When Harold Ramis died earlier this year, an old friend of mine complained that his social network feed was filled with comments about the writer, actor and director. While I can understand where my friend is coming from in terms of public outpourings of grief for people we do not personally know, the fact remains that Ramis and others can touch our lives through the movies they make, the stories they tell.
Stories have been at the heart of human civilization for as long as there has been civilization. Whether it is in cave paintings or in oral history passed from elder to younger, the ballads of wandering minstrels or the celluloid works of Hollywood, stories are told. Sometimes the stories drip off us, having as much impact as rain on granite. At other times they can act more like storm waves on the coast, potentially altering the very landscape of the viewer, reader or listener.
So when a storyteller passes on, their departure may kindle sadness in those who have been touched by the stories they told. For sure, our sadness is unlikely to match the levels of grief experienced by the family and friends of the departed, but we can lament the passing of someone who told stories that had resonance in our own lives.
With that in mind, I make no apologies for my first thought being “O Captain! My Captain!” upon hearing that actor and comedian Robin Williams had died. The line is the title of a Walt Whitman poem made famous to a new audience in the 1989 Oscar-winning movie Dead Poets Society, in which Williams starred.
In Britain in the late 1980s, we had to wait at least four years for a movie to appear on one of the four terrestrial television channels if we missed a film in the cinema and had no video player. Therefore I was a teenager coming of age, like the boys at the heart of Dead Poets Society, when I first saw that film. The main themes of the movie – seize the day, suck the marrow out of life – resonated with me. Regardless of whether they were over-egged, as some critics have argued, when they hit you as a teenager you don’t have the same weary years of experience as those critics.
“Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone” – Keating
While Tom Schulman deservedly received an Oscar for the script, Williams and his fellow actors are the medium through which those themes were delivered. They imbued them with life and infused them with soul. Williams turned in a fine performance as teacher and ‘Captain’ John Keating, ensuring that you did not leave the film sensing rotting eggs but the nourishing ground of more thoughtful nuance.
Another 1980s Robin Williams film I did not see until the 1990s was Good Morning, Vietnam. Williams, as disc jockey Adrian Cronauer, ad-libs at the microphone, belting out some cracking lines in one of his very best comedic performances. The movie came out in 1987 in the middle of America’s great introspection on Vietnam – the same year as Full Metal Jacket, a year after Platoon and two years before Born on the Fourth of July. Williams’ zany brand of comedy is at the centre of Good Morning, Vietnam, but that does not stop it tackling the more obvious emotions of war in a way that can have an impact like those other films.
In both Dead Poets Society and Good Morning, Vietnam the world is not black or white, marrow or bone, laughter or sorrow, but something more complex. With Williams at their core, the films are no shade of grey either. They are a complex tableau of colour, much like Williams himself.
Life is also a tableau of colour. If someone adds another shade or a splash to the canvas through the stories they tell, it should not be a surprise if we choose to embrace a little re-telling when they depart.