Sean Connery, left, faces intruder
Rob Brown in 'Finding Forrester'
holds forth on
A film about what inspires writers
...and what shuts them down
By JOHN STANLEY
WATCHING "Finding Forrester," the latest film from one of the most unusual of mainstream film makers, Gus Van Sant, really got my creative juices flowing, like they haven't flowed in a while.
That's an appropriate reaction, as it turns out, because "Finding Forrester" is about creative juices and how they can be stimulated, and how they can stop flowing. Specifically, what inspires writers and what ultimately destroys them, if they don't listen keenly enough to their creative muse.
I couldn't help but remember when I was a young creative writer (make that would-be creative writer; I still had a long way to go, and I think I still do now). It was back in 1956 when I first discovered that there could be mentors in life--old pros willing to give a helping hand to greenhorn fledglings. Even if it's just verbal encouragement or the inspiration that comes from seeing your stuff edited by a professional. Either way, these things made me want to do better than I was already doing.
The writer's search for the power of words--that's what "Finding Forrester" is all about. At least that's what I read to be its main thrust. And that's what made me feel that Van Sant and screenwriter Mike Rich were really inspired to have produced this low-key, noncommercial property.
Mike Rich? No, you haven't heard of him unless you listen to the morning news on a certain Portland radio station, where he is a news disc jockey in front of the mike and the news director behind it. That Portland is Gus Van Sant's one-time stomping grounds might have something to do with it.
I had two flashbacks while watching this movie. The first was when I was a kid at Napa Junior College and encountered a creative writing/journalism teacher named Howard Erricson. Almost immediately, when he read my articles and short stories, he took me under his wing. It felt like I had just gained a second father.
Howard had been a B-17 bombardier and had been shot down over the English Channel a few days before D-Day. Picked up by a German patrol boat, he had spent the rest of the war in a "Stalag 17" setting, almost dying of starvation before it was over. Back in the postwar world he had worked to be a novelist, but he hadn't succeeded. So he'd ended up at Napa JC, a place that didn't do anything for his creative muse. He hadn't written anything in years, and he never would.
Howard read every word I wrote, and he told me when it was good and when it was crappy, which was most of the time. The thing I remember most about Howard is the way he encouraged me to keep writing, even when the stories I was giving him needed to be drastically overhauled. He'd ask me to come by after the class, so he could spend more time critiquing my work. It was as close as I ever got to one of my teachers.
One night in 1974 I got a call from his wife, telling me Howard was dead. That was a night when I cried. I knew he had died from too much drinking. Part of Howard was a total cynic. He had failed as a writer and had, unfulfilled by teaching in a junior college, escaped into the bottle. And ultimately the bottle allowed him to escape everything.
My second flashback while watching "Finding Forrester" carried me back to another time, 1960, when I was nothing but a greenhorn copy boy at the San Francisco Chronicle. I was a kid but I had dreams of being an entertainment writer. Fat chance. They told me that copy boys didn't get promoted, no cub-reporter beat for me, but I didn't care. I soon found I had another mentor--a movie critic with the name Paine Knickerbocker. Any self-respecting movie critic should have a name like that.
"Knick," as we called him, was the finest gentleman I ever met. He dressed impeccably in tweed, always with a red carnation in his lapel. He was never without a flashy hat and sometimes he carried a walking stick, although I eventually found out that was more for health reasons than appearances.
We had a special teacher-pupil relationship. Each week I would see a current movie and write a review, leaving "the takes" under the paste pot on Knick's desk. I could always count on him to signal me over sometime during the next few days and he would spend a few minutes critiquing my work. Almost all of those reviews were terrible, and Knick told me so. Ripped them apart, he did. I went away chagrined more than once, yet always found the strength to go back the following week with another review. Strength? I guess it was pure temerity or pure chutzpah. I just couldn't give up once I'd started the routine.
So I kept writing movie reviews--until the day came when Knick told me I would be reviewing my first movie for the paper, under his auspices. It was a West German turkey called "The Head," a horror film that was pretty awful and the bottom of the barrel as far as criticism was concerned. And the second assignment, well, it was a little better: A Japanese war movie called "I Bombed Pearl Harbor." But I didn't care. It was a beginning at the Chronicle, and it was because someone had wanted to help me. I remained close to Knick for the rest of his professional days, and even visited him a few times in the hospital, just toward the end of his life.
Those were the flashback memories that swept over me as I watched "Finding Forrester," and the reasons I bonded so quickly to Van Sant's theme.
Newcomer actor Rob Brown, in a low-key performance that is going to bring him a lot of future acting jobs, portrays a Bronx high school kid who's better than bright. But he hides his brains behind his brawn--his abilities as a basketball player. Physical prowess is what whites expect of blacks, not well-written essays. Or so Brown's character, Jamal Wallace, believes.
And that's why, when he moves uptown to a prep school, he gets into conflict with his English teacher, Professor Crawford. F. Murray Abraham tries to give the character some shades of gray, but he is the villain of the movie, or as close as anyone comes to being a villain, and I guarantee you are going to want to hiss at this professor, this unreasonable, ego-driven Crawford.
