With Finding Forrester, Gus Van Sant's Gone Hollywood for Good
Finding Forrester buries Gus Van Sant's first film Mala Noche under layers of sanctimony and sentimentality. Years after showing an hermetic older white man drawn toward young Latino boys, here Van Sant casts Sean Connery as Forrester, a reclusive author?and apparently the last white man in the South Bronx. From his tenement perch, Forrester scopes the young black boys playing basketball; his life changes when he mentors a specially gifted one, Jamal (Rob Brown). Instead of dramatizing relationships that reverse/examine standard social power positions, this film maintains the status quo wherein white social authority teaches/saves a naive black kid. Mala Noche exposed both exploitative and masochistic aspects of its protagonist's personality, while Finding Forrester stays so far from credible life experience it only reveals Van Sant soliciting his own artistic instincts, resorting to the most insincere Hollywood pandering.
It's not the first time. In the noxious, facetious To Die For, Van Sant's marginal perspective was at the service of a completely unconvincing, nihilistic media satire. His next film, Good Will Hunting, was only slightly better because it sympathized with the wayward youth that To Die For had deprecated. Even though Good Will Hunting effectively submerged its homoerotic subtext in feel-good mentoring (all those tears and hugs between Robin Williams and Matt Damon), it was essentially a phony concoction. Van Sant got his commercial breakthrough out of it, but at the cost of the originality and honesty that made Mala Noche distinctive. (It's still a film one has ambivalence about, but there's no denying it braved aspects of social experience that went beyond the sappily altruistic.) After his 1998 Psycho remake, Van Sant needed to get back to filmmaking that had a genuinely humane, if unsavory, purpose, but Finding Forrester?despite the Mala Noche template?isn't it.
Forrester and Jamal's friendship has no personal essence. When the boy suspects the old man with binoculars of homo-voyeurism, the excuse given is birdwatching. They pass a huge, phallic hunting knife between them. They dine together, and afterward one washes dishes while the other dries. Even the creative writing lessons Forrester gives Jamal show them working face-to-face at two typewriters?"in tandem" (as an orgy was described in The Wild Bunch). Anything that might be potentially interesting in this pairing is glossed over with social-worker niceties. Van Sant's indulgence of proper, socially defensive postures and attitudes feels erroneous. He doesn't risk the sex-race-class frissons that were central to James Toback's extraordinary Black and White. His formerly interesting renegade/outsider viewpoint here turns into pabulum.
It would have been great to see a credible artist depict the complexities of human connection without the conventional pieties (after Ratcatcher, this film offers the most shameless use yet of Carl Orff's Musica Poetica), but Mike Rich's script cooks up completely outlandish situations. First, he borrows the reclusive legend of J.D. Salinger. But even that's wrong?or at least irrelevant to the subject. Why not a Norman Mailer figure, picking up the interest in black youth culture that Mailer has been avoiding since late-70s graffiti? Rich uses the noncontroversial Salinger to legitimize interest in the underclass without the sexual and political baggage (or subversive identification) Mailer carries.
Van Sant doesn't evoke the quasi-sympathy he feels with Beat culture (as in Drugstore Cowboy). Although the movie opens with street rappers, its contrivance?and cultural remoteness?is unmistakable. As used here, hiphop has become an inauthentic cultural accessory, accessible to any hack. Its familiarity has, in fact, become a way of defamiliarizing black youth, turning them into inexpressive cliches like Jamal and his boys (including Busta Rhymes, crazily miscast as his brother). In George Washington, David Gordon Green instinctively avoided hiphop to reveal a deeper, confessional modern expression. With its combination of verite improvisation and poetry, George Washington represents the kind of filmmaking Van Sant has given up. Finding Forrester's fantasy contrivance?its sentimentalization of brotherhood, and of worldly fears that Forrester and Jamal share?suggests a degradation of the insight that hiphop once seemed to provide into universal young black American sensitivities. Unlike the trailblazing George Washington and Black and White, Finding Forrester is purely exploitative of the racial tension it simplistically resolves.
As Van Sant goes through the motions of a public service announcement (Jamal the jock is a Will Hunting-style genius whose unappreciated literary talent wins him a scholarship to an exclusive Manhattan prep school), the film only gets interesting when things don't seem so ideal: when Jamal turns a Halloween dare into an (unmotivated) opportunity for theft; the estrangement he feels from his best friend in the hood; or F. Murray Abraham's calm venom as a resentful teacher and failed author who doubts Jamal's capabilities and yet?in the film's best performance?humbles himself in Forrester's presence. Of particular potential are Jamal's encounters with a prep school rival?the green-eyed, blond, biracial androgyne John Hartwell (Matthew Noah Word), who presses him on the school's rooftop b-ball court.
