Finding Forrester Reflection Essay

Director: Gus Van Sant
Mike Rich - Written by
Sean Connery - William Forrester
Rob Brown - Jamal Wallace
F. Murray Abraham - Robert Crawford
Anna Paquin - Claire Spence
Busta Rhymes - Terrell Wallace

STUDENTS: If you're a student would you please post a comment and tell me where you're from and what class you're writing for? And, if you can I'd love to see what you're writing for those English and Story classes, or what kind of form you had to fill out for the assignment that sent you here. I'm collecting these. Send them to stan@moralpremise.com   Thanks.  If you'd like a FREE BOOKMARK with writer's helps printed on both sides, send a SASE to "The Moral Premise, PO Box 29, Novi, MI  48376." Here a link to more information. (Scroll down to the bottom of the page linked to see the bookmark.)

Finding Forrester takes place in the Bronx where William Forrester, a white, recluse novelist, makes an unlikely friendship with, and mentors, a black 16-year old boy who is gifted at both basketball, literature, and writing, Jamal Wallace.

Finding Forrester (FF), however, is really about finding hope by venturing into the unknown. We make assumptions about the unknown that become legendary prejudices, urban myths, which in turn reinforce our unfounded fears. When chance, fate, or Providence breaks down the barriers, and if we open our heart, we are given new life, and can face the ultimate unknown, death, with peace.

Physical Goals: Jamal Wallace wants to be accepted by his urban peers and so excels at street basketball, purposely hiding his intelligence behind a C average. He secretly writes in notebooks, something he's done since his father left home. His standardized test scores, however, indicate a brilliant mind. He's recruited by Mailor, a private and somewhat exclusive Manhattan school that needs help on its basketball team. Jamal's physical goal is to be accepted by those around him for what he's capable of doing. But he's held back by his own prejudice toward his peers and the prejudice of others that a black kid from the Bronx can play basketball but nothing more.

William Forrester, also a kid from the Bronx, however, wrote a famous novel 50 years earlier that is still creating a wait list at the New York Public Library. He only wrote the one novel, however because he was offended at the crack reviews, and because the deaths of his brothers and parents sent him into a long depression. Forrester, says screenwriter Mike Rich, like many other famous novelists, wrote for themselves, and not the public. Forrester wants to "get out" but he's afraid of what the public and the world outside have in store for him.

In FF, Jamal has to fight his way into Forrester's life, onto the Mailor basketball team, into the acceptance of his literature professor, Robert Crawford, and into the broader culture of Manhattan.

Forrester has to fight his way out of his top floor Bronx flat where he's quadruple locked himself in -- at the door -- but leaves his window, accessible by the fire escape, unlocked . Although his former life involved mountain treks in search of rare birds, now his outside adventures are limited to sticking the top half of his body out the window and sitting on the still to clean the pane's exterior. The clean window allows him to watch Jamal and friends play basketball, and occasional videotape the stray bird from the park.

The Moral Premise. FF can be summarized in this moral premise statement:

Ignorance and avoidance of the unknown
leads to fear, isolation, and despair;
but Knowledge and embrace of the unknown
leads to faith, friendship, and hope.

Expanding on this premise, FF is about how to achieve our dreams that are out of our present reach. The movie suggests that to extend our reach we have to enter territory that often appears dangerous.

This moral premise is ubiquitous in many metaphoric and didactic ways.

A. Fear of the Unknown. The opening rap is about how the force of will allows us to make decisions which allow us to achieve our dreams, even in the face of an establishment that wants to hold us back. In this case the reference is the "white" establishment holding back "blacks". The story, however, isn't as much about racial prejudice, as it is the greater prejudice toward people that are unlike us in a multitude of other ways, white or black. This affinity of keeping to our own kind is one of those mental roadblocks that takes on, unnecessarily, racial identity. FF does a good job of revealing that such prejudice is much deeper than race, and that race becomes the scapegoat. One of the reasons racial prejudice will never go away is because there is a deeper and broader distrust of anyone that is not exactly like us in a hundred other ways — race, yes, but also culture, class, language, height, weight, fashion, intelligence, language, business affiliation, school affiliation, and social standing. It is the fear generated by ignorance of these different categories that leads to false assumptions, which in turn breeds fear.

