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Captains and Kings – farewell, Robin Williams

August 19, 2014

Williams

This time last week I woke up at 3 a.m. and did my customary lurch for phone and dry-eyed scan of app-chatter that eases by brain into solid thoughts. I’d had the kind of sleep which leaves you feeling raw – exposed to an insistent spotlight of unrest – because I was getting a car to the airport for an early work flight. I caught a series of half-mentions and mid-series tweets which even then I knew meant Robin Williams had died.

I picked through the tributes and the remembered favourite scenes. I read, for the first time, the guidelines surrounding the reporting of high-profile suicides. And, as we struck down an empty M4 and the sun rose up ahead of us, I read Walt Whitman four or five times. It was a self-indulgent bit of mourning, quiet tears as I marvelled at the bitter fit with Williams’ passing and subsequent exaltation.

I wrote a piece about Williams’ work, which is online here. This came from notes scribbled in the car as the dawn broke, and started with two things in particular that I wanted to articulate: Williams’ ability to play, which gave so much of his work a childlike quality, and the look I associate most with him that transitions him out of that play, a fading smile, an expression of animated joy that turns to a kind of benevolent understanding.

In the end I lost the specifics of that look, although it formed the basis of my description of Williams as a “performer whose understanding of humanity was based on a sensitivity to darkness and light.” But one thing I didn’t have room to mention at all – and the reason for this blog post – was something related to Williams’ role in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. Here’s what I did say:

In The Fisher King, a perfect Terry Gilliam mix of fairytale and squalid grandeur, Williams was Parry, a broken man whose emotional wounds sabotage his attempts to rebuild himself. The film captures a truth of mental illness for those who suffer it in the concrete reality of Parry’s thoughts, externalised with a typically Gilliam-esque flourish as a huge red knight wreathed in flames. It is about darkness striking at the light, the knight appearing as Parry is falling in love again, and about the disregard this darkness has for apparent happiness. “Please,” Parry begs, “Let me have this.”

Williams was open about his own battles with depression, and various people reacted to the news of his death with welcome discussion of mental illness. Letters Of Note tweeted a message Stephen Fry had written to a fan in 2006, which included this passage:

I’ve found that it’s of some help to think of one’s moods and feelings about the world as being similar to weather:
Here are some obvious things about the weather:
It’s real.

You can’t change it by wishing it away.

If it’s dark and rainy it really is dark and rainy and you can’t alter it.

It might be dark and rainy for two weeks in a row.
BUT
It will be sunny one day.

It isn’t under one’s control as to when the sun comes out, but come out it will.

One day.

I’m fortunate enough to have limited first-hand experience of depression – three or four abrupt dark patches, separated by years – but I recognise the resolute reality of the experience Fry describes, and I was grateful for the timing and simplicity of the message. “It will be sunny one day.” It was as close to the right thing to say that morning as it’s possible to get.

Then, later, when I was writing and thinking about The Fisher King, I was struck by how closely Fry’s analogy fits with the seasonal basis of the Fisher King myth, and the circular ideas of fertility and rebirth it embodies. I thought about what an astute choice the film’s writer, Richard LaGravenese, had made, in portraying a damaged man who would rise again, and best of all I thought about the richness and depth of Robin Williams’ films, and what astute choices he made. I will miss him.

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