Saturday, October 31, 2009

Forrest Gump and the rural ideal

This blog post isn't based on an article or news piece. Rather, it will be regarding my recent re-viewing of the movie Forrest Gump. As many know, this 1994 blockbuster won Tom Hanks his second Oscar in a row (having previously won for Philadelphia), playing the slow but genuine title character. What struck me when seeing it again was that I started to see it through the eyes of "rural realism" or to put it less succinctly, how director Robert Zemeckis saw the rural and Gump's personification of it.

First is the place and the location of Green Bow, Alabama. Obviously a fictional town, Green Bow seems to personify the bucolic rural Southern town, with its tall trees, meandering rivers, and small-town charm (for example, the town barbershop is the location continuously returned to whenever Forrest is running through the town). Gump's home is set back from the road, among willows and ponds and always appears white and pristine, like something from a postcard. The location is not entirely eden-nistic though, for we still see the rundown shack of both Jenny's family (made to evince the thought that Jenny's family were sharecroppers) and Bubba's mom's home.

While these visual components are a surface reminder of all that is wonderful about the rural South, what was more interesting to me was the sound that accompanied each location. When characters (especially Jenny) were somewhere besides a rural place, there was a cacophony of, cars, voices, the aural detritus of urban living. However, Green Bow is always quiet, save the occasional lawn mower or dog bark. When Forrest is running across the country he is never seen running through a city but always through some pristine rural place (the movie shows Forrest running through the Santa Monica pier but even shows that rather loud place as filled with nothing more than the sounds of the Pacific). It is also a place of redemption, when Jenny needs to rediscover herself she returns to Green Bow and Forrest. When Lt. Dan decides he wants to live, he goes to the South and makes peace with his demons. Zemeckis seems to be treating the rural South and rural places in general as a panacea for whatever ails you.

Second are the people, Gump is the epitome of the wise simpleton. Genuine and without an ounce of guile, the protagonist is the vessel through which many of the other characters find peace and happiness. Zemeckis and Hanks make Gump the bastion of what is solid and good in the American soul; love of country, of family, respect, hard work, and dedication that the movie seems to tie to the Southern rural mystique. After all, they could have placed the movie in Iowa or Nebraska but they chose the deep, rural South.

But again, they also show our collective representations of the 'bad' South: Jenny's alcoholic, abusive father, the racism throughout the white population, the abuse that Forrest receives at the hands of classmates simply because he is different (an "other").

So, Zemeckis and Hanks do show us differing portraits of the rural South but the dominant one is that rural places are wholesome and good, places where the simple life can fix the twisting of urban living and self-destruction. This leads to the question, is this the representation that is normally seen in movies?


rachel said...

What seems interesting to me about your reflections on the role of rural in Forrest Gump is that even though I have seen that movie numerous times, the rural-urban divide depicted has never crossed my mind. Perhaps the fact that such a depiction of rural America seems not unusual to us as viewers bolsters the idea that urban Americans continue to idealize rural places, even in the face of known negative realities about rural areas.

Spec said...

I completely agree but as I was watching the movie I began to see things I hadn't seen before, perhaps because I was more aware of what was being attempted given the class discussions. Personifications abound in popular culture so much so we may not become aware of them until they are pointed out.

Becky Hayes said...

This post definitely opened my eyes to the rural idealization in the movie that I had never noted before either. I am not sure I entirely agree, however, that the movie idealizes the deep South, in particular. I can't remember there being a focus on any qualities unique to the South, as opposed to rural America in general. While the setting isn't, as you point out, Iowa or Nebraska, I am not sure that that would have made any difference. I am definitely going to go back and rewatch the movie and reflect more now.