• Movie

The philosopher Karl Marx once postulated that historical events occur first as tragedy, then as farce. Since the old boy died in the 19th century, he could have had no way of knowing that there would be a third manifestation: as Hollywood back story. Which is why when producer Steve Tisch, accepting his Best Picture Oscar for Forrest Gump, protested that the movie ”isn’t about politics or conservative values,” I believe he wasn’t being disingenuous. After all, Hollywood players of Tisch’s ilk might not recognize an ideological position if they tripped over one on the way to the bank.

Still, just because you’re not aware of ideology doesn’t mean you don’t have one. Gump twists history through sweeping spectacle and high-tech means — digitally injecting Tom Hanks’ title character, a slow-witted but good-hearted naif who pops up at every critical juncture of American history over the past 40 years, into actual news footage — and makes some very definite ideological statements along the way. It’s an opportune coincidence that Gump arrives on video only weeks after the rerelease of Medium Cool, directed by distinguished cinematographer and leftist Haskell Wexler. Cool‘s politics are a world away from Gump‘s, and Wexler’s methods strangely invert those of Gump director Robert Zemeckis.

Cool follows the dissolute, unsatisfying life of Chicago TV-news cameraman John (Robert Forster) and his unlikely alliance with poverty-stricken single mother Eileen (Verna Bloom) and ends with both characters swept up in the tumult of the 1968 Democratic Convention. Where Zemeckis used computers to put Hanks in the frame with the famous, Wexler had actors enter real situations, placing them and himself at risk. (A shot of a cop throwing a canister of tear gas ends with the cry of a crew member: ”Watch out, Haskell, that’s real!”)

Defenders of Zemeckis’ movie may argue that what makes the brilliantly acted and always diverting Gump such fun is its unreality, that despite its use of actual events and historical figures, it’s just a fairy tale with no ax to grind. Show me a Brothers Grimm story that refers to Friedrich Wilhelm IV and I might buy it. Still, the scenes in which Forrest meets JFK, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and John Lennon are played largely for laughs. On video, they’re also a lot less seamless than they appeared in theaters — the downsized image on the TV screen draws your eyes to the lipsynching and augments its flaws.

It’s in Zemeckis’ re-creation of a ’60s antiwar protest in Washington, D.C., that the movie sets out to expose the Sins of the Counterculture. Here, Gump manages to caricature the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (doubly brave men who proved their courage once overseas, then at home), patronize the Black Panthers (whose members, despite their big sticks, tended to speak more softly than the strutting cartoons presented here), and slam antiwar activists as cranky, strident kids. If Gump isn’t blatantly conservative, it is at least blatantly reductive. Cool‘s shot of John and his soundman Gus (Peter Bonerz) trudging through a muddy tent city set up by demonstrators gives the lie to Gump‘s Last Word on the ’60s; if these picketers were indeed just looking for a picnic, they certainly could have found better weather.

Still, Cool is almost as programmatic as Gump. Just as Forrest’s wayward love Jenny (Robin Wright) is the movie’s sacrificial lamb, atoning for the purported excesses of the baby-boom generation, Cool‘s protagonists end up as an offering to the arbitrariness of fate. Having gone through the movie insisting that as a cameraman, he’s an observer rather than a participant, John ends up a victim of the same sort of disaster he used to shoot so dispassionately. It’s one of the many obvious points that litter the film.

Ultimately, Cool emerges as an agonized search for truth, treating history as an anarchic organism that can eat people alive, while Gump offers a cozy selection of truisms and regards history as nothing more than a karmic board game. After Cool, Wexler would not direct another fiction feature for more than 15 years — good thing he had made himself indispensable as a cinematographer (of such films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Matewan). After telling us that life is like a box of chocolates, the Gump bunch got its plaudits, its Oscars, its $325 million box office gross, and its bonus video windfall. Which, I’d imagine, is what Steve Tisch really thinks the movie is about. Forrest Gump: C+ Medium Cool: B-

Forrest Gump

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 141 minutes
  • Robert Zemeckis