B. The Raven. Ironically, Jamal's public high school literature teacher asks the students if they are familiar with Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. A cursory examination of The Raven suggests that Poe's poem was Mike Rich's inspiration for FF. In the poem, Poe is distracted from his depression and grief over the death of "the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore." In the poem, an ebony raven comes rapping at Poe's window. In the movie it's Jamal who enters Forrester's window (first) and door (second). When Poe, the recluse writer, lets in the insistent Raven, it perches upon a bust of Pallas, the Greek God of wisdom. Similarly Jamal comes into Forrester's recluse life in search of wisdom. This reference is doubled in the movie when Forrester, a bird watcher, videotapes a bird outside his window that has "strayed from the park" as Jamal has strayed from his urban culture into Forrester's. Poe's raven is a symbol of sadness and depression that will not go away, because the hope that love has offered has gone away. Rich's screenplay explores what would happen if the raven, which enters the sad writer's life, were to renew hope, rather than reinforce sadness. The connection to the moral premise, here, is Poe's (and Forrester's) reluctance to mount the courage to leave the land of destitution and enter the land of hope.

C. Entering the Lion's Den. On a simple dare, late at night, Jamal enters Forrester's flat via the fire escape and unlocked window. It's a "rickety" entrance that reveals Jamal's willingness to explore uncharted territory. The first thing Jamal does in the flat is unbolt and open the entrance door. It is a practical move that allows him to quickly escape if found-out (which is he), but it also foreshadows his goal for Forrester, and where the story is leading. Jamal is spooked by Forrester and runs out of the flat, leaving his pack behind. Forrester finds it, reads his "notebooks" and marks up his writing with red highlighter, asking at the end of one of the notebooks, "Where are you leading me?" It's a writing instructor's rhetorical question that also moves the story forward. Indeed Jamal is leading Forrester out the front door, now, figuratively unlocked.

D. Questions Point to Unknown Fear. In an early discussion between them, Forrester says to Jamal:
There's a question in your writing about what you want to do with your life. That's a question your present school cannot answer for you.
This comment suggests that Jamal needs to brave the unknown in order to find a way out of the urban parking lot metaphor that his brother, the parking lot supervisor, as succumbed to.

E. Forrester Fears Discovery. After Jamal discovers who Forrester is, he confronts him and wants to tell Forrester what he thought of his novel, Avalon Landing. Forrester wants nothing to do with Jamal's opinion, and is sacred that Jamal will reveal Forrester's whereabouts. Forrester has been invaded and he's scared. He's been found out. His life is no longer private, and he gets Jamal to promise to keep the secret from others. Jamal promises this if Forrester helps him be a better writer. Here we see Jamal forcing Forrester into a constructive confrontation with the outside world, in exchange for gaining wisdom about his inside world. (43 min)

F. Playing by the Rules. Shortly after Jamal starts at Mailor, he has trouble opening his locker. Along comes the chairman's daughter, Clair Spence, who bangs on the locker to make it spring open. "At least they look good," she offers. It's small, but it's a metaphor for the moral premise, nonetheless. The locker door presents a barrier to the unknown. How to cross its threshold requires unconventional methods, and even a little confrontation. We're afraid sometimes to go places when the methods are not our style. So Jamal tells Forrester while watching Jeopardy,
If you're going to play the game, then you need to know the rules.
You don't enter the new world using techniques from the old world. On the otherhand, Jamal's courage is the opposite of conformity. He refuses to run from things that others would fear.

Following the rules, in an unknown world" is also metaphored to us during Jamal's early visit to Forrester's flat. This is a literary lion's den, as the DVD chapter title suggests. It is not a basketball court. Jamal, a basketball always at the ready, absently mindedly starts to dribble the ball in Forrester's flat. Forrester stops correcting Jamal's essay and looks uneasy at him. Jamal stops dribbling. The rules for playing the literary game are not the same as playing basketball. Jamal puts the ball aside.

