Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Itty Bitty Living Space

Robin Williams was more genie than human. He had phenomenal cosmic powers of humor crammed into an itty bitty living space that was his human shell. I wonder if he felt trapped, or if he merely felt forgotten.

While he will go down as one of the greatest comedians our country has ever known, Robin Williams meant the most to me as an actor when he portrayed heavy roles with a light heart. John Keating, Sean Maguire, Daniel Hillard, Dr. Malcolm Sayer, Joey the car salesman (in the very underrated "Cadillac Man"). And, in what was his most ambitious and most phenomenal role, as Parry in Terry Gilliam's "The Fisher King."

In the scene that gives the movie its namesake, Parry and Jack (Jeff Bridges) are naked, face up in the grass, and "cloudbursting," when Parry shares with Jack the fable of The Fisher King. In Parry's version, the king is called to keep and protect the magical Holy Grail, but his lust for power leaves him injured and broken, "sick with experience." The king is rescued through the kindness of a fool.

One of the brilliant turns of this film is that Jack and Parry both play kings and fools in it. Jack is the fool whose brash selfishness initially ruins Parry's life but whose struggle to find his own kindness eventually rescues Parry. And Parry is very much the fool whose kindness reawakens Jack from his self-indulgent brokenness.

What is equally interesting is the fact that Parry's story of the Fisher King is very little like the original legend of yore, beyond reference to a king and the Grail. In the original, the king is physically, sexually, impotent. He is unable to provide an heir to his kingdom, and his kingdom suffers along with him.

I can't help but wonder if Robin Williams had become a Fisher King, if he felt impotent by a fading career, by a kingdom he worried was thriving while he faded away. Or maybe he always felt impotent, from before even the first day he was told to pretend he was from Ork, before even the first moment he created the word "Shazbot." Maybe he was always seeking some Holy Grail to soothe his pain, and he could never find the right fool or knight who could quench his thirst.

Surely, though, he knew he served as a healing balm to millions of people he never met. Surely he had enough of a sense of this power that, even in the midst of his own unknown struggles, it kept him walking through the dark hours of his internal night.

Surely it's foolish to work too hard to inject the characters actors portray into the actors' lives. How can we not in moments like these, when someone we don't know but feel like we do, someone we can't love in a normal way because we never actually met him, has created a chasm in our hearts that can't be easily explained? Our hearts are broken by the loss of a man we don't know, but we know he was brilliant, and hilarious, and uniquely entertaining.

Surely he understood his influence enough that he lived 63 years instead of 23, or 43, before seeking an escape from the tiny fleshy genie lamp that bottle up his immeasurable genius. All we can do, we who never really knew him, we who only siphoned joy and love from the two-dimensional inventions he brought before our eyes, is be grateful for the part he played.

He was a genie and a fool, and he quenched millions of thirsts before taking his last breath.

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