Tuesday, August 12, 2014

He never got over being Terribly Sad, I guess

I’ve already established my bona fides as being stridently anti-suicide, so I can assume you long-time readers understand that I am processing the news of Robin Williams’s death with a combination of sadness and anger. It’s selfish of me, but that’s the way it goes; suicide is also selfish, and just happens to be one of those things that tests the limits of my empathy. I know there’s gray areas, I believe in the dignity of end-of-life choices because sometimes human bodies can enter irreparable deteriorate states with physical pain that outstrips our ability to cope. When death is imminent and inevitable, choosing to embrace it on your own terms and your own schedule is something I can understand.

What I can’t understand is arriving at the conclusion that your emotional, existential pain is comparably terminal. And I know that lack of understanding is largely on me. I am as lucky as the archetypal fool, and there are deep dark places other people are overly intimately familiar with which I have never even come close to. I don’t understand because I can’t understand. And yet I cling to this belief that those harrowing places can be traversed and escaped from. I don’t think it’s as simple as having the right positive attitude, or just hanging in there, and I know it can take an excruciatingly long time and a colossal amount of effort. But I believe it’s always possible. Deep down, fundamental life philosophy, I believe that life is worth living or can be made so, and opting out is a bad choice. Maybe I’m an unreasonably relentless optimist, maybe that makes me hopelessly naive, but … I am what I am.

Which of course doesn’t retroactively bring Robin Williams back to life. His sudden absence doesn’t necessarily have that element of gone too soon, with so much untapped potential, because for me and most of my age cohort he was always there doing a bit of everything. Mork & Mindy started its first run on tv before most of my fellow Gen-Xers and I started kindergarten, and of course the man was working right up to the end and has at least three more films slated to come out some time in the future. I could, if I tried (and probably without too much effort) think of a few dream projects that I’ll never get to see him in now, but today that would probably feel like rubbing salt in the wound.

Almost everyone I know, online and IRL, is memorializing Robin Williams in their own way today. A lot of the big touchstones people are referencing are near and dear to my heart as well: Dead Poets Society and Good Morning Vietnam and Comic Relief and A Night at the Met and Aladdin. Like I said, Robin Williams was practically omnipresent in pop culture, and I could easily rattle off my own deep pulls, and because it’s my blog and I can, I will:

- One of my fondest memories of senior year of high school was a night when a friend of mine and I were doing homework together and came to the crushing realization that we were never going to get everything finished without pulling an all-nighter. To not turn in our assignments would negatively impact our grades, but if we were absent from school and turned in the work as soon as we got back, we wouldn’t be penalized. So we faked notes from our parents and skipped school in order to catch up and stay timely on homework. But it didn’t require a full day to get back up to speed, so we also went to the mall to catch a movie while we were playing hooky. The movie was Dead Again, which is arguably one of Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson’s less essential films, but I loved it. And Robin Williams plays a small but crucial role in that flick as a damaged yet very insightful former psychoanalyst who conveniently knows a lot about past lives and reincarnation.

- Right after college, during Beach Week, I spent one rainy afternoon at the local theater watching The Birdcage, which (it should go without saying) was hilarious. Still is; The Birdcage is one of those flicks where if I’m flipping around on cable with no particular appointment television in mind, I can easily get sucked in no matter where in the running time I come upon it. But what really hits home with me is how the way I’ve related to the movie has evolved over time. When I first saw it, age 21, I was completely and totally on Val’s side. This is somewhat mortifying, but I admit it. The older I get, and especially (perhaps obviously) now that I have kids of my own, the more and more I sympathize with Robin Williams’s Armand. Also, I frequently find myself muttering “No, it’s perfect, I just never realized John Wayne walked like that.”

- And another thing I often quote without even thinking about it is this:

“Nothing! Zip. DOO-DAH.” So applicable in so many situations. There’s also a more recent Elmo video that was getting a lot of bedtime play in our house a few months back with various celebrities showing off their dance moves, and Robin Williams (in full gonzo graybeard mode) is one of many participants. It always made me smile to see him in the mix.

- I’ve seen Death to Smoochy, and I know firsthand what people are on about when they talk about what a misguided, misbegotten yet fascinating trainwreck of a movie it is. I don’t have a particularly contrary opinion compared to the critical consensus, it’s not a movie I would recommend to people without massive caveats about context. But it’s also a movie I associate with my introduction to Netflix, when I was basically enjoying the benefits of the service as a free perk of living in the spare room in my friends’ house, right after I got divorced. It’s a dark movie from a dark time in my life, which just kind of underscores my point: from the inspirational highs to the murky lows, you can find Robin Williams woven into the pop culture fabric of things everywhere.

- And even in the past year, he was making a go of it with a primetime sitcom again. My wife and I weren’t fanatically dedicated to The Crazy Ones the way we have been for other shows, but we found ourselves watching it more often than not as the season rolled along, and rooting for it, and a little bit bummed when it got cancelled (or failed to get renewed or whatever industry terminology rightly applies). It was a funny show, and they always put about 30 or 60 seconds worth of outtakes up as the bumper at the end, which was probably the perfect amount of Robin Williams wild mugging improv for your average weeknight. But it was also an interesting show about parenthood, and relationships with adult children, and making peace with past regrets. It wasn’t for everyone, obviously, but it was cool.

I don’t think I’m necessarily done making new memories involving Robin Williams’s work. There are movies of his languishing in my queue which I’ve been meaning to finally see for ages. There are the classics I’ll still get to share for the first time with my kids, which is the timeless beauty of regarding at least some elements of pop culture as non-disposable. But it still sucks knowing that the man himself is no longer out there doing his thing, playing a part in life’s rich pageant. By all accounts and every remembrance that’s circulating today, he was not just a gifted performer but a blessing to everyone who knew him personally, the kind of person whose passing saddens everyone because of how undeniably he made the world a better place while he was in it. The kind of person we should all be trying our best to be.

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