Months ago, Gabby and I decided to write a column on what our friends at F This Movie call exploding heart movies, movies that fill you with such passion and joy that it overwhelms you. I had chosen to write about The Fisher King and The Majestic, but I hope Frank Darabont forgives me for pushing The Majestic aside for the moment because I need to talk about The Fisher King right now. Life got in the way of putting the column together, I started a new job with a more demanding schedule than I had before and I could never quite get the bat off my shoulder when it came time to step up and start writing. Last night, I got punched in the heart by the news of Robin Williams' suicide and Gabby and I spoke about how we've both been haunted by images of The Fisher King since.
The Fisher King is a fable, a story of love and hope and friendship conquering everything else in their way. It's not for all tastes (I believe F This Movie's Patrick referred to it as "too squishy" which is absolutely valid) but it's not even just a movie to me. It's magic. I cry every time I watch it, not from sadness, but from the pure joy it makes me feel. SO MUCH of that joy comes from the performance of Robin Williams as Parry, a homeless "knight" on a quest. There's that expression about wearing one's heart on their sleeve, Williams' performance is all one big, open, beating heart. Parry is a man who went through an impossible tragedy and came out the other side seemingly damaged beyond repair, but his quest is one of healing first and foremost. Williams' performance is, for my money, the best he ever gave. Funny, noble, vulnerable, fearless, and achingly, heartwrenchingly sad. Who knew how real a place that performance came from before today? So many images from it have been floating through my head today, mostly of the Red Knight, a delusion that tortures Parry, chasing him through the city, relentlessly hounding him so he can't find peace even when things start going his way.
Gabby, what images have been haunting you?
Gabby: So many bits from this movie keep coming to me I am finding it hard just to pick one. I know I have to re-watch it but this experience will be heartbreaking. This movie is something I find truly moving and in light of recent events it just got even more so. I will go then to the scene where the film gets its title. The tale of the Fisher King, Parry tells Jack. A story of a King who loses all faith in those around him and even himself, 'He couldn't love, or feel loved. He was sick with experience. He began to die'. The thing that saves him from his pain is a fool who reaches for a cup to quench the King's thirst and hands him the holy grail, which the King was mourning the loss of. This story is used throughout the film but especially when Jack fights to get what Parry thinks is the grail, when he is catatonic. The grail becomes a symbol in this moment for how much Jack has come to care about Parry, and how he is truly sorry for what he has done. The love Jack shares for Parry in this moment I think is what manages to wake him up. Parry feels comfortable with sharing the grief of losing his wife. His demons when shared are not chasing him and crippling him, the way they are when the Red Knight turns up.
Unfortunately Robin Williams didn't find that soothing drink in real life. He felt the same as the King, he felt the life and love for it fall away. There is a shot just before the Red Knight turns up after his first date with Lydia. There is a crane shot that makes him seem so small. It comes closer to him as he seems to be wriggling in pain and then he seems so fearful when that knight shows up, and so are we. The hope has gone when this knight is there. Even though it seems Parry has schizophrenia, he has a similar battle to Depression in the fact that events of the past are affecting his present day life, which are pulling him down into a scary and dark place that seems impossible to get out of. Robin lost his battle with that Knight. And we can all feel sad or even mad. It is understandable. But I think the most important thing is to keep spreading awareness about Depression and mental health issues. So that we can handle these illnesses better as a society. It is so tragic for someone to die of anything. But when it is suicide I think it makes us feel how desperate and awful he must have felt to do that. It took Parry to be at breaking point for Jack to take him to get the right help. We can't let it get this far. We have to start learning and being better towards people who have it. No more bullshit about 'Perk up' or 'What have you got to be so sad about when there's starving children in the world?' This has to stop. Parry's pain is real. And so was Robin's.
One scene that I haven't mentioned yet is the ending where Jack sees how much life has to offer him now as he is surrounded by things he loves and he is able to feel hope. What are your feelings on that moment?
Josh: Before we take on the end, I just want to back up to what you said a bit before that about "perk up" and such. Someone (and I wish I could remember who it was) tweeted something along the lines of "asking someone suffering from depression 'what are you so depressed about?' is akin to asking 'what are you so diabetic about?'" and I think that's a perfect encapsulation of what so many people don't understand about depression.
As for that ending, right now I'm angry about it. I'm angry about it because for the last 23 years it has filled me with hope and now that hope feels like a lie. I'm angry because I love Jack and Parry, I love them like people who have been part of my life for 23 years, and right now I feel betrayed by them, betrayed by that ending. There are so many parallels to be drawn between Parry as a character and Robin Williams as a man that I'm finding it difficult to separate them right now. I'm certain that's unfair of me, but I can't help it. The wound is too fresh, I feel like I'm bleeding all over my keyboard just thinking about it.
