Robin Williams is the keyword of the hour. Seeing the rash of stories about him, you might think that he went out at the high point of his career. And yet those same people couldn't be bothered to actually watch the movies he was starring in.
The closest he came to a starring role in the last few years was Old Dogs. It made less than $50 million. Before that there was License to Wed. A handful of people saw that.
Last year he was back on television. And the show he was on was cancelled after its first season.
The same public eating up Robin Williams stories now was bored and disinterested. A week ago, it wouldn't have paid attention to Robin Williams if he had paid them to. It didn't go to see his movies. It didn't watch his TV show.
Now that he committed suicide, it temporarily can't get enough of him.
History is speedily rewritten to put him at the center of everything. And yet how many of those same people turning him into the trending topic of everything tuned in to the series finale of The Crazy Ones? The ratings say that not a whole lot of people did.
What makes Robin Williams suddenly so fascinating and compelling is that he killed himself. It's not just that he's dead. It's that he died tragically. It's that he took his own life.
Lauren Bacall, an arguably greater star, isn't picking up the same headlines. She didn't kill herself. There's no terribly compelling backstory of drugs, depression and failed marriages to pick over as the cause of her death.
She just died.
If Robin Williams had died of natural causes, he would have lingered briefly in the news before being shouldered aside by a pop star's outfit. It's his self-destruction that makes his story a magnet for a society that is destroying itself.
It's one thing to slow down to gawk at a car accident, but it's another thing to do it while your own car is crashing into a concrete barrier.
The society that can't get enough of a man who killed himself is killing itself in much the same ways. It suffers from impulse control problems, it's addictions are out of control, it ricochets wildly between frenzied pleasure seeking and deep depression. It has no hope for the future but is constantly cracking jokes.
Robin Williams was on a streak in the nineties. Then his career died in the oughts.
I'm not particularly familiar with what was going on in his personal life, but one obvious metric is that he passed the fifty mark. He was now officially old. Within a few years the career of an actor who had regularly been starring in big movies was gone.
Our society doesn't like getting old. Many of the people mourning Williams are really mourning their own youth. They're marking dates on a calendar, scrolling back to see when Good Morning Vietnam or even Good Will Hunting came out and wondering if so much time could have really passed.
But the society of the cliff, the one that is slowing down to gawk as his body is being wheeled into an ambulance while their car is going over the cliff, finds the instinct of self-destruction compelling. In feeling sorry for him, they are really feeling sorry for themselves.
And that is the new role of fame, to embody not the hopeful and the vibrant, but the destructive. To entertain the people and then to die for the people. To distract the audience from its own mortality.
The compelling stories are no longer on screen, they are off screen. Movies and television are becoming the background for the reality dramas of fame. Audiences are less interested in cinematic evocations of hope, in the dramas of morality and heroism. They prefer the real life dramas of people made famous making fools of themselves in public until they either leave the stage or die.
Robin Williams never left the stage.
This isn't about Robin Williams, who was after all someone's father and someone's husband. Our country is run, politically and culturally, by men and women who make him seem like the soul of rectitude. They just don't announce it on stage. Or when they do, like David Carr or Barack Obama, they spin it as part of their upward trajectory. But there is no upward trajectory.
Our society is dying because we traded the virtues of character for fake inspiration. And fake inspiration is ridiculously cheap and ridiculously worthless. It asks nothing of people and it gives them nothing.
Robin Williams mimed that kind of inspiration in countless movies. And he wasn't the only one. What Obama offered America was the same empty hopeless hope, the invocation of an artificial inspiration created through tone and expression, but that asked nothing of our character.
Deep down everyone can sense the hollowness. It's what leads them to stop and gawk. The crowds who want inspiration are really looking for something darker. They want a hope to save them from themselves. They want some inspiration that will prevent them from seeing who they really are. And if they can't have that, they want an excuse for their deaths and the death of their society.
Actors understand better than anyone that there is no escaping from ourselves. It's the audience that is fooled. It's the audience that wants to believe in inspiration and immortality, and when the belief dies, it weeps over the corpse of the performer, tastes his despair and then moves on.
Character means making difficult decisions and taking responsibility for them. It's not something that our society does anymore. Too many of us have diseases or are victims or somehow disadvantaged. Character is individualistic. It asks us to walk the only path of escape from our own flaws by taking responsibility for them.
The alternative is the romance of the fall. The car headed for the concrete barrier. The society of the cliff pointing and laughing even while it's waiting to fall. Crowds begging for fake inspiration and dying as eternal victims because no one ever taught them how to choose life.
Each generation is called upon to take responsibility for its own choices. The failure to take responsibility is the death drive. Those who refuse to take responsibility are choosing death and the willingness to die attracts them. It embodies the death drive that their beliefs naturally lead to.
They romanticize death because they have chosen to abdicate their lives. Their deaths are a slow thing and may take generations to complete. It is a choice that they can always undo. The romance of the fall always ends in shadow. The end of character is also the death of the soul and the society.