04 November, 2011

What About Bob and The Dying (a memoir)

I am sleeping downstairs tonight. I am in a pair of light and dark blue checkered pajamas with a moth-eaten teal wool sweater I acquired from the share box at Interlochen last spring. JNF is asleep next to me, the very fact of which is off because if my Dad were not upstairs dying he would not be happy that his teenage daughter was lying in bed next to her teenage boyfriend. But there is nothing funny going on. JNF is asleep and I am wide awake and thinking about what must be going on upstairs. The Dying. 


What About Bob? is my undisputed favorite film of all time. In a top ten list of favorite films, Bob would take up the top three slots. I could watch it on repeat, I could probably quote the entire thing from beginning to end (with intonations and pauses, inflections, music cues and everything) if you challenged me to. In fact I dare you: challenge me to. Go on. [1]

First things first: 

[**Old World Hollywood cinematic entrance music!!**]

What About Bob? is a 1991 film directed by Frank Oz about a doctor-patient relationship pushed way beyond the office.

Bob Wiley (played brilliantly by Bill Murray), a neurotic New York psychiatric patient struggling with a whirlwind of paralyzing phobias who takes to Dr. Leo Marvin's (the equally astonishing Richard Dreyfuss) latest bestselling book "Baby Steps" like no therapy before it; and in one session alone bonds with, depends upon, and in the most charming way conceivable, subsequently follows his successful and (beyond) egotistical, callous, self-absorbed, S.O.B. psychiatrist Dr. Leo Marvin north to New Hampshire on a month's vacation.

But Dr. Marvin, is not only seeking a few weeks of rest and relaxation, he is preparing for a highly anticipated interview on Good Morning America and viewing Bob's stalking as highly inappropriate, he demands Bob return to New York. (In fact, Dr. Marvin’s unprecedented success with a patient is all the more ironic, because it would massage his massive ego if it weren't such an intolerable disruption to his vacation.) But Bob can't take a hint, and decides to indulge in his very own "vacation from his problems” in the area!  Bob is here to stay!

Meanwhile, Marvin's wife Fay (Julie Hagerty), death-obsessed son Sigmund (Charlie Korsmo), and teenage-daughter Anna (Kathryn Erbe) all take to Bob's openness, loopy charm, and sense of “fun,” none of which Dr. Marvin himself possesses and he views as an infuriating threat. Marvin's temperature rises as Bob insinuates his way into the hearts of the Marvin family— flattering Fay, counseling the previously ignored Anna and most profoundly, helping Sigmund overcome his greatest fears.

Next. Let’s get a few things clear:

    - I did not, I repeat did NOT play it so many times on VHS that it began to skip.
    - I have never claimed that “Bob” [2] is the “I Ching.” Not ever.
    - I have not quoted “Bob” to total strangers on public transportation.
    - I do not love it so much that sometimes I put it on just as “wallpaper” while I clean the house or do my taxes.
    - And above all, I did not get so frustrated by my inability to have access to Bob’s amusement and wisdom at all times that I resorted to holding a professional (purpose bought) microphone up to the television speaker in order to record the entire film on a 120 minute cassette-tape so that I might listen to it on my Walkman…or in the car… or at summer camp…

Saying any of that were true might mean that I was an obsessive crazy fool.
So… yeah…OKAY,
[*she waves her hands in the air, rolls her eyes, exhales and makes the ‘come clean’ face*]
The truth is this: I am an obsessive crazy fool!
A fool for What About Bob? and I don’t even really know why!

When listing ones favorite films I have always considered it important to designate and divide into separate categories: The Favorite Films That Are Legitimate Works of Art and Really Challenge You List— Citizen Kane and Schindler’s List type movies that are in-arguably brilliant but require focus and discipline and serious-mindedness even if the film is amusing. And The Special Favorite Films You Could Watch Again and Again Because They Make You Feel Amazing List—which includes things resembling The Great Muppet Caper and Turner and Hooch. Sometimes there is a cross-over (Amalie?), but pah! Why get into nitty-grittys? The point is I think everybody has a film or two like this: the kind of “favorite movie” where, the second it is over, you loved it so much you could press-rewind-and-watch-the-whole-damn-thing-again kind of love.

