Art is more than life

A Los Angeles journalist befriends a homeless Juilliard-trained musician, while looking for a new article for the paper.

Director: Joe Wright. Writers: Susannah Grant (screenplay), Steve Lopez (book). Stars: Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr. and Catherine Keener. (1)

The film is the The Soloist and I’d never heard of it till Arash wrote a review on his blog. (2)

I liked very much what he said, rented the DVD, and loved it. I’d only query one thing: his reiterated suggestion that the film was less “satisfying” than other films about contemporary madness afflicting a creative person—such as A Beautiful Mind, Shine. I said I would write my own thoughts on the film; spent a couple of days thinking about it, comparing various films, scribbling a profusion of thoughts, trying to wrap them into a relatively coherent piece, which I accidentally published before it was ready. When I read it through I found it too hopeless to be rescued by editing. There was hardly a sentence worth keeping. The thing was bloated,redundant and dead.

I wondered whether I could rescue anything from the ruins, before reflecting that the movie itself is about the possibility of rescue from ruins. Can the journalist Lopez, through friendship and charitable interventions, save the talented musician Ayers from the ruins of his fallen self?

As a boy he’d been accepted into Juilliard, a prestigious school for the performing arts, to study the cello. He could look forward to an orchestral career at least, or even go beyond, like his fellow-student Yo Yo Ma. How did he end up homeless on the street in Los Angeles, bizarrely dressed, getting tunes from a two-stringed violin?

Somehow a fuse must have blown in his head and never got repaired. He hears voices, talks in a logorrhœic stream, has a cleanliness obsession, abhors being shut in, requires boundless personal space and freedom. Many of us have small problems with reality: he has a big problem.

Suppose for a moment that life is like a piece of paper. It can be written on two sides. On the front is the external world as we perceive it through our senses. On the back are jotted our thoughts and ideas, however triggered. It’s inherent in the human condition that we have to reconcile the two sides into a more or less meaningful whole. But now Ayers hears voices, confuses thought with reality. With him, the text of existence bleeds through from one side of the paper to the other, producing an illegible scribble. Thus he finds the world frightening, seeks a niche where he can make sense of it, ends up on the street, a place which offers certain advantages to the mentally fragile. Once there, you’re no longer tormented by the expectations of others; you have nowhere further to fall. In defiance of  the discomfort, and the constant danger of mugging, you can carve out a niche where peace reigns. At any rate, this seems to be what Ayers achieves.

Along comes Steve Lopez, columnist for the LA Times. The chaos in his life is of a different order. His wife threatens to leave him. He’s injured by a fall from his bicycle. He’s driven by a relentless procession of journalistic deadlines. Encountering Ayers in the street, he scents a human-interest story good for several instalments; pursues him in search of material and a back story. He gets unwillingly sucked into genuine friendship and caring; tempted into clumsy interventions on the poor man’s behalf.

When you watch the DVD, a “making of” feature allows you to compare the actors who play Lopez and Ayers with glimpses of their real-life counterparts. This is where you can see for yourself how art triumphs over everyday life. Actors display personality and emotion; real people veil themselves for privacy. I’ve seen several documentary re-enactments of real-life dramas by the actual characters*. They’re dull affairs in comparison with The Soloist.

Art is more than feeling. It’s a generous sharing. In an interview the director Joe Wright said:

I’d never wanted to make a film in Hollywood, I like making films in Britain about the British experience for British audiences. But, I went over there and met Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers (played by Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx in the movie), and then the people on skid row, in particular the members of the Lamp Community, and I just fell in love with them.

So, I made it to spend time with them, it wasn’t really a kind of career move.(3)

To produce art takes more than falling in love, but the love must be there. Without love there is nothing but craft, though you could argue that even craft demands love as its magic ingredient. For Lopez, it breathed life into his newspaper articles, spawned a book, inspired his readers, one of whom gave Ayers (still living on the street) a very fine cello. For the actors, it produced performances which change our attitude towards mental illness and homeless people. For Ayers, his love of Beethoven and Lopez sustained his comfortless existence; but hasn’t cured him. The very act of labelling a condition as “illness” implies curability. Perhaps we should say “handicap” in cases like Ayers’, or van Gogh’s, and not mental illness. Handicap can be transmuted to art, and if your life in any way inspires others, that too is art.

Not everyone feels as I do. Says the critic Roger Ebert:

“The Soloist” has all the elements of an uplifting drama, except for the uplift. The story is compelling, the actors are in place, but I was never sure what the filmmakers wanted me to feel about it. (4)

Says Joe Wright:

I tried to respond to the way the story was guiding me.

