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soloist poster

Director: Joe Wright         (2009)

Steve Lopez – LA columnist; Nathaniel Ayers – cellist

            The film opens on the pedaling of a bicycle, the camera held steady with the axel so only the feet and the pedals go round and round – and although the rider and the bike move forward, we just see this cycle, this closed loop, a revolving in circles. This story is not going places – or, at least, parts are not – and immediately you get the sense that the film will not resolve itself in some foolish ‘all is wonderful’ ending and solution. We see Steve Lopez, columnist for the LA Times, riding the hard way, up a hill and through a group of cyclists going the other way. This is a man going his own way, against the tide, and it’s clear that the cellist yet to come is not the only soloist here. In minutes, we see Lopez fall from his bike and smash his face. Over the next 2 hours, there is a wonderful parallel metaphor set up as we watch Lopez’s wounds, so hideous at first, heal in every scene, while cellist Nathaniel Ayers, with no exterior damage, remains unhealed, and unchanged. It is a nice image that gets the point across – not all problems have solutions. And as the screen litters itself with images of disasters and struggle, with wars and bleak news coverage, this contrast of the healable and unhealable problems of the world solidifies.           

            Lopez (and this film is as much his story as it is the story he is writing) is shown, throughout the film, alone, out of place and set apart. There are scenes of him in his house, at night looking at the city skyline, in his car, always alone – late in the film, he is at a bar, the only patron there, and when another customer comes in, it is only to make him even more apart, his distant connection to the bartender now gone too. He is as much as Ayers a soloist – distant in social situations, preferring to be working, to be off trying to solve this ‘case’. In the process, of course, he develops a friendship, but in many ways, it is the little things around this that make the film interesting.

            Another theme weaves itself in nicely as the film moves on. There are a number of overhead aerial shots, these bird-eye’s views of highway overpasses and houses that carry a strong sense of loss. They contrast well with Ayers set in his tunnel, out on his own and separate, with Lopez looming, building his story, trying to make connections to how someone ‘smart, kind and talented’ could end up here, so cast out of the system. The aerial scenes become this sense of all the individuals among the houses and the cars, along the streets, and all the stories each have. It also has a built-in ‘God’s-eye’ view. Ayers plays and the music transports – the camera takes flight above the street, out of the everyday and soars above. For part of the film, it seems to be linking this a bit with the spiritual, the transcendent, even the heavenly. But thankfully, the film turns away from the Godly and builds a much stronger idea. There is no God on the streets, not these streets, not anymore, if ever there was. These streets, a city, a world even, of wanderers, of those unconnected and alone, of soloists. The aerial shots, the more they are shown, feel more and more disconnected. The atheist cleaning his median of highway has little to say, his group unable to meet because they have nothing to discuss – the people are spread about, not united under one idea but left scattered to search for one. The professional cello teacher, the only religious figure in the film, is absurd; rich and set off from the city as if belief can only be had by those wealthy enough to afford it; and it makes him look clueless and antiquated, out of touch as if a different species. 

            The purity and power of music is referred to in the film as ‘grace’, but it is not in a religious sense. Ayers bristles with anger and violence when the mention and absurdity of God or praying is brought up – to him, music is prayer and Lopez his god – and the director, Wright, takes this and makes his point with it: we are alone, there is no one and nothing looming above to save us; we can create a beauty that transcends the poverty and suffering of life and we can save and deliver each other, and ourselves, through this, as well as through kindness, friendship and time. That Lopez’ writing is the prime mover of the events and progress of the story is further support to the idea – creativity is what we have that makes us more than just raccoons digging in the dirt. The camera works to reinforce this; there is a shot of the cello case in the mail cart pushed through the rows of the office and it is this delivery, this kindness and gift that moves the story forward. The scene is filmed as if it were us pushing the gift, us giving the gift. In the end, the reality of life is not cheapened or ridiculed but honored by the magnitude and depth of the issues. Ayers has problems too deep to solve, wounds too permanent to heal, too inexplicable to resolve; but, like Lopez, like all of us, he perseveres, he pushes forward, unresolved but inching forward, the circle just going round and round.


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