'The Soloist': an extraordinary duet

The movie, a sentimental cheapening, grows out of a remarkable book about a columnist's encounter with the almost-intractable problems of a homeless drifter/musician, and the healing power of friendship.

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Skip the movie, but read the book

The movie, a sentimental cheapening, grows out of a remarkable book about a columnist's encounter with the almost-intractable problems of a homeless drifter/musician, and the healing power of friendship.

In the mid-1970s Nathaniel Anthony Ayers was a distinguished student at New York's prestigious Juilliard School of Music when the sudden onset of paranoid schizophrenia forced him to drop out. Being one of the few young, gifted, and black musicians accepted to Juilliard in those days had been a superlative achievement, but once his illness struck, his life raced downhill.

Thirty years later Los Angeles Times' columnist Steve Lopez met Ayers wandering the city’s mean streets, untreated and homeless, playing a battered violin with only two strings. Lopez wrote a column about Ayers that became so popular it grew into a series. The columns became the basis of The Soloist, a book about a remarkable relationship that developed between these two men.

The book’s subtitle, "A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music," suggests a sentimentality that the book successfully evades but that the film exploits. The theme is dear to the American heart: If opposites can be brought together in buddy-movie intimacy — haves with have-nots, black people with white, the safe but soul-numbing routines of “normal” life with the cockeyed syncopations of renegade genius — what once was lost can be found and redeemed.

Yet the book’s trajectory isn’t toward redemption. For almost two years Lopez and several mental health professionals, along with L.A. Philharmonic staff and musicians (who offer their time and talents with stunning patience and sweetness), provide Ayers with generous help. But he remains untreated, in a life almost as precarious as when Lopez first saw him on the filthy sidewalk of a highway tunnel playing a piece by Beethoven into the blare of noonday L.A. traffic, his grocery cart overflowing with fiercely defended detritus.

The honesty of Lopez’s book is wonderful. Throughout, he lets us watch him employ reason, logic, mainstream values, and righteous indignation to try to move Ayers, whose reason, logic, values, and indignation zing around in a not-quite-parallel world, toward what denizens of Lopez’s world would probably call a better life. And throughout, we see the author run splat! into the stone wall of Ayers’ “miraculous,” “mixed-up,” “beguiling,” “maddening” mind.

Eventually Lopez breaks through (not the stone wall, but himself) to a new understanding. It’s like the Zen student achieving enlightenment by head-banging against the absurdity of a koan or riddle set by the master. In Lopez’s case instead of the classic What’s the sound of one hand clapping? the koan might resemble one of the questions he ponders throughout the story. For example, “What’s more humane,…to respect someone’s civil liberties to the point of allowing them to wither away on the street, or to intercede in the interest of their own welfare?”

The narrative tacks between these conflicting theories of how best to treat people with incurable mental illnesses. During the era when Ronald Reagan first began closing the nation’s biggest mental hospitals, American laws began prohibiting involuntary hospitalizations unless ill people presented an immediate danger to themselves or others. The thousands of outpatient clinics that were promised to replace the big asylums never materialized, and the sorry consequences are plain to see in the street populations of L.A.’s Skid Row, of Seattle’s downtown Yesler neighborhood — of certain areas in every major American city. Today’s arguments about appropriate responses to this predicament are vividly dramatized by Lopez’s conversations with individuals on opposing sides.

Advocates of enforced treatment argue that the laws must be modified. Diagnoses of serious psychiatric disorders should be followed by appropriate medications and other medical procedures, if necessary administered by force in safe seclusion. With proper treatment someone like Ayers might eventually be moved off the streets into a place of his own that would give him permanent protection from the perils of a homeless life. If, for example, treatment made Ayers amenable to occupying the studio apartment Lopez secured for him with the help of a nonprofit agency, he could be kept in line by visits from clinicians. He could play all the music he wanted while safeguarding the valuable cello and violin (several stringed instruments, actually) sent him by readers of Lopez’s newspaper columns.

