JUNK FOOD: Clever Boy

March 2021

When I was young I wasn’t sickly but I was high-strung, which led to days home from school to focus on not thinking too hard. In those days (early 90s) a day home from school meant a day home alone—like Elliot’s day off in E.T., I was left with “don’t answer the phone, don’t answer the door, I’ll be home around six,” the couch and a stack of videotapes—my sick movies.

boy covers his face and puts thermometer by lamp; still from E.T.

The lineup has changed somewhat over the years–I don’t watch The Brave Little Toaster quite as often as I once did—but the principle remains the same: familiar sounds and faces to act as grounding, control elements for when I feel unmoored. (Hence: Junk Food – stuff I consume to feel better.) For the past ten years Lawrence of Arabia has been one of my go-tos. I can recite nearly every line, conduct the philharmonic when the score swells, and find deep solace in knowing how the drama will unfold; you can’t be unnerved by the unknown if you know what’s going to happen.

white man holds dagger in the air in the desert; Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia

How strange, how ironic, how fitting, then, that one of my favorite moments in the film, was improvised. Lawrence has just been gifted a set of white robes in the desert and skitters behind some rocks to revel in his garb in private. He pulls the dagger from the sheath at his waist and dramatically holds it aloft only to use it as a mirror, checking himself with a smile in the reflective surface of the blade. Director David Lean had asked O’Toole to improvise a moment of self-satisfaction for Lawrence and, when filming the moment, narrowed his eyes on the actor and chuckled, “Clever boy.”

white man looks suspiciously over a gun; still from Jurassic Park

Improvisation has felt unstable, unsafe to me for about as long as I can remember; I’m no adventure-seeker. But even a shallow dive into the makeup of my security blankets (movies, food, my cats) reveals that a drop of chaos can rewrite the recipe with nutritive, iconic results.