Monday, April 18, 2016

Robert Zemeckis, part X: Dear God, make me a bird


All its layers of sometimes-contradictory meaning aside, Forrest Gump remains a superb and moving work of cinema, devoted to our ongoing failure to understand the journey without a goal that we've decided to call "life."

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Eric Roth (based on the novel by Winston Groom)
With Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), Sally Field (Mrs. Gump), Robin Wright (Jenny Curran), Haley Joel Osment (Forrest Gump, Jr.), Mykelti Williamson (Bubba Blue), and Gary Sinise (Lt. Dan Taylor)

Spoiler alert: high

Clearly, any movie as popular as Forrest Gump doesn't really need to be defended, but few movies have gotten themselves hit with a more all-powerful backlash than this one—and, sadly, it was pretty much inevitable.  It invites and even demands to be viewed through the lens of ideology; but it doesn't really care which lens you choose.  Thus, when the film's surface elements—the deliberate cinematic populism, the conformist protagonist, the Boomer nostalgia, the contempt for hippies, and especially the film's celebration of Family Values, manifesting itself in the form of thirty minutes of apparent slut-shaming—turned out to be much more appealing to conservatives, Gump found itself uncritically embraced by the right wing of the American cultural establishment, and with the kind of enthusiasm they usually reserve for guns, Jesus, and tax cuts for billionaires.

The reaction was unavoidable, and virtually every leftist interpretation of Gump has been driven, in part, by a disdain for the shittier kind of person who enjoys it.  And that's a real pity, since Gump's seeming unwillingness to commit to any particular program of its own (outside of the unobjectionable personal philosophy espoused by its idiot protagonist) leaves it wide open to all manner of readings, including readings more palatable than the arch-reactionary one.

Hell, one could argue that the fact that people can get such totally different, mutually exclusive things out of Gump means that it might be a for-real work of art.  Of course, someone else might argue that all that really means is that it's a huge silly mess.  (The shocking laziness of the pop music soundtrack, for example, militates very strongly in that direction—though Gump does mostly redeem itself in this arena, with what I presume is the most inspired deployment of "Free Bird" in history, even if Matthew Vaughn let the famously long song breathe to better effect.)

Still, the general dearth of progressive readings of the film (or, if you want to be tedious, "counter-readings") does mean that there exists a vacuum that I'm glad to at least try to fill.  Happily, it doesn't feel as much like work as it should: for although Gump is about many other things, what's it's most about is just itself—an interesting story, told incredibly well.

At this point in our retrospective, this shouldn't come as the slightest surprise: Robert Zemeckis' skills had matured nine years and five films ago.  But it nevertheless pays to recall that Zemeckis had come up under the tutelage of Steven Spielberg.  Gump sees Zemeckis following directly in his mentor's footsteps: leaving aside the subtle sniping in Back to the Future, it was Zemeckis' first turn toward genuine social engagement.  The difference between Serious Spielberg and "Serious" Zemeckis, however, is that Zemeckis' choice of subject matter never overshadowed his personality.  Both men have, in the fullness of their careers, tended toward movies with great big messages; but Zemeckis has clearly tended toward more universal, philosophical ones—and Gump, in fact, is Zemeckis' outlier, his most political film and his most culturally specific.  Thus, while Spielberg's graver efforts tend toward some kind of sobriety, even the most abjectly serious movie Zemeckis ever made would still retain at least a touch of the director's irrepressible zaniness—even when, in that case, it would be zaniness deployed in the service of misery (a curious combination, to be sure).

Yet that's a discussion for another day—after all, Gump's most obvious quality is that it's very nearly constitutionally incapable of misery.  This isn't just its most striking feature, it's Gump's most subversive.  It's even the thing which ultimately unites all of its inconsistent attempts at satire.  But for all that, it's also what permits it to be enjoyable, as well as so effortlessly moving.  It's in the broad comedy (and the equally broad tragedy) that Gump makes itself, as Roger Ebert concluded his review, "a magical movie"—which is a nice way of saying that Gump is a movie built to engage your feelings long before it ever engages your intellect.  That's the other reason why I brought up the Spielberg connection: though Zemeckis' next film, Contact, feels like a outright challenge to Close EncountersGump represents Zemeckis' clearest attempt to channel the sensibilities of his mentor.  And the student had, for a time, become the master.

So: Forrest Gump, in case you don't get Netflix under your rock, tells the tale of a man from Greensboro, Alabama, who was raised by his single mother in relative comfort—with the notable exception that he was born a simpleton.  Possessed of an IQ of 75, as well as a spinal condition that required leg braces, Forrest was shunned.  His only friend in the world was a little girl by the name of Jenny, whom he comes to love, in his uncomplicated way, and who retains some affection for him, too, despite her capacity for affection, either for herself or for anyone else, having been largely beaten and molested out of her by her father.  This will, in the years to come, send her on a dramatically different trajectory than Forrest.  For we shall see Forrest accomplish great things—while Jenny descends further into what amounts to her own personal hell.  (And the one thing that Gump is most obviously about is the importance of parenting.)

For the present, however, Forrest discovered that he could run—tearing right through those cumbersome, stainless steel braces, in one of Zemeckis' clearest wallows in the magical realist register of Forrest's story.  Running led to football; football led to college; college led to infantry service in Vietnam (that's counterintuitive, to say the least); and infantry service in Vietnam led to meeting his other best friend, Bubba Blue, as well as his other metaphysical nemesis, Lieutenant Dan Taylor.

Tell me more about shrimp, Bubba.

Bubba dies in battle; and "Lt. Dan," as Forrest never fails to refer to him, loses his legs.  But Bubba's influence led to Forrest becoming the captain of a shrimp boat; and shrimping led, ultimately, to Forrest becoming wealthy; and being wealthy gave Forrest a lot more time for running; and it also gave him a lot more time to think about Jenny, whom he had seemingly lost, long ago—for even though every few years she'd reappear in his life, never ever would she simply stay.  And that is why he's here in Savannah, Georgia, today, vomiting his life's story upon every stranger he encounters, for no apparent reason but Forrest feels entitled to their attention.  You see, he has answered an invitation from his oldest friend, and he's understandably excited to see what happens next.

The "plot" of Gump is naturally a difficult thing to summarize—I'm largely relying upon you having seen it—because it really is Forrest's life story: an epic picaresque through post-war America, focused almost-but-not-quite to a fault upon its pea-brained, supernaturally-placid hero.

But for starters, I left out the part where he becomes the ping-pong champion of Earth.

And the first thing that has to be conceded is that there are tremendously valid, completely non-political reasons to not enjoy Forrest Gump.  There is, above all, Tom Hanks' performance: it is probably the most technically pristine performance of his whole career, and that's saying something, but it is also devoted primarily to two things—on the one hand, staring ahead with a robotic single-mindedness, as if he has no higher brain functions at all, and, on the other, to Forrest's outsized reactions to the events that constantly swirl around him.  If one is not charmed by Hanks, one is not likely to be charmed by his movie, since he's the whole show.  I am charmed by Hanks here, as I always am—Hanks has, to my knowledge, never given a bad performance—but if I'm honest, I don't think I've ever been more charmed than in Gump.  Of course, it's very easy to mock his commitment to the archetype of the old "Magical Retard," as a less pleasant person might put it; it's even easier to dismiss it as a gambit to secure himself a second Oscar.  It pays to remember that Hanks practically created that trope in the first place; but, more importantly, it's just such a terrifyingly earnest performance—playing Gump correctly is pretty much by definition embarrassing, and Hanks absolutely plays him correctly—that I find it just as easy to give the man all the credit in the world.  At the least, I'd have to think long and very, very hard to name a combination of actor and role that was even as perfect—let alone more perfect.

But then, that's the second valid, non-political reason to hold your nose at Gump: it's as deeply invested in the quasi-offensive holiness of its disabled hero as any movie ever made—though it nevertheless does more interesting things with its assumption of holiness than virtually any such narrative.

I don't even mean the surfeit of jokes about Forrest being a good-nature moron, either—although that leads us right into the third reason Gump shall never appeal to all palates.  The movie, like all Zemeckis films up till now, is tilted heavily toward comedy, and while I don't think anyone can possibly gainsay the acumen with which Zemeckis and especially his long-time editor and Gump's second-most-justified Oscar-winner, Michael Schmidt, pursue that comedy—because, seriously, Gump is something like 40-60% montage—its humor can still be categorized almost entirely into three basic kinds of gag, none of which necessarily recommend themselves.  Type 1: Forrest, who narrates throughout, says something in voiceover, then Forrest or another character repeats it.  Type 2: Forrest overreacts, or underreacts, in the fashion of an idiot, to various stimuli.  And Type 3: reference jokes, wherein Forrest turns out to be the axis upon which history turns.

Pictured: the most heinous moment Gump has to offer.

I can't even begin to describe why I find the first type amusing, but I honestly do; the second type is the backbone of pretty much every comedy, and it works well here, so I needn't belabor it; and the third type is positively intolerable—anywhere, that is, except for right here in Forrest Gump.  Mostly, that's simply because shitty historical reference jokes are so central to Eric Roth's screenplay that you can't honestly claim they're distracting, the way they almost always are in other films; but partly it's because when the script is this eager to push Forrest (and Jenny) as the bifurcated Spirit of America, it just feels natural.

And that brings us to the red meat of the review: the attempt to make sense out of a movie, overburdened with symbols and hollowed out by 1,001 incompatible interpretations.  Well, that overstates the matter.  Reactions to the film fall mostly into just three camps.  The first is the straightforward conservative reading: Forrest is everything good about America (football, war, monogamy, going to church, being rich), Jenny is everything bad (promiscuity, holding progressive political positions, being a woman), and the world becomes a better place when she wakes up and smells the patriarchy.  (Indeed, whether it condones it or not, Gump is pretty much unambiguously about the collapse of the American Left in 1981, with the Left's avatar mouldering in her grave the same year that Emperor Reagan initiated his reign.)  Regardless, as with any reading of Gump, this one requires the viewer to overlook certain details of the film—though, in this case, it frankly requires one to overlook whole reels.  In any event, the second major reading, the leftist one, is substantively identical, except that all these things are bad.

