John Hurt died last Friday. He was the first actor I ever bothered to memorize the name. The first actor I was interested in seeing more of.
I first took notice of him in a kids show called The Storyteller, where he gave life to… The Storyteller, a Jim Henson show where a character who would tell European folk tales to his dog. And right at that moment I knew he was someone to follow. I remember seeing him next in The Elephant Man. This was to be my first David Lynch movie and one that helped establish, along with Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, one of my first contacts with the Lord of Beginnings. Something that latter was cemented with Alan Moore’s From Hell, a tale about the Ripper Murders or, perhaps, the birth of the 20th century. A few years before, Alan Moore wrote V for Vendetta, a mini-series for DC Comics which was adapted to the big screen by the Wachowsky and Hurt got to play the Adam Sutler, a dictator from an alternate fascist-England, decades after portraying the Winston Smith, the citizen that defied a totalitarian society in the film adaptation of Orwell’s 1984. And then, of course, there’s also Alien..
As you can see, throughout my life I’ve got to meet him several times at the movies, the last one of those, in a Jim Jarmusch movie called Only Lovers Left Alive, where he played the part of Christopher Marlowe, another storyteller. I also got to see him live once, when he came to my home town of Oporto for a movie festival. The storyteller seemed just like any other man there, not one capable of birthing such rich characters. Another reminder to only trust the story, not the storyteller.
But it was as the Storyteller that he made the biggest impression in me. One of my favorite quotes came directly from the series’ opening and was something that came to influence my vision of what a story was:
“When people told themselves their past with stories, explained their present with stories, foretold the future with stories, the best place by the fire was kept for… The Storyteller.”
Now stories had always been a big part of my life. As I was growing up, I would read whatever I could put my hands on, whether it was a comic-book, a fiction book or some weird science book (because, yes! science tells some extremely entertaining stories. Trust me. I grew up to be a chemist. Among other things…). Everything was fair game, as far as I was concerned. The idea that everything could be understood as a story of some sort was mind-blowing to me at the time. It was also extremely liberating, as it meant that I could learn anything from practically any source, just as long as I was able to relate whatever I was seeing / hearing /experiencing to some story. Stories were both instruction manuals and memory aids. And a good story, well… it would just live on and on and on. Want to make sure you don’t forget something? Wrap it up in a great story.
When I started to seriously study the tarot, my breakthrough came when I considered each card as a panel of a comic. The spread before me could then be read as a comic, all tarot books be damned! Or so I thought at the time. No more random keywords ready to cut and paste into forced sentences in order to find a meaning to what was before me. No more complicated spreads that might be extremely meaningful, but were a pain to learn. The placing of cards next to each other and reading them straight-foward as a tirage-en-ligne. It made me realize that almost as important as the keywords (which I do recognize as useful) were the white spaces between the cards. The relationships between the various figures and the relationships between those and the question asked. It was about finding common threads between what was in front of me and what was being said by the querent. And as long as I was reading cards as a tirage-en-ligne, as a progression from point A to point B, two things mattered: context and questions. The right questions had to be asked.
Which brings me back to the Storyteller. Accompanying John Hurt’s character was a dog. He was the audience, but he was also the one that got to ask questions about the story. Or to make some comments on how it developed. This brought additional insight to the story being told and made me realize another very important thing. The storyteller’s function wasn’t just to entertain / amuse / enchant / teach / inspire / … /. The storyteller was also supposed to challenge you and make you ask questions about what was being told. In fact, questions were the most important part of the story. It gave the story form and made the storyteller explain what might otherwise be obscure and difficult. But questions also had another part to play: they forced the storyteller not to get over-excited with what he was telling about. It imposed boundaries on his ability to invent, by making him stick with what was certain.
John Hurt’s recent passing made me realize how fortunate I was to have such a great initiator into what would be some of my main interests in life. A few months ago, I was rewatching the whole series yet again and as news of his death travelled the web, I got reminded of that episode where The Storyteller actually takes center stage in the story. A Story Short, it’s called. In it, he says,
I am a teller of stories. A weaver of dreams. I can dance, sing, and in the right weather I can stand on my head. I know 7 words of Latin, I have a little magic, and a trick or two. I know the proper way to meet a dragon, I can fight dirty but not fair. I once swallowed thirty oysters in a minute. I am not domestic, I am a luxury and, in that sense, necessary.
His work gave us new worlds, new visions, and new interpretations of well known stories. As he also says in The Storyteller, he “told the best story there is to tell: a story which begins in hello and ends in goodbye”. A story that had the power to imprint pictures in our head and help us understand the world we live in a little better.