I don’t like to post retrospectives or remembrances or recollections about celebrities in the wake of a death. There are times when I’ve done it, but there’s something seedy about it that makes me uncomfortable: a celebrity dies, a website posts a bunch of stuff about the movies they were in, a website sees their page hits jump. It makes me uncomfortable because I don’t know these people personally. I know their work and maybe that work means a lot to me and maybe it doesn’t mean anything, but I’m just a guy with a blog who likes to talk about movies. I’m not chasing page hits or trying to maximize my revenue stream. There isn’t a revenue stream here – I don’t put any ads up (WordPress might, but I don’t see any of that coin) so unless you’re one of the four people a month who buy one of my books, none of this is about money.
It’s about movies and TV shows sometimes loving them and sometimes hating them, but always about giving them a fair shake so we can all feel good about toasting the good ones and ripping on the bad ones.
Which brings me to Paul Walker.
This is not going to be a post where I recap his life or walk you through his best films. There are plenty of sites that can do that and are doing that. My interest right now is not about Walker as much as it is about the honoring of a celebrity after they die. It’s about Facebook and snide comments and hastily constructed social media memorials.
I was at the Grand Sierra Casino playing the Lord of the Rings slot machine when I was informed of Walker’s death by car accident. I may have said, “That sucks” or something similar and went on playing the game. In the grand scheme, his death (and the death of the man driving the car) isn’t going to impact my life in a tangible way because the overwhelming majority of deaths do not impact our lives in tangible ways. When a parent or sister or grandmother or family dog dies, that’s a tangible death, but when a guy who makes movies passes on … it sucks, and that’s about it. When the news was confirmed later on, I sent out a condolence tweet because it really does suck to see a person cut down. I still placed a 3-team NFL parlay bet before leaving the casino, though. I still ate dinner. I still took the dog for a walk.
When I fired up the laptop this morning and settled in to work on a story and watch some football, I went scrolling through my Facebook feed and found a lot of people honoring Walker’s death through status updates and links to obituaries and news articles and shared posts from other parts of Facebook. Some of my friends were deeply moved by his passing, though most expressed an attitude similar to mine: I’m sorry this happened but I’m still going to go play Angry Birds Star Wars. I wish it hadn’t happened, but the world is still spinning. I understand if yours stopped.
When I flipped my News Feed from the “Top Stories” option to the “Most Recent” filter, I began to get annoyed and rather quickly that annoyance ratcheted up to anger. I wasn’t made at the people honoring Walker, though – I was mad at the people who were getting mad at the people honoring Walker.
Update after update went rolling past, decrying all the attention paid to a “celebrity.” Some people were mad that Walker’s death was getting all this attention when “people die every day.” Others were mad that no one was talking about the other man who died in the crash. Every manner of discontent came back to one thing, however: Paul Walker was a celebrity and he was getting attention because he died and this, for some reason, should not be.
Let’s start with the “celebrity” angle. First, Walker is famous, but he’s not famous because the Publishing Gods decreed he was to become an object of attention. He didn’t become someone because he was on a reality show or because he had famous parents or because he made a sex tape. (Not that those can’t be valid reasons for being famous.) He’s famous because he’s an actor, which some people apparently do not think is an actual job. It might not be, on a relative scale, a tough job, but it is a job and Walker was a working actor. According to his Wikipedia page, he’s got 20 film credits from 2003 until now (if we include the movies he’s made but haven’t been released, yet), so this is a guy routinely showing up at the local multiplex or Redbox or Netlfix. There’s a reason people know who he is, and it’s not because he’s a “celebrity,” but because he has a job that puts him in the public eye.
Why shouldn’t people honor him? Why is Walker’s death somehow the tipping point for people who dislike our celebrity culture? Is it because he’s famous, but not famous enough? Because he was in movies that made a bunch of money and not movies that won awards?
Second, the idea that the driver of the car should be getting just as much attention as Walker is also ludicrous. This is not to demean the death of Roger Rodas, but simply to point out the obvious: as successful as he might have been at what he did, as much as his life, in the grand scheme, is not worth any less than Walker’s life, the mass culture has no idea who he is. By choosing to honor Walker on their Facebook page or through their Twitter account, people are not disrespecting Rodas if they don’t mention him because they don’t know who he is. All life is valuable, but to suggest that we should all grieve for all deaths in the same manner is philosophical nonsense. I am certain I grieved for my grandmother’s death more than I grieved for your grandmother’s death. This does not mean that your grandmother is somehow less worthy of being honored or is somehow being disrespected; it simply means I am grieving the death of someone I know more than the death of someone I do not know.
Why is this a bad thing? How is this a bad thing?
Paul Walker died and a lot of people are sad enough about his passing that they posted a status update talking about it. Or they watched the news or visited websites to hear more about it.
And this, for some reason, upsets people. Why? What is it about Paul Walker dying in a car crash that makes his death and the shared grief at that passing and the honoring of his life that made today feel like some kind of anti-celebrity tipping point?
I don’t know. I don’t. But I think it’s bullshit. Walker made movies that made people happy. He made movies that made me happy. I refuse to watch dog movies because I love dogs and all dog movies are designed to make you cry, but I watched the heck out of EIGHT BELOW. Making people happy is a good life. If you don’t like that he makes more than teachers and counselors and all of those jobs that make the world better and don’t come with big financial rewards, that’s on you. Not him. Not on the people who miss him.
I’m not telling you to miss Paul Walker or to mourn Paul Walker or to throw EIGHT BELOW in the Blu-ray player tonight. I am pointing out that people are feeling and doing all of those things, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I think remembering someone is a good thing, and I don’t think because someone chooses to honor Person A that they’re anti-honoring Person B. It’s a far bigger problem that people want to dictate the act of public grieving than that people want to take 5 seconds out of their day to let the world know they’re sorry someone died.
Walker had a job that he was good enough at that he made people happy. That’s a good thing. That’s a thing worth honoring, even if he had the gall to also be rich and famous. So if you want to honor his life by posting a status update or sending out a tweet or watching all THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS movies, go right ahead and do it.
Godspeed, Mr. Walker.