Thursday, August 14, 2014

Robin Williams: The muse or the madness? A tribute

This is my unfiltered, unedited thoughts about Robin Williams’ death and other related issues.

Let me just get this straight; I was never a devout follower of Williams’. I never saw all of his comedy and I wasn’t familiar with a few of his famous films or his improv work. It was because of this that I was surprised by exactly how affected I was upon hearing of Robin Williams’ suicide earlier this week.

Yes, it was quite a blow...I mean, the man was the voice of several films of my childhood; most notably Jumanji and Aladdin. As I grew up, I appreciated him in other things - the heavyhanded drama of Dead Poets’ Society, the uplifting Good Will Hunting, the dark and eerie One Hour Photo, the bright and jubilant Good Morning Vietnam, the dramatic Awakenings, the cynical World’s Greatest Dad...there was just a LOT of shit the guy did that was SO good. It struck me because I just hadn’t realized exactly how much, as a fan and consumer of film and comedy, Robin Williams had affected my view of both of those things.

I’m not going to spend too much time dwelling on his work, as many people have already done so who were more imbued with passion for it than I was when he was alive. While I love the stuff I have seen, I really want to talk about something I mentioned back when Philip Seymour Hoffman died last February. In my tribute to him, I wrote this:

“In a way it’s the curse of great artists though – can we ever have someone who could dive so fully into a role that isn’t self destructive? It seems to me that self destructiveness goes hand-in-hand with the kind of immersive, chameleonic acting talent Hoffman had. It was like he was trying to lose himself in his roles, trying to escape whatever demons drove him to drugs in the first place.”

It’s the same thing with Williams, though a bit of a different angle. We know now that Robin Williams was suffering from depression and had been for some time. He had drug problems in the past too. And yet he was a comedic genius; he knew exactly what made comedy work and was quick to make jokes and get a crowd laughing in a variety of ways. He was a fucking funny guy and he went after his passion and his art with a tenacity that most people would kill to have.

And yet he was so, so immensely troubled that he hanged himself this week. I just now read, before starting this piece, that he apparently tried to cut his wrist as well with a knife. I don’t need to point out that these are not the actions of a man of sound mind.

Genius of any stripe comes at a price. Many people who do art, write, act in movies or plays, play music, etc, etc, etc - are just fucked up inside. Whether it’s from a bad childhood, a wrong decision made in childhood turning to drugs or just that general emptiness inside, they aren’t perfectly balanced … something is off in them. Like a wire loose. There have been various studies and reports that justify that, and it makes sense. You get real deep into writing a book or making a movie or anything like that. Your brain goes to places most peoples’ don’t. If you’re really possessed with the kind of manic creativity that leads you to just keep doing it and doing it and doing it, it isn’t just a facet of your life you can turn on and off - it’s something that seizes hold of you and won’t ever let go.

And it does seem like there IS just such a price for that genius...people get depressed and they sink into that like a trench, like a black bog from which there’s no return. And they don’t tell anybody because they’re human and there are a thousand reasons why they wouldn’t - or maybe people just don’t notice. Suicide is tough and complicated and it’s not always a clear sign that you’ll see right away. It’s not really a strong thing to do or a weak thing to do. It just is - it’s a fact of life inevitable that some people just can’t go on anymore and they make their own choice. It’s not something to judge.

People can certainly create and be mentally alright and live full lives. Not everyone who makes great art kills themselves or lives a life full of nothing but misery. But I do think there’s a truth to saying that those with really unbridled, brilliant creativity do end up paying a price for it in their own ways. It’s like the chicken-and-egg question - which comes first; the creativity or the mental instability? The muse or the madness? They feed off one another really. You have a big wide crevasse in you and it can only be filled for a little while by making art and telling stories and telling jokes and singing - and that isn’t a catch-all cure and it doesn’t last that long, and you can’t beat it forever because to create great art, there’s always some part of you that’s coming unhinged. Art isn’t made by studied, focus-group-tested and balanced methods of’s made by a soul willing to reach into the abyss. And many of those souls are broken, lost and living on the edge even when they have millions of dollars.

I don’t know Robin Williams’ situation, but the whole thing made me think a lot about these issues in a broad sense and I think they deserve to be talked about. I’m not romanticizing mental illness nor am I suggesting that we tolerate it for the sake of art - I’m just saying it’s a thing that needs to be talked about.

As for Williams...R.I.P., you strange, crazy, hilarious man. We’ll miss you.