Thoughts On: Forrest Gump - The Infinite Story


Forrest Gump - The Infinite Story

Thoughts On: Forrest Gump

A boy who grew up without fully functional legs meanders through world-shaping events.

Who doesn't love this film? Honestly, who? A rhetorical question. If you don't like Forrest Gump, go away. If you do, your aptly human and probably recognise that Forrest Gump sits amongst some of the best blockbusters given up over the last few of decades - most by Zemeckis and Spielberg. What films such as Back To The Future, Jurassic Park, Close Encounters, E.T and Star Wars capture is a classically Hollywood idea of fantasy and fun. I pick up on the previous 5 examples as a means of indicating how the likes of Gone With The Wind, The Wizard Of Oz, It's A Wonderful Life, Singin' In The Rain, City Lights and a plethora of other classical Hollywood family films have distilled into a modern era. There has always been the need for the tone established in the early talkies, one of magic, levity and beauty, that has seeped through the cinematic ages. City Lights and other huge early talkies have thus become Star Wars and E.T simply by a kind of osmosis. The people who made the movies of the 70s, 80s and 90s were raised on those of the 30s, 40s and 50s, and so gave them to us in their own form. The paradigm seems to be a move from a form of realism, a focus largely on worldly events, to huge sci-fi, action and adventure, one supported by technological growth that we still see to this day (one I'm sure we're not nearly done with). But, what has irrevocably remained is the tone. The same fantastical cinematic magic that enthralled those who watched The Wizard Of Oz surely found it into the theatres screening Forrest Gump. And I suppose this basic conception of a cinematic paradigm begins to outline why we love this film - it's something we made cinema for. Cinema, through its artistic and show business elements, is there for the most part to entertain, to facilitate emotions and experiences of joy and a suspended sense of happiness.

However, whilst that's a nice tidbit, what I want to talk about with this film is a larger idea of story telling. In doing so it's better to compare Forrest Gump to the likes of...


All of these films demonstrate an interesting control of time and space through their narratives. Boyhood is famously the film that took 12 years to shoot, covering a boy's... well... boyhood. The Neverending Story implies a cyclical and forever expanding narrative of imagination. Citizen Kane is an interesting biopic in that it deals with a man's entire being without ever really focusing in on the man himself - it's kind of Rashomon meets Raging Bull in a funny sense. Finally, with 2001, we are seeing the starts of human existence and its implied end - maybe evolution. What all of these films chronicle are huge windows of time through one 2-3 hour experience. They do this in nuanced ways, ones that play with the concept of a huge story, but it's Forrest Gump that sticks out for me as a form of this 'abbreviative cinema'. It manages this because it's such a simple, but almost inconceivable film. Forrest Gump covers so much ground from the early childhood of its protagonist through to his later stages whilst picking up on so much of his essence as a character that it's a perfect example of how to handle the paradox of The Infinite Story.

This is a daunting concept that I'm sure novelists and those in TV have to deal with a lot. The paradox of the infinite story is in the simple structure of any narrative. There is a beginning, middle and end. These are incredibly unmotivated and ambiguous terms. Where do you start a story? Kubrick proves that the very beginning of human existence isn't a bad time. Welles shows that the end of a man's life isn't either. And the truth is that no place is a bad place... until you have an end. The infinite story paradox arises when you realise that stories don't really need an end. You can start anywhere and jump along a timeline in any way you want for.... forever. You never have to stop writing that screenplay, that script, that novel. You can keep on writing until the end of time and still have more to tell. Would anyone read this book, watch the film? Of course not. But, this is not the point. The point is that on a conceptual level, no stories have to end. If we turn to TV, we'll delve deeper...

The foundations of the 100s of hours of screen time found in these series are their very simple premises. In fact, the foundations of these two franchises are their titles. For Friends, it's just about a group of friends that meet in a coffee shop and poke their heads in and out of each others apartments day-in-day-out. With The Simpsons, we see the Simpsons... just existing as they do. What these two TV shows say about TV is that its less about a premise and more about characters. The Simpsons, just like Friends, never has to end - The Simpsons especially. With The Simpsons as long as there's people who can draw and love these characters, there can always be a show (if they can put together funding). You could even argue that Friends never really ended once it started in the 50s. In such, I mean to say that with Friends we are essentially seeing the first sit-com ever recycle itself over and over. In an alternate universe, some American television studio developed an early monopoly over the business and decided to keep their one sit com running endlessly - maybe something like The Truman Show - but switch out characters and locations gradually. And through this people would see TV go from I Love Lucy to Bewitched to Happy Days to Cheers to Friends to How I Met Your Mother to Big Bang Theory. To some, this may be the novelty in television; the fact that stories never have to end, that characters can be explored endlessly, that the focus is purely on life, existence and people. To this, I say fine.

However, for me, this is a fundamental reason why TV is kinda... meh. TV is there to fill time, is there to set up a situation and draw you in with as many episodes as they can keep you sat down for. This isn't true for all TV, but the basic principle of this long-form kind of entertainment is of embellishing a concept of the infinite story. Filmmakers are not allowed this luxury (or tied to this hanging post). This is quite simply because you're allowed 2 hours to tell your story for the most part - 3 if you really have to, 4 if you really, really, really have to (I imagine a filmmaker saying that as if they have to pee - if the inflection isn't already obvious). When we come to things such as...

