Back in college, one of my American Studies professors had our class go back and watch Forrest Gump. The exercise was designed to have us watch the film with a focus on the historical elements and to try and disregard some of the inclination to, let’s say, “take off our thinking caps” in the name of this being a popular movie.
The main conclusion that a viewer draws within the context of this newly positioned viewing is that Forrest Gump is really, really bad as a historical document. Matt Langer does a great job of dissecting the film on these terms, so I will recommend spending a moment reading his post if you’re looking to argue that point. The basic gist, however, is that the film takes recent (often rather ugly) American history, mashes it up, and rearranges it with no discernible edge. The lack of a critical lens is summed up well by Langer, as he declares:
Forrest Gump is a trip down memory lane in the same way a stroll through Epcot is a study abroad program. It’s a carefree romp through four decades of history—four very often quite grave decades!—whose gravity never registers for the precociously dim narrator doing the romping…It maintains no fidelity to any specific telling of history and rather exists only to catalogue the many historical accidents that merely happened. It doesn’t bear witness to anything at all because in Forrest’s telling there is only a that something happened, never a why. It’s a civics lesson in the form of a box score.
Anyway, why bring this up now? The Gump course exercise came to mind recently when I was thinking about the 24-hour news cycle that defines 2013 politics. I was reading a story on Politico that looked at the recent comeback of Mark Sanford and what it means for other politicians as they navigate self-imposed scandals. The Sanford story is a particularly amazing one — from leaving public life in disgrace to winning back an elected office in about 4 years. Anthony Weiner is attempting a similar comeback in the NYC Gubernatorial race.
How is it possible that a public figure can turn their fortunes around so quickly, and why don’t scandals seem to really stick with people anymore? The connections that I see here relate to the notions of narrative, media, and public interest.
In Forrest Gump, history is blurred. The events that we once presumably had clear knowledge of are viewed from a romanticized distance, which one may certainly argue is merely a function of filmmaking. To dive into the sociopolitical issues of the mid-20th century may have been too complicated a task for this particular movie, or it may have just not been the film’s purpose. Either way, though, major events are presented as hollow structures — we recognize their shape and general outline, but the true substance is absent.
I believe that as we learn – about historical events for instance – issues enter our consciousness as blurry, then they evolve to a point of peak clarity, and then finally, as time passes, they settle into a final level of blurriness once again. Consider an event like the ballot/voting mess in Florida in the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election. First, we (as a collective people) were unclear as to what exactly was happening, then as information came to us we learned about the many voting considerations (hanging chads, misalignment in the ballots, potential hand-counting errors, etc.), and then after the issue came to a conclusion, it faded back into a history that your average citizen could likely explain only in general terms.
If you will grant my basic assumption that the above accurately describes the patterns of historical events within the public consciousness, I would like to extend the logic one step further. This process, in which issues clarify and then blur is now being greatly accelerated by new media. The primary drivers of this change, I would argue, are social media platforms and 24-hour news channels.
In the past, issues had a chance to gradually unfold as ordinary citizens gathered and processed information. This information eventually reached a point that provided peak understanding for the individual, and the story faded over time, such that the person was left with a somewhat informed, but less than perfect memory of the story or event.
This same process is still occurring, but it is happening in minutes and seconds, rather than in days and months.
The problems that I would speculate might be happening as a result are numerous: misinformation surrounding a story receiving a greater proportion of a person’s attention, shortened attention span from the public on any issue (no matter the relative importance of said issue), the creation of an information vacuum that constantly must be filled by some story (any story) and usher out the previous happenings, and so on.
The recent “comebacks” that we’ve seen among politicians of late (and really, many other formerly disgraced public figures – think Michael Vick) is reflective of this process, in which news turnover is rapid and only getting faster. In a media world in which each story seemingly evaporates days after first appearing, it seems only natural that public figures would keep testing the public’s memory (or capacity for forgiveness, if you’d like to take a more optimistic view).
The historical “blurring” that occurs in Forrest Gump makes sense in many ways – the filmmakers never claimed to be making a documentary on the last half-century of American history. The movie proved immensely popular and for some even brought up feelings of nostalgia for the music, style, and excitement of past decades. But even still, the film may represent the natural human tendency to let historical events gradually morph from a photograph to a painting over time. What will it mean when our media environment accelerates this process to still unseen levels? What does it mean for us now? To be honest, I’m not so sure myself. Perhaps in the end, the truly prophetic movie character we should be looking to is Ferris Bueller: