With the announcement yesterday of the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman at the untimely age of 46 due to an apparent drug overdose; Facebook was abuzz with a pattern I've seen repeated often in similar situations. An artist dies. They could be a musician, an inventor, an actor, a writer, or an athlete (in a certain sense I consider them to be artists. If you don't that's fine; just know that I don't particularly care.) People who enjoyed that artist's contribution to our culture feel compelled to reach out through social media. Often this is as simple as "RIP Steve Jobs" or "Sorry to hear about the passing of Paul Walker. My thoughts/prayers are with his family." Most of the time the responses to these posts are simple reactions expressing shock at the news or a similar statement of acknowledging the artist's passing.
Occasionally, however, someone feels this is too much to bear. How can one of their friends dare to act as if they knew this artist who died? What about the millions of other people who died that day that weren't famous or do they not care about the starving children of the world? Are they really that surprised since the person who died was old or was known to have addiction problems or was just a reckless fool? All this horrible stuff going on in the big wide unfair world and they're posting about a dead celebrity?! Don't they know that President Obama is reading their Facebook posts right now on a secret NSA server while eating GMO laden snacks in one hand and personally bombing Afghan children with a drone piloted by an Xbox controller in the other hand as he takes a ten minute break from crafting a nefarious plan to install himself as Emperor of the Galactic Empire of America and take everyone's guns?!?! Well, here's what I say to those who feel compelled to get worked up about a simple post meant to be a kind gesture and an appreciation of someone who was perhaps great at what they did:
Don't know what "sit on it" means or who Potsie is? The '80s weren't that long ago. You're on a computer with the internets at your disposal which eliminates generation gaps. Look it up.
Imagination is one of the greatest traits that makes us human. Imagination is what leads to the arts and being creative no matter what you do for a living. We appreciate other humans who excel at the arts, in part because they can inspire our own imagination. They give us something to laugh or marvel at after spending 8+ hours doing something that more often then not doesn't inspire us at all just so we can eat, put clothes on our backs, or take that vacation that's circled on our calendars for 6 months from now. They can make us cry, have thoughts on an issue we never gave a damn about before, or fall into a new obsession that eats up hours of our spare time. Because of this, we feel a small connection with that artist. Obviously, it's not the same as friends or family but it's a connection nonetheless.
I remember when Jackie Gleason passed away. I was thirteen years old at the time and my reaction confused the hell out of me. I was riding in a car with someone when they mentioned it or the radio did and I got a little choked up. I didn't actually cry, it was just that feeling when you're watching a sad movie and feel that tightness in your throat and your eyes get a little glassy. I certainly wasn't a Gleason fanatic or anything. My bedroom was adorned with posters of the Chicago Bears, Randy "Macho Man" Savage, and the Legion of Doom; not black and white photos of old '50s television stars. I obviously didn't know the man. In fact, I don't think I saw him in anything other than old episodes of The Honeymooners I'd watch once in awhile. Eventually, I chalked it up to two simple things. First, he inexplicably reminded me of my father. To this day, I don't know why. He didn't look like him, act like him, talk like him...nothing. It may be as simple as being a connection I had with my dad. He introduced me to The Honeymooners. It was something from his generation that he shared with me and I liked it. The second thing was that Jackie Gleason made me laugh and the show had heart. I believe it's just that simple. The distance we have from these people results in us connecting with them on a very basic and instinctive level because they have to do something that appeals to us personally and gets our attention through an impersonal screen or page.
So for that reason we feel a slight pang of sadness or regret when an artist whose work we admired dies. I'm not talking about sobbing or not being able to leave the house for days; just stopping for a few seconds and thinking, "Damn. That sucks", because we remember on some level those moments when their work made us cry or laugh, challenged us to think, maybe to investigate information, or enjoy the simple pleasure of observing excellence in something we hold in high regard. Hopefully, we also do it because we are humans and I believe we are designed through millions of years of evolution to be kind and thoughtful. Again, even though we don't know these individuals personally we know they leave behind family and friends who are presumably having a tough time right now. If I hear in conversation that someone's friend, relative, or better half passed away I don't say, "Well, I didn't know them so why are you telling me this?" or just shrug my shoulders. I say something like, "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that" or "Sorry for your loss." It's not exactly the same but kind of the same when someone puts an innocent post on Facebook or Twitter about a celebrity. It doesn't mean they're ignoring the rest of the world's problems. It doesn't mean they're an empty shell of a being who only cares about the rich and famous (why would you have someone like that on your friends list anyway?) It just means they felt like acknowledging, in an extremely small way, another human being's existence and they should be able to do it without catching flak for it.
With all that being said, here's to Philip Seymour Hoffman. Apparently the man had some demons, made terrible choices, and as a result has paid the ultimate price and left behind three young children without a father. It's sad because it was preventable. He was also one of the best actors of his generation and on that level I will miss his contribution to cinema. Here's some trailers and clips from some of the films he appeared in. You can't go wrong with any of them but I highly recommend Synecdoche, NY if you're adventurous and especially Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master which is a brilliant film.