Monday, April 27, 2009
At age 11, it was evident that Nathaniel Ayers had a special gift. Beethoven was his idol. The cello was his passion. He attended Julliard on a music scholarship. He was on the cusp of realizing his dream ...
In 2005, LA Times columnist Steve Lopez happened to encounter a middle-aged homeless man playing a violin with two strings. Intrigued, Lopez pulled out his recorder and started asking questions. The homeless man's name was Nathaniel Ayers. He had attended Julliard ...
Two separate worlds. We see a homeless person - a stinking, babbling, and potentially menacing annoyance that we cross the street to avoid. What we don't see is someone's precious son or daughter. Someone who may have attended school with us. Someone who may have been doing well in school, was dating, looking forward to college.
Someone not too different than you or me.
Then - out of nowhere - catastrophe. The brain quits, no longer cooperates. Someone's world - theirs - falls apart, disintegrates.
Same individual. Two worlds.
But in the just-released film "The Soloist," we also see two people from their respective separate worlds, seeking common ground. The movie stars Robert Downey Jr as Steve Lopez and Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers, based on the book of the same name.
Lopez' major problem in life seems to be racoons infesting his lawn. For Ayers, rats scuttling across the patch of sidewalk he rests his head on is a mere minor annoyance. Lopez tries to help. He uses a cello - with all its strings, you might say with strings attached - as bait to lure Ayers into a shelter on LA's notorious Skid Row.
Ayers responds positively to his new environment, but then worlds collide. Lopez naively assumes that Ayers can be helped simply by being medicated, but soon receives the education of his life. You see: Ayers may hear voices, he may have difficulty perceiving reality, he may have problems figuring his way around in our world. But to integrate him into our world, first one has to meet him on his own terms in his.
This is the essence of humanity. Appearances are deceiving. Strip away the surface stuff, strip away the preconceptions, strip away judgment and pre-judgment, and there stands a human being, proud, dignified.
There is Ayers - mighty, like a rock - telling Lopez in no uncertain terms where to get off with his paternalistic do-gooderism. The scene is highly disturbing. Ayers has successfully stood his ground - in his own world - but at what price?
This is not going to be one of those movies, we realize, where the person with severe mental illness gets a concert hall gig at the end (as in "Shine") or wins the Nobel Prize (as in "A Beautiful Mind"). This is all about scaled-down expectations and baby steps, and eventually Lopez wises up by embracing Ayers as his equal and by validating his reality.
For now, it is enough that Ayers is living indoors and off the streets and playing music. We may mourn a life lost and a dream shattered. But "The Soloist" forces us to come to terms with the fact that Ayers himself does not necessarily share that view.
We are learning, all of us.
Call it a conditional healing, an uneasy acceptance, the type of ambiguous conclusion that Hollywood notoriously refuses to trouble itself with. This time, it is different. I loved "Shine." I loved "A Beautiful Mind." But our understanding has come a long way since then. We have matured and so has Hollywood. An uplifting ending would have been a slap in the face to all of us. Hollywood has acknowledged this, and in so doing has met us on our own terms in our own world, the same world - it turns out - that we share with Nathaniel Ayers.
This is a terrific and complex movie, bound to stir both your passions and intellect in equal measure. Please - please - round up a crew of friends and head out to the cineplex.