Forrest Gump (1994, Robert Zemeckis)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

Nobody does self-aggrandizement quite like Americans, so it makes sense that Hollywood would bide its time carefully then foist upon the world this cunningly crafted propaganda with one of the strongest evil pro-conformity messages in any major film ever produced — all calculated to go down as easy as the product it yearns to help sell. Twenty-six years after the death of the hippie dream, here are its remnants commodified as a deeply troubling, garishly colored storybook designed to placate, to generate false nostalgia and false hope and mostly false longing. Longing for poverty, for war, for simple-minded ignorance, for everything that our gut tells us is wrong in this world — Forrest Gump posits that it’s really all a-OK, that it’s high time we sat back and relaxed and let the TV’s parade of Madison Avenue ideas and artificially generated “popular culture” wash over us as we sleep snugly in our Sealy mattress. The pixie dust falls weightlessly over us and we are hypnotized.

There’s no point doubting that Forrest Gump genuinely means the world to some people, and they are welcome to their own interpretations and excuses for it. Dave Kehr, for one, argues that the film is a start-to-finish satire actually making fun of the appallingly clichéd and wrongheaded worldview it seems to push. I find that laughably optimistic, but whatever — Kehr is smarter than I am in nearly every other respect, so why not this one? But even if Gump is arguing against the terrifying paring down of the middle-class American experience into the charmed life of a specific mentally handicapped man who’s never aware of his evidently enormous functional importance in the society he inhabits — here because his legs are messed up and he shakes his hips weirdly and there because he has to piss when he meets the president and here because he obliviously saves a bunch of people from the horrible evil Vietnamese and there because he runs across the country for no particular reason — it’s still an irksome, repugnantly insincere film that laid its existence and popularity and, let’s face it, Oscar campaign at the mercy of the hope that millions upon millions of Americans would misinterpret it as a pat on the back. I don’t buy it. I think that the people who created this onerous film really believe it’s a straightforward, inspirational story and that we should all feel something… which is less sinister but equally scary, for a number of reasons.

Start with the sources, and by that I don’t mean Winston Groom’s novel. Never a terribly interesting writer, Groom thought of an over the top folksiness as his stock in trade for the Gump property, but the humongous winks that come in the form of things like Racquel Welch in Gump’s arms were invisible to the buyers at Paramount — if anything, the richest irony being offered here is that a thin parody of popular culture would evolve into a ludicrously kitschy monolith laid squarely at the center of, and easily eclipsing, the figures and events it so fondly skewered. What the movie people saw was a skeleton giving them rich opportunities. It’s telling that Rain Man derailed the project for several years, because of course, we can only have one movie about a disabled individual out there at a time, right? Gump, the film, is offensive not merely because of its painful obviousness and braindead sentimentalism but because it rides so nakedly on the backs of far superior, far more intelligent films. The most obvious is Zelig; to this day I cannot fathom why Woody Allen never sued unless it was simply because it meant rubbing up against the movie-brat machine of Zemeckis-Spielberg-Lucas-Coppola. And Zelig is a work of satire with both trustworthy emotional moments and actual teeth; and work went into making it something other than a one-dimensional cartoon. Zelig feels like the nonexistent documentary it’s meant to imitate; Gump is like watching Saturday afternoon television with one eye open and the saturation turned way up.

