Monday, September 21, 2009

The Soloist: a theological movie review.

Something strange happened in the Jones household last night. My wife and I sat down and watched a movie together…and we both actually enjoyed it. That might possibly be one of the signs that herald the beginning of the Apocalypse. The only way she would like one of my movies would be for James Bond’s mother to be diagnosed with cancer so that 007 moves home and everyone in his family learns to love each other again. The only way I could ever watch Julia and Julia with her would have to involve at least one Julia wearing an Iron Man suit, lots of explosions, car chases and an evil plot to take over the world with her recipes. You get the picture. My wife liked the long, first part of Titanic and I could only tolerate the last 40 minutes where something interesting actually started to take place.

Last night we watched The Soloist with Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. It is based on the true story of journalist Steve Lopez’s interaction with Nathaniel Ayers, a cello prodigy whose schizophrenia drives him into homelessness on the streets of the infamous Skid Row of Los Angeles. I admit that I have no idea what makes a film a critical success or if director Joe Wright should receive an award, but I do know that this film surprised me.

I am hesitant to watch any media portrayal of homelessness because the depictions are usually hurtful stereotypes that only serve to push the homeless further into the margins of society’s consciousness. The other reason that I was initially reluctant to watch a movie about homelessness is the fact that it is the meat and potatoes of my everyday existence and it has been for more years than most people last in this business. When I am not at work, I am usually hiking to a remote waterfall somewhere as far away from crime, drugs, prostitution and mental illness as possible. In other words, I cope by intentionally getting away from the overwhelming crush of the masses when I am not at work. However, so many people have asked for my feedback on this film that I could not ignore it. It obviously touched something within many of its viewers.

Several people have asked me about the accuracy of the film. I have never been to Los Angeles, but I have met people who work there in homeless shelters. I also know people who have toured the areas just outside of those shelters. They describe a horrifying place of human misery like a permanent encampment of an army of severely mentally ill people. In short, their descriptions match what the movie portrayed of those who live on and under the pallets and skids of Skid Row. I know it is the place where this first became known. “Skid Row Staph” strikes terror into the hearts of homeless shelter workers everywhere and drives up our own operational budget for Lysol.

I can say that the portrayal of some of the homeless people in the movie was so realistic that a couple of times I was tapping my wife on the shoulder while shouting, “That’s so spot on!” The depiction of Nathaniel Ayers as a chronically homeless man who is suffering from schizophrenia, but is also beyond the reach of the any sort of required medical treatment because he is neither homicidal nor overtly suicidal was painfully similar to my experiences with many chronically homeless people. Over 90, 000 people are homeless in Los Angeles County every night and 35,000 of them are chronically homeless precisely because they are in the same sort of shape as the character portrayed by Jamie Foxx. My experience has been that many people in that condition tend to migrate to larger urban centers, but sadly their migration is often helped along by one-way “bus ticket therapy” and “patient dumping” by organizations in smaller communities. The tragic reality is that the most troubled souls among us can easily get lost and remain invisible in the bigger cities. It’s no secret that many smaller communities, which survive on tourism revenue, count on that very thing happening.

The thing that I found most appealing about The Soloist was its honesty. It did not try to wrap things up into a neat, “lived happily ever after” fairy tale ending. The movie ends with a sense that everything is unfinished, impermanent and open to revision each day. Making peace with the fact that humans are concrete, complex people and not sterile, abstract cases to be managed or “fixed” is a process that everyone who works with the homeless eventually experiences. That’s because homelessness is ultimately a human issue that is as diverse and unpredictable as humans generally are. Many of my conservative evangelical friends like to believe that once an individual is “healed’ everything just neatly works itself out into tidy resolutions that mimic the narrative patterns found in the stories of the Bible. Many of my left-leaning Christian friends believe that institutions are the key to solving homelessness. More affordable housing and services surely would fix the problem. Both deny the complex reality of human experience by reducing individuals to a two-dimensional, cookie cutter simplicity. Homelessness will not be resolved by conversions or stroking checks. Both approaches miss the fundamental truth that the movie tapped into so well: in the end there is no such thing as an abstract homeless “problem” to be solved from a distance, but only people who are homeless and in need of mutual human nearness. People who rise from the grave of self-absorbed, super busy, rat races and walk the journey of long-term friendship with another human can narrow that distance one person at a time. Everything else is often hubris.

Of course, that sort of thing does not feed our messiah complexes. Whether by evangelism or activism, we want to save the world and quickly move on to the next problem. I find a lot of people very interested in the eternal souls of the homeless. I also find a lot of people very interested in the availability of a roof for the homeless, but I find very few people actually interested in the everyday lives of individuals who are homeless. Heck, I find very few people with time enough to be interested in the everyday lives of individuals who are not homeless. Instead, everyone is so busy rushing to usher in the kingdom that they trip over the homeless fellow and never ask him what he had for breakfast. If they did, they would discover the kingdom is already here, hidden in plain sight by its bare-naked simplicity and grace.

I have repeatedly witnessed the amazing difference that the involvement of just one friend---not a paid service provider or social worker, but a real friend can make in the transformation of the life of someone who is homeless. That’s the true message of The Soloist. It’s also the slow heart of the Gospel that was long ago tossed aside during the McWalmartization of the Church in North America. I am not against more homeless shelters, religious soup kitchens or government housing initiatives. However, those are not the answer. Getting over our 'Constitutional right' to individual self-centeredness will reach deeper than all of those could ever hope to. The Gospel is about incarnation. It’s never about redemption from outside or above, but entrance into the messy world of another. There are over 90, 000 homeless people in Los Angeles County each night. However, there are almost 10 million people in Los Angeles County. Imagine what would happen if just 90,000 of them slowed down long enough to actually get to know just one homeless person and come to care about that person’s life…then, it would truly live up to its name.