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Reflections on the Film The Soloist and Its L.A. Setting

Walter G. Moss: One important reflection the film left me with was how difficult it is to deal with someone who is irrational or whose mental world is very different than ours.

As a result of Netflix and Amazon Prime (AP) subscriptions, we (my wife, Nancy, and I) frequently view excellent older films. One such we just watched was AP’s The Soloist (2009). It featured Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., and Catherine Keener. Because of its L.A. setting and three main reflections it sparked, I thought the following might be of interest to Hollywood Progressive readers.

The Soloist

The chief L.A. landscape we see are the highways and streets; the Los Angeles Times office where journalist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) and his ex-wife and editor Mary Weston (Catherine Keener) work; the LAMP Community Center, which along with Lopez aids homeless schizophrenic musician (playing primarily the violin and cello) Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx); the apartment that Ayers moves into; Pershing Square Park (with its statue of Ayers’ favorite composer, Beethoven); and the Disney Concert Hall. At the end of the film, we are told that there are “90,000 homeless people on the streets of Greater Los Angeles.” (However, an official report, the 2009 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, lists “the homeless population of Los Angeles County on a given day” as 48,053 people.)

The film itself is based on Lopez’s A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music (2008)—more on that title later. Lopez is still writing for the Los Angeles Times, and he is still concerned about the homeless. At the end of last year he wrote an update on his friend Ayers entitled “For all his setbacks, he still finds hope and sanity in the music.” And earlier this year, the paper ran his “L.A. homeless crisis grows despite political promises, many speeches and millions of dollars. How do we fix this?” It dealt with those “living under freeways, alongside riverbeds and on canyon hillsides. . . . the mentally ill, the drug addicts, the economically disadvantaged, many with their life belongings in a backpack or shopping cart.” Lopez bemoaned the reality that despite all kinds of talk and efforts since 2006, when “local leaders dramatically unveiled a plan to end homelessness in 10 years,” not much progress has been made, and he estimated the number of homeless in Greater L.A. at about 58,000.

One important reflection the film left me with was how difficult it is to deal with someone who is irrational or whose mental world is very different than ours.

One important reflection the film left me with was how difficult it is to deal with someone who is irrational or whose mental world is very different than ours. In this case it is Lopez’s attempt to help the schizophrenic Ayers. Although Ayers is at first primarily a personality to write about in his newspaper, Lopez comes genuinely to care for him and try to help him. But when he attempts, for example, to persuade his new friend to move into an apartment, Ayers at first resists him. On another occasion, the musician also unreasonably lashes out at Lopez when the journalist is simply trying to help him. Lopez is also frustrated by Ayers’ refusal to take medication for his disorder.

Ayers’ schizophrenia is well demonstrated on several occasions when he hears a multitude of imagined cacophonous voices that frighten him. In reviewing the film, a blog of the British Royal College of Psychiatrists states that it “offers a tremendous opportunity to examine a number of very important issues in the long-term management of schizophrenia. The film gives us a good example of the effect the illness can have on the words, thoughts, perceptions and behaviour of sufferers and highlights the fluctuations that occur naturally in the disorder. It also raises the topic of treatment and the individual’s right to choose whether or not to take medication.”

The problem Lopez has in relating to Ayers and trying to aid him is that a rational discussion of Ayers’ options and the best way to manage his disease is most difficult because Ayers often does not operate on a rational level, primarily because of his schizophrenia. But the problem of dealing with others who cannot or will not act rationally—at least from the observing individual’s perspective—is all around us.

Whether one is dealing with someone like Ayers or anyone else who has a disorder that interferes with rational thinking (for example, autism or Alzheimer’s), rational dialogue and problem-solving may be impeded. Moreover, because of gender differences, two people may have difficulty communicating and understanding each other, a point well made in the decades-old, popular book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.

Different cultural traditions, say between those of China and the United States, can also make rational dialogue more difficult. Even subcultural differences (e.g., between an American evangelical and an atheist) can hinder communication. And most of us operate in various subcultures. For me, throughout most of most my adult life, I have been part of an academic subculture, but I also spent a few years in a military subculture. Many people are influenced by the business subculture in which they work. When I was young, I remember my blue-collar dad speaking scornfully of men who “did not get their hands dirty.” All cultures and subcultures influence the ways we think and our biases.

