Chords and Discords

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“The Soloist” begins in the way that “State of Play” ends: opening credits roll as newspapers are printed, bundled, and delivered. The papers are a blur of color as they whiz through the machinery, a tribute to the press- men who invented the processes that have sped up delivery of the news. It isn’t so very long ago that letters were fished individually from the upper and lower cases of a printer’s workshop and set individually into pages that were inked and pressed onto newsprint. Not long from now, newsprint itself may be obsolete. From town criers to internet bloggers, the process of telling stories has changed, but the desire to hear those stories has not changed. What we all want is to hear a good story.

There’s a difference between a reporter and a columnist. The reporter investigates, follows the leads, checks the facts, and presents the story in as unbiased a manner as possible. At least, that’s the goal. A columnist, on the other hand, wants to engage the reader’s emotions with stories that incite humor, outrage, joy, or pathos. The columnist is always on the lookout for human interest stories that can be turned into 700 words for a weekly column.

Steve Lopez is such a columnist for the L.A. Times. He writes a weekly column entitled “Points West.” A couple of years ago, while experiencing a particularly dry point in his career, he happened to hear the strains of a violin in a park. Following the sounds, he met a homeless man with two strings on his violin and multiple voices in his head. Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, Jr., turned out to be a former Julliard virtuoso who dropped out when the voices in his head made it impossible for him to continue in school.

Lopez wrote an article about the man, and a friendship developed. The friendship became a series of articles, the articles became a book, and the book became a movie starring two of the finest and most versatile actors in Hollywood today: Jamie Foxx as the schizophrenic musician and Robert Downey, Jr., as the columnist with a heart. The result is an earnest and powerful look at mental illness, homelessness, journalism, and the transformative power of both music and friendship.

The film aspires to be an Oscar con- tender, and this is certainly the type of film that the Academy favors. But occasionally director Joe Wright tries a little too hard, as, for example, when he gets his actors to step on each other’s snappy dialogue during scenes in the newspaper office. Director Robert Altman perfected this natural style of delivery, and many directors have tried to imitate it. Altman’s characters speak naturally, listening to one another and jumping in, as we do in a two-way conversation, when we catch the gist of what the other person is saying, and then stopping when the other person does the same to us.

But the problem with this film is that the actors don’t wait for the “gist.” They interrupt each other during important points of dialogue, listening for their cues but not really listening to each other, and consequently not allowing the audience to listen either. Instead of feeling natural, this is merely annoying. Fortunately, there are few scenes in the newspaper office; and outside, where Foxx and Downey interact with each other, the scenes are close to brilliant.

One of the most difficult challenges in making a movie like this is how to portray schizophrenia from the inside, showing the audience what, in this case, Ayers actually feels, not merely what Lopez sees. Wright shows it in a variety of ways, through the use of kaleidoscopic color, grainy photography, soaring music, and especially through skillful use of the theater’s sound system, isolating and overlapping the voices in Ayers’ mind so they come at us from the left, the right, behind, and in front, projecting the confusion and panic Ayers feels.

He also demonstrates the euphoria Ayers experiences when he is play- ing or listening to music. While playing Beethoven under a highway overpass on a cello donated to him by one of Lopez’s readers, Ayers sees psychedelic music in his mind. Pigeons begin flapping; images from GoogleEarth demonstrate the infinite eye of God; a full orchestra joins the soundtrack, and as the music crescendos, the birds fly up. I couldn’t help thinking of the scripture and hymn, “He will raise you up on eagle’s wings.” Ayers has said that Beethoven is his God; fittingly, his music soars on wings. Later, Lopez tells his editor and ex-wife, “I’ve never loved anything the way he loves music.”

A third way in which Wright demonstrates the experience of mental illness is by using non-actors to portray the hundreds of mentally ill people who live on the streets of L.A. Using cello and music lessons as bait, Lopez lures Ayers to the LAMP Community, a nonprofit homeless center and health facility in L.A.’s skid row, a place that Lopez describes as “a lost colony of broken, hopeless souls.” (LAMP is a real organization that provides permanent housing and basic services for people with severe mental illness, no strings attached. I hope the movie leads to a well-deserved boost in donations.)

In a scene that is pure documentary, Wright pans the LAMP plaza, focusing on several non-actor residents. One of them, a woman, explains repeatedly to whoever will listen, “Lithium stops the voices. The voices comfort me. If you stop the voices you stop the comfort. Lithium stops the voices.” Some of the most intense scenes of the movie occur as Lopez moves through the crowded streets and plazas of LA’s skid row, try- ing to look brave and nonchalant but clearly moved by the conditions he sees, and never knowing whether he is safe.

Lopez cares about the gifted but troubled musician he has befriended. He wants to help him live a safer life by moving him off the streets and into an apartment. He urges LAMP’s director to prescribe medications that will ease the schizophrenia and allow Ayers to return to a more normal life. “Just two weeks,” he pleads. “What if two weeks of meds could change him?” But the director barks back, “What he doesn’t need is one more person telling him he needs medication! What he needs is a friend. Don’t betray that.”

Lopez’s columns about Ayers and LAMP eventually reach City HalL In a voiceover from one of the columns he intones, “Every now and then the hearts, minds, and wallets of the people open at one time,” as Mayor Villaraigosa pledges to spend $50 million to help people on skid row. Lopez exults, but I groaned. Yet again the press promotes a public solution to replace a private one.

Several scenes later, the police arrive and begin arresting hordes of previously peaceful street residents for such crimes as “possession of a shopping cart” or “possession of a milk crate.” That’s one way to clean up an area, but I don’t think it’s what Lopez had in mind when he suggested that these people needed some help. Score one for the filmmakers after all.

When everything has been said and done, Lopez acknowledges that there are no easy answers. He wanted Ayers to exorcise the demons in his head, play with a symphony, sleep on a bed, live in a room with a roof and a door- in short, be like “everyone else.” What Lopez learns is that some things can’t, and maybe even shouldn’t, be fixed.

But they can be transcended. “The simple act of being someone’s friend can change his brain chemistry,” Lopez reports. Today Ayers is living a safer, and apparently happier, life. In the end, Lopez tells us, “Loyalty will carry you home.”

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