Believing he has already filled the prep school's quota, Hartwell tells Jamal, "You may think we're the same; we're not." Van Sant unfortunately drops this jealousy and all hints of complicated, interracial competitiveness. Its unease lingers only because of a slightly eroticized tension between racial types (light-skinned Word and dark-skinned Brown engaging in ruthless court banter), yet Van Sant takes it no further, politically or sensually. Like the loose, raucous, ghetto high-school scenes or the Larry Clark-style lewdness of students caught kissing in a hallway, the observation looks realistic but feels contrived.
Finding Forrester's smooth proficiency indicates that Van Sant has become a Hollywood pro, skilled at prevarication. What is left out of this scrubbed-up vision of cultural intermixing is exactly what Van Sant used to specialize in when he was an unenfranchised filmmaker. It shows good will superseding the pressures of money, sex, privilege, yet the circumstances are so insultingly baroque it negates the possibility of real-life repetition and falsifies personal impulse. Other racially obsessed directors like Boaz Yakin (A Price Above Rubies, Remember the Titans) and Seth Zvi Rosenfeld (A Brother's Kiss) combined personalized sex and politics in suggestive ways. Yet Van Sant has turned discreet expression into falsehood. Without the rough-trade contrasts in both Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant's Hollywood films offer the very platitudes and cliches that limit the pop discussion on race.
Van Sant's self-denial is lamentable, because despite Finding Forrester working at a popular level, I doubt its effect will be progressive. Connery is always charismatic, yet he lacks the true actor's courage to give the absurd character believable Van Santian lechery. Still, he can win over an audience simply by launching into ghetto slang. And Brown's open, spoilable face?with a bright-eyed, beautiful stare that can be simultaneously hopeful and accusing?is one of the great benefits of Van Sant's keen instinct. But Brown's vibrant youth only shows how the energy between Forrester and Jamal is stifled. Their literary conversations remain trite: Jamal wouldn't have to tell Forrester that a quote ("The rest of those who have gone before us cannot steady the unrest of those to follow") came from his own book. It's Van Sant and Rich substituting intellectual intimacy with shameless guff about how "Losing family obliges us to find our family...who is not our blood." That's actually less intense than Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro's father-son dynamics in Men of Honor and it feels no less contrived than the brotherhood uplift in Remember the Titans. This film's climactic dilemma hinges on Forrester quitting his seclusion and defending his charge, despite Jamal deliberately breaking a promise and consciously breaking the school's rules. It's resolved by either the most bullcrap ending since Scent of a Woman or else Van Sant and Rich have cynically made a movie about how a ghetto family befriends a lonely celebrity and finds a great floor-through apartment in the bargain.
Finding Forrester caps a year of dubious Hollywood message movies?Bring It On, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Men of Honor, Remember the Titans. Despite Van Sant's artsy texture, American commercial filmmakers can't help but oversimplify race?always our greatest subject?out of a desire to ameliorate a topic that's easily avoided. So they try to do both simultaneously. Often the sheer emotional appeal of stars carries these hobbled good intentions. Connery and Brown's visual appeal is meant to match the harmonious interweave of Gooding's soft voice and De Niro's passionate stentorian rigor. They activated the military/social metaphor as if singing America's unarticulated patriarchal, generational race contest. Men of Honor proved people don't want to see racial lessons (rightly or wrongly); that they must be drawn in by likable, familiar personalities?even ubiquitous Michael Rapaport?in whom they identify their own vulnerabilities.
Bagger Vance flopped because Matt Damon and Will Smith's Caddying Mr. Daisy act was outmoded. Instead of acknowledging that institutional and personal racism existed (like Mala Noche or a post-WWII film like Home of the Brave), director Robert Redford avoided it?erased it?leaving his actors to play fluff, slowly.
By omitting or falsifying details of social impediment?only showing the high points of triumph and perseverance?these movies reveal the weaknesses of a culture afraid to admit race struggle. Men of Honor runs smack into affirmative action controversy, but never deals with it plainly. The most effective moment in any of these films comes when Gooding struggles beneath a soundtrack playing the Temptations' "I Wish It Would Rain." It's a pop cultural "Hallelujah!" yet as shallow and manipulative as Jerry Bruckheimer's Top 40 playlist constantly trivializing Remember the Titans' emotional goodness. Hollywood's contradictions about doing the right thing was summed up by Denzel Washington in Titans saying: "I'm not a savior, just a coach." Embarrassed by reality, Hollywood settles for finding bromides.
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