A surprising number of films have mentally subnormal people as protagonists, but I know of only two in which such a protagonist is seen as a sage or savior. Being There, adapted from Jerry Kosinski’s novel, took its odd hero right up to the brink of a presidential nomination. Now comes Forrest Gump (Paramount). Made from a novel by Winston Groom, this film follows an Alabaman man with an I.Q. of seventy-five from his schoolboy difficulties through action in Vietnam to postwar wealth and esteem.
Heaven, which presumably gave Forrest his I.Q., also has a hand in his success—and a sense of humor, too. He can run fast so, when he’s a youth, a university calls him and he becomes an All-American footballer. In the Army he gets fascinated with Ping-Pong and becomes a champion. After the war he goes into the shrimping business and flops. Then a storm destroys all the competitive shrimping boats roundabout, and Forrest cashes in.
Someone suggests an investment in what Forrest thinks is a fruit business: he likes fruit, so he invests. What he thought was fruit turns out to be Apple computers. At one point, for various reasons, he decides to run back and forth across the U.S.A. for a couple of years. Instead of being regarded as eccentric, he is hailed as a guru and has a band of faithful disciples running behind him. And (thanks to computer graphics) he also has cheery meetings with Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Kosinski’s hero was a T.V.-anesthetized subaverage man intended as a satirical comment on a society force-fed with mass culture and manipulated responses. Groom’s Forrest is just a boy-man on whom Heaven is smiling—and we’re supposed to smile, too, at Heaven’s neatness. Heaven’s involvement is italicized at the beginning by the descent of a bird’s white feather to Forrest’s feet and at the end by that feather’s skyward rise.
Between the two authors, I’ll take Kosinski. Basically Groom is saying, “Who needs intelligence? Keep your heart pure and Heaven will provide. What’s more, you’ll get a few laughs, and you’ll end up rich.” Not only rich but the father of a charming child, the result of your only sexual congress, with a woman whom you’ve adored since you were schoolmates. She has been through a series of moral travails that are a kind of moral analogue of your physical-financial adventures, and after she turns over your child to you, she is considerate enough to die and get out of the way.
I can’t see how people with low I.Q.s or those who love them are in any way comforted by all this hogwash. I can easily see how such people might be offended by its smug unreality.
Tom Hanks plays Forrest Gump, apparently because he wanted a role that would be as far off the beaten track as the one in his last picture, Philadelphia. Hanks is exceptionally gifted, and he plays Forrest well enough; but the role doesn’t call for anything like the variety and resource that Debra Winger needed—and had—for her comparable role in A Dangerous Woman.
Robin Wright is acceptable as the woman who winds in and out of Forrest’s life. The best performance comes (rom Gary Sinise, sinewy and vitriolic, as the lieutenant whom Forrest meets in Vietnam and who later joins him on the shrimp boat. Robert Zemeckis directed Eric Roth’s adequately carpentered screenplay with undistinguished competence.
Francois Truffaut: Stolen Portraits
That sort of competence, insipid and ubiquitous, is made to seem all the more bland by a new documentary about Francois Truffaut. Some of Truffaut’s latter-day films were less than successful, but his documentary made me realize how much 1miss the chance to see new work by him. (He died in 1984.) The Zemeckis competence—for “Zemeckis,” many other names, domestic and foreign, could be substituted—is a pretty poor replacement for individual talent, which was part of a generation of individual talents. A sense of style and self is not visible in many of their successors.
Francois Truffaut: Stolen Portraits (Myriad) was made by Serge Toubiana, editorial director of Cahiers du Cinema, and Michel Pascal, a film critic and the editorial editor of Le Point. The form they use is familiar and quite suitable: a series of interviews intercut with relevant clips from Truffaut films and T.V. appearances. The interviews are of course braided, rather than letting each one run through to its finish, and each one gives us something of value—whether it’s fact or character and color. For example, the interviews with Madeline Morgenstern, Truffaut’s widow, and their two daughters, Eva and Laura, give us valuable glimpses of the private Truffaut but are equally interesting in what they reveal of the man just through the feelings of these three lovely women.
The film begins— inevitably, we assume—with Gerard Depardieu, and it ends with him, speaking almost breezily but affectionately about a man whom, he says, he will always miss. Jeanine Bazin, widow of the French film critic Andre Bazin, tells how they took in the young and troubled Truffaut to live with them for two years, and how much they all laughed while he was with them. Robert Lachenay, a Truffaut friend since childhood, tells of their shared passion for film, their adventures with a cinema club. Lachenay, we’re told, provided some of the elements in the character of Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows. Antoine is a blend of Lachenay and Truffaut.
Everyone speaks affectiotiately of Truffaut, but some bring out less than flattering sides, Jean Gruault. the screenwriter who worked on Jules and Jim. The Wild Child and others, tells us by indirection, with a quotation from Celine, that Truffaut knowingly composed his public character. Several, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Louis Richard among them, speak of Truffaut’s ravenous appetite for bourgeois life and luxe. (Perhaps this is what brought about the notorious breach between Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard in 1908. Godard is absent from this film.)
The biggest surprise has to do with Truffaut pere, Anyone who knows the films has seen this artist’s canted attitude toward women, a strange blend of worship and distrust that presumably originated in his disturbed relationship with his mother; and it’s also clear that many of his films yearn for the paternal, either on the screen as in The Wild Child, where Truffaut himself plays the teacher of the savage boy, or in the director-cast relationship, as with the children in Small Change. (No director ever handled children better than Truffaut.)
The documentary tells us that the paternal void in his life troubled him. His mother’s husband was not his father: she was pregnant when she married. Years later Truffaut engaged a private detective, interviewed here, to find out who his real father was. He turned out to be a jewish dentist. (My one link with Truffaut!!! My father was a Jewish dentist.)
The biological father is not in the film, but the twenty-five relatives and friends who are seen collaborate in a fine portrait. Beyond fact and flavor, the film captures another element: a sense of the community of the so-called New Wave, which began around 1958 and which is now, what’s left of it, a Gray Wave. In human and in film-historical terms, this Toubiana-Pascal documentary is a treasure. It ought to be shown wherever there’s a Truffaut audience, and it ought to be made available on tape.