Again, we see this play out in two scenes were Jamal first avoids a confrontation with Professor Crawford and later when he confronts Crawford and beats the old man at his game of pity quotations. In the first instance, Jamal avoids Crawford's wrath because he played by the game rules of the new environment. But later he incurs Crawford's wrath when he plays by rules not suited for Crawford's lion's den. The lion threatens to eat Jamal. In all these instances of playing or not playing by the rules, Jamal demonstrates his resolve of not being restrained from his dream. He shows us that bravery is necessary for claiming the hope that we all desire.

G. Avalon Landing. Forrester's (one) wunderbook, Avalon Landing, is referenced by Crawford as the great 20th century novel, which suggests how life never ever works out. It describes Forrester's lament and fear of breaking out of the despair that surrounded him after the war and the deaths of his brother, mother and father. Rather than bravely entering the new world offered to him, Forrester retreats from the unknown and lives a life of isolation and fear.

H. "The Season of Faith's Perfection" is a New Yorker article that Forrester wrote about the Yankee's World Series pennant race in 1960. Forrester's family rarely missed a Yankee's home game played in the Bronx at the stadium Babe Ruth built. But in 1960 the Yankee's lost the championship to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the last half of the ninth inning of the seventh game. The article's title is a metaphor of how there is a season where faith can take hold and produce hope, even in the midst of grave disappointment.

I. The Unknown of the Blank Page. About half way through the movie (at about 53 minutes) Jamal faces the unknown...a blank page stuck in a typewriter. Even though Forrester demonstrates how to cross the barrier into the unknown, Jamal is not sure how to pursue his dream. Forrester tells him to write from his heart, and use his mind later. But Jamal is still stuck. Finally Forrester retrieves his 1960 New Yorker article (above) and tells Jamal to re-type his words until he finds his own. Jamal musters the courage and starts in -- tentatively. Forrester yells at him to "PUNCH THE KEYS". Shortly, Jamal does, and in so doing embraces the moment of grace to write from his heart — the strong sounds of the punched keys resonate throughout the flat. At that, Forrester yells in Jamal's street vernacular, "Yes! Yes! You're the man now, dog."

J. What is the Scarlott Tanager? Jamal and Forrester are watching Jeopardy on TV and the question for the answer is: "What is a scarlet tanager?" Forrester quotes a James Lowell poem about a scarlet tanager "Thy duty, winged flame of sprig, is but to love and fly and sing," and explains to Jamal how the poem is about "the song of the tanager, a song of new seasons, new life." Indeed, the moral premise even on Jeopardy.

K. Street Courage. Later, as Jamal walks home, he demonstrates his comfort, if not courage, in an environment that others would run from. He shuns what would seem like the safer sidewalk and walks down the dark street's center, even as: a police cruiser (lights flashing) passes him closely checking him out, a car burns on the other side, and then it downpours. Jamal is aware of all this, but walks steadily on, offering no defense, or courtesy to any of the elements. This shot could be interpreted as Jamal's comfort in the Bronx neighborhood, but it also underscores his embrace of the moral premise by summing-up the bravery to confront unflinchingly that territory that robs mankind of hope.

L. Under the Outer Worlds. When Jamal and Claire spend an afternoon together at a museum, they have the courage to discuss the budding romance between them and the difficulties implied by their different backgrounds of class, culture and race. He also asks her about how she happened to go to Mailor, which only a few years ago was an all boys school. The conversation occurs under oversized models of the outer planets of the Solar System that hang from the glass ceiling. The scene again reinforces the dream of mankind to venture into the unknown in order to uncover our hope for the future.

M. Getting Out. On Forrester's birthday, Jamal persuades him to get out and go to a baseball game. But Forrester gets lost in the crowds and cowards in a corner of the stadium's belly. They leave, and Jamal, with the pull of his brother, takes Forrester to the pitcher's mound of old Yankee stadium in the Bronx. The evening is the beginning of Forrester's finding himself and leaving the confines of his self-imposed prison. He finally shares with Jamal the ghosts that have kept him holed up during the past years, and in so doing finds hope for the future. Jamal quotes him his own words,
The rest of those who have gone before us, cannot steady the unrest of those to follow.
In other words, to find peace, to find ourselves, we must each summon our own courage to enter the unknown future.

