Photo by Anne Fishbein

In Joe Gould’s Secret, the new movie directed and produced by Stanley Tucci and based on two interconnected stories by the great New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, Tucci portrays Mitchell as a laconic Southern gentleman let loose in the Enchanted Forest of 1950s Manhattan. There, in a remote corner of the city, he stumbles upon an odd little man who busies himself writing what he calls an Oral History of the World in Our Time, which runs into the millions of words and serves as a de facto screed on the plight of the artist in society — whose ambition, by definition, must invariably outdistance his ability.

“I think both our film and the Mitchell piece revolve around the question of when one should talk and when one should remain silent,” says Howard Rodman, the film’s screenwriter. “There’s that great quote of Wittgenstein, which I think usually gets translated as ‘Of what we cannot speak, therefore we should not speak.’ I think that’s certainly a meditation that is present in everything Samuel Beckett ever wrote. Beckett said: ‘Every word is a stain upon silence.’ And he meant it, too. ‘We mean it, man!’ And the Joycean trilogy ‘silence, exile, cunning.’ Mitchell was very much a Joycean. He was president of the Joyce Society, and the last words of Joe Gould’s Secret” — which begin with “Yes, I said” and end with “Of course I will” — “if it’s not quite Molly Bloom, it’s damn close.”

Thus, with whirlwind references to the giants of modernism and the 20th century’s premier theorist on language and logic — not to mention the Sex Pistols (“We mean it, man!”) — this comically displaced New Yorker manages to elegantly (if somewhat tortuously) state the dilemma of those who deal in information, both its manufacture and adaptation. A deadpan intellectual who named his only son Tristan — not after Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, but rather after Dadaist Tristan Tzara — Rodman has worked with a virtual Who’s Who of institutional misfits: David Lynch, Chantal Akerman, Errol Morris, Peter Bogdanovich and, multiple times, Steven Soderbergh (who, in tribute, named the sleaziest character in The Underneath after him). Rodman’s 1990 novel Destiny Express, a kind of Ragtime of German Expressionism in which Fritz Lang spurns Goebbels’ offer to head the Nazis’ film-propaganda arm (“If he’d played his cards right, Lang could have been the Lew Wasserman of Germany,” the author explains), contains a cover blurb from no less than Thomas Pynchon. And in true New York intellectual form, in the early ’80s he played guitar in a series of downtown bands. (“Not skronk,” Rodman clarifies. “Art-damaged post-punk.”)

As it turns out, the writer’s choice of when one should talk and when one should remain silent would find a real-world parallel when Tucci, unhappy with a Writers Guild arbitration and its subsequent appeal denying him writer’s credit on the film, chose the occasion of the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival to claim credit for the script in the pages of the L.A. Times. Comparing the arbitration process to the Salem witch trials, Tucci said, “I literally can’t sleep at night thinking about this.” When a letter he’d written was read to the festival crowd by co-star Ian Holm (Tucci was called away when his wife entered labor with twins), the director pointedly failed to thank the screenwriter, who was in the audience and who was not included in any of the later press junkets.

For his part, Rodman refuses to discuss the matter on the record other than to offer a strict recitation of the facts and to say he was somewhat distressed to see this position vented in the L.A. Times. Yet, unlike many in his trade, he is careful not to claim credit on production rewrites, for instance, describing his role as closer to that of “ventriloquism” — attempting to approximate another writer’s voice — than to “making it your own.” And independent sources confirm that in addition to some 17 drafts over a year and a half, Rodman also donated his rather substantial (read six-figure) production bonus, typically due on the first day of principal photography, to the film’s budget.

“It was certainly a difficult moment for both of us,” he says carefully of the Sundance juncture. “Stanley has called me up a few times to tell me that although he was angry at the guild, his anger was not meant to be at me, and that we both busted our ass on this film, and that we should be comrades, and I couldn’t agree with him more.” Days after this interview, when reached moments after the film’s New York premiere, which both writer and director attended, Rodman continued to maintain that any ruffled feathers had long since been smoothed over. “We hugged each other,” he offered as evidence. “There are photographs.”

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