So too does our political orientation. In 2010, at a Labor Day speech in Milwaukee, President Obama, said: “When it comes to just about everything we've done to strengthen our middle class, to rebuild our economy, almost every Republican in Congress says, no. Even on things we usually agree on, they say, no. If I said the sky was blue, they'd say, no. If I said fish live in the sea, they'd say, no.” Of course, Obama may have been exaggerating a bit, but there is no doubt that our political stance influences how we view reality.

The Soloist
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But it is not just mental disorders, gender, culture, and politics that influence our willingness to be rational, it is also affected by our very human makeup. In The Righteous Mind social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that people are more intuitive than rational. The reasons they give for their opinions and actions are usually not the causes of them but rather justifications and rationalizations formed after they intuitively decide them.

Given all these barriers to rational dialogue and decision-making, how can we ever act jointly for the common good, whether it is a small unit like a family or a larger one like a nation-state? In The Soloist the director of the LAMP Community that aids Ayers, David Carter (Nelsan Ellis), convinces Lopez that his friendship with Ayers is more important than trying to coerce him into taking medication. And such means as friendship, love, humility, empathy, and compromise offer us the best means of working together with others, whether on a small or large scale. Such virtues will help us curtail our biases and be more open, rational, and loving toward others.

In Lopez’s case not only friendship but empathy is especially important. In Barack Obama’s pre-presidential The Audacity of Hope, he wrote that empathy is a quality “that I find myself appreciating more and more as I get older. It is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule—not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes.”

For Lopez or any of us who live comfortable lives in nice homes it takes considerable empathy to see life the way a homeless person does, especially if he also schizophrenic and racially different than us. Empathy is even important in understanding someone we consider an enemy.

In A Sense of the Enemy (2014), historian Zachary Shore writes of “strategic empathy,” and defines it as “the skill of stepping out of our own heads and into the minds of others. It is what allows us to pinpoint what truly drives and constrains the other side. Unlike stereotypes, which lump people into simplistic categories, strategic empathy distinguishes what is unique about individuals and their situation.”

A second reflection that The Soloist awoke in me was the importance of social workers like the film’s David Carter and others working at the LAMP Community. The average social worker earns $44,553 a year, a ridiculously low amount compared to many in our capitalist society who perform less exhausting and worthwhile labor. While most of us deal with less troubled people, many social workers have to grapple with those who have multiple serious problems that are not easily remedied.

My final reflection gets back to part of the title of Lopez’s book, “the Redemptive Power of Music.” There is one scene in the film where Lopez brings a cello to Ayers, who begins playing it on a sidewalk as cars whiz by on the street and pigeons fly about—as Ayers says at one point, he enjoys playing where he does because he can hear the pigeons clap. As he plays Beethoven's String Quartet No.15, 3rd movement, and the cars rush by oblivious to the beautiful music, I thought of how often we all ignore the beauty all around us as we rush around in our busy lives—recently as Nancy and I have walked on a park trail, we have also observed how many people seem to be ignoring nature’s beauty as they stare at their cellphones while they walk.

I was also reminded of the recollection of a woman in Leningrad during the World-War-2-900-day Nazi siege of that city that would take about a million lives. She recalled being in a bomb-shelter that echoed with German bombs exploding outside and how an old man got out his violin and played a beautiful melody. She thought that the terror people had been feeling lost its grip, replaced by an “extraordinary sense of belonging.” (I have written much more about the importance of such transcendent moments here.)

Although much of my enjoyment of The Soloist came from reflecting on its content, the actors and director also deserve praise. As Ayers, Jamie Foxx is again outstanding as he was as Ray Charles in Ray (2004), for which he received an Oscar. As Lopez, Downey is also excellent, just as he was in Chaplin and many other films. The rest of the cast, including many extras played by actual homeless people, also contribute to the movie’s realistic setting and overall effectiveness.

As he has done in other first-rate films such as Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and Darkest Hour, British-born director Joe Wright again displays why he is one of filmdom’s most distinguished directors. In summary, The Soloist provides much enjoyment and plenty to contemplate.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss