You Beautiful Failure

About the beauty of failure.

If you are a sane person, toiling for the sake of a dream — a goal that feels impossible, a passion that’s proven inescapable — has likely been one of the most dreadful experiences of your life. Inherent stressors lie embedded within the odyssey of clawing and straining, pushing a boulder up the side of a muddy hill, with the hope of success but not the certainty. Throughout life, success has regularly been presented to me as a choice, though life itself occasionally tenders a dissenting opinion.

Brain cancer. A brutal recession. Living in North Korea where, at the moment, finding a meal is more important than your hope of inventing the next technological wonder. The hurdles along our climb up the hill to success, to the summit that is our realized dream, are often manifold, antagonizing us with a terrifying prospect: Failure will catch us, and even punish us for daring to dream.

The hill is too steep.

The boulder is too big.

Your arms are too thin.

I have been told that these thoughts are inevitable for the dreamer. Additionally, sometimes you will stumble at that which you thought you excelled. A lack of resources will sap your energy. The path you’ve taken is going to lead away from the life you once knew and cherished — and the people that life comprised — leaving you to question what, if any, value there is in dreams. And rationality is why, in moments like these, we’ll think that chasing success, a dream, buoyant joy in a world of concrete and responsibilities, is vainglorious and juvenile folly.

… sometimes you will stumble at that which you thought you excelled.

When Our Best is the Worst

Another morsel of insight I’ve heard regarding life and our pursuits is that, in the end, all we can do is our best even though sometimes our best will suck. But nothing guarantees that it won’t still be enough, as if there is some enigmatic power in our weakness. An irregular thought, likely suited for the nonchalance of a fortune cookie, yet not without examples giving it credence.

A while back, I was watching a movie called The Mack, a story about a man named Goldie, and his rise and fall in the world of pimping. Richard Pryor signed on to play the role of Goldie’s sidekick, Slim. Also, Pryor, along with the director Michael Campus and star Max Julien, rewrote the script which had been originally scribbled out on toilet paper by a pimp who was locked away in San Quentin.

Pryor had been brought on to the project for his talents as a comedian, actor, and writer. But, along with helping to transform a screenplay that was likely fit for toilet paper into a cult classic, Pryor was also a cyclone of cocaine, whoring, and violence on set, leaving the tatters of broken champagne bottles and discarded panties in his wake.

Never far removed from controversy, Pryor’s shenanigans had ratcheted up to a rarified air, resulting in speculation that the project may have demanded too much from him. He was angry about not being paid for helping with the script. And the cocaine galloping through his bloodstream was both keeping him on his feet and knocking him on his ass.

But what’s likely more relevant is that Pryor’s father used to be a pimp, one who had died just a few years earlier — and had never thought of his son as particularly manly. Additionally, Pryor’s mother was an alcoholic and prostitute who abandoned him to his grandmother when he was 10. And, incredibly, that grandmother was a tall, violent manager of a brothel, not above wailing on Pryor for misconduct or knifing a customer for failing to pay for services rendered.

… sometimes our best will suck, but nothing guarantees that it won’t still be enough

Richard Pryor working on a movie about prostitution rivals walking back inside one’s own burning home, just to see if you could survive it twice.

So, along with mocking the director’s dead mother and then knocking him out cold, Pryor was also squeezing in sex with prostitutes before a long day of shooting and spoiling his talent with narcotics so enthusiastically that the director had to personally hold him upright for scenes. He destroyed hotel rooms. And he swung a sock full of coins at a producer who considered stabbing him in retaliation.

Failing Forward

Pryor was unfit for the task for reasons that extended beyond the breadth of his talent. Provoking his colleagues beyond repair, he was eventually written out of the rest of the movie. That’s why when his character dies, there is no death scene. All the audience receives is an image of blood on the ground and two corrupt police officers walking up to Max Julien’s Goldie, saying, “You guessed it. We killed him.”

Completely unlikeable, abhorrently unprofessional, and perpetually inebriated, Pryor had not only failed to capitalize on an opportunity, he actively destroyed it. Yet, quizzically, the situation could have plunged to more harrowing depths. Though a drug-addled disaster, Pryor never stopped showing up to set until he was prohibited from doing so. And, while present, whatever fueled his worst moments seemed to propel his artistry as well.

Historian and author of Becoming Richard Pryor, Scott Saul, credits Pryor with pulling off “one the strangest half-minutes in 1970s film” during his existential tailspin. In an earlier scene, the same pair of cops who boasted of having killed Pryor’s character, corner both Slim and Goldie on a sidewalk. Pointing shotguns at the pair, the cops tell Goldie and Slim to turn around and go home.

Slim and Goldie refuse, knowing that being shot in the back makes life easier for the cops when they tell people the two were killed while resisting arrest. Max Julien stays in character. And toward the scene’s conclusion, he finally turns his back and calmly walks away, shrinking into the shadows of the background while the cops retreat around the corner.

According to the script — which Pryor helped write — the scene should’ve ended there. But Pryor, he stood alone on the set, with the camera still rolling. And though having already said his line — “I ain’t running no motherfucking place ‘cause I ain’t no track star.” — he continued speaking, of vengeance, and self-worth, and a refusal to be taken advantage of.

Max Julien kept walking down the street. The bystander characters reverted back to their reality as actors, now dumbfounded and gawking at their co-worker Pryor — a man who had known rape by the age of six — while he continued to effuse, like a popped balloon:

“We’re gonna get the motherfucker, ‘cause he’s a punk! You ain’t shit! I’m gonna get him! Goldie, we gonna get ‘em ‘cause they pulled down on us and they didn’t use that shit, baby! The motherfucker pulled a gun on me, man! I ain’t bullshittin’, brother! We gonna get him, punk-ass motherfucker!”

Richard Pryor working on a movie about prostitution rivals walking back inside one’s burning home, just to see if you could survive it twice.

Stranger still, what could have easily been interpreted as the antics of an insufferable gadfly, became one of the most successful and vulnerable moments of the film. Even during his standup routines, there were moments when one couldn’t be certain if Pryor was plotting to cripple you with laughter or drown in his own tears. This scene clones that feeling of uncertainty, muddying the spot where reality ends and entertainment begins.

A Beautiful Thing

Pryor had snatched open a locked closet within him and began tossing the bruised bones of a long forgotten skeleton at the world. And what had for too long made him inexcusable had, if only for a moment, made him indispensable. Max Julien later said about the scene, “I know ladies who’ve been abused, and they saw that scene and they realized they didn’t want to be abused anymore. It said, ‘Don’t touch me again.'”

Some days you’re just not your best. The boulder slides from your grip and slithers a hundred feet down the muddy hill. Yet — as it went with the viewers of The Mack who found comfort and strength in the unscripted outburst of an imploding comedian — your weakness proves itself an asset. Maybe, with this massive stone no longer blocking your vision, you notice a path that would make your journey easier. Or maybe losing grip of the boulder just convinces you that you need a break.

The answer to how failure helps us is no easier to find than the answer to why failure helps us.

Dreams come in varied sizes, sometimes casting a skyscraper’s shadow as we endeavor to one day become the President of the United States, or just casting our own as we fight for a 24-hour period without alcohol. Nevertheless, the dream is always bigger than we are. Though we sometimes believe that we’re nurturing the dream, rearing it to adulthood, it is the dream which nurtures us — strengthening our legs with the weight of our mistakes, if only we’re willing to make them.

The answer to how failure helps us is no easier to find than the answer to why failure helps us.

A dreamer would be wise to accept the reality: When pushing the boulder up the hill, on many days, failure will catch you.

But, on some days, this will be a beautiful thing.