Last night I watched a movie I’ve avoided since it came out twelve years ago: “Shine.” I know it’s supposed to be brilliant but so many times in our movie culture “brilliant” means “angst.” I like dark movies, but not the ones about shining people being punished.
Anyway, one of our culture’s deepest story structures is an enormously gifted child, dominated by his father who both lifts him up and entraps him. The child is nearly destroyed. Somehow he endures -- often through the arts -- and though rather crippled, finds happiness. This is close to the normal Oedipal progression of dependency to competition to reconciliation, often with the help of a mother figure. (“David” grabs women by their breasts -- their “mother organs.” He goes innocently naked, like a child. The story COULD be told as a failure of the mother to protect her child from the father.) This pattern is rather close to what I see as the thread of Bob Scriver’s story, his need to “shine” (Is that what the title is about? I never could really figure it out.) versus his need to stay connected with his place and family, how music would have meant moving away, and how he finally made both work together by becoming a sculptor.
In this version, the enormous gift is for classical music, which means that the stakes are very high but also somewhat privileged. I’m much handicapped in describing this by not really understanding the near-mathematical theory of classical music, just responding to it. But I know that very valued gifts in music can be accompanied by a kind of autism, difficulty in connecting with people any other way. The requirement to practice for hours and hours plus the strong personalities of music teachers can mask a musician’s need for more social development.
This movie has been attacked from the point of view that Helfgott’s playing wasn’t all that great anyway, esp. in the days of his comeback. I can’t tell, myself, but I’m familiar with that issue of how great a genius must be before he’s allowed to “break the rules,” as for instance to defy his father. Must one be Mozart? Or can one be Liberace? (Hey, where was Liberace’s father anyway?) When people around here talk to me about Bob Scriver, who didn’t always stay within the rules, they sometimes assume that his achievements were BECAUSE of his father, the silver-spoon theory (those folks tend to be in the academic community), or often they will say (usually the old women who would have liked to have been pretty “close” to him), “he wasn’t that famous after all.” Sour grapes. Anyway, so far, Western art is judged mostly by how much money it will bring at auction. I wait for better measurements.
But seriously, folks, how great does a person have to be for another person to devote themselves to him (or her, rarely)? Who decides? How do you define greatness anyway? In “Shine” value is indicated by winning major musical contests and by the interest from at least three outstanding teachers. Then at the end the shift is to popular appeal -- it’s clear that the people in the little establishment where he began to play again just enjoy his music. But in the media, there was a criticism that said, “Oh, sure. He played pretty well for a recovered nutcase, but not really THAT well!” Sort of like the joke about the dog that played chess. When an admirer told the dog’s master that he admired the dog, the owner said, “Oh, he’s not that great. He hardly ever wins.”
In struggling with my own issues of greatness and freedom and entitlement, I’ve learned to always look back a generation or so. Granted that this father, Peter Helfgott, may have lost the line between sheltering and oppressing. It is suggested that this has something to do with both the loss of his family in the Holocaust and his admiration of Stalin. To achieve his goal of protection, he uses the methods of Stalin. I don’t know what the real years of this true story were, but that might have something to do with it. (Stalin was admired during WWII.) What is admired in one context is decried in another. What if the father had a brain structure or function that limited him, but he saw that the same thing in his son could liberate the son? But then the father couldn’t stand it, when the son did it with the help of others instead of his father?
Violence and abuse keys into this relationship and there are hints at sexual components. Again in our times, sex and violence seem to be connected, one carrying the other along with it. The violence is only symbolized in one episode. The sexual side is never touched. [sic] In fact, the first of David’s marriages is dropped out. There are hints at homosexuality in other people-- not in David.
The real family’s split between flat denial and open collaboration with the authors is not unprecedented. Once fame and fortune enter the picture, family polarizes in order to protect or possibly exploit the situation. More than that, family usually has little awareness of the requirements first imposed by writing about reality -- which means selecting and emphasizing part of the story without outright falsifying them, though it might seem like the latter. And then moving a story from print to movie means other changes in emphasis and sequence that can change it even more. That’s why they say “based on.” By that time the story has escaped reality and is subject to interacting interpretations from the screenwriters, actors, directors, producers and marketers. This can act to purify, but also to distort.
The power of a story, IMHO, doesn’t come from theoretical constructs so much as from a narrative structure that we all recognize and feel to some degree, like the struggle to get out of the chrysalis of one’s family -- which is sometimes then echoed by the struggle to get out of the cage of the culture. This is so strong and so universal that it shows up everywhere. One can find it in Jane Austen or Zane Grey or Chinese movies. It seems to me that “Shine” is a memorable version, beautiful and self-contained, without needing any reference to the “real” David Helfgott’s life to make it “vaid.” I’m glad I finally got up the courage to watch it. And listen to it.