Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #29: Forrest Gump

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

Forrest Gump
(released July 1994)

Tom Hanks as the title character in Forrest Gump

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Forrest Gump establishes it's idiosyncratic sense of humor and structure right away. The simpleminded titular character, a man in his 30s, strikes up a conversation about his childhood with an African American woman while siting on a bench waiting for a bus. With naive obliviousness, he tells her he was named after a distant relative, "the great Civil War hero, General Nathan Bedford Forrest." And then he adds a bit more biographical information: "He started up this club called the Ku Klux Klan." I'd have appreciated seeing her reaction to that because, you know, that would make some sense. But, no. Instead, the movie jumps head first into a rabbit hole of flashbacks. Forrest (Tom Hanks) is going to tell his life story to anyone who sits down next to him on that bench, whether they like it or not.

Raised in a rural part of Alabama in the 1950s and '60s, Young Forrest (played wonderfully by Michael Connor Humphreys) has to wear braces on his legs for some kind of medical condition that never gets a name -- the whole movie is going to be like that, so get used to it. The local public school principal informs Mrs. Gump (Sally Field) that Forrest has an IQ of 75 and needs to go to a special school. Forrest is "a bit on the slow side," she concedes, but her child is going to get the same education as everyone else, so she sleeps with the principal to make sure that happens. It's never clear if she has to sleep with a new administrator or teacher every year just to keep the kid enrolled, but this is not a movie that's interested in details like that anyway. This is a movie that wants you to react to the fact that Forrest overhears that business about his IQ and the sexual encounter his mother has with the principal. This is also not a movie that has any interest in telling you what happened to Forrest's father. At all. Did he die? Did he disappear? Did Mrs. Gump murder Mr. Gump, butcher the parts and feed him to the inhabitants of her boarding house? It's a mystery.

Nobody wants to have anything do with Young Forrest except a classmate named Jenny. They hang out, climb trees together and she encourages him to run fast whenever the school bullies are chasing him or pummeling him with rocks. Jenny comes from a broken home and her father sexually abuses her. But this is not a movie that's going to dwell on that for more that 30 seconds, so let's all just move on. Jenny and Forrest (somehow, miraculously) graduate high school. Jenny is college material. Forrest can run really, really fast. One day he runs through a football scrimmage and impresses the coach so much that he ends up playing football at the University of Alabama. And earning a college degree. So, let's review: IQ of 75, high school and university graduate, college football star. Do we ever see Forrest in even one classroom situation? Nope. This is not a movie that believes you need to see someone with borderline intellectual functioning, you know, struggling to comprehend something.

Forrest enlists in the Army after a recruiter asks, "Have you given any thought to your future?" He ends up in Vietnam, giving the filmmakers lots of opportunities to blow up stuff while they pack the soundtrack with some of the era's most popular songs. Forrest does take a bullet to the "but-tocks," but still fares better than everyone around him and is awarded the Medal of Honor. Meanwhile, Jenny (Robin Wright) pursues her dream. "I wanna be famous. I wanna be a singer like Joan Baez." Interestingly, Joan Baez does not appear on the soundtrack. Anyway, Jenny poses for Playboy, gets a job as a topless folk singer in a dive bar where no one is interested in her voice, turns into an anti-war hippie with bad taste in men, and then falls under the spell of disco and cocaine.  Forrest and Jenny cross paths throughout the movie, interacting just long enough to for you to ascertain that he loves her and she's a sad, tragic mess with pretty good fashion sense.

Adapting a not particularly well-received book by Winston Groom, screenwriter Eric Roth departs significantly from the source material to create something like an epic, genre-bending fusion of melodrama, comedy, reality and fantasy. As Forrest guilelessly stumbles through a tumultuous time in American history, the movie plays like a goofy ode to the latter half of the 20th century. Broken down, a significant portion of the film is made up of loose vignettes that provide excuses for the visual effects technicians to seamlessly insert Forrest into a number of preposterous scenarios -- he meets Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon; he starts college at the same time the University of Alabama is integrated; and he appears on a talk show seated next to John Lennon. These are all awe-inspiring effects, even 20 years later, but Roth and director Robert Zemeckis don't know when to stop with the technical wizardry and historical grave robbing and just tell a story. I was amused by an early scene where Young Forrest inspires Elvis Presley to actualize his signature hip-swiveling dance moves, but I was rolling my eyes by the time Adult Forrest inadvertently motivates John Lennon to write "Imagine."

