Film Review: The Soloist

On my trip to the States, I flew on United Airlines, which was mainly to save my company about $1,000 off the cost of airfare. It was a miserable flight both ways.

However, the saving grace of both trips was that this movie, The Soloist, was screened. I fell asleep in it the first time across, because I’d been on the plane for about 10 hours before they broke it out and I couldn’t stay away any longer, but what I saw in the first half moved me to tears.

Then I was on the flight back and, right at the tail end of all the films, they screened it again. The back half put me in tears as well. I am willing to admit that this could be due to the extreme dehydration and sleep-deprivation, but I think this movie has more than that going for it. I certainly would be keen to see it again, perhaps at the movies (it comes out next week in Australia, I believe) or certainly on DVD.

From the director of Atonement, it tells a very simple (and true) story. A journalist in Los Angeles, Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr), one day came across a homeless man (Jamie Foxx), Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic, hiding out near a statue of Beethoven, doing his best to scrap a tune out of a violin with only two strings.

A throwaway comment by Ayers revealed that he had attended the prestigiouis Juilliard School of Music and so Lopez investigates further, only to find that he has a great cellist on his hands, whose mental incapacity has led him to the streets. The rest of the movie tells the story of how Lopez moves from cynical curiosity to kindness and friendship towards Ayers.

First of all, having just flown out of LA Airport, this film has some greater resonance for me. The airport – certainly the bits where I was boarding flights – feels really primitive. It’s a scumhole of a place to hang around, and looking at the smog hanging over the city, it doesn’t look much more attractive. I’m sure there are nice places, but the overall first impression is one of a crumbling city. So the graffiti and homelessness displayed in this film immediately seem realistic.

Downey Jr and Foxx both turn in great performances. Apparently, playing a man with a mental illness reminded Foxx of a bad drug episode in his late teens and was a struggle to play. He pulls it off beautifully, and for this non-cellist, his cello playing looked convincing.

The film offers no easy solutions to the poverty. There’s not a standard Hollywood ending, or even a Shine moment, where Ayers returns to his former life. In fact, it’s very much a work in progress, and we feel like it’s still going on in real life with the real guys – beyond the timeframe captured in this film. But two things really made this film stand out:

1. It’s a film about human kindness. I know when I was younger, I was attracted to films with dark themes, and I certainly have sat through some films that start out in a bright-lit places, only to drag their audiences into the depths. But it’s so much rarer (and for me, nowadays, so much more inspiring) to see a film that starts in the depths and heads for bright places. So, for me, the trajectory of these men – both of whom inspire each other in different ways – was beautiful to behold.

2. But none of this would really have worked without a nod to the soundtrack. I was a bit put off this film when I first saw the trailer a few months ago, because the artwork and the music used on the trailer were much more grungy and poppy, with only a nod to classical music with a bit of a Bach Cello Suite (which I thought was odd for a film about a guy who played the cello).

But that was just the trailer guys trying to broaden the appeal of the film. Ladies and gentlemen, this soundtrack is nearly all Beethoven, as arranged fairly cleverly by Dario Marianelli. But not just any Beethoven – it’s my favourite Beethoven. It’s like they read my mind and picked out every piece of Beethoven that I loved and put it into this film, just for me to be taken out of my horrible United Airways flight.

In flashbacks to a young Nathaniel, we first see that he loves Beethoven and has taught himself the cello part to Beethoven’s 3rd Eroic Symphony – without doubt, my favourite Beethoven symphony.

But then it got even better. In the highly dramatic moment when Ayers is first given a new cello by Lopez, he pulls it out – and there is a certain suspense here – after all, what do you play when you haven’t played the cello in years? He begins to play Beethoven’s most spiritual piece of chamber music – the famous slow …

[Sorry, just had a moment of excitement – the unit upstairs in our apartment block started yelling out that they had a fire and Rachel came in to get me – so I’ve just been downstairs for five minutes with the kids and Rachel out the front. But it was only a barbecue that got a bit out of hand and they put it all out. So that’s all good.]

Anyway, where was I? Ayers starts to play and out comes the famous slow third movement from Beethoven’s opus 132 String Quartet. This particular movement (or section) was written when Beethoven was recovering from an illness and he named it something like “Hymn of Thanksgiving to the Godhead for  helping me recover from my illness”. (I know, that’s not exact – but I’ll leave you to Google it.)

It starts very slowly, one instrument and a time. In fact, it’s so low-key when it enters, it’s almost as if Beethoven was too weak to come in with something more energetic. So that’s the feeling you get as you hear Foxx play. Furthermore, at first we can only hear the cello part – but he’s hearing in his head the other three instruments. As he plays, the music soars more and more, and in a beautiful visual moment, the music literally takes us out of the squalor of Los Angeles for a moment and shows us something beautiful. But I’ll let you see it for yourself.

Then a bit later, the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony is used for the final sequence and end credits, surely one of Beethoven’s most beautiful slow movements. I’ve always had a theory that Beethoven (who himself led a pretty tortured life) wrote these slow movements to provide a comfort to himself in the dark hours. And when I heard the music in this context, providing comfort to Nathaniel Ayers in the trials that he faced, it was doubly reinforced.

I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it – for the last 24 hours, I’ve been getting teary every time I think about this film.

If you don’t like Beethoven, but enjoy a well-acted drama, you may not get why I like it, but you should still enjoy yourself. For you, it’s a 3 1/2 out of 5. If you love Beethoven as much as I do and you think that kindness towards others should rank a little more highly on our priorities than it does, this is really, really good stuff. 4 1/2 out of 5.

One Further Thought on Tessitura Conference

Actually, while I think of it – this is a thought for my Christian readers. One of the most interesting things about the conference for me, was the sheer enthusiasm of people in the arts, not just for the Tessitura software, but for what they do.

Far from an irritating job that they don’t want to talk about – they could talk to the cows come home about their companies and what they do.

It made me think – and I heard a speaker say this a few weeks ago – could this highlight a problem with our churches? How often have you been at church, and found out that everyone is talking about the weather/football, etc afterwards? There’s almost a fear of talking about the God that we’re gathering to worship.

Imagine what it would be like going to a church where the congregation’s enthusiasm for the Christian faith matched the enthusiasm of the arts world?

Tessitura in Texas

Those of you following me on Twitter or Facebook over the last week would have noticed that I was saying an awful lot about Texas and an awful lot of stuff about other things that may or may not have made sense, depending on whether you worked in the arts or not.

So I thought I’d give you all a quick update on a week spent in San Antonio at a conference run by a very specialised and unique software company. You have been warned.

For those who are completely new to Tessitura, in the bad old days – say, about 10 years ago – performing arts companies used to use ticketing software to, believe it or not, sell tickets to shows. Their primary concern was making sure that Customer X got the tickets they asked for to a show. That was it.

However, in the world of performing arts, there has also been a long and honourable tradition of trying to collect donations from patrons. They get sent letters asking for money, rich patrons get invited to special events, meetings are made – and all sorts of information is stored for this purpose. Birthdates of prospects, the names of their spouses and children, what type of food they like to eat, their tastes in music – all of this is vitally important for the fundraiser.

So in these bad old days, the fundraising team (the correct term now is “development” team) would keep all this information in files, on cards, in notebooks, and if they were computer-savvy – they might even use a spreadsheet.

Meanwhile, in the corporate world, the tools to deal with this kind of stuff were becoming more and more powerful. Software known as CRM (Customer Relationship Management) was developed that could easily keep track of this sort of thing, and the corporate world used it extensively to monitor its sales efforts.

Some arts companies even started using CRM software, but an obvious problem existed – even though the CRM software was a good place to keep track of information and tasks related to chasing money – it was still missing the vital concept of knowing about ticket buying information – which was stored on the ticketing software.

The New York Metropolitan Opera, back in 2001, decided to deal with the problem. They spent several million dollars to come up with a piece of software that combined a state of the art ticketing package with the tools commonly used in CRM software. They called it Tessitura, an opera term for the range of the voice. They rolled it out across about half a dozen organisations.

However, the demand was so great for this, they realised they were onto a winner – so they established a third party company that could just focus on software and the organisation now known as the Tessitura Network was born.

My company just signed up Tessitura earlier this year, and so we’re relatively new to the whole software. But I was privileged to be able to attend the Tessitura Learning and Community Conference which is held yearly – this year in San Antonio, Texas.

Things really started to come together for me at this conference. While I had a fairly good idea of how Tessitura worked from being involved in the project to roll it out, it was incredible to be able to go to this conference and meet up with all the Tessitura staff and hundreds of people from the other companies using this software.

There’s two things that made this conference stand out for me:

1) The Tessitura bbusiness model is absolutely amazing. It’s a non-profit software company. So it exists purely for the purpose of making the best ticketing software in the world for the arts/cultural world. And it really listens to its users. While there was certainly a teaching aspect to the conference, where Tessitura staff offered teaching on various modules of the software – there was a huge emphasis on hearing what people wanted in the software. In a very democratic process, Tessitura canvasses its member organisations every year  for changes that they would like to see and then gives every company 40 votes to cast towards the changes they would most like to see.

2) As well as the attitude of the company, the community side of the conference was fantastic. Many of the presentations during the conference were made by users, showcasing innovative ways they had used Tessitura to aid their business. This ranged from some quite technical stuff through to some simple tweaks and reports that people had produced. Not only that, you only had to have a few quick conversations with people to realise that everyone there was ready to share their expertise.

In some ways, the conference did my head in, because it was so much information and we’re so new into the process. But in other ways, I now have at least a full year’s worth of stuff to explore. So I think that makes it a worthwhile conference for me.

The other half of it was that it was just plain fun being able to visit San Antonio, Texas. This is home of the Alamo – an old Spanish mission where a small group of Texans were holed up and ultimately slaughtered by an invading Mexican army in 1836. It was this massacre that fired up the Americans enough to defeat the Mexican army later (and ultimately invade Mexico in 1840), and a really well-preserved and moving part of history.

Then there were the people. I must admit that having an Australian accent (used strategically), can be a great boon in disguise – so I was shouted at least one dinner and several drinks over the course of the week, by the fine folks of the Nashville Performing Arts Center and the Arsht Center (in Miami). All in all, it was great fun, and I’m looking forward to being able to implement some of the things I’ve learned and also keeping in touch with the people I’ve met.

Finally, it was quite an eye-opener of the sheer joy of Twitter. (Okay, shut up, Dave – just because you’re right on this one, doesn’t make you right on everything . . .). There was a conference hashtag set up, and over the course of the week, most of the tweeters at the conference caught up with one another, and we probably all came out with at least a dozen new followers each. All very fun.

Anyway, that might explain a bit more of the background. Now on to a movie review . . .

Coming Soon – The “And Then There Were None” Experience!

Hi everyone,

After a short rest, the blog is going to fire up for another reading project. Nothing as hard-core as War and Peace. This will be a simple (and awesome – did I mention it’s awesome?) reading project for three weeks. I’ll be reading and blogging about Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

It will start in September, but here are three things that you need to know:

What Is This Book and Why Do I Want to Read It?

For many decades, English author Agatha Christie was the Queen of Crime Fiction and created at least two famous detectives (Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple). However, her best-selling book features no detective at all.

Instead, it tells the tale of ten people, all strangers to one another, who journey to a small island off the coast of England. On the first evening, a recording announces that the ten of them have committed a crime and they will be punished for it. From then on, one by one, the inhabitants of the island are murdered.

It’s hard to describe this without it sounding like exaggeration – but this is one of the most superbly-plotted mystery thrillers ever written. Yes, it’s a bit dated. Yes, it’s a bit politically incorrect in parts. Yes, the characters are quite two-dimensional. But none of that matters . . . within two chapters we’re hooked, and the suspense does not let up for the rest of the book. It’s an astonishing read, and if there’s any justice in this world, it will never go out of print.

You may have seen the recent television show, Harper’s Island, which consisted of 25 people on an island, slowly getting bumped off one by one, and be wondering how close that story was to this one. Take it from me – it’s nothing like it. Apart from the island and the murder theme, the television show was a poor imitation.

So how does the reading project work?

I’ll be reading and blogging on the chapters according to the schedule set out below. I’d invite you to get yourself a copy of the book somewhere and read along and comment as well. If you’ve never read the book before, the challenge is that you’re only supposed to read one chapter a day for three weeks’ worth of business days. This will drag out the suspense dreadfully and you’ll hate it and spend the day thinking about it. . . . Good. That’s the idea.

Some of you may be tempted to peek at the end or read ahead. You’re spoilsports. Go slow, read one chapter a day, and build some character. And don’t even think about Googling to find out what happens.

For those of you who have read this before, you know full well that you’ll enjoy reading it again. However, I don’t trust people not to leak spoilers. So, I’m making all comments moderated between now and the end of the challenge, just to make sure that nothing gets spoiled.

To make it more interactive, I also want to encourage people to get your friends reading. You’ll see that the final day of this schedule calls for an extended reading of one chapter plus an epilogue and a letter. I’d recommend getting friends to read and discuss (and hopefully comment here) during that time – but then on the last day (a Saturday), why not gather in a lounge room/cafe/park somewhere and have a read aloud session on the last chapter? If you’ve all been playing by the rules and not reading ahead, you’ll enjoy the unimaginable pleasure of experiencing the denoument together with a group.

It’ll be great fun.

Anyway, send this post around to friends to get them interested. Over the next few weeks, I’ll post up a few more tidbits about the novel. If you’re in, drop a comment and let me know – I’d love to know that there are little And Then There Were None groups having a crack at this in various cities around the world. (Maybe I’m a bit ambitious, but hey, why not?)

