Night at the Museum has been a fun, if not very demanding, franchise. Starring Ben Stiller, our neurotic hero, and special effects that take us on crazy tours of museums in the US and Europe, the third and final film boasts a fine ensemble cast and two final performances by stars - a very brief one from Mickey Rooney and a poignant one by Robin Williams. The film seems to follow the "Save the Cat" Hollywood formula that I have just discovered - which is based on a book about how to write screenplays. In case I am not the last on the planet to discover it and you, too, have been in the dark about it, briefly it is a formula in which the hero, mood and tone of the movie are established in the first 10 minutes (including when the hero "Saves a cat", getting the audience clearly behind him - perhaps as Stiller does by confronting his son who is refusing to go to college, but also by recognizing his son's need for independence), the hero then faces some life changing event (in this case the ancient Egyptian tablet that brings the museum to life is deteriorating), then, at 25 minutes or so in, the hero leaves the old world for a new one, a second plot is introduced that is a mirror image of the first, and the fun and games commence. Here, the hero travels to London, sneaks into the British Museum, and searches for the exhibit that contains the answers to how to fix the tablet, with the mirror plot being the search that his small companions take through the heating ducts within the museum where they have been sucked by the power of the air recirculating system.
At or about the midpoint of the movie, according to the "Save the Cat" rubric, the bad guys close in, and the hero must face them - in this case with the help of Sir Lancelot, who - though not actually an exhibit in the real British Museum - helps Stiller fight off a nine headed Chinese serpent - also not an exhibit in the real museum, and adds a bit of mayhem, becoming, himself a threat for a period of time - which leads to the crescendo - which should usually occurs at about 75 minutes into a 110 minute film. Called the "dark night of the soul", which seems a bit melodramatic for this bit of fluff, all seems lost until a solution emerges (which I won't give away in case you haven't seen the movie). By 85 minutes the crisis is resolved, the secondary plot merges with the primary plot and the last 25 minutes involve dispatching enemies in hierarchical order. All neat and tidy, except that it is about mortality - and the limits of our ability to exert influence on the ways that things go, especially in other's lives.
In order to say farewell to Robin Williams, I will have to give away some of the particulars. Williams portrays Teddy Roosevelt in this film as in the other two (actually I can't vouch for the second as I don't think I've seen it). He is a wax figure who comes to life at night due to the magic of the tablet. In this film, he and other favorites from the Natural History Museum in New York accompany Stiller to London to solve the problem. The solution to the problem means that those who are from New York must, at the end of the movie, return to a sleep from which they will never awaken. Stiller has to reinstall them in the museum and say good bye to them. Knowing as we do that Williams will shortly die, this is a particularly poignant moment in the movie - one in which Williams, who has been incredibly restrained, for him, throughout the film, tells one last joke on parting from Sacajawea, his love interest, noting that despite their saying it could never work out because he was made from wax and she from polycarbonate, their love has triumphed. The line was delivered with what, perhaps with the wisdom of hindsight, seems to be great wistfulness and sadness.
Google, in its year end greeting, noted that the searches for Mrs. Doubtfire were the ones that exploded in the wake of Williams' death. This movie (one that seems as I review it in my head to also have followed the "Save the Cat" format - apparently most do), captured Williams' humanity - his wish to connect with people - that his humor seemed to simultaneously fuel and prevent. We were drawn to his manic humor because it was amazing - he could hold us spellbound with his ability to turn something as simple as a scarf into a shawl, a rickshaw, a violin and whatever else might occur to him in the space of 2 or 3 minutes, creating or accessing a wealth of characters as he did so. This let us in, but also kept us apart as we viewed him, as we do all entertainers to some extent or another, as an object. But the fluidity of his thought; his ability to jump from here to wherever at the drop of a word or expression lent new meaning to the term free association - his comfort with his unconscious and the power of that unconscious - and his seeming effortless conscious control of the material so that he could channel it within bounds was awe inspiring - and therefore distance creating.
There was also a sense of naïveté that his characters expressed - the radio DJ in Good Morning Vietnam comes to mind. In that film, his character believed, on some level, that the US was doing good to and for Vietnam - and that because he had befriended particular Vietnamese, that he was doing them good. There was visible shock that registered when that friendship, legitimate though it was, turned out to be much more complex - and built on foundational levels that he did not in that moment have access to - and it would take much time to achieve appreciation. This was certainly a message about America's role as a superpower and our blundering belief in our ability to do good in cultures and places where we have no knowledge, something explored by Graham Greene in The Quiet American as well - but it was also as if Williams, and here I am blurring the actor with his characters, was still Mork, come from another planet, and somewhat confused about how it is that things work here.
So this film, with a subdued seeming Williams playing a wax character - one that feels somewhat removed, observant, but not active - could I say depressed? - seems to be offering, we can imagine, a weird fun-house mirror picture of the person; someone who was struggling with his current TV show - one that felt heavy handed rather than funny - as if the Midas touch of being able to see the absurdity of things was becoming a burden - something to throw in people's faces rather than something to laugh at with them - as if he stood on the other side of a barrier rather than on the same side of that barrier with us.
I never knew Robin Williams, and for that reason I can't ethically offer a diagnosis of him, and I don't intend to be doing that in this blog. Instead I mean to be wondering - and I do think that we need to wonder about something like suicide, which we are programmed by millions of years of evolution, and the joy of life - to avoid - we need to wonder what causes someone - especially someone as full of wit, conviction about the importance of family, and a naked desire to connect with others - to choose to end his life. Why do we, who share those attributes, though to a lesser extent, consider suicide ourselves? Why are we depressed when there is so much wonderful stuff that life has to offer?
I think there is a sense of isolation - a sense of being made of an essentially different substance, that may have been part of Williams' depressive experience. I also think there may have been some anger - some significant frustration that all of his talent, all of his ability did not give him something that he desperately desired. I assume that to be a kind of love - a kind of connection - that he felt to be out of his grasp. I also think that the onset of a progressive illness - one that would rob him of his ability to be as physically fluid and ultimately as cognitively fluid as he was used to - may have angered him. I don't know any of this - it is a guess. But I do wonder about the role that anger played in his suicide.
In a small instance of life imitating art, I could not convince the reluctant son to join us for the film. Despite it being the case that he has enjoyed the first two installments, he has decided that he does not like going to movies, so we were not able to have the family outing experience that I had hoped for. It was frustrating. Certainly less so than if he decided that he didn't feel that he needed to go to college. Perhaps we need models like the character that Ben Stiller was playing to help us think about managing our wish to control our lives and the lives of those around us.
Perhaps also we need to question the Hollywood formula of overcoming adversity with a specific formula. I have often compared movies to dreams, and think that the Save the Cat formula, present in so many movies, while bankable, constrains our dreaming capacity. In fact, we need to learn how to manage limitations - and dreams, and movies, can, if we let them, help us with that. But we have to trust that our audience wants catharsis - that they want to see that their heroes have limitations and live within them. While this movie let's Williams character go with grace into the night (or day - it is daylight that robs him of his living quality), the end of his actual life does not feel so graceful. He played characters who gave voice to important positions that were not popular, and they always seemed to be able to triumph on the moral level if not always being able to best the powers that be, though sometimes they were able to do both. Perhaps it was too much to ask that he do this in his life as well as on screen.
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