You’re no doubt familiar with the great Beatles song “Nowhere Man,” which John Lennon wrote about the disoriented, lost feeling he was starting to have as a Beatle in mid-career. You may also be able to identify with the feeling, especially now that we all live not only in a yellow submarine but in a global village in which it’s possible to “connect” with anyone anywhere via various handy little instruments. Marshall McLuhan coined the phrases “global village” and “the medium is the message” and published his groundbreaking work Understanding Media* in 1964, the same year in which the Beatles first came to America (eat your heart out, Columbus, and while you’re at it, roll over, Beethoven–a song covered by the Fab Four and written by Chuck Berry, who allegedly eats shit–literally, not figuratively–at least according to the now-defunct, once-influential Spy Magazine, not that I can vouch for the veracity of this eyebrow-raising, nose-wrinkling claim). It was also the year that Martin Luther King received the Nobel Peace Prize, back when it was rewarded unironically, instead of being given to lovable villains like Henry Kissinger and Barack Obama.
[*I tried to read McLuhan’s book a few months ago but couldn’t get into it. He’s a tough read. More accessible is the slick, glossy collection of snippets written by admirers of the media prophet and the man himself entitled On McLuhan, especially as it’s laced with tons of brightly colored photographs. I’d be interested in reading the book his fellow Canadian Douglas Coupland wrote about him a few years ago, but it’s already out of print, so I’ll have to contact Jeff Bozos and see if he’ll let me download a copy without siccing (sp? sicing? sicking?) the CIA on my ass just for the hell of it. You may have heard about the Amazon CEO’s recent purchase of the Washington Post for a cool $300 million–which is a lot of money to you and me, but kleenex to him, considering he’s “worth” twenty-five billion himself–or his even more recent deal with the CIA to the tune of $600 million, which may also sound like a lot of money, but it’s just an appetizer, the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the publishing tycoon and the wonderfully controversial government spying outfit.]
Which brings us to tonight’s (actually this morning’s) word: Philip Seymour Hoffman. The man referenced by the title of this post. These days I’m generally too jaded to get too choked up by the passing of a given celebrity, and I have only seen a handful of his movies, but the more I read about the guy, and the more video clips of his work and interviews he gave to film critics and reporters, the more impressed I am by how truly rare, gifted, and special he was. He was also, to all appearances, incredibly modest and self-effacing. Maybe that’s why he was such a talented actor. Like Shakespeare (at least in terms of the bard’s work), he was not a prisoner of ego, but a servant of the Muse, an artist in the truest sense of the word. It turns out that in a career spanning twenty-five years, he appeared in no fewer than fifty motion pictures. That’s a hell of an output. And, while the essence of the man shone through in a good number of his roles, the likable, ursine gruffness seasoning the peculiar negative charisma of a marginal, at times pathetic, but curiously recognizable everyman, he was also a remarkable chameleon. (I apologize for all the adjectives in the previous sentence.) And in case you don’t believe me, check out his transformation in Capote. There are few American film actors alive today–if any–who could inhabit a role so thoroughly.
Like many of his fans, I feel both gratitude and a sense of loss. You get the sense that Hoffman was just getting started. But who knows? Maybe he’d had enough. I watched an interview he gave at a recent film festival (I think it was Sundance, not that I keep track of them), and he looked distracted and forlorn. Some reporters said he struck them as lonely. A lost soul. In the last analysis (as an old English professor of mine used to like to say), who isn’t? Not that he strikes me as a quitter–on the contrary.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, as I’m sure you’ve already read, was going through some tough times, separated from his girlfriend of fourteen years. There’s always a question mark hovering over this kind of death (Heath Ledger and Kurt Cobain spring to mind): was it in some way deliberate? Did the great man take his own life? I reckon not. There were supposedly 65 bags of smack found in the apartment where he breathed his final breath–as I said, he was just getting started.
Although I’ve never done heroin and have no intention of taking it up any time soon (despite having recently fallen off the billiard-playing wagon and started shooting pool again in favor of playing chess), in some ways I have an addictive personality, so I’m in no position to judge him. It’s just too bad that someone who had so much going for him had to leave us so soon.
Still, if there’s any part of him that survives beyond his enormous body of work, I’d like to thank him for providing us with so many impressive performances and heartfelt expressions of his creative genius. I hope he’s at least found the peace that’s all too often lacking for those of us fated to struggle to make sense of difficult lives in an ever-hardening world. I also hope his children will be able to feel his presence just as Luke Skywalker did Obi Wan Kenobi’s after his mentor’s sacrifice in Star Wars, one of the few films in Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t appear.
Thanks, Phil. Enjoy heaven. And please don’t go to hell, as the coffee there’s atrocious.