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In the Driver’s Seat

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in Washington D.C.’s CityPaper, August 6, 1993. p. 31.

“I think the NEA should disappear from the face of the Earth,” says Andrei Codrescu, the author and star of a new documentary, Road Scholar. “The whole generation of literary magazines, for instance, that were sponsored by the NEA and turned into a steady stream of boring claptrap that nobody wants to read—it’s the equivalent of the writers who come out of the MFA programs with their little diplomas and claim to be our culture.”

This from a professor in the MFA writing program at Louisiana State University, a man whose greatest fame comes from the commentaries he does for federally subsidized National Public Radio,  and whose film, if it hadn’t been picked up for release by the Samuel Goldwyn Co., would have relied on PBS to reach a national audience. Such contradictions are typical of Codrescu, whose writings and radio commentaries often point out other people’s paradoxes.

Codrescu quickly qualifies his remarks. “I mean, of course you want some money and support… I wouldn’t turn it down, and I haven’t. But I think at the same time it weakens our involvement with the real,” he says, without explaining exactly what constitutes “the real.”

To buttress his argument that government support for the arts does not necessarily improve a culture, Codrescu points ot the continent that spawned him. “European art is very heavily subsidized,” he says, “and it’s very lame.”

What’s not lame, Codrescu hopes, is Road Scholar, the making of which presented another paradox: Codrescu’s involvement in film, a medium he has often belittled. “I don’t even like looking at movies,” he says. “I felt like a turncoat when I even said I would do it. But, you know, the money was okay.”

As it turns out, Codrescu hasn’t yet received the money he thought he would, as, at director/producer Roger Weisberg’s request, he has sacrificed his pay until the movie turns a profit.

The completed project is the result of a proposal Wesiberg made three years ago: to film the Romanian expatriate making a road trip through Florida. But Codrescu didn’t know how to drive, nor, he says, would he have wanted to tour Florida if he could have. But a few driving lessons and well over a year later, the idea had blossomed into taking a wry look across all of America for “people who are not part of the mainstream.” Still, Codrescu had his doubts.

“Frankly,” he says, “I didn’t expect to see much. And I also had this idea, which many people do, that America has become pretty homogenized because of television and McDonald’s… And I also thought that we’ve become pretty tired, this country, in the past two decades… We’re weary and cynical.”

Of course, McDonald’s does not a culture make, and one might have guessed, simply by flipping through a few dozen cable channels, that television itself reveals a diversity of target audiences that undermines any assertion of American homogeneity. Perhaps that expalins why, as Codrescu notes in his book version of Road Scholar, America “seems to get discovered over and over and never definitively.”

Making their own non-definitive discovery of America, Codrescu and Wesiberg have not revealed any startling new truths, but they have reiterated old ones in a humorous, often eloquent way. Road Scholar finds Americans so marginal that they don’t even have their own cable stations: the Bruderhof enclave of Christian communists and pacifists in western New York; hippies who  drive around Santa Fe in “the Hog Farm bus” singing songs from Hair; a woman who thnks she has been kidnapped by aliens; a rock group of senior citizens called One Foot in the Grave; and so forth.

In the film, Codrescu does not poke as much fun at his subjects as he might have; he allows the characters to promote or ridicule themselves with minimal commentary from him. If anything, Codrescu applauds even the strangest characters. “They still have a lot of energy, and there is still a feeling that [they’re] young and can do anything [they] want to.”

But when Codrescu does get around to thinking about people’s “trips,” his criticisms seldom sting—he quickly follows any cut he makes with a Band-Aid and a smile. Again, it’s part of his concern to find the contradictory aspects of every situation, a need to be critical without sneering. “We are amazingly a mixture of the sublime and ridiculous,” he says, “so you need to look at it paradoxically, from both sides, because if you see only the kitsch, you make that mistake that Baudrillard did in that stupid book, America, in which your typical Frenchman, faux seriousness, he took everything he saw at face vaule. And if you see everything as serious, then you’re some kind of jingoistic hick.”

Codrescu laments the rare, sardonic remarks that made it into Road Scholar. “One of the few moments I regret, actually, in the movie is when I say some snide ilne about Cherokee, the crystal healer, because I like her. I operate by empathy.”

That, he says, has been one of the differences between himself and his collaborator. “[Weisberg was] trying to get me to be hard-nosed about some of these people, and I didn’t want to. I want to just give their trips some respect because they’re doing it,” he says. “What the implications are, I can think about it later.”

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