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Science can heal but not soften hearts

07 August 2015

Paul Vallely celebrates the redemptive power of art

FIRST, in August came the Edinburgh Festival. Then the Fringe arrived, a child that now dwarfs its parent, with more than 3000 shows last year. Now, this year, comes Sick of the Fringe — a kind of antidote to the stresses, phobias, illnesses, and neuroses that are apparently induced by what is now the world’s largest arts-fest. It will offer therapy to the performers, and debates in health, medicine, and science to the public.

I have to say that I am unconvinced. Debate is all well and good. But it risks forgetting about the potency of story. That was brought home this week to me by seeing Bill Pohlad’s striking biopic Love and Mercy, which tells the story of the troubled genius of Brian Wilson, the creative master behind the Beach Boys, who produced some of the most pioneering music in the history of pop — but at what a cost.

The film tells the story of two periods in Wilson’s life, ingeniously weaving them together in a telling non-chronological counterpoint. The first is the late 1960s, and the time when the musician was transitioning from the candied world of pop into drug-fuelled ground-breaking experiments, which brought him critical acclaim, but commercial disappointment.

Wilson’s accelerated creativity — and drive to produce ever-more-innovative sound, which he called “pocket symphonies to God” — was accompanied by a descent into mental illness, with auditory hallucinations brought on by psychedelic drugs. These never left him. Science can help to explain that, but it cannot touch art in helping us to understand it.

Pohlad has an array of clever techniques to convey this. His story is more than linear narrative. He mirrors Wilson’s confused inner soundscape with a subtly disturbing soundtrack that, on occasions, swirls around our heads, so that Good Vibrations become bad ones. His camera whirls us down the half-deaf Wilson’s ear canal. He uses scenes as metaphors: the band sitting in a swimming pool to discuss their future, with only Brian in the deep end.

Most dislocatingly, he has two actors playing the main character, one in the ’60s, as he descends into mental turmoil, and another in the ’80s, as he struggles to emerge from it. The two actors do not look alike. But Pohlad makes a virtue of this. It creates a sense of stereophonic dislocation, as the story jerks from one to another in an elliptical screenplay which illuminates rather than bewilders. We are not the same person at all points in our life.

Throughout, the alienation of mental illness prompts our sympathy rather than evoking fear or horror. And, although the story has its demon in Wilson’s psychiatrist — a terrifying manipulative control-freak — it has its angelic counterpart in the woman who meets Wilson while selling him a Cadillac, and stays to rescue and then marry him.

Science can make us understand, but it does little to soften the heart. What art does, as this film so splendidly shows, is to bring compassion with the pain it conjures. Science can heal. Only art can redeem.


Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.


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