"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Did Love Beat the Demon? - Forrest Gump vs. Natural Born Killers

Over the years there have been many films made about the American Dream. Some of them present the Dream as an optimistic pursuit of the self-made man as popularized by Horatio Alger, while other films have opted for a darker, more complex treatment of this particular vision. Two films came out in the summer of 1994 that share the same cynical view of the American Dream, but apply completely different approaches to their subject matter. Forrest Gump chronicles the adventures of a man with an I.Q. of 75 who stumbles his way through pivotal events in American history while becoming, through no fault of his own, a successful embodiment of the American Dream. In contrast, Natural Born Killers explores the media's fascination with serial killers and mass murderers, and how they are elevated to the status of folk heroes by media outlets interested only in ratings. An examination of both films in terms of technique, the intended audience, and the underlying message that they propagate illustrates the fact that Gump and Killers are not diametrically opposed visions of America, as the media and most critics have observed, but in fact serve as a critical analysis of the American Dream. Gump opts for a more controlled, classical approach, while Killers uses the tools of popular culture to not only mirror but critique society by using contemporary styles and methods. Despite the different approaches to their subject matter, these two films present similarly opposed visions of American culture; Gump shows a more pessimistic version of recent American history, while Killers offers an often nihilistic view of modern culture.

The cinematic techniques used in Forrest Gump and Natural Born Killers are crucial in understanding the intent of each film. Gump utilizes the Classical Hollywood style of filmmaking (1930-1950) so that the technique is invisible, while the story becomes of paramount importance. Director Robert Zemeckis uses the indiscernible editing and flashback technique reminiscent of this period of American cinema to create a film that harkens back to what many critics consider the golden age of film. Even the often-praised use of computer technology to seamlessly place Gump (Tom Hanks) with famous historical figures contributes to the masking of technique. This state-of-the-art technology performs its job so well that it seems like Gump is really interacting with prominent people from the past. Gump takes a more conservative approach by employing a classic style of filmmaking, but, in doing so, it subtly parodies the films of this period by aping their style. This approach is evident from the opening scenes of Gump’s childhood where Zemeckis uses the Classical Hollywood style to present a dichotomy of the “idyllic and [the] awful.” He juxtaposes postcard images of small-town American life, complete with white picket fences and vast fields of lush, green grass, with the dark flip side that involves Forrest’s mom (Sally Field) having sex with the school board superintendent so that her son may enroll in a regular class; Jenny fleeing from her abusive, drunken father; and young Forrest being attacked by vicious bullies who delight in bouncing rocks off the slow-thinking, handicapped child’s head. It seems, judging from the heaps of praise from critics and the massive box-office receipts of the film, that people have a selective memory, remembering only the good aspects of Gump while failing to understand the real intention of Zemeckis’ film.

While Forrest Gump stresses narrative over style, Natural Born Killers makes it blatantly obvious to the audience that they are watching a film. Director Oliver Stone applies a chaotic style of filmmaking that draws the viewer "into a vortex of the unreal," as one critic put it. By repeatedly mixing various film stocks, and by using front and rear-projection photography as well as animation, Stone is, in a sense, constructing the film "via television and as a homage to television ... like watching two weeks of television in two hours. There's the aggression of the imagery, the channel-surfing philosophy of moving on." Like Gump, Stone’s film also uses the initial opening scenes to introduce the style and technique of the film. Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory Knox’s (Juliette Lewis) stopover at a roadside diner is interrupted by a trio of rude rednecks who are systematically butchered (along with everyone else in the diner save one) by the couple in a frenetic, chaotic collage of film techniques. As Stone noted in an interview, this disorienting approach makes Killers “not an easy movie to settle into, you can’t get a point of view, you have to surrender to the movie. If you resist the movie with conventional ethics, you’ll have a problem.” Stone’s film adopts the style of the culture it parodies, and attacks tabloid media and MTV culture by using the hyperkinetic editing tempo of music videos and the constantly changing point-of-views within the film to mirror our channel-surfing, fast food culture.

