What mourning for Philip Seymour Hoffman means to me

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I mourn for Philip Seymour Hoffman because I found his presence and the totality of his work to be refreshing. I found him to be electrifying. Every time he brought his brilliance to the intense and damaged characters I loved seeing him play, I saw something familiar and I appreciated that. I loved that he was fat and stood in defiance of what it meant to be a Hollywood actor. I loved that he was better than anyone he acted with, and his appearance alone could redeem an otherwise doomed film. He could save even the dumbest movie just by being there. He could make an already brilliant film transcendent.

I fell in love with him at Clark’s Pond Cinema in South Portland when I was 14-years-old. Boogie Nights. First date. I met and adored Hoffman’s Scottie, the parallel to the incredibly awkward dynamic between my date and me, stuffed into a series of one-size-too-small shirts and mouth-breathing on the other side of the screen. Be still my heart. And since then the love has been rekindled again and again with Happiness and Magnolia and Charlie Wilson’s War and Love Liza and Synecdoche, New York and Punch Drunk Love and The Master and Capote and all of the others. Even Twister.

Even Twister.

When I reflect on the impact Philip Seymour Hoffman had on my life, I am doing that and only that. He played tremendously flawed characters and with an astounding amount of respect, love and subtlety. For us tremendously flawed characters in the real world looking in on these portrayals, it felt like we had one of our own on the inside. Apparently that was much truer than we ever knew.
I am not saying that he was a hero. I am not choosing to mourn him over acknowledging the very real sacrifice made by American service members every day. I am not making a positive or negative statement about drug use. I clarify this because some of the responses to my passing acknowledgements of the significance of this loss either suggested or imposed some or all of the above. This is understandable. What are thousands of hours devoted to endless interaction on social media but millions of individual quests for seeking context?

I saw the suggestion on several occasions that it was sad that Hoffman was getting so much public affection while our fallen service people are not and that this signifies a larger, sadder state of affairs. I suppose I agree on one level, but mourning the individual, faceless deaths that are free of all resonant personal context is tricky. Whether we like it or not the topic our service people, and the damage that is done by these wars to the individuals fighting them, is mired in politics. Unless we had a particular connection to them, it is difficult to grieve in a specific and weighted fashion in the way their mortal sacrifice deserves. This is a sad and tremendously complicated state of affairs for a good deal of reasons, though our acknowledgement of the tragic loss of a brilliant artist is not one of them.

On another level, though, I don’t know that I agree with what feels like a somewhat arbitrary prioritization based on the way a person serves. I understand backlash against celebrity worship, but the reason I publicly mourn for someone like Pete Seeger is because of the very real personal sacrifices he made to contribute as greatly as he did to American culture as we now know it. I mourn for Hoffman because his art reminded me of the complex beauty of our humanity and that is a valuable and important service, one that touches and profoundly affects a good deal of people day to day.

The aforementioned soldiers make compelling and heart wrenching sacrifices, but our artists exists to have conversations with us about what it means to be a human in this world. This action alone often requires a good deal of sacrifice that we never see. The artist engages us. They remind us that we are human. I didn’t see Hoffman as a celebrity, I saw him as a great artist and perhaps that is where the disconnect is with the aforementioned individuals troubled by an imagined state of affairs. The particularly good ones move us as a result of their drive, of their sacrifice, and unfortunately that thing that makes them particularly compelling is often connected to a darkness or an unwieldily hole that leads to confusing, unhealthy behavior.

This touches on the way Hoffman died which, for me, was at once relevant and totally irrelevant in the moments I was considering the loss. There are good people who feel compelled to comment on drug use in moment of loss as a means of reconciling their own feelings about the topic. There is no other explanation, as it is hard to imagine a time when people suggesting that heroin kills, so what did you expect or they were stupid for doing that, they weren’t a hero or anything just hours after the person in question dies has done much more than to gratify the person making a statement or infuriating the person on the receiving end.

I have lost a startling amount of people both figuratively and literally to depression, drug use, mental illness, and the reason for those loses has never been as cut and dry as one simple, stupid decision. I can’t help but to think that the warnings and protestations from those who suggest otherwise serve the purpose of being therapeutic for the solely for evangelist than anything else. Everyone has a different process for attempting to get out of this game unscathed.

But these are just a series of into-the-ether responses to the things I saw and read yesterday that stuck in my brain through the evening. For me yesterday was about thinking and remembering.

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Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.