COLUMN

The self-hypnosis of America

While we snore away, the schlock culture mavens whisper soothing, subliminal messages in our ears. Sleep, dear ones, sleep.

FRED BRUNING August 22 1994
COLUMN

The self-hypnosis of America

While we snore away, the schlock culture mavens whisper soothing, subliminal messages in our ears. Sleep, dear ones, sleep.

FRED BRUNING August 22 1994

The self-hypnosis of America

COLUMN

AN AMERICAN VIEW

While we snore away, the schlock culture mavens whisper soothing, subliminal messages in our ears. Sleep, dear ones, sleep.

FRED BRUNING

Gump Happens. So said billboards around New York City in advance of the summer blockbuster movie, Forrest Gump. And, in fact, the publicity sharpies were correct: Gump did happen, and how.

The film is one of those sly and subversive undertakings that have become standard for Hollywood—a shrewd cinematic product that concocts its own dippy credibility and then bullies moviegoers into believing they occupy the same planet as characters on the screen.

It is the kind of scam that nails Americans every time. There is among the people of the United States an enormous need to see the brighter side of things, to pretend life can be reduced to right and wrong, to assume everything will work out in the end—the last vestiges, no doubt, of revolutionary spirit.

Nowadays, that fierce American optimism does not prompt anti-authoritarian zeal but, more likely, pilgrimages to theme parks, where perfection reigns, and the proliferation of bumper stickers that urge passersby to “visualize world peace” or commit “random acts of kindness.” The same impulse is translated into massive ticket sales (and the usual collateral damage of T-shirts, caps and paperback volumes) for feel-good movies like Forrest Gump.

Taken for granted by the film is the sentimentality and innocence of the audience, the need of everyone to invest faith in something—anything—that makes even a little bit of moral sense in confusing times. Twisting this good-hearted instinct to your own advantage is like luring grandma into a pyramid scheme, but that is what the Gumpmeisters do. Even the contrived and overhyped Woodstock ’94 extravaganza allowed a better shot at authentic emotion. Compared with Gump, Michael and Lisa Marie are the real thing.

For the few who have not yet parted with

their bucks at the Gumpland admission window, Forrest is a young man embodying all aspects of the Ten Commandments and Boy Scout Law (“. . . trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient. . . ”) although his IQ score falls sadly just south of normal. Director Robert Zemeckis chooses to por-

tray Gump not as borderline smart, but borderline stupid—the kind of fool who keeps running towards the exits after scoring a touchdown for his college team, or drinks every Dr Pepper on the table if given a chance, or abandons the helm of his fishing boat and swims blissfully to an old war buddy onshore. (Captainless, the tub plows comically into a dock. Forrest barely blinks.) So earnest and innocent that he can’t be bad, Gump is unimpressive when doing good. In another movie, one might have thought the director was struggling to say something about America. But that would be another movie. Somehow Gump’s shortcomings as a

thinker do not interfere with his ability to earn a fabulous living—not in this special America smeared so broadly across the screen. Played by Tom Hanks with inspired

dizziness, Gump becomes a multimillionaire shrimp baron, so wealthy that he can retire decades early and take the job of his dreams: operator (unpaid) of a ride-around lawn mower. Gump is portrayed as nearly touched enough to be in residential treatment, but sufficiently clever to serve on the Securities and Exchange Commission. Maybe director Zemeckis should consider therapy, himself. Forrest Gump reveals as much about the

world of intellectual handicaps as James Bond unveiled the practice of espionage. Because someone is naive, or slow off the mark, doesn’t mean he’s going to pull one slapstick stunt after another and then—like Gump—inflict his whole goofy story on strangers at a bus stop. A modest IQ score does not necessarily mean much of anything, except, perhaps that “normal” people won’t understand. As for the prospect of making a bundle despite learning difficulties, what a laugh. In this economy? Landing a job with a decent benefits package and paid vacation is about the biggest bonanza folks on the margin can expect. Still Americans adore Forrest Gump, and

no wonder. Packed with special effects that place the adorable Gump in vintage news clips (he meets three presidents, appears on a talk show with John Lennon, helps integrate the University of Alabama) and an endearing, down-home philosophy (“Mama always said life is like a box of chocolates— you never know what you’re gonna’ get,” quoth Gump), the film unloads its own moral imperative. Support Gump, or sign up for sensitivity training. What’s the big deal? “It’s only fun,” said

one defender of the movie. Maybe so. But this soft-focus stuff makes everything seem blurry after a while. A film like Forrest Gump is just another small episode of self-hypnosis—one more transient dream for an audience that may already have been dozing too long. And while we snore away, the schlock culture mavens whisper soothing, subliminal messages in our ears. Less is more, less is more. Sleep, dear ones, sleep, sleep, sleep. This withering of the American experience

recently prompted author William Styron to assail the Walt Disney organization for proposing a huge “historical” amusement area in Virginia. Years ago, Styron dealt with slavery in the controversial novel The Confessions of Nat Turner and now wonders how Disney’s “imagineers” will represent the auction block, and the sting of the whip and the moral complexities that slave trade represents. “To present even the most squalid sights would be to cheaply romanticize suffering,” Styron wrote in The New York Times. Vacationers trooping through the exhibits, he said, would get off far too easily. Likewise, the case of Forrest Gump. When

Gump is shown entering the University of Alabama with black students who defied Gov. George Wallace, the movie hints a white person lent courageous support. That may be the way Gump happens but Americans are kidding themselves if they think life tags along. Fred Burning is a writer with Newsday in New York.