Friday, 15 August 2014

Robin Williams is the Fisher King

By now, everyone knows all too well that Robin Williams died on Monday after having hung himself. There are other articles that discuss why comedians often battle with mental illness, or why his suicide was not a selfish act, or the many many tributes to just how amazing he was, like Russell Brand's touching eulogy.

Or, if you feel like getting simultaneously incredibly sad and infuriatingly angry, you can read the terrible things some people have written after his death, like the Daily Mail insinuating that he committed suicide due to financial issues or certain hurtful comments on Fox News' site, all of which show a complete misunderstanding of how depression and suicide work. I won't link to them because I don't wish to be directly responsible for driving up their traffic. Let's just say they're horrible and there are some incredibly ignorant and mean-spirited people in the world, but you knew that already.

Now, I generally never post about celebrity deaths because honestly, it usually doesn't affect me much really. I mean, it's always sad because death but I don't actually care since I didn't know them, I just know their work, however good or bad it might have been. 

However, with all the tributes poring out for Robin Williams, it seems a little different than the typical eulogies and homages that tend to flood when a celebrity dies. People seem genuinely upset that he's gone, despite the fact he hasn't been in a good (or rather, popular) movie for well over a decade.

And I think it's because he was such a fundamental part of a lot of people's childhood. Now, objectively, a lot of his movies aren't actually that great, they're often hockey and silly, with him doing funny voices for the sake of doing funny voices because he could, or were overly sentimental, see Bicentennial Man or Patch Adams (or in the case of Mrs. Doubtfire had a kinda creepy stalkerish undertone).



So here's the pitch: he's this guy, right, who dresses up as an old lady so he can be the nanny for his own children in order to be closer to them and keep tabs on his ex-wife all while lying directly to their faces and betraying their trust.
Hilarity ensues.

But the questionable quality or morality of some his movies doesn't really matter since Williams had this special innate quality of liveliness, often bouncing off the walls like he'd been covered in Flubber-spray. He seemed so boisterous and animated that his characters were just so [cliche alert] full of life that they seemed to suggest that the best way to deal with stuff is to just tackle it head on with as much optimism and energy as possible.

And he combined that with zany quick paced humour, to laugh at things, with/at other people, and at yourself. That anytime was a good time for a Groucho Marx impression or to speak incredibly fast like a racehorse announcer if it made someone laugh. 



Any time is a good time for a Groucho Marx impression.
Any time.

His characters often were constantly smiling and trying to make everyone else in the movie laugh. And that's why everyone's sad he's gone. Because he taught a lot of us that funny voices are funny and that it's important to laugh at things and deal with them with optimism, which is a great thing.

There's a memory I will always recall from my childhood involving his movie, Hook. Now for those of you too young to remember, back in the Dark Ages of the early 1990s there were these things called VHS tapes which you could record and watch movies on. They were kinda like plastic bricks with this tape inside which would inevitably get caught in your tape player at some point. Times were hard back in those days, you wouldn't understand.


So... we meet again.

Now, we had a tape that we had recorded Hook on. Unfortunately, it was recorded after another movie (I forget which) to fill up the two hours or so of space on the tape, which meant the tape ended roundabout two thirds through Hook. And I would play this time over and over again, even though I knew that the tape ended before the movie finished. Not only because we had fewer forms of entertainment back then since the interwebs hadn't really caught on yet, but because I loved the movie and would anticipate the scene when the tape ended every time. 

It was the moment when Peter is hit on the head by the baseball his son Jack hit into the stratosphere as it comes down. He then sees his shadow move independently of him and nudges him to go into a tree house... and then it ended. For me, it kinda became the ending of the film, although in a sense it was the beginning since that's just before he realises that he really is Peter Pan and flies to save the day and whatnot. But I just loved the whimsy of the scene, which thanks to the wonder that is YouTube, I managed to find online.




Right in the childhood, it even ends roundabout where my tape did... 

But rather than talk about how much joy I had as a kid watching him as Genie in Aladdin, Alan Parrish in Jumanji, Peter Pan in Hook, or even as Professor Philip Brainard in Flubber, I thought it best to focus on one of Williams' performances which I only ever saw as an adult and realised I needed to re-evaluate in light of his tragic passing. That is his masterful and poignant performance in Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King. For really it is the role he was most perfectly cast for. 

A number of Williams' roles in his films needed to provide some qualification for why the hell he was so frantic and frenetic, constantly bristling with distracted manic energy bouncing from one thought to the other in rapid succession, often in a different voices, which was the power of his unstable brand of comedy. Therefore, in Aladdin his character is a genie who is magic and had been suffering lamp fever for thousands of years and just wants to explore everything since he'd been imprisoned for so long. Similarly in Jumanji, he'd been trapped in a jungle death trap for 26 years and quite understandably has gotten a little crazed after surviving in a place where everything was trying to kill him for nearly three decades.


"You do not want to know what I had to do to get this leaf hat. Such terrible things... that poor squirrel monkey."

Meanwhile in Flubber, which is a remake of a 1961 movie called The Absent-Minded Professor, he plays an absent-minded professor, who gets so wrapped up in his work and being an eccentric genius that it blinds him to everything else while his enthusiasm for science-y stuff means he's often bubbling with uncontrolled excitement. Whenever Williams' character needed to be wacky, and since his particular style of manic comedy nearly always called for wacky, there needed to be some quirk of the character to account for the wackiness. And The Fisher King gave him the best justification for wackiness ever: he's crazy. 


"How crazy am I? Brother, you don't even want to know."

No, seriously. He plays a homeless man named Parry who experienced a mental breakdown following the brutal murder of his wife and suffers from delusions of alternatively heroic or nightmarish fantasies that he thinks are real. Believing himself to be on a knight's quest from god to find the Holy Grail, he enlists the Dude's character Jack, a former shock jock radio host whose callous advice to an unstable caller inadvertently leads that caller to kill yuppies eating in a restaurant, including Parry's wife, to help him in his quest.

Behold, a true knight of the realm.

Jack obviously wants to atone for the wrong he feels he's done to Parry in kinda sorta by accident encouraging the man who murdered his wife. Also Parry totally saved him from being set alight by some punks, so there's that too.

Now they get into all manner of hijinks as Jack follows Parry around and tries to help him since he feels responsible for the rehabilitating mental state he's in. However, rather than focus on plot, although it's a pretty solid plot, what makes this movie and the role of Parry particularly perfect for Williams is that counter-intuitively for such an unstable character, it is his most balanced performance. 

Now, I don't mean balanced in the sense he gave a measured and deft turn in the role but rather in the context of Williams' career it strikes the perfect balance from his wacky off-the-wall comedic roles, his touching inspirational dramatic turns in films such as Dead Poets' Society and Good Will Hunting, not to mention the insidious obsessed villains he played in the early 2000s. 


Left: That's him being a killer obsessed with a 17 year old girl and extorting Al Pacino.
Right: That's him being a photo developer obsessed with a family which he longs to be part of and who he extorts.
Hmm... I'm sensing a pattern here.

In The Fisher King, Williams' talent for playing obsessed characters comes through in Parry's stalkeresque fascination with Lydia, a shy socially awkward and introverted woman who works in a publishing house. Parry watches her from afar everyday, knows her daily routine perfectly, not to mention practically everything about her without her knowledge... but it's not like that, he's smitten. 

And Williams actually pulls off the "I know you don't know me but I've watch you everyday without you knowing and know the innermost details of you life, and I love you" angle which Hollywood for some reason thinks is endearing and cute instead of creepy and invasive. He portrays Parry as just so sincerely sweet in his feelings for Lydia such that you truly believe he loves every aspect about her. As the Nostalgia Critic points out in his video on the Top 11 Strangest Couples, he adores her so much that every single time he sees her his world is dancing because that's how he sees everything when she's around.




And then there's the scene after their date where she reveals she is afraid that he will never call her if he stays the night and she will just get her heart broken. But Parry declares his feelings for her and gives her his "I'll won't be distant and I'll come back in the morning, and I'll call you if you let me" speech. It is just beautiful.

While the initial stalkerish nature of his infatuation may little questionable, Williams' affable charm and the sincerity he brings to the character renders the moment absolutely genuine.


There is no joke here. This scene is simply heartwarming.

But Williams follows up possibly one of the most sweet and sincere romantics moments in film with a dramatic turn that is truly heart-wrenching. After Lydia goes up to her apartment, Parry suffers flashbacks of his wife's murder as he is tormented by the horrific Red Knight, the hallucination that embodies his traumatic experience of loss. The look on his face when he sees the Red Knight conveys the absolute terror he feels with brutal honesty.


Pictured: Brutally honest terror.

But the ways he pleads with his own mind to let him have this, to have this blossoming relationship with Lydia, the only good thing in his life since his wife's death, is a wonder to behold. The sheer desperation in his voice for this one relief from his torment and the pain he feels...

After running away from the Red Knight, he is then beaten up by the same punks from the beginning of the movie and goes into a catatonic state. When he eventually awakes from his coma, he asks Jack if it's okay if he can miss his wife now in what is an absolutely tender moment.

Now, I have totally been focusing on the more dramatic elements of the film, there are many scenes of hilarity where Williams did what he was the best at, running around talking fast, jumping from one thought to another, alternating different voices, casting asides (to the invisible fat little people he sees), contorting his body, and just being funny in the most delightfully manic way.


"Are you not entertained?!"

But I focused on those scenes because in watching the movie again, those are the moments that struck me the most, and actually hit me to the core. They elevate what all too easily could have been a really hammy role, playing a mentally ill homeless man in an over the top manner, some serious heft and pathos. And that is all on Robin Williams. He was fantastic.

So that is my tribute to Robin Williams. I've realised that I'm going to miss him.


References:

Robin Williams and Why Funny People Kill Themselves

Robin Williams death: a reminder that depression and suicide are not selfish

Russell Brand: Robin Williams' divine madness will no longer disrupt the sadness of the world

The Fisher King Wikipedia page

Top 11 Strangest Couples - Nostalgia Critic


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