Aug 12, 2014

Posted by in Ramblings

Robin Williams. Thank You.

Robin Williams.  Thank You.

The following post is quite long, often personal and probably tedious.  It’s probably full of grammar and spelling errors as well.  But it needed to be said.  Seriously, it’s nearly 3500 words so I don’t blame you if you skip bits.

I was playing a video game just after midnight when my iPhone beeped with a news alert from the Guardian app.  It only pushes a news notification if it’s big news.  Expecting it to be something along the lines of ‘Gaza is still getting blown up left, right and centre because people are dicks’ I didn’t even pause the game, I just half leant forward to see what it was.  ‘Robin Williams found dead from apparent suicide’.  I literally dropped the controller.

I didn’t even save my game.  I just turned the console off and pulled up news site after news site desperately checking in case it was some sort of hoax.  I mean, poor Morgan Freeman and Jeff Goldblum are declared dead every other week.  But no, Robin Williams, a man who had fought with addiction and depression most of his life had reached the point where he could see no other way out.  I felt sick.

This is not a post about depression or mental illness.  It is not a post inviting a discussion about it.  This is about the work of a comic genius.  Of a brilliant performer, improviser, writer and human.  So all I will say is that it is not ‘being sad’.  You wouldn’t go up to someone with cancer and say, ‘What have you got to be all cancery about’ would you?  No.  You wouldn’t. So if you still think these things, or think he, or other people with depression need to get over it or are just selfish, shut up and go do some reading. He was not another sad clown.  He was a sick man.  ‘What did he have to be depressed about?  He was rich and successful’.  Fuck right off.

But enough of that.  Ahem.

I made a comment on Facebook last night that there are great many personal and defining moments in my life that, by pure coincidence, are linked to Robin Williams films.  And that’s why this ‘celebrity death’ has hit me quite hard.  I felt saddened this year that we would no longer witness future works of giants like Rik Mayall and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, two performers whose work I admired tremendously.  But this felt personal.  I never met Robin Williams but, bizarelly, he was there for some of the biggest moments in my life.  So here is a list of some of his work and how it connects to my little life.  It’s not a ranking of his best work or greatest films or even that which is my favourite.  It’s where Robin Williams was, for me, for the last 34 years.

Mork-Mindy-tv-05Mork & Mindy

School finished at 3:00pm.  So you’d usually be home by about 3:30.  There were cartoons on around that time.  In the early years of primary school I’d head home in time for The Roadrunner Show or Widget or that weird Ghostbuster’s cartoon.  But as my age pushed towards double figures I started to not head home, but rush home, for something other than cartoons.  I’d discovered sitcoms with real people in them.  I had no siblings so I would either rush home by bicycle or sometimes be picked up by grandparents who I would emplore to drive faster so I didn’t miss the start.  I can still hear my Pop saying, ‘What do you want to watch that rubbish for?’  You see, 3:30pm meant a rerun of Mork & Mindy (It was all new to me), followed by Family Ties.  Then there was other stuff I flirted with on other channels like Hogans Heroes and I Dream of Jeanie.  But Mork & Mindy.  What the Hell was this show?  It was absolute insanity.  It was brilliant.  It was like nothing I’d ever seen.  It was a gateway drug to my impending discovery of Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and Saturday Night Live. Remember, I grew up in Australia.  We were given Kingswood Country and told it was high art and relevant social commentary.  Mork & Mindy was, and I mean this with nothing by genuine affection, just flat out stupid.  And I loved it.  It’s the first ‘proper sitcom’ I can remember seeing.

Jumanji

Let’s get this out of the way first.  In my humble opinion, Jumanji is not a great film.  It’s a great idea, but it’s not executed that well.  It is however, quite amusing in parts.  I’ve seen it twice though only really watched it once.  It was a weekend, or school holidays, or exam break, or something, I can’t quite recall the day I first saw it.  I had gone up the video shop (remember those) in the morning to rent something to watch and had decided on Jumanji purely because Robin Williams was in it.  I rode my push bike home, parked it in the garage and as I wandered through the backyard, under the clothes line my Dad stopped me and said that Mum had just phoned.  Pop, my granddad, had just died.  He had been sick, nay, riddled with cancer for a couple of years and he’d lived well beyond the timeframe doctors had hoped for, yet still, as anyone who’s been in a similar situation will know, it came as a shock.  A gut punch.  And so I said, “Ok, thanks for letting me know”, and I went inside.  What stage is denial again?

kirsten_dunst_jumanji2So I went in my room and put Jumanji in the VHS.  And I started to watch it.  I don’t remember if Dad came in to ask if I was ok or tell me when we had to go to the hospital or whatever.  I just watched that film in silence.  I don’t remember much of it from that first watching it was just a thing that was happening.  It was a fluffy, silly distraction.  Robin Williams was good at that.

