Saturday, May 09, 2009

Must they all be troubled?

Tibor R. Machan

As millions of others, I too like going to the movies, renting them or catching them on cable, even regular TV. Not that I do this a lot--I also entertain myself with novels, non-fiction works, and my brand new iPod, with its about 15 thousand selections of nearly every kind of music. I even listen to some online music offerings, such as what is playing in the background just now, "Piano Jazz" from Lucky 7 Radio. And then there is all the traveling I do, during which I visit museums and galleries and book shops and such. I am fortunate in that much of what the world offers up for amusement, entertainment, study, and curiosity holds out for me a good deal that I welcome.

All this is to launch into a minor complaint. It is that so many movies about interesting people--notables, both fictional and historical--end up being downers. No, I have not done a scholarly study of this but it seems to me that a great deal of stuff offered up in the biopic category focuses on lamentable people or lives, even when they are quite interesting. I'll try to pick at random: Byrd, the movie that Clint Eastwood made of Charlie Parker. Yes, it has some incredibly good music but the story was such a dark one for me that I have never wanted to see it again. Even Ray, that musically riveting movie about Ray Charles, had simply too much in it that prevented one from feeling good about it. I supposed Beyond the Sea, about the life and music of Bobby Darin, could be regarded as positive, although I had a hard time keeping my mind off the fact that Darin, a very upbeat entertainer-singer, died so young.

The other day I went to see The Soloist, with the actors Robert Downey, Jr., and Jamie Foxx (whose depiction of Ray Charles was so superb). Downey played the LA Times columnist Steve Lopez and Foxx plays Nathaniel Ayers, a former violin prodigy who appears to have bouts with schizophrenia as the movie depicts it, based on the novel Lopez wrote of his experience with Ayers (both of who are actual persons living in Los Angeles).

Many thousands of people have mental problems but not all of them are (a) musically gifted and (b) living among thousands of homeless people in the most run down spot in Southern California. (Why no movie about Erroll Garner, with his absolutely upbeat piano style and not uninteresting though too short life?)

There is no doubt that the performances, by all the major players, were excellent. The story hung together well and the movie was very professionally made. So then what's the trouble?

Well, the book on which the movie is based was selected at my university as what incoming students are invited to read in preparation for the commencement of the university education. And as such, no less than as a matter of entertainment, The Soloist leaves a lot to be desired. The general inference a movie viewer is likely to take away from having seen the film is that something is very wrong with America, especially Southern California, for allowing within its midst a huge group of individuals who are mentally unstable and impoverished and uncared for, as well. The way we see Ayers' life unfold we get only little bits of his great talent and he satisfaction with the little use he can make of it. Instead the film focuses on all the horrors of his situation except for the fact that columnist Lopez manages to inject some measure of calm and even pleasure into Ayers' life.

I am doubly annoyed with The Soloist, the movie, because there is another book, a novel with the identical title, written by Mark Salzman who has several other good novels to his name, written about 15 years before Lopez wrote his book. It has a generally similar theme though by no means identical. Failed genius is the common denominator, as well as the operative instrument, a cello.

Salzman's novel, however, is by all accounts a more entertaining and intellectually challenging book--the topic of free choice in the midst of mental disturbance figures in it quite heavily, as well as some intercultural issues involved martial arts. I loved that book and recommended it to everyone who would listen to me about such matters and when I first heard of the movie The Soloist, my hopes were high that it would be based on Salzman's novel. Alas is isn't. And in the shadow of Salzman's work Lopez's turns out to be a not altogether subtle example of bourgeois America-bashing.

Well, thanks but no thanks for that. I am only sorry for the students who accepted the invitation and went away from the experience with bad feelings about their society.

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