Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Soloist: Channeling The Soul Of A Writer

There is a small group of people who shadow the streets of downtown Palo Alto. On Sunday mornings, one shuffles mind-numbingly slowly past the diner I've just left. Teeth missing, clothes clean but ill-fitting, he babbles in a barely-audible voice. I pass a woman who meekly asks for spare change, her wrinkled and flabby arm outstretched, styrofoam coffee cup held half-heartedly in her hand. I'm fairly certain they live in a nearby building. All of them seem to be suffering from one mental illness or another. Who are they? How did they get here? I often wonder. And, Am I really helping if I give them what they ask for?

I hadn't asked myself these questions in nearly a year, since the economy tanked and we stopped going out to eat on Sunday mornings. Now, I had begun to think about them in a whole new way.

With nervous breath, I approached the petite, graceful woman at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center to ask after the tickets being held in my name. It was a little late to worry that I'd forgotten to wear any jewelry or make-up. I hoped against hope that I wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb amongst the assembled cinemarati.

The theater was still largely empty. At the front were two chairs, off to the side, set there in anticipation of the Q&A after the film. It was like being at Sundance all over again. And Joe Wright, Director of Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, was in the building.

So I sat in the front row.

Because the Rafael Theater is one of only a handful of its kind operating as a not-for-profit, the theater directors often solicit donations from media companies in order to keep this lovely, down-town San Rafael treasure functioning in first-class fashion. Now in its tenth year of operation, the Rafael has hosted many special screenings and events like the one I was attending this evening. My darling friend Tammy Lelie works for TV5, a French TV station in Los Angeles, one of the media companies the Rafael targets. Tammy wasn't able to make it up to the Bay Area on a Monday night, so she RSVP'd in my name. Only, I was in no position to promise anyone anything. I'm just a lowly writer.

I was there to see The Soloist.

My brother, Mac, slid into the seat next to me. A handsome and gifted musician with an insight I've always trusted when it comes to the world of sound, he had his own reasons for wanting to be here. I grinned over at him. At least one of us looked like a movie star.

Joe Wright stepped onto the stage to explain the film, a few feet from where we sat.

For those of you who know nothing about the movie's subject, you'd do well to visit Steve Lopez's website. The man is a penetratingly inspired writer, an L.A. Times human-interest columnist and the author of the book on which the film is based. (Even better, buy the book.) On the face of it, the movie is about one homeless, schizophrenic musical genius--Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, brilliantly played by Oscar winner Jamie Foxx. Channeling Beethoven with his two-stringed violin to the accompaniment of the street sounds of Los Angeles, Ayers entrances Mr. Lopez (intimately portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr.), who ultimately befriends and tries to help him.

If you want more details or insight, you'll have to hang on. There will soon be countless reviews by experienced film critics and analysts. I am neither of those. I'm not here to tell you that the film was touching and inspiring, engaging and informative, well worth your precious time and money. (It is.) I was there to support Mr. Downey, a fellow Wing Chun student. I wanted to see him channel a writer's soul.

Though there are many layers to the story, it was the writer's journey that touched me, most. I've struggled for a lifetime with my own writing and found that the creative process of wordcraft is not a subject generally treated with any kind of realism or depth in movies. The booming assumption that the movie-goer is looking for pictures, for action, has drowned out the written experience within the medium. Yet Mr. Lopez and Oscar-winning screenwriter, Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), manage to convey the sense of dialogue between writer and readers that Lopez reaches for in his column pieces.

It was easy to become drawn into his life--its loneliness, its humor, and its drive. And drawn into his search for the universal truths that the best writers, front-page or obscure, humble or self-obsessed, may eventually discover. While the written word can become a conduit into the human soul, sometimes it takes actors like Mr. Downey to bring them to life, give them sonorous wings, emote them and make them as real as L.A. traffic. Yet, it is the words within the script that are the genetic material from which the story springs.

Tell the world and they will listen, Lopez says. Ask, and they will respond. We are each of us desperate for connection, for exchange. As folk societies give way to popular culture, we invent ways to create new communities, even as the old ones crumble around us. We feel a sense of belonging, of purpose, of gratification, when we know that we've helped one another. Lopez himself finds a renewal of purpose in the emotional journey into Ayer's life, fueled by the love/hate relationship between he and his ever-present estranged wife and Editor, played with well-seasoned tenderness by Catherine Keener. (Many liberties were taken with this particular character, in the name of both story arc and privacy. The real Mrs. Lopez was not his boss, nor were they ever estranged, as far as I was able to discover.)

Imagery of Los Angeles from a distance punctuated the film. Such scenery usually pulls me out of the moment, as it generally serves up a feeling of alienation and anonymity. In this particular case, however, the pull-backs were done in such a way that I felt the interconnectedness of every element of the city, from a single pigeon to the interwoven tapestry of streets and highways and the buildings set between them. The form and function of a complex whole, the sprawled body of the city, relies on each person like my own body relies on its cells to survive.

As writers, we often wonder, Who is out there? Are they hearing me? Am I merely keeping myself occupied, putting food on the table? Or am I making a substantive difference? Having only just begun my public entry back into the written medium, I felt relief to know that words can indeed form connections like those Mr. Lopez has made between people who will likely never meet outside of his column. With hard work and a dose of courage, I can only hope that someday I will make that same sort of difference.

Lopez's journey begins amidst the backdrop of layoffs at the L.A. Times. At the end-of-film Q&A, one audience member asked the Director whether he decried the demise of print media that made such layoffs necessary. Mr. Wright responded that print could never completely disappear, but he "fear[ed] that less and less money will be spent on investigative reporters...searching the darker corners and not coming up with anything for years and years--until they discover Watergate."

I believe very deeply in the need for pioneers of all sorts. I am not brave. I am not willing to risk much when it comes to bodily safety. And I know I'm not alone. I need people like Steve Lopez in my life, people who can explore the cracks and shadowed corners of the world and come back with treasures to share. Stories of the human spirit, faded but glittering, magical in their uniqueness, and redemptive in their sharing.

Ultimately, the message is that each of us is our own person, no matter how flawed. I'm sorry. Did you hear that? Let me repeat: No matter how flawed.

Lopez eventually discovers what Ayers and many of the authentic cast themselves deeply understand: that no one has the right, nor, I daresay, the ability to change another. It must come from within--or not at all. The dignity and humanity of each and every human being, regardless of their mental state, is inalienable. The best we can do is foster the good in one another and be there for whatever lies in store.

In the filmmaking tradition of British Realism, well established in places like India, Mr. Wright drew twenty cast members from the Lamp Community facility that is shown in the film. All diagnosed with mental illness, "The Lamp Chorus", as Wright referred to them, spent four months in workshops before rehearsals began and worked closely with both principal actors and the Director throughout the film. Wright commented on the many misconceptions surrounding mental illness and homelessness, especially amongst the lawyers involved in the project. They generally felt, according to Wright, "that mental illness equals mental stupidity." And yet, he said, "These people understood better than the lawyers what sort of film we were making." One person apparently went so far as to claim that the Lamp Chorus members should be replaced with professional actors because "it was morally reprehensible to reward these people for the choices they had made."

As a body, the audience gasped at such a comment. Yet I wondered how far many of them would carry their new understanding after the film was over. How will I see those same people wandering town on Sunday mornings? How will the practical application of this new insight take shape?

Mr. Wright discussed at length his concern over the general agreement that medication will "cure" the mentally ill, without the understanding of what those medications do and how they alter not just one's state of mind, but one's entire personality. In one scene, a member of the Lamp Chorus explains in her own words why she wrestles with taking the Lithium prescribed to her. It takes away the voices in her head, she says--voices that comfort her and help her feel safe. As Lopez tries to find a way to put Ayers on medication that he feels would help his friend, he slowly comes to realize that medications aren't the only, or even the right, answer. While I personally do believe that medications are warranted in some cases, there needs to be a more realistic assessment of every individual. For Mr. Ayers, there is no cure--only a dignified acceptance of who he is.

