Friday, August 3, 2012

Madness on Celluloid: The Bold Experiment of Joe Wright's “The Soloist”

Cover of the movie "The Soloist"

The Soloist (2009) by Joe Wright is one of those rare feats that give us a glimpse of the inner workings of a fractured and fragmented mind. It approaches the same mental illness as portrayed in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, but its ambitions are much loftier. 

I found Howard's film to be too neatly packaged for its disconsolate subject matter. According to some accounts the main character of John Nash, played aptly by Russell Crowe, was overall presented in a more favorable light as was the case in real life. In addition, the final twist seems added more for special effect and satisfaction of the viewer, while being less focused on and losing track of the continuous agony and mental anguish of its main character, i. e. real-life person.

In Wright's depiction of schizophrenia, there is no twist to speak of and the loose ends - sorry for the upcoming minor spoiler - do not come together in a “satisfying” manner. While both of these movies are based on true stories, A Beautiful Mind is a more Hollywoodized, a more hygienic and homogenous version of its topic. 

On the other hand, The Soloist is less satisfying as a movie experience because of its more direct and less filtered access of the main character's perturbed mind. (To see an even less Hollywoodized, more direct, original and bewildering account, see Cronenberg's schizophrenic tale “Spider,” which I found hard to sit through and follow.)

The experience of watching The Soloist can be compared to a transitory drug experience where reality falls apart; we end up in a twisted corner of our mind where rhyme and reason have long exited through the back door. Generally, our logic binds our experiences together and selects what to believe and act upon and what to dismiss as pure fantasy; yet in the case of certain mental illnesses, that faculty seems blocked leading to confusion about reality.

I do not think that the plot in The Soloist is particularly relevant here and one can see the movie as an advocacy for the mentally ill and the homeless urging us to give at least a little sympathy and compassion - if not help and respect - to these people. The movie intends to give us a personal glimpse into and a first-hand account of the madness of its protagonist, which is revealed not through a sentimental story line but through its peculiar style of film-making.

The jump cuts and the convergence of disparate sound elements, the sources of which seem at times unclear and perplexing, all add up to a dizzying confusion. The only other movie that made me feel this way was Steven Soderbergh's brilliant The Limey where people would talk but their lips would not move, for example. The stylistic purpose there was merely meant as an experiment in the medium of film, whereas in Wright's hands they serve as a more symbolic representation of the character's suffering.

In other words, we are invited to partake of the madness. It is not all that bad as madness and genius are no strangers to each other. Our musician is obsessed with Beethoven, but he feels music the way we may at best feel only on rare occasions. Again to build upon our drug metaphor, according to LSD experiences certain people claim to “see” music. I remember reading that one person “entered” the architecture of Bach's musical construction (Luckily, he did not get lost and eventually found his way out thanks to Bach's mathematical precision).

There are fascinating visuals when we get to listen (in) and feel the music the way its protagonist does, high-soaring shots mixed with laser light effects. It is the closest the medium of film can get in expressing this type of experience.

At times, we may wonder whether this man “should” ever take medication; however, the movie shows us also the debilitating pain and bewilderment that the disease brings with it. For one, it destroyed the chances of this talented musician to ever reach the heights he ought to. At the same time, why should success be measured in material terms and whether he plays his music in a concert hall or in a back alley makes little difference to his pleasure and enjoyment of it.

Compare this situation to another film that shows a troubled musician, namely the Australian film Shine. Its protagonist managed to pull his fragmented self together giving the viewer an uplifting sense of closure. At the same time, the character's main issue was with his strict and unrelenting father and his mental problem was something that did not seem to put him or others in imminent danger. For the most part, I must confess it was rather funny to see Helfgott run around naked or to follow the babble of his mumbled jargon.

However, there are sudden and surprising shifts of mood in The Soloist. For example, the main character knocks down his friend in a fit of anger threatening to open up his guts like a fish. Such sudden outbursts of violence undermine the cheerfulness we may have experimented in Shine, for example.

All in all, of the various movies discussed here, The Soloist is the most realistic although least satisfying one to watch (with the exception of Spider, of course). This movie may have flopped in people's (and surprisingly enough critics') eyes because it was a little too close for comfort offering little redemption or uplift. Let's face it, most of us still use cinema for escape, and we want movies to give us hope rather than depress us, and we often do not appreciate being left with unresolved questions and issues.


Vincent said...

Thanks for this, Arash. I've ordered the movie. I liked the balanced way you evaluated it.

The latest film I've seen is also about madness: The Ruling Class (1972) starring Peter O'Toole as a paranoid schizophrenic who gets cured, at any rate technically. He's back in the real world, behaves in harmony with the culture he was born into ... and yet!

No spoilers in the above. It's also worth saying that it's an absurdist comedy and a satire on the old class system in England.

I think you might like it.

Arash Farzaneh said...

Thanks for the comment and the movie suggestion, Vincent! I will definitely check it out because a satire on old class systems mixed with madness is an irresistible combination! Plus, I like Peter O'Toole.

Strange that madness seems so appealing, while a movie based on sanity would not be half as interesting.

Vincent said...

I totally loved "The Soloist", Arash. Most grateful for your review. I think I want to write about it too, not a review as such but mention it in a post.

Arash Farzaneh said...

Glad you liked it! I would love to hear your take on it.

I am still surprised about all the negative reviews on this film when it is quite an interesting and engrossing film.

My favorite scene is when Steve Lopez is asked whether he is flying the airplane in the sky. Strangely funny.

Vincent said...

After watching this wonderful film, and having drafted my review, I appreciate your own so much better. Reading it again, I notice your reference to Cronenberg's Spider and read Roger Ebert’s review of that. I end up with an admiration of other people’s reviews, and a weariness in attempting my own.