Memories II: The Cultural Meaning of Forrest Gump With the 25th anniversary of Woodstock fast approaching and a new generation of American kids seeking the same sort of wild time they imagine their parents had enjoyed in upstate New York farm country despite dire warnings from Newt Gingrich and his congressional cohorts already on the campaign trail, the long hot summer of 1994 was already ripe with contested memorial fervor for the counterculture when Forrest Gump exploded onto the scene over independence day weekend, taking in over thirty million dollars in just four days. One of the few true cinematic phenomena of the last twenty years, this film would ultimately garner over three hundred million in domestic box office receipts, sweep the next years academy awards extravaganza, and quickly find its way into the personal video libraries of countless American families. It also quickly garnered political notice, as soon-to-be-Speaker Gingrich worked to claim over it as “a conservative film” which movie going audiences flocked to see “as a reaffirmation that the counterculture destroys human beings and basic values.”1 This explicit claim for partisan ‘ownership’ of the film also leads to its being a near ideal example of the “Silver Triangle” theory in action, as all three poles can be scene interacting with one another to encourage cinematic success. Already determined to create the fall elections as a referendum on the recent past, Gingrich’s assertion that Gumpian history is both ‘true’ and morally instructive poses it as a text uniquely representative of contemporary American culture. This notion is supported by the incredible box office popularity of a film which quickly became the third highest grosser in Hollywood history, suggesting that a vast majority of Americans at least did not find fault in the films depiction of the recent past. Yet, perhaps more than anything else, the electoral success enjoyed by Gingrich and his Republican fellows suggests the film as truly indicative of the underlying culture, as the same consuming public that had given Forrest Gump a theatrical mandate over the summer provided congressional conservatives a powerful political one that fall.
The confluence of popular and political support for a film quickly hailed as a cultural icon has not gone wholly unnoticed among scholars with an interest in the intersections of media and society. These critiques have generally centered around the film’s representational choices regarding race and gender, especially as those concerns impact the larger cultural narrative and ultimate historic ‘judgments’ of the legacy of the Sixties. Citing the film as a response to the project, begun by Ralph Ellison in the early 1950’s, “to call attention to ways in which everything recognizably American had its visual form because of the unacknowledged presence and contribution of black Americans,” Alan Nadel argues that “Gump attempts systematically to erase that presence, to deny it every existed.”2 While Nadel points to the film’s crediting of a young, leg braced Forrest with the dance moves that made Elvis Presley famous as one such significant example of the writing out of black cultural influence, it is in the choices of which, when, and how African-Americans are represented, as well as mainstream white responses to them, that the film’s depictions of race become most problematic. As we learn early in the film, Forrest is actually the namesake of Ku Klux Klan founder and distant relative, Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose founding of an organization dedicated to terrorizing ‘uppity’ Southern blacks is presented by Forrest’s mother as an example of the fact that “sometime people do things that just don’t make no sense.” In removing the historical motivations behind the Klan’s formation, the film sets up the mainstream white Southern society of the Fifties into which Forrest was born (complete with pre-pilgrim pedigree and old plantation style mansion) as without specific ill intents toward the black population, a notion reconfirmed by the peaceful crowd out on a sunny day to see George Wallace’s impassioned libertarian (rather than racist, both of which he was) appeal to keep the federal government out of Alabama, and black students out of the university whose door he was steadfastly occupying. Yet this underlying argument that Southern segregationists were at worst ignorant of the problems inherent in the sacred system that a peaceful Civil Rights movement, conveniently absent from the film’s narrative, would properly and easily bring to an end, is far from the only sweeping historical generalization regarding black protest culture to be taken from the film.
