On reflection I liked Robin Williams because of (a) watching Mork and Mindy as a kid, (b) seeing him on talk shows, and (c) his roles in a handful of films.
Thinking back on it now the only things I remember about Mork and Mindy were the opening credits, and the weird little homilies at the end where Mork explained to a big booming voice what he had learned about humans. I think that if I watched these homilies now I would roll my eyes, but as a kid they made an impression on me. Can I remember a single thing said in these speeches? No. It was more of a feeling. A calmness after the storm. A quality of warmth and a sense of compassion for the human predicament.
Which is why I liked him in a few movies because he demonstrated that same spirit in them: Dead Poets’ Society, Awakenings and Good Will Hunting. I have re-watched two of them since his death.
That scene near the start of Dead Poets’ Society where we first meet Robin Williams’ character Keating is still electric to me. He takes his class out into the hall where the old school photos and trophies are kept in glass cases and has them read some poetry.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying
Then we come to the moment he asks them to look, to really look, at the faces of the boys who came to the school before them, and to reflect that they now are food for worms. Carpe diem.
And now, of course, he is dead. It’s a fact that I’m not happy about: the death of Robin Williams. Brand describes him perfectly; his talent came like
…chaotic clarity that lashed like an electric cable, that razzed and sparked with amoral, puckish wonder….
Which is what I loved about his talk show appearances. You never knew what crazy shit was going to come out of his mouth. Brand and Letterman have both described their sense of wonder at Williams’ ability to simply open a valve and have insanity/comedy come pouring out. While other comedians sat up late refining jokes Williams simply turned on a tap. I vividly remember him on one Letterman appearance talking about touring Asia and the unbridled fascination many of the Asians had for his splendidly hirsute forearms and hands. He leapt from his chair and began portraying a fawning Asian fan stroking his arms while simultaneously portraying himself as a strutting braggart; a god of hair if you will. I had problems breathing watching this.
And now we know that all of this came in part from a place of despair; like so much that is brilliant in the world seems to. To me Robin’s despair does explain the warmth of the man on screen in films like Dead Poets’ Society, Awakenings and Good Will Hunting. I’m not sure that you can know true compassion without knowing despair.
A few people have said that the only movie that captures Williams is Aladdin, and I think that is right. If you want to see the “chaotic clarity that lashed like an electric cable, that razzed and sparked with amoral, puckish wonder” then Aladdin is where you see it. Re-watching Dead Poets’ Society I was less moved overall than I remember being. Robin Williams is good, but the boys are better. In Good Will Hunting he is very good but he’s not giving us the full Williams: so to speak. In Aladdin it is very much like he had free reign to be Robin Williams. In fact, he had free reign to be what Robin Williams could have been if the rules of physics were different; he had finally found a place where he could be himself to the uttermost possible limit.
It must be very hard for those who were close to Robin to understand that he has gone. It must be like a source of power has gone off in the room; the hum that was always there has suddenly disappeared and what is left is a long, lonely silence. At this distance, on the other side of the world, unknown to him or his family, it makes me sad that he decided to go. Up close, in the house he once lived, in the shared memories of family and friends, it must be hard indeed.
I suppose that I really wanted to say was: thanks for making me laugh my arse off.