This is a bit of a solemn topic, and it’s less direct inspiration and something a little less tangible. I’ve talked about using other writers as inspiration, and books we love, but as I’ve pushed to make clear, I believe that inspiration for writing doesn’t have to come only from books. I believe a good movie or a gripping TV show can be just as inspiring. I was never more driven to understand politics (a field which I absolutely hate) than when I was watching The West Wing. I never understood the gravity of a wartime hospital than when I was watching M*A*S*H. And some of my favorite movies are the ones which could grab you with a good story and fascinating characters, even when the topic was solemn…and you could still laugh at parts.
I watched a movie like this with my parents the other day, called The Descendants, starring George Clooney. (With added Shailene Woodley for extra awesome!) But the movies I’m thinking about here are Dead Poets Society and What Dreams May Come, with the spellbinding Robin Williams at its forefront.
When I was in high school (and still well into college), I was the odd man out. I was the weird kid who loved, lived, and breathed theatre and fiction, and no one quite knew what to do with me. I was too fat for the girls and…well, probably too fat for the boys. I wasn’t enough of either world to break in, but I had a few good teachers who made sure that I had a safe haven floating around. So when I first watched Dead Poets Society, I remember absolutely falling in love with Professor Keating. He was everything I wanted a teacher to be, and so rarely got. I wanted to seize the day, I wanted to run out and conquer the world, I wanted to yawp from the rooftops with the rest of them and I wanted to be a student that Professor Keating would have been proud of. I don’t know if I succeeded, or if I am now. I hope I’m at least making enough of an effort to get there. But it was a movie with such a strong message, and so much sadness…and yet I could laugh at parts. I could smile, I could dream.
And of course, then there was What Dreams May Come. I have loved this movie for so long. I own a copy. I got my parents a copy for Christmas. I’ve used pieces of it to based stories off of. I think it is fascinating and touching and moving and silly and wonderful. And I have no idea when the next time I’m going to be able to watch it is. Because seeing Williams’ Chris Nielsen die, and then watching Annabella Sciorra’s Annie fall into depression and commit suicide… Let alone everything after that, I don’t know if I can watch that. I don’t know when I’ll be able to watch that. I remember when Peter O’Toole died, and then a week or so after I watched My Favorite Year with two good friends of mine, and by the end I was a mess of tears. I loved that actor, and he didn’t even die in that film.
But I remember laughing at parts of Dreams. I remember smiling when the dog greeted him. I remember the ending with his wife and children, dreaming of another life, just to find each other again and fall in love and do the whole thing over again. I remember laughing at the fact that Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Robin Williams’ son. (Because really now. Really.) It was a beautiful and poignant movie, and it never shied away from the love or the laughter or the pain. Because I can remember tears as well.
My high school AP English teacher, a man for whom I have a volume of love and respect, wrote my class a letter upon our graduation which called a bit on Dead Poets Society, and the fact that we’d talked about some of the topics in the movie. There’s a passage in it I’d like to quote for you.
“There is another sorrow I wish to express, and that sorrow is vested in the fact that our conversation is almost completed, but that the thoughts we’ve wrestled with have just begun. And though you’re now on your own, upon a road that many before you, including myself, have traveled, the semantic paradox will unravel itself before you when you are ready. For I have learned before you, through you, and will continue living after you, that my barbaric yawp from rooftops falls upon deaf ears when the song is not sung as much for the body as for the soul. And my song is as much of my self as yours will be of your self. So unloose the vocal chords and sing your selves to the point of exhaustion, no matter if the melody is dissonant or out of key; believe in the verse that you sing, and let it be your song, more so that a song you’ve learned in a classroom, or a book.” (quote from letter written 2006, Matthew Hewitt)
Robin Williams has been a constant in the back of my life for as long as I can remember. I’ve seen Good Morning, Vietnam. I’ve seen Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire and The Birdcage and Jumanji and Hook and Night at the Museum and Bicentennial Man. God, my father still uses a nickname for me from Bicentennial Man. And I fully believe, as I saw someone online express, that Robin would have agreed with the above passage, and wanted us to laugh through the tears. He’s walked the road before us, sounded his barbaric yawp, and would urge us to do the same.
And as for him now? I like to think he’s running around in that beautiful oil painting from What Dreams May Come, with a dog and anything else that would make him happy, listening to the concert he’d wanted to hear from his interview in Inside the Actor’s Studio, surrounded by laughter.
“Death is nature’s way of saying, ‘your table is ready.’” –Robin Williams
RIP, you wonderful, beautiful, hysterical, beloved man. I hope you came to one amazing table spread.