... we are seeing the start of something exciting - but only in small doses - the same goes for a 4 hour film. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy leans on the idea of an infinite story harder than something such as Die Hard because Tolkien did. He wrote dozens of books/stories for his universe and to condense even three books into these 3, 3/4 hour pictures, was quite a feat. However, because Tolkien, as a novelist, has much greater range in the length of story he can tell, he justifies the richness of his sprawling narrative(s). In such, we come back to TV. Books and television are similar in the longer form of telling they facilitate as they're focused on character (in different ways; through different techniques). But, because books can go so much deeper than television shows in terms of characterisation - because you can literally get into characters heads and manipulate the psychic space with much greater ease - they shadow over TV in terms of their artistic content (in my view). Moreover, books, because of their richness, justify the heavy leaning on the law of an infinite story - they can, in short, better fill larger spaces. When we look to things such as The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, we are then seeing cinema take on the narrative and structural fight between books and television (in terms of their length). In short, the longer the form of story telling gets across mediums, the further artists are attempting to push the capabilities of human imagination and world building.

This is where the appraisal and down-treading of TV comes again. TV means to expand the horizons of story telling by showing people that we are capable of literally creating alternate lifestyles and ways of living - because this is essentially what you get when you spend half an hour or so a day with the televisual medium. We are seeing both artists and consumers testing how deeply we can let fictitious content penetrate into our lives, into our perception. With things such as Friends and The Simpsons, we are seeing people and artists capable of fixating on one premise for 100s of hours, quite literally staring at boxes - doing nothing more. This is where we get into the existentials of television. It's all about vicariously consuming other lives for hours on end - all from the comfort of our homes. Before getting into the rabbit hole that is the future and present with the internet and Netflix and such, it's important to recognise how these artistic mediums are keeping our attention for so long. They don't keep us watching by being...

... so action packed it's almost ridiculous. TV clearly works because it's so simple, it's so mundane, borderline boring...

The fact that it's the mundane that can keep us transfixed for so long says an awful lot about people and the media they consume. It implies that the art in these mediums is not really about imagination, fantasy, adventure, story... but, a nice numbing effect. And in that I find a red flag. TV is much more about consumption than it is about anything else - by design, form and the way we watch it.

This all speaks further to the concept at hand: the infinite story. Whilst all stories need no end and can go on forever, it is a writer's job to find the finite aspects to a story. How does one do this? Well, you can milk a basic premise until your audience wants no more. We see this in TV a lot. We are seeing this more and more in cinema too. This is where the intriguing aspects of what The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy did so well becomes...

The Marvel movies aren't all that bad. But, they are appealing to the infinite story law in a way that may be devastating if and when the market place moves on from comic books. This long-form story telling, like Lord Of The Rings, is built into the fabric of the narratives though because they come from such a huge back catalogue of comics. For this reason, I won't lump cinematic universes into this talk on... what are we talking about? Oh... Forrest Gump. I'm sorry, we'll come back to that.

Jumping back on track, with TV, books and parts of cinema we are seeing a game played with the idea of endless stories. As mentioned, it is and always has been a writer's job to cut stories down. How does one do this? Choice one: let other decide. Choice two: simply have a point. This is where the magic of cinema, the succinctness and depth of the art, comes in. Because movies are 2 hours long, they have to tell stories where the beginning, middle and end become incentivised, become technical points not just of the plot, but the narrative meaning. This is where Forrest Gump comes in as a sparkling example of story telling melding with great art (from a visual story telling perspective). From a writer's perspective, the great art of telling a story through a filmic medium is all about two things: entertainment and meaning. A great film has to engage you, has to be something you enjoy watching. It must also have substance, something you can sink your teeth into, think about, pull apart. In such, the best films both say something to us and about us. The way films do this is by managing the infinite story in a very specific way. Whilst you hear many stories of films being cut down to fit into the 2 hour slot (used so that cinemas can fit in as many viewings and people can make more money) films being around 2 hours fits into a nice package of time. Whilst I see an arbitrary, rather useless designation of '2 hours' in terms of plain story telling and outside of the business side of things, I do support the few hour parameters by which movies must operate. This is because they tell their stories in one sitting. This sitting period is not about catching your attention or quickly informing you like a YouTube video, neither is it about giving you slots of time to stack, like in television (time stacked without a point, without much meaning). Film is about telling you a concise point through a fleshed out story. In other words, to cut down our infinite cinematic stories, we approach not from the perspective of, 'a young boy with a bad legs faces adversity'. This is Forrest Gump the TV series. The worst way to turn this into a film would be to take the events in the book and just plot them down in a form much like: he does this, then this, then this, then that, a bit more of that, then this, then that, and then that for the last time. This is how we get rather empty films, things quite a bit like the fatty, sugary content of the Marvel Universe. Forrest Gump takes an approach to narrative, to the paradox of an infinite story, by having a point to be made. In other words, the screen writer sits down with the simple point to prove:

Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get.

In this, there is a commentary on fate, on chance, on meaning. Forrest's story is there to talk to us of ambiguous and arbitrary starts in life...

... ones that we can choose to flow with...

... until we find our place with some sense of reason and tranquility...

This is the beauty of Forrest's narrative. It takes an idea of life and chaos, a concept easily turned into an infinite story or a never ending TV show, and turns it into a succinct point that we are both made to feel as the narrative weaves its emotional tail and see when delving deeper into the point it attempts to translate. This lesson on the infinite story that Forrest Gump eloquently puts forth is all about a control of space and time for the sake of your audience. Sure, stories can go on forever, but do they need to? Of course not. One reason being: we don't live for ever. The second: our lives are the most rich and longest lasting stories we will ever encounter - maybe pay attention to that and keep an eye on movies for more succinct and implied lessons in life.

Outside of existential ideas of life, death and our own stories, the infinite story and the grip you can have on it as exercised by great, sprawling cinema like that of Forrest's life story is there merely to ask us why we consume things. Do we watch TV and bland movies to waste time, to fill empty points between here and there with a numbed sense of 'everything's ok'? Or, should we strive to hear things that stick with us due to their poignancy and succinctness? A decision and question made, answered and analysed, of course, by you.

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