Film and culture critic Mario Trono makes sense of our strong reactions to celebrity deaths
Like many, I have rolled my eyes at the phrase “spontaneous outpouring of grief” when it came to the death of a celebrity.
Grief is what you feel when a close friend or beloved family member passes and your particular corner of the space-time continuum transforms into a wind-swept desert you must cross. It’s when no moment of the day is safe from that feeling of sickening, painful awareness washing over you again and again. You feel like Milton’s Satan —hell is wherever you are. At least until you grieve properly in the fullness of time and get closure. But closure of that kind is a hard bought thing, slow in coming, limited in its consolations.
Did members of the general public really feel this way after the death of Michael Jackson? Amy Winehouse? Robin Williams? Kurt Cobain? Freddie Mercury? Part of the problem is that we don’t have a taxonomy of emotions handy for when someone of cultural renown dies, so we irresponsibly mention grief. Is “saddened” better? Taken aback? Surprised? Wistful? Are we actually fine, even a little excited by the story as it trends and effervesces in media streams? (TV Guide referred to its list of celebrity deaths for 2015 as “The Best of the Year.”) Or are we sometimes genuinely sombre as we pay our emotional respects after having admired and valued an entertainer’s work for some years?
“Ever since the ancestral cave, humanity has cheered and mourned its figures of legend. It’s what we do.”
– Mario TronoWe surely don’t offer up lamentation for thespians and tunesmiths as we would for a champion of justice who died too soon, like Martin Luther King. Or is there room for overlap here? Freddie trail-blazed for gay rights, after all, and Lennon pushed for peace. And what about overlap with difficult social issues? Cobain and Williams emerged as poignant awareness cases for mental health, Winehouse for substance abuse. Jackson was a successful black American but also an abused child who was accused of abusing others.
Bereavement by proxy is possible if a star battled a pain we’ve felt (or can well imagine). This is different though from the fleeting sense of a downer that lingers only a few days after an entertainment staple is pulled from our speakers and screens, a murmured “Aw” after a John Candy or John Bonham vanishes. Men I know respect and miss Paul Walker and Tupac. But those are light acknowledgments compared to the melancholy other times felt, when your emotional life and a star’s work have braided intricately over time. And it’s harder in advanced years as your own expiration date draws near. I watched my parents grow old over several decades. Marilyn Monroe barely registered in their memories, but Frank Sinatra’s passing in 1998 was like a death in the family.
Note that I’m setting aside the argument that we shouldn’t care about celebrity deaths at all. Since so many people on this planet suffer and die in obscurity, the argument goes, preoccupation with the dead and famous borders on perverse. But I think that’s a shallow argument (while the argument that we care simply because someone provided the soundtrack for our lives is too simplistic). Of course it’s dangerous when entertainment eclipses our awareness of struggling populations. But ever since the ancestral cave, humanity has cheered and mourned its figures of legend. It’s what we do. And it’s one of the impulses at the heart of dramatic art — empathy for a figure we elevate to universal status in our imaginations.
It’s in light of all this that I’ve tried to assess my lingering sadness over the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman. Especially over this pair of deaths and exactly why, for some reason, I find the pairing significant. I’ll take meaning anywhere I can find it, including from celebrity deaths. Reflecting on human emotion is nothing short of a search for significance, some kind of pattern or meaningful gestalt amidst the banalities of daily life, an inexplicable cosmos, and, as Sylvia Plath put it, wars, wars, wars.
Bowie and Rickman were both British. Both entertainers. Born within a year (and dead within a week) of each other. Leftist firebrand Billy Bragg recently pointed out that both men were from working class backgrounds and found their way to art at a time when creativity was still valued in middle and lower class schools. But these similarities don’t birth any real significance. For me, that only comes from their two most famous (some say over-referenced) incarnations: Ziggy Stardust from Bowie’s definitive glam-rock-defining phase, and Severus Snape, Rickman’s most widely known film role, courtesy of the Harry Potter movies.
Neither guy is reducible to these roles. Of course not. But for me, they and the men who played them are linked in an important way. And it starts with the men’s faces.
Do back-to-back image searches of Bowie and Rickman. Both usually present a straight face that is almost haughty, imperious. A cool demeanour. A stand-offish, almost snooty, aristocratic mien. Unapproachable. Aloof. You see it in their roles, poses, and promotions. But then you also see them smile, and the face of an enemy morphs into that of a friend, a real humanity in the gaze and those beautiful crinkles beside the sometimes slightly sad eyes. I wonder if they were aware of the power of this shift, if they actively cultivated it as part of their art. And that makes me think of Ziggy and Severus. I always felt that Ziggy Stardust was a loving, debauched, caring saint who used orgiastic music and outrageous shows to say to his generation’s artistic and sensitive children, “Hey, there’s a Starman who’s as bored by this cruel world as you, so feel loved and here’s a way out—lunacy! Speak lunacy to power!”
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’s told us not to blow it
Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile
He told me:
Let the children lose it
Let the children use it
Let all the children boogie
Ziggy was a glammed up Ginsberg, but instead of howling in verse he used piano and power chords to process love through bubblegum. The character of Snape, on the other hand, will always be remembered by Potter fans for the revelation that despite his menace he loved, loved passionately and loved long, loved Harry’s mother (and therefore Harry too) — “Always.” That’s the line that can bring a Potter fan to tears. Snape, gloriously and ridiculously costumed and casting spells, inside perfectly childish and therefore perfect fantasy, crying “Expecto patronum!” to send out blasts of positive, white energy on behalf of love and the young.
Bowie and Rickman in their biggest roles were utterly devoted to the unreal. These roles were entirely unapologetic fantasy directed at generationally different young people who were both spiritually dying from crap that ranged from practical career advice to rationales for war. As Ziggy himself sings it:
Stone love – she kneels before the grave
A brave son – who gave his life
to save the slogan
That hovers between the headstone and her eyes
For they penetrate her grieving.
New love – a boy and girl are talking
New words – that only they can share in
New words – a love so strong it tears their hearts
To sleep – through the fleeting hours of morning
“Any death, no matter how ostensibly remote from us, can land hard, if we make sense of it correctly.”
– Mario TronoThe demographic group most fully gut-punched by these two deaths? I would bet it’s people who came of age in the 70s, loving Bowie, before going on to have children. Those children would soon devour the Potter books and films. Those parents must surely have winced, maybe even micro-grieved, when the lad insane himself passed away, courtesy of one of those grim diagnoses that many of us liken to a pack of orcs. But those same parents now watch their kids experience the disappearance of a cherished face from their childhoods, in Rickman. So there’s a double (possibly triple) micro-keening going on for the adults.
When Rickman died, I told my 10-year-old daughter that the man who played Snape was gone. I watched her go blank to process the information while in my mind’s eye I remembered Bowie, then my own youthful blankness as I processed news of John Lennon’s death, and then I believe for a moment I saw Rickman’s stoic face through my daughter’s maturing eyes.
Any death, no matter how ostensibly remote from us, can land hard, if we make sense of it correctly. Zappa said, “Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid.” Aladdin Sane sang, “Time, he’s waiting in the wings, he speaks of senseless things.” Time is brutal. Artists mock him while they have him, and when they die, I will feel for them.
Mario Trono is an associate professor with the Department of English at Mount Royal University. His weekly film review column may be heard on CBC Radio. He can be reached at email@example.com
Thumbnail photos courtesy of Icaro Ferracini (left), and Ralph Gatti (right), Creative Commons.
The editor responsible for this article is Michaela Ritchie, firstname.lastname@example.org