I came late to Forrest Gump, not having seen it in its first theatrical release, and having managed to avoid most of the commentary generated by this phenomenally popular and successful film.
However, as I watched it on video, it became apparent that this was one of the defining events of contemporary popular culture. I don't mean to imply by this that I actually liked the film. In fact, I had to keep stopping the video all the way through, because I experienced something resembling nausea as I watched it.
But it was a nausea mixed with utter fascination, and a certain kind of respect – respect, because Forrest Gump is an extremely well made film, and an entertaining one by any standard. But few films have had me working quite so hard afterwards, trying to work out just why I felt so querulous and suspicious of its feel-good achievement.
Forrest Gump really got under my skin, essentially because, as much as I criticise it, I also recognise that it's really onto something. Like a lot of phenomenal popular successes of its time, this film does not confine itself to doing one thing well – one mood, character, or theme. It's a vigorous patchwork of a movie, which does many things well, many diverse and in fact quite contradictory things. The movie is a juggling act, and the fact that it juggles so much, so skilfully, accounts for why it was able to win such an enormous spread of viewers and audience types.
The model of this patchwork effect is the character of Forrest Gump himself. Watching the film put me in mind of a Raymond Durgnat's comments on George Miller's The Witches of Eastwick (1987). He describes Jack Nicholson's character in that film: "What a bundle of contradictions, what a compact of incoherencies, is his weirdly changing bodyshape, his crazy-quilt costumes, his corkscrewy spiel!" (1) Nicholson incarnated, in rapid succession, an incredible range of male archetypes and pop stereotypes in that movie: he was rebellious, sensitive, lunatic, sophisticated, boyish and much more besides. Another strong example of this kind of patchwork hero is the title character of the marvellous fantasy film Drop Dead Fred (Ate De Jong, 1991).
So who, or what, is Forrest Gump, this so-called idiot who guides us through modern American history? He is a classic, almost mythic figure: the Holy Innocent or Holy Fool. Many reviewers described him as a hero out of a Frank Capra movie; this betrays a rather slight knowledge of Capra, but the point is still valid. Gump is indeed a kind of folksy American everyman, like Jimmy Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), a guy with straight and simple wisdom, and a will to love that stays untainted by deceit, corruption or decadence.
But Gump is a lot of other things as well. He turns into Jerry Lewis for a while, in those scenes where he's a manic "runnin' fool", tearing around town, or when he lurks in the back of famous newsreel footage like some misbehaving, subversive kid. He's Bad Boy Bubby for one scene – surely the strangest and least characteristic scene in the whole film – where he sits forlornly outside his house while his mother makes loud love with the school principal, and afterwards mimics the animal sound of orgasm. By the end of the movie, after Forrest has become rich, and decides to run across America for a few years just because he feels like it, he has become a kind of Howard Hughes figure, the kind of eccentric, devil-may-care millionaire so beloved of the folklore of American capitalism.
There's one very special addition to this already rather strange brew. Forrest is also like a romantic heroine from a Hollywood women's melodrama of the 1940s or '50s. He spends the whole film waiting for his beloved Jenny, only to be abandoned by her, time and again. He experiences one night of love, which sets the course of his destiny forever more, in the form of Forrest Jr. He's just like all those women in wartime romances, who pine and snatch at the crumbs of love, have a child and are swathed ever after in melancholy and death. Forrest is such an asexual character that he ends up being almost androgynous – and that's one secret, I believe, of the film's vast success.
In the novel of Forrest Gump by Winston Groom, Forrest is something else entirely. He's more like the Peter Sellers character in Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979). His supposedly naïve account of American history – the Vietnam War, a diplomatic trip to China, a NASA space mission – has a dry and biting ring. There's nothing uplifting about it; the novel is funny, but it's also depressing. It's a satire, perhaps even a fairly lazy satire, in a time-honoured tradition of serious American literature.
It is mind-boggling to pass, as I did, from the film to the novel in the space of a few days. The big line of the movie – about life being a glorious and surprising box of chocolates – is a radical transformation of the first line of the book: "Let me say this: bein' an idiot is no box of chocolates". When it comes to the scenes depicting the Vietnam war, the film translates well the basic idea of Groom's prose: to show this war as Forrest experiences it, a confusing, unfathomable whirlpool of commands and sensations and sudden deaths. Yet what Forrest says repeatedly about the war in the novel – that it was, in his considered opinion, a "bunch of shit" – is left right out of the film.
I'm not criticising the film of Forrest Gump for being unfaithful to the novel: the book is not so great, anyway. But what is this film saying, what is it about? I join the army of commentators who find this movie an essentially conservative one – conservative in an icky and troubling way. As many have pointed out, there are terrible portrayals in the film of the protest movement of the '60s, the students, hippies and left-wing radicals, such as the Black Panthers. The scene where Forrest is railroaded into an enormous peace rally in Washington, where the leftist rabble-rouser cusses like blazes, and the crowd cheers Forrest wildly even though they didn't hear a blessed word that he spoke, is an absolute, right-wing, ideological disgrace, and I almost flicked the video cassette out of my machine for good right there and then.
