Words as Events: A Conversation with Jeff Wood
Jeff Wood’s cinematic anti-story and artwork out from Two Dollar Radio binds the genres of novel, screenplay, and poetry in a collage of horror and humming imagery. His work hangs in the balance of past, future, and apocalyptic present, weaving the themes of Midwestern suburbia, collective theater, disturbed nature, and transcendental experience. The fiction and screenwriter Jon Raymond describes Jeff Wood’s The Glacier as “what [the book] was always aiming to be, and that’s one of the most indelible and visionary movies you’ve ever seen.”
Jeff Wood is an actor and writer from Ohio currently living in Berlin. He is a founding member of the experimental film/art group Rufus Corporation. His ten-year collaboration with Eve Sussman and Rufus Corporation produced the works 89 Seconds at Alcazar, The Rape of the Sabine Women, whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, and Car Wash Incident. Jeff was a 2014 Fellow in Screenwriting with the New York Foundation for the Arts. His essays “Monuments of Fire,” “Death Stars,” “Never Forget,” and “Hurricane Bob” were recently published by 3:AM Magazine. He is currently an editor of the Berlin Quarterly.
I talked with Jeff Wood over email as he traveled from Berlin to California and back again.
The Rumpus: What were you working on out in the desert? Are you allowed to say?
Jeff Wood: I was officiating a wedding! It was my first time doing such a thing, but I’ve always been drawn to the architecture and poetry of ceremonies—the connections between ceremony, theatre and spectacle. This one was a total honor and a lot of fun. I created a sermon that was kind of based on Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick, and a David Lynchian view of the cosmos: placing marriage in the context of the raging, abstract Universe and our crazy, big, little planet. The wedding vows were Buddhist so it turned out to be this wonderful sort of Buddhist Space Wedding, for really dear friends of mine.
Rumpus: Why did you write this book? Was it the power you saw in a particular image like your slow motion reversal of a nuclear explosion or in the themes you present to the reader such as suburbia and transcendent experience? Was it a mood?
As I was reading, I picked up quite a heavy Kubrick vibe, possibly in the stillness behind your prose, so I’m glad to see you like to channel him in other areas of your life as well.
Wood: It had a lot to do with some of the things I’ve just mentioned—this kind of cross-disciplinary interest in ceremony, theatre, and spectacle. Back in school I was training as a theatre actor at the same time that I was studying Brecht and Plato’s Republic and Leni Riefenstahl. We were looking at different modes of social spectacle, propaganda, and ecstatic social relation—essentially the way in which individuals become “mass”—something I would later, in the early stages of The Glacier, begin to call “The Event.”
In the late nineties in Ohio I found myself face to face with these processes that in school had only been academic or historical. I had been traveling around. I went back to Columbus and was working as a cater-waiter at these giant multimedia dinner events. The kitschy Orwellian architecture of these catered events was exposed in massive, antiseptic, anesthetic event spaces. Very lo-fi sci-fi, Kafkaesque, and sort of like pre-pre-Hunger Games spectacle.
At the same time I had been working as a land surveyor during the housing boom there in Ohio. A total hyper-urban suburban explosion. So I was more or less mainlining these synchronized systems that have had a major impact on the cultural and political climate in America today—a rampant metastasization of the material mainstream—a turbo-Reaganism: everything is new. Massive new neighborhoods are transforming the landscape into some kind of space ship. Ninety-nine percent of our own food is coming from elsewhere, even in the agriculture breadbasket of the country. Meanwhile everything is repackaged as traditional. Americana has evolved into this deformed desperation for an identity that never really existed; we entered, in my opinion, a point of no return in terms of cultural inauthenticity and non-sustainability of mainstream consumer culture. Or you could say, the mainstream consumer culture is authentic as an inauthenticity. At this point you can’t say that it’s not authentic culture. It is a culture. But the population is starting to unhinge. There’s a real unease creeping up on the millennium; tremors in the foundations of identity under a blooming neoconservatism. Heritage becomes a brand. The culture is primed for the virtual apocalypse of the turning of the millennium and what was to occur just around the corner the following year. We have just now in 2016/2017 seen that cultural expression play itself out in broad daylight. It’s a reckoning. And if you were out in the Midwest all this time, you could see it coming. But not in the rural-urban dialectic. That is the wrong place to look and it’s throwing people off who are trying to figure out this cultural-political situation. You have to look at the suburban, and the way that it annihilates both ends of the spectrum from the inside out. The culture has gutted itself alive. It’s a phenomenon that transcends class and denies simple categories of urban and rural, and has therefore had the critical consequences that seem so mystifying.
Working simultaneously as a land surveyor and a cater-waiter at these big events, this cultural shift and inflection was all very up-close and personal. Ohio, in particular, during the nineties housing boom, was a Petri-dish and testing ground for an almost post-American global franchise model. The town where I grew up has the national test-Wendy’s, for example. Central Ohio is now the test-region for driverless cars. The region experienced so much growth that it was nearly insulated from the subsequent housing and financial crises, compared with other regions of the country. We experience this stuff as pedestrian consumers and we don’t realize that it comes with an ideology, but it does—it’s built into the structure. I saw the snow machines blasting a homegrown set of self-serving neoliberal market values. The population was being crop-dusted in a new kind of pervasive media presence and then carpet bombed by box store after box store after box store. Essentially, neoconservatism—or subcontracted nation building—is being field-tested at home. No one is particularly critically aware of what’s happening; it’s just happening. Which is perfectly fine until all the bees start dying, half the population is medicated, the other half can’t go to a doctor, and the society in general begins suffering from PTSD for reasons they are unable or unwilling to diagnose. And the shootings begin. The sky began to feel like a spider. The shootings haven’t stopped. And our own government largely encourages us to just pray about it. That says a great deal.
Meanwhile, in some intervening years between school and The Glacier I’d had a handful of experiences on the other side of the fence, so to speak: an experience on a remote Ojibwe reservation, an experience with a Mazatec Shaman in Mexico, and an experience in Tibet with Tibetan culture. They were each potent and remarkable, in addition to my experiences with my own community of artists in Central Ohio. I was magnetized to these extreme and oppositional sides of cultural inflection with regard to geography, mythology, and social psychology. I began to appreciate that the two sides of the coin aren’t always oppositional. There’s an architecture of theatre and ceremony at work whether you’re an indigenous tribesperson or a sales manager for Bath & Body Works (founded in Central Ohio in 1990). That’s what I was drawn toward, and what I felt was humming along at a really high frequency. It seemed that the culture was really coming up on some sea change that was expressing itself theatrically as a reality myth—something like the sum total of reality TV expressed as the world, even when the TV is turned off. And here we are. Mr. Stevens was not quite as fictional as I’d imagined.
Also, when I wrote the first draft of The Glacier, I was sick, with a diagnostically difficult illness, and I felt that the culture was sick, that the land was sick, simultaneously. It sounds convenient, but true, and sometimes that’s how things work. There are clear indications of that illness in the text, because it’s part of the larger ecology, but I didn’t want to present it as plot. I wasn’t interested in transparent story elements. Just as I didn’t want it to be a political piece, or an environmental piece, I didn’t want it to be a story. I desired the opposite of those things. I wanted it to be whole, or fractally whole, as a pieces of a prism. Theatrically whole. Cinematically whole. Not a device full of devices. It’s a flawed ambition, but I was after the symptomatically whole— not cause and effect. Symptoms are whole, in time, when you are experiencing them. That’s the truth of magical realism. But they’re also effective in working against genre. The symptomatic approach, it seemed to me, is the way a Sam Shepard play works. It’s a different cruising altitude. It’s a risk, but why produce things that we already know what they are? Why know what something is beforehand? The effort to adventure seems worthwhile to me. So I was consciously working into a form that was not clear to me and that above all I felt should not be.
Certain things were clear. I had a handful of strong images that wouldn’t let me be:
A lone tree in a winter farm field.
The empty hangar-like interior of the Convention Center.
The parallel lines of a storage unit garage door.
The fractal thicket of winter tree branches.
The mushroom cloud.
The Ohio Serpent Mound.
Salt and peppershakers.
For example, the lone tree in the winter farm field. Typically that might be taken as a literary or cinematic symbol, a complement to the narrative that is happening meanwhile, or perhaps a dream or a vision or a scene location (as also happens to be the case in The Glacier). But I emphatically did not want something like that tree to be a device, a symbol, or a complement to the narrative that is going on meanwhile. It absolutely is not those things. It is the narrative, whole. I wanted the entire effort to function like that. I felt it was a compelling way of seeing—a tool for taking on an entire moment in the fabric of the social structure, at least in that tiny corner of the universe. A pinecone is the narrative. It’s not symbolic. I can’t expect everyone to buy into that. But it was a meaningful way to work and make images that I felt more exactly expressed what I was experiencing than a conventional narrative could. It’s radically flawed somehow, but whole. It’s the way I perceive Dead Man to work, and Lost Highway, Antichrist, Béla Tarr’s Turin Horse, Tarkovsky, and in fact 2001:A Space Odyssey. It doesn’t matter whether it’s happening on screen or on paper. In this case the screen is before our mind’s eye. We’re making the images. Or, the words are making the images and we’re projecting them. The trick was to stay tuned to a clarity of that word-as-image-maker, and not deviate from it. I think there are only a few instances where the text deviates from the descriptive. That helped guide the narrative as a projection itself. A projection within a projection of a single moment illuminated by a devastating light source.
