Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Riske Business: The Death Marathon

by Adam Riske
When it comes to celebrity deaths, the fans have it easy.

After the Facebook messages have been posted and the initial shocked tweets have been sent, it becomes time to schedule a death marathon as your tribute to a fallen celebrity. Many people, including myself, are scheduling theirs for Robin Williams and/or Lauren Bacall this week.

The concept of a death marathon is equally flattering and morbid. The recently deceased gets full focus; details of their performances get viewed in a state of full alertness and are appreciated in ways they were not when the performer was still alive. Are we doing this as movie fans to make sense of the deaths that we feel are senseless (drug abuse, suicide) or are we doing this because it’s our way of admiring what we have lost after it’s already too late?
 I think it’s a little bit of both. I am programming my Robin Williams death marathon for a number of reasons: a) as a penance – I want to feel bad about poking fun at him all of these years and make up for it by truly recognizing his range and talent; b) I want to catch up on movies of his that I enjoyed but haven’t seen in a long time such as Good Morning Vietnam, Awakenings, One Hour Photo or Insomnia. I often feel as if there is never enough time to watch all of the movies I own and here is an excuse to make a deliberate selection of what to watch next and c) I want to see the movies I have never seen for the first time. It’s as if, because he died, I need to get them all in right away. For example, I have never seen Dead Poets Society or The Fisher King, which I plan to rectify quickly.
The death of a celebrity puts into focus the illusory nature of the relationship movie fans have to actors and actresses in general. In most cases, we have never met these individuals; if we have, it’s at a convention or in some other fleeting capacity. We don’t have personal memories of them. All we have is their work. They were entertainers. They were a big part of our lives because they added joy to them. But while we say we’re suffering a loss, in a way we are not. Our relationship with these people has not changed. We never met them. We will watch them after death same as we did while they were alive. The work will live forever. It’s just that there’s going to be no new work to add to it. Their careers have closed. Their filmography is set. We have a beginning, middle and an end to draw upon.

How would Robin Williams feel about me having a death marathon for him? I think he would appreciate it, if not outright enjoy it. Entertainers want audiences to see and enjoy their work. No one wants to play to an empty crowd. They want us to see a piece of their filmography, gush over it and then have the desire enough to keep going to the next movie. Everyone wants fans.

My gesture is sincere – I want to feel closer to someone I’ve never met but who made me feel something – whether it’s joy, sadness, empathy or all of the above. It’s just morbid that we usually don’t think of doing this while the artists are alive. It’s not wrong; we all just have lots on our minds. We can’t pay attention to all things, all the time. Death gives movie fans direction.
But for as much baggage as the sudden death of a celebrity involves, it becomes a possible gift in the long run. Look at Lauren Bacall, for example. I’ve seen five of her movies (Dogville, Manderlay, My Fellow Americans, Ernest & Celestine, How to Marry a Millionaire), none of which are considered her best, and now I have the urge to check out more. Who knows? Maybe I’ll become a big fan and encourage others to watch her movies the same way I did with Paul Newman when he passed away in 2008. I remember fondly discovering Somebody Up There Likes Me, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Verdict and then recommending those movies to friends. I also discussed them with my parents (who have a history with Newman’s movies because they watched them as they were released) and got even more enjoyment out of my death marathon.
Once we remove ourselves from the immediate loss, the death marathon is actually like a gift given to you by the performer. Just think: can’t you see yourself telling your kids one day that they have to watch this Robin Williams movie or that James Gandolfini performance? Hell, I’m definitely going to need them to know about Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Movies are a miracle. I love them. They are signposts for the feelings and attitudes of the 20th century. They will live forever. The performers in those movies will as well. They are immortal. A death marathon is a toast to immortality. The admission is only that you have to encourage the next guy to run the race.


  1. Great article, Adam. I had a small death marathon for Hoffman where I watched Capote for the first time and wondered how I hadn't seen it earlier. I will be doing the same for Williams. I haven't seen Dead Poets Society either. I think that will be first on my list.

    1. Yeah, I rewatched Capote last April. It really sucks you in by the end.

  2. A lovely article, Adam. Well-considered and intelligently composed.

  3. Fantastic Adam. I cant say anything. You said it all. Great work

    1. Thanks Dennis. I've really been enjoying your recent comments :-)