That Philip Seymour Hoffman Feeling

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In the most basic sense, it was never a bad idea to cast Philip Seymour Hoffman in a movie. He was better suited for some parts than others because of how he looked and how old he was, but he was most likely going to do a far better job playing the part than anyone else might have, because he was that good. Hoffman was, also, exceptionally good at choosing which roles he would play, which spared us the experience of seeing whether he really could have pulled off, say, Jason Statham's role in The Transporter. There is no reason to suspect he could not have done it, but he knew enough not to try to carry that particular weight. Hoffman's skill for picking the right directors and material, along with his alchemical ability to elevate that material and the work of the actors alongside him, led him to be in more good movies than any other actor of his generation.

And Bennett Miller's adaptation of Michael Lewis' Moneyball is, for all the unavoidable translation issues -- Lewis turns the complicated, counterpunching work of running a baseball team into a management book; Miller turns the management book into something with the beats and inflections of a Hollywood sports movie -- a good movie. It's fun to watch and even the scouts who, for reasons of storytelling economy, wound up as Moneyball's bad guys enjoyed it pretty well.

Hoffman played Art Howe, the former big league utility infielder who was a successful manager for some good baseball teams and a less successful manager for some less good ones. It's not one of Hoffman's better roles, although it is characteristically a very good performance. Howe himself didn't like it much. "He was a little on the heavy side," he told the Houston Chronicle. "And just the way he portrayed me was very disappointing and probably 180 degrees from what I really am, so that was disappointing too."

Howe's disappointment likely had more to do with the fact that his character was drawn as a dim, grouchy villain -- a dour wall of grump for Brad Pitt to Brad Pittishly bounce various superballs of offbeat executive genius off of -- than it did any aspect of Hoffman's job in the role. He just did what he usually did, which was to take words on a page and make them seem like things that had been thought of by the person whose body and clothes he was inhabiting onscreen at that moment. Hoffman got there through extreme and torturous preparation and work, even in small things. But by the time he was onscreen he appeared to have been born there, as whoever he was that day. There was no tic-ing or showoffy twitchery; he seemed to have just wandered in from offscreen, where he had just been doing whatever it was that whoever he was would be doing.

Still, Moneyball marked one of those moments when Philip Seymour Hoffman was very nearly miscast. There isn't another actor who would've done better by the part, and with Hoffman's passing after a suspected drug overdose, there is no longer another actor alive who could've brought to the part what Hoffman did. It's just that it seems like sort of a waste, casting an actor so adept at playing wariness and weariness and desperation and bravado (and both, together), utter cocksure untouchability and bottomed-out, peeled-back vulnerability as such a multiply unreflective character. But, of course, some of this is just the moment; Hoffman's death, so early and so unfair, is the sort of thing that calls to mind the word "waste."

***

I loved watching Philip Seymour Hoffman act in movies, because I like movies and mostly prefer good ones, and movies in which he appeared generally tended to be better -- if only for that reason -- than ones in which he didn't. But I didn't know him, of course, and had no real feeling for him beyond a certain gratitude for the moments he put in my life and an abstracted professional appreciation of how much he was willing to do in order to produce work he could be proud of. There's a certain dignity -- I have found it flattering to imagine it as a tendency I might share, and am sure I am not alone in this -- to Hoffman bringing every aspect of his being to bear on some junk-o part (not all of his movies were good, not all of them could be saved by him or anyone else) simply because to do otherwise would not be honorable.

"Creating anything is hard," Hoffman told the New York Times in 2008. "It’s a cliché thing to say, but every time you start a job, you just don’t know anything. I mean, I can break something down, but ultimately I don’t know anything when I start work." There's a pride that comes with creating something, but there's pride at its root, too -- the idea that this is a problem you can solve, that the work can be made worthwhile in the doing of it, if only because you have done it right, and better than someone who is not you would have been able to do it.

That is all I really feel about Philip Seymour Hoffman, and of course it winds up making its way back to me. The greater the art, the greater the temptation to reach for some kinship with the artist. Who would we want to be -- or, more lazily, imagine ourselves to be like -- if not that person? More to the point, we all have to work and have very little say in that part of the deal. It is nice to imagine that we can do it well enough to put some dignity in it, to put some dignity even in the shit that stubbornly refuses to be anything but.

***

I couldn't do anything on Thursday, I was just too sad. I'd been up late on Wednesday night, drinking (if not as much as I feared I would) and writing about my friend, who had just died. She was 33, and she burned her liver out and it failed, and then her kidneys failed, and that was it.

I spent a lot of time with her in my 20s, but she left town around when I left my 20s, to go back to the city where she was born. The potemkin closeness of social media let me fill in the blanks with pictures her friends posted and the soft certainty that anyone LIKE-ing my status updates was clearly doing fine; news didn't filter up very frequently, and on the few occasions I saw her I was so happy to do so that I filled in the blanks myself. I would have told you she was well, because I wanted her to be well. But she drank herself to death down there, with all the ferocity and purpose she brought to every other better thing in her life when I knew her. I hate all this, so much. I hate not having known it, I hate knowing it, I hate that it happened and I hate that she's gone. Thursday was zombified, bottomless.

Since then I have made a point of seeing my friends, and it has been good. We, all of us, are going through the same thing and trying to help each other through it. I have also, since I woke up on Friday, written and edited more or less without stopping. If I am near my computer I am on it, and I have to force myself from the house in order not to be on it.

This is a busy time of year for someone writing about sports, but also I am in need of all this busy-ness. It keeps my eyes on the road. I am just making noise, at some level, whistling polysyllabically past the graveyard. But, also and in a way I am not fighting at the moment, there is the sense that I have to do something. So I am doing this.

I know, because Hoffman talked about it in that Times profile, that it was not easy for him to move so fully into and out of all those different people, not merely trying on but inhabiting their problems and then leaving them behind when the workday was done. It was his passion and his job, and he did relentlessly and brilliantly, but it seems he also did it in part because he was unable to stop. Here's a kinship with the artist that I am very strictly not seeking. Hoffman was an addict, and then he was sober for more than 20 years before relapsing -- the story of his rehab stint was briefly in the news earlier this year, to general surprise -- and then, this quickly, winding up in the place addiction tends to lead people.

There are platitudes about the all-consuming intensity of the artist that maybe are more apt in Hoffman's case than not, although of course I wouldn't know. I know that they seem insufficient in a general sense, and would of course be ghoulishly more so to the family and friends Hoffman left behind. I don't want to speculate, at least about this.

What I want to imagine about why Hoffman worked so much, in general and at the specifics, was not that he feared what he would feel or suffer if he stopped, but that he believed the grace of making something as well as he could was the best and most meaningful counterpoint to addiction's crushing nihilism, the best and most human rebuttal to the thing that pulls towards darkness. "In the end, I’m grateful to feel something so deeply, and I’m also grateful that it’s over," he says elsewhere in that Times profile. "And that’s my life."

I am, right now, afraid to stop writing, because I know what I will feel when I stop. But also I am unwilling to stop, because this seems the only thing to do, in general but also in the face of my friend unmade and the unnamed suffering that unmade her. The idea is just to make something, as well as I can make it, over and over -- throw what I have out into what's empty, as far as it'll go. To do it until what is empty is filled up.

Or, I guess, until re-remembering that one person does not contain enough to unmake an abyss. So: I'll do it in defiance of that knowledge, then, or just in defiance. Maybe that. It's the best answer I've got.

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