In a film which makes considerable uses of stock footage and explicitly referenced historical characters and events as a means of contextualizing Forrest’s memorial journey, one oft-utilized trope focuses on the future assassinations of individuals ranging from George Wallace to the Kennedys to John Lennon. Moreover, as Thomas Byers points out, it is “in connection with the assassinations” that the most “egregious emptying out” of a black historical past occurs, “in the form of a blatant omission” of the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.3 Whereas the omission of Malcolm’s murder can perhaps be understood as a result of his “having been too radical and threatening” to mainstream culture both then and now to warrant “inclusion as a victim, “ “the exclusion of Dr. King’s murder… is simply astonishing” and “doesn’t even make sense in terms of the way Forrest is drawn” as a character largely sympathetic to Southern blacks.4 Yet in a film ostensibly portraying our collective national journey from the 1950’s to the 1980’s which makes no mention whatever of Selma, Montgomery, or the March of Washington, it would have perhaps raised too many questions regarding the film’s overall narrative selections. Indeed, apart from the close personal if Vietnam conflict prompted friendship constructed between Forrest and Bubba there is no mention nor depiction whatever of blacks between Wallace’s schoolhouse stand and his exposure to a Black Panther rally in nation’s capital following his return from combat. This scene, the last actively focusing on African-Americans as a group, thus serves as a stand in for what the Civil Rights movement had become (or, given the film’s failure to show a peaceful predecessor, perhaps always had been), a violent, gun-toting, anti-nationalist movement threatening the safety, personal property, and very lives of a mainstream who they viewed as eagerly sending them off to die in defense of democracy on the front lines while refusing to guarantee equal treatment at home. While revolutionary rhetoric and a willingness to use force surely were marks of certain late Sixties black protest groups, the film’s exclusion of events like the dual assassinations of African-American leaders removes an semblance of the context of economic deprivation and social frustration which precipitated such calls to violence, thus creating them as unsympathetic criminals with ignoble intents. Never overtly racist, the film ultimately leaves out tangible gains of the movement such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, while highlighting the types of rhetorical and physical violence which Martin Luther King had as early as the Watts riots of 1965 assumed would spell the death of Civil Rights as a mainstream movement.
The film’s use of gender and the family can be read through a similarly political lens, with the characters of Forrest’s mother and especially Jenny serving as the main foci of such critiques. The divergent upbringings of Forrest and Jenny, in single parents homes headed by each child’s gender opposite, are often cited as underlying causes of the starkly different paths through life in Sixties America which they each take. Forrest’s mother is portrayed as unswervingly devoted to her son’s future, to the point where this upright Southern belle gladly trades sexual favors to gain him entry into public school despite his sub-standard IQ. Her reluctant sacrifice of her own body on behalf of her son comes in stark contrast to the actions of Jenny’s father, who looked to his own daughters to fulfill the physical void left by the loss of his wife, a situation which scars Jenny for life despite her youthful removal to her grandmother’s home. While Jenny’s family life is cheerfully forgotten even as the baggage of those years continues to weight her down, Forrest remains hopelessly devoted to the woman who’d raised, cared for, and unconditionally loved him despite his faults, taking pains to explain things to her son in metaphoric ways (life as a box of chocolates) that he might understand. While the portrayal of a successful single parent household might at first appear to contradict the ‘conservative’ message of the film, it is in the comparison between the two homes that its larger political statement concerning the family becomes clear. Indeed, Forrest’s idealized home life and personal success despite his natural handicaps demonstrate that single mothers can survive and even thrive in America, suggesting that individual familial difficulties are the fault of precisely those individuals rather than the structure of society at large. On at least this point the film leans toward a more Reaganite brand of conservatism, where individual commitment and tireless effort (absent personal immorality) can transcend even the most unfavorable initial conditions.
Yet it is through the character of Jenny that the film makes its most interesting gendered statements, as well as its most complete condemnation of the counterculture. While in many ways Jenny displays the most agency of any character in the film, her choices generally result in negative occurrences. In many cases Forrest is present and able to resolve the situation, generally through the use of force as when her gig as a topless folk singer results in drunken club goers attempting to grope her only to be stopped by an opportunely arrived Gump. Even after her death Forrest still attempts to solve Jenny’s problems, personally going out to her father’s old farmstead “with a bulldozer” to destroy all remnants of her abused youth.5 The most explicit example of Forrest saving Jenny from herself is also metaphorically suggestive of the film’s overall take on the counterculture. Recently returned from war and reunited with Jenny, Forrest reacts quickly and violently when her Berkeley SDS president boyfriend slaps her amidst the “Black Panther party” earlier described. This scene suggests, according to Robert Burgoyne, that violence is “the province of the counterculture, whose representatives wield, at various points, guns, billyclubs, and fists” rather than of the dominant mainstream as Sixties protesters asserted at the time.6 Yet while the anti-war movement is here portrayed as vicious, the feminist movement is “not merely written over but written out” of the historical narrative, an occurrence Thomas Byers points to as “repression” of “the history that is most dangerous to the myth” of triumphant masculinity “that is Forrest Gump.”7 Byers is particularly struck by Jenny’s lack of personal involvement or even awareness of the feminist movement, especially given her role as the film’s preeminent representative of “everything the New Right means by the counterculture.”8 But we are getting ahead of ourselves, as a full discussion of Jenny’s role as countercultural personification par excellence and the film’s ultimate message concerning the Sixties must wait for an exploration of plausible alternatives.
---Alternative Visions and Versions: Oliver Stone and Winston Groom---Born on the 4th of July,in 1946 (and likely conceived shortly after VJ day the year before) Ron Kovic seems the perfect candidate to serve as a representative of post-war America and the nations experiences in the decades following the end of WWII. The public reaction to the film, its modest box office success, and the Academy Award which Oliver Stone garnered for his 1989 film version of Kovic’s autobiography all indicate the cultural resonance which its representation of the period held for at least some part of a modern American populace still divided over the events chronicled in the film. As Ron Kovic, standing in throughout the film for the vision of American life crystallized in the post-war moment of his birth, experiences the realities of a nation and world torn by social and political strife and upheld by apparent self-contradiction, lies, and hypocrisy, and moves from a virile young nationalistic and Catholic teenage marine to an embittered and crippled veteran, who ultimately rediscovers a role for himself more in line with the "true" values of America, we are offered a vision of a nation going through a difficult but needed process of self discovery. The vision of 1950's America as seen through the eyes of the young Ron Kovic is one of boyhood military games and 4th of July "Birthday" celebrations. Living in suburban Long Island in the prosperous post-war period, baby boomer Ron seems set along a predestined path of American stereotype, from his childhood sweetheart to his plan to serve his country even (perhaps especially) if it meant martyrdom. The intersection of religious, political, and cultural ideology in the mind of the young Ron reinforce each other to create a "faithful" post-war consensus child who believes in God, country, family, and economy against the Communist scourge which seemingly sought to destroy those treasured truths. Moreover, this view of 1950's America as an idyllic period of prosperity, hope, faith, and happiness is not initially problematized in the film, as the rose colored glasses of Kovic's childhood come to represent the American self-congratulatory self conception of the time. Yet the very faith in God and government that so mark this period of the film and of history is what eventually destroys the innocence of Kovic, leading him willingly into the Vietnam War.
It is Kovic's wartime experience that forever changes his conception of the world around him, as one day during his second tour everything seems to go wrong at once. In a scene displaying the political bias of the filmmaker, the worst horrors of the Vietnam War, the killing of innocent woman and children and of one's own brothers in arms, are explicitly shown. Yet the worst blow to the 1950's American vision which Kovic embodies comes when he is shot and paralyzed. It is Kovic's slow coming to terms with his own actions during the war as well as with his permanent paralysis from the chest down that provide the baseline for the rest of the film, as he comes to question everything he hadbeen taught about God, country, and truth in an attempt to understand his own place within a world that doesn't seem to want him. In this way Kovic's story serves as a prototype for countless other wartime vets, while working on a representational level with America's own rediscovery (partly along generational lines) of itself in the wake of Vietnam. Despite his injuries, Kovic initially retains faith in the American ideals of his youth, serving as a war hero in a local parade. Yet his treatment by a society which placatingly tell him that he "looks good" as well as the influences of his counterculturally inclined and expressly anti-war brother and his best friend soon lead him to question these articles of faith.