Foxx's portrayal of Ayers is absorbing and humanizing, all the more so because he spent time both clandestinely observing and conversing face-to-face with the real Mr. Ayers, who often played throughout the day on the streets of Los Angeles, not far from where filming was taking place. Jamie Foxx has a strong classical training in piano, and is himself a gifted musical performer--learning to play the cello for The Soloist was not a difficult a stretch. He also claims to have had a childhood fear of mental illness, exacerbated by a college prank in which someone apparently slipped him a drug that caused him to believe he had indeed gone mad. The experience has enabled him to deeply tap into some of the same feelings and fears Ayers nearly drowns in.

Joe Wright's next film, Indian Summer, begins production next January. It's subject matter? The partition of India and Pakistan. Just a fluff piece, he jokes, at the audience's audible reaction. "I was wanting to learn something."

I stepped out of the Aroma coffee shop next door to the Rafael, still affected by the images and events of The Soloist. I was thinking about that man on the streets of Palo Alto. It's not my job to fix him. But it is my responsibility to respect him. He is as worthy as any of us. And he doesn't need a musical instrument to prove it.

We forget, sometimes, that it's okay to be ourselves. The rest of the world be damned. Write the words or play the cello or run the race that is yours to run. The world will catch on when its ready.

Note: All rights to the photo above are reserved by their respective owners. No copyright infringement intended.

This is an original post. When she isn't following Steve Lopez on Twitter, Angela also writes for the Silicon Valley Mom's Blog, Basic Training To Black Sash: A Mother's Wing Chun Journey, and her Twitter followers.


  1. I totally enjoyed everything you wrote here. I wish there was a way I could write to you privately? I read some of your older blogs and subscribed. I think I did this anyway. I do have a question... did you like the movie? I could not quite tell from what you wrote. I know you were not writing a review but I am curious. I have been looking forward to it for a long time. I am a long time Downey fan. I even visited the Wing Chun studio once on a vacation just to see where Mr.Downey spent such an important part of his time. If I lived closer I would enroll too but live too far away. I also grew up in LA and have a love for this city that does not make a lot of sense. I love the old parts of the city that are mostly gone now. Anyway.. I do thank you. Really enjoyed your words. Take care..

  2. [The following post is in multiple parts because it's so darn long.]
    Thank you so much for your comment and subscription. I did indeed love the movie. I'd highly recommend that you read the book, as well. I hadn't read it when I saw the film, but even just a few chapters in, I was astounded to discover how well Susannah Grant crafted the script, and Joe Wright directed it, to include a myriad of details and scenes that fit the original story. No script can exactly match a book--there just isn't enough time in that 2-hour window to cram it all in--but if the screenwriter and filmmaker can give the audience a sense of that same imagery, I'd consider it a successful project. The book and the movie aren't exactly the same, and that's okay. A quarter of the way through the book, I'm as hooked as I was on the film. Both storylines are well-constructed. Everything builds and takes time to reveal, but it's all there. Wait for it.


  3. From interviews I've heard, I understand that Mr. Downey gets to know every word of a script backward, forward, and inside out, until he can deliver those words as though they were shaped in his head at the very moment someone calls, "Action..." An admirable trait for an actor, to be sure. Yet he can, at times, deliver voice-over lines with a rapidity and downward-ranging tone that makes them hard to follow, depending on the sort of character he's portraying (Harry Lockhart from Shane Black's "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang", for example). Of course, Harry spends most of the movie ranging emotionally from nervous to completely freaked out, so it fits his personality. In the Soloist, Downey's vocals during voice-overs are low and intimate, yet slow enough to absorb each of Steve Lopez's words. When you're able to compare the book and the movie, this will make more sense. Try reading some of Lopez's articles from his website, linked to his name in the text of my original post.

    Definitely go see the movie. As a fan, you won't be disappointed. Pay attention to the messages--there are many and all of them are worth listening to. If you love Los Angeles, this film may be fuel for that fire, or may dowse it, depending on how willing you are to embrace its dirty realities. You sound rather like the stoking type. *grin*

    All the best--and I hope you can find a Wing Chun school near you. It's a great martial art.

    All The Best, A.O.


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