Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A.O. Scott on Robin Williams - "An Improvisational Genius, Forever Present in the Moment"

Via film critic, A.O. Scott for the New York Times.

It's sad to see another talented and tormented man succumb to depression and end his life in what appears to have been a suicide.

Below the NYT obituary, there is an article from The Moderate Voice that addresses Williams' issues with depression and addiction.

Robin Williams, an Improvisational Genius, Forever Present in the Moment

AUG. 11, 2014

Robin Williams was an irrepressible performer, on stage and off. Credit Gary Settle

Some years ago, at a party at the Cannes Film Festival, I was leaning against a rail watching a fireworks display when I heard a familiar voice behind me. Or rather, at least a dozen voices, punctuating the offshore explosions with jokes, non sequiturs and off-the-wall pop-cultural, sexual and political references.

There was no need to turn around: The voices were not talking directly to me and they could not have belonged to anyone other than Robin Williams, who was extemporizing a monologue at least as pyrotechnically amazing as what was unfolding against the Mediterranean sky. I’m unable to recall the details now, but you can probably imagine the rapid-fire succession of accents and pitches — macho basso, squeaky girly, French, Spanish, African-American, human, animal and alien — entangling with curlicues of self-conscious commentary about the sheer ridiculousness of anyone trying to narrate explosions of colored gunpowder in real time.

Very few people would try to upstage fireworks, and probably only Robin Williams could have succeeded. I doubt anyone asked him for his play-by-play, an impromptu performance for a small, captive group, and I can’t say if it arose from inspiration or compulsion. Maybe there’s not really a difference. Whether or not anyone expected him to be, and maybe whether or not he entirely wanted to be, he was on.

Robin Williams | Credit: Jay Paul for The New York Times

Part of the shock of his death on Monday came from the fact that he had been on — ubiquitous, self-reinventing, insistently present — for so long. On Twitter, mourners dated themselves with memories of the first time they had noticed him. For some it was the movie Aladdin. For others Dead Poets Society or Mrs. Doubtfire. I go back even further, to the “Mork and Mindy” television show and an album called “Reality — What a Concept” that blew my eighth-grade mind.

Back then, it was clear that Mr. Williams was one of the most explosively, exhaustingly, prodigiously verbal comedians who ever lived. The only thing faster than his mouth was his mind, which was capable of breathtaking leaps of free-associative absurdity. Janet Maslin, reviewing his standup act in 1979, cataloged a tumble of riffs that ranged from an impression of Jacques Cousteau to “an evangelist at the Disco Temple of Comedy,” to Truman Capote Jr. at “the Kindergarten of the Stars” (whatever that was). “He acts out the Reader’s Digest condensed version of ‘Roots,’ ” Ms. Maslin wrote, “which lasts 15 seconds in its entirety. He improvises a Shakespearean-sounding epic about the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, playing all the parts himself, including Einstein’s ghost.” (That, or something like it, was a role he would reprise more than 20 years later in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.”)

Onstage, Mr. Williams’s speed allowed him to test audience responses and to edit and change direction on the fly. He simultaneously explained and acted out this process in Come Inside My Mind, a two-and-a-half-minute tour de force of manic meta — “I’m doing great! I’m improvising like crazy! No you’re not, you fool! You’re just doing pee-pee-ca-ca, no substance!” But if Mr. Williams was often self-aware, commenting on what he was doing as he was doing it, he was rarely arch or insincere. He could, as an actor, succumb to treacliness sometimes — maybe more than sometimes — but his essential persona as an entertainer combined neediness and generosity, intelligence and kindness, in ways that were charming and often unexpectedly moving as well.

In his periodic post-“Mork and Mindy” television appearances (on “The Larry Sanders Show” and more recently on Louie), he often played sly, sad or surprising versions of himself, the Robin Williams some of us had known and loved since childhood, which means an entertainer we sometimes took for granted or allowed ourselves to tire of. Many of his memorable big-screen performances were variations on that persona — madcap, motor-mouthed, shape-shifting jokers like the genie in “Aladdin,” the anti-authoritarian D.J. in “Good Morning Vietnam,” Parry in The Fisher King and even the redoubtable Mrs. Doubtfire herself.

That was a role within a role, of course, and Mr. Williams’s best serious movie characters — or maybe we should say the non-silly ones, since an element of playfulness was always there — had a similar doubleness. Watching him acting in earnest, you could not help but be aware of the exuberance, the mischief, that was being held in check, and you couldn’t help but wonder when, how or if it would burst out. That you knew what he was capable of made his feats of self-control all the more exciting. You sometimes felt that he was aware of this, and that he enjoyed the sheer improbability of appearing as the straight man, the heavy, the voice of reason.

He was very good at playing it cool or quiet or restrained as other actors in his movies — Nathan Lane in The Birdcage, Robert DeNiro in Awakenings, Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting — brought the heat, the noise or the wildness. He was an excellent and disciplined character actor, even as he was also an irrepressible, indelible character, a voice — or voices — that many of us have been hearing for as long as we can remember.

A version of this article appears in print on August 12, 2014, on page A14 of the New York edition with the headline: Improvisational Genius, Forever Present in the Moment. Order Reprints|Today's Paper|Subscribe
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From The Moderate Voice

Comedy, substance abuse and depression: reflecting on Robin Williams’ life and death

Posted By KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst on Aug 11, 2014

I learned about Robin Williams, 63, the old-fashioned way. My husband walked in the house and announced, “The world is a sadder place today.”

“Mom and dad just heard on the TV. Robin Williams has died.”

A quick search of Twitter confirmed the sad news.

And then the double-whammy: suicide.

According to news reports, Williams had been “battling severe depression”. Last month he had checked himself back into rehab “to fine-tune and focus on his continued commitment” to sobriety.
In 2006, he talked publicly about substance abuse and treatment.

A Good Morning America interview hints at the darkness of his depression:
“It’s the same voice thought that … you’re standing at a precipice and you look down, there’s a voice and it’s a little quiet voice that goes, ‘Jump,’” Williams told Sawyer.
He continued:
“The same voice that goes, ‘Just one.’ … And the idea of just one for someone who has no tolerance for it, that’s not the possibility.”
He elaborated in a People magazine interview:
“Cocaine for me,” Williams told PEOPLE in 1988, “was a place to hide… It slowed me down… And I was so crazy back then – working all day, partying most of the night – I needed an excuse not to talk. I needed quiet times and I used coke to get them.”
Depression + Substance Abuse Too Often = Suicide

Clinically, the two — depression and substance abuse — increase the risk of suicide.

We don’t know if there are “genetic as well as social or environmental factors that predispose an individual to an increased risk for both disorders” — substance abuse and depression.

But we do know that one increases the risk of the other:
The analysis revealed that the presence of either disorder doubled the risks of the second disorder…Further evidence suggests that the most plausible causal association between AUD [alcohol use disorders] and MD [major depression] is one in which AUD increases the risk of MD, rather than vice versa
Dark comedy

Last year the Express (UK) explored the relationship between comedians and depression. The Mail (UK) followed up in January: Why comedians ARE a little bit mad: Funnymen’s personalities are similar to those with mental health conditions.

What does it mean, that a celebrity as gargantuan as Robin Williams could talk publicly about depression and substance abuse … and yet succumb to suicide?

That it is still a mark of bravery to talk about depression (your own)? Despite a long list of notable depressives?

How do we, as a culture, begin talking about mental illness and alcohol abuse with the goal of helping, coping, preventing (rather than blaming)?

We can hear/see commercials for Erectile Dysfunction, for pete’s sake. It’s past time we talked openly about depression.

Can we find a silver lining in Robin’s death?

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