Edward Morgan Forster, canonized as one of the great figures of twentieth century British literature, wrote classics such as A Room With A View (1908) and A Passage To India (1924). Marc Forster, on the other hand, is a remarkably below-average filmmaker who has made pretentious, bland films such as Finding Neverland (2004) and Stranger Than Fiction (2006). Despite their shared surnames, what other differences can we draw from their lives? Well, evidence suggests that Marc Forster has registered junk films at the Directors Guild since 2000, when he cranked out his first major feature Everything Put Together. It was a muddled effort, one of the prominent elements that characterizes his subsequent films, but it didn’t deter him from lumbering around Hollywood with a shaved head and a pale complexion like Brando in The Island of Doctor Moreau.1
In contrast, Edward Morgan (or E.M., as his Rapper fans like to call him) had at least the foresight not to pursue a film career after he wrote the script for the tedious A Diary For Timothy (1945). Moreover, literary historians have not uncovered any photos of E.M. sporting a shaved head, although his existing photographs suggest he had the undignified habit of splattering liters of axle grease on his bowl haircut. Nevertheless, the contentious merits of the two men will have to remain forever in the spirit of debate. For the meeting between the two was never meant to be: E.M. died in 1970, a year after the birth of Director Forster—and, consequently, modern history was robbed of a momentous encounter. The possibilities are endless: it’s even safe to assume that in a round of sumo wrestling, E.M.’s shiny pomade-laden hair would have blinded Marc Forster, forcing the director to charge into a brick wall.
Still, this phenomenon of similar last names with divergent lives reminds us of how, existentially, two people will end up vastly different in their own uniqueness. To explore the concept further, and with the advent of Quantum of Solace, the 22nd Bond film directed (I’m sorry to announce) by Marc Forster, I have delved into the works of this German-Swiss director to see what he might bring to the new 007 film—not an easy endeavor, I might add, and recommended only for those with high tolerance for migraines.
Everything Put Together (2000) is an ironic title, considering that Forster’s first film is unglued on so many levels. Yet it is a masterful stroke of confusion, a disarray of events pointing to human misery and, ultimately, profound nonsense—in 87 minutes, we have Sudden Infant Death syndrome, a woman screaming in anguish, a woman isolated from her dingbat friends after the baby dies, a woman contending with an insensitive husband, a woman caught in a vague statement concerning medical incompetence. Through it all, her tormented state is expressed in the shaky hand-held camera work shot on digital video. Radha Mitchell (who should have known better) plays Angie, a young wife who loses her one-day old baby. It’s enough to make the film spin out of control into Twilight Zone territory. The husband, ever vigilant to be a moron, has an innovative approach to heal the grief: he doesn’t talk to her! Instead, he throws a barrage of anger at her for being so heartbroken. Meanwhile, her friends are clueless about how to deal with her condition and so they stop calling or visiting, thrusting Angie into her solitude and grief.
Predictably, Angie snaps and wanders in a trance-like state. She shops for baby stuff and breaks into her friends’ homes to hold their babies. All the while, the soundtrack pierces with screams of an infant and other obscure noises. We have entered, the narrative suggests, into the demented state of this woman. It is old territory, something we’ve encountered in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Todd Haynes's Safe (1995), Todd Field’s In the Bedroom (2002), and that one episode of Fantasy Island where Tattoo is enthralled by the little baby he considers to adopt.2 To make matters worse, Director Forster’s low-budget hand-held video “look” gives the story a bland, lifeless scope. If this is Forster’s attempt to explore human grief, he inexplicably reduces it to the level of a camp horror film.
Not surprisingly, Everything Put Together was seen by approximately two people at the Sundance Film Festival. That misstep aside, Director Forster struck back with the soft core/Southern Gothic Monster’s Ball (2001), a film that gained attention from controversial subjects, nude scenes with Halle Berry, pulse-pounding drama, and nude scenes with Halle Berry. Inevitably, she won the 2001 Academy Award for Best Actress, and the film went on to gain popularity on home video, though I suspect a large segment of society thought they were renting the Disney Pixar animation, Monsters Inc (2001). Indeed, my condolences to those who unwittingly made this mistake. I can imagine them scratching their heads at the start of Monster’s Ball, a revolting scene of someone vomiting. It is a mere foreshadow, or so Director Forster attempts to convey, to the gruesome morning of a death-row prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) and his young prison guard son (Heath Ledger) who also vomits but is not clever enough to hide it. Such an opening is ballsy at best—for any movie that opens with vomit imagery is bound to take, as they say in the airline industry, an uncontrollable descent.
The dramatic centerpiece of Monster’s Ball is the disturbed love affair: Thornton’s Hank Grotowski somehow ends up with Berry’s Leticia Musgrove, an alcoholic with an eviction notice and the widow of the man he executed. Leticia is depicted as a displaced black woman in search of a savior, accepting Hank's benevolence and generous gifts (rough sex and a home) without complaint. That she even ends up in bed with Hank suggests that some kind of irony is at work and, well, that’s exactly what happens: it turns out that she is unaware about Hank’s involvement in pulling the switch. It’s a dramatic twist that the film couldn’t quite handle. And, as Hank soon learns, there are consequences to hooking up with girls played by Halle Berry—namely, marriage and children and all the trappings of domesticity, elements that put an end to the bachelorhood of slick prison guards. Added to his problems is his racist father, Buck (Peter Boyle), who lurks in the background to threaten his relationship with Leticia.
There are lyrical moments in the silent parts of the film and in the way the cinematography relies on natural light. But the film suffers from an angry tone and sheer pretentiousness that disrupts the narrative. The caliber of actor in Boyle doesn’t require a metal walker and an oxygen tank to convey a message. But Director Forster resorts to the obvious and the blatant, practically saying to the audience, “His illness isn’t emphysema; it's racism—it’s in his lungs, like a disease, destroying his very being.” There are also grim moments that the film attempts to use for some kind of statement: scenes of father and son sharing a hooker, the gruesome execution, the miscegenetic love affair, and the aforementioned vomiting. It’s unclear if Director Forster is probing racism, capital punishment, or people who are sick existentially, or all of these things; in the end, the film is angry about something but unfocused on how to explore it.
At the time, Monster’s Ball was marketed to get every moronic critic or entertainment reporter to throw boundless admiration at the film—the sonorous claptrap about a film being “Extraordinary,” “The best film of the year,” and so forth. Halle Berry soared in popularity, stealing whatever momentum Director Forster was gaining in his career. Largely forgotten and still not a household name, he devoted time to looking more like a lithe version of Brando. He then managed to stay employed, cranking out a succession of stupid movies: Finding Neverland (2004), Stay (2005), and Stranger Than Fiction (2006). With Finding Neverland, Director Forster took another crack at manipulating moronic critics, delivering a film that was sure to be labeled “Enchanting,” “Heartwarming,” and “Magical.” Unfortunately, the only magic the film conveys is that a decent cast was somehow persuaded to be in this bland snooze.
Working from a predictable script by David Magee,3 Director Forster attempts to explore playwright J.M. Barrie’s inspiration to create the fantasy of Peter Pan and Neverland. What we take away from the film is that Barrie (played by Johnny Depp) is a scheming lout—trapped in a loveless marriage, J.M. (as known to his Rapper fans) gads about with the insight that widows are in search for thrills in the midst of repressed Victorian sensibilities. Enter Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet), her kids, and their tragic story. She lives up to his ideal, a woman with so little dignity that she allows herself to praise his batch of failed plays. She has a faint memory of having children and, sure enough, they do exist and provide inspiration for J.M. With this perfect setup, he uses the family for his personal endeavors and sexual gratification.
Things go slowly at first, and J.M.’s attempts at seduction enter the zone of maudlin. He tells her that Neverland is a “wonderful place,” that he hasn’t “spoken about this before to anyone—ever,” but one day she’ll take her there. The story then shifts over to Sylvia’s little moppet, Peter (Freddie Highmore), who is deprived of imagination because he hasn’t recovered from the death of his father and refuses to believe anything he's told. This makes him just as grating as Jonathan on Who’s The Boss? Anyway, the story leads to a point where questions abound: Sylvia develops the dark cough of consumption, but what will happen next? Will J.M. abandon her kids? Will Sylvia's conservative mother (Julie Christie) take the kids away? Will the forces of Victorian repression keep J.M. and Sylvia apart? Even more compelling: why are the Czech locations lousy and unable to convey a convincing impression of Victorian London? An even more disturbing question: why was this movie made in the first place?