One of the most interesting aspects of both Forrest Gump and Natural Born Killers is the audience that each film targets. Gump, with its classic-rock soundtrack and Classical Hollywood style of filmmaking, appeals to the Baby-Boomer generation looking for a comforting story in this age of violent action films. Ironically, Gump remains detached from much of the Baby-Boomer culture throughout the film, which tends to either show the negative side of its history or parody it. Zemeckis offsets important historical events with comical scenes that reduce these pivotal affairs to light, insignificant moments. This is true when Forrest inadvertently stumbles on a famous peace rally in Washington, D.C. where legendary sixties icon, Abbie Hoffman asks him to speak to thousands of anti-war protestors. Just as Forrest begins to speak, the sound to his microphone conveniently cuts out and his words are lost forever. It is a comical moment that trivializes this momentous event and only enhances what critic Dave Kehr recognizes as the film’s real intention: a “dark, social satire, fixed in an epic vision of American history as a series of con games and power plays.” Stone's film, on the other hand, attracts the opposite end of the spectrum: the twentysomething generation, which is skeptical about contemporary culture.

To this end, Natural Born Killers contains a soundtrack filled with fashionable, alternative music ranging from Lard to L7 and that has been arranged by Trent Reznor, the creative force behind the popular music group, Nine Inch Nails. By employing a music-video style in Killers, complete with its own rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, Stone is tapping directly into the youth market by introducing a film that young people can relate to instantly. Television has created short attention spans in the youth of today, and, as a result, they are unwilling to sit still for the long, meandering pace of Forrest Gump, and instead embrace the channel-surfing aesthetic of Killers. The media, to a certain degree, play a role in this generation gap. Many reviews have misread both films – praising Gump for its uplifting message of hope and celebration of the American dream, while criticizing Killers for its cynical, fatalistic outlook. This outlook may speak more to jaded youth than an older generation who still believe that there is a glimmer of hope. It is this glimmer that upon first inspection seems to shine brightly in Gump, but after closer scrutiny is revealed to be a hollow facade.

The underlying message that each film communicates is also indicative of the audience that watches it. Forrest Gump presents the triumphs and tragedies of the Baby-Boomer generation and wraps it up in "an entertaining story that satisfies [their] nostalgic urges ... and reaffirms the uniqueness and importance of their generation." Gump bombards the viewer with cheery pearls of wisdom like, "life is like a box of chocolates," but this nostalgic mood ends when the film moves into the late 1970’s and early 1980’s – a time of the Boomers’ decline. However, this is only a surface reading of the film. By presenting a figure like Forrest Gump who “survives because he isn’t very smart,” and remains “magnificently blank,” Zemeckis’ film suggests that only “by surrendering your will and identity, by refusing to see the horror around you, can you make it in America.” Those characters in the film that try to alter their fate or protest are punished for their trouble: Jenny (Robin Wright) wants to become a famous singer while Bubba (Mykelti Williamson) aspires to be a successful businessman. Both are killed off as a result and Forrest’s best friend, Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise) has both his legs amputated. All three tried to make a difference and control their own fates, unlike Forrest who is content to run away from his predicaments. He survives because he refuses to stand up to his problems.

Conversely, Natural Born Killers challenges authority with its satirical attacks on tabloid media and its "trust no one" outlook on life in the United States. Unlike Forrest Gump, in which its protagonist maintains a safe, ironical distance from it all, Killers is "unafraid to implicate itself in the sadism of spectacle." Stone’s film is unafraid to present an amoral world where the protagonists are not instantly likable or endearing. It embraces and confronts the ugly side of the American dream head on. Moreover, the viewer is not safe from this view. By having us look at the action through the eyes of the murderous protagonists themselves, as is evident in the opening diner massacre, Killers implicates us as much as it does them in the spectacle of murder.

As one critic has observed, Natural Born Killers “is a film about film. It is Oliver Stone dueling with the recent history of the movie image. It is an attempt to look at how an ‘image culture’ has taken over from immediate experience.” Stone’s film is like one big collage of images, either sampled directly from or influenced by previous films. This includes a soundtrack that is not a coherent work by one composer, but rather fragments upon fragments of songs from a multitude of sources. Stone has taken to notion of film and distorted it so much that he has created something truly unique – a postmodern pastiche film that attacks the conventions of Hollywood.

