Forrest Gump (1994)

 

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*. That framing image of the feather is suitable. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the movie. I guess it just means that our lives drift every which way. Later there’s a nod toward the idea of making your own destiny, presented as one of Sally Field’s pearls of wisdom, but it’s no more than a nod. On the commentary Robert Zemeckis sees the feather as a “metaphor for the randomness of life and the destiny of life.” Which is as deep as this movie gets.
*. The feather is also a symbol of fluff and weightlessness. This is a movie that is, on the face of it, resolutely about nothing. Nothing at all. Aside from the essential goodness of God (meaning providence, the film is non-denominational), mom, and America. And being nice to everyone. But maybe that is something, as I’ll get to later.
*. A lot of critics threw their hands up at it. They didn’t see anything there, but perhaps it was all their fault. They were too sophisticated, or had become too jaded. And this movie was all sweetness and innocence. And magic. And destiny. If you didn’t like it, weren’t you somehow un- or anti-American? Careful . . .

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*. Today critical reception is usually described as polarized, though the weight is still toward seeing it as a popular masterpiece.
*. I hate it.
*. I even hated the one commentary on the DVD I listened to by director Zemeckis, producer Steve Starkey and production designer Rick Carter. Nevertheless it does give some insight into the seriousness with which they all took the making of this masterpiece.
*. A sampling of what we learn: “A really great movie is a blend of truth and spectacle.” Hoo-boy. “He [Forrest] has a much greater understanding of mankind and humanity than I think any of us do.” How so? If only we could all be so wise and knowing! “I always thought it was a like Hitchcock MacGuffin or something that Forrest was dumb. Because it was something that everybody followed as though it were true but in fact it actually had no real meaning. In the sense that I think he was actually smart.” Uh-huh. Sort of like the good soldier Svejk then, right? No. “So you have two people [Forrest and Jenny] who are totally polarized in their culture who are romantically attracted. That’s great movie stuff.” Damn right! “Nothing had to be forced.” The movie came together like an act of God. Destiny. And look at all the money it made and statues it took home! Gosh!
*. Part of my reaction is personal. Tom Hanks is, for me, just one of those actors I can’t stand looking at. Everyone has them; he’s one of mine. For what it’s worth, I find his performance entirely unconvincing. He seems to me like an actor trying to play a simpleton. As Anthony Lane observed in his review, he’s just too smart to play this part, and it shows.
*. Hanks apparently described playing the part as being like taking a warm bath. Which I guess he meant as a good thing.
*. Is there anything wrong with fantasy? With a modern fairy tales? I think it depends on what the message of the fairy tale is. As already noted, that message here is one of the triumph of sweetness and innocence over all. Or at least over everything but cancer or AIDS. Which is just, you know, destiny again.
*. Was there a message in there for our times? The ’90s saw the real take-off of the lottery economy, and so what does this movie tell us? That dumb luck beats hard work, talent or intelligence every day of the week. That’s the message we should have been paying attention to. As the saying goes, “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” So since Forrest is rich, “he was actually smart.” Q. E. D.

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*. Somebody actually wrote lines like “Life is like a box of chocolates” and “I wish I was a bird so I could fly far from here” and took them seriously. Literally, even. They were innocent, you see. And in true Gumpian fashion they won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
*. What it was adapted from is a novel by Winston Groom which had a slightly more ironic sense of its material. It was a satire. The film is not a satire of anything. That’s some adaptation. David Thomson: “Eric Roth’s screenplay was artful to a degree, especially in the coddling of sentimentality, mindlessness, and unconscious reactionary spirit.”
*. For a time it seems as though Gary Sinise’s Lieutenant Dan will provide a cynical and bitter commentary on the events of Forrest’s life, but before long he too is absorbed, assimilated into the same American Dream. He gets new titanium legs, a haircut, an ethnic bride, and makes it in America.

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*. And what would such a piece of propaganda be without a bit of product placement? So how about some new Nike shoes! And wear the t-shirt too, Forrest! And don’t forget to invest in Apple! It’s as American as . . . you know, apple pie! Except when they need slave labour to make their iPods in China. But that would come later. As would other calamities. Amy Nicholson: “Let us not forget that the Bubba Gump fortunes only came after a hurricane took out all of Forrest’s competition. Post-Katrina and post-recession, even his seafood riches now have a rotten aftertaste.”
*. Politics, anyone? Anyone? Hanks has said that the film is “non-political and thus non-judgmental.” I think he might have still been in character. A movie about American history in the 1960s and ’70s (civil rights, Vietnam) that is non-political? Non-judgmental? What? I mean, it certainly tries hard on that score, but to pretend it isn’t political is a lie.
*. Forrest is the embodiment of Morning in America: simple and innocent in all things but blessed and strong and victorious. For Zemeckis he represents “the ideal of what America was supposed to be.” Meaning . . . retarded? White, certainly. Fantastically wealthy, of course, but not because he’s interested in money. His politics? Well, let’s just listen to what he really thinks about Vietnam . . .
*. Oh no! Someone has unplugged the microphone!

