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“The Man Who Would Be King” or How John Huston Saved My Life
By Dave Robison
John Huston saved my life.
It was 1982 and I was flailing my way through my freshman year of college at the University of Michigan, wondering what the hell I was doing.
I was studying theater because I was good at it (like the Latino kids taking Spanish as their foreign language in high school back in Cheyenne), but I didn’t have a plan. I figured I didn’t need one. Someone would see just how charming and talented I was and I wouldn’t have to actually work again.
That was my goal... to not do anything I didn’t want to do. To achieve that goal, I’d emotionally sabotage any project or goal that involved more work than my feeble commitment could endure or investing the bare minimum effort that would allow me to move forward. Life beyond next week was uninteresting and irrelevant so I never really looked beyond the next few days.
My check book was overdrawn (again) and the bank fees for all the bounced checks I’d been writing totaled in the hundreds of dollars. That old joke, “I can’t be overdrawn, I still have checks” was the gospel truth for my freshman self. When money came from home, I’d settle my accounts and be broke again, thus rebooting the whole vicious cycle.
I’d just donated plasma and had ten bucks in my pocket and a fresh pack of Marlboro Lights (I couldn’t even commit to smoking full cigarettes). I was feeling flush but, as I walked down State Street, the grey chill of the day made me huddle in on myself. My mind followed my body’s lead. Thoughts turning inward are never a good idea for someone as messed up as I was. I knew what I was doing, recognized the patterns of shallow destruction I was wrecking on my life. College was an opportunity, an expensive opportunity, and my parents had sacrificed a lot to make it possible.
I remember physically wincing at the thought, and guilt hollowing out my insides. I flinched away, shaking it off, and looked up. It was early afternoon, but the clouds had dimmed the light enough to trip the sensor on the sign over the State Street Theater. Bulbs glowed warm and the marque shown in white neon relief.
Michael Caine Sean Connery The Man Who Would Be King 2 6
It was just before two o’clock, I had money, lungs full of nicotine, it was cold and I was feeling sorry for myself. I flicked the cigarette into the gutter, hoping I looked like James Dean, knowing I didn’t, and went inside.
The State Street Theater was an old theater with thick carpeting, lots of columns and dark wood panels and brass accents. Everything was worn and a little threadbare, tarnished and sagging under the burden of its long tenure as a movie theater, but I liked that. The discolored edges of the brass meant a thousand hands had worn away the factory gilt over the years to expose the metal underneath. The shoes scuffing the carpet, shoulders brushing the textured wallpaper, spilled drinks, faded colors... it gave the place substance and validated its existence. Look at all I’ve endured and I’m still here.
My ticket purchase broke the ten dollar bill into a smaller stack of ones. It had more substance but I felt significantly less flush so I strolled past the concessions counter and went straight to the theater. One theater, not a partitioned multiplex of cinematic indulgence, single tall wide screen rising against a sea of velvety maroon seats. There were maybe twenty people in the entire theater. I sat in the precise middle seat and waited. The theater dimmed to dark, the screen flickered with light, and the movie began.
Connery and Caine were their usual selves. I don’t consider either of them brilliant actors, but they are honest actors and that honesty and authenticity is, I suppose, a kind of brilliance. It was while watching this movie that they were added to the (very short) list of my favorite actors.
I related to their characters as only an arrogant college freshman can. “That’s me,” I remember thinking as the plot of the movie was revealed, “The world is too small for me, too,” even though I had yet to accomplish anything more significant than debt and a few roles in some academic stage productions.
But Huston’s gift as a film maker was the authenticity with which he told his larger-than-life stories. As the saga unfolded across stark sweeping vistas, scenes barely framed by the enormous screen threatening to burst the edges with their grandeur, my post-adolescent hubris was silenced by a beautifully told story.
To become truly lost in something – to the extent that your entire sense of self is extinguished for a time – can be a powerful and liberating experience. I think we all acquire emotional “gunk” as we go through our lives. Comfortable repetitions, even more comfortable lies and delusions, little tiny compromises and concessions we make all build up gradually, coating the framework of who and what we are... or are trying to be. Some of it might grease the machine, but most of it hides the shiny foundational gridwork that lies at our core.
In those moments immediately after losing yourself utterly, you are given a fleeting moment of clarity. The coat of gunk has been lifted off you and now, as you return to yourself, you can see and feel it settling back, filling the crevasses of your spirit, coating once more the gleam of your best parts.
I’d love to say that I was like Scrooge after his visitations, that I cast of my Gunk Coat, leapt from my seat, called my parents begging their forgiveness, took two jobs to pay my debt, and still finished college with a 3.8 GPA. I didn’t. I let that coat of emotional self-gratifying indulgence settle back over me like an addict welcomes the drug.
But I saw it. I saw the gunk, I saw what it was and what it was doing to me. And I briefly saw the gleam that it had hidden.
Seeing this movie was my first realization that we all have might and glory inside us, that the key to our destiny lies squarely in the choices we make and our reactions to the hardships we face. With that conviction, I found a small bit of solid ground to stand upon. With that fragile foothold, my life started to move towards what it has become.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Roundtable Podcast where he, his co-host Brion Humphrey, and a guest author listen to a guest writer spin their tale and then work shop it until they've achieved literary gold. Dave is also involved with the super fun Protecting Project Pulp, and you can follow him on Twitter @WritersPodcast.