Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Remembering Mr. Williams

Last night, after hearing about his death, I posted a collage to Instagram that featured snapshots of some of my favorite Robin Williams performances. In the tagline for the post, I thanked him for a lifetime of memories. I was not being hyperbolic.

I remember watching reruns of Mork and Mindyon the Nickelodeon network with my family when I was a child, perhaps as young as six or seven. Even at that early age, I understood, (to some level, at least - sarcasm and innuendo notwithstanding), the brilliance of Williams' performances and the genius of his comedy. It brings to mind how several toddlers I know adore the music of Harry Connick, Jr. (I know because I buy them the CDs and hear about it later from their parents). There is certainly something to be said for the beauty of an artistic gift that can speak to children as well as to adults, and Mr. Williams was bringing laughter into my life almost as far back as I can remember.

Not many years later, Disney released Aladdin, whereupon Williams completely changed the animated movie game. Right smack dab in the middle of what people my age affectionately refer to as the "Golden Age of Disney Movies" (The Little Mermaid & Beauty and the Beast before, The Lion King after), Williams rewrote the book on how movie studios would forever-after make animated films. Before Aladdin, the vast majority of the voice work for animated characters was performed by voice acting professionals, not popular live action actors. After Williams' Genie stole the show, however, famous name actors & actresses became the new go-to for voicing cartoons. Nowadays, it's hard to find a single animated feature, regardless of studio, budget, or method of release, that does not feature a number of voices whose faces you would also instantly recognize. (Most children these days probably cannot imagine a world where conventionally famous people do not provide the lion's share of the voicing for animated movies.) What's more is that today, more than 20 years after the fact, no one has seemed to capture the kind of magic (pun intended) Williams conjured up for Aladdin. He not only rewrote the book, but he also set the standard - the unequaled standard, in my opinion - for how lively, unique, and memorable two-dimensional characters can be.

There were a myriad of others, as well. His heart in Patch Adams. His heartbreaking weirdness in The Fisher King. His unforgettable voice in Good Morning, Vietnam. He brought to life one of my all-time favorite books in Jumanji and reminded us all of the importance of childlikeness in Hook. He was also the only single thing I liked about Good Will Hunting, and I didn't just like him, I loved him. But there was one other film Williams made that will stick with me forever in more meaningful ways than any of the rest.

In Dead Poets Society, Williams portrayed a prep school English teacher with, to put it lightly, an unconventional approach to educating students. There was and is so much about the film that resonates so deeply with me that it is probably an impossible task to contain it all within a single, easily digestible blog post: the lessons about conformity and being willing to go against the flow; the willingness to reject conventional wisdom, tear it out of the book, and rediscover what true knowledge is; the fascination with the beauty of words and art; the instilling of an appreciation for things that are old and timeless in the hearts and minds of contemporary teenagers; the striving to embrace all that is 'Carpe Diem'. I always wanted my teachers to be like Williams' John Keating, and I always told myself that if I ever end up teaching history or literature (as has been suggested to me on more than one occasion should the music thing ever dry up), I would follow his lead in doing so. To wit, "semper discens" is a little Latin I've adopted for myself (along with "carpe diem" and "esse quam videri"), and it means "always learning". But to always be learning, one must be fascinated & captivated with the world around them, understanding the immeasurable privilege we have in being a part of it and being forever discontent with the idea of being ignorant about it. As great art is wont to do, Dead Poets planted seeds in my heart & mind in regards to all of these things, and the power of Williams' performance in that movie is something I myself hope to reflect & emulate for people in my own life.

All of these things and many, many more are what make Williams' choice to end his own life such a heartrending waste. It is with great fondness that I remember all of the glad moments his work brought into my life. As with so many other great comedians, Williams also proved himself to be more gifted in the dramatic realm than most conventional actors, and many of his more dramatic pieces are the kind that inspire reflection and thought. The man was a great artist, and in a world drowning in mediocrity and the celebration of the mundane, his work, by-and-large, stood head-and-shoulders above much of the rest. He was a living legend and a consummate performer, and it is nothing less than terrible that he chose, in the end, to saddle his family and loved ones and, to a far lesser extent, his many fans, with the emptiness of an unfinished story.

As Matt Walsh, a brilliant and favorite blogger of mine described it, suicide is, "The complete, total, absolute rejection of life. The final refusal to see the worth in anything, or the beauty, or the reason, or the point, or the hope." For a man who spent so much time so adroitly pointing people towards at least some of these things in one way or another, Williams certainly seemed to have missed the point himself. And so today, I find myself torn. It brings me joy to remember his work and the genius of his gifts and to share them with others in light of his death. But it tears me up to realize his life ended in such a seemingly pointless and futile way.

I know Robin Williams is and will be forever missed: by his family, by his friends, by his creative peers and by his fans. We will treasure his great work forever and I know that I, for one, will always be inspired by much of his art. But we must never romanticize his desperation, his depression, or his final choice of suicide. Williams' work is full of examples of hope beyond what is seen, a silver lining in the dark clouds, and beauty in the midst of the hard times of life. I only wish he could have seen the very real truth in the stories he himself was so masterful at telling.

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