Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The inheritance of loss

with 4 comments

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What celebrity death will make you cry?”

A few days ago, writing about the late pianist Glenn Gould, I expressed sadness that we won’t be able to listen to his third, hypothetical version of The Goldberg Variations, and wrote: “Although we’ll never hear it for yourselves, we can dream about it.” Of course, there’s no guarantee that Gould would have revisited his most famous work again, even if he were still alive, while the real tragedy of a death like that of Philip Seymour Hoffman is that we know exactly what we’ve lost. Hoffman was a productive actor at the top of his game, a year younger than Brando was when he made Last Tango in Paris, and there’s no question that we’ve been deprived of another thirty years of great performances. One of the sad wonders of cinema is how it forces us to confront how we all age, and Hoffman, who was utterly without vanity as a performer, might have left us a lasting essay on what it means for an actor of limitless resourcefulness to grow old on camera. As it is, we’ll never know, although we can glimpse it in the accelerated lifetime he lives in Synedoche, New York, a great movie that I’m not sure I can ever watch again.

When an artist we love and admire dies, we tend to experience one of two responses. In some cases, as with Hoffman or Heath Ledger, it’s a sense of loss at the realization of all we’re going to miss. At other times, when death arrives at the end of a long, productive career, it feels more like losing a friend or mentor we thought we’d have around forever. That’s why our strongest emotional responses tend to come with the death of someone whose work has quietly become part of the fabric of our lives, measured out in small regular increments, as in television or in a daily newspaper, rather than one who produced a handful of towering works. When I was growing up, I once found myself deeply sad in advance at the thought that Chuck Jones would die, more than fifteen years before he actually passed away, and the short list of public personalities whose deaths have affected me the most includes Charles Schulz and Roger Ebert. These may not have been the individuals who influenced my life the most—although my debts to Schulz and Ebert are incalculable—but over time, their faces and their work became part of who I was.

Francis Ford Coppola

Then there’s someone like Stanley Kubrick, who seems to unite all of the above. He was seventy when he died, and given the long stretches that elapsed between his later movies, it’s doubtful whether we would have gotten much more after Eyes Wide Shut, even if he had lived another decade. Yet it’s still shocking to see the prospect of additional masterpieces closed off by something as mundane as death. Directors can produce great work well into their seventies and beyond—just look at Altman and Kurosawa—so the loss of any major filmmaker feels premature. It’s sobering to realize that the number of new Scorsese or Spielberg films we’ll have a chance to see isn’t just finite, but can probably be counted on one hand, and that there will come a time when the ones we have are all we’re going to get. We’re lucky, at least, in the fact that the movies themselves will survive, which isn’t the case with other forms of art: I often wonder whether some of the thrill we get from live music or theater comes from the hint of mortality it carries, as we witness something that is happening right now and will never recur in quite the same way again.

But if individual movies can last forever, life itself can’t, and it’s in the passing away of an artist’s personality and possibility that we lose the most. So although there are many other worthy candidates—and I almost went with David Lynch—the person whose absence I suspect will hit me the hardest is one that takes even me by surprise: Francis Ford Coppola. It isn’t a matter of wanting him to direct another great film, since I haven’t even seen Youth Without Youth, Tetro, or Twixt, and there’s no question that his best years are behind him. Yet when Coppola is gone, it’s going to feel like the end of an era, with the departure of the one man who, more than anyone since Orson Welles, exemplifies the triumph and tragedy of a life in film. When he’s gone, I’ll remember him less for any one movie than for his commentary tracks, which are among the best I know, with the intimate, candid, generous fireside chats they afford with our Uncle Francis. It’s a voice filled with wisdom and regret, and it hints at the happiness that might still be found in wine, family, and good food after the fever of Hollywood has been left behind. And part of me hopes that he’ll live forever, like Tom Bombadil in Napa, ready to gently remind us of things we might prefer to forget.

Written by nevalalee

February 14, 2014 at 9:19 am

4 Responses

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  1. I think when public figures are felled by their demons, their death hits hardest. It’s this glimpse behind the facade that is so hard to accept. Hoffman, a family man, a big cuddly bear, an intelligent thinker, an everyman who walked the streets of NYC like all of us…then, a heroin addict? Then I think of how much pain and suffering went into keeping that hidden from everyone. And when they die alone at the mercy of their demons, that’s hardest of all. Then he seems too human, just like one of us, could be someone I know…It becomes about everything but the persona on the big screen…

    jackiemallon

    February 14, 2014 at 10:50 am

  2. I know. It’s so unlike the actor we thought we knew, and it’s going to color my feelings every time I go back to revisit one of his performances.

    nevalalee

    February 14, 2014 at 10:14 pm

  3. Of all the people alive now, Sir David Attenborough. Tried to write down why but deleted it every time.

    Darren

    February 15, 2014 at 4:34 pm

  4. That says a lot in itself.

    nevalalee

    February 15, 2014 at 9:24 pm


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