My Own Private Van Sant

Finding Forrester's director used to make art--now he uses art to justify fluff

"A lot of times I felt like I could always direct anything I wanted," he adds, pointing out the freedom displayed in his first three films--the very first being the story of a twentysomething grocery-store clerk who falls in love with a 16-year-old Mexican boy. "The kids that we tried to get in [Mala Noche] from Mexico didn't understand what we were making. They might understand gay sex, but they didn't understand how you could make a film that had this subject, because to them the cinema was more like a church. It's similar in our culture, too. I was just breaking away from what you'd normally see in a theater."

By contrast, Finding Forrester is everything you'd expect to see in a theater, as the movie's ever-game director readily admits. The pitch goes something like this: See the uplifting story of a shut-in, eccentric, Fitzgerald/Shaw/Salinger-type author (Sean Connery) who's brought out of his agoraphobic shell by Jamal Wallace (newcomer Rob Brown), a black teenager and self-made writing genius from the Bronx. Life lessons are learned. Old guy comes to terms with his past. Youth learns to love. Sound familiar?

I should admit that the script by Mike Rich isn't quite as bad as its droll racial interplay might suggest. ("You're the man, now, dawg," goes one Connery line.) And the first third of the film unfolds like a good mystery, despite glaring Good Will parallels. The virtually untrained Brown has a quiet, pregnant presence that's a good foil for Connery, and he has one great, delicately realistic flirting scene with a now-college-aged Anna Paquin. Oh, and there are some cool basketball sequences, too (further cluttering the plot, Brown's genius is also a jock). As for Connery, who wasted the entirety of his last self-produced movie licking his chops over Catherine Zeta-Jones, he wraps himself in scarves here and summons a vulnerable, decidedly non-iconic performance--aided, no doubt, by Van Sant's naturalism, which feels looser than ever. Yet all is weighted down by a schoolmaster (F. Murray Abraham, doing his best Salieri once again) who suspects the kid is a plagiarist, and by a Scent of a Woman-smelling finale that has poor Busta Rhymes (as the older brother), who's made to articulate that The Man Will Always Find Ways to Keep You Down. And then, in its last reel, the movie devolves into full-scale matinee melodrama.

Hence the New Queer Cineaste, having once set out to "change film vocabulary," as he puts it, now masters the grammar of the Oscar vehicle. Still, Van Sant remains true to form by characterizing these moves in typical art-school terms. "Because I really hadn't done anything like Good Will Hunting, it was new for me," he says. "The only reason not to do something like that is because you're preserving a point of view that people have of you. I think it was something I was never expected to do, and assumed I couldn't do. And I wasn't quite sure whether I could do it, either. So it was experimental in a formulaic way: It was experimental as a form, not necessarily as a result, but the idea and the action of doing it were, for me, experimental."

There's another reason Van Sant considers Good Will Hunting and its Bronx stepchild avant-garde. "I was always under the impression that it was harder to make the ones that were perhaps socially unacceptable or dangerous," he says. "So making Good Will Hunting was an exercise in finding out whether that was true: Is it the subjects that prevent the audience from going? And Good Will Hunting indicated that, in fact, it's true. If you make something that is acceptable, is uplifting, and is for the people, you know, then more people will go, and actually they did. And Forrester was [meant] to back up that idea: Like, did it just happen [the first time] as a fluke, or was it actually true? If they go to Forrester, it's an example to me of saying that it is in fact harder to make those films that are challenging social morality, and that's kind of one of the experiments to me: to see whether or not it is easier to be mainstream than it is to be against the mainstream."

Which is kind of like saying that he experimented with crack cocaine to see whether it felt good and was addictive. Gus Van Sant has been bought to the degree that he, like every other Hollywood director, will now be expected to make films that are less about himself and more about the people who produce them. And given how intimately he once spoke to us, that's a shame.

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