If we believe this stuff is art, we're all named 'Forrest Gump'

August 14, 1994|By Ed Siegel | Ed Siegel,Boston Globe

It seems that everywhere you look these days, artistic bloat is spreading like Pavarotti's waistline. Luciano, Placido, Jose and Zubin are together again, with the Chairman in attendance. A simpleton named Forrest Gump tells us everything we need to know about racial intolerance, Vietnam and love in a time of AIDS. Woodstock II is in session. Bigger is better, but merchandising is best.

What passes for art these days is a depressing assortment of pop grandiosity disguised as artistic gravitas, commerce disguised as coolness. Lightening up becomes an excuse for dumbing down. Who is more slow-witted, Forrest Gump or Itzhak Perlman, PBS's host of "Encore! The Three Tenors"? And who is more condescending to the audience?

PBS has been littering newspaper offices recently with the ratings success of the three tenors a few weeks ago. And why not? It was at least as funny as "Saturday Night Live" on NBC. If Jose Carreras wasn't massacring "My Way" or "Moon River," then Frank Sinatra was tripping over his chair or Luciano Pavarotti was emoting like an acting student of Dom DeLuise. Zubin Mehta is ever the fool on the podium, but he got strong competition for clown of the night from Mr. Perlman as PBS' play-by-play man.

"Oh,this is wonderful. This applause is amazing, wonderful applause. Placido, as you see, the applause here, this is just, this is almost like a sport event here. Heh-heh-heh." Somebody named Willo was playing Beavis to Itzhak's Butt-head. After the fearsome threesome joined in a howlingly awful "Singin' in the Rain," Willo wailed, "Think of what we heard. And only on public television would this have been possible. Thanks to youuuuu."

Don't think we're going to take the blame for this, Willo. You can't blame PBS too much, either. Considering the gross under-funding of public television in America, auctioning off dates with Diana Rigg and Jeremy Irons wouldn't be beyond the pale. What is irksome is how PBS makes it seem as if this compact disc advertisement, this parody of how the medium should cover art, is the pinnacle of what television can accomplish. (Stay tuned for the videotape, coming soon to your neighborhood video store!)

Much as "Forrest Gump" is being hailed as not just the feel-good movie of the summer, but a movie for the ages. Jerzy Kosinski satirized Gumpism and how easily people can be taken in by it in his novel "Being There," 23 years before "Gump" was made. In "Gump" we have a romanticization of mental retardation in which the only way to lead a moral life in the second half of the 20th century is to nourish one's inner infant. That produces pure love and purity of soul. The movie's snippets of simplicity, like "Stupid is as stupid does," take on airs of cosmic wisdom.

Director Robert Zemeckis accomplishes this by throwing tons of money into special effects, pairing Gump with three dead presidents and making him run like the wind. But "Forrest Gump" is to cinema what Ross Perot is to politics, a snake-oil salesman. Less than that -- Mr. Perot at least understood Reaganomics. "Gump" would have us believe that all our problems -- racial, familial, sexual -- stem from lack of innocence, and, gosh-darn it, if we'd only love each other a little more, everything would be hunky-dory.

Because of the brevity of the musical selections, the movie often seems to be an ad for a two-CD collection of great American pop songs, just as "Encore! The Three Tenors" was a warm-up for the multimillion-dollar merchandising campaign soon to follow. "Gump" puts so little honest effort into its anti-cynical message that it becomes more cynical than the malaise it whimpers about. Mr. Zemeckis seems to be saying the problem with America is we're not stupid enough. Stupid is as stupid does, Mr. Zemeckis.

There was a time when bigger did mean better, when Stanley Kubrick could enlarge an Arthur C. Clarke short story into "2001: A Space Odyssey" instead of Steven Spielberg reducing Thomas Keneally's "Schindler's List" to "Indiana Jones and the Nazis." When PBS could take pride in "Brideshead Revisited" rather than "Encore! The Three Tenors." Or when technological developments in the studio represented artistic heights (the Beatles) rather than creative depths (digital sampling).

Perhaps, at least for rock music, it all went bad at Woodstock. Whatever the intentions of the festival, its legacy was that it made rebellion a merchandisable commodity and proved rock fans will be satisfied no matter what the conditions.

Listening to David Byrne put on a sensational stripped-down concert recently showed what rock still has to offer when an artist respects both himself and his audience. Watching "Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould" or "Backbeat" shows what music-making and movie-making can be like when artists are concerned about the world of the imagination rather than the world of commerce.

Minimalism isn't the cure for bloat any more than Tom Hanks' character is the cure for cynicism, but when Ervin Duggan, PBS president, proclaims the tenors "a brilliant success that underscores the power of public television to bring the best to enthusiastic millions who love the best," then maybe Forrest Gump is the man of the day, and "Forrest Gump" is the symbol of artistic achievement at the end of the 20th century.

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