There was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice
I don’t remember who I was or where I was bound
All I remember about it was it starred Gregory Peck,
he wore a gun and he was shot in the back
Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down
-Bob Dylan, "Brownsville Girl"
probably know that Lauren Bacall died the following day.
Robin Williams was clearly the kind of genius artist whose demons drove his creativity. It's easy to say now that we in the peanut gallery could see the sadness in his eyes or that--in whatever way we might ourselves know mania or depression--his gifts and flaws were one and the same.
Thoughts about mortality are no strangers at my door, and great artists have knocked on it early and often. Everyone obsesses about death sometimes, but some of us went farther into the Jim Morrison myth than we should have done on the cusp of middle school and never quite left. By the time Kurt Cobain offed himself in the early 1990's the meaninglessness of dying young and pretty had transcended even the most staid cliches about suffering artists; and yet, it still hurt.
The same week that Robin Williams died, a friend of mine noted, five hundred children were said to be suffocated in the hinterlands of Iraq by ISIS, which combines the worst of the Crusaders, the Nazis, and Attila the Hun. Their push to establish a fanatical, evil caliphate is something we should really be losing sleep over.
Still, guiltily, agonizing about geopolitical madness in dark and light, last night from my cultural perch in Jerusalem, I, like so many of us, stayed up late looking for Robin Williams--for another early stand-up clip I had not yet seen, an improv sketch with Jonathan Winters, or another reasonably deft explanation for what moved me about his death. Then when I awoke and heard the news about Lauren Bacall I thought about stars and death again. That quote from Dylan came to mind: Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down.
If you came of age in this Golden Age of Media--TV, film, literature, music, and sports--even if you were devout in other ways, the voices and visions of stars like Williams and Bacall were the mythic heroes who shaped you like no other. Often, the media raised and comforted and named you as much or more than the people with whom you lived. Mork was your secret friend, even weirder than your weirdest, most awkward self, sweetly exploding all of the norms that troubled you so. Bacall was the highest class of woman you either wanted or wanted to be, living in an ancient age of black and white but somehow cooler than any high definition alternative.
And these two--just two amongst hundreds if not thousands of other stars you know bits and pieces about or practically live through vicariously--are the conveyors of ultimate myths of meaning in our world. With Williams, we lived the heartbreak of Garp (a double whammy since John Irving shaped so much of our lives, too), the loving teacher of Dead Poet's Society, the therapist you wanted to speak to in Good Will Hunting, and the furiously brilliant associative mind that smashed past gatekeepers of boredom and just kept storming the castle as if this could bring freedom for us all.
Whatever our ship, wherever we are headed, we set our sights on the horizon and see stars--rock stars, movie stars, TV stars, sports stars, stars of cult and culture. When they fall naturally like Bacall, it's sad. We return some spark of the eternal that goes away with them even if their words and images remain.
When stars explode and disintegrate before our eyes like Robin Williams or Kurt Cobain, it's not just sad. It also steals from us some of the light that a bright star had granted a world of darkness. What's left in a world where stars of such light are so swiftly and painfully extinguished despite all that they give? Nothing. Just us.