Saturday, April 6, 2013

Forrest Gump (1994)

Director: Robert Zemeckis                                 Writer: Eric Roth
Film Score: Alan Silvestri                                  Cinematography: Don Burgess
Starring: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise and Sally Field

I hate this film. Hate, as an emotion, is by definition irrational but this actually makes sense. The first few times I saw Forrest Gump on cable I actively disliked it but couldn’t figure out exactly why. It was this huge blockbuster success and won six Academy Awards, but there was something wrong about the whole thing for me. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I figured out why when I read the awkwardly titled but incredibly insightful essay by Joseph E. Green, “Reality and the Moving Image: The Paranoid Style in American Cinema.” In his essay he calls Forrest Gump “one of the most insidious films ever made. To postulate that utopian societal reconciliation is depicted in the relationship between a mental deficient and a suicidal drug addict is lunacy. The fact that Forrest learns nothing, is in fact incapable of learning, never made a dent in the fantasy-seeking audience. Gump is the perfect soldier and the perfect citizen, one who is happy and content in a world of meaningless symbols, following the orders of authorities and reveling in the wisdom of convention.”

But this is only the start of the problem for me. Of course everyone is familiar with the story. Gump starts out life both physically and mentally disabled, and while he overcomes the physical challenge nothing changes the mental. He’s in love with his childhood friend, Jenny, but she goes her own way. They cross paths many times during the decades, with Gump conforming to society’s expectations and Jenny doing the opposite. Director Robert Zemeckis manages to insert Gump digitally into some famous scenes and fans simply ate it up. But Green’s point can be taken another step further. Gump is obviously the ultimate conformist, doing whatever society expects of him. What is less obvious, and far more insidious to use Green’s word, is the role that Jenny plays in the film. The reality is that she is just as much under the sway of society as he is. She is a reactionary, plain and simple. Every action she takes is a direct attempt to go against society’s expectations and in that way she is every bit as much a conformist as Gump.

Mykelti Williamson’s role as Bubba is far from “touching,” and felt insultingly racist to me, while Sally Fields’ Mama is trite and clichéd. The only character that I felt was real in any way was Lieutenant Dan. The anger and frustration Gary Sinise displayed in the film was at least honest, and made the one-dimensional conformist characters that inhabit the rest of the film all the more transparently meaningless. And yet Lieutenant Dan is written as a joke in the film, the guy who doesn’t “get it.” But it’s the audience that didn’t get it, and winds up being just as lemming-like as the characters they love in the film. In the end, that is the most telling thing about the popularity of Forrest Gump: the joke is on the audience. They love Forrest and Jenny because they’re just like them, going along with the crowd or reacting against it, totally controlled by what others do and not even realizing it. And then paying millions of dollars for the privilege . As the great Somerset Maugham put it: “If forty million people say a foolish thing it does not become a wise one, but the wise man is foolish to give them the lie.” So I won’t lie to you. I hate Forrest Gump.

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