Ad Astra - Emporia State University

Ad Astra - Emporia State University

Ad Astra with Michael Shonrock Not Exactly a Soup Question “Where do I fit in? What am I supposed to do with my life?” These are questions that haun...

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Ad Astra

with Michael Shonrock

Not Exactly a Soup Question “Where do I fit in? What am I supposed to do with my life?” These are questions that haunt most of us at one time or another. And it’s the type of question that William Forrester, the reclusive novelist played by Sean Connery in the film “Finding Forrester,” would call a soup question. In the 2000 film by Gus Van Sant, Forrester lives on the top floor of a flatiron apartment building in the Bronx, and from his window he watches a group of inner city teens play basketball on the court below. To the boys, the man in the window is a ghost, an urban legend that is both baffling and frightening. From his apartment aerie, Forrester watches through binoculars as life passes him by — including the birds around him and the boys on the court. The best basketball player is 16-year-old Jamal Wallace, played by Rob Brown. Jamal is a young man who reads and writes compulsively, but hides his intelligence by doing just enough work in school to get by. Jamal lives in a subculture that prizes ability on the court, not literary endeavors. Jamal seems fated to repeat the experience of his older brother, Terrell, who had a minor league basketball career, but who now parks cars for a living. One night, Jamal climbs the fire escape and slips into Forrester’s apartment through an open window. His friends have dared him to bring something back from the ghost’s apartment, to prove his bravery. But Forrester frightens him, and Jamal leaves without his backpack — which contains several volumes of his writing. Things get complicated when a tony private school in Manhattan offers Jamal a full ride scholarship, based on his surprising college admission test scores. It soon becomes clear, however, that the private school is more interested in his ability to play basketball than his academic potential. Meanwhile, an unlikely friendship develops between Forrester and Jamal, based on those notebooks in the backpack. Forrester recognizes the young man’s talent, and Jamal realizes that he needs a mentor — even a flawed one. Although Forrester,

who is 70, won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, he has since become a Salinger-like enigma; it’s been years since he left his apartment, and the neighborhood below has changed from middle-class comfort to inner city poverty. At one point, over dinner, Jamal asks why the soup his mother makes at home doesn’t thicken like the kind Forrester makes. Forrester says it’s the milk. Then Jamal asks a question about why the novelist is so reclusive, and Forrester says, “That’s not exactly a soup question.” The object of a question is to find information that matters to us, Forrester says, and no one else. Questions about his family and his reasons for becoming a recluse are off limits. Without spoiling the ending — and I do want you to watch it — Jamal and Forrester find they have a number of things in common. Not only are both committed writers, but Forrester also had an older brother, and they shared a love of baseball. Both, having been injured by the world, have built up their defenses and sealed their true selves away from it. It’s a story about losing family, and finding family. Written by Mike Rich, who also penned the sports movies “The Rookie” and “Radio,” it is one of those rare films that forces us to confront our cultural fears and our bigotry. The fact that it lampoons a pompous professor, played pitch perfect by F. Murray Abraham, is a bonus. “Finding Forrester” is one of those movies you keep thinking about long after you watch it. The lesson, I think, is that we have more in common with others than we ever dream, and it is only our fear that keeps us from breaking down the barriers. It’s also about the importance of asking the soup questions — the answers to which are meaningful only to ourselves — and also those which aren’t exactly soup questions, those broad questions about the world, which have meaning for us all. Michael Shonrock is the 16th president of Emporia State University, an undying optimist, and self-described futurist. He welcomes reader comments at [email protected]