(For an understanding of the concept behind Robert Castle's 'Worst Movies I've Never Seen,' read his thesis laid out here.)
Many years ago I received the August letter from my principal welcoming the teachers back for a new school year. She tried to inject inspiration into my pedagogical marrow by referring to a contemporary event or phenomenon. The previous year, she had filled the syringe with an anecdote from Chicken Soup for the Soul.
In this particular letter, I read the following:
Each student is like a box of chocolates....
When I had seen the first advertisements for Forrest Gump (1994) and heard the voice of Gump (Tom Hanks), I immediately formed a negative opinion of the movie. How could anyone listen to that voice for two-and-a-half hours and be subjected to the self-important sub-wisdom of a guy with such a voice?
The movie, despite (in spite of?) my revulsion, became intensely popular. Apparently, it was a movie about “our times,” the Baby Boom times. Worse, it had grafted to its story real scenes from the Sixties and Seventies, with Gump himself brushing against if not influencing the events. What Gump’s voice had done to my inner ear, the film’s use of history did to irritate my historical sensibility.
And now I had the “Welcome Back to School” letter to corroborate the film’s potential effects on the education zeitgeist.
Gump Soup for the Soul.
In other words: chickenshit moral lessons for teachers and students.
What else could one expect from the mediocre imagination of a school administrator? Did I need anything else convince me that high school education is nothing more than a venture in brain pestling?
The school year had not advanced very far before students were declaiming interest in Forrest Gump and expressed confusion when I condemned it sight unseen. What about all the history in it, Mr. Castle?
Thus arose the final leeching of any goodwill I could have ever had toward the film.
To my mind, Gump had taken the shortcut to historicity as it had toward wisdom: “Box of chocolates” history. You’ll never know what platitudes you will find. History made specifically for the Gump in all of us: naive and ersatz positive souls.
Forrest Gump aroused an American ideal: smart dumbing down. Actually, it’s more than that. It evaded history by appropriating it; literally, taking the newsreels and consuming the real, until it came out a box of chocolates.
Willy Wonka history lessons.
Another movie character’s obsessions and impulses reminded me of Gump’s semi-retarded, monomaniacal narrative: those of John Nash (Russell Crowe), the mathematician and schizophrenic from A Beautiful Mind (2001).
Nash’s winning the Nobel Prize foments the anti-aesthetic of that film: overcoming a disability, which has been an American moral ideal and obsession at least since FDR and World War II—this I gleaned merely from the previews and self-aggrandizing Golden Globe and Academy Award speeches.
“How can you assess the whole movie with only a few bits of information?” many friends asked me.
Is there anything much different from the way I have assessed Forrest Gump and A Beautiful Mind than the way, perhaps, they had considered what an article entitled “The Worst Movies I Never Saw” had in store for them?
Now that I have singled out two “Academy Award Winners” (whatever the hell that phrase means qualitatively), and have a third one in the wings, even the reader must be starting to feel justified in writing off this article.
While John Nash’s story might ignite the inspiration industry, I thought about the “beautiful” nature of his mind, assuming, that is, the director and writer were not simply redressing the clichéd notion of the genius tormented by pure madness.
No, it was worse than that. We were being served the artificial fossil of the story of a genius with a disability.
Disability movies may not interest me, but done in the manner of My Left Foot (1989), one can find some aesthetic pleasure in them. But the sense that aesthetics in A Beautiful Mind would be sacrificed for some “lesson” was solidified when I learned that Ron Howard had directed the film.
Could I not accept Opie/Richie Cunningham as a serious director? Would his tackling of so-called serious material in the manner of Spielberg bring with it a serious or seriously flawed aesthetic? Or was his notion of seriousness limited to the uplifting nature of a story about a man overcoming a disability and winning the Nobel Prize? This box of chocolates would contain few surprises.
The split between Nash’s genius and his “madness” (schizophrenia) was emphasized in previews that focused on his status as a government agent and his growing paranoia over his assignments. But how could I feel anxious over his predicament when I knew he was only “mad” and was probably imagining these things? And I also wondered: where’s the beauty?
More information drifted my way. Nash had accomplished something special. Now I knew the difference between beautiful and ordinary—for Ron Howard and friends. Nash would not have been worth anyone’s attention had he not won anything.
And speaking of his mathematical achievement, I asked my friends championing the film what exactly did John Nash do to win the prize.
“He created a mathematical formula used in economic theory,” they replied.
“Really,” I said, “could you explain what this formula was? What were some of the implications of his work?”
“I’m not certain. But he was inspired to figure it out while he and some friends were trying to pick up girls at a bar.”
“Did his schizophrenia have anything to do with the mathematical equation?” I wondered.
“Not really,” said one friend. Nor could he remember exactly how the equation was applied to economics except that the movie had insisted on this, so it must have been important.
In effect, those who have seen the movie now knew as much as I did about John Nash’s contribution to economics. I asked about his schizophrenia. How did Nash get it?
“He just did. In his twenties, I think. He keeps it under control now with pills.”
It would seem A Beautiful Mind’s greatest achievement was to make us understand more than we really did. Something, the history injected into Forest Gump accomplished.
At best, as my friends have insisted, the film partly allowed the audience to experience schizophrenia from the afflicted person’s viewpoint. This was certainly not a “significant” best for a movie, but the high-end achievement of a television movie of the week (dealing with the disease of the month). This justification reminded me of a similar assertion regarding Forrest Gump’s depiction of a volatile political era.
Which brings me back to my original reaction to A Beautiful Mind.
Its makers were working an unresolvable conundrum. Schizophrenia, like alcoholism, was viewed as a disease, something John Nash could not control. He’s just another victim. Yet, Nash’s genius, too, must have been an affliction. Born- and school-smart, his was merely a successful career waiting to happen.
By not explaining his schizophrenia or his genius (the product of it, the mathematical equation with economic implications), the film mythologized Nash, smoothed over the bumps in his life (his alleged anti-Semitism and an indecent exposure charge) and reduced his complexities and ugliness. Hence, we get a feel-good movie about a man overcoming a disability.
Forrest Gump and A Beautiful Mind lobotomize audiences with the respective instruments of profound history and profound success. They both share a contempt for history—social and personal constructions of history—with well-meaning gestures.
Not that I specifically demand historical accuracy—otherwise Gump’s literal history would be a point in its favor—no, just some vision and imagination. What do a person’s actions, achievements, and failures mean in the context that these films present? How did Nash’s schizophrenia impel him to win the Nobel Prize? How did Gump’s successful endeavors contain the seeds for the unraveling of American society in the 1960s and 1970s?
Is Gump America?
Is Nash just a talented freak?
While Ron Howard could have "appreciated" a film like David Cronenberg’s Spider (2002), I doubt that he could come close to dealing with schizophrenia the way that film does. For starters, the narrative of Spider proceeds in tempo with the slow, very slow movements of the main character.
The paradox is that the pure, uninhibited ugliness of Ralph Fiennes’ characterization ultimately spins into something beautiful while the effort to make Russell Crowe beautiful turns ugly.
Nash’s redeemed himself by winning a Nobel Prize. On the other side of life, Spider kills his mother. No redemption in that.
The audience—I know, I know—needs the box-of-chocolates aesthetic or it will never want to watch it.
Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. He is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.
Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.