Forrest Gump (1994) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
a controversy there was that year when Forrest Gump won the Best
Picture Oscar. The movie world was split into two camps. The
traditionalists, the older set, the conservatives favored Gump, a
sentimental look at the evolution of the boomer generation through the
eyes of a simple man. The hip crowd favored Pulp Fiction, Tarantino's
cleverly structured, lurid, cynical portrayal of the underbelly of
Peoria had its day. The coasts sank. Gump won the Oscar.
Of course, that was not a debate over quality or memorability. They are both excellent films, and have both become part of the popular culture. The debate was simply a matter of which type of movie people preferred. Gump is an Old Hollywood film with new effects, and a film about the events and trends in the real world. Pulp Fiction was a new wave representation of the in-your-face style of a younger generation, and is intentionally unaware of the real world, remaining steadfastly in the self-referential movie world. It's decidedly postmodernist in that the history of movies and other pop culture is its reality, not the history of world events. The characters in PF wouldn't care about the French attitude toward Vietnam, but only that the French don't know what to call a Quarter Pounder avec Fromage.
If you measure the films today, solely by the number of imitators, Pulp Fiction would be the winner, because the 1994 face-off represented the passing of a baton. Gump was the last great film of its type, while Pulp Fiction invented (or re-invented) a new type which has been widely copied. Of course, if you carry that debate one step farther, you probably have to acknowledge that trend may not be a good thing. Pulp Fiction was probably responsible for more bad films than any other movie ever made. While Tarantino's film was a rapidly paced off-the-wall original which navigated steadily between lurid overindulgence and parody, most of the imitators have been mindlessly violent, tragically hip, and needlessly circular. With the exceptions of Guy Richie and John Herzfeld and a couple others, the would-be Tarantines have copied the master, but never matched his originality, his gift for pointless but interesting dialogue (I've always thought Tarantino's dialogue was similar to Samuel Beckett's), or his keen intelligence. I guess by definition, a copy can never be as original as an original, can it?
An interesting sidebar is that Forrest Gump, the novel, was probably more cynical and hipper than anything QT ever dreamt of, but the filmmakers didn't want to make that movie. They decided to keep almost everything in Forrest's POV, which automatically stripped away most of the cynicism, and a lot of the humor. The "Movie Forrest" didn't judge people or events. He just lived them, and he didn't think much about them. In the book he did offer value judgments, and did get sucked into some of the temptations that often lured the generation. Gump's famous quote in the much more cynical novel was "being an idiot ain't no box of chocolates".
In both the book and the movie, this simple backwoods boy from Alabama seems to have accidentally found himself in the middle of every major event in recent American history. In the book he was also an astronaut, although it was debatable whether he was smarter than the chimps! In the film, Forrest exchanged scar stories with LBJ, ratted out the Watergate burglars, pioneered ping-pong diplomacy, fought in Vietnam, got rich in the computer industry, sparked the running shoes boom, and a whole mess of other things that no one man could have accomplished.
To me, the beauty of Gump doesn't come from the humor, or Tom Hanks' famous characterization, or Gary Sinese's scenery-chewing career role, or the ground breaking special effects. There was some magic there, but it was basically fluff. The real substance was its retelling of the parallel stories of the baby boomer generation.
Back in the late 60's, America itself split into two camps. The media concentrated on the adventurers and counter-culturalists of my generation, who gave us the anti-war movement, the fight against the racial and sexual stereotypes of the past, flower power, free thought, sexual experimentation, and drugs. They gave us a new world, and sometimes they seemed to give us the dire consequences of their actions, like addiction, herpes, AIDS, and despair.
Although our generation's folklore has made those people seem to be the most significant of our times, and they were in many ways, they represented only the tiniest minority of the generation, and weren't much seen when one wandered away from New York and California. Most of the kids who grew up in my suburban neighborhood slipped quietly into their parents' lives, buying houses, raising kids, paying their taxes, listening to Sinatra and Elvis, and going to Vietnam when the government told them to. When they came back from 'Nam, they were not necessarily pleased with the experience, but they knew they had done what they were asked to do for their country, as so many earlier generations had done for so many countries. They never grew long hair, had no interest in revolution, and their lives were not even much changed after the cultural upheaval in the 1967-1974 period. Newsweek didn't write much about them, but most of my working class suburban friends, and their brothers and sisters from poor rural and urban families, truly were the "silent majority".
|The movie Forrest Gump represented the two paths through the generation's coming-of-age period. Forrest took the silent majority route, and Jenny was assigned his road not taken. The historical confluences that occasionally brought them together created some poignant meetings which were more symbolic than real. I appreciated the symbolism, and the sentimental review of my generation's times. The film's detractors may be right in saying that it is naive and can sometimes be as simple as Forrest himself, but they are wrong to overlook the way it really uses its magic to touch people's hearts.||
it turned out, "Forrest Gump versus Pulp Fiction" turned
into a "right versus left" battle. America's top
conservatives, like Pat Buchanan and Rush Limbaugh, stopped condemning
Hollywood just long enough to praise the old fashioned virtues of
Gump. Buchanan liked the fact that "soldiers commit no
atrocities; they are not bitter at being there; they are decent
working-class kids, faithful to their country's call to serve".
The ultraconservative Washington Times admired the fact that Jenny was
chastised, was contrite, and was punished for all of her generation's
excesses, mostly drug use and casual sex, which the WT reviewer saw as
the necessary by-products of flower power, political activism, and
Whether or not Gump was a retro homage to conservative values, it became one of the biggest box office smashes in history, and pulled in people from across the political spectrum.
For what it's worth, I don't generally agree with this particular political interpretation of the movie. It seems to me that the film rather quietly makes fun of Buchanan's hero Ronald Reagan, the real-life Forrest Gump who somehow found himself talking to historical personages without the benefit of movie special effects. Guys like Limbaugh and Buchanan were simply not subtle enough to see this, because it wasn't spelled out, and they were too busy imposing their own value systems on the movie. On the other hand, you'd think Buchanan would have noticed the much more obvious ridicule of his former boss, Richard "OK, maybe I was a crook after all" Nixon
By the way, if the 1994 Oscar were to be reassigned based on current IMDb ratings, neither film would win. The simple, eloquent, but less heralded Shawshank Redemption has risen to the top of that year's crop. Actual Best Picture nominees are highlighted in the table to the right, which demonstrates that, movie of the year or not, Gump still stands quite tall, despite Forrest's braces and Lt Dan's prosthetic legs.
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