This one hurts a little. Robin Williams wasn’t just some celebrity comedian whose name everyone seemed to know. His natural gifts as a performer and well-demonstrated desire to try new things made him an artist worth watching. A kind of chaotic spirit who possessed deceptive quantities of discipline to produce more moments of brilliance than a lot of us will be able to match in our lifetimes.
Those same gifts also made him a mainstream dynamo. Williams’ acting performances were ubiquitous in my youth. He was everywhere – from the movies that captivated the young know-it-all writer in me like Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society, to the movies I just could not get away from like Jumanji, Hook, or Mrs. Doubtfire. And then there were the ones that I’ve come to love more as the years go on like Awakenings and The Fisher King. Regardless of the quality or artistic integrity of the productions he starred in, Williams was so reliably him that his passing feels more like the extinction of a rare species of bird or life-sustaining plant.
The fact that he committed suicide should not solely be a reason to ignite the “depression is real and it hurts” issue, which is a very worthy topic of discussion. We should also consider that the very essence of comedy – not just in the standup industry, but also through the funny people we know in our everyday lives – often comes from pain, and the two are irretrievably linked. A joke is a way of subconsciously acknowledging a shared burden, one that might be derived from oppressive social norms or the individual blunders we all worry about. The entire story engine of Mrs. Doubtfire, for example, relies on a father’s desperation to reunite his family. Every comedic situation in this movie springs from that core of motivating pain.
Though it may not seem obvious to anyone on the outside looking in, many performers are on the front lines of experiencing pain. That’s where their job takes place. They’re not “tortured geniuses”, a term that just lets us off the hook for being more empathetic; they’re studied observers of the people around them. In order to pull laughter out of us, they need to acutely feel all the awkwardness and shame and whatever else we try to bury, then shoot it back out into the world as a relatable joke. And then joke after joke, we can breathe a little easier because that person has taken the time to explicitly state what’s bothering us and why.
Sometimes, though, staying too close to that pain becomes overwhelming for even the most seasoned comedians. And it sucks. At least in Williams’ case we can enjoy his massive body of work. But his level of stardom and success is rare, so where does that leave everyone else?
Empathy is the only way forward.
As part of my life as a freelance copywriter, I collaborate with Format.com‘s team to create weekly online articles over at ExploreCreateRepeat.com that speak to the joys and challenges of creatives – meaning: people engaged with professional creative work like design, photography, web development, and yes, copywriting too.
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I’ve been reading a lot of books and seeing some great films lately. Not every one of them is worth recommending, but here are a few of the favourites I’ve come across so far this summer.
Stoner by John Williams (1965) has exploded in popularity over the past year, having been branded as a forgotten gem of American literature by Ian McEwan along with some arts reviewers, bloggers, and columnists. I’m usually suspicious of high-brow hype, but I’m still pretty susceptible to it (see my experience reading The Goldfinch). The book follows William Stoner, a downtrodden-by-circumstance university professor who doesn’t exactly jump off the page with ambition to change his world. Life seems to pile up on him instead: he marries the wrong woman and meekly exists in cloistered academia. But near the middle of the book, things change for him significantly. Although the pacing is a little sluggish and Stoner’s challenges seem unremarkable, the straightforward style of Stoner is really inviting. It feels like the work of a writer whose ego is in-check and is willing to allow his character’s journey to carry the book. By the time I turned the last page, I was pleasantly surprised with the overall experience.
On the other end of the ego spectrum, I also read Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island (2005). This is the second book I’ve read from Houellebecq so I thought I knew what to expect, style-wise. But in contrast to The Map and the Territory (his latest translated into English), he pursues a more philosophical sci-fi concept that looms over the arc of a doomed affair. The primary narrator is a crass theatre professional who’s emotionally awakened by an intense sexual relationship with a young woman – all while he’s being befriended by a cult that believes in immortality through successively recreating a human life over and over through time. It’s a complex book that invites the reader to work a little, which I like. But as with The Map and the Territory, I’m constantly on the fence on whether Houellebecq’s smuttiness complements or detracts from his exploration of larger ideas. He’s an interesting author, so I’ll have to cue up his earlier work next (The Elementary Particles).
I still rent DVDs, meaning I physically go into a video store and select a physical box from a physical shelf. I like this kind of “analog” selection process that relies more on impulse or something catching your eye, a film that might be missed if you only chose what to watch based on what you’ve already watched. (To hell with your algorithms, Google/iTunes/Amazon.) Case in point: I went into my preferred video shop – The Film Buff on Roncesvalles Avenue in Toronto – and grabbed a copy of Like Someone in Love, directed by Abbas Kiarostami (2012). I won’t share any plot details because I think you should have the same viewing experience I did. But I will say that it’s a narrowly-focused story told over 109 minutes and has a great ending that leaves you with just the right amount of uncertainty. I totally fell in love with the small cast of characters.
The other film I’d recommend was a birthday gift from my parents. I mentioned to them that I’m always up for Criterion Collection films, so they sent me Italian director Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). It’s a staunchly anti-fascist film that’s a little dark and a little fanciful. The effect of Petri’s portrayal of an individual corrupted by his own conspicuous authority is pretty memorable stuff. Often, when a leftist filmmaker makes an overtly political film, the focus is on the heroism of the left in the face of a cruel and corrupt right-wing establishment. Investigation‘s power lies in how it criticizes fascism from within a singular character’s journey. It’s captivating stuff – plus the Criterion release comes with a couple of great essays and video interviews with Petri’s collaborators. Worthy summer viewing for film geeks.
Tumblr just told me I’ve been with them for three years, which is odd because I always forget I have a tumblr. Almost always.
I (infrequently) post my favourite sentences written by authors I love on worldentire.tumblr.com. Sometimes when I’m reading a book, a single line will leap out at me because of some unique feature. Maybe it’s alarmingly long or short and incisive. I’m always impressed by sentences that walk that fine line between genius and self-indulgent hackery. You can often tell the difference by reading it more than once.
I read these sentences dozens of times, trying to figure out how they were created. It’s like my equivalent to tinkering with a toaster in the basement. Why do these sentences grab my attention while thousands of others just float away as soon as I read them?
My first post is a good example of what I’m talking about:
Then they set out along the blacktop in the gun-metal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.
– Cormac McCarthy, ‘The Road’
There’s so much packed into these 20 words. It’s the small choices McCarthy makes that really fascinate me: he describes the road as “the blacktop”, which is a far more evocative image; there are few descriptive colours that could replace how well “gun-metal light” reflects the physical environment in The Road; the minor descriptive clause that McCarthy sneaks in the middle, “shuffling through the ash”, doubles-up on the apocalyptic imagery; and then the coup de grâce, “each the other’s world entire”.
That last part has stuck with me from the moment I first read it years ago. He could have easily written “each the other’s entire world”, which is a minor change, but it turns the phrase into a pop-song cliché. Reversing an all-too-common sentiment of “entire world” into “world entire” creates an instantly memorable construction and achieves a kind of poetic connection between the characters McCarthy’s referencing. So you have the combination of “blacktop”, “gun-metal light”, “ash”, and then a vivid expression of a powerful interpersonal bond. It’s amazing stuff because it so perfectly encapsulates the essence of what this book is all about.
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