I came home from the movies last night, unaware of the news that Robin Williams had taken his own life. There are a number of news reports (and more will follow) about his challenges with addiction and depression: and it is my sincere hope that it will raise awareness, and people will seek and find help in their own lives.
Williams is often thought of primarily for his remarkable manic and rapid-fire comic style, but is career is filled with movies that are fertile grounds for the intersection of pop culture, religion, and ethics. Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King are two that I’ve led conversations on, but Awakenings, Good Morning Vietnam, and the obvious What Dreams May Come would also work quite well.
Good Morning Vietnam, to me, is actually still underrated because Williams' historical (and hysterical) monologues tend to dominate our memories. But in addition to lots of laughs, the movie was a striking look at Vietnam, and explored how wars were censored (no “real news” allowed, less people might be reminded that there was a “conflict” going on), relationships were challenged, and real heartbreak in the midst of a war zone. The use of Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”, set with the images of the war, is among the most powerful use of a classic song in a movie (and forever challenged and changed the way I heard the song). I am always struck at how I'm laughing throughout the closing words, when all of a sudden, I find myself crying.
Dead Poets Society is most likely my favorite Williams movie. The movie challenged the point of education (create rule followers, or people who will think for themselves). It brilliantly used Walt Whitman and other classic poets to connect with the promise and passion of life, the message to “seize the day”, and “contribute your verse”.
The contrast of the two leading students and roommates, the outgoing, passionate Neil, and the quiet and reserved Todd, was central to the story. Williams chemistry (as Professor Keating) with the young actors was essential to showing their character's growth as human beings. As Todd was pulled out of his shell by Keating and Neil, Williams shows just the perfect amount of subtle worry that Neil is not be honest with his father.
And of course, Neil isn’t. And it leads to his suicide.
The actor Kurtwood Smith (in a phenomenal performance) is the kind of strict unyielding father you love to hate in movies. But every heart breaks when he cries out “Neil!!! Neil!!! Oh my God!!! Oh, my son!!!”
The cascade of profound loss and consequence the suicide has in the film is so real and immense.
I can’t help but lament that Williams could not remember the power and message of this movie, and that he wasn’t able to translate it to the profound loss people now have over his suicide. Depression is a powerful force that can isolate the strongest of people.
O ME! O life!... of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.
---Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
I trust that Williams is at peace with God, as I pray for his family and friends who now mourn and find ways to carry on.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.