Finding Neverland lasted about 23 seconds in theaters, which is a whopping 20 seconds longer than the theater-life of Everything Put Together. Yet it was another setback for Herr Forster and, as people avoided the new film, he decided to strike back big. For his next project, he developed one of the worst movies in the last 15 years. I refer, of course, to Stay (2005), a film so convoluted that it lacks any sense of logic. I would offer a synopsis of the story, but it would be just as futile as attempting to explain the night when I drove long hours, quite tired, and saw giant squirrels hitch-hiking along the A1A in Florida. I do recall that the film concerns a psychiatrist (Ewan McGregor) attempting to dissuade his patient (Ryan Gosling) from committing suicide on his 21st birthday. But the story is blatantly assembled to showcase a series of “arty” narrative tricks that mar the film. One gathers that a freshman-college film student would not want to take credit for this effort. There’s a twist at the end, but its awkwardness and sheer stupidity suggest that somebody retrieved it from an old trash bin used in a scriptwriters’ meeting for The X Files TV series.
Stay has made approximately $56 dollars to date, with most of that going to promotional cost. Despite another setback, Director Forster managed to get hired to helm Stranger Than Fiction (2006), a film about an IRS auditor who hears his life being narrated to him. Once again, Forster falls into the same trap: in his attempt to deliver an “intellectual” story, he is clueless about how to proceed and ends up offering another piece of nonsense. Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a solitary wreck and stereotypical bureaucrat of the IRS. Naturally, he bases his life on a regimented, structured routine: each day is essentially the same and grounded on numerical precision. He rises each morning at the same time; counts the strokes as he brushes his teeth; counts his steps to the bus stop; and takes the same bus every day. All is well in the land of order until, one morning, he hears Emma Thompson’s voice in his head. Well, it turns out that she’s a writer narrating his life—and his imminent death.
It’s an interesting premise but, as often happens in life, much harder to execute. Stranger than Fiction falls flat, lacking wit or a clever style. In the hands of a Fellini, such surrealism would have sparkled. Sad to say, Director Forster fails to take the story anywhere. We expect him to raise compelling things about our struggle to enforce order against life's brevity, or to offer a meditation on self-importance as we imagine our lives as stories to be told. Instead, he resorts to a tired message about carpe diem. Near the end of the film, Harold realizes his death is unavoidable and spends his remaining days fulfilling his dreams: he abandons his ordered life; takes a lengthy vacation; renews his interest in rock guitar and buys a Fender Stratocaster; and, as the ultimate expression of freewill and bravado, seeks romance with a Marxist-anarchist baker. As luck would have it, such a woman actually exists—the irritating Ana Pascal (played by the irritating Maggie Gyllenhaal)—and the keys to her heart are just a couple of stupid Marxist jokes and a stupid punk song as could only be performed by Will Ferrell. He fails, however, to pursue some pressing questions—why in hell is an angry Marxist running a business in a capitalist country? We never learn. Neither do we learn why Harold, in his new found state of joie de vivre, doesn’t suggest something daring in the romance, never once inquiring, “Hey, Ana, why don’t we move to a friendly communist country like Myanmar?”
Bottom line: Stranger Than Fiction is not good. But just as we thought that Director Forster has reached the end of stupid filmmaking, he never lets us down in the solid incompetence of his next effort, The Kite Runner (2007). Based on the overrated novel by Khaled Hosseini, the film concerns the friendship of two Afghan boys, the race and class conflict that surround them, and the gripping suspense of kite flying. If that doesn’t sound intriguing, please remember this film is based on a bland novel and directed by Marc Forster.