I don't know that I have much more I can say about it at the moment. I want to feel that hope again, I want to feel that immeasurable joy that this masterpiece has always brought me (along with the light dusting of melancholy that coats every frame) but I don't know when I'll be ready to face it again. I hate that I feel that way, normally when I celebrity I love dies I'll watch a movie of theirs to celebrate their life but I tried to listen to Robin Williams' A Night at the Met last night and all it made me feel was anger and pain. I can't even fathom facing Parry again. I don't know how.
Gabby: I can understand what you are feeling. It is such a complex issue. Of course though, the hope that Parry gets in the final moments of the film I see as even more beautiful now. It makes me well up just thinking about it. The happiness and the joy he feels in that moment lets him feel a relief from all the pain he has been through. But it doesn't mean that it has disappeared. We have ups and downs and bumps along the way. Some people unfortunately have worse lows than others. It doesn't mean however that the way they saw the world for the entirety of their lives is the same as the way they saw it in the end. Parry likes New York in June, and I bet Robin appreciated it as many times as he felt hollow and empty to it. For some reason my mind has travelled back to when I was lucky enough to sit in on a lecture with Al Alvarez. He was very close to Sylvia Plath. He talked about his feelings about her suicide and his feelings of anger and hurt. He also had a complex frustration towards her husband Ted Hughes. He talked though of her life, and her ability to see the beauty in the world around her as well as her fierce intelligence and empathy for others. She appreciated the small things in nature as well as the larger moments in life. Her life was full of laughter as well as tears. I think that gave me a lot of perspective on my feeling towards so many people who I admire who killed themselves. Even though it is tragic they were so desperate towards the end of the lives, it doesn't make their road to that any less colourful. It is so desperately sad and grey at the end of their lives but Robin was so loved by many people. Those who met him speak of what a brilliant, loyal and special person he was. He loved and laughed and even though he couldn't pull through like Parry could, maybe he can live on with that hopeful lighter ending he was given through films such as singing 'I love New York in June' surrounded by people he loves.
Josh: I hope you're right. Dear god, I hope you're right.
Gabby: The film has been strongly influenced by Disney’s Pinocchio. Jack even holds a Pinocchio doll. The film has the same fairy tale parallels, such as mixing that sense of wonder and hope with some scary and vulnerable moments for the protagonists that help them learn morally valuable lessons along the way. I think that sense of Pinocchio’s journey can also be seen in Jack’s. He learns the value of others and the world around him beyond himself and his own ego. He becomes a real boy, the pure of heart, thanks to finding connections, friends and things that he believes in that allow him to be redeemed of his previous attitudes and behaviours to the world around him. Some of the strongest elements of the film are the themes of redemption and friendship. Can you comment on how you feel about Jack at the beginning of the film and his slow journey to letting other people in?
Josh: It's weird how perspective changes as you get older. It was Jack's journey that I was focused on when I first saw the movie. He was based quite a bit on Howard Stern (era) and hearing about that was what drew me to the movie in the first place. I was a huge fan of Stern in 1991 (still am) and knowing that Jack was partially a representation of him made me curious. I love the "Jack Lucas Show" Jack that we meet at the beginning, I felt almost immediately in tune with his sensibility, and as the film progressed and he "became a real boy" as you so eloquently put it I was completely invested in that journey, I wanted to see him grow. I was glad to see him grow. As I've gotten older, I find my focus shifting more toward Parry and his pursuit of peace and forgiveness. Even though Jack is the more down-to-earth of the two, Parry strikes me as much more real these days.
Gabby: I also love Anne and Lydia. There are shades to them that stop them from being just stock characters that so many female characters are in Hollywood movies. To wrap up I wanted to quickly go back to what we were saying about Depression. It is simple really, if people could stop being sick they would. That illness is horrible and hard as well as chemical. The film shows this so well. If we ignore the pain and pretend it's not there like Parry tries to do it will catch up with us. If we try and bury it we can end up shutting the world out, like Jack at the beginning, as we feel so misunderstood by those around us. The best option is try, as Jack does at the end, to be supportive and understanding. Just listen and try not to judge. I feel that is another thing which makes this movie special. There is no judgement towards the characters. It just feels like it is embracing the characters and that is so important for mental health issues in our culture. Embracing others and trying to understand them rather than making them feel worse. I hope we get more of it in the future.
Josh: I thoroughly agree, I also agree about Anne & Lydia, especially Lydia. It would have been so easy for her to be unlikable but Amanda Plummer finds a humanity in her that is truly lovely. Thank you for suggesting we do this, Gabby. It's been cathartic. Hopefully soon the pain will fade and we'll be singing that everything's coming up videos.