Forrest Gump moves along briskly. It's infused with a quirky sense of humor and filled with extraordinary visuals. Tom Hanks is probably about as good as an actor could be in a role like this. Forrest views the world simply and truthfully -- Hanks nails that, conscientiously avoiding the kind of acting that would make the character pitiable. As Forrest's Vietnam platoon leader, Gary Sinese has the film's most emotionally resonant character arc -- it's heavy-handed stuff, but Sinese doesn't overplay the material. And that's the good. The bad? Alan Silvestri's swelling musical score and all those pop tunes are designed to thrash your heart and rattle every nostalgic bone in your body. Sally Field is utterly wasted as Mrs. Gump -- the character is peripheral at best and should have been fleshed out by a good character actress who might have at least tried to get the Alabama accent right; Field's star power is just distracting. The Forrest/Jenny relationship is the movie's only real through line. We're supposed to care whether they end up together or not. Hanks and Robin Wright try hard to keep us invested, but the overwhelming number of superfluous elements and historical digressions supplant the narrative.

Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, The Polar Express) stages some amazing "Look what we can do!" sequences. The problem is that there's just no dramatic basis for all the big moments in Roth's script. Forrest is rubbing up against all those presidents because Hollywood figured out how to convincingly insert real actors into archival footage. Forrest becomes a world champion ping pong player because Hollywood figured out how to make it look like he's hitting a ball that's not even there. All these brilliant technical advancements make Forrest Gump an achievement, not a good movie. You have to ask yourself, among other things: "Why is Forrest sitting on that bus stop bench eagerly telling his emphatically absurd life story to strangers anyway?" The movie is a goddamn epic, so what's the point? Well, it does try to make some kind of point about destiny vs. the randomness of fate, I think. But it mostly ends up suggesting that the borderline intellectual functioning meek will inherit the earth.

Stray Gay Observations:

What the hell is this movie supposed to be? Is Forrest Gump a parable? For that to be true, there needs to be some kind of discernible moral or spiritual lesson. Here's what you get: "My Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." I do understand someone with an IQ of 75 mistaking that for a deep philosophical message, but the rest of us have no excuse. Really, the only things missing from Forrest Gump are talking animals. If there were talking animals, I might be able to call this story a fable. Fables typically feature some talking animals and a lesson. But even a talking animal couldn't sell that business about the box of chocolates.

During one vignette, Forrest runs back and forth across the country, from coast to coast. It takes him, to be exact, "three years, two months, fourteen days and sixteen hours." This is really no more farfetched than anything else in the movie, except for the fact that the filmmakers not-so-subtly bestow a Christ-like quality upon Forrest around the same time. That's when I started to worry that this movie was going to end with Forrest ascending into heaven and taking a seat at the right hand of the Father.

You know those movies where a character visits someone's grave and has a heartfelt, teary-eyed conversation with a headstone? That's probably my least favorite cinematic trope of all time -- it's lazy, hackneyed and mawkish. If there are real, live human beings who go to cemeteries and spill their guts to slabs of granite, I don't want to know them. Forrest Gump does this twice -- twice! -- in the movie, and I'm not inclined to give him a pass just because he has an IQ of 75.

Forrest Gump ends around 1983, just in time for one character to be diagnosed with "a virus." They're talking about HIV, of course. It's introduced awkwardly, handled superficially and feels like a punishment -- for the character and the audience.

In the twenty years since its release, I've heard Forrest Gump described as a patriotic film and a paean to the American Dream. Jumping to either of those conclusions must take some fancy mental gymnastics. It's simply impossible for me to ignore the film's twisted central premise: Forrest Gump is the luckiest dumb bastard in the world. He succeeds at everything, accidentally and without ambition. Just about everyone else in his orbit fails, flounders or becomes a fatality (seriously, dude is like the Angel of Death). So, it's possible to read the film as a dark, dark comedy about the fickleness and mendacity of the American Dream. Or, it's possible to read it as a curious grand mockery of the American Dream. And I'd be fine with either of those scenarios because a solid, subversive skewering of the so-called American Dream should never be off limits. I just don't think the filmmakers were that clever. Forrest Gump is a tone deaf, super-sized amalgam of whimsy, bathos and tragedy.

Should You See It? Well, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences thinks so. It won six Oscars -- Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Picture. If you want to see what state of the art visual effects looked like in 1994, Forrest Gump is worth a look. Otherwise, this movie is so calculatedly manipulative that I found myself actively disliking it at fairly regular intervals. I unequivocally hated the last thirty minutes.

Next: The Bodyguard (1992)

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