So let me make sure I have this straight.
Here we all are, hurtling toward the millennium after the most extraordinary, tumultuous, bloody, catastrophic century in the history of humankind--one that has also been marked by astonishing scientific and medical advances and remarkable improvements in the quality of life for billions of our planet’s inhabitants.
Yet how are we being asked to believe the dizzying complexity of recent history can best be summed up?
Life is like a box of chocolates--you never know what you’re going to get.
America seems entranced with this reductive bumper sticker slogan. On behalf of the rest of the world, let me just say: Give us a break.
The long-running love affair between “Forrest Gump” and the good ol’ U.S.A. seems likely to reach its consummation at the Academy Awards ceremony Monday night. If, as is widely expected, the film carries off a truckload of Oscars, Americans may rejoice--but most people on the planet will, I suspect, simply be baffled.
It’s hard to remember a hugely successful American movie that has so perplexed non-Americans. Hollywood prides itself on crafting films the whole world loves, and usually it works: “Jurassic Park,” the “Indiana Jones” trilogy, “Jaws,” “E.T."--sure, what’s for all of us not to like?
But now here’s this odd, sprawling film with a (literally) stupid hero blundering his way through pivotal events in recent American history--and it grosses more than $300 million? Then half the pundits and commentators in America drone on about its profundity, and how it strikes a chord in us all?
Well, count us foreigners out.
File “Forrest Gump” under those phenomena (like valet parking, the right to bear arms and a pathological obsession with the minutiae of the O.J. Simpson trial) that make non-Americans collectively shake their heads and wonder: What is it with those Yanks?
It’s a striking fact that Europeans I’ve talked to about “Forrest Gump"--even the ones who found it a pleasant entertainment--are at a loss to explain its amazing success. They can understand why Americans like it: Tom Hanks has irresistible charm; the special effects are truly clever. But why on earth do they like it so much ?
I’m not making the case here that non-Americans are simply staying away from “Forrest Gump” in droves. Any film that achieves that kind of success in America is automatically marketed vigorously throughout the world; millions of dollars are spent on creating a huge buzz, and moviegoers everywhere show up just to see what the fuss is about. But that’s not the same as saying they loved it.
A spokesman for UIP, which distributes the film internationally, says it has taken in about $300 million outside North America. That’s not exactly small potatoes, but it’s not so remarkable; it’s way behind “Jurassic Park” and, for that matter, “The Lion King.”
The international grosses for “Gump” will doubtless be swelled by the Oscar results and by the film’s opening in significant new markets (for example, it reached Japan only this month).
Nonetheless, some territories have greeted the film with something approaching open hostility. The UIP spokesman agreed it had shown “a tiny weakness” in Eastern Europe. One can imagine: You spend half a century ridding yourself of the oppressive yoke of communism, and suddenly what words are you expected to live by in the free world? “Stupid is as stupid does.”
Britain was another country less than enamored by it. London’s film critics, a group notoriously resistant to sentimentality, dismissed the film as saccharine. Media comment in Britain centered upon what it said about Americans that they would so warmly embrace a film like “Forrest Gump.”
Empire, the country’s best-selling film magazine, ran a cryptic, almost hidden message on its masthead page in a stock paragraph about its copyright policy that runs in each issue. It read: “Come over here a minute. ‘Forrest Gump’ could beat ‘Pulp Fiction’ as the Best Film of last year. Think about that. Just think about it for a minute . . . “
I n some ways “Forrest Gump” is a tribute to the best part of the American spirit: its resilience, optimism, the assumption that other people are innately good until proved otherwise. But it parades other cherished American tenets that are harder for foreign viewers to swallow, notably the one that anyone can get rich--even a disabled boy with an IQ of 75.
We non-Americans also tend to react more strongly to the rewriting of history in which the film indulges. It tells us the counterculture that flourished in the 1960s was a bad thing; that Vietnam was not so much a lousy, ill-advised war as a sad conflict in which a lot of brave, loyal American boys died. This revisionism may suit a nation with a President who insists he smoked pot but didn’t inhale (huh!) and a former vice president who maintains he didn’t evade the draft. To the rest of us, it looks like intellectual dishonesty.
American friends have offered plausible reasons for the film’s success.
“We’ve been so buffeted by the events of the last 30 or 40 years that we desperately need some thread to pull them together and make sense of them,” said one. “ ‘Gump,’ however imperfect, is that thread.”
But that won’t wash with people from older countries. Europeans have 1,000 years of history to look back upon and have pretty much concluded that none of it makes a lick of sense. We’ve given up looking for coherent threads, which makes us more cynical (we’d say more realistic). There’s also the point that Europeans wouldn’t look to a film to lay a troubled history to rest. I mean, come on, it’s a movie we’re talking about here.
Another friend told me that the film was a simple assertion of small-town, bedrock values--a theory that meshes plausibly with America’s current rather isolationist mood and the startling rise of right-wing fundamentalism: “The film’s saying the world’s a pretty screwed-up place, and look how much trouble being smart and elitist has gotten us into.”
Well, yes, the world is a screwed-up place, but it is also a place that has been partly shaped by U.S. foreign policy. The era of the Ugly American was bad enough; but if the success of “Forrest Gump” ushers in the era of the Dumb American, in which the country decides to keep out of world affairs, stay home and mumble mottoes about boxes of chocolates, that’s no cause to rejoice either.
C ulturally, then, “Forrest Gump” seems out of kilter with much of the rest of the world. If the film has incited resentment in other countries, it is because of a bland assumption held by some Americans that if they love something, then all other nations must have it rammed down their throats too. This attitude has made the problems of the EuroDisney theme park near Paris a source of hilarity throughout Europe and any refusal to let McDonald’s open a restaurant in a historic European city a cause for celebration.
But let’s get this in perspective. The Oscars are not worldwide awards (any more than the World Series has anything to do with countries outside North America). They’re American awards, and if there’s a landslide for “Forrest Gump,” then Americans have the right to applaud a hugely popular film of their own.
It’s just that the rest of us have the right to applaud a little less wholeheartedly.*