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Robin Williams in "Awakenings"

Robin Williams in “Awakenings”

I wasn’t going to write anything about Robin Williams. Not that I don’t care about his passing; I offered a prayer for him, secure in the knowledge that God knew it before I said it. I wasn’t going to write anything because there is so much, all over the Internet and elsewhere, about him. I didn’t think I had anything to add, until I remembered…

I was moved by the irony of his lost struggle. He eventually lost hope.

“Hope.” That reminded me of his role as Dr. Malcolm Sayer in Awakenings, a movie I show my students every year, a vehicle for serious thinking and writing. Based on the book of the same name by neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, it is a movie everyone should know and cherish. The book is very much worth your time as well. It’s extraordinary. Just don’t let yourself be caught up in the medical terminology. Read it for the stories.

There is an enormous gulf between mere entertainment and good art. Awakenings is good art. There is nothing wrong with mere entertainment, not as long as we understand that’s what it is, not as long as we don’t try to imbue it with qualities and depth that it plainly lacks. The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, and Guardians of the Galaxy, are fine entertainment, worthy ways to spend a few hours, but that’s all they are.

Awakenings is far, far more. Not only extraordinarily entertaining, it is an example of the best human beings can accomplish in cinema–and in life. As I tell my students, it’s one of the finest movies ever made, and there is no sex, no car chases, no one gets shot, there are no explosions, not even any special effects. Dr. Sayer never gave up hope, and there’s the irony that brings me to tears even as I type these words.

After seeing the movie, my 15 year-old students agree. There is almost nothing else my kids experience each year that keeps them so raptly attentive, that so touches them. Many of them demand their parents buy the movie and watch it with them. That’s rare. That’s good art.

I can think of no greater tribute to Williams’ talent than seeing Awakenings. It is his finest role–a role for the ages–and it’s not remotely what you’d expect. Do yourself–and your loved ones–a favor. It’ll change you, and for the better. It will keep alive Williams’ memory, in a way he would have appreciated in his happier days.

Ave atque vale, Robin.

UPDATE, 08-14-14, 2035 CST:  There is greater irony in Williams’ death than I  imagined.  Fox News reports Williams’ wife has made public Williams’ early stage Parkinson’s Disease public.  In Awakenings, William’s character treated patients whose symptoms were similar to Parkinson’s disease.

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