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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Robin Williams RIP

deadpoetssociety

Robin Williams is dead, apparently by suicide. His work, from his manic standup to his intense dramatic performances, was often so fierce because he was clearly playing out his own emotional turmoil in a way that was raw, real, and sometimes almost terrifying.

I wish I could say that I was surprised this morning to hear of his death. Sad, yes. But not surprised. Just as fame, fortune, and success cannot conquer cancer, they cannot conquer mental illness.

It’s absolutely awful that it seems there was nothing that could make the world better for him.


My favorite Williams role? Probably Dead Poets Society. It’s a great movie overall, but Williams’s performance as a teacher imparting the joys of words, of imagination, and of living an unconventional life was probably a bigger influence on me as a person than I realized at the time.

Yours?


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  • Anne Frances Sangil

    Dead Poets Society, too. I’m a Lit prof because of him. His Mr. Keating continues to be my inspiration in what I do.

  • Bluejay

    I was very sad to hear about this, and unlike you, I *was* shocked. I knew he had mental problems but didn’t realize the depth of them — or assumed he’d been more troubled in his youth but was doing better in his later years — and considered him one of the institutions of my childhood that would stick around for a long time to come.

    His role in Dead Poets is the one that sticks in my mind the most. And it’s so damn sad and ironic that he committed suicide, as in my mind he’s the inspiring teacher who was devastated by his student’s suicide.

    I also loved him in Hook. It was (as far as I recall) the perfect showcase for his gravitas as the careworn adult Peter and his mischievousness as the newly reborn Pan, and for how he found a way to reconcile both. I’m an atheist, but if there *is* an afterlife I’d like to imagine that Robin Williams is flying and romping around like this.

  • I was shocked by this. I really didn’t know much of anything about his depression or mental problems.
    I’ll never understand how someone can take their own life, but without being in his head, or even talking to him about his issues, what the hell do I know? Nothing, except that I’m sad that he’s gone. Damn.

  • Danielm80

    I spent most of last night not watching Robin Williams videos. I needed to watch them, but crying is exactly what you don’t want to do while you’re watching a comedy special. The more hilarious the jokes are, the worse it gets. This morning, I watched a few clips. Entertainment Weekly has a great selection:

    http://popwatch.ew.com/2014/08/11/16-essential-robin-williams-moments-outside-of-tv-and-film/

    Some of his films are terrific. I love the “It’s not your fault” scene from Good Will Hunting. It works because he repeats the line one too many times and then keeps on doing it. (It’s a technique that also works really well in comedy.) But when he performed stand-up, he was a creature that didn’t exist anywhere else on the planet.

    It makes me like our society a little better knowing that stand-up comedy is an actual occupation. You have one job duty: Make people laugh.

    It must have been horrible for him. He was going through awful depression, and he said some of the funniest things in human history. I’m not going to call it heroic–that’s the wrong word–but it was certainly brave. He wasn’t heroic. He was necessary. We needed him, and now we don’t have him anymore.

  • Rod Ribeiro

    Shouldn’t we get past this Romantic (as in 19th century’s) idea of troubled artists are great because they’re troubled?

  • ErinM

    Most often (and as a visual artist with dozens of friends in arts across the spectrum), I would completely agree with you, as this is usually a damaging idea that plays out in all the wrong ways. However, perhaps the distinction here is that while not all (or even most) greatness comes from pain, pain can still be a wellspring for an artist to draw from. And as MaryAnn says above, the sort of manic intensity Robin Williams brought to his work suggests that he in particular was very familiar with pulling work out of pain.

  • I think it’s pretty clear that creativity and emotional/mental issues sometimes do go together. Not always… and not always in a way beneficial to the creativity.

    You might want to check out the film *Frank,* which addresses this.

  • I’ll never understand how someone can take their own life

    I think that might be kind of like saying, “I’ll never understand how someone could get cancer.” Mental illness — which clinical depression is — is a real physical illness. It’s not a matter of deciding to be ill. It’s brain chemistry gone wrong.

  • I love that site.

    When I read stuff like this, it makes me realize that even though I get depressed, it’s never in a clinical way.