For me, though, the unforgivable cribbing is from Hal Ashby’s Being There. Zemeckis et al. might have copped a few ideas and the central gimmick from Zelig… but without Being There, it’s nearly inconceivable that Forrest Gump could have existed. In both films, a somewhat mysterious man with poor communication skills and low intelligence — Peter Sellers in the older film, Tom Hanks in the new one — accidentally comes to prominence because his lack of sophistication allows those around him to read whatever they want into his behavior. Gump nixes Ashby’s biting political and religious commentary in favor of a safer, whitewashed version; crucially, as is one of his trademarks and in a nod to the source material, director Robert Zemeckis uses real historical figures: for instance, Elvis Presley, John F. Kennedy, and John Lennon, in ascending degrees of offensive wrongness. (ILM is there with ample software now that can make Lennon’s lips move to say the trite shit Zemeckis wants him to say, where just twelve years earlier all manner of movie magic was required to even get Woody Allen into a shot with Adolf Hitler.) As a result, Gump can’t really say anything bad or even ambiguous about most of the figures it’s supposedly having “fun” with. Instead it punches downward, clucking its tongue and shaking its head at war protesters and folk singers and college students and other such undesirables, represented largely by abused do-gooder Jenny (Robin Wright in a thankless display-case role), and preaching always that quiet respect toward authority — it helps if you’re a lobotomized oaf, and as cute as Hanks — will get you all you desire in life.

What’s maddening about this is that Ashby had done the work of making this same movie the right way, and his career was soon afterward derailed permanently. Being There is quietly scathing in its treatment of those in power, rendering them as clueless and self-involved, yet it also boasts such strong characterization that the audience comes to care about them in a far more complex fashion than any viewer can possibly care about a cipher like Gump, who has no presence or actual inner life whatsoever and is still the most full-bodied creation here except perhaps for Gary Sinise’s amusingly angry “Lt. Dan,” sort of the Frank Grimes of the picture. The key difference is that whereas we’re privy to the true nature of Sellers’ Chance and laugh at the absurdity of how people are behaving around him, in Gump we are the absurd ones, using Gump as a blank slate upon which we — especially if we happen to be Baby Boomers — project our own memories and experiences. And through this tenuous connection, Zemeckis is able to turn up the music and bring in the florid visual tricks and program us all to feel something at the appropriate time, in the process losing any sense of mystery and actual humanity that the earlier film offered.

Until recently seeing Forrest Gump again, I had actually been thinking positive thoughts about Zemeckis. The thing is that while no one will dispute the point that the great Ashby destroyed his own career and wrecked any promise he once had in the ’80s, I personally feel Zemeckis completely betrayed his own potential as well — it’s just that he’s found his greatest success doing so. His first twelve years of output are quite miraculous, particularly the films he wrote with erstwhile collaborator Bob Gale — I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Used Cars, and the maniacally vibrant Back to the Future trilogy. Gale and Zemeckis also composed 1941 and in the process gave Steven Spielberg the movie that (I believe) still today remains his biggest flop. Although Back to the Future proved a major turnaround, it was only funded thanks to the success of screwball interim project Romancing the Stone, and the stage was set for Zemeckis to abandon writing and become solely a director of the scripts of others, in which guise he came to be handed larger and larger projects, the first and best of which was the ambitious noir cartoon Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But it was downhill from there, as two forces engulfed the young director’s future: his unchecked fixation on ideas over storytelling (maybe and maybe not informed by what, two decades of writers’ block?) and his still-rampant flirtation with some irksomely formal idea of Legitimacy. Used Cars and 1941 were exciting films because they rejected boundaries and rejected the proposed commandments of cinematic respectability. Back to the Future‘s sequels fell back on none of the standard weaknesses and shortcuts that plague so many big Hollywood movies because Zemeckis was willing to play, to dance, to poke and prod at the appeal of his own work.

In that sense, Forrest Gump remains one of Hollywood’s great tragedies because it marks the end of any modicum of real cinematic ambition on the part of its director. It had been preceded by an interesting dud called Death Becomes Her but now, extending into the next decade with his curious attachment to motion-capture, Zemeckis would become second only to Ron Howard as the most superficial of major American directors. That the man who crafted something as beautiful as the guitar-masturbation sequence with Nancy Allen in I Wanna Hold Your Hand or the jammed TV signal scene in Used Cars could then seriously posit entertainment within and put energy behind Forrest Gump inventing Elvis Presley’s hip-shaking or giving an abortive speech at an anti-Vietnam rally just before his childhood sweetheart swims through the reflecting pool at the National Mall to meet him, or a million other things you remember but don’t want to, things that all feel like the “bright” ideas of various figure-crunching Viacom executives (“wouldn’t it be great if he met three presidents??”), is just so sickening and sad. It’s maybe the most dramatic and direct suppression of an artist’s individuality and voice we have to point to in the Hollywood bubble. Zemeckis is a gifted and smart man and seems to care deeply about his work, but it will remain a mystery to me how a non-insect can be responsible for this trite, insulting claptrap. Surely he’s been taken hostage by zombies now or something?

Used Cars or no Used Cars, no one involved in this film can merit real forgiveness for it, and that includes Tom Hanks. I know Hanks is a fun guy and one of the few verifiable saints in Hollywood and it’s not kosher to trash him at all, and I have nothing against him, but talking of squandered potential — Hanks is a great comedic actor who can display considerable beauty and charm in his performances when it’s warranted. I’m talking not just of Big, his best moment on film, but of The Money Pit and Splash, in both of which he’s James Stewart-caliber. He’s still genuinely good, too — see the surprising depth of his stuffed-shirt role in Catch Me If You Can, for instance — but he’s been hijacked by the same Hallmark card sentimentalism as Zemeckis, and his dramatic roles are by and large a horror. The issue is the Hollywood fear of establishing a persona these days, the determination to get “lost” and subsumed in a given part; Johnny Depp and Daniel Day-Lewis can maybe do this, but Hanks cannot, and that’s not a slur on him. We always knew who Cary Grant was in his roles, where his heart was and to some extent even how he related to the real Cary Grant, yet that never weakened his performances — he’s still one of the two or three best actors we ever had in American film. Hanks could easily be the same if he’d embrace himself more fearlessly, but all we seem to get are tiresome historical parts and romantic comedies, and then empty showpieces like this. I miss the Hanks of the ’80s and suspect I always will.

As Gump, Hanks doesn’t land any of his punches at all; it’s an easy role because it’s an easy script, and all of its audience interaction (read: pandering) comes from endless explanatory voiceover and big iconic sweeps like the appearance of a Curious George book in a satchel. How pure and sweet, we’re supposed to think, but I actually prefer random people I don’t know not to talk to me on benches, and frankly I don’t buy the notion that a supposed savant’s script-shoehorned function is to give us real and unfettered insight into how the world is. It’s little wonder that the film is embraced so widely — it requires so little work on our part, and miraculously the parsing out of What It All Means is done by someone who in real life would likely prefer to stay inside and watch People’s Court. Unfair? Maybe, but more fair than dumbing down a half-century of history to how it’s impacted by a guy’s ping-pong tournaments.

My old reasoning (based admittedly on one viewing, fourteen years ago) had been, well, it’s not the movie’s fault that it’s become so absorbed in the culture as to now seem dunderheaded and obvious. But the real reason its most painfully thudding and fake “insights” have taken off so inescapably is that Eric Roth’s script repeats them, with sledgehammer delight, over and over and over and over again. And this feel-good Hallmark card is so impersonal and cardboard and slick that not one of its emotional beats is earned (seriously, not one), yet all are insultingly soundtracked by the wall-to-wall Wolfman Jack K-TEL nightmare roster to end them all (hey, here’s a montage in San Francisco, we’d better play Scott Mackenzie’s “San Francisco”; here’s a peace march, the kids should very definitely be singing “Get Together” by the Youngbloods because that’s a thing that happened). No surprise the aforementioned charmed generation — those left after so many were killed in the war this film bouncily celebrates, that is — loved its jingoistic self-congratulation, then; it’s practically a film-length extension of that obnoxious “epilogue” that closes American Graffiti, only with a mentally handicapped man who catches shrimp as the audience vessel instead of horny high schoolers. Progress!

And the more you remember that this shares a director with Back to the Future, the more terrified you get, in ways that it’s kind of hard to articulate. If I were Eric Roth I’d say, welp, sometimes you just ain’t so fresh an’ darin’ as ya used t’ be! Hyuck. And that wouldn’t be pandering, insulting, or offensive at all, would it? Naw, I sure guess it warn’t be.

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