admin On February - 8 - 2014

Last week we lost Pete Seeger. I cried that day, because I had grown up with the man’s music. It had served as the soundtrack for much of my childhood and I couldn’t help but think of my father’s passing that day. It seemed logical that I would mourn his passing, even be it at the ripe old age of 94. It seemed slightly less reasonable that I should feel as much, perhaps even more, at the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s untimely passing. But as I think about it, it is not any less rational. The fact is that artists whose work we admire shape our identity. Because that, in essence, is the gift of art. It informs and provokes. It enhances our appreciation of the world while pushing us to develop our critical capacities. So it is indeed a profound loss for us all when we lose one who was so effective as an artist to have created works with such impact.

Some writers have spoken of how, in the wake of such a loss, people tend to highlight and cling to the most tenuous of connections with the deceased. Their image begins to populate social media feeds, stories appear detailing occurrences where they shared the same air—I had coffee in the same place as ______, I partied with_____, etc. But I don’t think that people do that out of malice or self-interest, in an effort to somehow stake a claim to fame. Rather, I think it has to do with an innate need to draw these connections to help us reconcile our own feelings of loss. It allows us to feel a sense of communal grief. Despite our heightened level of awareness of mental health issues, there remains an expectation that grief must follow a specific trajectory and a timeline. And as a result, many are forced to rush through the complex processes that form the grief journey, meaning that our expressions of grief often do not find purchase or expression.

hoffmanI do not see harm in the outpouring of grief and sadness that comes with the passing of a public figure. Because I think it bares little resemblance to the star-struck obsessions that plague teenagers and the fanboys and girls that seem to populate the digital realm. Because I very much doubt it’s that any of us feel grief over the loss of someone in the public eye with whom we’ve never had contact. We feel sadness, certainly. But the actual feelings of anguish are more likely attached to our own personal losses. And public losses like Hoffman’s in essence, provide a ‘safe space’ to feel connected with others who are mourning.

So in my own way, I mourn the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I’d long been a fan of his; it was hard to ignore performances like those in The Talented Mister Ripley and Magnolia. And of course, like many, I was blown away by his performance in Capote. And it was not simply due to the fact that a man who physically was about as different from the diminutive and flamboyant author as one could imagine, had utterly transformed into that character.

I still remember seeing Capote, sitting up in the balcony of the old Garneau theatre. For several minutes after the film ended, we sat in silence. To my surprise, I had actually teared up.

It was the complexity of his performance in bringing to the fore many of the underlying ethical and moral quagmires that underscored the creation of Capote’s seminal work. While the poorly-timed release of Infamous also conferred upon us another remarkable performance, there was something quite different in the feelings I was left with upon the viewing of Capote. Through his performance, Hoffman had managed to provoke consideration of the question of how our own creative acts influence those around us, of what we sacrifice in the pursuit of such creation, and the costs meted out on others for those acts. He had done that through his performance and my god, what an incredible talent it takes to do that.

There is little question that he is one of the finest actors we have been privileged to watch to date. A few years back on a trip to NYC I had hoped to see one of his performances, but the timing was off, and I imagined there would always be another chance. How sad I am that I was wrong. We are fortunate that we have lasting record of his work, but no doubt we will now view it with a tinge of sadness. We will long for him to breathe life into just one more of those deeply flawed characters with whom we share more in common than we might like.

The added sorrow we feel is no doubt attributable to the abruptness of his departure. Those who would say that the manner of his death somehow lessens the tragedy of such a loss certainly live a privileged life that they have never have lost someone to addiction. But there are people much better equipped to speak of that than I, and I leave it to them. 

By all accounts, he was a generous, kind, and compassionate person, both in his craft and with those who loved him. We might be tempted to say that this is more a matter of not speaking ill of the dead, but in this day and age—a world of internet trolling—many do not show the kind of deference to the grieving of yesteryear. And yet one must burrow deeply into the caverns of the internet to find such mentions of Hoffman.

The community where he lived, the theatre community he cultivated so lovingly with LAB (a wonderful fund-raiser in his memory is happening to keep his legacy of helping young artists alive), his on-screen community, and of course the community of friends and family who will be left to mourn him long after those of us who knew only of the public the persona afforded us by interviews and celluloid, will have bidden our final farewells.

Of course, we did not know him. But we can still recognize the gifts that his art provided. And we can mourn the loss of the works he would have created in the years to come. Rest in peace, Mr. Hoffman, and may his family and those who loved him know that they too will find the peace within themselves, one day, to remember him as tears of joy replace those of sorrow.