I know people who irrationally love Big.
I know other families spend entire mealtimes quoting and guffawing over National Lampoon’s European Adventure.
Or a handful of people who can’t get enough of The Jerk.

Well, for our family, it was What About Bob? and it all started with my dad. I remember the first time we ever watched it in the last home we ever had in Los Angeles. He practically sprinted out to purchase that VHS; and we watched it twice— back to back.

Dad loved this movie for reasons I may never fully know, and desperately wish I did. Perhaps it had something to do with the odd take on psychotherapy. Perhaps it had to do with Bob’s innocence or Bill Murray’s irreverent but child-like sense of humor (that actually reminded me so much of his). Perhaps it was because the film, at it’s core, has a really touching central message without taking itself too seriously. Perhaps it was just amusing, I truly don’t know, but what I am realizing as I type this is that the film became important to me because it was important to him. We would watch it together, laugh, quote, laugh some more, and as I grew it took on it’s very own significance.

When I woke up in the morning he would often greet me with:
    “Good morning Gil… I said good morning Gil.

Or the casual greeting of:

Or if someone asked how he felt about something he might respond with:
    “There are two types of people in this world: those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.”

Or if someone were mean to me at school he would quote Bob’s wisdom:
    “You know, I treat people, as if they were telephones, If I meet somebody I think doesn't like me I say to myself, I say; ‘Bob, this one is temporarily out of order.’ You know, don't break the connection, just hang up and try again!”

Therein lies a great deal of the draw: Bob Wiley, it would seem, is oddly enlightened, and What About Bob? oddly profound. With every viewing I discovered another level of profundity in a manner in which only Bill Murray seems to be able to deliver on the knife’s edge of comic insanity (Groundhog Day and The Life Aquatic being perfect examples). And every time I watched Bob and found a new nugget of hilarious, but deeply perceptive human observation; I not only felt smarter, or wiser, but I felt closer to my Dad.

So, incongruous though it may seen, it is fitting that it all began there...

About two-thirds of the way into the film, we find Bob sleeping over at The Marvins’ Lake Winnapesawke home due to a torrential rainstorm. He shares a room with Siggy, Dr. Marvin’s 11-year-old son that Bob has, earlier in the day, helped to overcome his morbid fear of diving. They lie there in their PJs, in angled twin beds, staring at the ceiling into the darkness. Siggy looks terrified as his voice utters quietly, 
Siggy: Bob?
Bob: Yeah?
Siggy: Are you afraid of death?
Bob is caught off guard. He is suddenly frightened too— his eyes grown wide and searching, like a child trying to keep their cool.
Bob: Yeah.
Bob answers, as in a “Yeah, so?!” kind of way particular to children one-upping each other. It's cute.
Siggy: Me too. And there’s no way out of it. You’re going to die. I’m going to die. It’s going to happen.
Siggy blinks, clearly the fear is very, very real.
Siggy [cont]: …And who cares if it’s tomorrow or eighty years? ...much sooner in your case...Do you know how fast time goes? I was six, like, yesterday.
Bob: Me too.
Siggy: I’m going to die. You are going to die... what else is there to be afraid of...?

I think.
I think about The Dying.

And in this moment, as I lay downstairs in ratty checkered 'share box' pajamas beside the love of my youth, that very scene from that very stupid, over-quoted, over-played, trivial and pathetically beloved movie, is all I can think of.
My Dad is going to die.
There is no way out of it.
And who cares if it really is tomorrow or in eighty years?
It is going to happen.
And if he dies I am very certain I might die too.
Siggy is right:
    what else is there to be afraid of?

[1] I will do it…
[2] which is the term I give the entire film, not merely the character of Bob Wiley himself


  1. Oh Al. The juxtaposition of the trivial and epic is still so odd to think of. Thank you for sharing yours. It is so personal and so gripping to read. Legally Blonde was on when my dad died. I remember walking out of his room and being surprised that it was still playing.

  2. Hey, so I was looking for this What about Bob? death quote because I've been thinking about life and all... and on my search I came across this blog post of yours and I was really blown away by you're writing not just by the fluidity but the feeling you get. I'm not one for words but I just wanted to let you know some random person came across your stuff and was deeply moved. I don't know you. But what I do know, from what I just read, you are amazing. And I just want to thank you for sharing. (:



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