Gump is not the only tree in the conservative forest – popularity of film ‘Forest Gump’ – The Last Word

Gump is not the only tree in the conservative forest – popularity of film ‘Forest Gump’ – The Last Word – Column

Suzanne Fields

Sometimes a movie breaks box-office records, touches a national nerve, defines the cultural zeitgeist and passes strangely for something it’s not. So it is with the movie Forrest Gump.

It has been likened to Huckleberry Finn, Candide and Don Quixote. Frank Rich, a liberal columnist for the New York Times, compares Forrest Gump “to what many saw or thought they saw in the boyish Mr. Clinton as he, like Forrest Gump, caught fire with an American public hungry for inspiration two years ago.”

Pat Buchanan, the conservative columnist, describes Forrest as one “who always does the decent, honorable thing” — a Hollywood surprise that sneaked though the politically correct screeners.

And at Harvard University — a bastion of political correctness — students wait in long lines to see the movie and praise it.

Pat Buchanan, Frank Rich, conservatives and Harvard students agree? What is going on?

Forrest Gump is the best expression of the celebrated wisdom of the 17th-century English philosopher John Kettle: “Any time any opinion comes to be held by nearly everyone, it is nearly always wrong.”

The children of the flower children love the movie for the images that fill in the details of their parents’ memories. They pay no attention to the moral implications that the sixties brutalized lives, as depicted in Jenny, the heroine of the movie. She’s a woman abused by her father and her boyfriend, a (what else?) Berkeley radical. To sentimentalize her further, she gets AIDS.

Conservatives are so pleased to see a movie that celebrates dignity and integrity that they overlook the reason the hero is a good and decent man — because he’s stupid. The only reason Forrest is accepted into a public school with an IQ of 75 is because his mother seduces the principal who first refuses to admit him.

Forrest — namesake of the Confederate cavalry genius and the founder of the original Ku Klux Klan — becomes a hero in Vietnam because he doesn’t understand danger and is a good runner. When he winds up at an antiwar protest in uniform, he speaks into dead microphones and the crowd cheers. Does anyone have any idea what he might have said? Certainly not the scriptwriter.

Those who are less than thrilled with the nasty images of the sixties praise the “technology” of the film and see Forrest as a rich comic figure who pays a heavy price for remaining innocent in bad times. Those who applaud the purity of his optimism overlook the ridicule, his stupidity and his complete inability to learn anything intellectual or to make informed judgments. In other words, only a simpleton could find virtue appealing.

Actually, the character of Forrest Gump could be an illustration for all of those fine traits Bill Ben logues in his Book of Virtues: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and faith.

Such virtues not only have to be taught to children, but they also have to be understood by adults. They require intelligence, discernment, choice, rules and regulations — the distinctions between thou shalt and thou shalt not. They require “moral literacy.” What passes for wisdom in Forrest Gump could be written on a bumper sticker or a T-shirt. In fact, it may be in that sense that it reflects the zeitgeist.

Like an automaton, Forrest repeats phrases such as “Stupid is as stupid does,” and “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Well, life is not a choice of sugar-coated sweets. Choices matter. Forrest Gump is to Candide what The Man from La Mancha is to Don Quixote: sentimental Cliff’s Notes that reduce moral learning to a line in a fortune cookie.

One of the reasons Forrest Gump has become so popular — “a cultural phenomenon” — is not because Americans crave a lost innocence, but because we crave a shortcut to moral learning — the good act without understanding and without knowledge, without making hard decisions. Americans, like our English forebears, once shared a community of moral (and immoral) knowledge based on what Matthew Arnold described as “culture, the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world.”

Our understanding today is drawn from images — actual assassinations, drug arrests, hostage taking — on television and in movies. Even war is filmed while it is happening, so that pity and fear that deepened our understanding in tragic drama now is transferred to real life, with monotonous repetition. As a consequence, we often express judgments with the superficiality that accompanies the breadth of a television screen rather than the depth of creative insight.

We condemn or celebrate an accused murderer based on sound bites. Docudrama eclipses the actual event — a television movie about O.J Simpson nearly preceded th trial. Moral stories emanate from talkshow confessionals, making light of the evil that a person can do — and does — to others. College freshmen talk with reverence of Forrest Gump with the intellectual excitement their grandparents spent on the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides.

Popular culture has always had its place to entertain and titillate. But now it’s confused with something of a higher moral order. Pass the box of chocolates, please. I know what I’m getting.

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