Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Pop Culture Review: "Forrest Gump"

Forrest Gump movie poster"Forrest Gump" is told from Forrest Gump's point of view.

On one level, that's obvious. Over half of the story consists of Forrest telling some friendly strangers his life story, while he sits on a park bench in front of the White House. We are led through the whole story by Forrest's own words in voiceover. "Forrest Gump", the movie, is Forrest Gump, the character, telling his own story. We don't see through Forrest's eyes, but despite the vast historical sweep of the movie, this is always, firmly, Forrest's story.

What makes this a remarkable disability film, however, isn't the fact that it is a story of a man with cognitive impairment. Tom Hanks' delivery is convincing, but not exactly groundbreaking, and while the story is certainly uplifting, it's not very realistic. This isn't a life anything like the life of most real people like Forrest. Yet, we feel like we've learned something about this kind of disability after seeing "Forrest Gump". I never could figure out why, until just recently.

I don't know if this is an original thought or if others have suggested it, but I think "Forrest Gump" is a kind of simulation of how a mildly cognitively impaired person … otherwise known as "mentally retarded" … views and understands his life and times. Technically, we are omniscient observers, outside the story and privy to everything that's going on, just as it is. But really, we see and think about everything as Forrest does, slightly distorted, a bit truncated, in something more than two dimensions, but a bit less than three.

The events are outwardly realistic, yet fantastical. There aren't any magical creatures, and nothing supernatural happens. This is clearly the real world we're in. But, all of those historical coincidences, the moments when Forrest just happens to find himself at the center of big events, seem like Forrest's own distortions. I'm not saying he's making them up. It's just that he remembers historical events entirely in terms of his own history, and the events seem to lack depth or meaning beyond Forrest being there.

Supporting characters like Bubba, Lt. Dan, and Jenny are important, too, but they drift in and out of the story and, except maybe for Jenny, they have remarkably little effect on Forest as a person. When Forrest comments on supposedly big emotional events by saying, "And that's all I've got to say about that", one way to interpret it is that he's so moved that he's at a loss for words. I think it's just as likely that he is moved, but in a somewhat flatter way than usual when filtered through his way of thinking. It's not that he lacks emotions or empathy, but there is a difference to how he processes things, and we get to feel it a bit through him.

Likewise, the ideas and insights Forrest expresses are true and wise, but simplified, expressed in little epigrams that sound meaningful, but are actually kind of hollow when you dig a little. "Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get", has this sort of Zen quality … like "Wherever you go, there you are!" Actually, though, it's just something his mother said to him when she couldn't think of anything else to say, now Forrest says it and it's enough for him to explain pretty much anything that happens to him.

A more dramatic and deliberate example of this can be found in "Being There", the film starring Peter Sellars about a "simple man", Chauncey Gardner, who drifts through life in a pleasant haze, repeating little phrases he's heard, while the people around him over-analyze him for their own purposes. When he describes the step by step process he follows for planting and tending a garden, great minds assume its a metaphor for leadership and economic strategy. Really, he's just talking about gardening. "Forrest Gump" doesn't go this far, and I don't actually think the writers or actors intended the film to give the kind of "through the mind of Forrest" insight I'm suggesting. It just came out that way.

Like Forrest himself, I don't even think there's a profound message or revelation here. It's an experience … textured, emotional, very human … but no more than that. While "Forrest Gump" on the surface has little new to say explicitly about people with cognitive impairments, I think it gives us a feel for that experience that's unique and personal in popular culture.