But I kept watching, because I simply couldn't tell where the movie was going to go next. I've been a close observer of Robert Zemeckis' work since his very first film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), and for the most part, I've been a fan. In the middle of Forrest Gump, I realised that Zemeckis had never, across all his movies to the mid '90s, ever directed a straight-down-the-line drama. Neither had Tim Burton, Sam Raimi (For Love of the Game, 1999 broke the pattern for him later) or Joe Dante, for that matter. But none of these directors have stayed as resolutely lightweight, as feel-good, as sheerly entertaining as Zemeckis. If you want to truly understand what modern pop culture entertainment is, you've got to go straight to Zemeckis, and especially to Forrest Gump.
When it comes to the deep political or cultural messages of an entertainment film, Zemeckis knows that this level, too, has to be a wild patchwork. Gump does not have a simple conservative message. It's not just saying: love the government, put your faith in the average Joe, uphold family values, or any of that all-American, moral majority guff. Those messages are in there, certainly, but there are other messages as well, just to make sure that everyone can find some sort of place and position in this movie.
Jonathan Rosenbaum suggested in his review of another Zemeckis hit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), that the villains of that film serve as vague, fuzzy, all-purpose bad guys: at one second they seem to symbolise Commies and the next moment they symbolise Nazis, and then they're just puritans who want to stamp out good old comic books. Whatever you as a viewer happen to personally most dislike, chances are you'll get an opportunity to project that, consciously or unconsciously, into the gestalt of the movie.
So Forrest Gump is not just an earnest film, an apology for the status quo. It's also an ironic, frivolous, postmodern film in the canny and intricate way it plays with our knowledge of pop culture history. In fact it is structured like a cartoon in many ways – with its endless repetitions and variations, its enormous leaps through historical time, its little doses of magic and miracles.
Take for instance the scene where Forrest finds himself in a luxury hotel, thanks to the intervention of President Nixon. He's kept awake by some mysterious men with flashlights in a room across the way. Irritated, he rings the hotel manager and complains; the camera pans to show us that this is the Watergate hotel, and that Forrest, completely oblivious, has started the landslide that will bring down that President. This scene is, of course, a gag, one of the film's best. It isn't saying: you too can be the hero, the decisive everyman, on the stage of world history. Its humour comes from the exact opposite proposition: that none of us will ever find ourselves at the centre of history like this, and that Gump, here, is just some kind of ludicrous figment of our trampled collective imagination.
Finally, all of the deeply mixed-up feelings aroused in me by Forrest Gump centred around one topic: the way it deals with sexuality, and especially the way it deals with women. Like many a Steven Spielberg film, it begins from a rather bleak premise, which almost goes unspoken in the finished product. The premise is that the world is a pretty screwed-up place, full of injustice, horror and corruption. For entertainers like Zemeckis and Spielberg and their many imitators, it seems the worst horror of all is what is called nowadays the dysfunctional family.
More than anything else, Forrest Gump offers a hidden, obscure meditation on the modern, dysfunctional family. You might think that Forrest himself comes from a dysfunctional family: his Daddy cleared out long ago and, as you'll remember, his Momma screws the school principal and leaves poor little Forrest outside in the cold. But only once: for every other moment of the film, she is a strange, populist-democrat saint, the fountain of all cracker-barrel wisdom, a woman who opens the doors of her home to any strange wanderer, just as Forrest will sit at a bus stop and tell his story to anyone, or unknowingly toss a great million-dollar idea to any passing aspiring entrepreneur. Forrest says to Jenny at a high point of the film, "I may not be smart, but I know what love is". One way of translating this message is: Forrest had a dysfunctional beginning, saddled with mental and physical handicaps, but he came through OK.
The parallel life-story of Jenny, on the other hand, is one long nightmare of deep dysfunctionality. She is violently abused as a child by her father – an ugly fact that the film presents with extreme obliqueness and unease. Every single thing she does thereafter – the goons she dates, the leftist political causes she champions, the music she sings – is implicitly presented by the film as yet another symptom, another compounding effect, of her dysfunctional origin.
Jenny, too, resembles an Old Hollywood romantic heroine: love and sex for her are always bound up with sadism and masochism, despair and depression, fleeting joy and lingering pain. Forrest finds redemption in the course of his story; Jenny, like Forrest's mother, has a pleasant little deathbed rendezvous awaiting her. She gets an unnamed, inexplicable virus in the final act of the film and we can only assume this is feel-good-movie code for AIDS. Not naming it as such at least allows the film to have Jenny deposit Forrest Jr on the earth before she pops off. It also allows Forrest to do another teary graveside soliloquy, like he's Abraham Lincoln in an old John Ford movie.
In its own screwy way, it's a rich film, and a compelling one, a grand entertainment that, as Raymond Durgnat again suggests, "accepts all that is true in the conformist myth" and does not really try to criticise or subvert that myth. And yet, at the same time, it's an entertainment that cannot avoid implicating us all in those darker and more difficult areas that it would rather not mention aloud.
© Adrian Martin August 1995
1. Raymond Durgnat, “Up Jumped the Devil or, The Jack in Pandora’s Box”, Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 644 (September 1987), p. 265-8. back