Kovic's drunken encounter with his mother following another bar room night of social pressure demonstrates the extent to which his value system had changed following his return. Accusing his mother of being responsible for his injuries by forcing him into the military through lies about God and country, Kovic undertakes a metaphorical critique of the post-war American dream ideology, calling his mother and the nation hypocritical for holding "thou shalt not kill" as a commandment while waging war in Vietnam. Attacking (and profaning through his yelling of "penis" at his mother) religion, government, and even family, Kovic brings the attention of the whole neighborhood (and the nation) to the domestic problems promulgated by wartime tragedies. Indeed, the shame and embarrassment displayed by Kovic's mother at what he has become, and her desire to hold on to the ideology she had taught her son, display the desire of much of the 1960's American conservative mainstream (and indeed of contemporary society) to deal with the war by ignoring it. Kovic's subsequent expatriation to Mexico, where he undergoes his personal trough struggling with his equally paralyzed veteran counterpart in the desert, encourages his final transformation into a firm anti-war activist. Kovic's conflict with the authorities at the 1972 Republican convention serves as a show-battle for the larger social conflict of the period between a newly self-discovered anti-war liberal young America and the older traditionalists who advocated war. Flashing ahead to the 1976 Democratic convention, the film concludes with the war over and Kovic finally gaining acceptance and learning to accept himself, while metaphorically reaffirming the traditional American values by stating that he loves America and by the films replaying of his mother's earlier words indicating her pride in him. Thus ultimately the film creates the 1960's as painful but necessary in exposing the corrupt values and hypocrisy of 1950's society.
In contrast to the experiences of Ron Kovic as personification of post-war America, the people who personify America in Forrest Gump suffer fates which ultimately reinforce the dominant 1950's American ideology. Indeed it would seem that the majority of contemporary American society prefers such a view of the past, as Forrest Gump far surpassed its counterpart in both critical and box office success. Though we do not meet Lieutenant Dan until the Vietnam war itself, the past and 50s era worldview of the character who will share much of Kovic's fate is clearly laid out in the film. Dan is portrayed as having descended from a military family who had offered up a martyr for the nation in "each and every American war." This explicit desire for martyrdom is even more pronounced than Kovic's in that Dan laments not having died after being injured, while Kovic quickly becomes thankful for his life. Indeed, as in Born on the 4th, it is the Vietnam war and the related experiences of 60's protest movements which cracks the veneer of idealistic fifties society. The film creates a clear break between optimistic 1950's society and that chaos that was to follow through Forrest and Dan's experience in the war.
The war itself is portrayed fairly innocently for the majority of Forrest's presence there, however, once it finally stops raining once day a hail of bullets falls on the soldiers. As Forrest becomes a war hero saving a number of his fellow soldiers (including a soon to be lower legless Lieutenant Dan), he is slightly wounded but is forced to suffer through the death of his friend Bubba, who asks the only ostensibly political question in the film: "why did this happen," only to be given the tautological response of because “you got shot.” Lieutenant Dan, on the other hand, loses his legs and his entire sense of self as his desired martyrdom never materializes and he is forced to endure as a broken man. Indeedn It is only after the social strife of the 1960's, in a seventies era portrayal emphasizing the national malaise that followed such heated cultural contention, that Dan and the nation, through Forrest’s guidance, can be redeemed. Dan's storm provoked battle with God, and his ultimate discovery of an inner peace that prompts him to finally feel thankful that he hadn't died in the war, while his new "magic legs" make possible a kind of national healing (and forgetting, never quite possible for Kovic) that culminates in his engagement to an Asian woman.
The differences between the views of the Sixties which Forrest Gump and Born on the 4th of July present is not so much the difference between two competing sides in that decade, as between two conceptions of the propriety 1950's values. Born on the 4th of July firmly indicts those values, labeling them as corrupt and hypocritical and blaming them for the national and personal loss suffered during the Vietnam war and the entire generational conflict of the Sixties. In contrast, Forrest Gump ultimately reaffirms the values of the 1950's by portraying the Sixties as a period of social collapse during which the values of the nation eroded, yet which is luckily behind a contemporary American society that has already experienced the national rebirth of the 1980's. While both films represent the post-war American dream through individual characters, the fact that Forrest Gump shares the representation among multiple characters permits the film to come to an ultimately different conclusion about the fate of modern America. Whereas Kovic's nation must, through his disabled body, constantly be reminded of the war and what caused it, the death of Jenny and the reconstruction of Dan permit the war and the 60's generation itself to be forever put behind the nation. In the end one film is a story of the difficult but necessary role which the sixties played in exposing the corruption of post-war American values, the other a picture of the sixties as an ugly and best-forgotten mark on the triumphant march of those reaffirmed Fifties era values.
Unless one is reading Winston Groom’s 1986 novel, in which case the experiences of Forrest Gump, and especially his relations to sex, drugs, and Jenny, would be starkly different, as would the story’s ultimate message concerning the legacy the Sixties. While both versions are similarly structured in their movement through historical time and their ‘first hand account’ representations of major events, the character sketches and experiences of both Forrest and Jenny differ markedly from the very beginning, where the Ku Klux Klan are demarcated as “a bunch of no goods,” Forrest is a mountain of a man despite his low intelligence, and Jenny suffers no hauntingly traumatic abuses.9 In addition to consequential character differences the novel also suggests a stark political divergence, most evident in the competing conceptions of Forrest’s engagements with President Richard Nixon. In the film Nixon is portrayed as kind hearted if foolish, setting Forrest up at the newly built Watergate Hotel where he will see and report the break in that would ultimately lead to Nixon’s resignation. In contrast the novel paints Nixon as a mentally unstable petty crook, who calls his underlings communists, attempts to fire the Vice President, and trying to sell Forrest one of “the twenty or thirty wristwatches around his arm” under his suit sleeve.10 Forrest’s own actions and relations to Jenny also suggest that this seemingly more liberal political slant extends beyond one scene to metaphorically construct a much more sympathetic image of the counterculture and its fate than appears in the film.
While Jenny still takes an active role in the peace movement even as Forrest fights in Vietnam, the interpersonal relations between them that occur after his return differ significantly from those depicted in the film. Whereas the consummation of their relationship and their life together as a couple occur only late and for a short troubled time towards the end of the film, in the novel Jenny quickly comes around to seeing Forrest as a potential boyfriend, asking “where you been all my life” after their first sexual encounter which leads directly to a lasting romantic relationship. Describing himself as “the happiest feller in the world” during their time together on the rock and roll road, Forrest is made even happier by his discovery of marijuana, which he soon “used some of [his] own money to buy” and began using “day in and day out” from the time he’d wake up in the morning.11 A committed consumer of all flavors of narcotics in the film, it is Jenny who objects to Forrest’s increasing drug usage, telling him that “as much as you are doin now is too much” despite the fact that he “didn’t want to stop.”12 Indeed, it is Forrest’s continued refusal to abate his drug use, as well his apparent indiscretions with groupies which she blamed largely on his habit, that prompt her to leave him for the first time. Yet their saga is far from over, as he tracks her down at an anti-war demonstration only to be thrown into an asylum for hurling his medals and then again after several years separation as they repeatedly attempt to get it together.
Yet even after reuniting and reviving their romance it is again Forrest’s inability to live a normal settled life (this time due to his involvement with a professional wrestling circuit) which prompts Jenny to reluctantly abandon their relationship. In a Dear John letter to her lover Jenny suggest that she has “gotten to an age where I need to settle down” and “think about having a house and a family and goin to church and things like that.”13 Commenting on her movement away from the movement she states that she is “not as hopeful as I used to be, and I think that I would be satisfied with just a simple life somewhere” which she now hopes to find.14 This desire on Jenny’s part to settle down and start a family contrasts sharply with the film, where it is Forrest who perpetually fails to domesticate his long-term love interest. Moreover, in depicting a child of the counterculture coming back to ‘traditional’ values of home, family, religion, peace, and quiet, the novel suggests that it is indeed possible to move past the Sixties without becoming hopelessly mired in their memory. This is precisely what Jenny does, as the reader learns during a final scene in which she finds Forrest playing his harmonica in her Savannah locale, where she lives with her husband, attends church, and saves for the college education of her son, little Forrest. Just as in the film this Forrest is the long unknown child of the main character, yet his ultimate fate and that of his mother differ greatly from their cinematic counterparts. In the movie an AIDS stricken Jenny seeks out Forrest to care for her and their child, marrying him in order to establish a firm legal lineage between father and son and ensure that the family will continue on even after her death. In the novel Jenny neither dies nor marries Forrest, instead receiving his blessing and unsolicited financial support for the raising of his child in her happy home. This most significant difference results in a novel where the counterculture can be reformed and come to reaffirm traditional values and a film where the Sixties must ultimately die at its own immoral hands before the nation can move on. ---The Moral of the Story---
It is Jenny’s life and death which remain the most interesting aspects of a fascinating film, especially when compared to the parallel historical journey which Forrest undertakes, albeit with considerable less agency or awareness. If Jenny is the counterculture, and Dan is that segment of mainstream American society disillusioned for a time by the war, Forrest is that silent majority who never lost faith and stood to gain the most from the cessation of Sixties cultural conflict. While he laments the loss of life in Vietnam, where “some of America’s finest young men” fought and died for geopolitical reasons nowhere dealt with in the film, Forrest never questions the values or societal structure of his youth, carrying on as best he can despite the tragedies around him. It is also mostly through his character that the national ‘rebirth’ of the 1980’s is metaphorically mapped. Following his honorable discharge and receipt of a large check for a popular ping-pong paddle endorsement, Forrest, soon joined by first mate Dan, purchases a shrimping boat to fulfill his dead friend Bubba’s dream. Despite all their hard work the pair suffer through initial hardships, as Dan simultaneously struggles with his war related disability. Both character’s interpret these difficulties through the lens of religion, as Forrest takes to prayer for assistance, while during one stormy scene, Dan curses and challenges God to go ahead and kill him. Yet instead theirs is the only local boat to survive the hurricane, as Dan makes “his peace with God,” and the shrimp start rolling in. Expanding their fleet and wisely investing in the Apple computer stock, the Forrest and Dan move into the nouveau riche of the of the 1980’s through hard work, smart money management, and newly resurgent religious faith. Yet even more than taking Dan and himself out of the national malaise of the Seventies, Forrest serves as an inspiration to a nation exhausted and in need of a renewed raison d’etre.
It is his run across America, from sea to shining sea with countless shots of purple mountains and fruited plains in between, which provides this needed spark to countless Americans. Many begin to follow him on his journey, “because it gave them hope” according to Gump, despite his protestations that his run has no larger political motivations, be they “for world peace” or “to save the whales.” Forrest himself becomes a kind of Christ-like figure for his followers, complete with long unkempt hair and beard and the carrying out of various small ‘miracles’ along the way, including inspiring the “smiley face” T-shirt and “shit happens” bumper sticker. Yet while his role in leading the nation out of the lingering legacy of the Sixties into the great wide-open future of the Eighties is symbolically important for the film’s larger cultural message, it is the events which prompt his quest that help confirm the fundamental unredeemability of the counterculture. At home in Alabama following his mother’s death, Forrest is pleasantly shocked to find Jenny walking to his door. “She must have been real tired, because all she did was sleep” for weeks, according to Forrest. Yet rather than a national malaise, the reason for Jenny’s exhaustion is understood to be the hard drug using, free love lifestyle she’d long enjoyed but which had ultimately caught up to her. “Just like peas and carrots again” with his life long love, this is the time of his life during which Forrest claims to be happiest and most at peace. But it unfortunately cannot last, even after Forrest asks Jenny to be his wife, put her turbulent past forever behind her, and continue on in their near idyllic existence. Instead she crawls into bed with him that night, in the one-time consummation of their relationship which would produce his namesake heir, before abruptly departing the next morning, the shock of which initially sends Forrest into his cross country marathon. Unable to escape for countercultural tendencies and past indiscretions, Jenny abandons her last hope of true fulfillment within the confines of traditional ideas about the American Dream, a constrained choice which will ultimately lead her death and the symbolic destruction of the Sixties counterculture.
Whereas much of the film is a memorial narration on Forrest’s part from an Atlanta park bench while waiting for a bus, following his run’s end the film reverts to straightforward storytelling for the duration, with Forrest discovering he can easily walk to his destination. Which is of course the home of Jenny, who has at long last sent him a letter telling her location and asking him to come. It is there that he discovers the existence of his son, whom he is thankful to discover had inherited only his father’s name and is “one of the smartest kids in his class.” Yet the real reason behind her invitation is to inform Forrest that she is dying of some unknown disease (understood to be AIDS in the early Eighties). He immediately suggests that she and little Forest come to live with him in Alabama where he can closely care for her while cementing their relationship as a family. Indeed, Jenny responds by asking Forrest to marry her, in a small ceremony where Dan and Jenny finally meet and the audience learns of his new “magic legs,” made “from the same material as the space shuttle,” and his symbolically significant betrothal to an Asian woman. Yet this is not so happy a time in the lives of the Gump family, as Jenny deteriorates and eventually dies, leaving Forrest alone to raise their child albeit in a home filled with fatherly affection. But it is the way Jenny dies, of a disease spread mainly through hard drug use or unprotected impersonal sex, that is most important for the film’s message concerning the counterculture. Indeed, even after largely leaving that life behind, it is an illness spread by those most ‘immoral’ of Sixties actions that kills her. Just as many among the Christian right saw AIDS related deaths in the gay community as sort of divine justice, in this film it is the bad choices concerning sex and drugs which Jenny makes during the 1960’s and 1970’s for which she must pay, with her life, in order for the nation to move on into the 1980’s. Moreover, given her role as embodiment of the counterculture, progressing from folk singer to acid dropping Californian to strung out disco queen with various political stops along the way, this ‘necessary’ death takes on a much larger cultural meaning.
In portraying the entire spectrum of the counterculture through the life experiences if one character the film carries out the most complete collapsing of inter-movement distinctions of any cinematic remembrance of the Sixties. Yet it also implies that all members of the counterculture shared similar experiences, made comparable choices, and suffered the same consequences. They were all uniformly, in Gingrich’s words, “destroyed” by their involvement in the counterculture. Moreover, even after the period of protest had past, they remained forever tainted by previous associations, unable to retake their rightful place within a consensus culture that consequently could only be reformed by the disappearance of all remnants of this problematic past. As 1990’s era cinematic representation, Forrest Gump combines elements found in Blow and Almost Famous, juxtaposing a narrative of Jenny’s narcotic progression and moral degeneration (from high Sixties experimentation with LSD and marijuana to late Seventies addictions to heroin and cocaine) with one of an innocent Forrest uncorrupted (in contrast to the book) by any exposure whatever to drugs or free love. As a consciously claimed political statement, the film presents a clear message about the period and legacy of the Sixties, which were (in this view) unquestionably a troubled time in American history but which are thankfully now long past if not yet forgotten. But above all else it is an example of the ability of historical memory to serve the needs of the contemporary community, to pass along a specific cultural message through the best available medium that serves to reconfirm the propriety of extent society while ensuring that such a dark past will not be repeated so long as it is ‘properly’ remembered.
1 Quoted in Thomas B. Byers. “History Re-Membered: Forrest Gump, Postfeminist Masculinity, and the Burial of the Counterculture,” Modern Fiction Studies 42.2 (1996), 419
2 Alan Nadel. Flatlining on the Field of Dreams: Cultural Narratives in the Films of President Reagan’s America (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press 1997), 206
3 Byers, 426
4 Ibid, 427
5 Joseph Natoli. Speeding to the Millenium: Film & Culture 1993-1995 (New York, State University of New York Press 1998), 26-27
6 Robert Burgoyne. Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at U.S. History (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press 1997), 114-15
7 Byers, 432-33
8 Ibid, 432
9 Winston Groom. Forrest Gump (Garden City, NY, Doubleday and Company 1986), 2-5