notes & profiles of friends & heroes
Back in the mid-to-late-seventies, when I was a student at Columbia College, I wrote a paper for a course called “Contemporary Civilization,” or something like that. Anyway, the subject of my paper was the work of R. Crumb, and after reading it the professor (whose name I don’t recall) called me in for an appointment. He informed me that he had no choice but to give me an incomplete for the course because the subject of my writing was unacceptable. I really don’t remember anything about the paper itself - most likely it contained comparisons of Crumb to the likes of William Hogarth, George Grosz, Max Fleischer, et cetera - but I do recall the professor telling me that, although my paper was “interesting,” a ”contemporary cartoonist” was not the proper focus for the course. I don’t remember if I argued with him or just walked out like a zombie, but I imagine that I probably had thoughts along the lines of: “Shit. I know he’s not gonna accept something on Albert Ayler or the MC5. I guess he wants something on Roy Lichtenstein or Le Corbusier ... Oh well, fuck it.”
Now, twenty-plus years later and looking back, I realize I had every right to kick that professor’s ass. Hogarth, Grosz, the Fleischer brothers, Tex Avery, Charles Addams, et cetera are great artists. And so is R. Crumb. In certain ways, he may even be the greatest of them all. But hell, this isn’t some contest, or some damn awards ceremony. This is just my opinion. The editor of this book asked for it, so there it is. R. Crumb is an original. He’s a great cartoonist, and that, in my book, deserves great respect. Our “contemporary civilization” is lucky to have him, and to have his work.
Burroughs is the true godfather of outlaw artists. He was always hovering in the shadows, always suspicious of human nature and authority. Burroughs made us look for what masks the truth. He was always suspicious about movies, saying the truth can't possibly be found in twenty-four frames a second. In the greatest sense, Burroughs made me think about what's supposedly permissible in art.
When I first read Ginsberg in my teens, I remember very specifically feeling things open up and thinking about the life ahead of me as being a lot more open than growing up to be a refrigerator repairman in Akron, Ohio - not that that's a bad thing. But "Howl" and "Kaddish," they just gave me a sense of possibility. It's one of those magic things when you're a kid in Akron: You read William S. Burroughs, you read Allen Ginsberg and you listen to Ornette Coleman. You come to New York, and you end up meeting those guys - it was amazing. I was in awe the first time I met Ginsberg. I guess I'm still in awe.
Sam, I can see you now, having crossed that line into the darkness (or maybe into the light) and there, in some dimension of the world of the spirits, you've already cornered Mark Twain, and as you animatedly extol the virtues of the Linotype machine, the wonders of the handheld traveling shot, the old guy can't get a word in edgewise.
Sam, you're dead, though I never met a human more alive, more excited by the details of life. And by now you've located Beethoven - you've got him by the lapels and are laughing wildly. Your eyes are on fire, as is the cigar you're gesturing with just inches from the great composer's startled face. You're updating him on William Randolph Hearst, Al Capone, Darryl Zanuck, Jean Eagles, and her fatal overdose from heroin in 1929, on the storming of Normandy Beach and The Big Red One, on the New York Evening Graphic, Lee Marvin, Constance Towers, Jesse James... And then, maybe in the middle of your passionate and dramatic explanation of the American Civil War (brother against brother!) you suddenly realize that the man you're talking to is stone deaf. That Ludwig couldn't hear a word you're saying even is he did understand English! But you decide it doesn't matter and, chomping on your cigar, continue on, and anyway isn't that Dziga Vertov over there, in the corner of your eye, drinking and joking with Marie Antoinette?
One day while working on the set with Robert Mitchum on our film Dead Man, he looked stoically out toward the horizon and said to me, “Years ago I saved up a million dollars from acting – a lot of money then – and I spent it all on a horse farm in Tucson. Now when I go down there, I look at the place and I realize my whole acting career adds up to a million dollars worth of horseshit.” He said a lot of other unforgettable things to me during the brief times I spent with him. I’m really sad to hear of his death. But then I think, man, we’re so lucky to have all of his performances preserved on film. There was and is no other screen presence like his: dangerous, strong but guarded, ever-unconvinced by the actions of those around him, and that odd sense of someone smoldering on the inside but so damn cool on the outside. Now I just want to go home and watch Out of the Past, or Night of the Hunter, or The Lusty Men, or Macao, or Blood on the Moon and soak in every subtle expression and move, every word spoken by that low, mesmerizing voice; just anything Robert Mitchum ever did.
from pages 475-476
from page 488: