Forrest Gump: A Gritty Indie Film Masquerading as a Hollywood Epic

forrest


Forrest Gump (1994)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay by Eric Roth
From a novel by Winston Groom
142 min.

I know it’s weird, but there are actual people who don’t like Forrest Gump.  (Dr. Seuss described this phenomena as having a heart three sizes too small.)  Sentimentality is a powerful thing—it makes people cry and tricks intellectuals into thinking art isn’t good.  It also tricks moms into thinking that a movie with LSD use, a guy blowing his load early, sexual bartering, and child molestation is appropriate for an 8 year old—or, maybe I just have a really cool mom.

I was flipping through the channels the other day (I don’t use ‘the guide’) and I landed on Forrest Gump, which is the epitome of a ‘whenever it’s on TV I have to finish it’ movie.  I landed on one of Jenny’s hippie scenes, the one where a dude pulls up in a Volkswagen Beetle and asks if anyone wants to go to San Francisco, and Jenny says “I’ll go,” and he says “Far out!”, like a very happy hippie.  At that moment, I had a realization: Forrest Gump is a pretty weird movie to be on ABC Family (which is the channel it was on).  When I was a little kid, Forrest Gump was just a big, fun movie that made me laugh and then cry at the end.  When I was eight, I didn’t understand that when Forrest is sitting on Jenny’s bed in her dorm and she takes off her shirt, he ejaculates early.  Forrest Gump is a gritty, indie film masquerading as a Hollywood epic.


I hear it’s based on a book—in fact, when I heard that, that was when I first realized that most movies are based on books.  I was surprised, because I can only ever picture Forrest Gump as a movie.  I hear in the book, Forrest ends up going into space on one of the Apollo missions—sounds dumb, but whatever, it’s a book, you make up your own pictures.  Movies are more interesting than books because with books, an author spends a few hundred dollars on a laptop and describes stuff, whereas a movie director spends a few hundred million dollars of other people’s money to put their vision on the screen.  That’s why 99.9% of movies are terrible, and why Forrest Gump is not.  It takes rare talent and vision to play with other people’s money correctly, and Robert Zemeckis’ vision as a director is among the best that movies have ever known.  And in Forrest Gump, his ability to juggle harsh reality with gut-wrenching sentimentality earned him an Oscar, a ranking on that AFI list I love to mention, and a time slot on ABC Family twenty years later.

There’s a great shot in the movie that exemplifies everything I just said about his talent.  It’s during the sequence where Forrest is talking about the rain in Vietnam.  “Then one day, the rain just stopped”.  We see the soldiers walking in the fake movie rain and then suddenly it stops pouring and there is a lighting gag to show that the sun is out.  There is a tiny moment of pause, which is suddenly and tumultuously interrupted by horrific gun fire.  Instead of cutting, the shot continues—we follow Forrest as he drops to the ground and ducks behind an embankment in the dirt, and there are CGI gun blasts and explosions going on all around him.

The shot was done on a dolly, or possibly with a Steadicam.  It’s not handheld and shaky, the cuts are not jumpy and stylized.  This is because Zemeckis knows that the most effective way to show action is to show it.  The less your camera gets in the way, the better.  Being lazy and relying on tons of coverage is the pitfall of non-stylized movies.  The best directors design shots that express the dramatic beats of the story.  They design shots that utilize composition, angle, and sometimes camera movement to tell you something about how you’re supposed to feel.  In that moment in Forrest Gump, you’re supposed to feel the jagged surprise of war.  A cut would ‘work’, but the way it’s done is better.  Robert Zemeckis is better.

Forrest Gump came out the same year as Pulp Fiction.  As you can imagine, they were both nominated all over the place, and while Gump won some Oscars, Pulp won an MTV Movie Award.  In Tarantino’s acceptance speech, he joked, “When you keep losing to Forrest Gump, what do you do? Come to MTV.”  (He said the words ‘Forrest Gump’ in a classic, smarmy Tarantino sneer.)  Pulp Fiction is a decent movie, and awards are stupid and stuff, but essentially, he’s right: you have to look to thirteen-year-old kids who think they’re cool for appreciating Pulp Fiction.  Forrest Gump is a movie made with invisible style designed to evoke intense emotions.  Pulp Fiction is too, except it’s a lot more boring and useless.

The irony is, neither film has much of an arc.  I’ve always been fascinated by Gump because it doesn’t really have a story.  Forrest doesn’t change, but he shouldn’t.  How could he?  Of course, Forrest Gump isn’t the first movie to tackle this premise.  Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) is essentially the same thing.  And not a bad movie either, albeit dated.  However, since the Hoffman character is not mentally challenged, we expect his journey to mean something more.  And with that, we start to feel the length of the film.

Gump famously opens with a symbolic wafting feather, which now looks a lot more fake than it did in 1994 (it basically looked real then).  It’s a simple and even easy image, but then again, so is Forrest.  He is a soft, warm, and never-changing person; the ‘constant’ in the experiment of the sexual revolution, the hippie movement, the Vietnam war, and all that followed.  Similar to Goodfellas, it’s a large-scope story made intimate by documentary-esque calculation and focus on a main character that acts as our shepherd.  Both movies are constructed primarily through medium shots, with slight variation.  This gives the viewer a close proximity to our chaperone (Gump and Henry respectively) and just enough extra space in the frame to show the world around them.  In each film, the camera is almost always moving; this keeps the world alive and simply allows you to show more.  But enough has already been said about the beautiful collage-like universe of Forrest Gump.

Forrest Gump isn’t just a picture of a turbulent America, it’s a picture of growing up.  In a way, the entire movie is a rite of passage that culminates in Forrest and Jenny’s relationship near the climax of the film.  Forrest never grows up, but somehow, in another way, he does—it just takes him a lot longer than most folks.  And he is able to deal with insane situations like war, protest, and sexual experimentation, with childlike innocence and sensitivity.  That’s why the movie plays so well to kids; from Forrest’s vantage, the world seems pure, even at its most cruel.  Parents like it simply because it is a picture of the baby boom generation, and thus, the bridge is gapped.  What Hollywood no longer understands is that you need to make movies for adults that kids will like, not movies for kids that adults will like.  Adults don’t actually care about Ice Age 2, whereas kids want to feel like adults—it’s the paradox of the whole ”I don’t wanna grow up” thing.  They do want to grow up.  Why do you think every fucking thirteen year old drinks coffee and wants an iPhone?

My favorite sequence is when Forrest just starts running.  There’s no part of the film more inherently symbolic of both Forrest’s journey, and the larger human journey, than the sequential images and sounds of Forrest Gump running across America with a caveman-like beard.  The running sequence makes literal what the entire movie has been doing all along.  Forrest Gump is a directionless character.  He sits and things happen to him.  Ironically, it’s when he decides do something that things stop happening.  And there is an even more beautiful moment near the end when Forrest is remembering tidbits of his travels and he thinks back on one particular moment when the shadows of the clouds cascaded over the prairies.  The movie is intelligent poetry.

But, let’s get back to the grit.  There’s a scene where Jenny takes acid and almost commits suicide by standing on a ledge over traffic—another great example of  photography eliciting tension. We follow Jenny with clever cuts from inside a seedy hotel room to the balcony where she eventually stands on the ledge.  The camera is being used as the viewer; it’s not POV, but more as if we’re looking over the ledge with Jenny.  The first time you see it, you absolutely feel like you’re going over that ledge, and the effect is so powerful that it never really leaves on subsequent viewings.

There’s a scene where Jenny’s dad is hunting her down with a whiskey bottle to molest her. Brilliantly, we never see his face; we see him obscured, in wide shot, and most cleverly, in a harsh tracking shot where we see a close up of the whiskey bottle in his hand.  Again, Zemeckis understands that suggestion is much more powerful that literal, and that these scenes are from the point of view of a child.  It’s that construction that makes them suitable for ABC family, yet also doubly as effective as any R-rated indie, because in Gump, we actually feel the danger and tension of the situation.

Another great example is the Black Panther Party party scene.  In it, Zemeckis uses slow motion to put you in Forrest’s mind as he’s seeing Jenny get slapped (very Scorsese-esque).  It’s timed to Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix, with Forrest wailing on the guy during the solo.  It doesn’t get much grittier than that.  The wail session is capped by the hilarious line, “I’m sorry I had to fight in the middle of your Black Panther party” and is a great example of one of the movie’s ingenious switches from high drama to high comedy.  It’s the kind of tone only a true artisan can pull off because it requires the meticulous juggling of many threads; if one thread is loose, the whole thing unravels, but if tightly wound, you can dance from laughs to tears within scenes—as happens many times in Gump.

And that’s it really, Forrest Gump is probably the most complex and moving of all of the best movies ever made.  Not just in scope, but in the minutia as well.  There might not be a more quotable movie, from the famous “Run, Forrest, Run” to the lesser known “It was a bullet wasn’t it, that jumped up and bit ya” or “Haha, we was sittin’ next to a millionaire” or “Your momma sure does care about your schoolin’, son”.  And that leads me back to my original point—think about the context of that last quote! How the fuck is a movie where shit like that happens being aired on ABC Family!?

The reason why is because Forrest is a kid watching his own movie.  His take on things are the same as the eight-year-old ABC Family viewer.  So, thanks mom for showing me Forrest Gump when I was a little kid. You did right by me. (Although we might have to talk about you letting me watch Fargo…)

1 out of 1 stars.

Oh, one more thing!  Obviously Forrest Gump is one of the dozen or so perfect movies ever made.  However, one thing always bugged me.  There’s a great gag that we all know (it was even in the trailer) were Forrest sees Luetenant Dan on the doc and excitedly jumps off his boat to greet him.  Since the boat is still moving, it then crashes into an adjacent dock in the background of the coverage.  It’s a great visual gag, but it contains a huge continuity error that even bothered my eight-year-old brain.  The boat is going to the right, but then in the background it’s going left.  Had they simply flipped the coverage shot in post, it would’ve been fine, but as is, it’s oddly jarring and it makes no sense!

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3 Responses to Forrest Gump: A Gritty Indie Film Masquerading as a Hollywood Epic

  1. Ned Martin says:

    I have to disagree with these observations. I feel that Forrest Gump is technically superior to just about any movie ever made. Tom Hanks gives a great performance filled with humor and pathos. I despise sentimentality because I think it’s cheap, but I find it forgivable in many instances. I don’t think it tricks intellectuals into thinking art isn’t good – in fact, I think it doesn’t really trick anybody except for the most moronic of morons. And while I can sympathize with a man who lost his legs coming to terms with life to confront situations on positive terms, I can’t get down with being aligned with a mental midget who does nothing but respect authority and breezes through life with a happy go lucky attitude who happens to inadvertently alter the the course of history and diminish the labor of the people who truly did effect that history.

    Gump being the whistleblower on Watergate because he’s worried about guys seeing in the dark? That’s a joke and sweeps under the rug true criminal misdeeds by the person who is in charge of the country. To portray Gump as a man who is blessed while Jenny never had a chance is bad faith, plain and simple. Maybe if Jenny was a little more stupid and didn’t question things, she’d be a multi-millionaire for basically just stumbling around and practicing ping-pong.

    Your comparison to Little Big Horn brings to mind a fundamental difference. Dustin Hoffman is a cowardly character who’s cowardice has destroyed everything he loves. He may be beyond redemption, but he comes about as close as anyone can by dropping the lies and telling the truth, which also is the historical truth. Custer asks Hoffman if he should chase the Indians or retreat – Hoffman replies he should chase the Indians. The dialogue is worth quoting in full:

    Custer: There are no Indians there, I suppose?

    Hoffman: I didn’t say that. There are thousands of Indians down there. And when they get done with you, there won’t be nothing left but a greasy spot. This ain’t the Washita River, General. And them ain’t helpless women and children waiting for you. They’re Cheyenne brave, and Sioux. You go down there if you got the nerve.

    And with that, the reprehensible General Custer’s fate is sealed. Little Big Man didn’t cause Custer’s last stand in real life, perhaps, but it’s a historical truth used a the lead character’s redemption. There is no redemption similar in Forrest Gump. Just a moron walking around waving like an idiot.

  2. Tom Hanks says:

    I believe everyone has a right to their opinion about films or other topics. However from a lot of the comments I have read about this film, I do not think many got the gist of the message from the author and the film maker. This film is a great modern fable, a fable in the dictionary is defined as a brief fictitious story that teaches a moral. There are many morals defined in this film but foremost is integrity and a simple goodness.

    I have a half brother who grew up in the Southern U.S. and on one occasion we were discussing this film and he said he felt it portrayed Southerners as dimwitted. I disagreed with him and informed him that the author himself was a native Southerner. The setting is central to this story in that it lets the tale unfold tying in factual events with the fable before us.

    The film is wonderfully directed by Robert Zemeckis, the film is his opus and is acted by a great cast on all levels. From the children who were Forrest Gump and Gump Jr. by Haley Joel Osment. Say what you want but I feel Tom Hanks deserved the Oscar award. Gary Sinise is synonymous with Lt.Dan whenever you hear those words. Sally Fields is the loving dutiful mother in her challenging situation. Mykelti Williamson as Bubba gives you a real sense in the story that Gump had a genuine friend, he moves you with his character. Words don’t grasp the full performance of Robin Wright Penn as Jenny. Jennys’ tenderness and pain are palpable as exhibited by Wright.

    I feel that much of Gumps’ appeal is his downright sense of doing the right thing regardless of the people and situations around him and we see that in this film. That being the case maybe we all wish we could be just a little more like that, trying to maintain innate goodness and not the trade-offs we often make as we go down lifes highways.

    The movie has it all too,drama,comedy and it challenges societal norms as well. Then there are the almost endless quotes from the movie that have slipped into everyday speech. They are too numerous to say at this point.One of the toppers for me in the movie is when Forrest is in a quandary about life and wondering as Lt.Dan said we all have a destiny and his Mom says it is where we are all just floating around like a feather in the wind. Forrest’s character terms it very well with this quote,”I think it is a little bit of both.” From my experiences in life it does appear to be that way. So if you have not seen the movie,see it soon you are in for a real treat. If you did not like it, give it a try again and hopefully you will see it for the great story it is!

    More about the movie and Tom Hanks you can also find it here
    http://movieinfodb.com/en/people/31/Tom+Hanks

  3. Pingback: Cinematic Techniques | Jonathan Redford

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