of my own work. Waldie said that before he wrote Holy Land he attempted to write a series of short stories based on the same content that's in Holy Land, essentially people and places in Lakewood, Calif., but his friends said the stories were slack and unconvincing. After that response he was led down the road to writing what would become Holy Land, which, compared to a Winesburg, Ohio take on the material, is much more spare on narrative and includes much more factual and historical information. But one of the tricks of the book is the way the more nonfictional material is juxtaposed with personal material; because of this juxtaposition, the slivers of personal information are made more mysterious and the segments of factual and historical information are given life. It's similar to William Carlos Williams' dictum, "no ideas but in things."

On all levels of the book, Waldie uses an evenhanded approach and pulls from opposing sides of each issue, which creates a potent, ineffable quality. What I mean is that Waldie juxtaposes opposites: opposite kinds of content, opposite kinds of inflections, opposite styles. There are sections about the founding of Lakewood by the three men who bought the land in the early twentieth century, side by side with sections about a man climbing an electrical tower, next to segments that are strictly lyrical and not imagistic at all. He also includes situations where the residents have lost things, as well as gained things, by living in the community. There is a sense of community and love alongside a sense of conformity, racism and misunderstanding. In this way the community is elevated to something greater than its surface-level significance; it becomes the proving ground for the enlightenment of the residents. It's called Holy Land for several reasons, two are: to counteract the criticism of suburbs that argues the suburbs are evil and destructive places, and to pair the religiously transcendent idea of holiness with the secular pedestrianism of suburbs. Because of all of these contrasts and evasive gestures, it becomes very hard to place any single tone or final judgment in the book. Instead what we get are elusive glimpses of great emotion, much like poetry.

Because Waldie abandoned his short story collection about Lakewood and wrote the more poetic, fragmented version using the same subject, his book has less of a narrative and more of an intense focus on details. What happens is that we read into the details in many different ways: We experience the personal interactions through young Waldie, we experience the growth of the community through the community as a whole, and we experience the more lyrical and poetic parts through either Walden's own mind or through our own purely intellectual engagement. What I mean is that we are not experiencing the book through a fixed set of characters; rather, the community is presented to us in lyrical form so that we are almost reading the history of the place as from a history book, with the important distinction that the historical material is contained in bite-sized portions interspersed with personal sections. The history gets another level of significance because we now feel the character and the writer behind the less subjective and engaging scenes. We feel the collage artist in Waldie using old facts; he takes information of all sorts of different sources and melds them together, creating a different kind of inflection for both the factual and personal sections.

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Some other things to catch up on:

I saw On the Road at the Toronto Film Festival. I remember auditioning for that movie three or four years ago opposite Josh Hartnett -- needless to say neither of us got the roles based on young Kerouac and Cassady. I played young Ginsberg in Howl soon after that. It has taken a long time for On the Road to come out and over the course of those 50 years the material has changed, because we have changed. When Marlon Brando died, an unanswered letter from Kerouac, written in the '60s, was found in his house. The letter asked Brando to play Dean Moriarty opposite Kerouac as Sal Paradise; I'm pretty sure the idea was to actually drive across the country on the routes that were depicted in the book and film the adventure on 8 mm. This sounds like an amazing idea, and I'm sad that Brando never took him up on it. The other funny part about that story is that I heard Kerouac actually hung around The Actors Studio for a while because he was thinking about dabbling in acting and filmmaking (see also Robert Frank's Pull My Daisy, the narration for which Kerouac wrote and read -- Ginsberg stars); an impulse that shows his need to break from the page after his initial brush with and extreme dislike of literary fame; an impulse that probably pushed Kesey and the Pranksters onto the road after he wrote Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion (the idea of behavior and film as writing); the same impulse that pushed Kaprow to move from the canvas into performative Happenings.

Anyway, it seems that a movie version of On the Road would always have the challenge of making the material feel as raw as the book felt when it first came out in the late '50s while at the same time capturing the period accurately -- if Brando had followed Kerouac's idea, the locations would still serve and the two could just behave and that would be the film. But in 2012 the film needs to recreate most of the locations and recreate behavior and scenes that are 50 years old while not making it feel like a museum piece. As I watched I kept thanking Walter Salas for making the film. The images were so beautiful; it was like he was fulfilling a duty to the dead Beats. The actors were all great. But I also kept thinking about the documentary I heard Salas made during his years of research -- it did take such a long time -- that consists of his journey through all of the actual locations. Somehow I feel like this, when we get to see it on the DVD extras, will take us all the way onto the road.

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I also hear that I've been dating Selena Gomez, Kristen Stewart and Ashley Benson. Hot damn, am I a lucky guy. I wish I had actually gotten closer than the 13th row of the theater in Toronto where Kristen gave her On the Road Q and A, but I didn't; not only did I not talk to her, I didn't even go to the SoHo house where I supposedly asked her out on a date. As for Gomez and Benson, those are Bieber's girls and I wouldn't dare tangle with the Biebs. I heard he wants to kick my ass. Yikes!