Friday, July 10, 2009

Passings: Charles Eastman

When I first started showing up in Jim Krusoe's writing workshop at Santa Monica College in the mid-1980s, I met Charles Eastman, a rather august figure who also showed up week after week to sit in a circle and read aloud his stories and listen to those of others. The writing workshop is a deceptively simple ritual.

It was in Krusoe's workshop that I learned and learned again that there was more than one teacher in that circle - nearly everyone had something to teach.

Charles Eastman was one of those, with his measured advice and his own quietly powerful work and wide-ranging reading.

Truth to be told, Charles frightened me for the first few years, using words that I'd never heard before, citing unknown writers and working week after week at patiently growing a short story, scene after scene. In that workshop where you read your work aloud, I would read mine at home and wonder what Charles would say.

During breaks, while we bought paper cups of vending machine coffee, other students told me things about Charles - facts that were confirmed in today's Los Angeles Times obituary: he was a playwright; he was a screenwriter: his films had big stars in them; his sister was famous too, had written Five Easy Pieces; he, himself, was famously select about what kind of work he did and for whom.

From today Times, Robert Towne, screenwriter of Chinatown:

Screenwriter Robert Towne, who met Eastman in the '60s, recalled how impressed he was by an early Eastman screenplay that never made it to the big screen: "Honeybear,I Think I Love You," the story of a disturbed young man's obsession with a girl.

"For me, it was quite a revelation because it was the first contemporary screenplay I had read that just opened up the possibilities of everything that you could put into a screenplay in terms of language and the observations of contemporary life," Towne said this week.

"It was a stunning piece of work, and I think it influenced a lot of us, even though it wasn't made," Towne said. "Everybody tried to get it made, but Charlie was very particular about how it was going to be made, and in some ways I think he kept it from being made.

"Charlie was an original, that's all. He used language in a way that I hadn't seen used before."

Towne said Eastman was "very particular, very quirky, very much like his sister," who wrote "Five Easy Pieces," starring Jack Nicholson, under the pen name Adrien Joyce.

"I think she was writing about Charlie in some ways," said Towne. "Charlie was just one of those shadowy figures that I think cast a longer shadow over most of us than was generally recognized."

I wasn't Charles Eastman's friend but we did sit in a room together with others, for years and years, and listen to the stories people told and shared some of our own.

To read the rest of Dennis McLellan's obituary, click here.

To see the closing scene of Eastman's film, Little Fauss and Big Halsy, (yes, that's a young Robert Redford) and to listen to Johnny Cash sings its title song, click below.

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