Forrest Gump, in its own subtle way does much the same thing. Zemeckis' epic film is a potpourri of many existing genres, including the war film, the melodrama, and the comedy. However, Zemeckis plays with the conventions of each of these genres within his film so that our expectations and knowledge of them is challenged. Gump's tour in Vietnam invokes both The Flying Leathernecks (1951) and Platoon (1986). His tour is at once triumphant (he saves Lt. Dan) and tragic (Bubba dies). Zemeckis is twisting the genre's conventions by giving it a unique spin much as Stone's Natural Born Killers acts as an epitaph on the action film by exploding it to exaggerated and extreme proportions. This film goes one step further by showing how distorted the culture that the Baby-Boomers created has become. It has changed so radically, as reflected in the "deranged visual overload" of the mise-en-scene, that the Boomer generation barely recognizes it – hence their rejection of Stone's film and their embrace of Gump, which, on the surface, seems to conform with their nostalgic memories. However, Gump’s audience is perhaps missing the true intention of the film: to challenge the self-importance, which this generation assumes all too often. Killers achieves the same goal and also warns the younger generation not to repeat the same mistakes of the past.


  1. Which version of NBK did you see? I still own my VHS copy of the director's cut of the film because it's has the lone little special feature that isn't on any of the DVDs where Oliver Stone talks about the music and Trent Reznor where he introduces the video for the NIN song "Burn". It's my favorite Oliver Stone film and probably the last great thing he did before he just started making awful shit.

  2. Hello J.D.

    Your title was an eye-catcher.

    You certainly never quite imagine hearing these two films utilized in the same breath.

    They are so different on so many levels, yet you find common ground to discuss the facets of film through the eyes of two film auteurs.

    This was certainly an engaging and challenging way to discuss film which is certainly a Radiator Heaven specialty! Well done my friend.

  3. One awesome and in-depth essay on the American Dream through the lenses of two very distinct films, J.D.! Bravo. Thanks.

  4. thevoid99:

    I have seen both but prefer the Director's Cut (obviously). I know what you mean about the NIN/"Burn" segment. I wish I had held onto my VHS copy! It's really odd that that bit hasn't been included on any of the DVDs. Must be a music rights issue.

    I wouldn't say it is the last great thing Stone did. NIXON is a towering achievement and an underrated masterpiece.

    The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    Thank you for the kind words, my friend. I hadn't really thought of the connection until I read an essay in FILM COMMENT many years ago talking about just how subversive FORREST GUMP is and it made me think about it relation to NATURAL BORN KILLERS. Weird how both films came out in the same year. Something definitely was in the air...


    I'm glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for stopping by.

  5. I have found it odd that Gump is seen as a sweet mvie when it is as you point out, pretty bleak. "Natural Born Killers" is truly a one of a kind work, and a brilliant one, but I never would've thought to compare it to Gump. Great insights and some fantastic points about both.

  6. Brent:

    Thanks! Yeah, I know what you mean re: GUMP. And even though I haven't read it, I heard that the book is even darker. Go figure.

  7. Those characters in the film that try to alter their fate or protest are punished for their trouble

    My experience from talking about the film -- admittedly a while ago, back on Usenet -- is that this punishment for trying to control your own fate is what many people find most problematic.

    I personally don't see the film as trying to be bleak with people unintentionally misunderstanding it. To me, it seems as though the film makers and actors were all trying to create something to make Boomers feel better about themselves: Wistful, playful nostalgia about the good old days, moments of seriousness when they were due, a revisionist opinion of hippies as being silly and ultimately doomed, etc.

    You know how people think Springsteen's "Born in the USA" is a patriotic song because they never bothered to listen to or comprehend the lyrics? That's how I felt Zemeckis approached FG, as though he didn't realize the irony in the message.

  8. Stacia:

    I like your analogy to Springsteen's song. I think that is a very apt one indeed. I think that it boils down to people seeing what they want to see in a film but the good ones work on multiple leves, open to several interpretations.