When you live in a world at war, it can seem crass to mourn celebrities. War continues in Israel and Palestine, punctured by brief moments of non-shooting. There aren’t really any moments of non-shooting in Syria and Iraq, where the governments of both countries have pretty much collapsed into civil war while thousands of innocent people are dying on Sinjar mountain because of who they are. Ukraine is still in civil war. There’s one epidemic of ebola and hundreds still of malaria. There are riots in a Missouri suburb because a policeman shot an 18-year-old young man. Whenever I go to Jackson Square, I pass the same old homeless man who I wish I could spare even a dollar for.
So it can seem crass to mourn a celebrity who made people laugh. I’ve long been part of an intellectual tradition of cultural criticism that bemoans the worship of inflated egos and rich performers who fritter away the undeserving amounts of money they earn on houses, cars, drugs, boats, drugs, women, vanity projects, drugs, political causes you disagree with, drugs, violent crime, witless activism, clothes, capital gains tax shelters, cocaine, and drugs. Also, drugs. But sometimes, a personality connects with so many people in so many different ways across so many years that it makes public mourning acceptable, or at least inevitable.
And our cultural products aren’t just empty pieces of entertainment. I mean, some of them are. But the best of them are brilliant pieces of art. Of course, they’re also the products of commerce, and there are many good arguments that the commercial aspects of art, especially cinema, degrade it. Because film and television is an industry, we can all too easily describe its power as corrupting. Yet it is still art, so can still move us emotionally and intellectually to view life a little differently. And some performers in that industry are so remarkable, talented, and singular that even the most bitter failed performer can’t deny that they deserved their success.
The Fisher King (the only one I own), Hook, The Birdcage, Insomnia, Death to Smoochy, the music video for “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” Good Morning Vietnam, Aladdin, Toys, the first Night at the Museum movie, a brilliant episode of Inside the Actors’ Studio, a couple of hilarious interviews on The Daily Show, Jumanji, Awakenings, Good Will Hunting, Mrs Doubtfire, AI: Artificial Intelligence, The World According to Garp, Dead Poets Society, a bunch of standup and improv clips over a 40 year period that I’ve watched on youtube, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. That was everything I’ve seen him in. Not comprehensive, but enough that I remember that wonderful laugh, full of joy.
He was the only person who could have successfully, and realistically, played the King of the Moon.
I haven’t been doing very well in some parts of my life lately. My freelance editing work hasn’t brought in as much money as I thought it would this summer, and it looks as though I’ll be getting even less in the future, and having to hustle even more just to get what little I can manage. I spent a lot of yesterday evening worrying about how I’m going to work through my career transition. A lot of employers are hesitant to hire someone who’s in his early 30s and doesn’t have experience in their industry, and whose experience is in universities, a field that a lot of folks outside it understand just as little as the folks inside it understand what everyone else does for a living. But I have the support of someone I love, and who loves me, and at least my career as an artist is getting started. So I don’t think about suicide.
I mean, I used to. When I was young. We’re all a little overly dramatic when we’re young. And there are still plenty of times when I wonder if the mistakes and hurtful things I’ve said and done in my life will end up mattering more than the kind things I’ve done and said and written that made people smile, or laugh, or impressed them. Very occasionally, there are times when I wish I could have known my father as anything other than a set of stories and a brain-injured, opaque old man. Yet there are also times, even more rare, when I hate that old man for what he said to me as a teenager, as if he wanted me to commit suicide.
I had a feeling Robin Williams would die soon anyway. That heart surgery he had five years ago was pretty intense, and cocaine and alcohol tear your cardiovascular system to shit after a while. But I don’t know what’s been going through his head. It’s not like I ever met the man. I only watched a bunch of his movies and he made me laugh a lot.
I remember one scene from The Fisher King, as he’s running away from a hallucinatory red knight, breathing fire, the colour of blood, chasing him through New York. He’s haunted by trauma and fear. He only wants to be happy again.