Sunday, March 09, 2008

Forrest Gump (1994) & Contact (1997)

So the way it worked was, after Roy Scheider died I rented 2010 and watched it for the first time in probably fifteen years, then I felt like watching another alien-contact movie and I had Contact in my stack of movies I haven't seen in a long time, and that was around Oscar time so I rewatched Zemeckis's Oscar-winner.

Forrest Gump is a tricky movie. It was never the full-on conservative screed that its attackers claimed it to be (the common complaint is that Forrest was rewarded for being a simpleton in the turbulent '60s, while girlfriend Jenny is punished with a lifetime of misery and death by AIDS for being politically aware), and it's not a mere feel-good heartwarmer. If the movie was summed up in one sentence, it would have to be: "The last forty years: what the f*$& was all that about?" The central irony of the movie is that while Forrest doesn't understand what's going on around him, we-the-audience do, and the effect is to decontexualize history through his perspective - John Lennon is no longer the Beatles member and Plastic Ono Band associate, but merely a nice young British man who Forrest met one day and who was murdered years later. The movie's intention is to reiterate, in fresh terms, the tragedies of the era, and what Zemeckis did was to make a movie about the contemporary American memory of the 1950s-'70s, rather than about the actual history itself. There is a flattening of history at work here, but Zemeckis doesn't distort the past any more than David Lean does in Doctor Zhivago or Robert Altman does in MASH - in each movie it's history as Macguffin, using actual events as springboards for specific artistic goals. If you lived through the specific events described, I can understand why this kind of movie might be distressing, but for someone like myself who's the child of Baby Boomers, I feel like that's missing the Forrest for the trees. (Sorry.) Just look at the last shot of Forrest Gump, the widowed Forrest sitting forlornly on a bench as his son gets on a school bus, and you see what the movie really has been all along: a lament.

Whatever you think of Forrest Gump's ideological issues, it's a very well-crafted, crowd-pleasing piece of work (granted, the movie totally jumps the shark around the 1:55 mark, when in rapid succession Forrest invents jogging, the smiley face t-shirt, and the "Shit Happens" bumper sticker) which means that when Robert Zemeckis suddenly found himself an official Oscar-Winning Director, he had to live up to it, and thus made Contact, almost certainly the most blocky, talky, stiff movie of his career.

I'm an astronomy geek, so I have a soft spot for the big load of scientific jargon that Contact lays down, its warm Carl Sagan-derived optimism, and its mostly intelligent debate between science and faith. Which is all to say that I can only forgive it for Jodie Foster's shrill, uptight performance (in twenty years she'll be the star of a Hillary Clinton biopic), the unnecessary presence of Matthew McConaughey as a hipster neo-Christian religious leader, and the tediously earnest dialogue exchanges. I still think it's a good movie because of what style Zemeckis lends it, and because it addresses issues of science and our place in the universe that few pieces of popular culture bother with, but it's also a good example of an earnest Hollywood vehicle striving for importance where a less direct approach, as in Spielberg's Close Encounters or hell, Men in Black, yields greater success.

5 comments:

cjkennedy said...

The reasons I avoided Gump for so long were less political and more social. At that time in my life (early to mid 20s), anything that was so popular had to be bad. When I finally saw it on DVD years later, I had to admit it wasn't unpleasant to watch and it had a certain impact. On the other hand, I've never seen it again.

Contact I liked more from the get-go, partly because I'm also an astronomy geek and the spiritual questions intrigued me. Plus it had one of the cooler openings of a movie ever, traveling back in time in a sense by traveling out into space.

But again, never saw it twice.

K. Bowen said...

Count me in the CJ area on Gump. I love the jogging gag. It's so absurd, and so seventies.

K. Bowen said...

As far as Contact, I remember that's probably the last film I went to for which I was just dedicated to the idea that I was going to walk out liking it, that I'd ignore everything bad about that I happened to come across, just because it was a summer movie and I wanted to enjoy myself.

Jeff McMahon said...

Yeah, Craig, that was the same reason I didn't see The Lion King back in the day, or any of the late '80s-90s Disney renaissance animated movies until home video.

The jogging gag would be fine, if the next two gags weren't so lame and right on top of each other.

Harvey said...

This may, in fact, be a weakness or a generalization that applies to almost every movie, but "Contact" is film that just played infinitely better on a big screen. It was just gigantic.

Overall, I think it's kind of a dud, but in the theater, when the alien engine gets fired up and starts pulling seacraft around and the score kicks into gear ... the movie produced for me an almost tangible feeling of dread: "How the hell is all this going to end?"

Alas, after it beat me into submission with the wild wormhole sequence, the movie basically ends by serving up ... David Morse against bad green-screening ....

The Zemeckis commentary on the DVD, by the way, may have the most annoying voices this side of Lawrence and Jake Kasdan.