On the other hand, there are a few things—like the Macarena—which don’t really work on paper. It’s a blueprint for a choreography and needs to be seen and heard. Consequently, I think the Macarena reads as this kind of silly thing, or just a kitschy pop cultural reference, but it does have a specific spectacular function as a visual, rhythmic and story element that needs to be staged and experienced in order for it to work. There are maybe a few things like that, but they are what they are and so they needed to be part of the book as that form between forms.
Rumpus: What was the impetus for adapting, or writing, this screenplay to the novel form?
Wood: It started out as poems and non-narrative, nonfiction sentences. Many of the poems eventually became performance poems and some of the non-narrative prose began to take on a sort of artificial intelligence quality—as if that transcendental Terrence Malick-style voiceover were being produced by a sociopathic AI rather than by a romantic, empathetic, semi-sappy human being. Something like that. Except the sap is not totally abandoned, but reflected upon more coldly.
That voice—somewhere between the romantic and the remote—became a ground from which to work. So it had a theatrical quality to it very early on. The impetus to bring it into a screenplay form had to do with the relationship between words and images and sound. I wanted to work with words as a means for working these things out, but I also wanted to actually see and hear them. I wanted to create the possibility to experience it with other people—as a cinematic even—particularly because this is a focus of the content itself: the qualities and architecture of shared experience. So I found that I wanted to explore my love of cinema, and the event of it, as much as I also needed to find a vehicle for the so-called content.
There was a rather painful contradiction at work. The more it became like a movie the less it became like a conventional screenplay. I realized that I wanted it to function more like a ceremony—a memento mori—or a single ceremonial moment, than as a story. It began to take on some elliptical literary qualities, even as I was making a great effort to stick to a “show-don’t-tell” screenplay commandment. So it had a quality of being some kind of “book” from the beginning, or existing in some strange place between being a book, a movie, or a blueprint for both and neither. Over time that quality became interesting to me. I regard it as a play, a prose poem, and a haiku as much as I do a screenplay, a novel, or a cinematic novel.
Rumpus: Can you talk about your worldview for this novel? Do you hope the reader will see the world in a certain way once they’ve finished reading The Glacier?
Wood: The Glacier is a worldview, as with any artwork. The title itself is a worldview. It’s also just a tiny little snow globe from an already obsolete era.
I think my worldview concerning the book is that there is an architectural mythology at work in our social structures that is quite complex and operational on a continuum from the interior of the individual to the mass. But it’s also presenting itself all the time, right on the surface for anyone to see. We must look at it because it is happening right now. And there was a recent period in American culture that led up to our current situation where the tension between our origin myth and a myth of destruction reached a climax and a fever pitch. We lived through that and now we’re on the other side of it, living it out. This is both fictional and true. The fiction of it is what is so potent as a tool for ideology and power, as we’re witnessing in the catastrophic and reprehensible circus of American politics right now. So the book tells of that pre-unleashing-of-forces in its own way, as a drop of alchemy distilled from a period of tension before the sea change. But through a personal lens. That’s all I want: for it to work as an artwork. The present is theatrical. And that theatricality is a force of nature. We’re like bees, acting out our bee-ness; we can’t not be bees, going through the liturgy of the hierarchy. So I hope readers dig the theatricality of the book, the pinecone and the spirochetes in the year 2000, just before all of this now.
Rumpus: As a fellow Midwesterner, I often dream of living a European life, which I’d be wholly unprepared for. Why did you move to Berlin? And how has living elsewhere shaped you as an artist?
Wood: It’s complex, for sure, but being a traveler is somehow in my DNA. I’ve essentially been traveling and living peripatetically for twenty-five years, and on a shoestring. I started coming to Berlin for work as an actor, then for love and friendships, for more international experience, for more artistic opportunities, and for breaks from the intense demands of New York City. All those reasons.
Berlin obviously has a remarkable, challenging, and mind-warping history. And like so many places, it has also become a giant tourist city, which I’ve come to regard as the great quality of our times—the tourism of everything. I find that extremely interesting, and structural. We live a block from the Berlin Wall Memorial and there’s a continuous stream of tourism there, no matter the weather. Not far away, a Jewish department store became the Nazi Youth headquarters, then the seat of the East Berlin Communist Party, and is now a chic hotel and members’ club. Tempelhof, the former Nazi airport, is now one of the world’s largest parks and urban green spaces. It’s an astonishing progression, and naturally there’s an underlying fascination with that haunting, contrasted by the breezy spirit and commerce of multiculturalism on the surface. The city is reinventing itself for the hundredth time. There’s an interesting phenomenon: that as tourists before the great memorials to the unthinkable, we’re all somehow atoned and forgiven for being human. There’s an erasure in that as much as there is a remembrance of something.
