Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Romance of the Fall

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.


Edward Cline said...

"I thought you were dead," was the repeated line to Snake Pliskin in "Escape from New York." I thought Robin Williams was dead, too. I'd heard nothing about him for years, and was glad of it. It was a reasonable assumption. So, Mork has Orked, and MIndy must be in mourning. If she isn't already dead, too. I could not stand the man. I remember, years ago, when I worked for a swank New York hotel as a "room manager." Williams came to the front desk to check in. The girl handling him made some sort of error, and he chewed her out in the loudest, most profane and abusive way and left the girl in tears. The hotel manager gave him a free room, and the only mistake the girl made was booked him on the wrong floor, a ritzy floor one floor down from the penthouse suite. He was your typical moralizer on screen but a lout in private and in public.

Anonymous said...

There's still room for compassion in this story. He suffered from bipolar disorder and alcoholism, which most likely played a significant role in his death.


meema said...

Plain old truth, by contrast, to a society that prefers illusion, seems exceptionally harsh and way too real for fake life. Daniel, when you say the plain old truth that I was thinking but dare not speak because it seems too harsh, I am stunned at my own cowardice. Thank you for your bravery. I’m encouraged to know there is a glimmer of it left in this dying age.

Anonymous said...

". . . Rolling Stone, Axel Foley; That's what it is."

AG said...

Robin Williams was a recognizable star from the 1970's to the present cutting across several generations whether his latest endeavors were instant classics or not. Lauren Bacall was a star from the 1940's- until maybe the 1960's. Most people under 40 saw the story of her passing and said "Who?" I doubt anyone had to question who Robin Williams was. If anything, Bacall did do a recent movie, so some might have said, "Oh, she was that old lady from that movie, what was it called?"

This is why there is more attention given to Robin Williams. Sure, he wasn't at the peak of his career at the moment, but he was still consistently working through out the last several decades. Lauren Bacall will be remembered for that one and only famous line from that movie shot before the invention of color or CGI. Robin Williams has 5 movies set to be released this year, Lauren Bacall hasn't been the star of a film or television show in decades.

Robin Williams was also beloved by the troops which adds quite a bit to this. He was a regular on USO tours, and unlike some celebrities that fly in, do a quick photo op and leaves, Williams constantly proved his commitment by performing, doing hours and hours of meet and greets and displaying a passion to be there among us that was very rare for USO regulars.

He will be missed, Bacall has been missed already for many decades.

Anonymous said...

Well said and well done. Great work on comparing Lauren Bacall and Robin Williams. You are spot on with your observations and you rendered them in a direct yet tactful way. Thanks.......Jim

Anonymous said...

'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.'

This is what Dietrich Bonhoffer talks about in that first chapter of The Cost of Discipleship, the difference between cheap grace and costly grace.

Kate Powell

denisO said...

For what it's worth, I have understood him as another person happiest when out of his skin. He loved to play wacky roles, and quickly gravitated to them as an escape from a troubled, hormonally unbalanced mind. I have checked-in to many hotels when exhausted and irritable, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on the general lout image. There are louts, and there are occasional louts.
Suicide, public or private, is a real attention-grabber, as most everyone, at least once, thought it an option when things looked bleakest, so seeing it happen to someone we know that "has everything" has genuine shock value.
Depression is insidious; it was explained to me by a Psychiatrist, as simply an improper hormonal flow that confuses the brain. It distracts and deceives, causing fear that often induces an adrenalin rush, as our survival--driven lower brain tries to save us. Once it is understood to be a hormonal thing, it becomes less confusing, and understandably less incapacitating then Parkinson's disease, caused by a similar hormonal imbalance. It starts to look like a cast on a broken leg, tough, but not that bad.
Drugs and alcohol are famous self-medicating cures that have their own worse consequences, but are the black default choice that always tempt deeper depression episodes and more disabling confusion. Some of the best entertainers can escape their mental confusion by jumping into a new character, easily; their drug and alcohol problems understood symptoms of depression. Stress is the usual trigger, another reason it is considered a "killer".

Peeved said...

Meh. So the crazy alcoholic killed himself because he was getting older and "broke." And he did it in his house. Way to ruin your family's living quarters. Rather selfish if you ask me. He joins his unfunny buddy andy kaufman in the I won't miss him at all category. However, he did entertain the troops, so he gets bonus points for that and ridiculing jihad. Did anyone write a song about him with a line "just like Bogey and Bacall?" ppfftt

Edward Cline said...

Notice how the MSM fawns over Robin Williams and sends him tons of electronic flowers. He was their kind of hero: an anti-American, sneering, second-rate comedian. He simply wasn't funny, but say he was often enough, and everyone will think he was. He was another Alan Alda, who could always parley his antics into a lefty political message or give everyone the royal finger.

AG said...

Sorry Edward, but you are way off base accusing him of being "anti-American".

meema said...

I rarely ever add more than my first two cents but I really feel the urge to add a couple more thoughts on this. First, the issue, for me, is not about the tragedy of someone so well known killing himself for whatever reason. The issue, as I interpreted it, is the absurdity of the clamor and fuss over one man, albeit a talented man, almost to the point of making him into some kind of demi-god, a ‘national treasure’ as has been offered. I’m thinking a posthumous Pulitzer in the works?

The problem isn’t the tragedy of Robin William’s emotional problems or his perceived talent, the problem is our society’s shallowness and rapturous rush to accolades just because this man was a celebrity and the MSM needed something new to get our minds off the world exploding.

What about the man no one knew except his family and friends? The man who went to war, served his country and paid his dues, came home and settled into a decent life, raised a family, paid his taxes and ultimately died because of a corrupted VA more interested in fat bonuses than meting out health care to deserving vets? Where is the social media explosion on his death? His story isn’t glamorous enough, of course. What are our definers for greatness now?

Our perceptions are skewed and warped, in this fake life society, this matrix, that cannot discern the difference between what defines a good and righteous man who deserves tributes and a man whose face and name is known so his reality can be ignored, because of technology and an ever creeping population of glazed over, dumbed down, narcissistic selfies who crave the sugar highs of fame even if it is vicarious.

Pascal Fervor said...

Sultan Knish has laid out an unspoken question:

Is West the genius culture seeking its own demise because it now feels unloved and is haunted by past glory now out of reach?

Robert What? said...

I was never a Robin Williams fan. I could never take the ever-present simper. But I do understand the terrible toll depression can take. I am very envious of people who don't understand depression.

I am sure it was exacerbated by his financial struggles based largely on huge alimony payments. He faced starting all over at 63 with depression, drinking, financial problems, etc, and probably decided he just couldn't hack it.

Anonymous said...

Good essay, as always, Daniel. But I would add one thing: character-building is always and only an individual choice (see Kipling's poem "If").

As far as Robin is concerned, it is terribly sad when someone kills himself. I have to say that, of the 20 people who survived a jump from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge (tiny fraction), ALL of them said that the instant their feet left the span, they thought "Oh, s**** ". . ., and all of them were Very glad they had survived. Something to ponder.

Anonymous said...

Stirring, true, emotional, and convincing, this is perhaps the very best piece that I've ever read on your site! Our society is only interested in it's life of leisure, as the world "burns."

Olah in Nahariya said...

In the second half of your essay, I was reading 'Hamas' instead of 'Williams', Part of the West's attraction to Muslim terrorists must be this nihilism, as well as the anti-Semitism and the inability to take responsibility for anything, that they share in common.

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