In Memoriam: Philip Seymour Hoffman A dart thrown at the abyss of death and loss

In a strange and direct way, we don’t care about any of this. If we’re serious about a separation between what someone is and what they make, then their death shouldn’t obtain at all. We’re not indifferent to someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman as a person, we just didn’t know him. And to those of us with a bent for self-destruction, overdosing on heroin is among the kinder ways for that urge to find fulfillment. Nobody can run against the elastic band of ordinariness forever, and so we are saddened but not surprised when those who try end up spinning off into degeneracy, incomprehensibility, or in Hoffman’s case, death. Most of us have been preparing for most of our lives to be one of those three. People die from overdosing on drugs every day. Nobody cares about it, and that’s why it keeps happening. And the malignancy of celebrity makes our understanding of someone’s suffering an insult to the real problem (see Dylan Farrow), and a sort of childish, obscene mechanism forms in our heads because we’re a terribly selfish bunch who hold other people up as if they were mirrors. Admiration is often irresponsible.

I’m guilty of this mirroring, and I’m having serious issues with putting my name on something associated with Hoffman’s death. In these cases, zero language seems to be the only appropriate response. When David Foster Wallace died, I couldn’t talk about it for a very long time. How to communicate that sense of loss when it’s someone with whom you’ve never spoken or known in any tangible way? And, god, how fucking presumptuous to think you know anything about them at all? The outpouring of letters and words and emotions that happened immediately after Wallace’s death left me numb and deleted. And yet, there it is: grief. A very real thing permeating space no matter how illogical the consideration. Wallace started coming to me in dreams. I tattooed him on my body, put him in my blood. I made friends with internet people living on the opposite coast because we were sad about a celebrity death. Collective mourning as a dart thrown at the abyss of understanding death, loss, and what the fuck we do to ourselves and each other.

Hoffman as “Wilson” in Todd Louiso’s Love Liza

When I heard news of Hoffman’s death, I went walking in the freezing Ohio cold. The brutality of negative wind chills pierces the warm sludge of depressive fixating thoughts. Since moving to Ohio, I’ve acquired a respect for the violence of winter — it’s one way to get sober. The chill shakes you out of yourself; you do battle with it, a kind of self-forgetting that only sleep and intoxicants used to bring. In San Francisco, I spent most of my six years getting high on coke and drinking myself to oblivion. My addictions brought me to seven men in a locked room; they brought me to ruined relationships and crying on the bathroom floor as my nose bled red and white. A patriotic clown. There is no doubt in my mind that if I had stayed one more minute in that city, I would be dead. Here I am. Different air.

I walked. I thought of Robert Walser, a man who walked himself to a snowy grave on Christmas Day in 1956. I thought of Hoffman on the bathroom floor with a needle still in his arm, a lifeline to an ephemeral oblivion now made permanent. His glasses on top of his head. Death, his (our) ultimate costume. The bathroom floor, a place where so many soft bodies eliminate their own maps. The human left to steer himself to the center of nothing. I walked into a coffeeshop and bought coffee. “He was my favorite actor,” the barista said. I walked home. The first thing I watched was Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd singing “(I’d Like To Get You On A) Slow Boat To China” to Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. Phoenix looks at him with the same eyes that saw his own brother convulse to a deep blue on a sidewalk in Los Angeles. Then I watched Love Liza, which for me was Hoffman’s first performance that invoked a terrain not even present in itself, that wanted to hurt itself, that went beyond. I saw it 10 years ago, a Video Connection rental, a three-time viewing morphing into something new with each rewind. The bloated, huffing gas sadness filled the screen like a balloon, as Hoffman took an otherwise melodramatic and obvious role — a husband whose wife kills herself — and tripled it in effect. He brought forth an endless sprawl of trauma and fear.

In Happiness and Boogie Nights, Hoffman broke down the framework of the misunderstood outcast and found redemption in its perverted seepage.

The two roles that solidified Hoffman as one of the greats happened within a year of each other. In Happiness and Boogie Nights, Hoffman broke down the framework of the misunderstood outcast and found redemption in its perverted seepage. Pushing us into places that at once seem funny and disgusting, his performance as “Allen” and as “Scotty” left us exposed, grossed out, and turned on inside a very confusing territory we weren’t sure existed outside of our own head muck. Happiness was a particularly startling thing for me to experience, as I had just come out of a strange compulsive phase of calling 1-900 numbers day and night. I felt like a freakshow of insecurity and sexual perversion. That special air hanging inside the telephone as one moaned and heard moans traveling through space was like no other. The way Hoffman’s mouth hung open, that heavy spitty breath, the rosacea, the oily hair, the pouty gut, the “I’m gonna fuck you so bad you’re gonna be cumming out of your ears,” and also Scotty’s infamous “I’m a fuckin’ idiot,” the timing and cadence of words so awake and open in their tones that we can quote them without even looking.

“Investigators discovered close to 50 envelopes of what they believed was heroin in the apartment. Before Hoffman died, he withdrew $1,200 from a grocery store ATM near his apartment. He got the money in six transactions Saturday night.”

The image of him standing there in the fluorescent death of his neighborhood grocery store entering the same $200 withdrawal amounts six times in a row makes it impossible to imagine any other scenario than death. His breath in those moments. His fingers touching the screen. The compulsion. The blankness. The way others noticed him as they purchased their groceries. His last transaction, his final performance so human and basic. The ATM looking back and asking him to confirm his decisions.

Hoffman as “Allen” in Todd Solondz’s Happiness (top) and as “Scotty” in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (bottom)

I looked outside my farmhouse window at the vast flatness of my Ohio town, the sky a pale ceiling of illusion blue. So many text messages, each one referring to Hoffman as “PSH” — the initials forming a sound like a last exhalation. Since giving up drugs, I have taken to daily yoga, a bodily reminder to “stay in the present moment.” My days are curling into themselves. I can see birds on wires. Someone texts: “He was such a great fat loser.” A pale fog comes across the sky. I wonder if I’m still awake.

Not since Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro has a director/muse relationship so thoroughly chewed at us in dark rooms as the collaborations between Paul Thomas Anderson and Hoffman. Hoffman had the ability to spool otherwise unremarkable films into an eerie darkness, a feat that made a thing like Along Came Polly pretty fucking incredible, but his work with Anderson was always gold. I remember watching an Entertainment Tonight interview years ago when Magnolia came out, and when asked about what the film meant on a larger scale, Hoffman didn’t hesitate: “Regret, it’s a film about regret.” In light of the massive cataloging of ideas and styles contained within the film, it was jolting to hear Hoffman so conclusively state that. Wrapped inside that quote is a kind of understanding that not many performers seem to have when it comes to their director’s vision. The two influenced each other, and their friendship has given us some of the greatest films ever made. When the emptiness of life is the mind’s horror film, friendship becomes an invented path we walk along together, overlooking quiet hysteria. It is too much for me to think of Anderson’s face when he found out. It is too much to think of him raising his hands to his face. The animal noises he must have made, and is still making.

My dear friend, Erin Keaton, wrote the following paragraph after hearing of Hoffman’s death. I end with it because it’s more beautiful and reaching than anything I could say:

“I wasn’t crazy about half the movies he was in but was crazy about him. I wrote him a fan letter once when I was about 20 but never sent it and one night watched Happiness and Love Liza for the first time in the same evening (it was really upsetting). I read all of his interviews and the articles about him because he always had nice things to say, was always funny, but was serious about shit. He was such a dude but would allow himself to reach the darkest places, really show what it’s like to not be passive about things, to have feelings and things too much of one way, and he could show that without talking it to death, just by reflecting a character back with all the depths that it would have if it was a real person. I mean, maybe it is why it’s hard to believe he won’t come back — he’s always gone as far as there was to go in everything he ever did, and then he’d start over, he’d come back.”

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