Going Through Splat: The Life and Work of Stewart SternReviewed By Aaron Ducat
Posted 05/20/05 18:25:55
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT THE 2005 SEATTLE FILM FESTIVAL: Stewart Stern is not a well known name in Hollywood. The writer of Rebel Without a Cause, The Ugly American, Rachel Rachel, and a host of other films does not come to mind, as is most often the case with writers, when one thinks of film stars. However, he is not a lost name, as interviews with Dennis Hopper, Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman, Sally Field, and a host of other more recognizable names indicates. Going Through Splat chronicles the many accomplishments, challenges, successes and questions which form Stern’s life, and succeeds in flushing out the troubled and talented writer behind these iconic movies.Stern grew up poised for success: nephew of Adolph Zukor, the founder of Paramount Pictures, and cousin of Arthur Loew, Jr., whose grandfather founded Lowe’s/MGM. One of Stern’s earliest memories is of seeing “Peter Pan” onstage, a play which in many ways provides great insight into Stern’s life. Reminiscing on Peter’s ability to fly out of windows and into another world, Stern comments that it is, “My own story,” noting the appeal that “Someone will take me away” to a place where he could “be safe, because I could be out of reach of whatever I was afraid of.”
One of the more significant experiences in Stern’s life was his service in a haphazardly trained battalion in WWII at the Battle of the Bulge. It is clear the trauma of helplessly watching friends and strangers die scarred the tender young Stern, and one can’t help concluding that those experiences impacted him immeasurably. After the war Stern tried his hand at playwriting, and subsequently headed west to Hollywood, where he lived with his cousin, Arthur Loew, Jr., through whom he gained connection to the movies. In 1950 Stern’s short documentary Benjy won an Academy Award, and in 1955 Rebel Without a Cause was completed. Stern continued writing for both movies and television, with many successes and, sadly, many failures. In 1976 Stern won an Emmy Award for Sybil. In his acceptance speech Stern noted that “there is no reward for avoidance.” Ironically enough, within the week Stern quit his job and retired to the Seattle area, where he has lived with his wife ever since.
Many of Stern’s best scripts ache with passion, rage and social reflection, and thankfully writer/director/producer Jon Ward brings Stern’s story to audiences outside of the film industry. Stern comes off as a very thoughtful, sensitive, creative and talented individual who struggled with anxiety and fear of failure. Stern speaks openly and courageously to the camera, and it is a testament both to his integrity and Ward’s friendship that he obtains such direct footage. The many interviews with stars, directors and producers help provide additional insight into Stern’s life and his impact on film. For the most part Ward does a great job unearthing Stern’s life, though the film at times relies too much on photo montages, and Ward’s irregular voiceovers feel out of place.
As Dennis Hopper notes, Stern “was a troubled person.” Ward does an admirable job delineating Stern’s writing career and the experiences leading up to his retreat from writing, though we are ultimately left wondering, “Why did he quit?” Ward never provides a clear answer to that question, and this is both to his detriment and his success: one feels he could have probed and driven more into the reasoning behind Stern’s departure, and yet the ambiguity of Stern’s rationale maintains and exemplifies his conflicted humanity. Stern finds himself plagued by the question, “Am I a coward?” (for having quit), and that concern rightly remains his alone to bear.After a stint in the ICU, Stern notes that he “earned the right not to have to write anymore,” and there is both a taste of relief and regret in his voice. Although this may be baffling, especially to the non-writer, it is tremendously relatable to those involved therein. At one point Stern speaks of the art that the writer can’t not write, the cursed gift of vision that plagues and redeems the creator. One can only hope that Stern has written that which he couldn’t not write, and truly has earned the right to rest.
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