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Out of the Past

February 23, 2010

by Sam Hutchins

The four of us returned to the car wordlessly. Sharing that sunset was one of those unforgettable moments in life, and the raw emotion of Darius’s statement settled over us. I learned long ago that you don’t have to like someone to love them, and this is as illustrative example as any I could provide. We each had a litany of complaints regarding the travel habits and petty selfishness of the rest of us yet there were no others I’d rather be with at that moment.

I took the wheel and blasted through the darkness. In a rare lack of foresight, I’d lost track of the next move. Usually I had mapped out each possible choice and done my best to be prepared for whatever decision we came to. Fixated as I was on making the sunset at White Sands I hadn’t been able to see past it. Now it was dark and we were in the wilderness, screaming westward down the roadway. At least our direction was decided, as the options were to continue west or cross into Mexico.

My choice would have been to drive until we were exhausted, then find a fleabag motel to crash in. Hell, given my druthers I’d have us pitching tents and camping in the desert. Had we done that we would not only make better time, we would have so much more memorable a trip. The closer you are to the ground the better you can tell the story. I’m reasonable, and could see us alternating between camping and sleeping indoors so as to keep the truck from stinking too awfully. But my companions would not dream of such a move. They required a certain comfort level, and wanted to stop and figure our accommodations out.

So against my objections we looked around Las Cruces for a place to grab some coffee. Not seeing a Starbucks by the time we reached the far edge of town, we pulled into a small strip mall. Light from a small storefront café beckoned to us. The sign read “Atomic Diner” and had the symbol for the Atom on it. What an odd thing to take pride in and a name from.

Maybe it was all the time spent with my companions, but the place seemed so utterly and inexorably foreign to me, for lack of a better word. I felt like I was in a David Lynch film, only with brighter lighting. The place was stark white, bright, and completely spotless. Its owner was aggressively friendly and slightly effeminate, a Mexican-American fellow with plucked eyebrows and what appeared to be traces of eye makeup on. He grinned like an idiot the entire time we were there and insisted that we try the pie. We lied and told him it was good. It wasn’t. All of it felt like a fever dream and I was eager to put some distance between us and the weirdness of the place. It was decided that we would press on to Phoenix even though it meant arriving late at night. I surrendered my objections in order to facilitate as quick a departure from the place as possible. I wasn’t sure if the proprietor was about to hack us up with a knife or perform an elaborate lip-synch number to Leslie Gore but I knew the next scene in that particular movie was grotesque.

Though I’d been driving hard all day I continued behind the wheel. Feeling energized by events I had no problem pushing us west on I-10. No one played any music, no one spoke. Our soundtrack was the wind buffeting the truck as we sped into the inky black night. Then, from nowhere, Kar Wai opened up.

“I lived in Shanghai when I was young. Very good childhood. My parents were very good to me. Dad was distant, but that is normal for our culture. My mother made up for it by loving me very, very much. My sister and I were very close, but my older brother was my hero. He was the coolest guy I’ve ever known.”

I was shocked by the words pouring out of him. Glancing at the rearview mirror I could see that Darius was as fixated as I was. So much so that he didn’t even meet my eyes but instead had his gaze locked on Kar Wai. I couldn’t see Stephane but could only hope he was hearing this as well.

“My Brother was very fashionable. He wore tailored suits wherever he went. He always had the prettiest girlfriends and all the guys worshipped him. He had the greatest, thickest hair. A pompadour, like Elvis. I wanted to be him when I grew up. Then the Cultural Revolution came.
“I was young, so I didn’t really understand what was going on. My parents tried to comfort me but I was very afraid. Suddenly it was dangerous to be noticed and everyone had to be quiet. The thing that scared me most was when I saw my brother did not wear his suits any more. I knew something bad was going on.”

Kar Wai was staring off in the distance and letting the words fall out of him as if by gravity. He often went into his little fugues, but never spoke and always smiled when in one. He wasn’t smiling now, but he sure was talking.

“One day they came to our house. They were there for my sister. Every family had to sacrifice for the common good, and they needed her. It was not uncommon. My brother fought them, though. He refused to let her go, even though my father was allowing it. Finally, and I don’t know how he did this, my brother convinced them to take him instead. He left with them and my sister and I got to stay.”

“What became of him?”

“I never saw him again. Just a picture, once. Years later someone who had survived the camps smuggled out a picture. It was taken a year after he left Shanghai and went to the countryside. His hair was all gone, he was bald. That’s the thing that really upset me. No more suit, he was naked from the waist up, bent over working in a rice paddy. His face had aged twenty years and all the laughter had left his eyes. That’s the last I ever saw or heard of him. Shortly after that my Mother and I moved to Hong Kong.”

Now openly staring at him, I was completely overcome with emotion. A few sniffles emanated from the back seat. What an absolutely soul-crushing experience. I couldn’t imagine living through something like he had. Yet his visage remained stoic, and he stared impassively into the darkness as we pressed on. Ultimately that’s all you can do, right? Just keep going, if you can.

We went.



Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.

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