I was in a particularly delicate spot. You know that place. Low batteries. On the outside looking in. It felt as if I was in a permanent state of only dreaming about a career in movies. Seriously. The odds were against me. Of the fifteen undergrads who were slogging alongside me through film school, maybe one of us would see some kind of measurable movie success. Hell, even that was optimistic thinking. Las Vegas would’ve pegged the group of us as longshots at best.
So why the hell try? Such was the kind of negative thinking that had begun to creep in under my young skull cap.
I recall a particularly depressing day when I found myself looking back at my own reflection in the mirror. And no. I’m not attempting some lousy poetic imagery. I was actually in a university washroom, throwing water in my cherubic face when I glimpsed myself and uttered, “Why me? What makes me so special?”
No answer came. Probably because self-doubt had been far closer to the real me than the pretender who mocked me from the mirror.
With that, I climbed into my two-tone, orange sherbet and turd painted Pinto and pointed it in the direction of my San Gabriel Valley apartment. It was far from school, but walking distance to my night job slinging pizza and pitchers of beer.
Yet that particular night, I was so sick of myself that I called in sick and, instead, chose to salve my wounded ego with a movie.
The picture was Prince of the City, Sydney Lumet’s most recent New York adventure. Clocking at nearly three hours, the movie is a claustrophobic epic about a corrupt NYPD detective who decides to clean himself up by turning state’s evidence against his cop brethren. It’s a gritty, true tale of family versus friends, honor versus betrayal. I was gripped from frame one, emotionally hooked to the characters, and in the end, gobsmacked at what I’d just witnessed. Perfection, I thought. Everything a great movie should be. Everything I wanted in a movie. Everything I wanted to be as a moviemaker.
Only I hadn’t made it. Sydney Lumet had. And this was after he’d already directed the seminal likes of Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network. Clearly, this man possessed true greatness. A state of cinematic understanding that I, in my moment of self-doubt, imagined was beyond my grasp.
So why even try?
Here I was. A young filmmaker on the come. In a prestigious college program. Dreaming of a career I couldn’t possibly achieve. What the hell was I thinking? What kind of moron invests in certain failure?
The blithely ignorant twenty-one-year-old kind.
On the way back home, I stopped by the corner supermarket and dropped some cash for a fifth of disposable scotch. I climbed the steps to my apartment, dribbled four fingers of the liquor over two cubes of ice, then climbed horizontal into my humble rack. My only company was the television which, at that late hour (and without cable) sported only late night chat shows and reruns of Hogan’s Heroes and Star Trek. Between sips of that cheap, blended whiskey, I landed on a one-on-one interview with non other than Sydney Lumet. The timing made sense. Prince of the City had just opened and the Oscar-winning director was making the usual publicity stops in support of his picture.
Yet Lumet’s appearance on my TV vexed me. As if the nationally televised talk show was specifically designed and time-slotted to mock my dubious talents. I can’t say why I didn’t shut it off and just drink myself to sleep.
“I’ve seen your latest,” said the interviewer. “It’s a great movie.”
“It’s a good movie, thank you,” said the director. With that, I believe I cursed his false humility.
“Seriously,” said the interviewer. “It is a great movie.”
“I appreciate that,” said Lumet. “And God only knows after thirty movies I’m finally starting to feel as if I’m getting it right.”
Getting it right?
I practically kicked the TV off the chair it was propped upon. Did he actually say that he thought he was finally getting it right? How arrogant can the SOB act? I’d just watched his newest masterpiece unspool and yes, it was well beyond have gotten it right. I’d been vexed and mocked but I wouldn’t be made a fool of by swallowing the New York director’s publicity-driven false modesty.
Then came the great one’s following salvo.
“But isn’t that just it?” added the director. “All my career–from television to today–I’ve always felt on the brink of getting something right. Anything. Thirty odd films later I look back and it’s all baby steps. One foot in front of the other. And all that’s kept me going is the feeling that as long as I was improving…”
It was as if a tuning fork inside me had been struck with a sledgehammer. My bone marrow harmonized with the director’s simple words. Wasn’t that exactly how, as an artist, I usually felt? That I was merely making short, forward steps? Improving one micrometer at a time? Not close to fast enough for wunderkind status, but with a decided and measurable progress.
One moment I was cursing Sydney Lumet. The next, he was reaching through my TV screen and offering me a helping hand up. My pit of despair receded beneath me. And that lousy scotch I was slurping tasted, well, plain lousy.
It’s been more than thirty years since that night. Yet it feels like ten minutes ago. Maybe that’s because I’d chosen to stencil the man’s life-saving words in mental tattoo ink. And I’ve tried to subconsciously etch their meaning onto every single page I’ve ever written. I check myself daily, asking the simple question of “am I improving?”
Sydney Lumet has long since passed away, leaving a legacy of pictures that I couldn’t eclipse in my dreams. But his words have made me brave enough to fly at my own heights and take pride in the work I do. I am forever grateful.
Thank you, Sydney.
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