The walls of the bedroom I slept in during my heady high school years were plastered with words and with images. I had photos of my friends affixed high above my scrolled headboard and I’d look up at them even in the dark and remember the heightened feelings that rushed through my body and my brain and my veins during the weekend we all went to Montauk and slept piled atop one another on the frozen beach. I had the same glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling that everyone I knew had, and even at three in the morning I could see the outline of my pictures on the wall, the formation of all of our heads curled close together, the moment of a sharing of a secret or a laugh captured forever in a manner perhaps more poignant than even a memory.
I had posters on my wall too, but most were actually advertisements that came from W, a magazine I recognized even then as aspirational living to the extreme. Those were the days of Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista, of Barney’s ads that I thought of as pure art, of an understanding settling forever inside of me that glamour took effort and I that I was someone willing to make that commitment. I wanted to be glamorous – but I also knew that I should make it look like I wasn’t even trying, that it all just happened naturally, that of course I woke up looking this way.
But right next to the photographic evidence that I was becoming somewhat consumed by what would never be real was a piece of paper I’d scrawled words on myself using a dark red crayon: The best moments for me in film are when nothing is being said but everything is being said.
I heard those words for the first time during an interview with John Singleton. To this day, I can’t remember if I saw him on television saying it or if I read an interview where he was quoted, but however it was that the words entered my consciousness, they invaded and have stayed locked inside of me ever since. John Singleton was new on my radar – he was new on everyone’s radar. Boyz in the Hood had just been released and people who might matter had anointed him a wunderkind and I all but ran to see the movie. The entire film knocked me out and its images stayed with me for a long time. They remain somewhere deep inside of me still, even after the passage of so many years, even after the viewing of so many other movies, even after Singleton became the guy who directed 2 Fast 2 Furious.
Boyz in the Hood worked for me on every level, but nothing felt more powerful than the moment when Ricky gets shot down and murdered on the street. I’d seen people shot by bullets in movies before, but what emotionally slayed me about that sequence was not the shooting, but the events that immediately followed. I’d been conditioned by then to expect that an onscreen killing would be followed by a slow fade that landed the viewer at the character’s funeral where people clad in black wept desperately beside a casket. Maybe I expected a sharp cut and that the next scene would take place in the hospital as Ricky’s already-grieving family was given the worst news of their lives. But Singleton went brave – he went the route of pure realism – and so the next scene involved Ricky’s friends and his brother carrying the dead body of a boy into his house and laying him on top of the sofa he’d sat on all of his life while his mother let loose guttural and wordless screams. Before watching that movie, I’d never really considered what one does immediately after someone gets killed on the street. Sure, you could call for an ambulance, but this was in those pre-cell phone days when a solution to almost any dilemma did not reside in the iPhone that lived in your pocket. Those boys watched someone they loved get killed right in front of them and they did the only thing that made sense in a moment that made absolutely no sense: they brought the kid home.
Besides those primal screams, there wasn’t much else said during that scene and it was perhaps the absence of conventional dialogue that made it pop and crackle so profoundly for me. I didn’t expect it. I was wowed by it, and I arrived at school the very next day and rushed directly to my Theatre teacher’s classroom to tell him in hushed tones about the movie and how it was still with me, still right there in my head spinning around and around, and that I wasn’t sure that I would ever be entirely the same anymore. There are only a few people in your life that you can say something like that to and have them not think you’re beyond dramatic or in the need of some intensive therapy, but a Theatre teacher might just be the perfect person to whom you can expound to about the power of a movie and so he listened and smiled and agreed with me entirely. It was then that I told him about the words John Singleton had said in that interview – and that I thought I knew just what he was talking about, that maybe I’d always known.
Without question, I can look over my life and say that I regret the things I haven’t said far more than the things that I have. What I do say is usually honest and it’s more often than not well thought out and it’s carefully tempered depending on my audience and the scenario at hand. Knowing that not everybody can be approached in the same manner was a lesson I internalized early and it’s one of the most important things I’ve ever learned, but keeping quiet has rarely been something in which I’ve found any comfort. I’m a get-things-out kind of girl – and it hasn’t always worked to my advantage. I know now that not everyone deserves to hear innermost thoughts, that revealing yourself can make someone else feel vulnerable, threatened. I’ve been compelled to comprehend the loneliness you can feel invade your every cell after you have uttered the words you never believed you’d be brave enough to actually say out loud and you were met with silence.
But still I speak. Still I explain what’s careening through my head. Still I expose those dank questions and the devastating answers that invade me like I’ve just lost a battle fought entirely on my home soil.
I’m not sure I was always the kind of person who needed to say or hear so much, but experience has altered my emotional make-up and I’m not the same anymore. I hear words directed my way and I listen to them, but I take hardly any of them at face value anymore. Like Singleton once implied, the words aren’t really what matters sometimes. It’s maybe what’s not being said that is far more essential.
How’s your day, gorgeous?
The text came to me two days ago – and I suppose that it was nice to see. But all I could really allow myself to react to were those questions I didn’t allow myself to ask in response:
Do you want a genuine answer? Because if so, my day has sucked stringy balls and I have still not quite woken up fully and it’s almost one in the afternoon and one of my students just asked me if movies existed before the year 1984.
Why do you keep texting me when I thought we’d silently come to the conclusion that this fling has been flung?
How many other girls are you currently calling “gorgeous”? Because not a single part of me believes that I’m the only one in what I think of as your rotation.
I shared those reactions with one of my closest friends and there was more than a moment of silence on her end and it was that silence – that moment when absolutely nothing was being said – that was even more powerful than the words she finally boldly spoke into the phone.
“Why don’t you believe in things that make sense anymore?” she asked.
“Because I’m broken now,” I responded with not even a single second of hesitation. “The part of me that believes what people say doesn’t completely exist anymore.”
xoxoxo, he wrote.
xo, I wrote back. It’s what I said, but the words – those letters – didn’t matter. What did matter and what continues to cause what I guess I’d call concern is that I’m not satisfied with words now. I’m focused on what’s hiding in the silence because I think that’s where the truth might live.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.