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Zettel Film Reviews » Music unites what words divide

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Music unites what words divide

Only connect

Only connect

The Soloist – Joe Wright

Why do we go to the movies? I guess for as many different reasons as there are different kinds of films: to be entertained, informed, moved; to be made to laugh or cry, or exceptionally, both at the same time; or more rarely to be challenged, stimulated, provoked into thought. Some films do one thing well: and that is good; whichever of the above interests and wishes is satisfied. I guess this is a key characteristic of a genre movie though a good artist may use a genre as a form within which to explore wider, non-generic, non-conventional ideas and experiences. A good recent example of this was Director Christopher Nolan in The Dark Knight, where he used the definitively generic form of comic book, sci-fi context, to explore ancient ideas of myth in a contemporary setting while adding ambiguity and depth to the simplistic moral certitudes characteristic of the comic book literary and cinematic genre. A bit like the superb John le Carre’s deep exploration over decades, of issues of human truth, loyalty and betrayal in the spy-story literary genre.

Joe Wright’s film does many of these things: it is entertaining, touching and affecting as one might expect of a narrative based upon the true story of the chance meeting and eventual friendship of LA Times journalist Steve Lopez with musical prodigy Nathaniel Ayers whose innate musical brilliance has never fully escaped the constant distraction and frequent destruction, of his equally innate schizophrenia. If Ayer’s story is the recognisable narrative thread of Wright’s movie, it’s generic element if you will, it is what Wright both successfully does, and with only partial but honourable success tries, to do with this story that is as rare in commercial cinema as it is stimulating and thought-provoking.

Film is more poetry than science; more Art than Mathematics: complex ideas are not its natural domain which is more sensual than cerebral; more instinctive than analytic; show and affect, not tell and explain. And yet for over 2 millennia some of the deepest and most profound ideas in Western European culture from the Greeks onwards, have found their initial way into our consciousness through Art: through poetry, drama and literature however much those ideas have been shaped and structured through the analytic disciplines of science, mathematics and philosophy, to serve our practical needs and purposes. What all these forms of human exploration of ourselves and our world have in common is the mediation of language with its irresistible dualism of words and meaning, mind and body, the ‘I’ and the non-‘I’. The one art form that most successfully retains a sense of ‘one-ness’ and unity – immediacy, is music. Of course by the nature of our culture we can and do, treat music analytically and scientifically: yet there is an unmediated connection between certain kinds of sound and patterns of sounds, despite almost infinite variations, that seem simply as a matter of given fact, to touch and move human beings – of all cultures, in all lands, irrespective of an almost unlimited variety of spoken language forms.

The Soloist is about connection: each of us to the other, to an other; and to others in groups whether defined by social class, occupation, shared interests etc. Divorced journalist Steve Lopez (Downey Jnr) has ex-wife Annie (Catherine Keener) as an editor as they try to survive the implacable subversion by free, on-line news of the financial structure of high cost, print-based media. They love what they do, and each other, and their son who we do not see: but they can’t see a way past the market inevitability of the decline of the newspaper. With its commoditisation in recent years, News has become a capitalist paradox: something everybody wants but are no longer willing to pay for.

The decline of print media, especially books and newspapers, is a profound cultural revolution of which we are all part, deeply affected by, and yet largely oblivious of and worse, apparently indifferent to. We should be more troubled than we are at this process: for having first commoditised, then marketed news to create the maximum number of buyers for it, under the capitalist imperative of making a profit; we are now democratising truth. Truth becomes what most people perceive and therefore believe it to be. What I guess we might call Wiki-fact, Wiki-truth. This is parallel perhaps to ‘Reality’ TV shows like Big Brother and even the X-Factor where we see a parallel democratisation of talent.

The soul of a journalist is fed not by truth but narrative. Journalists are not by instinct truth-tellers – they are story-tellers. There is merit in this; and justification: for story-telling has been the unmediated, instinctive response of human beings of all cultures, to the world around them ever since we acquired the miracle of language. At the heart of this trust in the story, in its purest form, lies the concept of artistic truth. But stories, just like language itself, can be used to illuminate the truth – or to obscure it and lie. Herein lays the soul of journalistic ethics. And its distinguishing mark is humility. Not perhaps a quality we instinctively associate with journalists but one which we will always detect in the very best, especially the great ones.