Other experts insist that involuntary treatment sparks a resistance that drives many people right off their meds once they’re stabilized enough to live on their own. Far better is a “recovery” model based on warm relationships with other human beings. Lopez explains: “If Nathaniel is going to get better, it won’t be because of a correct diagnosis and textbook treatment program, but because he develops enough trust in me and others to pursue his own recovery.”

Each person with a mental illness needs to feel a sense of belonging among people who will back up his efforts to manage his own symptoms, says the recovery model. Strategies of assistance are gradual, “luring people in off the streets and housing them in places with all the necessary supportive services, like counseling and job training.” With a sense of self-control, competence, and autonomy nurtured by the recovery process, Ayers might even embark on becoming the music therapist he says he wants to be.

The treatment debate in the book is as gripping as the mercurial relationship between Lopez and Ayers. But whichever side you’re on, the simple medicalized model of mental illness clearly seems deficient. Adding chemicals isn’t the only way of adjusting someone’s brain chemistry, and recent news about scientific studies of friendship’s biochemical benefits indicate that mental health is as chemically based as mental illness. Ayers’ doctors told Lopez that he actually changed Ayers’ chemistry by being his friend.

Lopez has remained Ayers’ faithful if sometimes frustrated companion, regularly making time to watch as Ayers takes two small steps forward and one (or sometimes three) back again. How did he fulfill this responsibility when he also has a beloved wife and toddler daughter as well as a full-time job? It seems miraculous to the author himself that he managed to muster the time, effort, and endurance required for building a relationship with someone living in the chaotic private universe of a broken mind.

Another question arises about the kinds of generalizations we can make, based on what Lopez did. Can your typical pragmatic, results-oriented American build a personal commitment to a rather strange stranger, when recovery isn’t linear and companionship, though palliative over time, isn’t a cure? Lopez offers his ongoing struggles instead of final answers, but the story opens spaces in which his questions can help us all be more fully human.

The movie based on this lovely book betrays its themes and spirit. In the book Lopez writes with a confessed beginner’s unadorned appreciation of the classical music that Ayers helps him enjoy for the first time in his life. But the film tarts up a Beethoven concert by splashing cheap light shows on the screen. In the book a cellist from the L.A. Philharmonic tells Ayers the intuitively perfect thing to keep him in his strange new apartment for a cello lesson when he suddenly decides to head for the noisy tunnel that’s his more familiar music venue: “’Think of this as a clean, quiet tunnel,” says the cellist. But the film’s musician-mentor is a dope whose blunders send Ayers spiraling into a sensational psychotic episode on stage.

Even worse, the film reinforces invidious stereotypes of mental illness in order to punch up the action with a little testosterone. In the book Ayers’ violence — as when he turns in fury on Lopez — is distressing but strictly verbal. In the film he physically attacks and nearly strangles his friend, which makes the theme of walking the path toward recovery with a person suffering from paranoid schizophrenia look stupid and dangerous.

Finally, the film is as sentimental as it is sensational. Among other things it pimps the wishful American "hidden-genius" myth by implying that a small fraction of our throwaway people (the special ones with talent asleep under the filth and frenzy) might be worth rescuing. This subverts the ideal of helping down-and-outers who, like the rest of us, are merely average.

Through engaging with Ayers, Lopez discovers enormous holes in systems set up to help homeless people afflicted by psychiatric disorders. But the wisdom he learns isn’t a set of conclusions about reform. His learning comes from being in a relationship that boggles his mind. It’s as if a Type-A guy had been assigned a koan like "What’s the thing to be done by not doing?"

Lopez finds that the thing to be done is to sit down regularly with one of his most vulnerable, challenging neighbors. The thing for not doing is trying to solve his neighbor’s problems or change his life. What Lopez does for someone cut off from ordinary society by mental illness also turns out to be his own best defense against cynical despair about this wealthy nation’s failure to protect its vulnerable citizens.

Lopez is a good writer who deserves to have the last word about his friend: “I’ve learned to accept him as he is, to expect constant backsliding, to prepare for the possibility that he could be homeless again or worse, and to see hope in small steps…. I can’t save him and I don’t have to keep trying, nor do I need to be anything other than his friend.” All things considered, Lopez concludes, “this man I hoped to save has done as much for me as I have for him.”


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