N. The Challenge of Integrity. Jamal is accused of plagiarism on an essay entered in the school's writing contest' he has quoted Forrester but doesn't cite him. It is the essay that begins with Forrester's title and first paragraph of "A Season of Faith's Perfection." Not knowing that the article was previously published, Jamal doesn't know he could cite the article from the public record, but rather fears that to reveal his source would force him to break his promise to Forrester. When Jamal confronts Forrester about the problem of possibly being kicked out of school and they discuss the bitter prejudice that Crawford exhibits toward Jamal, Forrester offers an explanation:
FORRESTER: Do you know what people are most afraid of?

JAMAL: What?

FORRESTER: What they don't understand. And when we don't understand we turn to our assumptions.
In other words, our fear comes from ignorance of the unknown, and our inability to enter the unknown with courage.

O. Writing From Your Heart. Another important scene that reinforces the moral premise is the city championship basketball championship at Madison Square Garden. The game comes down to two foul shots that Jamal is given to shoot, with time already run out. If he makes them both, they win. But Jamal has just been offered an illicit settlement in the supposed plagiarism scandal. As he stands at the free-throw line, he realizes that he will be defined by what happens here, not only to the school and Crawford who looks on, but by himself. He doesn't want to graduate from Crawford and be pushed through the academic system simply because he's a jock. He wants to be acknowledged for all that he is. He faces a dilemma but makes the decision that requires the most courage of his young life. It's been clearly shown that Jamal never misses a free throw, and under pressure can shoot 50 consecutive. But on this night, he will define his life for the future. He misses both shots.

This is a huge barrier that takes an immense amount of courage. He is entering unknown territory, but he is determined not to be restrained from his dream as the opening rap foreshadows like a Greek chorus. He will claim his dream to be a writer, and a man of integrity. Making those two shots, would define him as a jock from the Bronx who cheated his way through school and probably cheated on his essay. Jamal faces Forrester's earlier challenge of "writing for himself" and not to write for others. Forrester's exile was in part because he let the opinion of others define him. Jamal was going to be the defining process, not the crooked board of directors who just wanted the school to win basketball games.

That night, after the game, he writes Forrester a letter at the New York public library. Forrester cleans his windows — it's time to see more clearly, even at night. Forrester seemingly knows that Jamal has chosen to define his life for himself and not for others. Finishing the windows, Forrester pumps up the flat tire on his bicycle and rides freely, happily, and without fear through the Bronx streets.

Jamal's ultimate act of self-honesty and integrity, free both him to define what others will say about him, even as it frees Forrester.

P. Forrester's Return. With his new freedom from fear, Forrester has the courage to go to Mailor and defend Jamal during the writing contest. With a surprise visit that is honored by Crawford, Forrester reads a paper that Jamal has written, although Crawford doesn't know it at the time and praises Forrester for what he assumes are the old writer's words. The essay is about both Forrester and Jamal and their fears. What we hear of it is this:
"Losing family obligates us to find our family. Not always the family that is our blood, but the family that can become our blood. And should we have the wisdom that would open our door to this new family, we will find that the wishes we once had for the father, who once guided us..."

The only thing left to say will be 'I wish I had seen this, or I wish I had done that or I wish...

Q. A Peaceful End. At the end of the movie, Jamal, three years later, learns that Forrester has died of cancer in Scotland. In a letter to Jamal, Forrester makes it clear that had it not been for their friendship, Forrester's dreams of returning to Scotland would not have been fulfilled. Jamal gave Forrester the courage to make the decision to end his exile from society and go home before it was too late.

There are other elements in the movie that reinforce the moral premise for each of the main characters, including Professor's Crawford's embrace of the vice side of the moral premise. But, we'll save that for another time, or your own essay. Or, perhaps, someone else would like to write that for posting here. Anyone?

UPDATE 4.25.2015 - MORE ON THE OPENING RAP

Jimmy Bobbitt
Here is a link to the opening rap lyrics and a collection of very good discussion questions.
OPENING RAP LYRICS AND DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
My thanks to the Highline Schools literature teacher for compiling this PDF. It's very useful. (Who are you?)

