Just a year ago I was remarking about how Forrest Gump has been lost in the annals of recent film history. Many predicted at the time that films like Pulp Fiction and to a lesser extent Shawshank Redemption would go on to strike more of a chord and they were certainly right. Those films are considered classics while the award-devouring crowd pleaser dominated the year. This isn’t exactly rocket science. Crowd pleasers are just that and if they’re serious enough in some social or political contet they are awards fodder. Meanwhile edgy/transcendent films often take a little more time to be appreciated in their context. Pulp Fiction was the rare advanced film that struck a chord immediately and Shawshank is now ranked as the #1 film of all-time on imdb. (1)
But because of the gross and stark nature of the difference between Gump and Fiction, it was widely regarded in the next ten years as one of the great oscar injustices(2) of the last twenty years. Gump was dismissed as fluff and “what were we thinking???” kind of stuff, but no one was really talking about the movie.
A year later I feel like people are talking about it constantly. A few references here and there (tho thankfully we seem to be done with “run forrest run!!!”) and a few conversations here and there. We sometimes deal with things in cycles and I’m sure HBO’s recent programming of it their various stations has a lot to do with that sudden revival of discourse. But mostly I’ve noticed a lot of hating on Forrest Gump.
So, however briefly, I will provide something I never thought I would: A defense of Forrest Gump.
All these observations are based on my most recent viewing, where I had not seen the film in a 15 years. Which is to say there was a HUGE difference in my maturity. I wasn’t dealing with the memory of the movie anymore.
-The first thing people seem to lament is that it is a silly movie… and it is a silly movie. What’s so wrong with that? Can a silly movie not be good? or for the sake of devil’s advocate, not be the best film of the year? Can a silly movie flirt with serious topics? Can a silly not give a limp overview of American history for the sake of laughs? Moreso, Gump seems hyper aware of its own silliness, which allows it to transcend the inherent limits of being, well, inane. Scenes are constructed merely to highlight irony, but never irreverence. It’s a nice little balancing act and if this seems like an obvious approach look at the tone failure of Benjamin Button, which is nothing but a silly screenplay trapped in a serious toned film. This may all sound convoluted, but it’s meant to reveal something simple: silliness can be its own virtue, and it’s not a lesser one.
-So if Forrest’s silliness isn’t a problem, many have problems with his passiveness. After all, he’s bascially just a vehicle for a bunch of stuff to happen. He doesn’t really have a big arc or anything. I mean, he grows up and becomes a parent and all, but once again, we’re not talking big character arc. Which is actually a good thing because who cares about Forrest’s arc? He’s an enjoyable figure who let’s us have everything we will need from him by the time he’s an adult. Instead, he’s our observer and gateway to the world. He’s the rock, the constant, the given force of nature while the world swirls around him. No those interesting arcs are left to the interesting human characters, the jennys and the lieutenant dans.
I’m trying to say that “Forrest being Forrest” is a good thing for end product of the film. I feel like people are more angry with that paradigm itself (non-realistic narrator journeying though endless non-realistic Americana), then the results. because the tangential nature of the film is incredibly charming and enjoyable. So what if forrest runs coast to coast for no discernable reason and gives people idea of bumper stickers? I hate saying “it’s enjoyable” as a justification, but isn’t that a justification?(3)
-The other major thing I noticed is that it’s crafted surprisingly well. The jokes play real well, that so much is obvious, but the measure of this kind of movie is how they deal with them tricky emotional parts. Zemekis is no dummy. He’s made some biting satires in his early days(4) and here he exhibits a lot of surprising restraint. Since Forrest is the unaffected narrator, the camera is too. Big emotional things happen, but there’s some real slightness and grace used in his technique. Seriously. Go back and look at the camera moves. It’s often real subtle movements in and out on big moments. Stark cuts to emotional resignation. Two scenes jump to mind. The slow turning zoom when jenny first gets sick and Forrest sits next to her. And the second is the final cut to the grave. It was so different from my memory and it’s not the stuff of which chump movies are made.
Of course there’s a lot of inane things about Forrest Gump. But complaining about their inanity is counterproductive. This is a movie that systematically eliminates its own ironies due its bid to exist as functional retard’s journey through meta-american-history (5).
Basically I’m trying to make a point that Forrest Gump is a surprisingly unique and good film. There’s nothing truly like it. Screenwriter Eric Roth tried again to copy the formula with Benjamin Button and it failed miserably. In a “serious” tone the entire series of conventions collapse under its own weight. The passive narrator is pointless (especially with such an interesting condition which would be a ripe for philosophy), the tangental episodes are pointless, the entire movie is rendered pointless. Meanwhile, Forrest Gump thrives with the same exact conventions to which people often object. It is not a comedy, nor drama, but simply a silly, emotional film. The only things that come close are work of James L. Brooks, and his movies get oscars too (not even mentioning the incredible quality of The Simpsons, but that’s straight comedy). Forrest Gump is even sillier than those movies and still packs a similar emotional resonance. Heck I’ll say it, Forrest Gump is the best silly film I’ve ever seen. (6)
And is that so bad? After all, I do like movies.
1- which is not to say anyting about my personal view of those films, but more their current context.
2- which is not to say I care about who wins oscars and who doesn’t. Once again, context.
3- which is not to say a movie that some random person found enjoyable makes it good, we’re talking here about a film that was as close to universally adored at the time as you can get*
4-check out “Used Cars”
5- ignore my crass use of retard, and also I swear this sentence makes sense.
6- remember, the python stuff, etc is straight comedy. This is not.
*and universal adoration often gets you abunch of reactionary contrarians who just like to go against the grain.