Tuesday, August 12, 2014
A Vacant Lot in the Heart
(Dear Readers, I just got back from vacation this weekend, and I was planning several light and lovely posts about the vacation, and the Middle Ages and so forth. I didn't intend to waltz into tragedy the first post out, but I had to say something about Monday's events.)
Around the corner from my house, at the place I wait for the bus, there was a big old house. It had once been very nice indeed, but had been vacant for some time, and had gotten grown over with hedges and ivy, and made the bus stop a really scary place to stand because you couldn't see anymore if anyone was hiding on the porch. There had been break-ins and drug activity.
Saturday when we came home on vacation, we came around the corner and the house was gone, completely gone. A bulldozer was inside the fence flattening out the dirt. By this morning when I headed out to work, there was no sign that a house had ever been there, except the indention in the sidewalk for a driveway, and yet I can still picture the house that was there, as it looked before it was vacant and the meth heads showed up.
This is kind of how I feel about Robin Williams' death. Like there's a big hole in our movie loving hearts where he should be, and yet we are able to call up all those moments that put him there in the first place.
I first became a fan of Robin Williams in the summer of 1979. I spent the summer before I started college as an employee of Cedar Point Amusement Park. When we weren't working we would gather in the common room to watch television. Two of the shows that most frequently packed the place were Saturday Night Live (with the glorious original cast) and the Thursday night airings of Mork and Mindy. Certainly college aged youth will respond to anything that will give them a good laugh, but there was also the sense that we were watching an extraordinary thing, gifted and talented people walking high wires without nets. In the case of Robin Williams it took about 5 minutes of any episode of Mork to realize that you were looking at a genius. Within the confines of a sitcom, there were moments when you could see that Mr Williams was ad libbing madly (Supposedly the writers would just write a note saying "Robin takes off here" and let it happen).
Another thing I was introduced to that summer was The World According to Garp. When Williams was announced as the lead in the film, many wondered if he was up to such a complex and multifaceted role, but he was, because Robin Williams was that rarest of birds, a great stand up comedian who was also a great actor.
I remember laughing at his performance in Good Morning Vietnam, a part he was in many ways born to play as it permitted him to "take off" in the broadcast sequences, yet he was great in the quieter, more thoughtful scenes as well.
But it was Dead Poets Society that won me over forever. His performance as John Keating, an unconventional teacher who brought both anarchy and a love of literature to boys at a boarding school was magnificent. Although there were still "take off" moment, they were at the service of the plot. Few mainstream movies have treated audiences to so much great written word from Thoreau, Vachel Lindsey, and especially Walt Whitman. When Williams' John Keating quotes Whitman: "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?" the film spoke to me. It must be have resonated with a lot of other people too, because one of the trending lines on Twitter was a simple Whitman quote that plays a prominent role in the film: "Oh Captain, My Captain."
From that time on I was a committed fan. I watched most all of his movies when I got the chance, and plan to get to the others. His Peter Pan was the heart and soul of Hook. (I once heard a reviewer say the movie worked because he believed in it) He was the best thing about Aladdin. He was a high point of the Night at the Museum movies. I endured movies like RV that aren't usually my thing, because of him. He was heartbreaking in films like Bicentennial Man.
I cheered when he won his Oscar for Good Will Hunting, "High Freaking Time" I shouted at the TV.
I applauded his many charitable endeavors, especially for Comic Relief and for the USO. I also read and watched his many interviews, and appreciated his attempts to be honest about his dealings with drugs and depression.
When the news broke on Monday Night that he had died, and soon after that he had died an apparent suicide I was deeply moved. Lately many of my blogger friends have been writing heartbreaking columns about their struggles with depression and other mental disorders. One of the issues many have raised is that this is a disease that is controlled, not cured, and that one never knows when the demons will come rolling back. Ironically the funniest, most captivating voices are often the ones who have fought the hardest battles with depression.
Robin Williams' death was yet another reminder of all this. Predictably some pundits reacted by calling him selfish, though few sunk to the depth of Rush Limbaugh who blamed Williams support of leftist causes.
Many others (including so many of those aforementioned blogging friends) wrote with real thought and feeling about depression and addiction and its causes. The more people stepped up to talk about their experiences the more you realized that it was a triumph that he endured his demons so long, and gave so much to people along the way.
Right now though, I am looking at this vacant lot, and thinking about the vacancy created this week in so many hearts. At least we have the great gift of film, that may not fill the hole, but at least it can help us remember what belonged there.