Did you see the movie "Shine"? I know-- you loved it. What an inspirational story, about how a promising young piano prodigy, destroyed by a psychotic, over-bearing father, eventually recovers to become one of the most brilliant classical pianists in the world. He even masters that fantastically difficult piece by Rach... Rachminoff? Something... Anyway, it's so hard, that hardly anyone in the world ever attempts. When he attempted it, he had a nervous breakdown-- right on stage! Because it brought up the passions he felt about his over-bearing father, who was that way because he lost his family in the holocaust. Yeah, you heard that it was not 100% accurate-- but who cares!
Just to start us out, let's first cover the inaccuracies of the film, before we get to the salient issues.
First of all, Helfgott's parents did not "survive" the Holocaust-- they never lived the Holocaust. They moved to Australia before Hitler came to power. So that explanation of Helfgott's father's brutality is out the window. But that doesn't matter because, secondly, Helfgott's father, Peter, according to Helfgott's sister Margaret, was never the domineering brute depicted in the movie anyway. Who's right? Well, it's no contest: director Scott Hicks never bothered to interview Helfgott's family or friends about his real upbringing. He took all his information from Gillian Murray, the older woman who married Helfgott later in life, and who is portrayed as utterly angelic in the movie, and who happened to be the one to "authorize" this biography in the first place (through her control of David).
Thirdly, most critics agree that regardless of the thrill of the narrative, David Helfgott is a mediocre performer at best, and they are deeply saddened by the fact that after the movie was released, he was able to command up to $250 a ticket when many very, very good musicians could barely make a cent at their trade.
I am interested, at this moment, in the fact that many people seem to feel that these untruths don't affect the "inspirational" character of the story. Of course they do. How can it be inspirational to believe that it is possible for a person to overcome huge psychological barriers to pursue a successful career as a brilliant classical musician when it didn't happen? What's inspiring about a film-maker using a pack of lies presented as "truth" to make a lot of money? What's inspiring about the fact that Peter Helfgott has been utterly slandered? What is inspiring about the fact that David Helfgott himself may have been exploited and manipulated by Gillian Murray?
"Shine" is a bit of a throwback to those old films from the 1950's and early 60's in which an attractive patient like Elizabeth Taylor was suffering from severe emotional problems and an attractive psychiatrist like Montgomery Cliff would patiently uncover more and more "truth" until a single traumatic event would be uncovered. Simply uncovering the event usually went a long way towards curing the patient. The glibness of those films, by today's standards, is astonishing, but then, maybe they were more like parables presenting a truth that has been held to religiously ever since by large segments of the population. The more acute professionals now recognize that it's simply not that simple.
David Helfgott simply had problems. Another school of thought would have held that he had a chemical imbalance in the brain that could have been treated with drugs. But it's a more exciting film if you can pin the cause on something.
Do people honestly sigh with approval when the movie shows Helfgott proposing to Murray, and Murray beneficently smiling and indulging him, and guiding him to new heights of confidence and artistic achievement, without giving the slightest thought to the fact this part of the movie consists of Gillian Murray enlightening us as to just how wonderful a person she is? I found it disturbing. We are given to understand that Helfgott has serious mental illnesses, yet we see Murray accept his marriage proposal and marry him and begin to manage his career. You just hope-- .... well, maybe not. Maybe you don't even bother to hope anymore than anyone cares about the truth, that the director would research his subject, that the writer would talk to all the involved parties, like Helfgott's sister and mother and first doctor, and --- shocker!-- his first wife!-- who has completely vanished from this account. What's the matter, Gillian? Didn't have time to include that chapter in the screen play?
Why does no one care? Why do otherwise sensible people seem to prefer fantasy, even when it's as insidious as this one?
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© Bill Van Dyk
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