January 22, 2008

for Heath, or "requiem for a smiling face"

12 years ago, there were no such things as "blogs".

In fact, back in 1996, there was barely even an internet.

Even in my day job, where we were ostensibly on the leading edge of software & technology at the time, we were still using things like VI, the MS WordPad of text editors, to write complex computer programs, line-by-line-by-line. Lotus Notes was the latest thing for intra-company communications, and only senior management had actual accounts on the system. A laptop? You may as well have asked the company to buy you a Rolls Royce while you were at it. And, if you were one of the blessed few to have a company e-mail account, chances are, you were keeping a manila folder in your file cabinet, where you kept hard copy print outs of every single e-mail you ever sent or received.

At home, things weren't much better. I bought a Compaq Presario that year and subscribed to a local Mom & Pop internet service provider to get dial up access to the nascent web. After being spoiled by free e-mail back in college, I couldn't wait to rip open my shrink-wrapped copy of Netscape Navigator and jump back onto the so-dubbed "Information Superhighway".

One night during that same year, as I was listening to Hot 97 on the train ride back to my humble abode in Montclair, New Jersey, Angie Martinez & company came on the air in tears.

Tupac Shakur had just died.

I didn't know this man. And yet, his passing had meaning - real personal meaning - to me.

And, even though I was a relatively content, well-compensated (albeit grotesquely overworked) little corporate drone, I had to say... SOMETHING.... about this to someone.

I was driven..... compelled to write.

So, I sat down at my Presario and composed a little essay called "2Pacalypse", where I related the suddenness of 2Pac's passing to Thornton Wilder's "The Bridge on San Luis Rey", questioning this notion that death is God's way of saying "mission accomplished". Was his soul actually supposed to learn something by getting gunned down on the Las Vegas strip? Were the rest of us supposed to take something away from it? Or was the search for terrestrial meaning at all a fruitless gesture?

Of course, what took me a page or two to say back in the mid 90's I can now do in one paragraph. Practice makes perfect. :-)

Point being, even back then, when I couldn't even imagine living the life that I lead right now, was the DNA for Macroscope.

Even more to the point, I'm still struck by my personal need to respond in a personal way to the passing of a person who had no direct contact with my life.

Then again, as I stated in "2Pacalypse", Tupac been touching my life in some way since 1991. As a popular artist, his music had provided a kind of Greek chorus to my life. I remember cruising the summer streets of Baltimore with my friends to the tune of "I Get Around", or planning to scare the white people in the dining hall at Princeton with a song that starts "...They claim that I'm violent, just cause I refuse to be silent", or feeling warm and fuzzy and agreeable listening to "Dear Mama".

If I can paraphrase Jeffrey Wigand, we artists are in the Emotion Delivery Business.

And anyone who can make you FEEL something will always have a place in your heart, regardless of how that feeling is given to you. They become your friends, you family even. They can make you laugh or cry. They can inspire you, and even disappoint you, even if you've never ever met.

Thus is the odd conundrum that is mass media and celebrity.

Even though he was a stranger, 2Pac's art made him feel like he was my friend.

Which is why I'm suddenly reminded of him and his passing today.

Not that long ago, I hated Heath Ledger.

He didn't really register with me the first time I saw him, opposite Mel Gibson in "The Patriot". I mean, his character irritated me, but there were so many other things in that movie that pissed me off even more (Black slaves who were just tickled pink to pick Mel's cotton? A church full of people burned alive, but everything is cool because Mel killed Jason Isaacs? Shall I go on?), that I just sort of ignored the young Aussie.

"A Knight's Tale" was when he really started to irk me, because I could feel the studio machine tuning up the band to proclaim him "The Next Big Thing(tm)". I'd recently read William Goldman's "Adventures in The Screen Trade", and tended to agree with his thesis that new stars were only created when an established star passes on a juicy role and the producers are forced to cast a talented unknown in the part. Sadly, I think I was unfairly heaping Heath in with my feelings on Ben Affleck in Pearl Harbor ("The Next Harrison Ford"? come ON!) and just this overwhelming sense of Jonestown-style Kool-Aid that was floating around movie marketing that year. In fact, by the end of the summer of 2001, I was so irritated with the kind of films I'd been seeing, that I teamed with a like-minded classmate from film school to write a film that directly addressed many of the failings that we saw while still telling a good yarn.

And after a year of working on said film, we got word that Heath Ledger was going to star in a new movie with the EXACT SAME TITLE AS OURS.

Yes, I HATED Heath Ledger.

But then I saw "Monster's Ball". In particular, this scene made me a believer in Heath Ledger.

(And, if you've never seen the movie before, I beg you, PLEASE don't waste time with this YouTube clip. Just go out and rent the damn thing, because it's just a fantastic film):

I even loved "The Four Feathers". And a big part of what I loved was Heath's performance - just through his body and his face, he was able to transport me directly inside his character's emotional journey, from false pride, to cowardice, to guilt, resolve, sacrifice, despair, and, finally, triumph.

I read an interview with him where he said that, regarding acting roles, he felt like it would be a waste of his time to repeat himself. Which is why he turned down a ton of nice, frothy teen films at the start of his career and was, at one point, forced to borrow money from his agent to survive, waiting for a good, original role.

The guy wasn't just a teen idol-in-training. He was an f'n actor.

And the very best actors have always been anthronauts - literally, "sailors on the seas of humanity" - exploring the uncharted corners of the soul and bringing the breadfruits of this spiritual New World back to nourish those of us who wait on the safer, civilized shores of our own identities.

But, knowing what I know about actors who channel the spirit of their characters, like Mr. Ledger clearly does, I can't help but wonder about the toll it took on him to accomplish... THIS:

Before The Joker, he appeared to be on the path to be a reasonably peaceful & content family man. Then, after locking himself in a hotel room for six weeks to inhabit this most unhinged of all supervillains, he separated from his love and complained that he'd been unable to sleep for weeks.

His brain just couldn't stop spinning.

I believe I even heard that he'd been prescribed Ambien, and it still only helped him sleep for an hour at a time.

Am I suggesting something as crass as "The Joker killed Heath Ledger"? No. What I am suggesting is, when people describe certain actors as fearless, it's not just about doing their own stunts. There are emotional and spiritual costs to doing this sort of work at the highest level.

I remember my father wondering out loud about Ricky Williams: "with all that money, you'd think a guy would be able to keep himself off of drugs".

Sadly, Dad, sometimes, for some people, the drugs are the only things propping them up to allow them to even do what they do. Athletes. Rock stars. Movie stars.

Delivering a feeling to millions upon millions of people, night after night, day after day...

Think of it this way: consider how much energy it takes for you to have the relationships with the people you personally know and with whom you maintain a personal connection. Now, imagine if you had to do that for a living, where every single person on the street feels connected to you. Deeply. Personally. Spiritually.

Every. Single. Person.

The best of them give us all so much. Things we simply could not live without, no matter how much we want to dismiss them as inconsequential.

After I got through shouting "WHAT?!?!?" at my computer screen, hoping that if I said it long enough and loud enough, the sheer force of my voice would change the words to anything other than "Heath Ledger Dead at 28"....

After I got over the deep sadness I felt for people like Michelle Williams and his daughter, or even someone like Christopher Nolan, who now has the unenviable task of looking at his friend Heath's face every single day for the next six months while trying to finish editing his movie....

After taking the stream of phone calls from friends who were as astonished and saddened at the news as I was....

After all that mourning....

All I honestly have left to say is "Thank you."

"Thank you, Heath, for the deliveries"

"They were always right on time."

Send some light and love both to him and the people who knew him best.

Good night, friends.