Buffalo Days: Struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible
*I deleted the reference to the death of the Olivia Tremor Control's Bill Doss, which originally appeared in this piece (see reader comment below). —C. Schobert
We’ve only reached October, and 2012 has already seen a sad number of notable suicides: NFL star Junior Seau, Fleetwood Mac’s Bob Welch, and the latest (as of August), director Tony Scott.
The latter was particularly jarring. Like many film fans, I had always underrated Scott’s work, outside of one of my favorites, the Tarantino-penned True Romance. His oeuvre seemed dwarfed by the films of his better-known brother, Ridley (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator). Tony seemed a technician, an efficient action director—Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide—whose style became more original and kinetic as he aged, in films like Domino and Unstoppable. With his omnipresent cigar and wild grin, Tony Scott seemed utterly larger than life, a throwback to the studio-system kingpins of a prior generation.
His sudden suicide on August 19 sent shockwaves through the film world; just days before, Scott and Tom Cruise had been scouting Nevada locations for Top Gun 2, a sequel to their 1987 smash. In the days that followed came a report that Scott had inoperable brain cancer—which the Scott family said was “incorrect.” As of press time, this was the latest; the “reason” or “motivation” was still unknown.
But as the great film critic Jeffrey Wells put it on his Hollywood Elsewhere website, even if Scott’s family chooses to share the suicide note with the media, “It won’t make any sense.” He was reminded of a scene in the film Michael Clayton, in which “the titular character (George Clooney) and his boss, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), are talking about the apparent suicide of Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), and Clayton says it just doesn’t figure that Arthur, a manic, high-energy eccentric, would kill himself … ‘Why?’ And Bach snaps right back: ‘Why? Because people are f------ incomprehensible, that’s why.” I’m sure that’s not always true, but perhaps it is more often than we’d like to think.
Scott’s death hit me so hard, not due to his films or career, but because it made me think back to a suicide I’ve spent several years trying to forget, that of one of my best friends from high school. He was someone I saw on every school day from about sixth grade on, and we kept in touch after graduation. Both of us were attending college locally, both of us came from the Southtowns, both of us shared a dark, acerbic sense of humor. He was quite possibly the funniest person I’ve ever known, and yet at some point, we lost contact. I remember him leaving me a message when I was out of town, a quick hello-how-are-you, and thinking, “I need to call him.”
A year or so later, I received an out-of-the-blue phone call from a mutual friend of ours—I did not answer, failing to recognize the number. The message was short, and to the point: Our friend had killed himself.
The news was so unexpected, so utterly sudden, that it took me several days to even comprehend it. I did not attend his service, a cowardly move that was likely an attempt to push it out of my mind. Yes, I had to work. But I should have been there.
In the years since his death, I got married and had a son, and, as Facebook has reminded me, many of our high school friends have done the same. Our graduation and math classes seem long, long ago—because they are. Yet I continue to think back to the phone message he left me. Why didn’t I call him back? Why didn’t I attend his service? And where would he be today?
I’m not sure what my goal was in writing this, or what I’m trying to “say.” But I must note that I’ve had a Word document-in-progress on my Spree computer about my friend’s death for the last four years or so, the first few paragraphs of an article I had hoped would explore his life and work, and draw attention to this issue. Every so often I look back at my notes—I’d chatted with his sister over coffee, and with his mother via email—and ask myself why I have such a hard time going back to it. Maybe that’s the problem: I’m focusing so much on his death that it’s keeping me from writing about his life. In the end, perhaps avoiding that is what is most important. Suicide should not define our memory of someone.
So I’ll remember Tony Scott for True Romance, and I’ll remember my friend for something I believe now more than ever: He was the funniest guy I’ve ever known.
Christopher Schobert is Spree’s associate editor.