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Forrest Gump

July 29, 2012

Forrest Gump is about a simpleton living through complex times.  The two overwhelming impressions one gets from the movie are, first, its characters are forever fused with a particular place and time, and second, Forrest remains a genuinely decent person no matter what’s thrown at him.  His unshakable optimism and dignity are Job-like.  Consider Forrest a 20th century Huck Finn — a uneducated outsider who rides history like Huck rides the mighty Mississippi.  His simple perspective takes us through key moments in the turbulent 60s into the Me Decade and ending in the Decade of Greed.  The times were chaotic, glorious, ugly, hopeful. rebellious, experimental, and conventional.  It was a time when it was easy to get lost.  Plenty of smart people did get lost.  The film practically forces us to ask if a simple, straightforward reporting of the facts, flawed as they are, might not be more meaningful and honest than all the ideological spin we’ve become accustomed to. Though the movie is set in controversial times, it doesn’t take political sides. It is not a moral commentary.  It’s not a cautionary tale.  It’s as non-judgmental as Forrest Gump is himself.

The times may have splintered America but they barely affect Forrest.  He navigates the years like the Rock of Gibralter.  None of the big political or cultural events affect him. He’s oblivious to what most of us found provocative but he is not at all oblivious.  He’s deeply affected by his relationships to Bubba, Sgt. Dan, his mother and most of all Jenny. These attachments are his whole life even while he’s winning football games, winning a medal of honor, and getting rich in business. These feats mean nothing to him. They aren’t yardsticks by which he measures success. He doesn’t even care about or understand any sort of conventional success.  The personal is definitely not political, economic or cultural. It’s personal and it stays that way.

Many have suggested he does this because he’s too stupid to do otherwise. Obviously he doesn’t live by a complicated ideology, The guidelines his mama taught him are simple rules even he can understand: You’re no different than anybody else is; you make your own destiny; you have to do the best with what God gave you; God is mysterious; there’s only so much fortune a man really needs; you got to put the past behind you before you can move on. This is pretty traditional stuff. It wouldn’t be entirely wrong to say he represents traditional values, but not the politicization of tradition we have in politics today. Forrest’s tradition has no ideology attached.

One of his favorite truisms is, “stupid is as stupid does.” That’s a pragmatic, utilitarian definition. People are judged by their acts. There’s no point in asking how one might intellectually justify an act.  By this measure Forrest doesn’t do many truly stupid things.

But that brings us to Jenny, his angel and true love.  She’s not pragmatic, not traditional. She’s the idealist dreamer.  She has a beat phase, a hippie phase, a drug phase and ends up with AIDS.  She wants to be a famous singer but will fail. By Mama’s definition she’s the most stupid character in the film.  Yet Forrest loves her.  Jenny tells him, “You don’t know what love is.” But she’s wrong.  He’s the one person who will always love her. There’s nothing she can do to shake that love. Again he’s Job-like in his devotion. She can go with other men, pose for Playboy, perform in the nude, or possibly prostitute herself.  None of this affects his love. But it does matter to him. He “rescues” her several times, like he rescues Sgt. Dan. He rescues him from his “destiny” and her from a rejection of it. Jenny is not a child of destiny. She wants to be free as a bird. She wants to pursue happiness as she sees fit, without burdensome traditions, throwing caution to the wind. But she’ll never truly escape.

It’s for good reason that Forrest is named after General Nathan Bedford Forrest who was idolized in the South. The movie characterizes the general as a KKK vigilante but the reality is much different.  He was one of the most interesting and unusual men of that era.  It was appropriate that Mama diluted his complexity down to the truism that “Sometimes we all do things that just don’t make no sense.” This applies nicely to Jenny’s behavior too.  Even if Forrest had the mental faculties it would be futile to try to make sense of her actions.