The film begins in 2000, and San Francisco writer Amir (Khalid Abdalla) receives an urgent call one evening. I would have suspected an annoying marketing call for a fixed-rate home refinance program; but as it turns out, someone from Amir's past (his father’s former business partner) has a good long distance calling plan and pleads that our protagonist come to Pakistan. This starts a series of flashbacks to the childhood of the young Amir and his friendship with his servant's son, Hassan, a member of a downtrodden minority. The two boys are fond of kite fighting, the ever popular past time in Kabul, but the idyllic childhood is disrupted when Hassan is beaten and sodomized by the local bullies in an alley. All the while, Amir is hiding in the distance to watch the assault. He never defends Hassan or calls for help. Thus begins the tension between the two friends: Amir and Hassan never discuss the incident; nor do they tell anyone what happened. In their silence, time passes and one day the Soviets invade Afghanistan. This is followed by a large-scale scene of Afghans fleeing the country, no doubt a logistical challenge to film and inserted into the story so that Director Forster could show every one that he can film big scenes.
Years pass. In Fremont, California, Amir decides to don a turban and false beard and heads for the casting call for extras in another Rambo film. Not true, of course. He travels to the tourist-friendly Taliban-controlled Kabul to save Hassan's son, who just happens to be trapped in an orphanage. So the film now turns into a search-and-rescue operation, only without firefighters and computer-generated wild flames. This latter part of the film is full of irritating, possessive Taliban bullies wearing bandoliers and who sound like Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. They’re about as menacing as a flock of sheep. Director Forster does not realize that all suspense is lost when one need only go to Busters Bar & Grill in Holt, California to see dorky, annoying men.
The Kite Runner is not good. Every frame carries a sluggish pace and a sense of self-conscious direction. There are too many scenes that drag, making us lose interest, while blatantly forcing imagery and ideas, which a first-rate director could have conveyed in a subtle way. Even in the kite-flying metaphor, one can sense Director Forster’s comments—comments such as “This is an important movie. Look at the striking kite imagery; this means something. You better get it that this is an intelligent film.” The result is an unintentional camp film, nearly reaching the quality of Ishtar (1987) and almost as good as the kitschy Waterworld (1995).
Riding what little buzz that The Kite Runner generated, Director Forster stumbled around Hollywood for his next job and suddenly found himself tapped to direct Quantum Of Solace in the summer of 2007. Right away he met defeat: producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson sought the bald director as a last-minute choice when Roger Michell left pre-production in disagreements with the tight schedule and the overall approach to the film. How do you think that made Director Forster feel, this business of not being the first choice? Not good, I say. For a pretentious director imagines himself sitting on a throne, like Brando in Apocalypse Now.
To make matters worse, Quantum Of Solace turned out to be a troubled production, with disastrous events arising frequently. It was all reported by the mainstream media and does not require a detailed account from me. The following, however, is a summary of what the film suffered:
Through it all, one senses that a certain director was not in control of the production. In this spirit of defeat, Herr Forster announced the end of his Bondian days while on location in Chile, and we sense his dissatisfaction with the project: “If I would ever do a big movie again in that size, it has to be my own franchise, which I would create from scratch, which I would cast, create the look and really create the franchise on my own” (“Next Bond movie underway in Chile”).
This leaves us with compelling questions: what will Director Forster do next? Will he wear a wig? Not likely. Will he gain weight and wear prosthetic buckteeth and gad about in a muumuu dress like Brando in The Island of Doctor Moreau? This is the most likely scenario. The world is waiting.
|1||Ironically, Marc Forster claims that he realized his calling at age 12, when he saw Apocalypse Now, a film that features Brando and his massive head in full bald regalia.|
|2||I refer, of course, to Episode 43: “The Baby,” which first aired October 5, 1979 (source: http://www.tv.com/fantasy-island/show/679/episode_guide.html?season= 3&tag=season_nav;next; access date: 9/13/08). This attention to detail is bound to happen when one surfs the Infobahn to find compelling support material for rational discourse. At the same time, we must confront the hard truth: if you are researching episodes of Fantasy Island, it’s time for some solid Gestalt therapy. The two sessions a week that I receive from the extraordinary Dr. Guntram Shatterhand have been helpful, and he assures me that we can scale the therapy back to one-a-week, provided I don’t babble “Da plane, da plane” for an entire month.|
|3||Magee’s screenplay is based on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee.|