I’m not sure what point of the film it hit me and I did the crying, feeling sick thing, but it was probably the bit where the kid is half creepy monkey because that seems appropriate.  I do remember not wanting to leave until I’d finished the film though because that felt like something that had to be done.  For some reason.

Now whenever I see that film on repeat or hear Kirsten Dunst talk about it in a career retrospective I think of that day.  I think of the sadness of the day, but the fun my Pop and I had together growing up.  And I think that’s because it’s difficult to think of Robin Williams and think of pain and sadness.  Which, I guess is kind of ironic.  And false.  But that’s the memory of both them I plan on keeping.

Robin Williams: Live on Broadway

For a brief period in 2003, after almost two years together, my then girlfriend and I broke up.  We were very clearly in love.  In hindsight, it was a stupid idea.  It was, at the time, a proper breakup.  I’ll spare you the details but it lasted about a fortnight before we came to our senses, got back together and now we’re happily married thus offering further post event evidence to the ‘it was an epically stupid idea’ theory.  Anyway, for those two weeks everything was shit.  I was so down in the dumps I’d set up living quarters there. Which was fine, there was plenty to eat and all the grass clippings kept me warm.  I also did some heavy drinking.  I was like a character in a bad rom com.  And to further add to the cliché, the night we split I drove straight from her place to one of my best mates after a brief phone call detailing the situation.  He mentioned something about whisky.  All the whisky.  That night he and I, and one other dear friend, got blind drunk in the way best friends ought to when one is heartbroken.  So as I felt shit about life and we kept drinking, this excellent friend of mine who we shall call ‘Steve’ because that’s his name, said he had something he’d just gotten from the US that should help, at least, make me laugh a little bit for a little while.  It was the DVD of Robin Williams: Live on Broadway.  

Now, maybe the booze and my emotionally fragile state added to the thing but by fuck did I piss myself laughing.  It is a tour-de-force. It is big.  It is broad.  It is clever.  It is manic.  It is silly.  It is very funny.  And on one of the most gut wrenching nights of my life it made me laugh like a mad man.  So thanks for that Robin.

Robin Williams, these days, gets a bit of stick for his stand up.  It’s just all silly voices, offensive stereotypes and bad jokes disguised by energy, they’ll say.  It’s a fair criticism except that it’s totally wrong.  I was lucky enough to see Robin Williams live.  It was in Las Vegas about six years ago.  Ironically I went with my wife.  You might remember her from earlier with the grass clippings and the whisky and the ‘my life is over’ bit.

I have never seen such a performance.  It was perfectly honed and crafted and yet felt like a manic off the cuff affair.  He commanded the room, and it was not a small one.  He dripped with sweat and sheer joy.  It was a marvel to behold.  It is a memory I will always cherish.  Seeing one of the greats being great.  And it had a sort of full circle feeling to it with my lovely wife by my side, doubled over in laughter with me.

One Hour Photo

onehour2My favourite director of all time is Stanley Kubrick.  I appreciate that this is not an original thing to say, but it’s the truth.  Since I fell in love with film, it’s always been the case.  I saw Eyes Wide Shut at the cinema four times.  I  took different friends each time.  They trotted out the expected stuff suggesting I was just going to see ‘boobs’.  Yep.  That’s it.  It would be the only chance I got to see a Kubrick film on the big screen, on release.  And that was important to me.  Also, it’s a fucking phenomenal film.  Watch it again now if you saw it forever ago and hated it.  It’s beyond brilliant.

Anyway, sometimes when a great artist passes you think of that as a full stop. That’s the end of their art.  And in some sense, that is certainly true.  But their influence can have a tail longer than a comet’s.  And when you realise that, it’s a beautiful thing.

