The sad and shocking death of one of our most gifted entertainers, Robin Williams, seems to have touched people very deeply–far more deeply than the premature death of other celebrities.
I think there are two explanations as to why we have been moved so powerfully by his passing.
The first may be the role the Hollywood celebrity plays in our collective mindset. All cultures require figures upon which we can project both our fantasies and scorn. The British have royalty. We have movie stars.
The most famous actors portray a variety of archetypal characters throughout their careers–characters which embody the most primal and visceral aspects of our unconscious. Thus, Anthony Hopkins becomes the embodiment of evil in The Silence of the Lambs, elevating the character to iconic status.
Tom Hanks has found success as the personification of the “Everyman”–that which is good, right, and decent.
Williams played so many different roles. I think we projected on to him many things, of which the primary one was that of the Jester. He was the literal physical manifestation of comedy to those of us who first saw him on Happy Days right up through his latest on-stage comedic appearance.
So now we are robbed of him. We have lost the living vessel of comedy, the manifestation of mirth, the physical presence in which existed both the Happy and Sad Clown. No wonder we feel sad. No wonder we feel loss.
Many of us ask “why?” Why would Williams kill himself? A man whose primary driving force of life was that which sustains life–humor?
Let me tell you about depression. Those of you who suffer from depression, as I do (but mercifully, not nearly as badly as many), know how it operates. It smothers rational thought. It drapes a fog over all that is real, substituting despair and hopelessness in its place. It drains you of joy. When it is as awful and burdensome as Williams experienced, ending your life seems rational, as it is the only way to end the pain.
Some say that suicide as a result of depression is a choice. It is, in a manner of speaking, but it is a choice encouraged by a poisoned mind. One is, quite literally, not in his right mind when this choice is selected.
Christian readers will recognize the notion that Satan is also known as “The Prince of Lies,” or “The Great Deceiver.” It is why I consider depression to be a holistic illness, one in which chemical imbalance and/or external stimuli speak the darkest whispers in our minds, which all too quickly spreads to our souls.
For those who don’t suffer from depression, but know people who do, and wonder why we just “can’t snap out of it”, look to popular culture’s rare examples of depression. You’ve read the Harry Potter series, just think of a room full of Dementors, beings rightly associated with Lord Voldemort.
However, the one film you must see–absolutely must see–if you know someone with depression, is Lars Van Trier’s Melancholia. The film will give you understanding in a direct dramatic manner of how crippling depression is truly experienced. However, the film also provides a beautiful metaphorical mosaic of depression, in the sci-fi subplot which underlies the entire film.
A rogue planet named Melancholia has appeared from behind the sun. There is debate as to whether or not it will collide with Earth and destroy it although (this is not a spoiler) it’s made very clear what happens right at the beginning of the film.
The viewer thus not only experiences the very real dramatic aspects of depression, but the sci-fi-driven metaphor will provide you with a context that words can never express. Sound depressing, to coin a phrase? Well, yes and no.
The film is entertaining, as all films should be. Its visuals are striking. Its characters feel real. You care about them. Most of all, however, it will answer that question you have: “Why?”
For those who have seen the film and wonder about some of the imagery and character behavior: The path of the rogue planet represents how depression operates. It appears without warning from behind the sun (representing joy), circles us, siphons the oxygen from our atmosphere as it nears (representing a heaviness on our mood), before slamming into us full-force, obliterating everything.
Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is the only character who embraces the end of the world, for only in death can she be free of her affliction. That is why we see scenes of her basking in the glow of the rogue planet, for it is her salvation.
The images of Justine moving in super-slow-motion, surrounded by hyper-real imagery of her surroundings, against Wagner’s music, represents how those afflicted live daily life. All around them is beautiful, high-definition reality, yet they move as if unable to make a single step.
Meanwhile, the rational scientist, John (Kiefer Sutherland), represents the friends and family who surround the afflicted, who are in denial and cannot understand depression. When it becomes clear that Melancholia will strike us, he literally checks out by killing himself.
Popular culture can truly have impact on us. There are, however, films that go beyond impact, but truly offer understanding and insight in ways nothing else can. That’s why I regard Melancholia as having achieved the rare status of being High Art.
If you want to know why Williams made the choice he did, and learn how to empathize with those suffering from depression, I urge you to seek out the film.
Until then … let us all release a barbaric “yawp” in memory of a great talent.