Life is like a…

No it bloody well isn’t


And this my fine friends is the folksy wisdom of Forrest Gump which was released in 1994 and is therefore coming up on it’s 25th anniversary. What I’m about to say tends to attract funny looks and cold shoulders. There are things that people can agree to disagree on – like Marmite (it’s not a foodstuff) or the justification for auto tune (nope, never, ever) but equally there are things where I get the feeling I am so right it might well look to the casual observer that I am wrong. Forrest Gump is one of those things – I hate Forrest Gump. Which is to say that I hate the movie. Forrest Gump isn’t a real person – can we just make that clear? If he was a real person I would have nothing against him and I would wish him every success in his prawn selling endeavours. But he isn’t. All the same, when you tell people you don’t like the movie they tend to react as if you said you hate puppies. Or that you really admire the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
The movie was a huge hit when it was released and to be honest that was one of the reasons I think I might have been set against it at first. I really struggle to like the ‘big’ film of the year since they invariably disappoint compared to the build up. Some of them manage it eventually Jurassic Park; ET- The Extraterrestrial and so on. Forrest Gump came second in overall box office and it scooped up awards the same way Forrest scoops up shrimp. It won oscars, it won golden globes… it was bloody everywhere and the line above about the chocolates became an instant quote. Going from nowhere to everywhere in the space of a few months and even to this day if you type “life is like a….’ into google then it comes up top. Even before Life is like a book. It is now so well known that it has become a cliche; a generally accepted truism that is no longer examined despite it being the dumbest simile on film. Life isn’t like a f***ing box of chocolates and in the last defence of this film I will ever give neither the author nor the film makers would have wanted it to be taken as true. It is merely an example of how Forrest Gump sees the world. That one line is a microcosm of his character and the film but it is also a perfect example of what goes wrong with this film. What do you mean you haven’t seen Forrest Gump? Sheesh! Okay, I’ll come back to the chocolates.
Forrest Gump is the eponymous hero in a tale spanning several decades. Forrest has a low IQ (75) but is kind, open-hearted and always does the right thing. He excels at football, goes to Vietnam, meets the president and finds himself involved in various famous events of the time. Disaster befalls him and his companions on a frequent basis but he retains a sunny disposition for the most part and ends up being fairly famous and rich. All of which is fine, but what’s it about? Well that’s the problem you see. The film starts with this feather falling from the sky…
And it’s erratic descent to Forrest’s feet is as much of an explanation as you will ever get or need for the plot of the movie. Forrest is the feather to all intents and purposes – blown hither and yon by unseen forces and having as much about say in it as the feather does in the main. Are there good bits? Of course there are, this is not a badly made film in any way – and you have to feel sympathy for Forrest or there is something missing in your soul. He is a victim of circumstance and everyone should feel sorry for the victim. But Forrest Gump is a singular movie because he is a singular character. I did suspect that he was, perhaps, the ultimate stoic – a near perfect example of that philosophical school invented and espoused by Zeno of Citium and other ancient greeks as well as Marcus Aurelius, Derren Brown and my mate Allan who lives in Thailand.
zeno of citium not my mate Allan
I won’t go into the details of stoicism (it can be long and winding road) but I had thought that it was much to do with retaining an equanimity about events – regardless of whether they be good or bad – as I searched for a good reason to champion this film. If Forrest Gump was merely the embodiment of something then I could like him. But he isn’t. It turns out that a stoic has one thing that Forrest does not – and that’s a vision of the future. As a character Forrest initiates nothing, wants nothing (except maybe Jenny) and makes no moves towards achieving anything that he might desire – and as a film educator it drives me nuts. Every time I go into a classroom I am trying to tell the children (or adults) about character and story. We all do the same. Films are about characters and characters want something – which they don’t get right away. Otherwise there would be no bloody film. Think of any other film you’ve ever seen and the chances are high that there is a central character who wants something and a variety of obstacles in their way. It’s storytelling 1.0.1. Except not in Forrest Gump – he’s a blank slate- and the film shouldn’t work, but it does. We are encouraged to just drift along with him as his life is turned upside down by random events – Jenny, Vietnam, Storms and shrimp… it pains me utterly because we are looking for meaning where there can be no meaning. The critic Roger Ebert at the time wrote: Watch him carefully and you will understand why some people are criticized for being “too clever by half.” Forrest is clever by just exactly enough.
Now that I write this it occurs to me that it is not the film, nor the main character that I dislike but the reaction there was to it. Back in 1994 it was championed as a better, more innocent view of the world. Forrest Gump, in the movie and as an aspect of the movie in the real world was famous because of his inabilities, not because of his abilities. There is the whole attitude that we are better off not worrying or thinking or having ambitions and we can still make a success of life. No. No you don’t. I’m not having any of it. The film makers might not have intended it that way but anything they meant to achieve by having Forrest only get to normal school by his mother sleeping with the school principal is lost in the folksy charm of Forrest and his chocolates. And this is why we come back to the box of chocolates. The screenwriter and film makers I am certain did not want that line to become a cliched truism in the world. The line is intended to let us know how Forrest thinks – not how we should think. “Life is like a box of chocolates, cos you never know what you are gonna git”
Really? I do know what I am getting, they tell you on the side of the box, which is why I grab the orange cremes before anyone else. Life is shit sometimes (even for Forrest Gump) and the last box of chocolates I read didn’t have shit-flavoured truffles wrapped up inside.
25 years have passed since Forrest Gump appeared. Damn! I guess life really is like a box of chocolates. Turn your back for a minute and there’s hardly any left.
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