I was also aware that I had to be careful about the ending really, what I was saying. I believe in asking more questions than I answer, to leave the audience with questions, and not to suggest there is any simple cure for the situation. (3)

I’m with Joe! Art is more than life. It is a mirror to show us what we cannot see unaided. Without reading, without movies, without life surrounding me doing its thing, without writing, I’d have a poorer idea of who I am. Wilful blindness hides awkward facts from us, but art is the mirror, the candid camera.

Says Michael Foley, referring to Joyce & Proust:

If you write for yourself, it will be relevant to everyone and if you write for everyone it will be relevant to no-one. . . . In exposing their bizarrely singular natures, these two novelists revealed that psychological peculiarity is universal. No one is as odd as Joyce or Proust—except everyone. (5)

—–

What I dislike most in Hollywood films is their use of cliché as a shorthand to set the scene and present the characters, as if to say, “you know, this kind of person”. It extends to every detail, even the background music, which tells you how and when to feel. It works on me so well that I hate myself, sometimes starting to cry before the opening credits have cleared from the screen, with no element of the plot yet revealed, just a great panorama, say, and an orchestra spinning the first golden threads of joy mixed with doom which will permeate the atmosphere till the bleak yet heartfelt finale.

I find no trace of cliché in The Soloist. I may have fought back the tears at one or two points, but I won the struggle easily. Joe Wright didn’t manipulate me, and I bless him for that. Instead of cliché there was freshness. Everything defined itself in fascinating detail. Everything contributed to the story, and the story was compelling for presenting truths validated by your own inner response.

It’s all too easy to peddle platitudes. But then we skim surfaces and in attempting to portray the common truths, miss truth altogether.

I discover myself more in reading than writing. I don’t mean just reading the written word, but maybe studying the false emotions of an actor, reflected in his face, for they are the mirror to feelings I can never directly acknowledge in myself, the distorting mirror that shows me how I really look. When I sit at my desk trying to tell it how it is, words flee. Only when I look elsewhere, sniff the open air, read the book of Nature, catch the phrase someone utters, aloud or in a book, do I collect clues to define my true state. Like Dirk Gently, the holistic detective, I can’t help believing in the interconnectedness of all things.

And the more I explore through reading and writing, the more fractured I find myself to be, the more handicapped, the more Pessoan, the more human. Pessoa is the Portuguese for person. Let him have the last word here, possibly to shed light on the mind of Nathaniel Ayers:

Nothing is more oppressive than the affection of others—not even the hatred of others, since hatred is at least more intermittent than affection … But hatred as well as love is oppressive; both seek to pursue us, won’t leave us alone.
. . .
Only what we dream is what we truly are, because all the rest, having been realized, belongs to the world and to everyone. If I were to realize a dream I’d be jealous, for it would have betrayed me by allowing itself to be realized…. We achieve nothing. Life hurls us like a stone, and we sail through the air saying “Look at me move.”
(6)

– – – – – –

1. Summary from IMDB

2. Madness on Celluloid: The Bold Experiment of Joe Wright’s The Soloist

* See additional note in 5th comment below.

3. As interviewed for Sky Movies

4. See Roger Ebert’s review of The Soloist

5. See Embracing the Ordinary: Lessons from the Champions of Everyday Life, by Michael Foley.

6. From The Book of Disquiet, translated by Richard Zenith, fragment 348.

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18 thoughts on “Art is more than life

  1. I never saw this one. I didn't see A Beautiful Mind either, but I did see Shine many,many years ago. I also saw Pi, which is also about mental illness…sort of. I didn't care too much for that one. Mental illness seems to be a difficult subject to pull off for some reason.

    I know what you mean about Hollywood cliches, of course. The musical cues don't always bother me too much, but I do get tired of certain “paint-by-numbers” plot elements. That movie Avatar was a prime example. I kept guessing what was going to happen a half an hour down the road because I've seen tons of movies, I'm alive, and I live on Earth. For instance, when they told the story about how no one had ever tamed the flying whats-a-ma-whojit, I said to myself, “So now, at the darkest moment of crisis and at the hero's deepest moment of despair he will go off by himself and tame the whats-a-ma-whojit and he will coming flying into the climatic battle on it and save the day.” Did that happen? Well, if you see a bear in the woods first act… And things like that make no sense at all either. You mean the indigenous people couldn't tame this thing for centuries but the hero can do it in five minutes? Why? Because he's the hero of a movie!? I hate stuff like that. And is just me, or is there always a subtext to things like that where it plays to the conceits of privileged white people? They'll show these savages how it's done! They're in pictures!

    What were we talking about again?