Meanwhile, something providential has occurred in Jamal's life--something that will change it forever. Always carrying a backpack full of his pencil-scrawled notebooks and always carrying a basketball he adroitly dribbles every chance he gets, Jamal meets a reclusive writer named William Forrester, who lives anonymously in an aging apartment cluttered with books.
As played by Sean Connery, in his 50th year as an actor, Forrester is a crusty curmudgeon, full of as much sarcasm as he is knowledge about good writing. It's a fiery part, one which Connery plays with total ease. "Write the first draft," Forrester tells the youth, "with your heart. Rewrite with your head. The key to writing is to write, not think." (In the early 1950s Forrester won the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, "Avalon Flying." But he never wrote another. He disappeared into his apartment, and hasn't left there since.)
Skeptical Prof. Crawford (F. Murray Abraham) confronts student Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown) about a story he thinks the boy plagiarized.
How Forrester and Jamal bond, despite their disparate backgrounds and ages, makes for a fascinating movie. In exchange for teaching Jamal better writing techniques, Forrester discovers a better life for himself. And he also comes forth to help Jamal when it appears the youth is going to get kicked out of the prep school because Professor Crawford suspects that Jamal's essay is not original. In my high school days this was called "the light of the lamp," a term synonymous with plagiarism, and a term I first heard used when certain classmates turned in papers that astounded the teacher with their unexpected brilliance.
As I watched "Finding Forrester," I couldn't help but remember the one time I met director Gus Van Sant, because I felt that the things that motivated Jamal Wallace were identical to the things that seemed to be motivating Van Sant. It was 1989 and we met in a Beverly Hills restaurant to talk about "Drugstore Cowboy," his first commercial film after the making of the award-winning, low-budget drama "Mala Noche."
That gritty homosexual romance between a skid-row liquor store clerk and a Mexican migrant laborer had been produced-directed by Van Sant for just $50,000 and now, after years of rejection by Hollywood, he was proving that he could helm an important mainstream picture. He was floating on top of the world, and his creative muse was whispering all the right answers into his ears as I popped the questions.
As Jamal is awkward in unfamiliar surroundings in "Finding Forrester," so was Van Sant awkward in his new role as Hollywood director. He didn't dress like any of the directors I was used to interviewing for the Chronicle in those days, and he displayed a boyish enthusiasm (with occasional touches of naivete) as he sat in the restaurant, oblivious to everything around him as he waxed enthusiastically about movies.
Given the usual Hollywood stereotypes, Van Sant didn't fit any of them. He was a diamond-in-the-rough individual, and that's what impressed me most that day. There was nothing else he wanted to talk about because movies were everything. You could tell that Van Sant lived and breathed movies. It was the one and only thing that possibly mattered in his world. After seeing "Finding Forrester," I would guess that part of him hasn't changed, only grown stronger.
"Drugstore Cowby," the movie that would indeed put him into a new place in the eyes of Hollywood, starred Matt Dillon and depicted the drug culture of the 1970s in a style that was moody and existentialistic. "I wanted the surface story," he told me, "to have an otherworldliness, an abstract texture. There's more going on here than just 'Say no to drugs.' This is getting into the head of an addict. Tearing into it to find all the secrets, and to better understand what makes a drug addict tick. Tick, that is, like a time bomb."
Van Sant, who had begun making movies when he was 16 (what he called "fanciful animated shorts in 16mm") and went on to the Rhode Island School of Design, had used his last $20,000 to get "Mala Noche" started. It took him more than a year, but he finished the film and with its acceptance at film festivals had taken his first major step toward fulfilling his dream.
Van Sant advised anyone wanting to get into the movie business "to make a low-budget film that gets their attention. This calls for a talent to make a small movie look like a big one. Where every penny counts up on the screen." He kept talking that way with a level of enthusiasm and understanding that was utterly refreshing. And he believed in himself like I hadn't seen in an up-and-coming filmmaker in a long while.
It didn't sound like he was bragging when he told me "I really have a feeling for low-key stuff like 'Drugstore Cowboy.' That's my niche. That's the key. Find your niche and work your heart out in it, and eventually the good things will come. Sometimes it takes a long while, but like molasses, it'll finally start to come."
I couldn't help but think of all the movies Van Sant has directed since that morning in '88. "Even Cowgirls Sing the Blues," "Psycho '99," "My Own Private Idaho" and the Oscar-winner "Good Will Hunting." Not bad for a guy who was broke and all but washed up when he finished "Mala Noche."
But Van Sant did what Jamal Wallace does in "Finding Forrester." He listened to his creative muse. And he allowed his creative juices to flow like never before, carrying him into new realms.
Keep listenin', Gus, keep listenin'.
© 2001 by John Stanley. The photos are © 2000 by Columbia Pictures.
You can comment on this column or contact John Stanley with an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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