I recall seeing One Hour Photo at the cinema and instantly going, ‘This is a Kubrick film’.  But it wasn’t.  It looked like one.  It felt like one.  It sounded like one.  Robin Williams gave a creepy, dramatic performance with those dashes of humour like Peter Sellers had in Kubrick’s films too.  And later the director Mark Romanek would say as much.  In some ways it was like seeing a new Kubrick film.  I loved that.  I still love the film.  It’s that knowing that the greats never truly leave us, we don’t impersonate them, they inspire us.  Robin Williams will be one of those.  He already is.

Insomniacn-i-i

If you’re a great comedic actor, it’s because you’re already a great dramatic one.  That does not work the other way around.  So few people remember, or would even dare suggest this.  Drama, by comparison, is an absolute piece of piss.  I believe that with every fibre of my being.  I present Insomnia as Exhibit A.

Dead Poet’s Society

I’ll be the first to admit that this is a film that has, perhaps, not aged so well.  But that’s not the point.  The point is, we watched this in year 8 as part of our English studies.  You know the drill, watch a movie, talk about it, write a few essays on the themes yada yada.  I enjoyed the film.  Many people in my class did not.  Please keep in mind I went to a high school where on day 1 of year 8 a fellow 8th grader was suspended indefinitely for smashing another 8th grader in the head with a large metal bin to assert his dominance on day 1.  Like a fucking gorilla.  Anyways…

dead-poets-society-04Dead Poet’s Society is light on car chases and explosions and fairly heavy on desk standing and poetry clubs.  But I liked it.  I got it.  As a nerdy thirteen year old who really liked books, comedy, TV and science and really, really didn’t want to be hit in the face by a bin, the rather cheesy monologues of John Keating made sense.

Western Australia, especially in the early 90s was not a place for such thoughts.  It was a place where you could leave school early to work on the mines or drive a truck or, if you were really lucky, own a newsagent or deli.  But I was split on what I wanted to do at that stage of my life.  I either wanted to be a writer, or maybe a scientist depending on how hard the maths turned out to be.  And here was a man on a shitty TV with one blown speaker in a state funded high school in a low income area saying, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world”.  And “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race”.

Sure, it’s pretty cheesy.  Ok, it’s a lot cheesy.  But it was the first time I’d ever heard such ideas expressed.  Really?  I can do that?  That’s an option?  And all I’ve got to do is avoid the dudes with the bins for five years?  You’re on.

Good Morning, Vietnam

Ok.  Right.  This is the big one.  And it’s something very few people know about me.  Good Morning, Vietnam is the reason I am a writer and a director.  It is why I make the things I make and write the things I write.  It is why I have this job or career or passion or path or whatever you want to label it.  This was the film I watched when it all clicked.

Watching it now, the tricks are obvious, but back then they were new.  And Williams’ performance is just simply extraordinary.5428_3

Here was a film that said, ‘Here’s a grab bag of tremendously serious issues.  War.  The Vietnam War.  Government Lies.  The gagging of the media.  Treason.  You name it.  And we’re going to tackle it all head on, and make some pretty serious statements about it all.  With comedy’.  Wait, what?

It’s not going to be a comedy set in a serious thing, like Hogans Heroes or even the TV series of Mash.  It’s going to use the comedy to address the issue.  And it’s going to tell you it’s doing it as well.  It’s proud of saying that sometimes the best way to get an audience thinking about something is to make them laugh about it first.  What the fuck?

It was the first time I’d seen it done.  I was barely a teenager and I’d not yet been exposed to the film of Mash or Dr Strangelove or anything else that had come before.  Good Morning, Vietnam was a big budget main stream comedy on Channel 7 and it was tackling some big ideas.  And in amongst that, it was, and still is, a great film.  It does it well.  It makes its point whilst being entertaining.  And it’s funny.  By Christ is it still funny.

I remember vividly watching that first hour and going, ‘This is incredible.  These aren’t just jokes’.  And something clicked.  I wouldn’t fully appreciate the impact that had on me until I could look back on it years later, but that’s where the seeds were planted.  Comedy is the most powerful tool we humans have to make a point.  Any idiot can make someone cry.  Especially in a script.  That’s easy by comparison.  Anyone can have a ‘character’ stand up a recite a monologue about issues and act like it’s important.  Fuck, that’s the entire structure of The Newsroom.  But burying it in character comedy?  That’s something else.  It’s hard.  But when done properly it’s the powerful agent we have.  And it’s a rare thing.  It’s why people get so upset over offensive jokes.  It’s what comedy is so subjective.  It’s why we debate an issue raised in a joke or a piece of satire.  No-ones watching 12 Years a Slave trying to work out what they’re saying.

