Losing Forrester Behind the Window

What does one say about the movie critic disappointed that “Jaws” was a terrible romantic comedy? A good movie is a movie that achieves its goals; that the critic may not value those goals doesn’t seem relevant. Writing about “Finding Forrester” (2000) in the New York Times, for example, Stephen Holden hated it for its Hollywood formulas and false depictions of life, but since when has Hollywood valued real life? Holden writes, “Forrester appears to have had no life at all for the past four decades. (But if that’s the case, what on earth could he be writing about?).” This critical comment may say more about Stephen Holden’s imagination than it does about the movie. And Holden doesn’t even get some of the details correct: “When not pounding away at the typewriter, he [Forrester] spends his time peering through binoculars at a neighborhood basketball game in the playground below.” While Forrester does watch the games, he’s primarily a bird watcher when at the window with his binoculars. And Holden makes much of a J. D. Salinger comparison, but if Salinger was in the movie, I must have been out getting popcorn when he appeared.

Roger Ebert was more generous, and approaches the film on its own terms: “The movie contains at least two insights into writing that are right on target. The first is William’s advice to Jamal that he give up waiting for inspiration and just start writing. My own way of phrasing this rule is: The Muse visits during composition, not before. The other accurate insight is a subtle one. An early shot pans across the books next to Jamal’s bed, and we see that his reading tastes are wide, good and various. All of the books are battered, except one, the paperback of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which looks brand new and has no creases on its spine. That’s the book everyone buys but nobody reads.”

Emanuel Levy, writing in Variety, called the script “extremely old fashioned.” Of course! That’s what the makers were after, yet Laura Miller, in Salon, calls it a “farrago,” and dislikes it for not being the movie she wants it to be. But at least she doesn’t mention J. D. Salinger. Laura doesn’t like the ambiguity of references to writing we are unable to read so we can’t know if it’s any good or even what it’s about; plus, Laura says, “the movie is hellbent on getting the author out of the house and, by extension, away from his typewriter. That’s just another way of saying that writers would be warm, loyal and otherwise terrific people — if only they’d quit writing.” She may be on to something there. One of my favorite Forrester quotes comes when William is pacing with his drink while Jamal tentatively gets started on the typewriter: “Punch the keys!” William yells. Writing is physical, William seems to be saying, a paradox, but the body does scream to get away from the typewriter – perhaps that’s where so much of the tension in writing comes from.

David Walker, writing in Van Sant’s home town alternative (to the Oregonian) newspaper, Willamette Week, predicted Oscar success. While Oscar apparently slept through the movie, “Finding Forrester” did win several more obscure awards.

What does “Finding Forrester,” as full as it is of pathos about writing, have to say about writing that holds ethos? One of my favorite quotes comes from William: “A lot of writers know the rules about writing, but they don’t know how to write.” The same might be said of movie directors and movie critics: a lot of them know the rules of making movies, but those rules don’t always turn into satisfying movies if the movie isn’t the movie the critic wanted to see. The goals of “Finding Forrester” are clear in its music score, particularly the ending IZ medley of “Over the Rainbow” with “It’s a Wonderful World.” When Jamal steps into William’s apartment, and when he steps into Mallor, the private school that recruits him for his scores on tests and on the basketball court, he knows he’s not in the Kansas that has been his Bronx anymore. And we know Oz is not a real place, but we hold our disbelief in suspension, and, if nothing else, enjoy the score – the real score, that is, and to appreciate that we need to know something about Bill Frisell, the truly wonderfully eclectic jazz guitarist (Eric, Eric’s drum teacher Joe Janiga, and I saw him with drummer Jack DeJohnette at the Aladdin a few years back).

I also met the “Finding Forrester” director, Gus Van Sant, one year at the Portland Art Museum. My friend William invited me to share tickets he had to a Van Sant reception. I had thought William said the reception was being put on by the AFL-CIO. What in the world would the AFL-CIO be doing feting Gus Van Sant, I wondered. They weren’t, and William enjoyed quite the laugh at my expense. It was, of course, the ACLU hosting the reception. Anyway, we went up and introduced ourselves to Gus and chatted with him for a spell, a quiet, unassuming, and fairly open guy. He was interested in hearing about the work William was doing for the introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) at the time. This was long before “Finding Forrester.”

Anyway, back to “Finding Forrester” and what it might have to say about writing. There are few shadows in “Finding Forrester.” Apart from the stark contrasts of black and white, albeit Hollywood style (the two teachers, Mr. Crawford and William; Claire and Jamal, and their respective homes; the two schools; Jamal and his team nemesis), there’s the window – as image, metaphor, symbol, of medium, of looking through without noticing the glass (if there’s a reference to Salinger anywhere in the movie, the window is probably it). Forrester continually, obsessively, cleans the window of his apartment throughout the movie. The window is a metaphor for writing. Jamal and his basketball buddies call William “the Window.” The writer. And the writer disappears behind the window into the work, behind the scenes.


  1. Bill Goodman says:

    I have seen this movie on countless occasions, and I agree with Forrester: “The critics have been talking about my book for years; they just haven’t been saying anything.”

    I have seen this movie impact young people enough to help them want to write. The techniques introduced by Forrester to Jamal are fresh and unique and are not found in writing textbooks — which do not affect students as much as this movie has.

    Pathos is appropriate if it influences the heart without manipulation. Forrester himself was the ethos in the film as opposed to Crawford who ought to have been because of his position and profession. However, it is often from the most unexpected sources that we usually find wisdom. Although humility was neither of these characters’ strong suite, it was the primary strength of the younger “Black kid from the Bronx.” Perhaps the critics were looking in the wrong places, after all.


    1. Joe Linker says:

      The Tomatometer at Rotten Tomatoes shows 70% of approved user/reviewers writing a positive review: “Reviews Counted:30; Fresh:21; Rotten:9; Average Rating:6.4/10,” and their consensus is: “Despite the predictability of its plot and its similarity to Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester has an honest, solid feel to it and good rapport between Connery and Brown.” IMDb shows a user review rating of 7.2 out of 10 (over 35,000 reviews).

      Rotten Tomatoes hits on a complaint some of the professional critics mention, Finding Forrester’s following in Good Will Hunting’s footsteps. And this complaint stems from a similar complaint from critics who valued Gus Van Sant as an independent filmmaker. They felt Gus had sold out to commercial values. None of which, of course, is relevant to a close textual reading of the film. Yes, it’s a commercial effort; does it succeed given its makers’ purpose and intended audience? Well, it appears to have been a commercial success. Do some of the critics give us something more to think about, discuss, and write about when considering the film? Yes, they do, opposing viewpoints.

      Roger Ebert gives us a fitting conclusion in his review: “I was reminded of another movie, a great one, named “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (1962). In both that movie and this one, a disadvantaged young man simply refuses to perform like a trained seal, because he knows that will be a lethal blow against his adult tormentors. In a movie where sports supplies an important theme, Jamal’s crucial decision supplies the best insight in the story about his journey between two worlds.” The long distance runner is another kind of writer.


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