Authors and After Words

It seems that Heath Ledger has joined the Pantheon of Lost Innocents with the likes of James Dean, Jimi Hendricks, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Marilyn Monroe, River Phoenix…all highly gifted, deeply troubled, intense, charismatic, and creative performers. What difference does it make if their deaths were intended or accidental; they were all dealing with profound depression.

As reported in People Magazine, "Part of Ledger’s agitation stemmed from his conflicted view of acting. Despite his obvious talents and dedication to roles, ‘he always said that he never wanted to be an actor, but didn’t know what else he was going to do,’ says a drinking buddy." (People Magazine, February 4, 2008, p. 59.) Ledger was by no means the first actor to question the craft as practiced these days. Anthony Hopkins, arguably our best in the business, has himself said that acting is really not an appropriate way for a grown man to earn a living. But acting has always been an ambivalent and precarious pursuit; actors have always found themselves in two places at once, on the edge of respectability and at the center of adulation. It’s especially true for contemporary film stars even as they vie with fatuous heiresses and derelict divas for our attention. Could there be more to it? At the center of each of these lost lives, there seems to be a sacrificial element that comes very close to martyrdom.

Miners used to bring canaries down into the mines, not to entertain but to monitor the air quality. If the air became toxic, the canaries would die and the miners would know to look for fresh air. Could our Lost Innocents be telling us something about the toxicity of our 21st century cultural environment?

Switch now to Ripton, Vermont, on December 28, 2007 at the Homer Noble farmhouse. Robert Frost bought the farm in 1939 and spent his summers there until he died in 1963. The farm is now owned by Middlebury College, and in summer it shelters the Middlebury Bread Loaf Writer’s conference. The farm is usually closed in the winter, but on that night, it was invaded by some 30 or so high school and college students hankering for an out of the way place to hold a fracas. As a result, they incurred some $10, 600 worth of damage including broken windows, broken screens, pictures, light fixtures, broken and burned wicker antique furniture, and rugs stained with vomit and urine; they left beer cans, plastic cups, and drug paraphernalia behind; on their way out, they set off two fire extinguishers which left a destructive residue throughout, especially on the books.

After investigation, as reported by Dan Berry in the New York Times, "more than two dozen young people were photographed, finger printed and cited for unlawful trespass, with a few cited for unlawful mischief. [Sgt. Lee Hodsden, investigating officer of the state police,] cannot shake the indifference of one youth in particular who asked whether he could he could use his mug shot on his Facebook page."

It is frequently reported that Heath Ledger was particularly disturbed by the Joker, the role he played in a Batman film he had only recently finished. He described his character as "a psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy." Sounds like the Joker would have felt right at home that night in Ripton, Vermont.

In many cultures, the actor is trained to become something we might call "a technician of the sacred" and learns how to put his or her own mental, spiritual, and physical powers in the service of the archetypal and mythic heritage of the culture. At its best, this process still lives in the craft of the Japanese Kabuki theater and other such theaters that come out of a long tradition of performance maintaining an organic connection with the culture of its origin. The audiences which witness these performances share that connection and in so sharing become one with the performer.

We no longer have such a connection. Ironically, the one thing most common among us at the beginning of the 21st century seems to be our alienation from each other. Our experience can hardly be described as shared culture for it comes not up from the roots of tradition, but rather down upon us as so-called entertainment which is designed by corporate forces to make money – hence the ritual of financial accounting when a new movie hits the screens. This is not culture; it is anti-culture, devoured one day and forgotten the next as newer attractions come off the line.

It is not merely art that has been debased into a consumable product; the artist is packaged no less than the films. No longer a ritual craftsman, the actor has now become a "celebrity," making it difficult for such a one to walk among peers, as Heath Ledger was wont to do in New York City. He was intuiting the need to leave the sanctuary of art and live as an equal in the collective shelter of his tribe. But there is no longer a sacred place where the actor/shaman may retire. The only myth (meaning truth) we share in our anti-culture is the condition mentioned earlier – our alienation – alienation from a reflective and supportive tradition, from a dynamic and congenial present, from an uplifting and improving future, and most importantly, from each other.

If Siegfried Krackauer is right, the characters and the films they appear in reveal the true and resonant under-life out of their culture (or anti-culture) of origin. Most of the films that come out of Hollywood these days are either dark, hard, and violent or fatuous, inane, and stupid. They deliver to us a consumptive narcissism which can only lead to a deeper nihilism – as projected in Ledger’s Joker and reflected in the dark night’s work of those vandals in Vermont. It is the craft of the actor/shaman to internalize the world in which he or she lives. For every such performer-celebrity who succumbs to the toxicity of that world, there are hundreds more who succumb without attracting much if any attention at all. How many more canaries will it take before we head for fresh air?