This theme runs throughout the movie.  It’s for no particular reason that somebody shoots Kennedy and Lennon. It’s for no particular reason that Forrest starts to run, and then keeps going for three years. He whittles down his Vietnam experience to, “We took long walks and were always looking for this guy named Charlie.”  Charlie doesn’t exist, so for Forrest the search is going to be futile. But how different is that from the war hawks or doves or Jenny who were all searching for something equally elusive?

It may sound nonsensical but what’s the reason for this theme of no particular reason? What does it mean in the context of the film? Did Oswald think he had no particular reason for shooting Kennedy? Or was his reason of no consequence? Did he change the momentum of history? Is history so vast, so complex, and moved by so many disparate reasons that our one reason is insignificant?  Maybe it’s not that we have no reason, it’s that the reasons don’t ultimately matter. Something done for no reason is something done to no effect. We were in Vietnam for no reason even though plenty of people had many reasons.

For Forrest what matters is not that things are done for a reason but that they are done by applying a decent and human understanding of what needs to be done.  He applies his learning to situations at hand as best he can. He doesn’t let things happen or merely follow orders or a predestined plan. The drill Sargent asks Forrest what his purpose is in the Army. Forrest answers that it’s to do whatever he’s told. The Drill Sargent is amazed, “You’re a goddamned genius! That’s the most outstanding answer I’ve ever heard.  You must have a goddamned I.Q. of a hundred and sixty!” We then see Forrest following orders and further integrating himself into the Army plan. Yet at the crucial moment, when it’s a matter of life and death, Forrest disobeys direct orders and saves several men.  He “runs” as Jenny made him promise, but he runs into danger, not out of it.

There may be a hundred reasons Jenny or Sgt Dan could give as to why Forrest should not have done what he did, but those reasons wouldn’t have made sense to him at that moment when he had to act. He never tries to alter destiny, make history, or change peoples’ lives or find reasons. He acts like he knows he should act. In spite of this, or maybe because of this, he alters history and the culture as an unintended side-effect. His perspective is narrow but his effect is broad.  He keeps very close to what he knows.  There are no grand schemes. Yet that narrow perspective gives him plenty of room to make a difference. That’s one message in this movie, I think. In order to change the world it isn’t necessary to understand it or invent ideological super-structures or master plans.  It’s not productive to prime the pump with a war here or an assassination there.  Meaningful results do not trickle down from the top. Best use of energy is to work from the bottom every day. Do whatever has the best possible effect on those closest to you. Do so without judgement. Things will happen because of it.

Forrest Gump is not a simple movie to analyze. It works on multiple levels and has much imagery. There is a long series of leg images: braces, leglessness, strong legs, new legs, running away from, and running towards.  What’s the meaning of that feather bookmark? There’s a lot that could be discussed. But I must say that the strongest feeling I get from the movie is one of a plea for reconciliation. It goes back to the tradition versus idealism aspect of Forrest’s relationship to Jenny. In the political taking of sides that was forming through those years, Jenny should have been someone Forrest despised, someone who was ruining his culture, damaging his way of life. He should have been a reactionary drag on her revolution.  They are on the opposite sides of the culture war.  But she always goes back to him. And he always waits for her return. They are “peas and carrots” in Forrest’s words. When things get too much for her, he’s her rock of stability. The same Norman Rockwell town created both of them. They belong together but they can’t be.

In a way, Forrest’s rules to live by are his self evident truths. They need no rational justification.  Jenny is on the leading edge of the pursuit of  happiness. She’s no more rational than he is. He must allow her to pursue her happiness, never to find it, regardless of her mistakes. Of course he has no choice in the matter, but that’s how it has to be if he wants any part of her. He doesn’t resent her rejection. He doesn’t pass judgement on obviously bad behavior. He gives her the freedom to return whenever she wishes. Jenny, on the other hand, doesn’t reject Forrest as an old-fashioned relic. She obviously expects him to be there when she needs someone. And in the end he’s the one to depend on.  There is a mutual respect there that seems so natural and necessary that it’s a wonder that it’s so lacking in the political rhetoric of then and now.

Jenny is always going to be the brass ring everyone grabs at. And Forrest is always going to be home when you miss.


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