There is no situation, there is no subject, that comedy can not tackle in a most effective way.  Robin Williams and this film first taught me that.  Now, that’s a debate for a whole other blog.

And then, about half way in, this scene happens.

And it was the other big bang for me.  Hell, it was a number of big bangs.  The comedy lead in.  Then the song with the appropriate beautiful imagery.  Then the horror as the song still plays.  I’d never seen music and film work like that together before.  That juxtaposition that told the whole story in two minutes.  It’s obvious these days but it wasn’t then and it certainly was new to me.  I maintain it’s one of the best bits of use of a popular song in cinema history.  Up there with Sunshine of Your Love, Tiny Dancer and, of course, Wise Up, which, to be fair, probably takes the cake.

What a Wonderful World.  Trees of Green.  Friends shaking hands.  Napalm.  Dead Children.  What a Wonderful World.  I was ten when I saw that and my tiny little mind exploded.  This.  This is what you can do with film.  I’m in.

And then there’s one other little factor in all that.  It was, before that film, and remains to this day, that What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong is my favourite song of all time.  My home had always been filled with black music, but sung by white people.  Elvis, Bill Haley and so on.  But somehow I’d stumbled onto Satchmo and Ray Charles.  And when that song came on I went from, ‘Oh my God, I love this song’ to ‘What the Hell are they doing with my favourite song’ to ‘Oh.  I see.  Where do I sign up for this then?’

What that film did has been done better since, and had been done better before as well one could argue.  It is not the greatest to do it.  The point is, it was the first time I’d ever seen it done.  And my age had barely hit double figures.  It truly shook up everything I knew.

And, let’s not forget, this was Williams at his most Williams, alongside possibly Aladdin.  That film was Robin Williams.  Unhinged, a million miles an hour, hilarious, with a point to prove, a point to make, sweet, gentle, kind and brilliant.  Too many people get called genius these days.  Watch Robin Williams at his peak and genius barely covers it.

Robin Williams and Barry Levinson combined to create a film that made a ten year old kid in Fremantle, Western Australia know what it was he planned on doing with the rest of his life.  He’s still doing it 24 years later to varying degrees of success…

People will imitate him.  Emulate him.  Honour him.  But there will never be another Robin Williams.  I am deeply sorry that your illness, your cells, your genes, couldn’t let you see how much you were loved and appreciated or moreover that it wouldn’t let you see why that would even matter.  That nothing could help.  That it had to end like this.

And through that long, so long, sorry, list of where Robin Williams work kept cropping up in my life I didn’t even mention some of his finest work.  Where was Good Will Hunting or The Fisher King.  Where was World’s Greatest Dad.  Seriously, you’ve never even heard that film have you?  Go find it.  Now.  It’s fucking incredible.  What about when he popped up in Louie or The Larry Sanders Show.Or Mrs Doubtfire?  Or Death to Smoochy.  You haven’t seen that either have you? Or The Birdcage, another film that actually had a profound effect on me.  Growing up in Perth gay people, or ‘pooftahs’ as they were to be referred to, were not a group of people to be even discussed, let alone recognised and celebrated.  I think this might’ve been the first non negative thing I ever saw about homosexuality.  And, and, and.

So, Robin McLaurin Williams.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.

In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 08457 90 90 90. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14

The ever excellent Dr Dean Burnett has also written a piece about depression and breaking it down today.  It’s well worth a read here.

 
  1. John Gray says:

    brilliant, poignant & utterly true.

  2. Dead Poets Society. I was around the same age as the young protagonists. I cherished the same ideas and carried the same passion, but through the beautiful person of Robin Williams they resonated with a universal and accessible truth, beyond Hollywood, and beyond the sadness. Teenage exaltation is often derided… – watch DPS again, and think about what you may have lost.
    I was lucky enough to have a few inspiring teachers, one in particular who imparted the same joy for independence and originality of thought. This lust for life makes all the important things more important; it exacerbates both joy and pain. For an “écorché vif” like Robin Williams, it was a poisoned chalice.

    Oh Captain, my Captain – thank you. May you rest in peace.

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