When Robin Williams took his own life, in 2014, at 63 fans were shocked that someone who spread so much joy and laughter could be driven to such despair. Others wondered if this confirmed the belief that the need to make people laugh was a sign of a troubled soul. As suggested by the title, Marina Zenovich’s documentary “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” attempts to get to the root of the mystery, but with limited success. It’s a laugh-filled, emotionally charged, but infrequently penetrating look at the beloved comic’s genius and demons.
Neither as exhaustive nor as illuminating as Judd Apatow’s 260-minute documentary about the title comedian in “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling,” Zenovich’s film makes up for lack of depth with interviews with family members and friends of Williams (including Billy Crystal, David Letterman, and Bobcat Goldthwaite) and its rich lode of archival material, much of it rarely seen. The latter ranges from Williams’s stand-up stints at LA’s Comedy Store to his breakthrough in the 1970s TV comedy series “Mork & Mindy,” his overwhelming success, and subsequent binges of coke, booze, sex, and painful and highly publicized broken relationships.
Then there is the movie career in which Williams tried to break away from his persona as the manic clown and have his acting taken seriously. It was finally acknowledged when he won a best supporting actor Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” (1997), despite boasting one of the worst Boston accents in movie history, at least to these native ears. Unfortunately, the documentary does not mention his terrific performance in Fielder Cook’s adaptation of “Seize the Day (1986).” It’s better than his somewhat hammy work in Peter Weir’s “Dead Poets Society” (1989), which steals Saul Bellow’s title and uses it as a bromide. That earned Williams an Oscar nomination and is featured in the film.
So why did he kill himself? Zenovich points to a lonely childhood, but it was no lonelier than that of many others. An addiction to making people laugh and a craving for love? That probably could be said about most comedians (see “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling”). Other possibilities touched on are Parkinson’s disease and the devastating Lewy body dementia.
But we’ll never know. Understanding what makes a person commit suicide is as difficult as explaining why a joke is funny.
“Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind” is available on Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO.
The art of the dealer
According to Michael Schindhelm’s “The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg,” the little-known shaper of contemporary Chinese art is the former Swiss elevator salesman of the title. Ai Weiwei, the internationally renowned Chinese artist and social activist interviewed in the film, agrees. “He is the maker,” Ai says. The artist also point out that Sigg “is the shortest Western guy I ever met.”
He is also one of the most photogenic. Schindhelm never tires of showing the slim, bald, aquiline-nosed septuagenarian (he looks in profile like an emperor on a Roman coin) in various poses: stiffly seated in his monk-like office; wandering past giant, vacant Chinese factories; and visiting sites he frequented while in China. That began when he was sent by the Schindler Lift company to Beijing in 1979 just as the end of Maoism was giving way to a freer society and culminated with his appointment as Swiss ambassador to China, in 1995. During this time he determined that the best way to get to know a country and promote his employer’s elevators was through its art, though during the crackdown on free expression beginning in 1989 after Tiananmen Square, getting to know the artists could be dangerous both to him and to them. Nonetheless, over the course of nearly four decades Sigg discovered many artists, bought hundreds of pieces, and made lots of money.
Schindhelm does well in relating a secret history of China via its art scene by interviewing several generations of artists. He shows many artworks, but unfortunately identifies almost none of them, nor are they discussed in depth or detail. But they are all fascinating, often stunning, and a patient viewer can read the list of artworks in the fine print of the end credits.
Other issues Schindhelm might have pursued in more depth are the political implications of Sigg’s art.
Near the end of the film Sigg discusses his plans to open a museum of contemporary Chinese art in Hong Kong in 2019. He is donating 1450 artworks, estimated to be worth $155,000,000, and has sold 50 others for $22,000,000. He’s keeping 700 for himself.
Ai Weiwei opposes this project. It would put the subversive power of art under the control of the government, he believes. “You might as well throw it into Sursee’s Lake [in Switzerland],” he says. “If the art and literature of a society don’t question authority, they’re fake.”
Schindhelm doesn’t confront Sigg with Ai’s objections.
“The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg” is available on DVD for $29.98 on Tuesday from Icarus Films.