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Retrieving the Grail: Robin Williams and "The Fisher King"

Robin Williams’ recent death opens eyes to the imprisoning weight of mental illness and how it hurts those so capable of bringing us joy. The actor’s passing can’t help but provoke a deep and somber reflection on his work, with several regards for “Oh Captain, My Captain” from "Dead Poets Society," the man-child motif from "Hook" to "Jack," and the tough-but-tender award-winning turn from "Good Will Hunting." But no Williams film can hit harder—or be so fully consoling in such heartbreaking circumstances—than "The Fisher King." 

Released in 1991, this film from director Terry Gilliam and screenwriter Richard LaGravanese was a modern day Grail Quest that fused New York romantic comedy with timeless fantasy. Gilliam, who came to the project after the trouble-plagued "Brazil" and "The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen," somewhat jokingly referred to it as his “sell-out” picture, but all sell-outs should be so uncompromising. "The Fisher King is a film about trauma, but it's clothed in a theatrical buoyancy, so as to obscure—and flee from—reality’s petrifying disorder. Rarely in large Hollywood films is a chiasmus of tragedy and comedy so successfully drawn; "The Fisher King" has hilarity and romance clinging for survival through the scoriae of aching hopelessness.

The film starts by dancing on the shoulders of urban apathy and cynicism. Shock-jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) rules the airwaves by mocking listeners and exploiting the dirty laundry of celebrities. His world is cold, controlled and beautifully sterile. His studio voice is a far-reaching, disembodied entity—appropriate, considering Jack's disengagement from other human beings glimpsed in taxis surrounding his limo or struggling in their hapless lives down on the street far below his luxurious apartment. He dances to “I Got the Power” while running the tagline for a sitcom that will finally give him a face to match the voice: “Forgive me!” But while Jack strives for disengagement and cultivates an apathetic tone, he's about to find out that his words and thoughts still affect people, and not for the better. Unbeknownst to Jack, a lonely listener took his mockery of yuppies as inbred subhumans to heart ("It's us or them") and shot up a trendy bar, killing several bystanders before committing suicide. Jack crumbles while hearing the news.

Three years later, Jack's withdrawn from the world. He squats at the apartment of his unsatisfied girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), a video store owner, drowning in alcohol while not-quite-tolerating the questions of Anne’s customers. “I hate desperate people,” he says. Anne corrects him, “You hate people.” At night, he irritably watches the middle-brow sitcom he was supposed to star in, its mediocrity supposedly comforting him while in fact throwing wood on a self-loathing furnace.

It’s here where we get an acute sense of the numbing, brain-lacerating condition of a depressive. “I don’t know why you torture yourself. You’re too self-absorbed, Jack,” Anne tells him. “Divert yourself. Read a book.” Of course, as anyone with symptoms of depression knows, it’s not that easy. Jack responds by saying injurious things to Anne (“Suicidal paranoiacs will say anything to get laid”) and drunkenly wanders outside, intending to kill himself. As in grail mythology, he wanders through a wasteland of unexamined lives and squalor, a brief glimmer of spontaneous compassion—a child sneaking away from his millionaire dad and gifting Jack with a Pinocchio doll—canceled out by Jack’s Nietzschean contemplations with his new inanimate friend. He’s one of the bungled and botched, close to greatness but never able to get there. Jack holds the doll close and whispers, “Do you ever get the feeling you’re being punished for your sins?” Far beyond any religious sentiment, it’s a line that—in my experience—closely articulates the cage of depression’s nadir, where one is stretched out to a breaking point, unable to seek grace because there’s nothing (God, human, material) to grant it. It’s insinuated that Jack’s decline was self-inflicted, and that he voluntarily walked away from success because of the shooting. He has a conscience and sensitivity to suffering, and he hates himself. The only way is down, and as Jack gets ready to jump into the Hudson his face is one of pleasurable self-obliterating release.

Jack’s suicidal intimacy is interrupted by two privileged, baseball bat-wielding thugs who mistake him for one of the vagrants they believe taints their neighborhood. They beat him and douse him in gasoline, but before they can light a match, an anachronistic and mad knight errant (Williams) comes to the rescue with his similarly filthy posse of hobos. Jack spends the night with the self-professed knight, “Parry” (a variation on Parzival/Parsifal/Perceval, the world-redeeming fool from grail lore), who explains he’s in the employment of God and trying to retrieve the Holy Grail—which, so the cuddly fat people hallucinated by Parry tell him, is located on the bookshelf of an Upper East Side billionaire’s house. Parry admits that he can’t get the Grail on his own, insisting that the little people sent Jack to help. Overwhelmed and sobered up, Jack thanks Parry and gets the hell out.