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*. According to Amy Nicholson the scene where Forrest’s message to the Vietnam protestors is blanked out is “fitting for a movie with nothing to say.” But no, not quite. That act of self-censorship is what the movie has to say. It’s like Jenny of dying of some . . . “virus.” Why upset anyone by saying AIDS?
*. Unplugging the mic wasn’t even necessary. What was Forrest going to say? No doubt something along the lines of  “why can’t we all just get along?”
*. Or, as producer Wendy Finerman puts it on her commentary: “We had a hard time thinking of what Forrest would say about the war in Vietnam and we really couldn’t figure out what his perfect words would be and the idea kind of came in to have the police stop whatever his message would be because we could never quite figure out what words he would use to describe the war in Vietnam. By the time he started talking again, you know it was something brilliant that he must have said even though none of us had heard what it was.”
*. I think David Thomson is on to something when he talks about the essential (if not radical) conservatism of the movie and the link between Gump’s mental condition and that of Ronald Reagan. The bench narrative seems to be set in 1981. You-know-who has just become president: the great American mythographer. His mission? To make Americans feel good about themselves by drawing a picture of a simpler world. It’s a representation of what Thomson calls the “Reagan method”: ordinariness and likeability taken to a lowest common denominator that cannot be challenged.” Except Gump is not ordinary, or low. He’s a member of what would later be dubbed the 1%. But he still cannot be challenged because he is a fortunate son (is the soundtrack possibly ironic here?), a child chosen of God.
*. The conservatism is so obvious and belaboured it nearly beats you unconscious. Gump, our hero, stands for the polar opposite of Jenny’s sex and drugs generation. Hell, he even has a regulation military haircut before he joins the army. And once set on the right track by mom he never changes or evolves. For his virtue he is the big winner in life’s lottery, while Jenny collects the wages of her sins, the best the movie can allow her being a grotesquely pretty death.
*. This is an essential point. You can’t brush off a movie like this as meaningless fluff, despite its best attempts at presenting itself that way. Its innocence is a sham. For one thing, it quite emphatically presents itself as the Truth (blended with spectacle). It is presenting itself as history, made even more real by being identified with personal experience. And it is political. Its politics is that of nostalgia and its history is airbrushed and revised, but those are still positions that are consciously taken. And it’s not that I’m objecting to those positions per se (though I do find them dangerous). What I object to is the movie’s “innocent” denial of any agenda. This is the big lie.
*. Nostalgia? Oh yes. The early parts of the film were deliberately made to seem like they were “out of a Norman Rockwell illustration.” And the rest of the movie drifts along on the soundtrack of our lives.
*. But nostalgia is always a lie. It’s not about what happened but what we imagine we’ve lost. Surely Forrest didn’t grow up in a mansion like that, did he? Well, movies don’t lie.

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*. So it’s a travesty of history, but does it make sense on a more human level? Not really. The central love story is unbelievable, and even at the end it isn’t at all clear what Jenny thinks of Forrest or how she feels toward him. Does she feel sorry for him? Does she understand him? Is she even attracted to him? Or are we just to accept that she’s a basket case since being abused as a child so there’s no figuring her out? And isn’t it a little much to only go crawling back to Forrest after she’s decided that being a single mom with a shit job just isn’t best for Forrest Junior? Not to mention the fact that has no health coverage.
*. I think I’ve said enough. There are other problems. It looks too pretty, even for an airbrushing of America. As someone on the commentary remarks,”you can create digitally a flawless, perfect, moving lie.” Which may be taken as a warning. Personally, I get tired of and then alienated by the postcard settings and sighing crane shots. Damn, but Zemeckis likes that crane! And I think the editing is some of the worst for continuity that I’ve ever seen in a major film. Even on a first viewing a number of shots don’t match up at all. Of course, it won an Academy Award for editing as well. And for Best Picture.
*. Gosh! To hell with it.

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