The Gump enigma


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Category: Reviews Date: 26 Nov 95

The movie is brilliant on many levels, but it is one of the saddest commentaries of this age - that a person these days has to be stupid in order to be a decent human being


I hardly watch television, so when Tom Hanks said in his “deep south” American accent that he was Forest, Forest Gaa-ump, and mesmerised me for two-and-a-half hours three weeks in a row on cable, I took it as a sign of providence. Providence was trying to tell me something. The message was coming to me from the movie Forest Gump. Truly tacky, but I take these signs as seriously as people take Lotto dreams.

So I mulled over it this week while chopping bits of my finger into the onions, pouring a too-generous portion of brandy into honey into hot water for a sore throat, cleaning the contact lenses with inky fingers, forgetting even insomnia while I struggled with Gump. Stupid Gump. Why is that film about a half wit so damn clever?


So after three weeks it came to me that Forest Gump is the definitive comment on our age - the age of cynicism. I don’t know who the script writer is but I think I have figured out where he was coming from. The writer believes in the innate goodness of people, feels that life is worth living, moreover can be miraculous. The man believes in the resilience of human beings, in our capacity to survive the worst, brush the dirt off and start again. He believes in hope. But he is faced with several problems:


He knows that life has been to many, randomly brutish or just sad. Being intelligent, he understands that it will be difficult to convince the cynical, the wary and the bitter otherwise. Besides, he too, despises maudlin, cheap, instant sentimentality - the kind you can buy on Valentine cards and summon with syrupy cliched songs. But the man believes in miracles. So in the age of cynicism he takes in front as we say. He makes his hero stupid. A master stroke. On many levels. Because if his hero was of average intelligence and a good man then he would not be credible or real to the cynics.


So he creates Forest Gump, designs him so we immediately pity him. He embodies the wretched of the earth; embodied in Gump stupid is innocent, harmless, naive, without ambition or guile. The poor boy is mentally slow, fatherless, puny and has polio in an environment like the Deep South. Think Ku Klux Klan, think slavery, think stupid cruelty.  His mother has to sleep with the principal in order to get him into school. Nobody wants to sit next to him on the school bus. We laugh at him but our weaker selves identify with him, our stronger selves want to protect this harmless human being. Either way it banishes the predator in us. Besides, the boy has predators enough. But this is life you see through the eyes of a man who believes in hope and so he creates Jenny, who makes space for him and then asks him, curious, wide-eyed, non-malicious, “Are you stupid? to which the boy replies, “Stupid is as stupid does.” A cliched line but key to the story. Because the boy’s definition of stupidity comes from his mother who must (having a disadvantaged son she loves dearly) necessarily be anything that is inhumane. So Gump has unconsciously imbibed humanity from his mother.


The stupid boy is now intuitively, innately good. Through Jenny he experiences immense joy and profound unhappiness. She tells him to run from the bullies and he does. Miraculously, his cast falls off him, and he runs like the wind ... he runs everywhere for the rest of his life. He is innocent of name calling and doesn’t even understand racism.  When he picks up the fallen books of the first black person to attend University in the deep south he is decent rather than righteous. He is conscientious, rather than “heroic” in an obviously stupid war - Vietnam - when he saves lives, one by one, runs back for more to save systematically.  Given his nature - his stupidity - it is his only option.


Here his closest friend is a man obsessed with the shrimping industry. To Gump, who weeps over his death in Vietnam, his friend is only incidentally black, and so makes the automatic sloganeering of the Sixties against racism look just that, automatic - without heart. He cures the bitterness of another, a superior, who has his legs blown off, simply by respecting him the way he did when he had both his legs and rank.


Jenny, who gets involved in all the free spirit drugs and abusive men like her father, loves him, but does not desire him perhaps because he is simple, but she ends up like many abused children, in an abusive relationship. He is too innocent for her. He is her refuge, her childhood. Her one physical contact with him is more an act of thanks than an act of love. She recovers and she leaves again. Until she gets Aids. She introduces Gump to his son and asks him then to marry her. He says without sentiment. OK. But note only because the writer makes his character stupid can he get away with making love unconditional, unfettered by jealousy or resentment or wanting something back.


It is the saddest and the funniest movie I’ve seen in a long time but it is radiant with hope. Brilliantly executed by Tom Hanks, the movie could be an adaptation of an old morality play popular with Shakespeare’s contemporaries such as playwright Ben Johnson who created characters personifying greed or malice or treachery. They are simple lessons where the good prosper and the bad suffer. But morality is made palatable because it is coated with humour. We are preached at without knowing it because we are so busy laughing.


The film shows us the difference between real sentiment and its placebo, maudlin sentimentality. It is brilliant on many levels but it is one of the saddest and most cynical commentaries of this age - that a person these days has to be stupid in order to be a decent human being.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur