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The Famous and The Dead August 12, 2014

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
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Robin Williams’ death has left me feeling uncomfortably numb. I am still processing Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and trying to reconnect to the bestial realities of life: finding a job, managing my son’s sophomore crisis of identify, managing my own crisis of identity after years of remunerative and soulless work. Williams made me laugh and also made me think. Hoffman made me cry and also made me think. (Synechdoche, N.Y. was just a little too close to home; someone had to tell me it was meant as a dark comedy and not a straight tragedy, with Hoffman as both Lear and fool. I am still not completely convinced).

As the ages of the famous and the dead begin to merge with our own there is a temptation to recoil in horror rather than to run to You Tube and watch Williams in his Mork costume talking to an egg. (Yes, I did this). In New Orleans we treasure our musicians. It is one thing to think “another old and great one gone” and to recall from no very great space of time the last time you saw someone who is also gone. Perhaps I have just buried too many people two young, about one a decade since I was ten, doubling up in the last. There was a great outpouring of grief recently over the loss of local actress and designer Veronica Russell. I did not know her, but saw Glenn Meche’s production of Battle of Angels in which she glowed even when the lights were dimmed. Such natural grace and beauty, such talent: dead at 44.

I don’t watch television as a rule, living off of Netflix. I haven’t seen Williams new sitcom, but perhaps that is the memory of a subdued Elliot Gould out of his element in the sitcom Friends. Some connection broke inside, and I’ve never seen the Ocean’s films. I have not watched a Robin Williams film in probably a decade, maybe longer. He is simply there, inside me somewhere, informing who I am much as do Gould and Donald Sutherland and other actors who represented in my youth the absurd comedy of life. I cannot watch The Priests Monologue in Synechdoche without thinking of Sutherland in Little Murders pronouncing Gould’s wedding “an abandonment of ritual in the search for truth.” Perhaps I am just too dark for much of Williams, but Sutherland’s line could serve as a definition of comedy, a central summation of one of the darkest comedies, perhaps the darkest comedy ever made into film. The best, most curative comedy is not the play upon our own insecurities that struts the stages of comedy clubs and fills the cable network. It steps outside of the expected, takes us out of ourselves into an absurd space where demons fear to tread. People nostalgically reach back for Mork and Mindy, or perhaps Mrs. Doubtfire. I am put in mind of Terry Gilliam’s brilliant The Fisher King, or The Dead Poets Society. The Fisher King is dark for all its comedic moments, but it ends on a note of hope: the Red Knight banished, the two couples united, all’s well that ends well. The oldest trope in the book: older than the camera, older that Shakespeare, Everyman redeemed.

I finally got around to watching Reaching for the Moon last night. I loved it, but was disappointed not to see the flying lanterns of “The Armadillo” rising up the hills of Rio de Janeiro. I understand it would have been a distraction from the film’s eponymous focus on the moon and the lights of the park, of the place of the moon in “Insomnia” and the poem itself in the story. Still, I wanted to see the flying lights: some ascending to heaven, some crashing in catastrophe. I like to remember that those which fail to scale the heavens begin as fire and light, an act of man reaching toward some greater glory, ascending the terrifying stage of night to shed their light.