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Counterpunch

It's Time to Dump the 'Gump'

October 17, 1994|WILLIAM RELLING Jr. | Novelist and short-story writer William Relling Jr. lives in Silver Lake, where he conducts a private workshop for fiction writers. His most recent novel was "Silent Moon" (Tor Books)

I realize I'm very much in the minority in my opinion that "Forrest Gump" is despicable. Oh, yes, "Gump" has recently become Paramount Studios' highest-grossing film ever, one of the Top 10 money-making movies of all time. The overwhelming majority of people I know who've seen it can hardly be more effusive in their praise. I'm not quite a lone voice crying in the wilderness--

thankfully I've noted a couple of reviews that take "Gump" to task for various shortcomings, and I have a handful of acquaintances who've expressed to me their distaste for the movie--but I'm close.

However, just because I'm out-voted (even by so wide a margin), it doesn't mean I'm wrong.

Putting aside that the movie is so rife with anachronisms it's difficult to keep straight what year it's supposed to be or how old the characters are, and that it's utterly mystifying why no one in the movie ever seems to recognize Gump for the celebrity he is, I was appalled by "Forrest Gump" mostly because the movie trivialized every large issue it was ostensibly dealing with. History, war, love, friendship, success, death . . . if you think carefully about what the movie actually says, you cannot escape the conclusion that these issues are dealt with in only the most slipshod and superficial way.

I'm not speaking of the fantasy conceit that is the movie's central plot element--that Forrest Gump, through a unique combination of luck, talent and good-naturedness, finds himself interacting with everyone from Elvis Presley to Richard Nixon and is witness to many of the major political and sociological events of the 1960s and '70s.

I'm talking about how Gump tosses off the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. with nothing more than another of his flip "Gump-isms." I'm talking about how Gump becomes a millionaire while others suffer--and how the audience is encouraged to cheer about that. I'm talking about the casual, off-handed manner in which are treated the deaths of the two people Gump loves most: his mother from cancer, and his girlfriend-later-wife Jenny from some "unknown disease," presumably AIDS; their passing has all the emotional resonance of a Hallmark card commercial.

The question is, why is "Forrest Gump" such a huge success, both critically and commercially? To tell the truth, that success doesn't really surprise me, for a couple of reasons. First of all, audiences find the character of Forrest Gump tremendously endearing, not so much because of his good heart, but because they feel intellectually superior to him--he is mentally retarded. Whenever he cut loose with another of his inane, naive Gump-isms or reacted to some situation with wide-eyed wonder, the audience I was part of didn't laugh with him, they laughed at him.

Second is the movie's implied message that individual success has nothing to do with hard work or study or having brains; it's all just luck. It is a promulgation of what the late William A. Henry III calls in his book "In Defense of Elitism" the "Vital Lie." As Henry wrote, too many people nowadays--especially Americans--seem to believe that: "Win or lose, their chance of success depends on the whims of fate rather than on their own hard work.

"Worse, (this) 'lottery mentality' often translates into an assumption that all life is a game of chance, all success accidental, the wealthy and powerful simply lucky rather than accomplished. When daydreams substitute for plans, when wishing seems more appropriate than work, when envy gains yet another rationale, (our) whole society is the loser."

Some people say the violence-ridden "Natural Born Killers" is the most dangerous movie out there right now. No way. At best, it's a distant second to "Forrest Gump."

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