I moved here, ultimately, because it made sense for my son to be born here. My partner (who is Portuguese) was already based here and it just made the most sense for us. And as everybody has heard, there’s a different relationship to the arts over here. Art in America is still kind of outlaw, at least from a middle-class perspective. That’s its great difficulty as well as its great power source. So it’s just a different logistical scenario. We have extremely affordable, quality preschool for our two-year-old here, and whether we’re working as artists, or working at an auto plant, or in a coal mine, we need it. The United States, among other things, can’t seem to have that conversation with itself, and from the outside, it’s just insane. I mention these things because they’re relevant to your question, to the book, and to the big now. My perspective on this from having lived extensively in Ohio and abroad is that the ideology and the tactics that won the recent election are effecting everyone. The methods and agenda of the Republican Party are inexcusably selfish, ahistorical, and cruel. I specifically regard it as having metastasized in the same cultural fishbowl that is described in The Glacier, and now it’s like an entire bottle of that food coloring got dumped into the bowl. It can be recognized as having a very dangerous transnational quality to it. The modus operandi it projects and prescribes for its citizenry is one of protracted trauma—an incessant requiem of threat and loss. That song is an extension of the suburban neoconservative ideology. We’ve been witness to the drifting of an entire demographic into an absurd kind of liturgical militia. What kind of culture is finally only about the defense of itself, the arming of itself? Where is there to take shelter out on the great lawn of that McMansion, on all the franchised rafts that have been cut loose and sent adrift? Every sinister movement has its architecture and this one is no different. When Noam Chomsky describes the Republican Party as now being “the most dangerous organization in world history,” I don’t think that’s something to ignore. So while neither do I consider this book, nor my living in Berlin, as being political, we’re all in a situation now where for better or worse it’s nearly impossible to ignore that lens. I’d like to bring my son home. Will I do that? Yes, of course. Will I think twice about what that would mean for his future, particularly as a multicultural kid? Absolutely.
Meanwhile, I get intensely homesick. I have an inextinguishable passion for the geography of the USA. And there’s an undeniably specific style of cavalier and generative culture that is signatory of American culture. As odd as it may sound, my spiritual life depends on the American vernacular, and the people that I share that with. Living abroad has given me perspective on those qualities and intensified my attention to place. As Americans we’re so enamored with the wolves. That makes for compelling mythology. And we’re very, very good at confusing mythology and reality. That’s the possibility, the intoxication, and the ruin of America.
Rumpus: Are there any stories you want to write or produce but haven’t yet?
Wood: So many! Most of my work has been collaborative, so I have lot of my own stuff on the burners right now. Essays have become interesting to me. Innovative, speculative essays.
I’m working on a Greek project—a script called Arcadia. It’s a Western based on the Greek financial crises. The protagonist is a nineteenth century Orthodox monk who winds up with a shit-ton of gold in his lap. But it also takes place during the contemporary Greek/European crises, and in the deep, deep future. It’s a pretty wild, elemental story. I received the NYFA Screenwriter’s Fellowship for this project but it needs some more developmental support.
I also have a New York City project. A TV series that follows a pair of overworked art-handlers navigating the city, and the profound New York mashup of the one percent with everyone else. The story is set in a surrealist alternate future where Donald Trump is President. With the President suddenly and improbably residing in Trump Tower, the city is transformed even further into the utopian/dystopian fantasy-hole that it is. It’s a character-driven road-movie: working-class clowns up to their eyeballs in the dynamic and deformed excesses of the art world, the one percent and the endless cinema that is New York from behind the windshield of an art delivery truck. Fast, comedic, nonstop dialogue. Realism mixed with surrealism—like New York itself. Contemporary reality where—as Obama recently described—”everything is true and nothing is true.”
On the other hand, it’s a story about working-class people, some of whom happen to be chameleonic in their ability to deal with every single other kind of person in the city—from celebrities, to diplomats, to shipping clerks, to Jamaican forklift drivers at JFK. It’s in their job description: they know how to talk with anyone. And the thing about art-handlers in New York City… they really can get into any building, with crates full of stuff, any high rise. So there’s a lot of intriguing possibility there.
I’d really like to find support for this project because I think there are a heck of a lot of imaginative possibilities. It could be wildly entertaining. I still have not yet seen New York City accurately represented as the kaleidoscopic, phantasmagoric, utopian, whale-eating-its-own-tail that it is.
I’m also currently working on a poetic documentary about Portuguese Gypsies, and another one about the new geo-iconographic identity of the Midwest from Niagara Falls to Devils Tower, Wyoming.
Author photograph © Linda Rosa Saal.