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  2. Arash wrote a comment, but it was appended to another blog I used for drafting & editing. So I’ll paste it here.

    Very well done, Vincent! I am happy you did not abort the mission but went through with the review and gave it your own spin. I must admit that my own review had been fraught with similar difficulties; I had to write various drafts and none of them seemed to satisfy me; at one point, I finally decided to close my eyes and hit the publish button.

    The good news is that through it I did manage to stimulate more thought, reflection and writing. My main purpose was to “redeem” this movie from the short-sighted views proposed by viewers and critics. And let me say, that you managed to take it a step further and I am most grateful for that. Thanks!

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  3. I recommend The Soloist anyhow, Bryan. But you probably gathered that.But I’ve never seen Avatar, never thought it was my kind of thing.

    Do you recommend it, despite what you said above?

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  4. No, I can't say I really recommend it. A lot of people liked it, but I found it to be a leaden, uninspiring, experience. I strongly suspect that you would feel the same way.

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  5. I referred in the piece to documentaries in which the principal characters play themselves. I had in mind:

    Unknown White Male: man on a train journey is suddenly struck by permanent amnesia. He doesn't know anything about himself.

    Donor Unknown: a sperm donor is tracked down by one of his numerous offspring, who rounds up some of her half-siblings to go and meet their biological father.

    As well as the word ‘unknown’ these films uncannily have several other things in common. Each is set in the US, but has a British director (like The Soloist); each is interesting for its topic but (unlike The Soloist) not very moving or memorable. I put this down to the inability of non-actors to play themselves in a convincing way.

    Another film worth comparing in this context is The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, directed by Werner Herzog; not of course a documentary but the tale of a true-life misfit. Hauser had been kept all his life confined in a dungeon alone, until his sudden release in a market square, bewildered and seemingly insane. Herzog chose a non-actor Bruno S. to play the part of Hauser: a very strange man born to a prostitute and subsequently locked in mental asylums for 23 years.

    Roger Ebert says “He can possibly play no role other than himself, but that is what Herzog needs him for. On the commentary track Herzog says he was vilified in Germany for taking advantage of an unfortunate, but if you study Bruno sympathetically you may see that, by his lights, he is taking advantage of Herzog.”

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  6. I might as well post another recommendation here: Michael Foley's Embracing the Ordinary – as quoted in the main piece above.

    And here's a question, dear friends: have you read anything by (the late) David Foster Wallace, especially Infinite Jest? I downloaded a Kindle sample and confess to being fascinated.

    I'm cautious because it seems to be an ultra-long novel about obsession by an obsessive (who ultimately committed suicide). On the other hand, there is this enticing vista:

    ‘He is fighting, fiercely and usually successfully, to capture the ineffable with the only weapon at our disposal, language.’

    –which is my own hobby: not to climb the literary heights and leave a permanent mark (vincent woz 'ere), but to see if it's true that the ineffable may actually be effed; and encourage perhaps one younger writer to go further than I could ever have hoped to go.

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  7. “All forms of madness, bizarre habits, awkwardness in society, general clumsiness, are justified in the person who creates good art.”

    ― Roman Payne, Rooftop Soliloquy

    (today's iGoogle literary quote)

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  8. Oh, I must subscribe to that igoogle service!

    Talking about bizarre habits, there's an excellent film I watched last night: Matchstick Men starring Nicholas Cage & Sam Rothwell, directed by Ridley Scott. Cage plays an agoraphobic compulsive obsessive. He's full of facial tics & grunts too. By profession he's a conman. He also has a 14-year old daughter that he meets for the first time. It's a tragicomedy.

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  9. Vincent, When The Soloist first came out, I wanted to see it, never did and forgot about it. Your review has brought it back to the forefront of my mind. I'll have to pick a day or evening when I'm in the mood to cry. Sometimes I avoid emotional movies until I'm ready. Lovely piece. I'm glad you didn't give up on it!

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  10. Yes, but here's the thing, Rebb. As I suggested, it doesn't do any fake pulling of the heartstrings, and with luck you won't cry at all. It goes deeper than that cheap trick.

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  11. Your post makes me unsure about whether this is an opus I would wish to see for 'enjoyment' at any particular level. Dramatic arts are there to tell a story, manipulate emotions and seduce us. We become the voyeurs of the author's, the director's and the cameraman's crafts, which will include colouration, discolouration, exaggerations and perhaps, for effect, some underplaying.

    Food for thought, indeed.

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  12. I remember enjoying this film very much a couple of years ago. Thanks for the reminder and your sensitive explanation.

    I loved Dirk Gently too: “Let's think the unthinkable, let's do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.”

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