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The Myth Of The Simpleton (Critical Study Of Popular Culture, March 2012)


The Myth Of The Simpleton: Being There vs. Forrest Gump (written for BECA 321, Critical Study Of Popular Culture, San Francisco State University, March 2012)

Two acclaimed American movies, one from 1979, the other from 1994, offer two very divergent takes on a similar story. A man of low intelligence is forced to make his own way in American society, and through a series of comic errors, becomes loved, respected and successful, all the while remaining oblivious to the way he is perceived by others. Each character lives a charmed life, following his own eccentric impulses, and is portrayed as a simple, gentle, “natural” being whose disability somehow appears to tap into a form of wisdom that is more real and profound than mere brainpower can provide. In both Hal Ashby’s Being There and Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump, the wise fool’s blank, guileless acceptance of everything he encounters becomes a canvas upon which everyone around him paints their own pictures of what they wish to see.

The protagonists in these two films could themselves be seen as mythical signifiers; what is interesting is how each reflects the assumptions of its time. Where the two texts differ tells us a lot about how American mythology had changed during the fifteen years between them.

Being There begins as Chance, a feeble-minded middle aged man, is informed that his unnamed caretaker has just passed away. Chance, who has no memory of anything but his isolated existence, has spent his life tending the garden and watching TV, learning language and imitating gestures from characters on the screen. When he is forced to leave home, he wanders into the city (which happens to be Washington DC) with nothing but a few old suits and his remote. Unfamiliar with city traffic, he is struck by a car containing the wife of a terminally ill banker with political connections. She brings him home where he can recuperate at a private medical facility that is providing her husband hospice care. Now Chance is surrounded by powerful men who interpret his nonsensical talk of gardening and television as elegant, beautiful parables on politics and the economy. The banker adopts him as his closest confidante, and by the film’s end, he is being groomed as a candidate for Vice President. Only the staff doctor knows the true state of Chance’s mind, and he decides not to tell anyone in order to spare the feelings of the banker’s wife, who has fallen in love with him. In this text, the real fools are the people of normal intelligence who believe in Chance’s “eloquent” insights, and the audience is in on the joke. The script writer, Jerzy Kosinski, who adapted his own novel for the film, believed that the danger of television lay in the way it could replace direct encounters with others and deter self-reflection. (Lazar, 2004 ) And no one could be more detached and un-self-reflective than the protagonist of Being There.

The end of the 1970s could be seen as a time of skepticism in the US. The social changes of the 1960s and early 1970s had neither created a progressive Utopia nor destroyed all that was “sacred”. Life had instead become more complex, and what had long been accepted was now open to question. Satire, once defined by George Kaufman as “what closes on Saturday night”, had now become a staple of that same night’s TV roster. After the Vietnam War and Watergate, questioning authority, or at least the trappings thereof, had become a mainstream trope, yet a new conservatism was growing in response to the perceived “weakness” of President Jimmy Carter. In this jaded time, the idea that a fool would be perceived as a hero by powerful opportunists may have struck a chord with many for whom the theme of a nation of voyeurs also resonated. (Willson, 1981) (And the double meaning of Chance’s catchphrase “I like to watch” was not lost on risqué minds.) But the American Zeitgeist was already beginning to change, and Being There did not do well at the box office.

Fifteen years later, we are given the title character of Forrest Gump, a mentally disabled Southern man raised by a mother who teaches him the value of kindness (yet names him after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan). Forrest ambles through an impressive array of stock footage (borrowing a gimmick from Woody Allen’s 1983 film Zelig), inadvertently influencing historical figures from Elvis Presley to John F. Kennedy to John Lennon. Unlike Chance’s gnomic blankness, Gump’s mental disability is not hidden from view, it simply is. This time, it’s not greedy capitalists or power-seeking politicians who are the fools whose intelligence blinds them to the truth; instead it is caricatures of 60s counterculture. These are often represented by Gump’s love interest, Jenny, who comes and goes in his life as she experiences one degrading adventure after another through free love and naïve political activism before bearing the hero’s son and conveniently dying of AIDS. Gump’s benign virtue is contrasted with the flamboyant, often angry characters who populate the movie’s revisionist history lesson. (Wang, 2000) Why are all these ridiculous people acting so wild? If they could only be as simple and good as Forrest Gump, everything would work out fine.

