Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Few Words on the Passing of Paul Walker

My previous reviews of Paul Walker’s movies share a repetitive sentiment: the majority of his films “simply aren’t for me.” Why then was I struck with a curious sense of loss when the news of Walker’s death broke late yesterday? I suppose that’s one of the complex questions surrounding the public’s fascination with pop culture: why do we feel sad when celebrities die?

People die everyday, all over the world, in inhumane and cruel ways. We hear about a lot of them on the news. We empathize, but do we feel actual loss? Perhaps we’re desensitized to the brutalities of the world. Or, perhaps we can’t afford to emotionally invest in the loss of someone we don’t know. And that’s the thing: we know actors. We occasionally spend two consecutive hours watching them; watching them cry, laugh, make love, get hurt. We experience them at their most vulnerable, so we inadvertently feel we’re sharing something with them. When a death occurs, we often forget that those people we shared something with are characters, not the people themselves. That’s the power of captivating cinema: you allow yourself to believe it’s real.
In John Dahls terrific Joy Ride
I was devastated when I found out Heath Ledger died. Soon after hearing the news, I realized why. I knew Heath Ledger. No, not technically, of course, but from the perspective of a film fanatic, I knew and loved him. I loved the quiet torment he brought to so many of his characters. I loved his timid smile, his pain, holy hell, could that man show pain. Sadness always accompanies death. And when it’s the death of someone so innocent and young, the pain is magnified. I was hurt by Ledger’s death because that’s what you do when you hear someone has died: you hurt. But chiefly, selfishly, I missed Heath Ledger because I knew I’d miss his talent.

I grieved for Ledger because I loved his work, and was sad we wouldn’t be given more. Thing is, I’m not drawn to Paul Walker’s films, so how do I explain this sadness? This is the question I battled with in the hours after I heard of Walker’s passing. Late in the evening, it suddenly hit me.
In Wayne Kramer’s insane and charged Running Scared
I’m sad about Paul Walker’s passing, because Paul Walker seemed like a genuinely good guy. If you read the dozens and dozens of tweets Walker’s friends and collaborators have written about him since yesterday, there’s a shared response in all of them: Walker was a nice guy. A free spirit. Kind, courteous, professional. He treated people with respect and never let Hollywood, in all its shameful extravagance, get the better of him.

But there was more.

On a professional level, Paul Walker was that rare kind of actor who knew exactly the breadth of his talent. He wasn’t Daniel Day-Lewis. He wasn’t Michael Fassbender. He wasn’t Heath Ledger. He was Paul Walker, and he knew it. He had that type of self-effacing attitude that’s all too rare. He never pretended to be anything more than what he was. Keanu Reeves has it. Hell, so does Woody Allen. The attitude that allows them to openly admit that they are only really able to play one character.
As Brian O’Conner in Fast Five
I remember seeing an interview with Walker and Vin Diesel shortly after Fast Five was released. Diesel went off on a tangent and, in so many words, said Fast Five had a good shot at being nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. He wasn’t joking. He said movies are entertaining, and Fast Five was pure entertainment. So, on the basis of that claim, Diesel said Fast Five deserved to be hailed as one of the best films of the year by the Academy. What was most interesting about that interview wasn’t Diesel’s claims, but rather Walker’s reaction to them. I remember watching Walker sit in his chair, fidgeting nervously, chuckling occasionally to break the tension. When the interviewer asked Walker what he thought about Fast Five’s Best Picture hopes, Walker stayed diplomatic, agreeing with Diesel about the film’s level of entertainment, but skillfully avoiding Oscar talk.

Paul Walker knew Fast Five wasn’t Best Picture material. He knew Brian O’Conner, his character in the Fast and Furious films, was never going to merit awards attention. He knew what the Fast and Furious movies were, and he knew he was damn lucky to have a career because of them.

Paul Walker knew what Paul Walker could do, and he never suggested otherwise.
As Lance Harbor in Varsity Blues
In all honesty, Paul Walker did show moments of greatness on screen. You can see it when he’s pathetically begging Reese Witherspoon to have sex with him (again) in Pleasantville. You can see it when he shows up as Rachael Leigh Cook’s surprise prom date in She’s All That. Or when he celebrates with glee after his team wins the big game in Varsity Blues. Or when he dismisses his girlfriend in The Skulls by refusing to move out of the way as he watches a crew competition. And you can especially see it in the authentic hopelessness he brought to his two best roles, as a scared shitless prankster in Joy Ride, and a low level thug in Running Scared.

I liked Paul Walker in those movies. I liked that he was an actor unmoved by the Hollywood sharks. I liked that he embraced the public perception of who he is, and fleshed it out continually on screen. That level of openness is rare in this industry, and I’ll certainly miss Paul Walker because of it.

34 comments:

  1. Wonderful tribute. I feel the same way. (and felt the same way about Ledger) I wasn't a fan of Walker's films, I was more of fan of his looks. (Because God damn, this man is gorgeous) but I still felt really bummed out when I read the news. I think part of it had to do with the fact that I know so many people that LOVE the Fast and Furious movies, and they are all genuinely heart broken.

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    1. Thanks Brittani. That franchise definitely has a strong base of fans. I'm really going to miss that good naturedness Walker brought to the industry.

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    1. Thanks so much! I really appreciate you stopping by and commenting.

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  3. AW, this is exactly how I feel. I really appreciate that you wrote this.

    The guy was solid in everything he did. As bummed as I am that he's gone, I'm sure he lived a great life while he was here.

    We should all be so lucky.

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    1. Thanks man, I really appreciate you reading it and leaving such a thoughtful comment. We should all be so lucky, indeed.

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  4. Yeah, you pretty much nailed it. Well done.

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    1. Thanks so much. Really cool of you to stop by and comment.

