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Revisiting Robin Williams and 'What Dreams May Come'

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | September 18, 2014 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | September 18, 2014 |

The miracle of the modern world is that you can wake up in one city, fly a few thousand miles, spend the day in another city, and still come home and sleep in your own bed that night. Of course, inevitably Delta makes you sit on the runway for an hour and you miss your connecting flight and you end up in a terrifying budget motel next to the Atlanta airport and nestled between a strip club and a Waffle House. While the potential of an entertainment and breakfast one-two punch was destroyed by the reality of a six am flight the next morning, the real gem of the evening (besides the toilet that wasn’t actually secured to the floor) was the fact that the place had like six different variations on HBO.

Because the universe had already decided to put me under the magnifying glass lined up under the sun this day, naturally normal HBO was broadcasting a Beyonce concert or some such. So I end up on HBO Family, which was airing What Dreams May Come. I’m not sure exactly what sort of definition of “family” the scheduler at HBO was working off of on this particular day, but classifying “man’s children die, he dies, his wife kills herself, and he journeys to hell to save her” as family entertainment is certainly a bold categorization.

I’d seen it years before, only half remembered now, but the visuals hold up so monumentally well, visions of such surreal allegories. Three fourths of the movie is brilliant, a deep and sad meditation on loss and how we deal with it. And more: such a nuanced look at very real and very flawed human beings, and the way that we stumble through our agonies and ecstasies.

Yet the ending is still a terrible failure, a glistening sheen of gilding slapped on to give a happy ending to a tragedy. That’s not to say that the ending had to be sad, but that it shouldn’t have been a jarring transition to puppy dogs and apple pie. After two hours of exploring how we deal with our scars, wiping the scars away with a stroke is not joy, but an insult to what we endured. The happy ending to this story should have been one of wearing scars with pride, not whitewashing them.

And of course it’s impossible to watch the film in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide without conflating the movie and reality, without make some comparison between the two as they roll around together in the back of your mind.

Depression is a vicious and subtle disease that robs people of their lives minute by minute, a dark haze causing every moment to seem both pointless and ominously inescapable. It is a form of stasis, freezing you in a vacant stare. What Dreams May Come almost got the misery of depression right, but although there are no universalities in such things, what always struck me that it got wrong was the notion that it was something that could be healed by your loved one joining you. That’s not been my experience with the disease. The prospect of the love of your life being ensnared and destroyed by your depression is not something that shocks the disease out of your system. It in fact only makes it worse, because the prospect so horrifies you that it sinks you ever deeper into depression. Some have compared depression to a bad feedback loop for exactly this reason. It’s a black box in which every input leads to the same output. It’s a fiction of those who’ve never suffered depression that it is something you can be joined in.

So watching that movie, watching that ending, all while the man doing the heavy lifting on screen would someday be a devastating refutation of the film’s own musings, it scalds. Family entertainment or not.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.