A reader asked for an interpretation of the rap. I hint at it earlier when I write:
The opening rap is about how the force of will allows us to make decisions which allow us to achieve our dreams, even in the face of an establishment that wants to hold us back. (section A)
That is true of both Jamal and Forrester. And,...
Jamal AND Forrester are entering unknown territory. Jamal, particularly, is determined not to be restrained from his dream as the opening rap foreshadows like a Greek chorus. (section O second paragraph)
To see the "clarity" of the rap, which is ladened with poetic slang and metaphors, read it over, a-loud several times....slowly. As you do, look for clauses and juxtapositions that:

A. Pertain to Jamal's dream of breaking out of the destructive prejudices he's grown up with against education as if it was only a white man's sport. The very first line tells you this: "Yo, nothin' can keep me detained."  Also: "feast when I release the beast within," and "the reapers twin."

B. Remind one of the end they will received if they persistent in this prejudice against education and mentors (of any race or class) that can help us fully actualize our calling. The last line of the first stanza depicts that: "you should bear witness to the end of your existence." There are a number of metaphors that point to a tragic end to those that persist against an education than can elevate: e.g. "body outliner," "red juice," and "up the block."

The style of the rap does seem to waft between the two voices that battle within Jamal (and Forrester), one that tells them to escape the hopelessness of their situation, and the other voice that tells them they can't escape... that defeat is inevitable. A better understanding of the slang, which I don't have, would explain this. Ultimately, however, poetry purpose is to give pause to reflection, not explain things to perfection.

DVD
VOD


Finding Forrester: a quick analysis on film narrative and mise en scène

1. The Opening: three-act-structure and montage

Mike Rich finished Finding Forrester script in 1998, which not only was his first film script but also earned him an award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The story was based on Mike Rich’s English teacher Mrs.Forster back in his high school days. It is relatively fascinating to see how the script grew from a high school inspiration to a story of overcoming inequality and criticizing the rigid and disparaging education system. The story follows strictly the classic three-act-structure of narrative. The three-act-structure refers to a modern storytelling technique that divides fictional narrative into three parts: the Setup, the Confrontation, and the Resolution. The Setup (Act 1) introduces the characters and their basic situation. (Lacey, 1998) In the case of Finding Forrester, the film opened with a montage of people, buildings and streets in The Bronx accompanied with a teenager’s bit of rap, no particular name was dropped but audiences who are familiar with New York can easily recognize the place. The opening used a variety of extreme long shot for landscape and long shot for group of people, depth of field (the distance between the nearest and furthest area from the camera that is in focus) is constantly altered to prevent the appearance of hard edges in the image, giving a romantic look to the scene. 

As to why those techniques were employed, we have to understand that The Bronx is where most of the story was carried out since it’s where Jamal and Forrester live, and also where Jamal came from. Further analysis on The Bronx and how significant it is to the development of the characters was already discussed in this post. I, however, wanted to note how The Bronx was portrayed in the opening scene as a vibrant neighborhood rich of stereotyped black culture (the rapping, the hip hop vibe with all black people on the street) Stereotype here refers to a short cut to meaning, and is not necessarily misleading or offensive. It was purposefully made to give audiences certain ideas about the backgrounds of Jamal. At the same time, the portrayal also rebels against stereotypical portrayal of The Bronx from media, since most often it is depicted as somewhere poor and dangerous. I would say that the intent is to give audiences an usual yet familiar glimpse of The Bronx, also hinting the contrast between who people (both audiences in the beginning and characters like Crawford) expect to Jamal to be and who he really is. It resonates with the way audiences presume how The Bronx is before seeing the movie, and yet Finding Forrester’s portrayal of The Bronx did not exactly take them by surprise either because certain other familiar features of the area were shown.

The rap voice in the background and the romantic shots, although seemed to contradicted each other, actually blended seamlessly. The message of the movie is loud and clear: the contrast was highlighted not to drive a wedge but to signify a reconciliation between the two poles of contradictions. This theme of contradictions follows us much to the later part of the story, and made apparent through the two characters Forrester and Jamal: Forrester was white and old, Jamal was black and young. Forrester won a Pulitzer prize for writing, Jamal had to hide his writing. Forrester was a hermit keeping himself away from the world, Jamal was sociable and has a group of close friends, and yet at the heart of the movie their reconciliation was nurtured by the shared love for literature and writing. 

