September 11, 2008

Being Howard Rodman ('71)

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We try to avoid keeping The Sun’s content inbred; it’s often seen as both self-promotional and perhaps a conflict of interest.
That said, there are times when you have to make allowances; when a former editor is exemplary and interesting enough, that, though he or she may claim that “they majored in the Sun,” everything else he or she has done far surpasses it.
Howard Rodman ’71 is one such dude. He’d be the first to claim that he’s not quite the “Hollywood Insider,” and he may be right: much of his work, though celebrated, happens to be “unproducable or unpublishable” — a common trope of his.
And yet Hollywood Insider may not be right for another reason, if only if it’s only one hat of many: former Vietnam protestor, journalist/sartorialist-cum-novelist-cum-screenwriter-cum-director-cum-professor-cum-blogger-cum-WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) board member-cum former chair of the writing program at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts … do you see where I’m going with this? If you go to see Savage Grace this weekend — and you should — you may be confused, amused, engrossed, grossed out, engaged or disturbed. And although the film is in no way autobiographical, you may still wonder: what in the world goes on in the head of this man of many hats? What the hell is it like, to be Howard Rodman?

Daze: So tell me about that now-infamous Vietnam protest.
Howard Rodman: …the year that I edited the Sun — which was ’70 ,’71— was a wonderful year; was full of great, you know riots, catastrophes, world shaking events. Got in some hot water, I think that started the evolution of being a journalist. If you haven’t sort of gotten in some hot water at some point I think you’re not really doing your job well.
I went down to Washington D.C. to “cover a demonstration.” Ended up being arrested and thrown in jail. Yeah, I had gone to the trouble of getting press credentials, thinking that would be kind of like a … literally, get out of jail free card. In the middle of that kind of riot, it really doesn’t make a difference whether you have press credentials or not; if you have hair down to your shoulders, you really look like a teenage, Semitic version of Charlemagne, so they’re gonna put you in jail anyway. So, umm, then, the Mayday riots of 1971 —
Daze (interrupting): The hot water.
H.R.: — And in one of those fortunate incidents; got arrested, wrote about it, wrote a piece for the Sun, modified it, sent it in to the New York Times, they published it — I was at that time the youngest person who had been ever published on that page — and that led to a number of very good job offers, which, very very foolishly, I can say with hindsight, I turned down … but I knew, at that time, a lot of middle-aged, alcoholic, frustrated journalists filled with poignance, melancholy and regret who always talked about the honor and the glory who still went off to work and drank a lot, and I didn’t want to end up like that.
So I took the other route, which was sort of pure and time honored, and looking back, was really, deeply foolish — I lived and had a variety of unsuitable day jobs while I wrote my fiction. So from age 20 to rou aghly age 30 I was a mail-room clerk, a typist for Columbia University’s Teachers College, a legal proofreader and wrote four unpublishable novels. So that strategy was, I think, self-limiting a bit.
Daze: So what happened?
H.R.: I was about to give up writing because it was deceitful — people would say “What do you do?” and I would say “I write,” and then they would say “Anything I’ve read?” and it was just hard … I didn’t want to again say — “No, but I’m really a writer, honest” it was just embarrassing. So I just started lying. People said, “Oh, what to do you,” and I would say, “I’m a defensive linebacker for the Greenbay Packers.” And they didn’t believe me but it also would shut them up.
I had been part of a class-action lawsuit from my arrest; I hadn’t actually been alone in that, they had pulled 7,000 people off the street and thrown them in jail for no reason. Throwing people in jail for no reason and indefinitely is something you can do now, but at that point at least, it was considered unconstitutional. So I got a belated settlement which allowed me to quit my various day jobs and write full time for a while. And then one of the unpublishable novels was published … that kind of allowed me to make a transition from a career writing unpublishable novels to a career writing unproducable screenplays, and that’s sort of how I got here … sort of. That’s the short version.
Daze: From what I gather, you’re from a family of screenwriters. Did you know that you were going to take up the family business, or were you planning on becoming a black sheep?
H.R.: Because I come from a family of writers, the idea that I could actually be a writer didn’t involve some sort of large, full scale reinvention — I didn’t have to sort of say, all the forces of the universe are telling me I should be a bank clerk but inside I have the fire of writing within me … my uncle did it, my father did it, my mother did it. So in fact, why I really became a writer was out of a terminal lack of imagination, because you know, well, there’s a part of me that thinks that if my mother and father and uncle had been in the garment business that I’d be sewing pockets today.
To be honest about it, you know, there would be my dad, he’d be lying on the couch, reading Popular Mechanics and he’d say, “Go away, I’m working,” and I wanted that job — wouldn’t you? [Chuckles.] And I think by the time I realized there was actually more to the job than that, it was too late.

Unlike some, who might consider being a writer as a rebellious, courageous or even esteemed choice, Rodman — in that same voice of self-deprecation and humility I’d gander is his general mode of communication — puts it in the terms of something banal, even. (To the point where, if he were writing this, or if I were actually “being Howard Rodman,” he’d probably cringe at the use of “banal” in a feature article. Unlike John Malcovich.) And yet, to look at his work, or to hear him speak for even a few minutes, there’s no question that the man is a writer. Whether he would have made a great football player or tailor … that’s anyone’s guess.

Daze: So you’ve taken a lot of paths — you were a journalist, a novelist, screenwriter, director, teacher … random day-jobber … if someone told you: “You can only do one of these for the rest of your life,” which would it be?
H.R.: Well, I think you kind of hit the nail on the head, if there is only one thing I could be, I think that would be a dilettante.

Howard Rodman will be speaking on Saturday, Sept. 13 after at Cornell Cinema at 7 p.m., following the screening of his film, Savage Grace.
Many thanks to Cornell in Hollywood for helping to arrange this interview.