the better truth

the better truth

Monday, January 14, 2013

Forrest Gump (1994)

Idiot's Delight

Forrest Gump is the only major studio film which attempts to penetrate the gray matter of summer crowds. The tag line for the poster reads: "The world will never be the same once you've seen it through the eyes of Forrest Gump". One can feel the trepidation of the usually boisterous publicity department in this ambiguous, double-edged statement. No doubt The Flintstones, Speed or Wolf would have been an easier sell. But Forrest Gump is different; at least in terms of summer releases. The director Robert Zemeckis deserves kudos for an attempt to escape his  Back to the Future past. If prizes could be given for "good intentions" Forrest Gump would sweep. Regrettably the film fails to measure up.

"What is Forrest Gump?". The question is simple and straightforward but one wonders whether anyone ever bothered to pose it to Mr. Zemeckis. His work evokes a hodgepodge of other films. It possess the grand Southern allegory of Everybody's All American without that film's straightforward storyline and well-delineated characters. It contains Zelig's use of history as backdrop without raising the technique to more than very slick gimmickry. It shares the "central character as fool" device of Being There but Tom Hanks (who plays Forrest Gump) lacks  Peter Sellars' charm and comic timing. All these other films, despite their flaws, were consistent and defined. Forrest Gump never gelled. It unfolded, failed to evolve and finally stopped. The audience, upon leaving the theater, will share the bemused bewilderment of Tom Hank's at the bus stop: Dat wus real purty but I's not real sure jis whu' in da hec jis happin'.

The Achilles heel of this film is that it is a romance. This tale can only succeed if the audience cares about the lovers' amorous yearnings. In this case the pair seems to be drawn together by fate's cruel whip rather than cupid's arrow. A mentally deficient boy and a girl who is the victim of incest elicit heartfelt pity rather than sentimental passion. The bond is strong but it is forged in a desperate struggle for survival. If this were a "buddy picture" the audience could accept their camaraderie. Unfortunately for everyone these friends start sleeping together. There is something inherently unbalanced about the pairing. It is forced and can only be believed if the woman of normal IQ is led by horrible circumstance into a shotgun wedding of sorts. The union becomes the romantic equivalent of the two farmhands in Of Mice and Men escaping to live out their lives married in some remote paradise. In the end Forrest Gump is a love story in which the audience wishes the two lovers never became involved. The film masks this contradiction with a bizarre melodramatic finish which forces the couple to be eternally together without actually having to be eternally together.

Forrest's friendships faired better than his love life. He manages to connect with two army buddies: Bubba Blue (Mykelti Williamson) and Lieutenant Dan Taylor (Gary Sinise). Both relationships are believable. These comrades are just that, comrades - they are severely handicapped: Bubba mentally, Taylor physically & emotionally. Both Sinise and Williamson play their hearts out but their efforts are crushed by poor writing. No matter how hard these fine actors try they can not escape the hollow characterizations of a gung-ho army brat and Step'n'fetchit's grandson. There is no need to give these characters lines. All that they require is to repeat their names aloud when called upon: "I's Bubba Blue, shrimpman", "I'm Lieutenant Dan Taylor, U.S. Army". The powers that be seem to gloss over the blatant racist characterture of Bubba with the fact that Forrest himself is a Caucasian dumbo. The movie never addresses why Forrest's mom only has one child as compared to Bubba's mother who is a human fruit fly in terms of procreation. Incidentally, Sally Field, Forrest's mom, is as dull as Robin Wright, Jenny the love interest, but it would be foolish to blame them. This film sees women as unavoidable, but necessary, distractions which keep those important male actors working. Since there is a dearth of significant female leads in major motion pictures it would be cruel to chastise them for taking the roles. All this might seem nit-picky. After all the entire film is pure fantasy and should be seen as a light-hearted summer film. Or should it?

Zemeckis never reveals his point of view. There are many sequences which are pure slapstick: the hokey repetition sequences showing generations of relatives involved in identical tasks, the endless running joke of Forrest running, the ping-pong games… There are others which have the sacchariness of church-sanctioned religious programming: Jenny's flight from her drunken father, Forrest's "the lame shall walk" escape, the "salvation" from the hurricane, the coast to coast false prophet sequence… Zemeckis places these two styles amidst many moments of stark realism: the vivid cruelty exhibited towards young Forrest & Jenny, the Vietnam battle, the excesses of the '60s radicals, Jenny's struggle with drugs and abusive men and an endless stream of historical re-enactments done with state of the art technology. It is strange, given all the slapstick and the parables that Zemeckis spent so much time and effort* striving to realistically re-create Kennedy, Wallace, Johnson, Nixon, John Lennon… (*not to mention money - almost one quarter of the film credits are dedicated to the people at the world's premiere effects house, Industrial Light and Magic). This is certainly an interesting cinematic development. Forrest Gump deserves to be recognized as the first mass-market film which demonstrates technology can now resurrect anyone ever captured on film and integrate them into a fictional narrative . It might not be 100 percent authentic but it is close enough to open a Pandora's box of artistic and legal questions. All good and well but how does all this affect Mr. Gump? In short it doesn't. It only complicates the telling of the simpleton's story.

No doubt there are many who will flock to this film for the special effects but what will they think of Forrest himself? Is he a good man or just extremely lucky? Is his lack of perception God's gift or God's scourge? Is he a childlike innocent or a pathetic bone-head? Are his honesty and cheerful demeanor attributes or merely results of being a dummy? Zemeckis offers nothing but vagaries delivered with an odd combination of slapstick, religion and a harsh dose of realism. It is a rare thing to compliment the advertising department but in this case the publicity people hit it right on the head: "The world will never be the same once you've seen it through the eyes of Forrest Gump". In deciphering these bold words one must turn to Forrest's response to the often repeated question: "Are you stupid?". Our protagonist speaks for the entire creative team as he responds in Andy Warhol deadpan: "Stupid is as stupid does".

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