Gandolfini et al: Random Thoughts on Mourning Dead Artists

A couple of days ago, I finally got a chance to see Green Room, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s fantastic follow-up to his cult favourite Blue Ruin.  I do love me a good thriller/smart horror film.  I missed it at Midnight Madness at TIFF a couple of years ago, and heard great things.   And I’ve always liked the young actor Anton Yelchin, one of the stars of Green Room, who died last month in the driveway of his home in Studio City, pinned between his Jeep Grand Cherokee and his mailbox.

I’m a film nerd.  I have been since – well, always.  I used to hitchhike into Halifax to see films when I was 15 and 16 years old, if I couldn’t wait for whatever movie to come to one of our two local theatres where I grew up in Nova Scotia.  My mother bought the family a VCR the Christmas I was 15, hoping to keep me at home more often.  That didn’t work, but it did mean that I was able to catch up on classics I hadn’t had a chance to see before.  (Oh, those crazy halcyon days, before nearly anything we want to see is available with a few clicks on a keyboard.)

There are certain actors I notice in tiny roles, and keep track of in some Geek Database in my mind – helped enormously by imdb.com.  (What did we do before imdb?  Seriously.)  I remembered Anton Yelchin as a little boy, playing the Russian diplomat’s son in Along Came a Spider, with Morgan Freeman.  Then a number of years later, I watched the excellent (and underrated) series Huff, playing Hank Azaria’s son Bird.  He was a kid, and yet emanated such intelligence and – okay, this sounds hokey — but humanity.  This actor was a thinker; it came out of his pores.  It was a treat to see him in Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch’s oddly sweet vampire film with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton.

(I may actually watch Star Trek to see his Chekhov, though I’ve never seen a Star Trek.  It’s true.  Shoot me.)

Anton Yelchin’s death pissed me off.  Senseless and random.  27 years old.

***

I haven’t watched the Academy Awards, or for that matter any other awards show, for a long time.

But I remember as a kid – a teenager, and into my 20s – that the bit that would always have me reduced to tears was the In Memorium montage, the people we’ve lost section.  More than half would be people I’d never heard of – a cinematographer whose name I had never noticed before, a choreographer whose work I didn’t know – but I always felt I owed it to them to pay full attention to their names, to give them a moment of attention, of respect.  But once in a while, when it was an actor or director whose work had touched me in some way, I invariably broke down.

I’ve thought about this very personal phenomenon a lot in the last years.

***

On July 23, 2011, Amy Winehouse died.  I received that news with the kind of sick shock that usually only accompanies the news that someone very close to you has died.  (Unfortunately, I know this feeling too well.)

Why, particularly?   My ex-husband and I split in February of 2006.  (We are still good friends, and I consider him family, for better or worse.)  The split was not acrimonious, exactly, but for a variety of reasons was incredibly, brutally painful, and signaled the start of what I refer to as The Bad Years, or The Drug Years, or The Stupidest Fucking Time of my Life, depending on my mood.  And in that first terrible month, where I was recovering from a fall and had a cast on my ankle, trying to negotiate through snowy Toronto, a friend let me listen to her copy of Amy’s first album, Frank.  At the time it was available as an import only in Toronto.  I bought a copy right away, and listened to it constantly – and I mean, constantly; I very rarely listened to anything else for about two years – during that time.  Amy Winehouse was only 19 when she recorded that album.

19.

I’m a music girl.  I grew up with five older brothers and sisters and was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music, and studied classical piano myself.  (Unlike two or three of my siblings, I didn’t have the temperament or patience or talent – or a combination of all three — to take it further than I did.)  Amy’s pure musicality blew me away.  The raw talent.  The raw heart and soul, laid bare on those tracks.  (I was less a fan of the sometimes over-orchestrated Back to Black, but that’s another piece.)  Frank was the soundtrack of the worst time of my life.  I didn’t listen to it to wallow; I hate wallowing.  I find severe pain is difficult enough without attempting to make it worse.  Rather, the talent, the sound she made, lifted me, energized me, made me feel a bit more whole, and in a weird way, grounded.

In the late 2000s, it was difficult to be alive and have an internet connection without knowing about Winehouse’s addiction issues.  I loathe celebrity gossip.  I hate it with the passion of a thousand suns.  (And the cult of celebrity is becoming worse and more insidious; I would rather pull out my own fingernails than watch, read, or hear anything else about the Kardashians, and I think TMX is mindless star-fucking – and star-bashing — voyeurism at its worst.)   But, especially after I cleaned up my act and started walking into my future – on very wobbly legs – I couldn’t help rooting for her, hoping that she could stay away from whatever it was that made her slide into the gaunt, strung-out junkie she was at the end.

When she died, I mourned her as I would mourn someone I knew.  Not for as long, but for about three days I found myself bursting into tears.  I’m sure someone smarter than I could have something to say about that.  But it was this: the loss of a talent that was so unique, that shone so bright, that devastated me.  I felt invested in her, in a visceral way.

I still have not been able to see Amy, the documentary that got such rave reviews.  I will, someday.  I’m just not ready yet.  Weird?  Yeah, probably.

***

Cut to June, 2013.  51-year-old James Gandolfini dies in a hotel room in Rome, his 12-year-old son with him.  Again, when I read it online the next morning on the CBC website, it would not be incorrect to say that I felt like I was reading the news through a tunnel.  I don’t think I breathed for about 20 seconds.  I thought it must be a hoax, until I saw that every other news outlet was reporting it.

I never met him.  I have never had any desire to meet anyone truly famous, in that way.  I mean, I have met a few famous people, by chance, but I am so averse to the fangirl groupie thing that I usually just pretend I don’t know who they are.  (Which is, of course, absolutely ridiculous.)

The Sopranos, I think, is the best thing – still, to date – that has ever been made for television.  I have seen every episode an embarrassing number of times.  When the series was first on, I had friends over on Sunday nights to watch it.  I bought all the DVDs several times over, because I would loan them to people who hadn’t seen it: I was incensed that there were intelligent people of my acquaintance who hadn’t seen it.  Yes, I remembered Gandolfini from other roles: his very memorable stint in True Romance comes to mind immediately, that scene with Patricia Arquette – but his Tony Soprano was a work of such virtuosity that even sitting here typing this, I get chills thinking about it.

I couldn’t imagine a world without Gandolfini in it.  And I have not been able to watch The Sopranos since.  Though I will, again someday.

***

April of 2016, a few short months ago.  Prince.  I can’t write about that yet.

***

There have been a number of other actors I admired hugely, who’ve died in recent years.  Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose body of work was nearly beyond compare, and whose tragic overdose was actually shocking: he seemed like the kind of guy who would indulge in vices once in a while, but a heroin overdose?  He did Serious Theatre.  He worked very steadily in a lot of great films.  But for whatever reason, as shocked and saddened as I was, it didn’t touch me in the same way.

Heath Ledger in 2008: profoundly sad.  Brokeback Mountain was a revelation for me; I thought his performance was ground-breaking.  And his Joker?  Fuhgeddaboudit.  He would have done hugely interesting work, and I had become a big fan.

But there is something, I think, about a piece of work hitting us at a particular time that can change the way we feel about ourselves, about the world.

***

As I am about to post this, at 4:00 a.m., I am avoiding thinking about what happened in Nice yesterday, and in Turkey, and the little girl and her mother murdered in Calgary, or the horrifying state of the U.S. presidential race.  2016 has been, to quote QEII from the late 90s, an annus horribilis.  I am wont to think and obsess too much about the world stage, so tonight, I needed to let my sore brain meander in another direction.  Thanks for bearing with.

xob