On David Rakoff


David Rakoff in the MPR studios in March 2007 (photo:Euan Kerr)

David Rakoff had an unsettling way of looking at you, as if he was working out whether you were someone who he found interesting or someone he would have to politely find a way of escaping.

He was unfailingly polite, and often in reality he was not judging, but merely considering how to respond.

News of his death at age 47 from cancer has me thinking back, and looking at the blurry picture above.

Rakoff came into the studios in 2007 when he presented a film called “Intolerable” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. He travelled with the director Alison Maclean and we spent a delightful time in the studio discussing the implications of what is a strange little movie.

It’s about an audition for a film where a casting director asks the actors coming through to do something so horrible that one by one they run screaming from the room, past the line of others awaiting their turn.

Rakoff laughed when I called his role demonic.

“A whiff of sulfur?” he said with a huge smile.

The film really has to be seen to be believed and I won’t give away what happens but Maclean admitted it was a cross between a social experiment and a documentary.

Rakoff said he didn’t consider himself an actor, but he enjoyed playing the role, demonic or otherwise.

“I’m there as kind of both an interviewer or a co-improvisor or a tormentor or someone who is sort of friendly,” he said. “It was interesting because it brought to bear some of the things I do daily in my work.”

That daily work was writing, an art over which he displayed his mastery time and again in some of the great publications, and on the air with “This American Life.” He talked about how acting in “Intolerable” was great for him just because he usually spent so much time alone at his desk, and it was good to be with other people even if he was being mean to them.

“The guy that I play is not the nicest guy in the world at certain times which in ways that are very embarrassing that’s not a hard character for me to access,” he said. Then he laughed and added “I’m not a mean guy. I love being seen as mean guy, it’s kind of exciting, but it was tremendously difficult.”

The difficulties in Rakoff life were more evident when he returned to MPR for an event with John Moe to talk about his collection of essays “Half Empty.” He talked about his cancer, and how he was contemplating what life might be like if he was to lose his arm and shoulder to the disease as he had been told might be the case. He was quite calm, and again after a great deal of consideration seemed at ease. In a way it was quite breath-taking.

Looking back on the picture I took of him back in 2007, I see it’s a little blurred. I have to admit I like it. While David Rakoff always seemed so still, behind those eyes things were moving fast.

I’m going to read a little Rakoff this weekend. How about you?

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