The third reading, however, is an essentially spiritual one, and Gump gives anyone looking for a spiritual message a mouthful to chew on, especially since it's rather more coherent as a work of philosophy than satire.  I've heard it called "Buddhist," and it's certainly existentialist (bordering upon nihilist); Gump is about the randomness of human affairs, and the benefits of stillness in the face of a chaotic world.

"Why'd this happen?"
"You got shot."

And the best Gump, offers, I think, is bound up in its spiritual odyssey.  Attempting to find a concrete purpose to life, it naturally fails—though it does not likewise conclude that contentment is impossible.  In this bid for resonance, Gump aligns with its own story perfectly.  It's what drives the complete emotional upending in the film's climax.  And it's telling that Forrest never weeps for anybody—until Jenny dies.  At this point even our empty-headed hero is forced to confront what Lt. Dan (and everybody else) had spent years dealing with: the loss of what looked like meaning.

But there's something else going on here, and it's kind of ingenious, whether Roth wrote it this way by accident or not: Gump is, more than anything else, an exercise in perspective.  It's not completely locked down—Gump cannot avoid (nor should it avoid) leaving Forrest's point-of-view to visit Jenny.  But it's very close to a first-person film—and it gives us an astonishingly great unreliable narrator.  Gump doesn't just assume we're smarter than its hero, after all; it assumes that we're also vastly more aware.  (Nor is this confined to the world around him—and one of the ways that Gump is also manages to be a rather fascinating character study is that we tend to be more aware of Forrest's own inner life and feelings than he is.)

But the film isn't two minutes old before it dumps this heavy theme right in our lap: almost the first thing we learn about Forrest is that he's descended from slavers and named after a full-on traitor-terrorist; and just about the second thing we learn is that he's so uncurious about this history that he cannot even accurately describe the Ku Klux Klan.

Of course, neither can about half the people I grew up with.

And so Forrest witnesses sexual predation, the horrors of war, the tumult of the 60s and 70s, even AIDS—and he doesn't notice.  Forrest is struck with lucky break after lucky break—and he doesn't notice.  His life is built on the sacrifices and suffering of everyone else around him—and he barely notices (even though he spends literal years contemplating their fates).  The black man, the women, and the less lucky white man got chewed up and spit out, but Forrest is fine.  And he barely comprehends how.  He never understands why.

This is not exactly the nostalgia trip advertised.  Instead, it's the gentlest but also one of the most penetrating dissections of the concept of privilege you're ever likely to discover, made perhaps better by the fact that it knows Forrest doesn't have to also be a bad person—only that he is an unwitting recipient of favor and favoritism, whose signal qualities are his ramrod conformity and his startling blitheness.  It is fascinating to watch Zemeckis move his camera around Forrest, forcing us to share his perspective, and wonder what the hell is wrong with him, that he somehow avoids knowing everything that seems so damned obvious to us.  The answer, of course, is that he's literally mentally disabled—Forrest has an excuse.  Thus, rather than holding Forrest up as an empty-headed aspirational figure, Gump's actually asking, "What's yours?"

In this light, Gump's not nearly as incoherent as it seems at first blush.  The overriding problem in Gump's world is misogyny—part of Jenny's tragedy, you realize, is that Forrest is the best she can do, although Zemeckis and Roth are not above rendering his unconditional love with enduring, touching sweetness.  As for the hippies, I don't even know what to say about the leftist complaints regarding Gump's depiction of the counterculture as nothing more than mid-century sexism dressed up in different, uglier clothes—except, of course, "that seems pretty fucking accurate to me."  Taken altogether, with its rare depiction of the permanent damage childhood sexual abuse can do—well, it's honestly a miracle this movie's any fun at all.  But then, it manages that trick by yoking us to a man who is incapable of perceiving virtually any injustice unless it falls personally upon him.  But then he finally, really notices something, which is perhaps the best we can expect of him.  (He doesn't redeem Jenny; she arguably redeems him.)

And that is exactly the kind of miracle we go to the movies to see.  Gump gives Zemeckis a story that played to all his strengths.  The zaniness of the comedy keeps the film comparatively breezy even as it deals with the most serious shit life can offer.  The intersections of fiction and history (not to mention poor legless Lt. Dan) indulged Zemeckis' long-standing fetish for technology.  Most importantly, Gump gave Zemeckis an excuse to apply his trademarked mixture of nostalgia and cynicism to a tale that turns out to be absolutely perfect for the treatment: the storybook fable of a man who kept all the nastiness of life beyond the limits of his own personal page.

Yet I make it sound so depressing when I put it that way.  Certainly a look at nasty old privilege is hardly all that Gump has to offer; that would be dour at best, and dull at worst.  Let me end instead by saying that Forrest Gump, a film about life's meaningless messiness, remains—in each and every frame—also animated by life's force.

Score:  10/10

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