In Memoriam: Robin Williams

I’m taking the news of Robin Williams’ death kind of hard. It’s kind of embarrassing because I didn’t know him; he was a celebrity. On a personal level, we had nothing to do with each other. And still, I felt like I knew him. Part of it is shock, which always comes with sudden death, especially when it’s suicide. Maybe another part is that I’ve been kind of depressed lately, and seeing the toll of severe depression on someone else is particularly affecting now.

Another reason is that he looks so much like my dad (who is, thankfully, still living). In my family, we’ve always talked about how much they’re alike. He’s only 10 years older than my dad, and they share the same first initial and last name—R. Williams. And, like Robin Williams, my dad loves to laugh and to make people laugh. So there’s always been a part of me that equates him with my dad, as if he were my dad’s famous doppelganger. It’s weird, I know.

And then there’s another reason that’s fairly convoluted.

I grew up with his movies, with his face on the screen. When I was little, he was Mrs. Doubtfire and, on reruns from my parents’ generation, Mork the alien. He was also Garp and a grown-up Peter Pan. Later (for me, anyway), he was John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society — my favorite character in one of my all-time favorite movies (seriously, my online handle for a long time was “dead poetess society,” it was that big of a deal for me) — and flamboyant, accommodating Armand in The Bird Cage. More recently, he was a comedian-turned-president in Man of the Year and a sensitive, downtrodden writer and father in World’s Greatest Dad, in which he was dark and sad and absolutely brilliant. I love these movies — they continue to resonate with me about the importance of humor in our lives and what it means to love, to live passionately, to be sensitive, and to be honest. I love these characters and the complexity with which Williams played them. He made them live, showing incredible emotional fluency and dexterity, and I’m grateful to him for it. They’ve influenced who I am today.

But, more than anything, it was his presence. The wonderful thing about him was that, while he was often spastic and sometimes bawdy, there was always this glimmer of genuine tenderness in him that was so magnetic. He had such kind eyes. He exuded intelligent sensitivity and a desire and respect for goodness that is rare in celebrity, especially comedians, whose witticisms are often marked by cynicism. He was uniquely intimate and vulnerable on screen. It’s that intimacy and tenderness that I’ll miss. It breaks my heart that it was central to his illness, but I’m grateful that he shared it with the world. I’m glad his soul is immortalized in his films, TV appearances, and standup comedy. I’m glad that he loved to make people laugh, and that we had a chance to give him our laughter for nearly forty years.

In some ways, he was like Dumbledore for my generation — funny, engaging, enigmatic, secretly struggling but always aiming for goodness. We never really knew him, but we felt like we did. I think that’s why it’s hitting us so hard. I’ve never seen such widespread mourning over a celebrity. With the exception of Michael Jackson, I’ve never seen so many people become so protective over a celebrity against media oversharing.

So maybe it’s not so embarrassing or even surprising to be upset about his death. He was an artist—an actor and a comedian. We take artists’ lives and deaths personally because, even though they’re strangers, they’re in our homes and lives daily—in the movies we watch, the books and magazines we read, the music we listen to, and so on. Their work is part of the fabric of our culture. Artists rely on us to sustain them while they do what they love, and we rely on them to provide us with meaning through their craft. And Williams was so authentic in everything he did, most of all in real life.

As John Keating said, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” In many ways, Robin Williams did change the world. For the better.

The Tao of the Airbender

For the past few weeks, my husband and I have been watching Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender between our Netflix DVD rentals. So far, we’ve made it half-way through Book 2. My husband knew about the show years before, but I wasn’t aware of it until I saw a preview last month for M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, which piqued my curiosity, thanks to my hopeless affinity for movies involving any kind of psychokinesis.

I have to say: I’m thrilled that there is a kids’ TV series out there (canceled though it may be) that blends Eastern and Western values. There’s that familiar American go-get-em, believe-in-yourself-and-you-can-fulfill-your-dreams attitude, as well as a healthy feminist strain throughout. But the show also promotes less familiar virtues, like flexibility and balance within oneself and in one’s interactions with others. It shows the complex humanity of all kinds of people, which breaks down that too-easy black-and-white paradigm with which our world is burdened. It shows the value of different kinds of people, from the lighthearted and transcendent Airbenders and the compassionate Waterbenders to the stolid Earthbenders and the passionate, impulsive Firebenders. That may, in fact, be the show’s greatest virtue: its lack of preference for one way or another, its ability to see the value and beauty of all cultures. I also love that the series addresses monism (i.e. the idea that everything is connected, the same and indistinguishable, and difference is an illusion) and the illusion of time (that it doesn’t exist beyond human perception). Those are heavy concepts — for kids and adults — but they were handled in such a way that I think an 11 year old could grasp it. It’s a breath of fresh air to see that kind of thinking in an American show and is the reason I watch.

Because I’ve become such a fan of the show, I’m a little wary of the upcoming film adaptation. Judging from the previews, it seems like it’s going to be a typical superhero action film that includes little of the philosophy of the TV series. From the little dialogue that’s shown in the previews, it seems to latch onto the American go-get-em, believe-in-yourself aspect of the series, but doesn’t make time for the Eastern philosophical aspect. Granted, you can’t really rely on previews to show exactly what the film is about, and they would naturally want to focus on the action and visuals as much as possible to appeal to a larger audience. I just don’t want them to do what was done to The Golden Compass — very little exposure to or explanation of the nature and philosophy of the world, but a lot of suspense and fighting. I’m afraid that two-thirds of the movie will be chase scenes or fighting sequences, rather than the journeys and discoveries of the characters that make the show meaningful. Still, I do plan on seeing the film (in 2-D? 3-D?) and am looking forward to it; I’m just not going to get my hopes up. If all else fails, it promises to at least be a visually stunning film in its own right. And who knows? It could end up being more meaningful than I anticipate. And I’d rather risk having a pleasant surprise than a disappointing experience.

Update: The movie wasn’t meaningful in the slightest. In fact, it was worse than I ever imagined. A voice-over actually narrated the action as it was happening and the plot was choppy and full of holes. The best I can say about it was that it was visually appealing. I think Shyamalan should stick to directing and let someone else write the screenplay from now on.