Steve Lopez is a good journalist. Yes he must find a story to tell, one that will fill his column; and to a deadline. Every week. Yes he wants people to be attracted to it, want to read it, be affected by it. But he wants to get his story ‘right’ – to do it justice; to be truthful, whether literally true or not. So when he hears in the midst of the constant, harrying noise of the city, a calming thread of music, he seeks it out and finds Nathaniel Ayers, teasing out the best melody he can from a violin with only 2 strings. Nathaniel is rapt, lost in his music, apparently oblivious to the clamouring din of the world around him. When Steve tries to speak to him Nathaniel pours out a stream of erratically connected phrases and sentences. It is clear that Nathaniel displays the characteristics of someone we describe as mentally disturbed: as if the sorting, prioritising, relevance-determining parts of our brains that connect us through our use of language and memory, cannot in his case cope or simply don’t work. Nathaniel speaks as if the endless rush of ideas and feelings through his mind simply drive his speech giving it a child-like quality: as if the selection process, the decision-making, the co-ordinating will that makes us the person we are, only works intermittently – or not at all. Nathaniel lives in a nagging, noisy, perpetual present from which the sanity of the continuity of self, of structuring memory, appears absent or at best intermittent. Nathaniel’s ‘I’ is elusive, transient – contingent upon circumstance.

As Lopez tries to reach Nathaniel through the haze of disjointed words and ideas, we discover that probably schizophrenic or at least bi-polar, he is almost constantly beset by ‘inner’ voices that assault and fragment his sense of self. Blessed even from childhood with an instinctive talent for music, we find that music is his solace: like a tinnitus sufferer who finds respite from the constant debilitating, meaningless sounds in his ears, by blocking them out with a dominant, intentional, satisfying sound. And the more absorbed, engaged, transported he is with the music, the more successful is its therapeutic effect: it becomes for a time, the only thing he hears. His private space. His peace. But true I believe to the experience of sufferers from these kinds of mental disability, through sheer exhaustion at the immense effort required to hold his voices, his demons, at bay, Nathaniel cannot control them or expunge them altogether. And in the cruellest of dilemmas faced by bi-polar sufferers, the medications, especially Lithium that can control the voices rob him of the capacity to play music and the delight he derives from it. His illness was the reason Nathaniel dropped out of Juilliard, America’s premier Musical academy.

When Lopez meets him Nathaniel is homeless and lives amongst the indigent human flotsam and jetsam of Los Angeles. The head of a support agency LAMP tellingly rejects the conventional comforting logic of diagnosis and cure, for people whose complex cocktail of symptoms and problems defy categorisation and distinction between affliction and infliction. Addiction, self-harm, mental illness and instability, every kind of personal and social dysfunction; are all exacerbated by either the hostility or indifference of the ‘normal’ population. No wonder the leader of the LAMP support group concentrates on predicating support upon immediate physical need rather than the illusion of diagnosis and cure.

I always feel queasy at the thought of film-makers using non-actors in this context. Of course director Joe Wright’s insistence on employing 500 homeless LA drop-outs was a real, if temporary benefit to them. And they do him proud, conveying a sense of authenticity this kind of film must have. But one still wonders if this is not only cheap but cheapening. On the other hand his filming and aesthetic use of the reality of their experience treats them with dignity and there is truth in his portrayal of their plight.

In an ad hoc, slightly chaotic way, Lopez tries to mediate a recovery of Nathaniel’s unique gifts: but an unwise planned concert ends in a debacle not helped by the platitudinous religiosity of Tom Hollander’s Cello teacher, Graham Claydon engaged by Lopez to teach Nathaniel. With the implacably smug faith characteristic of a certain kind of ardent Christian, Claydon assumes an instinctive understanding of Nathaniel’s pain that he palpably lacks. This just makes things much worse. You don’t have to be schizophrenic to find a guy like Claydon a pain in the a*se.

Nathaniel plays and much of the time lives, under a freeway amongst the under-resourced, under-recognised, underclass of the other America. Wright makes powerful use of the juxtaposition of the noisy, hectic, driven, world flashing past above this rag bag of hurting and struggling humanity below: as if they fell off the road and simply never found their way back. Wright conveys this sense of detached dislocation with aerial shots of the geometric lattices of the roads and residences of LA’s conventional, visible population. This thread of visual detachment, alienation, with which Wright infuses The Soloist, together with Robert Downey Junior’s slightly dislocated, subtle playing of Lopez, traces uncomfortable but apposite parallels between Nathaniel’s fragmented, un-centred private mental life and the driven but detached and disconnected lives of modern big city America. The social and community downside of the constant change that feeds markets and sustains modern economies.

Jamie Foxx does well with a difficult role though it takes us as it takes Lopez, a little while to tune in to his wavelength. I hated Joe Wright’s absurdly over-praised Atonement with its tricksy, transparently technical manipulative pursuit of effect. But while The Soloist does not deal oin depth with many of the issues above, it provokes thought about them and does so with a subtlety and unobtrusiveness one would not have expected from the Director of Atonement. Wright is also to be congratulated for his aspiration in The Soloist in taking it into areas aesthetic and social that would almost certainly have been resisted by the studio.

A work of genuine aspiration, if a bit uneven, and well worth a look in my view.

The credits indicate that Nathaniel Ayers still plays cello and half a dozen or so other instruments in the streets of Los Angeles. That is what counts as success, even triumph in this kind of context.

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