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By Saying Little, 'Gump' Says Much

November 07, 1994|SCOTT HALVORSON | Scott Halvorson teaches English at David Starr Jordan High School in Long Beach and is also at work on "an enchanting collection of unproduced screenplays."

I know there's going to be trouble when a whimsical, fresh and delightful story is turned on its head by an earnest but wrongheaded thinker who seems to lack the basic element required to appreciate a movie like "Forrest Gump": a sense of wonder.

William Relling, in his attack on the popularity of "Forrest Gump" ("It's Time to Dump the 'Gump,' " Calendar, Oct. 17), misses the point when he criticizes Forrest for the way he "tosses off the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. with nothing more than another of his flip 'Gump-isms.' " Understatement was a key technique in the film, a way of saying little and implying much. Forrest is not trying to be "flip" about Kennedy and King. He is simply being Forrest. Moreover, Forrest's brief words bring back the horror of those events more than another sermon about "violence in America" could ever do.

Relling criticizes the "casual, off-handed manner in which are treated the deaths of the two people Gump loves most: his mother . . . and his girlfriend, later-wife, Jenny." Again, it's understatement. A Lear-like outpouring of grief by Forrest would have stuck out of the picture like a titanic sore thumb. Sometimes less is more, powerfully so, and the quiet passing of Mrs. Gump and Jenny are all the more moving for the absence of third-rate pathos for which television dramas are infamous.

A related point is the fact that the "unknown disease" Jenny dies from is, almost assuredly, AIDS. It was an intelligent decision by the writer and director to let us figure this out for ourselves. We knew of Jenny's dangerous lifestyle. We know the time-frame. Thank God we weren't treated to another Dr. Generic dully explaining the disease to Forrest and us when there was no reason to do so.

Forrest's quiet resignation in the face of suffering is precisely what is moving in the film. We know his feelings for his mother (who fought for his admission into a regular public school by making the ultimate sacrifice--romancing an administrator), for his shrimping army buddy and for Jenny, who became his friend when no one else would. Tom Hanks should be commended for conveying the depth of Forrest's emotion without flashy set speeches. Any actor can tell you which is harder. By not getting or at least not appreciating the understated tone of the film, Relling missed the key part of its charm and poignancy.

To be sure, popular success is no guarantee of value. However, respect must always be paid to stories that strike so deep and resonant a chord in so many. To criticize "Forrest Gump" because it encourages a "lottery mentality" doesn't hold up under scrutiny, because Forrest actually works quite hard throughout the movie. He doesn't just sit around and expect great things to happen to him.

And it wouldn't matter if the film did encourage this alleged mentality. Some of the most enduring Greek myths are about capricious gods who casually reward undeserving mortals (Paris) and horribly punish good ones (Oedipus).

The enjoyment we receive from stories is not always or even usually for the correctness of their sociopolitical content; we delight in fresh characters and unexpected incidents. This is what "Forrest Gump" has, and why it has delighted so many.

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