    Maybe we need two different words for the different kinds of depression.

  • Rod Ribeiro

    To paraphrase the very first lines of House of Cards, there’s pain because shit happens and you have to outgrow it and there’s unnecessary suffering. If you are to make a living out of art, you should avoid the latter, and have a backup plan in case the first is missing.

    (I’m a ghostwriter and cynical by nature, for True Artists it’s probably best to discount some of the above.)

  • DSM has chapters on different kinds. In the end there’s chronic (mild) depression and clinical (major) depression. Being bi-polar and/or manic is sometimes part of it too.

  • Right. But we also use the word “depression” to indicate an emotional state that isn’t actually something that would warrant a clinical diagnosis. It would be like if we used the same word to describe brain cancer and a headache. (That’s a bad analogy, but you get what I mean, I think.)

  • Kathy_A

    The first film I saw him that made me think “Hey, he can really act!” was Moscow on the Hudson, a film that is sadly forgotten in his body of work but really deserves another look. What anchors it is the truly meloncholic tone he has as a Soviet defector in NYC.

  • ErinM

    ‘Should avoid the latter’ implies that he was seeking out unnecessary suffering to make himself better. If suffering is just of the ‘shit happens, you’re clinically depressed’ nature though, it really does seem like he was bringing an extraordinary amount of good out of those inherently shitty circumstances. (And does ‘unnecessary suffering’ even make sense as something we can always see coming in advance, rather than in retrospect?)

    I know that opening House of Cards scene, but I’m not sure what you mean by ‘have a backup plan’ — a plan in case you never went through the suffering that makes you stronger?

    Regardless, ‘cynical by nature’ is all well and good, so feel free to tear in as you see fit.

  • Ah, that moment when he whispers. “I defect.” So wonderful.

  • Jonathan Roth

    I’m a sucker for his work.

    Hell, I loved _Toys_.

  • Joy

    I love Toys, too…I also love Popeye!! I am distraught over his death…more upset than when actual blood relatives passed away.

  • Rod Ribeiro

    Shit happens that is clinical doesn’t just happen if the sick avoid treatment of substitute it for drugs. Bob Marley didn’t die of cancer, but from his religious beliefs.

    By a backup plan, I mean have other wellsprings. Not in pain, can’t write/sing/paint about pain, let’s use joy instead. Or boredom. Or new-found spirituality. Or gay vampires.

    (My father was in offshore drilling, so I spent the best part of my adolescence in Angola and coastal Brazil, where a singer called Renato Russo sold platinum albums with ALL these topics. Seriously. Then he got AIDS ’cause True Artists are supposed to die young.)

  • Jonathan Roth

    Unfortunately, it’s often a fine line, and our brains are terrible at self-diagnosis. I know I have a lot of issues in my life where I wonder if I’m over-reacting or under-reacting to my own mental states.

  • Jonathan Roth

    He was perfectly cast in that.

  • I can still not understand it, because I’ve never been that deep down in my life. I have my share of anxiety, and maybe even mild depression at times, but certainly never anything diagnosed or of a clinical nature.
    It’s hard for anyone who hasn’t been there to understand. Just like I can’t understand how someone with Parkinsons or cancer goes through.

  • Robert P

    Thought I’d mention a film of his some might not be familiar with that I found by random pick at a video store and really liked – but apparently me and about six other people have heard of it – “Seize The Day” – odd coincidence (?) given Dead Poets Society. Just now saw on Rotten Tomatoes that it was made for TV.

    He did a quirky voice cameo in one of my all-time favorite films A.I. Curiously he starred in Bicentennial Man which was similar – surprised it didn’t do well, I recall liking it.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot does well in creating a vivid picture of clinical mania and depression.

  • Tonio Kruger

    All deaths seem inevitable in hindsight if for no other reason that not one of us is immortal, no matter how much we would like to think otherwise.

    That said, Mr. Williams’ death took me by surprise too.

    And it appears that there was even more to the story than it seemed at first — which is why it is usually a good idea to say as little as possible about such deaths beyond the obvious condolences to his loved ones.

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