Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Defending Forrest Gump

I've heard Greg Proops express scorn for the film Forrest Gump on several occasions on his podcast. I can't understand where that level of animosity comes from. It's not my favorite film by any means, but it always strikes me odd when he lashes out at it, when practically everyone else on earth seemed to like it. Well, it turns out this year marks the 20th anniversary of the film's release, so I figured I would try to offer sound rationale for what makes it a good, or at least memorable, film.

Now, I'm not normally one to question the immortal words of Greg Proops, and I don't really care all that much about the film or whether he likes it. So then, you might wonder why I would want to write this at all. Basically, because I like to argue a good point, even if it's a little hard to defend.

His chief objections to the film, as far as I can tell, are that the portrayal of the character Jenny casts hippies in a negative light, and that the plot surrounding Forrest all seems to send an anti-intellectual message, that you don't have to be smart or even try hard to accomplish things in life, that fame and fortune and the love of your life will just sort of fall into your lap if you keep a positive outlook. The latter point at least has some merit, which I'll attempt to address later, but the former makes me think that, aside from looking for some super-conservative anti-hippie conspiracy where there is none, he's never really paid attention to that character before.

If you haven't seen the film and still want to, be advised that plot spoilers will follow.

I think the assertion that Jenny somehow embodied hippie counterculture is a faulty one. She was present in it, yes, but from what I could see, she was only there because of the guy she was with. She was drawn to it, to him, and to the drugs and the sex, for the same reason she chose him over Forrest when she had the chance to leave. It's revealed that Jenny was abused by her father, and tragically, she subconsciously gravitated toward the abusive boyfriend because he reminded her so much of him. Maybe some part of her wanted to reconcile with her father, to get the normal love and respect from him she was denied, or else she just felt like she deserved to be abused. As the cycle continued, she got lost in drugs, sex, and whatever other vices she could to try to escape the past, all while repeating a pattern of self-harm. None of it makes logical sense, but these are the kinds of choices disturbed young people make. She almost attempted suicide because she couldn't cope anymore.

Does that sound like the spokeswoman for a sociopolitical movement to you? Because to me it sounds like an emotionally scarred young woman who had the innocence of childhood ripped away from her, and wound up searching desperately for any sense of direction she could find.

Regarding the moral of the story: I think a lot of people took away the message that if you believe in yourself, it's possible to overcome handicaps and other shortcomings to achieve great things. However, the flip side of that coin would be what Proops was arguing, and I kind of appreciate what he's getting at.

For large portions of the movie, Forrest is kind of a passive observer of the events around him. He travels all around the world, gains all these accolades, meets all these celebrities and US presidents, yet you'll see many a scene where all he really does is react to what's happening around him. Sure, he does a couple of heroic things along the way, but come on. He becomes a football star because his crippled legs somehow magically got better and let him run really fast. He becomes a ping pong champion through apparently god-given ability. He makes his fortune through sheer dumb luck and Lieutenant Dan's hard work and sharp wits. He becomes some kind of legend and folk hero for, of all things, going out running a lot.

So, the point is yes, Forrest does achieve a lot of things mainly just by being in the right place at the right time. On the other hand, no matter what role he fell into, he threw himself into it. He puts his life on the line for Bubba and Lieutenant Dan. He commits himself wholeheartedly to being an athlete, a soldier, a shrimp boat captain, and a friend.

More than any of that, though, I think the main thing that makes Forrest significant is not any action he takes himself, but the action he inspires in others. Obviously the examples where he inspires Elvis and John Lennon, and the various people he meets while running, are far on the corny side. I'm more talking about his relationships with Lieutenant Dan and Jenny.

Aside from saving Dan's life, he inadvertently turned his life around and gave it new purpose. Despite all the talking down Dan gives to Forrest, he's very protective of him when anyone dares call him stupid. There was something about seeing Forrest again that broke through Dan's cynical view, and when he heard about Forrest successfully keeping his promise to Bubba, he could hardly wait to get out there and help. He wanted to look out for Forrest because on some level he knew Forrest brought out the best in him.

Things weren't as clear cut with Jenny, but I could see a similar pattern. Jenny initially pushed Forrest away, at first because she was still coping with what her father had done, and then because she saw the good in him and felt like she didn't deserve him. Despite her mixed messages, it's clear something kept her from stepping off that ledge, and something made her come back to him time after time. He had gone from being the disabled kid she felt sorry for and had to look after, to someone she looked up to.

I think that's why people like the movie. Forrest is designed as an inspiring character, and just as he inspires a sense of hope and determination in the people around him, so he did with audiences who watched the film. People like to see an underdog succeed because it gives them hope; it's really that simple.

If you want to argue the film's plot and symbolism are conveying some kind of conservative propaganda, go ahead, but I think you're really reaching, unless having a kind heart and being good at running are considered exclusively conservative values.

If you want to argue it's fluff, offering a hopeful outlook on life with nothing concrete backing it, I would point you to all the hardship Forrest and the other characters face and ultimately overcome. It's not all complete accident. Part of the "life is like a box of chocolates" philosophy is resolving oneself to accept whatever you happen to bite into, no matter how sweet or bitter the taste.

And if you have a problem with the message that good things can happen if you're just in the right place at the right time, I would say you must be a miserable pessimist. It's not even an outlook, it's a simple fact of life: big things, both good and bad, happen without just cause all the time. Whether you describe them as random happenstance or divine intervention is entirely up to you. Just don't try to deny it, because the opposing viewpoint has to be that good things happen when you work hard to make them happen, and that's a bigger piece of delusional conservative propaganda than this film ever could be.

And yes, I know the film deviated from the book. I seriously don't care. I'm talking about the film as it stands by itself, no additional context needed. Obviously if I'd read the book I might have a different perspective on the story and its implications, but I haven't, so I don't.

Okay, I guess that's it. I'm not sure how good a case I made, but it's getting late and I'm not about to go back and start proofreading. If you spot any typos, go ahead and tell me. If you think I'm dead wrong, go ahead and tell me. Be free to speak your mind. I'm going to bed now. Peace and love, reader children.

See, now that is what a spokesperson for the hippie counterculture sounds like.

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