THE FINDING FORRESTER CONUNDRUM
Ok, so I’m out of ideas to write about for the blog, at least until my manuscript is printed and ready to be edited. My intention was to keep the subject matter of these posts at least tangentially related to Camp Redblood, but what the hell, it’s my blog. In the meantime, I miss writing, I miss posting, and I’m at home sick, so what else am I going to do?
As it happens, today’s subject isn’t entirely removed from my little writing project, seeing as it concerns a film about an aspiring novelist who strikes up a student/mentor relationship with a J.D. Salinger type. The movie, of course, is Finding Forrester, released all the way back in 2000 (cripes, fifteen goddamn years already), starring Rob Brown as the young writer and Sean Connery as the Salinger stand-in. I’m not here to review the movie so much as I am to talk about it, but let me get my general thoughts out of the way. It’s a decent film, but riddled with problems. The screenplay is predictable to anyone who’s ever been to the movies, all of the characters save the young writer and his mentor are thinly sketched at best, stereotypes at worst, and it comes dangerously close to falling into the “white people save black people from being black” subgenre. It’s also clearly a “Sorry everyone!” effort from Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant, who at the time was coming off his disastrous Psycho remake. Yet Finding Forrester is a movie I find myself returning to on almost a yearly basis for the things in it that do work.
Even though I’m frequently guilty of it myself, I dislike when people sum up their opinion of a film or a book or any work of art with “it sucks” or “it was good”. Many films have elevating qualities even if the story or characters aren’t completely successful. Just to use a random example, my favorite thing about Die Hard With a Vengeance aren’t the jokes, action scenes, or stunts; it’s the film’s authentic sense of Clinton-era, pre-911 metropolitan New York. Every time I watch it I find myself savoring stuff like the accents of the extras, many of whom weren’t professional actors, just actual cops, firefighters, and other city workers. Vengeance also conveys the feeling of an actual hot summer day; complete with a quick thundershower about two-thirds of the way through.
Forrester might stumble in the script department, but its other treasures can be found in the cinematography, soundtrack, and central performances. The lighting of the indoor scenes in particular has always struck me as deceptively realistic, with just the right amount of atmosphere, dust, and afternoon glare spilling into the rooms of the fictional Mailer School. Watching the film, you’re never quite sure what season it’s set in, but it’s always felt to me like that first real week of spring, right after you’ve opened your windows for the first time in months and feel that warm breeze. I’ll take a movie that gives me that feeling over the last five Best Picture winners any day of the week. The film’s cool, jazzy soundtrack, made up of pieces by the likes of Miles Davis and Bill Frisell, fits the story’s tempo perfectly, and is just plain delightful to listen to. And hell, even if Forrester’s villain is a mustache-twirling academic with an upper-crust William F. Buckley speech pattern, F. Murray Abraham plays the hell out of the guy.
For my money though, the most interesting thing about Finding Forrester is a choice made by the filmmakers during a climactic scene. Jamal, the main character, is accused of plagiarizing part of his submission to an in-school writing competition. Indeed, part of his piece does include material the Forrester character wrote several decades earlier. Jamal is in a pickle; he could tell everyone that he actually does know the esteemed writer and has his permission to include his work, or he can honor his promise to Forrester not to reveal his whereabouts and the details their special friendship. Forrester, a shut-in for decades, bravely traverses the city and shows up at Jamal’s school at just the right moment. He proceeds to read aloud a piece of Jamal’s writing, stunning the students and teachers who assumed they were listening to Forrester’s own words. Here is where the Finding Forrester conundrum arises, and it definitely is a conundrum, one I would have been horrified to arrive at on the page was I the screenwriter. See, the movie is telling us that Jamal’s piece of writing is brilliant, genius, and yes, worthy of a J.D. Salinger. By extension, that means the film’s screenwriter considers his own work in the same league. After all, he’s the one supplying Jamal with his words.
There were three ways the film could have handled this situation. One, it could have presented a piece of writing that, by God, was worthy of Salinger. Two, it could have presented a piece of writing that was sadly, if understandably, not worthy of Salinger. In this scenario the implication of the screenwriter’s astronomic opinion of his own work would be all the more glaring. The third option is the safest one, which is probably why they elected to go with it in the final film. Forrester begins reading Jamal’s work and we hear the first few lines, which are pretty good, but nothing extraordinary (we only get brief, out of context snippets of the boy’s prose throughout the film). However, as Forrester reads the passage, it becomes very clear that the movie itself is getting uncomfortable, realizing the corner it’s painted itself into. The music rises and Connery’s voice fades. We see the faces of his audience, all wearing expressions of deeply-felt admiration for whatever the hell it is he’s saying. It’s kind of like that scene in Forrest Gump where Forrest shares his thoughts on the Vietnam War in front of the Lincoln Memorial and that Army officer sabotages the sound system. You don’t hear what Forrest says, but you hear the voices of the gathered assembly complaining that they can’t hear him and calling for him to speak up. I imagine more than one moviegoer yelled out the same thing to the screen back in 2000.
One could argue that it’s not fair to hold the film to such a high standard. After all, most of the people who love Good Will Hunting probably don’t know fuck-all about advanced mathematics, but that script still won the Oscar. The difference is that the climax of Hunting’s plot didn’t hinge on a genius math equation, it hinged on Matt Damon crying (I kid, I kid). Forrester’s climax, however, is entirely dependent on Jamal’s supposedly staggering piece of writing. I’ve not read Michael Rich’s Nicholl Fellowship-winning screenplay or the film’s novelization, so I can’t say for certain if it was the director or the writer who made the choice to gloss over Jamal’s piece, but I’m interested to read both and find out. I do wish the film presented the piece in full. Even if it didn’t live up to the expectations the film built around it, it still would have been the ballsier move on the filmmakers’ parts. As it is, Finding Forrester has its charms, plus an out-of-left-field, non-crying Matt Damon cameo.
Finding Forrester is currently streaming on Netflix for everyone who wants to be the man now, dawg!