The Reading Schedule for Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (September 2009)

Monday 8 – Chapter 1

Tuesday 9 – Chapter 2

Wednesday 10 – Chapter 3

Thursday 11 – Chapter 4

Friday 12 – Chapter 5

Monday 15 – Chapter 6

Tuesday 16 – Chapter 7

Wednesday 17 – Chapter 8

Thursday 18 – Chapter 9

Friday 19 – Chapter 10

Monday 22 – Chapter 11

Tuesday 23 – Chapter 12

Wednesday 24 – Chapter 13

Thursday 25 – Chapter 14

Friday 26 – Chapter 15

Saturday 27 – Finale: Chapter 16 & Epilogues

The Matt Hodge Question Game – The Official Rules

I have been trying an interesting Facebook project recently, which is to convert over a social party game into an online game. This is the not-so-famous Question Game. (Apparently, there’s another Question Game which you can google about, but this is nothing like my game.)

So we don’t cause any further confusion – this will now be known as the Matt Hodge Question Game. Here’s the official rules:


Object of the Game: To get to know people better, and to make extroverts realise that introverts have good things to say too – but you have to ask them first.

1.You can play with as few as two people, but four or five is ideal.

2. If you’re playing in real life, sit in a circle. If you’re playing online in a (private) chat room then you can just run through the players in order that they’re listed.

3. Someone starts by asking a question. It can be on any topic – as serious or as silly as you like.

4. The person to the left (if you’re playing in a circle) or the person below the asker in a chat room listing answers the question.

5. Then the person to their left (or the next person down the list) answers the question. And so forth, until finally you come back to the person who answered the question and they answer their own question.

6. The person to the left of them (or next down the list) now asks a question and the game continues.

7. You can drop out or drop in as you please.

8. Nobody has to answer the question if they don’t want to but everybody has to be given the chance to answer.

9. If you’re not answering,then listen to other people’s answers. Feel free, however, to ask further questions to get people to explain their answers better or to comment on what they’ve said.

Okay, that’s it. The more willing you are to answer questions and ask interesting ones yourself, the more you’ll get out of it. Why not try it at your next social gathering? Friends of mine on Facebook, now you know what I’m talking about whenever I announce a round of the Question Game being played.

One-Year War and Peace E2.12 – Overcoming Our Senses

Reading for – oh stuff it, it should be 30 June

Well, here we go – some 33 days late – but the post on the final chapter of War and Peace. Nothing particularly earth-shattering after everything Tolstoy has built up. Just simply the idea that history must run on laws, but because we sense that we have free will, therefore it’s hard to buy into them.

It’s like admitting that the earth revolves around the sun, when to us it feels like it’s standing still.

If we admit that we have perfect free will and can cause whatever we like, we fly in the face of all the evidence Tolstoy has built up. But if we admit we have no free will, because like automatons. The truth is, Tolstoy wants us to accept both.

So now that I’ve read his full argument, what do I think?

Myself, I do believe that history is predetermined – it’s a major thing that distinguishes Christianity from Deism is that Christians believe not just in a God that set the world going – but a God who keeps it going.

With Tolstoy’s view, it could be either. God could have made the world (or it could have just come into being some other way) and it just runs along by itself, following necessary laws and interactions.

But I don’t quite buy that – because that really does take away from man’s free will. I believe simply that God is in control of all things ultimately, but he has created man to make his own choices and to wear his own consequences.

Because, really, we have choices. Certainly, our environment, our past experiences – these do all combine to make us who we are. But not everyone who grew up in a poor area surrounded by criminals chooses a life of crime. People with identical backgrounds can be put in different situations and make different choices.

But at the same time, in ways we can’t understand, God is running the whole show. Nobody does something and makes God say, “Whoa! I wasn’t expecting that one!” But by the same token, nobody feels like they’re a robot – compelled to do things they didn’t want to do.

So the end result is that one person can play a part in changing the world. If a group of people get together for a common purpose, they can change a larger part. It’ll start with your values that you use to make decisions as an individual and work its way out from there.

Well, look, as they say, “all good things” . . . however, I’m not quite finished with War and Peace yet. I’ve got two more posts I’d like to do.

One is just a general round-up of my thoughts on the whole novel, now that I’ve read it twice and a few thank yous. The other is a bit of a musical treat, which may or may not be obvious to guess, but I’ll leave it for a surprise. Talk to you soon.

One Year War and Peace E2.11 – History As Laws

Reading for Saturday, June 26

I’m realising as I write this that I’ve obviously stuffed the dates around at some stage, because this was meant to go up to 30 June and here we are on the second-last chapter on June 26. (This is going by the calendar as it was meant to be read, not by my month-and-a-bit-late effort.) Anyway, I’m writing up a chart that will have the correct readings by date, and I’ll post that up when it’s finished, so that can be the final definitive guide for anyone who wants to use it.

In the meantime, here’s a very short chapter where Tolstoy draws together all the points he’s made to say that history, rather than being the study of causes (who or what made this thing happen) should be the study of laws – the laws that drive history.

Of course, with only one chapter to go (and it’s a pretty short one), I doubt very much that he’s going to lay out those laws for us. I think the most he can hope to do is have proved that they exist and thus leave us to think about history differently than we have before.