06/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Soloist Chases an L.A. That Isn't There

I saw The Soloist in a packed Santa Monica theater, and I left the movie oddly depressed. The movie, set in contemporary times, is an anachronism.

It's about a city I never see, Los Angeles, and a newspaper that is disappearing before our very eyes, the L.A. Times. Steve Lopez, the central character played by Robert Downey Jr., is a columnist I rarely read, since I no longer get the paper in print. And Disney Hall, the shiny, Frank Gehry gadget that gets a close-up in the movie, is a place I have yet to visit for a concert.

You can tell me I should get out more, and maybe I should. I'll respond that every time I've faced down the 10 Freeway at rush hour ahead of a concert, the freeway wins.

As we lose our local newspaper, we lose our sense of connectedness. We lose a daily reminder of the diversity of life that is part of Los Angeles, and that moves us to reach beyond the confines our individual experiences.

The movie depressed me because it reminded me of the good that conscientious newspapering can do. How just a few years ago, 800 words -- the right 800 words -- could reach an entire city and move people to action -- a mayor, a city council, a police chief or a principal cellist of the local philharmonic. In the case of Nathaniel Ayers Jr., as the movie tells it, Lopez's column led to a cello, and lessons and a room off the hard streets of L.A.'s skid row.

The movie foreshadows the ongoing fragmentation of the already fragmented city of Angels. Newspapers have always been one of the identifying principles of this city. What was Los Angeles? Whatever the L.A. Times covered.

But the L.A. Times doesn't cover the whole city anymore. And it hasn't been read by the city (whatever that means) for years; its penetration is notoriously low.

And so, the skid row populated by junkies and mentally-disturbed social rejects is not one that has occasion to slide across my radar. Neither do the downtown public schools of L.A.U.S.D. which have inadequate textbooks, inadequate teachers -- if I believe the reports I hear on NPR.

It's increasingly difficult to feel part of this city. Between the Valley, and downtown, and the beach communities and Hollywood, between Koreatown and the West Side and the Persian flavor of Beverly Hills, it is vast and alien and hard to call my own.

Once upon a time it fell to the local newspaper to remind me that I was part of an urban landscape, the second largest in the nation. But it started to lose me several years back when they killed the weekly neighborhood sections that told me about what was happening in my local school district and city council meeting. What was the score of the high school basketball playoffs, and why Bob Scheer was furious at somebody.

I don't know how to get that feeling back. But Steve Lopez, I hope you hang on as long as you can.