If your finger’s on the pulse of the Internet, you know that Bill Murray is adored by everyone born after 1976. We love him not just for his carefree, arrogant movie persona but for how this persona seems to spill over into his real life. The actor has become infamous for showing up at random parties and bars and gracing the scene with an air of “just not caring,” as a blogger might say. This is also known as “not giving a fuck.”
And that’s only what gets reported. Since I moved to New York, Murray’s playground of choice, I’ve met people who’ve met people who’ve been at a Murray-adorned party. The refrain goes something like, “We were at this house party in Brooklyn, and Bill Murray just showed up, drank a few beers, helped us do the dishes, danced around a little, and then left as mysteriously as he arrived.”
Bill Murray is charming, but charm’s dirty secret is that it usually belies something that’s not so charming. The etymology of “charm” suggests that its only a temporary cover-up, albeit a mature, healthy one. So it makes me wonder if Murray is like Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman—giving it one last hurrah before sucking on a gun.
I wonder this partly because Murray’s new “let me make a spectacle out of myself” marketing campaign only started in 2008, when his marriage ended. More specifically, his wife left him, accusing Murray of drug addiction, infidelity, and domestic violence. Now he’s estranged from some of his children. How fun!
Once upon a time, however, Bill Murray was a serious man. I’m not talking about his recent stream of indie hits since Lost in Translation which mistake unfunny for serious. Murray only agreed to do Ghostbusters because Columbia Pictures funded his pet project The Razor’s Edge, a film specifically about a young man who begins to take life seriously. The film reflected a turning point in Murray’s life. In his early 30s he got into literature and began to paint. He eschewed empty irreverence and put it on himself to really think about himself and life. In the film when Murray’s character tells his fiancée, “I want to think. I need to think. And that’s something I don’t have much practice with,” he’s just as much talking about himself as his character.
Maybe this seriousness didn’t last because it was only a phase. Like Murray’s character in the film, Murray only became serious after his friend John Belushi died. Murray basically recites the same eulogy in the film as he did at Belushi’s funeral.
Maybe the seriousness didn’t last because Murray found nothing in his search for meaning. The term “the razor’s edge” is derived from the Upanishads, a series of ancient texts upon which Hinduism was founded. I’m one of five people who actually own and have read the Upanishads, and let me tell you—there’s nothing there. It’s a hodgepodge of aphorisms about the supernaturally powerful “oneness” of man. And its ethical lessons are about as squishy as a Julia Roberts movie. Sure, it gets some good zingers in there, but the book’s real seriousness only comes from the stern asceticism you must practice merely to get through it. Just because ideas are old and from the other side of the world doesn’t mean they’re serious.
When you make an earnest effort to live an examined life and all you find are the proverbial muddied waters, what else is there to do? Show up to a bar and buy everyone a shot of tequila, I suppose.
It’s no wonder Bill Murray has become the Gen Y mascot. We too yearn for a serious life, but those who go searching find nothing. Heavy discussions about right and wrong quickly evaporate into shallow arguments about have and have-not. Serious thinking, when socialization is paramount, turns into serious feeling. A mind powerful enough to make sense of existence is also powerful enough to emasculate itself. Perceptions trump thought and sensations trump perceptions.
When confronted with true value, like a Werner Herzog film, we enjoy it through a smirk. It’s an anomaly. It’s too didactic. It’s too heavy-handed. What’s Herzog getting at when he strives to know why humans ride horses and chimps don’t? Oh, that’s just silly Uncle Werner. Now read Go the Fuck to Sleep so we can giggle at your accent.
In The Man Who Laughs, Victor Hugo says about clowns: “To be comic without and tragic within—what suffering can be more humiliating, what pain deeper?” Bill Murray may be charming, fun, and he may not give a fuck, but that’s another way of saying he’s as happy as a clown. As Gen Yers go through the motions of seriousness and come up empty-headed, we presume Murray might be on to something. Like our mascot, we’re slowly learning not to care, and we’ll be playing the fiddle soon enough.
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