Wednesday, August 13, 2014

On the Importance of Robin Williams

I could write a book about how Robin Williams influenced me. I was an obsessive fan from the Mork & Mindy days--it was my first favorite television show that I can remember--and his stand-up comedy. My "A Night at the Met" cassette got so many plays that I could probably do the whole thing from memory. I could easily go movie-by-movie and bit-by-bit explaining how each thing influenced my thinking. I won't do that, though, because I'm likely the only one that would find it particularly interesting. I will instead focus on a few of the most important things he did that affected me and talk about the overall connection I had with him, NOT including "The Survivors," which to this day remains the only movie I know of where a character shares my last name.

"Good Morning, Vietnam" wasn't the first of Robin's movies I saw, but it was the first one to change my life (but not the last). I didn't know you could make movies like this. I didn't know you could make movies that made you nearly piss yourself with laughter (and it's impossible to not think about Robert Wuhl and Forrest Whittaker, very talented and funny men, who were in the movie, laughing along like audience members). I had seen Robin do stand-up by this point, so I knew what he did here could be done, I just didn't have a clue he could create so many historical stand-up comedy bits. This is what he would've sounded like if he had been a comic during the Vietnam War. This movie made me want to entertain people. It made me want to make people laugh. It also made me want to make them think and cry, too. I wanted to be the one to make people feel that range of emotions. It was also a big influence on my politics, particularly when it came to war and foreign policy. I grew up in a time when playing with toy guns and pretending to be soldiers was not only widely acceptable, it was encouraged. And this movie, in very stark terms that I hadn't seen at that age, made it clear that war was not only hell, that it meant that people, and kids, died. Frequently for no good reason. Or worse, for bad reasons. When I protested the Iraq War in 2003, I can trace that opposition to this movie.

"Dead Poets Society" was an even bigger influence. It would take an entire separate essay to talk about everything in this movie that influenced me. I will say that I was part of a group of young boys at the time who were very, very similar to the boys in the movie. To the point where we watched it over and over and we adopted "carpe diem" as a life motto and whoever was our leader at the time got a group "O Captain, My Captain." The rebelliousness, questioning of authority and dogma, fascination with language and its power, and the basic premise that even though fighting misplaced authority might be a quixotic battle, it's a battle that has to be fought because, dammit, it's the right thing to do. Even if it kills us.

I could go on and on about the movie, but instead I'll just throw in a few quotes here that have been part of my personal philosophy since the first time I saw the movie. These things are still part of my life. Every day.

  • No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.
  • That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?
  • There's a time for daring and there's a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.
  • Carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.
  • I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.
  • I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.

Or, my favorite then (and probably now):

"Dead Poets Society" made me want to be a teacher. And I became one. And I taught students how to use words just as much as I taught them politics. And while I never told them to rip out the pages of their textbooks (no buyback, I didn't want to steal their money), I absolutely told them never to bring those dusty tomes to class, we weren't going to need them. We weren't going to be reading, we were going to be thinking.

There are few movies and characters I've ever identified with more than Robin's portrayal of Parry in Terry Gilliam's "The Fisher King." Like the previous two movies, it made me laugh, think, and cry every time I watched it. It still does. The way to talk about this one is to show it:

That scene is so powerful to me, not only in the context of the movie, but even by itself. Don't we all know what it's like to love someone not despite their weirdness and eccentricities, but because of them? Don't we all know what it's like to want to do anything to impress that one person that we think will make us happy just by knowing them and getting to talk to them and spend time with them? Don't we all have times where we made fools of ourselves for love? That scene is so packed with a full range of human emotion it's the most romantic scene I've ever scene and it still punches me in the gut every time I see it. When Robin begins to sing at the end, I always lose it. No one but one of our greatest actors ever could have pulled that scene off. And, of course, the movie is directly related to Williams' passing. It's almost as if the mental illness and vulnerability and desire for happiness that defines the character of Parry was continued in Robin's real life as if Williams was Parry and while the movie ended at a happy point, the demons that haunted Parry came back and won in the end.

As alluded to above, I have many of the same types of mental struggles that Robin had, the struggles that no one seems to understand. One of the most common reactions was "he's rich and famous and has a great family, how could he kill himself." I didn't ask that question. I know the answer. People despair that if someone as universally loved as Robin couldn't find happiness, there's nothing that could lead to happiness for the depressed, since none of us will ever accomplish what Robin did. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what happened. If Robin Williams hadn't been "Robin Williams," he would have been dead a long time ago, instead of at 63 after a long and distinguished career. Depression isn't a single battle that can be won. It's a series of small battles that can be daily or hourly or weeks can go by between incidents. And winning each of those battles is hard as fuck. It's hard to describe to people who haven't dealt with it. You can go from being completely happy to being suicidal in minutes or seconds, based on the tiniest of things. And while success and the adoration of fans and critics and wealth can help you win some of those battles, what happens when they start to go away? What happens when you no longer get the plum movie roles? What happens when you have to take jobs that you hate and that compromise your artistic integrity because no one else will hire you? What happens when money problems start to rise up as your bank account dips? What happens when your kids grow up and leave the home? What happens when the fans leave you for younger and fresher stars?

As much is everybody is talking about how much they love Robin Williams in the past few days, how much were we talking about him in the days, weeks, months, years before that? And while the previous adoration and success and money he earned might last many people a lifetime, that's not how the depressed mind works. There's a telling moment in this interview with Marc Maron from 2010, where Williams describes his Oscar victory for "Good Will Hunting." If you saw him win the Oscar, it's pretty clear that it was one of the happiest moments of his life. He told Maron that the elation of winning the award lasted about 10 minutes. Then it was back to the battle.

And I'm not just speculating from my own personal experience and observation about what happened to Robin. It was something that he talked about a lot.

And I didn't even begin to go into so many other of his movies that either heavily entertained me or heavily affected me emotionally. From critically acclaimed stuff like "Good Will Hunting," "The World According to Garp," "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar," "The Birdcage," "Awakenings," and "One Hour Photo," to popular family movies of high quality like "Hook," "Aladdin," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Jumanji," "Robots," and "Night at the Museum," to the string of movies that critics hated, but I, and many other fans watched over and over, like "Popeye," "Moscow on the Hudson," "The Best of Times," "Cadillac Man," "Toys," "What Dreams May Come," "Bicentennial Man," "Jakob the Liar," "Death to Smoochy," "Patch Adams," and "Man of the Year." Not to mention the many other things he did, hilarious stand-up, Comic Relief and other hosting duties, and his well-deserved status as best talk show guest ever. Man, I got so many hours of entertainment and thinking and laughing and crying out of these movies (and others).

So the only thing I can say at this point is that I totally understand, Robin. I get it and I wish there were more people around you that got it and could've given you the love and acceptance you needed. I know there were some and this is not disrespect aimed at them in any way, this is just to say that when you suffer like Robin did, you can never get too much support, too much love, too much acceptance. It's a need that rivals sleep and water and air.

I lied, I'll say one more thing: Thanks, Robin. You might not have made it to the finish line, but a lot of us are still running because of you. We'll do what we can to make our lives worthy of what you gave to us.

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