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  5. That is a great piece. I never really thought of Paul Walker as one of the great actors but someone who knew the limits of his range but was fine with it. At the same time, was an all-around nice guy. I do like some of his work in films like Pleasantville, She's All That, Joy Ride (very underrated film), Varsity Blues, Flags of Our Fathers, and the Fast & Furious films which I was starting to embrace. Especially as the fifth film completely won me over.

    It's sad that he's not going to be around anymore. I'm still bummed about this.

    And I think Vin Diesel was right, Fast Five had a damn good shot at a Best Picture nod. Hell, better that film than that fucking Excruciatingly Ludicrous and Incredibly Coy.

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    1. Thanks man. I think Joy Ride is crazy underrated. I love that movie. Zahn is such a nut, and Walker plays scared so convincingly.

      You're right, Fast Five far deserved a Best Pic nom over that film.

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  6. Very eloquent piece that sums up my feelings when I heard the news. Walker really did come across as a good guy who committed himself to his work, even when the films weren't very good. Although I've maintained a healthy dose of skepticism, I'm interested to see what he did with Hours. It seems like the kind of showcase role Walker had been waiting for.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words here. Hours... I hadn't even heard of that film. Now I'm really excited for it. Sounds pretty damn intriguing.

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  7. What a moving tribute, Alex. Thank you! You so accurately described how fans feel when a celebrity dies; we feel like we know them in some way. I'd been a fan of Paul's since Joy Ride (one of my favorites of all time) and was thinking a lot about Paul before his unexpected passing. It will be hard not to miss the loss of his presence.

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    1. Thanks Katy! I had no idea you were such a Joy Ride fan. I LOVE that movie. And I agree, Walker's presence will certainly be missed.

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  8. Totally agree on all points. He just seemed like a nice guy. I didn't know why, but when reports were coming out I was forcing myself to believe it was a hoax all the way up to the point where it certainly could not be a hoax. I just didn't want it to be true. It does feel so personal when an actor passes away.

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    1. Thanks for reading Jess.

      Unfortunately, us immediately thinking something like that is a hoax is the world we now live in. Even when reports of Walker's death were confirmed by his PR rep, websites kept saying it was a hoax, as if that's funny or something. Very sad, very shameful.

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  9. If anybody can make Paul Walker seem like a credible actor, it's you, Alex. Yes, I've said some mean things about Paul Walker and his abilities as an actor in the past, but the fact remains: He's a talent that did his part in whatever movie he was in, and I'm going to miss him. Especially since he really seemed to be coming into his own with these Fast and Furious movies.

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    1. Thanks man. He was an actor fully aware of his range, and I totally respect that. I'll miss his work as well.

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  10. Bravo, Alex. Really appreciate such a thoughtful take.

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    1. Thanks man. Really kind of you to say.

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  11. Lovely post Alex, I'm sure most people will agree with you, he did seem like such a nice guy. I, for one, am a little heartbroken, since I really loved the Fast&Furious series (call it a guilty pleasure, if you like). My favourite still remains the first one, but the last 2 in the series were really entertaining, as well. It's really hard to see FF move forward, I am curious to see how they will change the script. I really hope they will use some of the shots they already have with Paul and give him, somehow, a quick, unexpected exit....he deserves it! RIP

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    1. Thanks D. I'd honestly be surprised if F&F keeps going past this upcoming film. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised at all if Part 7 wasn't released. At some point, respect has to trump box office grosses, even in this business. But we shall see.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

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    2. It's seems crass to bring it up--which hasn't stopped many media outlets--but I don't think the future of F&F is in any danger at all. Those movies make too much money for Universal to stop now.

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    3. Well, Universal cancelled production today, and will probably start over without Walker. I like that idea better than using some of the footage of him, you know?

      http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/universal-officially-shuts-down-production-on-fast-furious-7-film-may-be-scrapped-restarted-20131204

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    4. I haven't kept up with the series -- I've seen the first movie, Tokyo Drift and the reboot from '09 -- so I can't say what it would do to the chronology, but it probably doesn't matter either way. Walker was a warm presence, but the car chases felt like more of a draw than the actors themselves. (Didn't they kill off Michelle Rodriguez's character and then bring her back?)

      I must say, however, the media coverage has taken a very crass and inhumane turn. As if Walker's passing is more important for its impact on the corporate bottom line. Like all celebrity deaths, the reporting seemed out of proportion anyway but his in particular seems to have quickly devolved into business coverage. It's the kind of ghoulish Hollywoodland story deserving of satire treatment.

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    5. Oh, I completely agree with you, 100%. The way the media is handling this is utterly shameful. Crass and inhumane is the perfect way to put it. It disgusts me, actually.

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  12. Excellent write-up! He'll be missed. I've always enjoyed the Fast and Furious films, and it's been nice to see him pop up in films like Pleasantville and Flags of Our Fathers. I really need to see Joy Ride and Running Scared.

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    1. Thanks man. I really cannot speak highly enough about Joy Ride. Probably my favorite movie he was ever involved with. A really solid thriller.

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  13. Wonderful tribute. He had a lot of charisma that was always welcomed in his films.
    I'm going to miss him.

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    1. Thanks man, I appreciate you giving the post a read. I'm going to miss him too.

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  14. Lovely post! I really enjoyed Running Scared and Joy Ride. I think another thing that makes celebrity deaths so shocking is that we do think of them as immortals - they have money, connections, fame. When someone like Michael Douglas gets really bad form of cancer it's not surprising he beats it with his money and excellent doctors he can get. But when something as random as car accident happens to well known actor who was also a good driver, known from the films about fast cars, that's just scary. If someone like that can die in an accident, anyone can.

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    1. Thanks for reading Sati. I think you're right, immortality makes deaths like Walker's that much more shocking. It's just a damn shame all around.

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