The feel-good message of Forrest Gump, which implies that social change and political struggle amounted to wrong-headed vanity and what the world really needs more of is good manners, resonated strongly with the conservative movement in 1994. During that year’s Congressional elections, which resulted in a Republican takeover of both the Senate and the House Of Representatives, future House Speaker Newt Gingrich used the film as anecdotal evidence of the immorality of the Left, and argued that President Bill Clinton was just like those rude people in that movie. (ibid) For the resurgent Right, Gump illustrated that racial differences could be easily overcome by the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that another doomed supporting character, Bubba, exhibits, and that traditional values were the key to a harmonious society. (ibid) Conspicuously absent from the film’s parade of historical events is the Civil Rights movement, which, while mostly non-violent at its inception, was not merely about being “nice”. We do get to see some nasty Black Panthers, though.

But why exactly is it the fool who is the hero here? I would argue that the appeal of both Chance (who we are meant to view ironically) and Forrest (not a bit) is rooted in a long-standing tendency among Americans toward anti-intellectualism. Claussen (2011) traces some of the history of this phenomenon, outlining the theories of Daniel Rigney, which broke the belief system down into three categories: religious anti-rationalism (emotion is warm/good, reason is cold/bad); populist anti-elitism (hostility to both old money patricianism and supposedly “elitist” progressivism); and unreflective instrumentalism (knowledge is worthless unless it leads to material gain, or “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”). We see elements of all three in Forrest’s story. Forrest doesn’t think since he lacks the capacity, but he feels deeply and subscribes to a strong moral code. (Chance, by contrast, is apathetic to the end, so even if we like the character, we are less inclined to sentimentalize him.) Forrest, despite his handicap, is the normal guy among the pointy-headed intellectuals, some of whom may mean well, but ultimately just cause trouble. And, like a good idealized American, he may not be too smart, but he knows how to jump on a business opportunity when he invests in Bubba’s shrimp company. Surrounded by turmoil and tragedy, the pure-hearted simpleton triumphs, and we root for him through our tears.

Storey (2009), quoting Roland Barthes on mythology, writes, “Semiology has taught us that myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal…myth is constituted by the loss of the historical quality of things.” Storey himself gives us the example of a photo of a fictional rock star with two contrasting captions which cause us to project a different set of emotions on each identical picture. Image, he writes, “does not illustrate text, it is the text which amplifies the connotative power of the image.” Something similar is occurring in the use of non-fictional footage in the fiction of Forrest Gump, where real people are inserted into a story and made to appear as “authentic” support for its conceits, to the point that politicians employ this imaginary historical context in their own arguments for their agendas.

In Being There, a product of the last days of the countercultural “New Hollywood” of the 1970s, it is the anti-intellectualism of the power brokers in the story that compels them to embrace Chance as a leader. In Forrest Gump, a heart-tugging early 90s blockbuster, it is the audience themselves who are expected to identify with the wise fool for whom life is like a box of chocolates. The denotation of the “fool’s journey” is given two strikingly different connotations that reflect the shared codes of the filmmakers, the viewers, and their assumptions about American society. We “like to watch”, but how much do we think about what we see?

Claussen, D. (2011). A brief history of anti-intellectualism in American media. Academie, 97(3), 8-13.

Lazar, M. (2004). Jerzy Kosinski’s “Being There,” novel and film: Changes not by chance. College Literature, 31(2), 99-116.

Storey, J. (2009). Cultural theory and popular culture. (5th ed., pp. 118-125). Harlow, England: Pearson Education Ltd.

Wang, J. H. (2000). “A struggle of contending stories”: Race, gender and political memory in Forrest Gump. Cinema Journal, 39(3), 92-115.

Willson, R. (1981). Being there at the end. Literature Film Quarterly, 9(1), 59-62.