April 15, 2010

#76: Forrest Gump

I was nine when that feather floating lazily across the theater screen for the first time in Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump, so naturally I have a lot of distinct memories and a good amount of love for those memories of the movie. But coming back to it at 25? Fascinating what changes and what stays the same.

Company: Kecia, reticent redhead roommate; Sheena, luscious lazy ladyfriend; Stephanie, seriously serious sister

Cuisine: Kecia's baked ziti creation, Steph's bag of Munchies, beers all around (still fighting this sickness so I didn't partake) and a bowl of chocolates (on-sale Easter M&Ms) of course

Mama always had a way of explainin' things so that I could understand them.

That feather floating in sync with Alan Silvestri's main theme (the one that stays in your head and won't leave) lands at Forrest's feet as he waits at a bus stop, and he saves it as a souvenir. Naturally, it has to come back at the end, but we'll wait for it. In the meantime, he strikes up a conversation with the woman sitting on the bench with him, and since he has little to no social sense, he doesn't know to stop talking. I had forgotten what segway gets him talking about his beginnings, but it turns out to be her shoes. "I've worn a lot of shoes..." Really? That's the best you could do? Eh. I guess it's as good as any segue you're gonna get.

We see his life through his eyes, the struggles, the pain of his disabled and nearly friendless childhood. What I didn't know was that in the book of the same name upon which the film is based, Forrest is actually an autistic savant -- and he didn't have braces on his legs. Why would you change such crucial parts of the story for the film? Because a crippled kid with an IQ of 75 is more exciting to root for than an autistic boy who can "run Forrest run" just fine?

You can sit here if you want.

Never mind what Hollywood did to the story. What we're presented with is essentially a love story -- an unorthodox one, yes, but at its core Forrest Gump is a chart of where two people go in life and what brings them back together.

Dear God, make me a bird, so I can fly far, far, far away from here.

I found it remarkable that a fictional film set in the context of familiar events could still manage to make Forrest and Jenny seem like the only two people in the world. The sequence showing their childhood friendship (and yes, even the much-maligned "run Forrest run" sequence) is still very touching, mostly because of Forrest's blind devotion to a girl who will never, maybe can't ever love him as much as he loves her. The score doesn't leave anything to the imagination -- thanks to Alan Silvestri, we are told exactly when to swoon and exactly when to cry. That's not a bad thing, it's not a movie about subtlety.

It's a movie about the choices we make, and where we end up. Like the choice Jenny makes to play Bob Dylan naked at a club and not expect to get cat-called. No one said she was the brightest bulb in the pack, I suppose. But as they grow, Forrest's devotion to her never wavers, even when it seems like she is making her own way. Do we resent her for the times she spurns Forrest's advances again and again? No, we follow her blindly, like Forrest. Despite it all, she does know what's best for him, like when she tells him if he's ever in trouble in Vietnam, "don't be brave, Forrest, just run."

And run he does. Forrest thrives in the army largely because of his focus and intense devotion to detail, but I'd argue also because of his unshakable moral compass. He never thinks for one moment that Lieutenant Dan (a brave performance by Gary Sinise) might prefer dying with his honor in the forests of Vietnam, but instead carries him and several others to safety. It's not his intelligence or his wit that saves him, it's just his knowledge of what's right and wrong. How American a story is that? You don't need to be smart to succeed, you just need to know what's right.

The film has been criticized for dumbing down this period of American history, for making a Disney-fied pop-culture melodrama out of the 60s and 70s. While I agree that some events are made to seem that way, isn't that kind of the point? Think about our protagonist. We're seeing this time period through his eyes. Wouldn't we see it a little simpler? This isn't Platoon, for God's sake. And thank God.

Jenny and Forrest keep reuniting, but ultimately keep splitting. Here they reunite after Gump is swept up unknowingly (a la The Tramp in Modern Times) into an anti-war protest. They can't seem to stay together. Why? Don't they belong together? Haven't we been told they are a perfect match? Maybe not. But a part of the genius of Tom Hanks' performance as the titular Gump is the tiny way he grows up, little by little. It may not be much, but he does. Especially when he rediscovers a now-paraplegic Lieutenant Dan.

Lieutenant Dan didn't want to be called crippled just like I didn't want to be called stupid.

Suddenly Lt. Dan has a disability, too, and he doesn't know how to deal with it. Forrest has known all his life how to 'deal' with his shortcomings, but now he's encountered someone who can't face their own. Their connection is a big part of what makes the second half of the film work. Forrest gets life lessons all over the place, holds up his promise to Bubba to become a shrimp boat captain, and reunites with Lt. Dan once again and finally (by chance) makes good on the promise. It's as though luck is very kind and close to Forrest, in no small part thanks to major historical events.

Soon it's all said and done, and Jenny finds him one last time, to break two huge pieces of news: he's a father (what a beautiful, tiny scene that is) and she's contracted a fatal unknown disease (presumably AIDS, which she somehow hasn't transmitted to Forrest Jr. -- plot hole!) ... so now she's finally ready to be married to Forrest. I know, I know, it's very sweet, and how it was meant to be and all, but come on man! His whole life he's loved you more than anything and now all of a sudden when it's right for you and you know you're on the brink of death, now marriage is okay? This does not put me in Jenny's corner, but of course it's still sad when she passes. And still beautiful when the circularity of it all comes back to bite you on the ass at the bus stop with the two Forrests at the end. Melodrama be damned, it's still sweet.

So it's not a perfect movie, and there's some fascinating arguments about how the film is "a call for conservative values" and a movie for Republicans. Look it up, read about it. I'm not gonna write all that here, but when you take a second look at it, it does sort of make sense. But I get why it's on the list -- is there a more American movie listed? Even Yankee Doodle Dandy might not hold a candle!

Well, that's twenty-five movies down! I'm a quarter of the way there! No time to celebrate though, because I'm just a little behind schedule. Next up is #74: Mr. Tibbs and the famous slap heard round the world in In the Heat of the Night.

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