Tuesday, August 12, 2014

In Memoriam: Robin Williams

Not being a "student" of Hollywood films, my youth seemed to exclude most of the popular titles, sprinkled with the occasional "western" on Saturday afternoons, in the local "Strand Theatre" on James Street, the main street of our little sleepy town.
Although I took the opportunity to enrol in an undergrad course in the History of Film, an experience that exposed me to the pillars of film history, their cinematic technique, their production facilities, their plot structure and their "standing" in the museum of cinema, I remain an innocent neophyte with respect to the work of Hollywood.
However, there are a series of films, all of them starring the now-deceased Robin Williams, that both through his unforgettable characterizations and their narrative impact, have left me, along with millions, somewhat staggering in disbelief, shock, disappointment, and a little anger. He was the English Teacher in Dead Poet's Society, a role in which I was easily able to identify, having spent twenty-plus years in the front of English classrooms in both private and public secondary schools. His championing of both the art of acting in stage productions, especially in the face of "corporate parents" whose tolerance for such "trivial" pursuits, has to have ennobled thousands of other English teachers. while simultaneously disempowering those corporate fathers for their myopic and arrogant rejection of their thespian sons' ambition. Of course he was playing a role, but he chose to play that role.
And he chose to play the role of Patch Adams, another 'outlier-hero' in the medical arena, a therapist delivering lines that will endear him to audiences for decades if not more, as well as earning him an Oscar in Good Will Hunting, a nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire, ironically being called "back" to care for his own children following his divorce from their mother. "Doubtfire" appeared just at the time when I too had gone through the pain of a divorce, leaving three children behind, without the invitation, even in "drag" to care for them. And there was also "Good Morning Vietnam" in which he played the morning radio host, in his own "over-the-top" hypermanic style, urging  the world to take another look at what it meant to serve in the American military in that sadly tragic debacle.
There were also, we learn, dozens of appearances before troops in combat or even in peace-keeping missions, plus times when he surprised sick children by appearing in their homes, having travelled hundreds if not thousands of miles, when they could not travel, just to put a smile on their faces.
Whether it was his comedic stand-up performances, often with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal in support of raising fund for the homeless, or on Comedy Central solo performances, or his dramatic film roles, Robin Williams never held back anything from the "gift" of his performance to his audience. Some cynics might call his antics "narcissistic" because whenever there were two or more people in his presence, he "turned on" to his performing persona. (Friends of decades also report if they were alone in an elevator with Robin, there was absolute silence, almost as if he was a complete stranger. One friend of thirty-five years even commented on CNN, "Robin Williams had absolutely no social skills!"
Social skills or not, his larynx and visage are indelibly inked on the memories of millions of people, from all countries, from all generations and from all ethnicities. His dramatic talent, linked to his comedic antics render him an electric charge of human energy, crafted and honed in hundreds of hours of formal and informal rehearsal, on and off stages around the world....and yet....
As so many experts have noted, comics are generally the most depressed people, using their "jokester" as their covering "mask"....there is a guarantee that the mask will always work in the sense that they will never have to disclose the nature of the demons that live in their psyches, nor the difficulty of riding those demonic monsters in the very private corners of their personal lives.
Unhappy mothers, especially for young boys, will, as did Robin's, evoke all manner of attempts to "make Mother smile"....that is the nature of the relationship between many mothers and their sons.
Manic depression will continue to haunt millions of people around the world, without the public becoming more conscious of its tentacles, nor the carriers of its extremes finding solace from the many pharmaceutical attempts to "manage" those high's and low's that often see these highly creative individuals fly-and-crash, without their being able to rein in the force of both winds.
And that Roman candle of human energy, creativity and spontaneity has spent its life-force, on its own terms, in its own time, in its own space...leaving the world pining for a different outcome to the belt that was found around his neck, and the cuts that were found in his left wrist.
Like others who cannot and must not consider themselves "learned" about film, yet nevertheless know what they like, I join with millions of others everywhere, in mourning the loss of this larger-than-life human being, who proved, once again, as T.S. Eliot observed in the last stanza of The Hollow Men:
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Eliot may have been alluding to the failed Gunpowder Plot amid the talk of war.
This last line alludes to, amongst some talk of war, the actual end of the Gunpowder Plot mentioned at the beginning: not with its planned bang, but with Guy Fawkes's whimper, as he was caught, tortured and executed on the gallows. (Wikipedia)
Nevertheless, the stanza can and does apply to other situations, ironic, tragic and unbelievable...leaving the world again in shocked dismay and grief.
We are all indebted to Robin Williams, for his complete and absolute commitment to his craft, to his world and to his audience, of which we are all honoured to be a small part.

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