There seems to be no significant problem brought forward at Act 1, but to certain extent viewers can sense that there is something else to Jamal than just a black kid who played basketball from The Bronx, and the incident with Forrester confirms this suspicion to be true. And yet, the story was still stable and no dramatic change happened. The only possible climax that moves the story to its second stage is when Jamal was offered the scholarship to Mailor-Callow, Forrester finally opened his door to Jamal, teaching him the first lesson on ’“the soup question”, and challenging Jamal to speak what he had in mind. Nonetheless, Act 1, especially the opening, not only introduces the characters but also gives some hints regarding the story development and the overall theme of the movie. 

2. Mise en scène 

Mise en scène means literally ‘put on stage’ and is used in Film Studies to demonstrate the film director’s control of everything that appears in the film frame. When analysing mise en scène we must assume that everything in the picture has been put there for a reason; it is a series of codes waiting to be interpreted. 

There are three main components of mise en scène analysis: the subject, the lighting, and the setting of image. (Lacey, 1998)

A clear demonstration of mise en scène in Finding Forrester is the comparison between the apartment of Forrester and the room of Crawford, both are places where Jamal was asked by his two “teachers” to write under their watching.

The majority of Forrester’s scenes take place in his apartment, the place holds significance in the development of the story. According to Jane Musky the production designer of the movie: 

We wanted the apartment to look like a kind of Never Never Land to Jamal, who comes from a normal street environment and lives in cramped quarters. Because it had to carry so many scenes, we decided to make the apartment oversize, almost palatial, so that the camera could move around in it freely. Also, Sean Connery is a big man, so everything there - the chairs, the table, the bed, they’re all oversize too.

We had to achieve 40 years of layering so that the apartment had the proper authentic texture. It wasn’t supposed to be a fire hazard, you know, strewn with papers and all sorts of junk. On the other hand, it had to be crowded and filled with.., well, stuff. The problem was to fill it with the right stuff.

The apartment, although filled with books and stuff, was filmed in the warm yellow light, offering a cozy niche for wisdom and conversations to grow. While Jamal was doing his typing, Forrester left to drink in the other room. The shots of separate rooms divided by the wall in the middle of the frame suggests that Forrester’s apartment is now Jamal’s home, their activities and feelings were transposed. The physical wall, in my interpretation, actually breaks the invisible wall between teacher and student, here Forrester and Jamal were completely at ease with each other, the physical wall did not matter because they were linked to each other on a much deeper level - a mentorship built on common interest. 

In contrast, the Crawford’s room shot offers another perspective of teacher - student relationship

Here the color of the scene is blue, Crawford was seen through his door window like he was trapped in his environment. Forrester managed to step out of his apartment toward the end of the movie, but we never see Crawford outside of Mailor-Callow. It seems that he was stuck with his limited role in his limited world. The full shot of the inside of Crawford’ room indicates how tense the teacher-student relationship is, even though here they were not separated by any physical wall like in Forrester’s apartment.

After his remark “Interesting what happens when our resources aren’t close at hand” the scene shows both through the door’s windows, but now Jamal is viewed through the left door’s window. They face each other as two opposites, yet this time Jamal was trapped in this environment due to Crawford’s order. Reflecting this back to Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” criticizing the teacher who “presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence” This rings true with Crawford’s teaching method, which emphasizes on him being the narrating subject in his class by actively doing all the talking, and students as the passive, patient, listening objects by staying silent and accepting whatever thrown at them. It’s also a total contrast to Forrester’s method of “teaching” which provokes and challenges his student (Jamal) to express his ideas. 

__________________________________

References:

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed (New rev. 20th-Anniversary ed.). New York: Continuum.

Harris, C. (2001, December 23). Finding Forrester Study Guide. Film Education. Retrieved June 23, 2013, from http://www.filmeducation.org/pdf/film/finding%20forrester.pdf

Lacey, N. (1998). Image and representation: key concepts in media studies. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Lesson Three - the film as medium. (n.d.). RVS Resource Server. Retrieved July 14, 2013, from http://resource.rockyview.ab.ca/rvlc/ela202/zold/ZENG23/film/3_film_as_medium/3_film_as%20medium.html

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