But Jack discovers how his fate is tied to his rescuer. It turns out that “Parry” was originally Henry Sagan, a professor specializing in grail literature whose life was disrupted when his beloved wife was killed in front of him—the killer being the Jack Lucas Show caller. Henry lost his mind and remained silent until, Quixote-like, he reinvented himself as a vestige of his literary obsessions. The crisis of interaction has made Jack only more self-absorbed. He examines newspaper clippings of his past and listens to his old shows, on the precipice of weeping in self-disgust. “I really feel cursed…I feel like I’m a magnet, but I attract shit.” Reassurances from Anne are blind to his depressive predicament. “I just wish there was a way I could pay the fine and go home.”

He tries “paying the fine,” literally, giving Parry all the cash he has on him, which Parry accepts graciously before offering to take Jack out to lunch (and then handing the money off to another homeless man, whom Parry believes needs the money more). It’s not that easy. Jack needs to work out his mental wounds with Parry, participating in medieval make-believe by plotting to retrieve the Grail, and then assisting Parry in winning the affections of a shy romance book editor, Lydia (Amanda Plummer)—a tricky venture, given that she doesn’t know Parry (you could say he’s stalking her) and she’s very uptight and guarded.

"The Fisher King" smoothly rides through the foibles of romantic fortuity, as Anne and Jack, along with some of Parry’s hobo chums (most memorably Michael Jeter as a cabaret singer channeling Ethel Merman), bring the two lonely misfits together, while Anne pines for commitment from Jack. Some scenes veer in the direction of worn rom-com familiarity, such as Anne and Lydia talking about the perils of dating, or Jack cleaning up Parry to make him presentable for courtship. All looks bright: true love conquers all, Jack has the feeling of redemption and accomplishment, carrying Anne up the stairs, and Parry walks Lydia home, sweetly exposing the irrational ardor of his heart—which she accepts, touched by an unspoken but transparent kinship.

But Richard LaGravenese’s excellent screenplay complicates matters, and it hinges on Robin Williams’ performance. Parry could have simply been a clown—"Williams doing Williams," as he did in "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Good Morning, Vietnam," even "Dead Poets Society"—but the character gradually simmers to a boil of bristling insecurities, terror and agonizing internalized pain. The mirthful wise-cracking energy of Parry keeps him afloat above the jagged edges of wasteland lostness and the psychological toll of coping with what he’s lost (it’s an exercise of delusion and self-reinvention to hide torment that Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio more recently pulled off—and are finally being more appreciated for—in "Shutter Island"). Early on, we see his hospitable mania interrupted as he pulls Jack out from a private and ornately decorated medieval “chapel” strewn with trinkets associated with his grail quest and amorous passion. “You can’t be in there,” he says gravely before explaining his calling as a knight, as if he were denying an outsider access to the deeper hollow of his humorous persona as the “Janitor of God.” When Jack takes leave of him, Parry’s loneliness is palpable, as he’s left to shoulder the despair without help.

The horrifying reality of his wife’s death has been resculpted into the figure of the Red Knight, a fearsome presence imposing on Parry through cinematographer Roger Pratt’s lushly rendered beams of light, seamlessly marrying hallucination to reality and the archaic medieval to messy modern day New York. The fire blowing from the Red Knight’s helmet evokes Henry Sagan’s last memory of his wife, her head exploding before his eyes. Any trace of the past, unguarded by the projection of fantasy and madness, stokes Parry’s wound. In a flash, we see Williams’ robust good nature as a silly hobo transform to a pallor of despairing fear, and then to writhing torment, having a seizure on Fifth Avenue after Jack tries to remind Parry of who he really is.

Parry’s sweet declaration of love to Lydia would seem to be a leap forward, but as with a depression or mental trauma, outward progressive actions don’t guarantee quelling inner demons, and in fact may exacerbate them. Receiving his first kiss from Lydia, Parry peers upward at her door, his visage doubled by the window. His longing finally fulfilled, he’s drawn back in time to what happened at the restaurant three years ago. The diegetic sound goes silent, George Fenton’s score thuds deeply, and the camera ascends away from Parry, leaving him alone, a guilty survivor in a dense city, before predatorily pushing back in. He wails in anguish, pleading to the Red Knight, as if to the obstructions within his mind, “Please let me have this!”

Parry’s hurt is an insoluble wound, the unrestrained imagination of Gilliam boldly projecting his psychological firestorm and making manifest his loss. It’s not only Williams’ darkest performance (surpassing his more on-the-nose creepy roles in "One Hour Photo" and "Insomnia," in addition to the morose antisocial cameos in "Dead Again" and "The Secret Agent"), but also Gilliam’s most affecting and deepest turn as a filmmaker. Director and actor weave together perfect discord in madness, audaciously shifting from a moment of soul enlivening sweetness to one of crushing psychological mutilation, Parry deteriorating from the pose of confident wooer to one of hunched-over self-hatred. He screams in unintelligible and drooling fury at the memories that pursue him to the Hudson’s littered shore.

The mesh here between reality and fantasy is Gilliam at his most brazen and plaintive, the radical stylist visually plugging into the crippling condition of basic human suffering. Parry is kneeling in front of the same two thugs he saved Jack from earlier. Behind them, silhouetted, is the Red Knight. The image is a trinity of sorrows in one startling and wrenching gesture: psychological torment, modern social malignancy and the ageless, archetypal adversary. When the thugs slice open Parry’s chest, he has the same heightening of bliss Jack conveyed the moment before his suicide attempt; it’s the enrapt longing for non-being. To be finished with this unholy trinity that surrounds him—personal, social, perennial—would be a relief. This is the power of "The Fisher King," as a film that canvases the entire wavelength of being alive, from the irrational and affirmative joy to all-too-sensible despair. “Thank you,” Parry tells his accosters and they pummel him out of consciousness.

Histrionic anguish in a performance often feels calculated to garner awards, and Williams’ "Fisher King" work may have been met with such dismissal, especially considering how he was granted an Oscar nomination when Bridges, equally worthy (and with a lot more screen time), was ignored for his more subtle efforts as the film’s straight man. Yet the throbbing concentration of extroverted mental dysfunction, caged up, safely sublimated and compartmentalized, and then having its vengeance when blown up by unseen triggers, kicks so deeply to the gut in Williams’ Parry that, long before Robin Williams committed suicide, I couldn’t help but see a real person clawing away at himself, struggling to run away from what was inside. The comfort of performative mimesis is canceled out by the visceral wallop of a strangled sufferer reaching out beyond the stage. It’s thrilling, frightening—and immeasurably sad.

The would-be rom-com happy ending has Jack as our surrogate, as he flees the grail drama to revert to his self-satisfied, apathetic successful old self, leaving Anne in the process (as we would leave the theater). But he’s compelled back to action by his survivor’s guilt, giving an angry monologue to comatose Parry that’s at nearly "Last Tango in Paris"-levels of love and anger. He re-enters the madness of fiction to recover the “Grail,” returning it to the foolish knight’s bedside. His compassion might seem for naught, but Parry rises from his sleep and remembers, “I had this dream, Jack. I was married to this beautiful woman. And you were there too.” He breathes in deeply, Jack tearfully listening. “I really miss her, Jack. Is that okay? Can I miss her now?” He thanks Jack and goes back to sleep.

The conclusion of "The Fisher King"—Jack, compassionate and with purpose, finally expresses his love to Anne, while Parry, spritely and healed, is betrothed to Lydia—embraces the kind of comedic happy ending only myths (or movies), and severe delusion, can offer. It’s a recurring Gilliam motif, as "Brazil" ended with beleaguered bureaucrat Sam Lowry reaching happiness by going insane, and "Baron Munchausen" had theatrical performers of a battered German town opening the gates to see that the Baron’s fictions somehow defeated the Turks. But while the Baron evaporated into the landscape, as if he was never there, the movie-sham of "The Fisher King" has the characters fulfilled in madness but reconciled to their real-world demons; naked Parry and Jack understanding that it’s the wind breaking the clouds apart, not their minds. Manhattan erupts in fireworks and song, and a spectacular escape through the movie house, in much the same way as a 1,000-year-old story about human decency in a wasteland offers respite from the pain of being alive.

Even if Gilliam never gets around to making his dream revision of Don Quixote, we could argue that "The Fisher King" is close enough in anyone setting out to tackle Cervantes and succeeding, with Williams’ Parry as the mad knight overwhelmed by literature and striving for reinvention. Both characters are introduced as clowns, but as Sancho dubbed Quixote “the Knight of the Sorrowful Face,” we grasp the profound sadness behind the goofy veneer. Himself no stranger to war and poverty, Cervantes comprehended the distempered mind, and his Sierra Moreno episode in the Quixote, when the mad knight empathizes with the suicidal and traumatized Cardenio, is one of the most moving in literature, a stirring acknowledgment of mental illness’ devastating power that points to the importance of listening to those afflicted. “If your misfortune were one that had all doors closed to any sort of consolation, I intended to help you weep and lament to the best of my ability, for it is still a consolation in affliction to find someone who mourns for you,” Quixote gently says to the madman in front of aghast onlookers. 

Such compassion is there between Jack and Parry in "The Fisher King," a film at once ageless and immediate, tragic and comic. My memory of Robin Williams is that of our own generation’s Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, whose work here reached out through my own quandaries and brought me back to myself and those around me several times. We learn from Cervantes, "The Fisher King" and Robin Williams that storytelling is itself compassion, a means of suffering with others while working through the morass of our own experiences. 

And isn’t that what the Grail really is?

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