Monday, January 8, 2001

Love Sidney

"There's some folks, that, if they don't know, you can't tell 'em."
-Louis Armstrong

I was telling my co-workers that the most memorable part of my holidays was seeing a two-year-old child get bit by a rat. Our office manager, recently a first time mother, said she couldn't get the image out of her head. "You don't say very much but what you do say is usually pretty interesting," she later came by to tell me. While I'm sure she meant it as a compliment, those words unfortunately have followed me around like a scarlet letter. Having a quiet and observant reputation has dogged me unfairly over the years, because I'm not quite either; I've just learned that often the more you say, the less you usually have to say. Better leaving them wanting more than less.

Some people throw their words away like there's no running out, that there are infinite things to say and it's only a matter of finding those who will listen. Others think about each and every word that tumbles from their lips, as if everything they say might just be their last words. For me, I've always admired those curious about the meaning of words, who are always on the lookout for deeper multiple meanings behind what seems inherently simple. At the same time I've always admired those who let their actions do the speaking, who don't need words to convey who they deep down really are.

If you think about all the movies you've ever seen, and think about the characters that actually seemed to have jobs, you would think the majority would be employed as cops, doctors, lawyers, construction workers, roofers, or administrators. Those are the people who actually have visually captivating things to do. Thus it seems odd that a disproportionate amount of movie characters are employed as writers. There can be nothing more boring, more cliched than watching a person at a typewriter or computer trying to find the inspiration to put words down on paper.

What can possibly account for this travesty? It's probably attributable to one of writing's golden rules- write about what you know. Therefore since most movies are apparently scripted, the writers tend to make their characters reflections of themselves and hence we get movie after movie about struggling writers. What makes the latest, Gus Van Sant's Finding Forrester stand out from the rest is that the movie really isn't about two writers. It's about two friends who happen to share a love of using the craft of writing to sort their way through their worlds.

The film is reminiscent of Van Sant's last original film, Good Will Hunting. The two movies share a story of a misunderstood and under appreciated talented young man who comes under the tutelage of a wise, but somewhat broken mentor. Matt Damon's Will Hunting uses manipulative cockiness to hide his insecurities. He of course was a bricklayer/janitor/mathematical genius. In Finding Forrester Rob Browne's Jamal Wallace is a kid from the ghetto who does just enough to get by in school yet whose SAT test scores are off the map thus getting the attention of a local prep school (who also wouldn't mind if Jamal uses his immense basketball skills to help their school's hoops team). The difference between the two is that Jamal isn't using his silence to mask his inherent talent. He's using the anonymity of written word to mask his heart because that's what is expected.

Browne's performance is stunning. It's his first acting role and he doesn't hit a wrong note. There's a episode where Jamal and his buddies are playing basketball and see a fidgety white guy hit the security button on his BMW. Jamal goes over to talk to him, letting him know the car's security system will do little good in that particular neighborhood. The man condescendingly assumes Jamal isn't aware of the value of his car. Jamal then gives a brief history lesson of how the German company originally began by making airplane engines but was prohibited from doing so after the war and thus turned their attention to cars. It is a wonderful scene.

Sean Connery plays the J.D. Salinger like author, William Forrester, who wrote a masterpiece novel in the 1950's and then proceeded to drop out of sight. Through a series of events Jamal enters Forrester's secluded existence and the two immediately share a love of their gift, writing. Unfortunately where the movie fails is in convincing us that either man is a great writer. We don't get to hear much of their work and what we do hear doesn't live up to the reverence other characters in the movie impart. The plot hinges on the F. Murray Abraham character's belief that Jamal couldn't have written what he has called his own. For Abraham it is a reprisal of his wonderful Salieri role in Amadeus yet because the words we hear are so trite, we aren't convinced he is wrong in his assumption.

The movie succeeds however in depicting the unconventional friendship between Connery and Browne. They make a rather odd pairing and yet they demonstrate that true friendship isn't restricted by boundaries. Both characters appreciate the value of words, and choose their own carefully like a never to be taken for granted spiritual chess match. The film is wonderful at showing those rare moments in life when you stumble across someone at just the right moment who makes all the current blues and all the painful past history disappear while indelibly leaving a mark on the future. One of Forrester's lessons for Jamal is that writer's don't write for others they write for themselves. It's a truism that's hard for an inspired reader to accept and yet applied to an in the garden friendship it becomes perfectly apparent. Words are important but lasting friendship is transcendental.

No comments: