The death of Robin Williams: “R.I.P., whoever you were”

When I was little, I remember being strongly moved by the paralysis of Christopher Reeve in a horse-riding accident: a shocking moment for any child who loved the old Superman films. I even started keeping a little folder of newspaper clippings on him as a private tribute, feeling that the injury was an historic event worth commemorating.

i-pic8I wasn’t really worried about Reeves the actor, of course – I was worried about Superman. Looking back now I can distinguish between those two gentlemen, and appreciate their respective achievements. At age nine, I didn’t really see the difference. Of course I knew that what I saw on the screen wasn’t real, but I didn’t quite believe it. Not all the way through.

That’s how fiction works. Outside of severe mental illness, we are always aware of the artifice, but we ignore it for the sake of entertainment. It’s not really even a choice – we can’t help ourselves. If you scare me on-screen, I fear you. If you look sexy, I’ll desire you. If you make me laugh, you are my friend.

Although Robin Williams’ heyday was surely behind him, it was recent enough that his passing has triggered outpourings of real affection and grief spanning older and younger generations. People aren’t just surprised or saddened at his death – they loved the man. Except, of course, most of them didn’t really know the man, outside of his performances in six or seven movies all made at least ten years ago.

robin_williams_01Our impressions of famous performers, even if their performances have made a profound impression on us, are never more than distorted fragments of the actual person. Again, this is something we all know in theory, but find it hard to really believe, and it’s a sickening wrench when we see something that bursts our bubble. You don’t even need to pry into somebody’s personal life to find examples of this – just watching Williams’ old stand-up comedy routines will be tough for anyone who knows and loves him from his film performances. Stripped of that wounded, human sensitivity he always mixed with humour on-screen, his live act seems impossibly hollow, crass and repetitive.

As a fan of Louis CK’s thoughtful and self-exploratory TV show, listening to his chummy appearances on the American ‘Anthony and Opie’ radio show is similarly harrowing. Learning that the misogynistic overtones of his material aren’t wholly ironic, it’s hard not to feel that you’ve been personally betrayed – when the truth is that the “person” you thought you knew was never more than a phantom.

This same effect can work in reverse, of course, if an artist’s personal life somehow contaminates our impression of their work. I recently clashed with a friend over whether it was acceptable to watch the films of Roman Polanski, knowing that he once drugged and raped a child. For many, this dark chapter in his history not only makes him an unacceptable human being, but casts a pall over the films he has made, effectively disqualifying them from artistic consideration.

Does it make any more sense to hate Polanski’s films because you hate Polanski, than to love Robin Williams because you love Jumanji? After all, the rape itself was not directly tied to the production of any of his films. The closest would be his 1979 adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, made shortly after he fled a prison sentence in the US. An uncharacteristically dull, worthy film adapted from classic literature, which naturally won several Oscars, Tess is dedicated to the memory of Polanski’s wife “Sharon” – a gesture echoed by some defensive fans, who cite her murder as somehow excusing Polanski’s own crime.

Tess0_01The film diverges from the original novel in many ways, one of which is particularly drastic and telling. The rape of Tess by an older, socially superior rogue is transformed on-screen into a steamy scene of consensual passion. The scenes surrounding it present Tess’ relationship with her rapist as a brief but heartfelt love affair.

The more convincing argument is that the issue isn’t just about taste, but has real-world implications. As Polanski is currently flying from justice, it goes, anyone who pay to see or promotes his work is supporting a rapist in escaping punishment for his crime. I don’t think this quite follows through in real terms as, even if Polanski lost 100% of the his income from films and went bankrupt, I don’t see him ending up back on trial in California. However, it rings true enough that part of me is now slightly looking forward to the director’s death – not because I think he deserves it but because, once he’s dead, expressing my admiration for his work will become so much simpler.

I’ll stand by the point that disgust for the artist as a person will never be a good enough reason to dismiss their work without examination. It is perhaps fair to say that what we see of people in the art they create is truth, but not the whole truth. Williams clearly had in him the sweetness and contagious sense of humour which made people fall in love his performances. He clearly had other qualities too, however, which ultimately led him to make a lonely and desperate choice. Likewise, although Polanski is a talented and dedicated filmmaker, he also clearly possesses the latent capability for entrapping, drugging, and raping a child.

Ultimately, the resolution to this sort of crisis is simply accepting that the transaction between artist and audience is not primarily personal, but professional. If someone’s work has provoked a strong reaction in you, it doesn’t  make your relationship with that person real to anyone but you. To think otherwise is a sort of madness, as John Lennon awkwardly tries to explain to the confused young trespasser in Andrew Solt’s 1988 documentary Imagine. “I’m just a guy, man – who writes songs. We can only say ‘Hello,’ and what else is there?”

Liking – or even loving – someone’s art does not make the artist themselves any of your business. Whatever your reaction to a creative artist’s work, you owe nothing to and should expect nothing from the human being behind it, except for that basic, disinterested respect we all owe each other. In the case of Robin Williams, and in light of the typically ghoulish media reaction to his death, it would seem more respectful of the man to care a bit less.


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