As I watched ‘The Soloist’, I am reminded of an excellent autobiography I read a long time ago, called ‘The Day The Voices Stopped’ by Ken Steele. It details the journey of a schizophrenic, who had auditory command hallucinations (basically, voices telling him to do something) when he was merely 14 years old. The links between the book and the film are similar, for ‘The Soloist’ also deals with similar grounds.
I am also reminded of how greedy Robert Downey Jr. seemed to be (its Korean release coincided with that of ‘Sherlock Holmes’), but I know full well how much power the actors themselves have in the release dates of their own films, so let that passing thought fleet its way away.
At least he wasn’t drenched in coyote urine for that one.
Directed by Joe Wright (he of ‘The Atonement’ fame), the film stars Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers, a musician who had the world at his fingertips until he developed schizophrenia and became homeless. Steve Lopez (Downey Jr.) is a journalist with the L.A. Times, who writes regular columns and is well-known and -respected for his work. He is, however, on the look out for a new story, when he found one almost by chance: Ayers, who managed to catch his attention with his two-string violin. He manages to obtain a cello for him, with which he soars and reaches new heights (watch the birds soaring during this bit, brilliant stuff). Just as things seems to be on the way up, Nathaniel’s schizophrenia pops up to haunt him time and again, testing and pushing his newfound friendship with Lopez.
There is one thing I’d like to get off my chest. I feel as if this is a movie that jumps out and starts banging on about a lot of things, but though it spends more time on other matters, I feel like starting with this first: the imagery and usage of the god concept. It permeates itself on several different levels. First of all, at certain points, it appears to be very direct. You can’t escape from it. Outside of the community centre that Lopez tries to make Ayers go to is boldly inscribed: “Wages of sin is death. But the gift of God is eternal life.” At the same time, you have the down, the out, and everyone spilling and milling their lives away directly outside of the centre. I suppose the fair thing is to note that such juxtaposed imagery is not just based on religion; later on, Lopez goes to look for Ayers, a worn-down American flag is clearly visible, flagging almost in submission to the scenes of the homeless looking for a place to sleep at for the night. “Land of the free, home of the brave,” it seems to be saying, “what say you now?”
Nevertheless, the concept of god is one that we shall return to, for now. As much as Lopez tries to deny it, Ayers places much importance in him, proclaiming him to be his own personal god. He goes so far as to deny the god offered to him by a music conductor, Graham Claydon (Tom Hollander), who also happens to be a devout Christian. When I say devout, I mean ‘Join Christianity, or you’re doomed!’ kind of devout. Needless to say, Ayers doesn’t take to this very well. Could this be a reaction to his earlier exaltation as a wonder child? “Do you know what I hear when you play your music?” said his mother when he was younger. “I hear the voice of God!”
In a way, we could say that is Lopez’s voice. At different points of the film including one near the start), he can be heard dictating his own article, at times almost in direct relation to the scene simultaneously shown. It hints at an all-knowing aspect of his personality, an aspect that is beyond the mere mortals who inhabit the world within the film. In a sense, it is a link to the fact that all writers (heck, all storytellers) are, in a way, playing god. We create the characters, we create the stories, we decide how the beginning, middle and end will be. That is a powerful thing to be in charge of, and while there are limits to what we can do (perhaps also to what we should do), there is an aspect of that kind of creation that can be intoxicating.
Speaking of writers, there’s also an interestingly strong focus on the plight of the media industry, specifically that of the printing press. It gets shoved in your face, directly, at certain parts of the film almost without respite: “I got a study here that says that the number of Americans who now reads newspapers are now under 40%. Jesus Christ!” “We’re at war! The only thing that sells papers is a Lindsay Lohan boob shot.” “Stock price sinks, we lose reporters. Stock price sinks more, we lose more reporters.” My favourite exchange on this front was when Lopez was being treated for his injuries, and the young specialist was fawning over him. “My dad’s gonna freak! He loves your column.” Sensing something, he smiled a little, and asked, “What about you?” Pause. “Well…” she started, before becoming more serious again. “I don’t really read newspapers.” There is another juxtaposition within this: despite the troubles that his newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, seems to be having, he seems to be living a fine life of a middle class person, with a nice house.
It is, in fact, such demands that led Lopez to chase after Ayers so vehemently and so doggedly. After all, as he himself says, “You got a deadline tomorrow. And a story of a guy not showing up is not a story.” You’d think that the whole thing had progressed to the point where…yeah, they could be friends. Nice, lovely little story…and then Ayers would turn up at Lopez’s office, started playing music, and Lopez would stop the whole show, looking somewhat embarrassed: “You can’t hang out here. It’s just…a…thing. You know?” I know I bang on a lot about filmmaking and telling stories, and how the two are linked, but I never meant it to be in that way, and I rarely meant for a person’s life to be just the subject, just the headline, just another column. It is this struggle that Lopez is supposedly fighting: is Ayers a friend, or is he just another story? How far can he go in trying to force him to do what’s right? For example, he decides that Ayers needs to be medicated and treated for his illness. However, David (Nelsan Ellis), the worker at the community centre, thinks otherwise: “I’ll tell you what he doesn’t need: one more person saying he needs medication.”
It leads me back to the Ken Steele book I mentioned earlier. Schizophrenia being what it is, it remains something that is difficult to truly define and thus treat. A normal medication method would work for some, but not others. “Caught up in the revolving door of the mental health system, I’d go round and round, without really getting anywhere at all,” Steele wrote. Ayers’s struggles against the voices in his head seems to have started from a young age, but beyond a few scenes of high dramatic tension, it is not as fully explored as I might have thought. That’s not to say that it isn’t effective, for, by the end of the film, you do get a fair view of his struggles, and the problems that comes along with it.
In the end, it’s difficult to properly put this film down into one mere category, if you’re looking at the subject matter. Perhaps it is a case of taking on too much to deal with within one single film. Nevertheless, it does reach high emotional heights at times, and it reminds me once again that when he’s not making mindless movies like ‘Stealth’, he can be quite good at making your heart bleed as a disabled person.
He should do this more often.
Fikri wants to get his hand on the film’s script.