For months now, the internet's most popular meme has cast 2016 as the deadliest year in human history, a sentiment we can largely ascribe to the fact that the internet tends to see things primarily through the lens of pop culture.
On the one hand, it's a dumb idea for us to have latched onto. On the other hand, one need only consider the absurd number of iconic celebrities we've lost to understand how we arrived at the memeification of that idea: in the space of twelve months, we've seen the passing of David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, Vanity, Harper Lee, Garry Shandling, Muhammad Ali, Nancy Reagan, George Martin, Phife Dawg, Anton Yelchin, Garry Marshall, Gene Wilder, Kenny Baker, Steve Dillon, Leonard Cohen, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Florence Henderson, and - as of last night - Debbie Reynolds.
I mean, Jesus, 2016 even got Abe Vigoda.
You look at that lineup and you can't help but think: yeah, it's been a particularly rough year for beloved icons.
And, truly, few things are as weird as the death of an icon. I vividly remember my first encounter with this phenomenon, all the way back in April of 1994. I was at home, watching MTV and being a typically-surly suburban teenager when a breaking news bulletin flashed onscreen: Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain had been found dead in Seattle, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. To say I was stunned would be a massive understatement: I was leveled.
It may sound strange, but Kurt Cobain was my first real encounter with death. Up until that point, I'd never known anyone who died, and while I certainly didn't know Kurt, I felt the same sense of kinship with him that a substantial portion of my generation did: we'd grown up listening to Nirvana, had our entire musical tastes warped by the band's singular sound. To think that there'd be no more of that - that there'd be no more Nirvana albums, no cheeky appearances at MTV Music Awards shows, no more tours (which I was too young to have even dreamed of catching at the time, but whatever) - was devastating.
So I cried when Kurt Cobain died, and I cried again six years later when Stanley Kubrick passed away. By then I'd transitioned from a surly, grunge-loving teen into a full-blown film geek, and I'd spent no small amount of time worshiping at Kubrick's altar. Famously, Stanley Kubrick died at home literally days after completing work on his final film, Eyes Wide Shut (this, by the way, feels like the perfect grace note to the Kubrick mythos; one imagines the Grim Reaper showing up the week prior, only to have Kubrick raise one finger and say, "Gimme a minute"), and I remember everything about the moment in which I heard the news.
Again, I was stunned. Again, I felt shattered: that's it? No more Kubrick? Just like that?
There's been a lot of that going around this year. No more Bowie. No more Prince. No more anything, from any of these legends. When we grieve for their removal from this world, we're thinking a little bit selfishly ... but mainly I think we're reacting globally: the world is a smaller, less cheerful, less interesting place without these people in it, and we are all worse off for it. Whether or not you're thinking that precise thought in the moment, I think that's the underlying sentiment, and - given the current state of the world and the sheer volume in which these deaths are occurring - I think it's easy to see why we're all taking them a little bit harder than we normally might.
Which brings me to my point: lately I've seen a bunch of people offering a glass-half-full take on all this - at least we were lucky to be alive when (your preferred celebrity here) was doing his or her thing! At least we have their body of work to look back on, to hold onto! Yes, this is absolutely correct, and something everyone should keep in mind, if only because it will surely make you feel a little better when one of your heroes dies.
But I'd like to put forth an addendum to this line of thought, one that I feel may be of particular use to the Birth.Movies.Death. readership. Namely: our supply of entertainment icons is rapidly diminishing. There'll never be another Kurt Cobain or another Stanley Kubrick or another Bowie or another Prince or another Carrie Fisher, but we do have multiple generations who've been inspired by their work, and among them are fledgling creatives who will one day bring their own singular art into the world. There will be more icons, in other words, and there's nothing to say that you might not be among them.
Artists of every stripe - writers, musicians, comedians, playwrights, illustrators, songwriters, filmmakers, you name it - should be working harder than ever to hone their craft. That creative thing people tell you you're uncommonly good at? Spend some time focusing on it. Try and find a way to turn it into a job. Maybe you'll become an expert. Maybe you'll make a career out of it. Maybe you'll turn out to be so good at it, it'll be something you can do for the rest of your life (maybe it'll be something you become famous for, if you're the insane type who'd enjoy being famous), and in the process you'll inspire a whole new generation of creatives, who - with any luck - will still have a world of their own to inspire when their time comes.
Maybe you haven't noticed, but we're living in a weird moment in history, one which has every indication of getting a lot darker before it gets better. We can work against that darkness in all manner of ways (our own Film Crit Hulk's ongoing "Let's Go To Work" series has suggestions, particularly in terms of charity/activism), but the art we're putting out into the world will absolutely be one of the most vital. So if you're mourning the loss of an icon this year and you're creatively-inclined, my advice is to a) try and stay positive, and b) consider channeling that grief into something weird or fun or interesting or inspiring. With where we're headed and with so many icons having already left us, the world needs that shit now more than ever.