Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Happy at the Movies

Last night I saw The Soloist, the movie based on Steve Lopez's book about his unlikely friendship with a gifted, homeless musician, Nathaniel Ayers. Lopez is a columnist for the L.A. Times, and he initially met Ayers while doing a column on him, which became many columns, and finally a book.

I approached this movie with no great expectations. In fact, I felt pretty cynical about it. I have seen countless movies about dedicated teachers going in to teach inner-city classrooms full of gang members, drug pushers, and kids who can't read at age 14, and by the end of the first semester these teachers have entire classrooms reforming their wicked ways, slavishly devoted to the teacher, and preparing for their SATs or tango competitions or journal publications or whatever. Having taught in two rough schools, I know it doesn't happen like that. I expected The Soloist to feed into those twin American myths: "We can fix anything if we care enough" and "Anyone can become anything if he makes up his mind to it."

I was wrong. The movie is far more honest than that. Lopez gives his all to trying to help Ayers, and he makes some small progress. But he cannot cure Ayers's schizophrenia; he can't even get him on the meds that Ayers refuses to take. He cannot restore Ayers's musical career, not even to the extent of one measly recital (Ayers trashes the stage). He cannot part him from his shopping cart of worthless junk or his weird clothing or his unpredictable rages. Without a trace of sentiment, Lopez -- and the movie -- accepts that good intentions and sincere efforts are sometimes not enough to substantially change a situation, although they may ameliorate it a small bit.

That's a startling admission for an American movie. Usually we want glorious redemption or else total nihilism. Instead we get here a gritty, somewhat weary acceptance. It's not a perfect movie by any means -- there are unnecessary subplots, and other problems -- but Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr., are both fabulous in their roles. So why have the reviews been so mixed? Is it possible that even though the film makers (including script writer Susanna Grant) were willing to accept the modest and mixed achievements of real life as worthy of a movie, reviewers are not? WOLVERINE, a stupid movie if there ever was one (yes, I saw it), is a box-office smash. What gives here?

4 comments:

S.M.D. said...

It's possible this is the product of the times. Folks might be more interested in movies that won't make them feel bad, because things are bad enough as it is. And with Wolverine and Star Trek out there, there is a lot in the way of escapism for folks. This is pretty typical of recessions, actually. We see a rise in sales in "escapist" literature (predominately fantasy and science fiction), and this could just be an extension of that.

The movie looked interesting, though, and I do want to see it.

Mike Flynn said...

One reviewer wrote:

For as it becomes clear that poor Mr Ayers is going to remain locked in his private mental world, so it also emerges that our sympathetic feelings are really owed to Steve Lopez, whose own bid for stardom comes in the guise of his sad story about how he has been unable to confer stardom on Nathaniel. ....

The main thing that happens to Steve is of course that, like both his schizophrenic protégé and the newspaper business that employs him, he suffers. Now there’s a surprise! He suffers from the film’s opening sequence when he falls off his bike and incurs superficial but picturesque injuries to his face, until the end, when he is forced to conclude that there is nothing he can do for Nathaniel apart from being his friend — which is cause enough, along with the suffering, for self-congratulation. When Steve first meets Nathaniel he notices how the homeless man has been scarred by his hard life on the streets, whereupon he points to the wounds on his face and says, "Me too." It’s a perfect summary, in miniature, of what the movie is about: the immense, and immensely self-satisfying, compassion of Mr Downey’s Steve all but crowds out of the picture the things he is supposed to be compassionate about.
I'm not sure but that I see the realism as being dominant: some people simply cannot be helped. But did you get any sense of the self-satisfaction the reviewer above seems to have been put off by?

Nancy Kress said...

Mike-- I can see your point. Steve Lopez can be seen as self-aggrandizing. However, his actions can also be seen as attempts, however clumsy, to establish common ground with Nathaniel. And for me the bottom line is that whatever Lopez's motives, he got involved and helped as much as he could. Motives do not have to be pure to do good.

Mike Flynn said...

Nancy:
I agree. Much may depend on the "camera's angle." Whose story was being celebrated - by which I mean, being made a celebrity? The vignette cited, in which the reporter points to the scars he got falling off his bike and claims that he too has suffered sounded a little like greeting a refugee from the Potato Famine by saying, "Yeah, I've been hungry, too." It can be seen as a genuine (if feeble) effort to connect or as a superficial gesture by which he feels good about himself for being so caring.

Much of criticism [and not just of movies] these days seems to be premised on why people do what they do, rather than on what they do; and in the process focusing on their motives (which are often obscure, even to themselves) rather than on their purposes (which may be intelligible).

It's the ambiguity that makes things interesting.