The heart-wrenching story of Jack, a simple farmhand who can talk to animals, Forrest Gump gets worse every year. I am not the first to notice its entropic quality: the way it lies rotting in cinematic history like a corpse reeking inside a bog. The movie fluxes and changes as time squeezes its hand, but never in a good way. Its skin grows putrid, its features grows sunken, its bones shine through gaps in its deliquescent flesh. Long, slow death is pulling it down and then tearing it apart. Six Academy Awards, seven hundred million dollars at the box office, and now this. The movie’s hollow, rictus-grinning skull is an urgent warning: you can take none of this with you.
I thought it was a great movie once, when I was eight or nine (I watched it with Mom and Dad, they they fast-forwarded through the part in the burlesque club).
Another thing I did when I was eight or nine was create a superhero called Yarn Dog. He was a dachshund who could rapidly knit complex objects. In one of Yarn Dog’s adventures, the villain hurls him off a cliff, so he whips out a trusty ball of yarn, gets clackin’ with his needles, and knits a fully-functioning helicopter around his falling body. Moments before he hits the ground, he grabs the throttle and flies his yarn helicopter away into the sunset which is actually a profound metaphor for
I hate Forrest Gump. It’s so bad. Its main storytelling choice—to tell the history of late 20th century America from the perspective of a mentally-handicapped man—is tactical: Forrest is too slow to form opinions on anything happening around him, which means the writers don’t have to form one, either.
Forrest Gump takes no stances, advances no arguments, makes no interpretations. It is a movie about nothing. It’s a rapid-fire montage of historic moments (Vietnam, Watergate), with Forrest Gump standing around looking oblivous. I wonder what are you supposed to “get” out of Forrest Gump? That the sixties happened? I already knew that.
This movie thinks you’re abysmally stupid. Every plot point is explained to death, reanimated using a Necronomicon, then explained some more. The first (but by no means last or worst) example comes when Forrest’s mother tries to enroll him in school. The principal says it’s impossible, because his IQ is 75.
This doesn’t need further exposition. Even if you don’t know how IQ scores work, you can infer from context that Forrest is unintelligent. We get it. It’s not necessary for the principle to pull out a chart, and indicate for the audience where Forrest is on the distribution.
While that might seem like a small complaint, it exhibits one of the film’s main problems: it never knows when to stop. Whether it’s explaining the plot, telling a joke, or making a cultural reference, Forrest Gump always goes too far, spoiling its desired affect with crassness.
It’s not enough that Forrest met Elvis as a kid. He inspires Elvis’s stage moves, too! It’s not enough that he stays at the Watergate hotel. He also exposes the plot! It’s not enough that he meets John Lennon. He basically writes the lyrics to “Imagine”, live on TV!
(The film makes Lennon look like an imbecile, with the questions he asks Forrest. “No possessions? No religion?” Lennon had been involved in revolutionary politics for years by that point. Surely he’d heard of China.)
By the end of the film, it’s absurd that Forrest isn’t the most famous person in America, recognized wherever he goes. Literally two dozen things have happened to him that would be the coolest-ever event in the life of the average man. He’s received the Medal of Honor, competed at a historic international sporting event event, foiled a conspiracy, met multiple US Presidents, and that’s just for openers. In real life, a guy from Milwaukee became a national craze just by looking a little like Hugh Jackman.
The movie has no weight or believability behind it. The image of a drifting feather kind of sums up the film.
But it’s a comedy film. So I shouldn’t analyze it seriously or literally at all.
This is the “clown nose on, clown nose off” defense, described by Kevin D Williamson here—when a comedian starts doing serious political commentary, they invariably cover up their mistakes by putting a clown nose on and reminding you that they’re just a comedian.
The fact is, Forrest Gump is only barely a comedy film. It’s sanctimonious Oscar bait, lightened only by Forrest’s oblivious commentary, and huge sections of it are played completely straight.
Sometimes the movie’s just laughable. At the start, Forrest is wearing leg braces, but when he gets chased by some comical “gimme your lunch money” movie bullies, he starts running, and the braces dramatically explode from his legs in a thousand pieces. It has the air of a superhero transformation, like the Incredible Hulk tearing apart a shirt. Those braces couln’t have been cheap. My only thought was “now his mom will have to fuck the orthopedic doctor as well as the school principal.”
A big part of the film’s credit was the special effects—with Robert Zemeckis directing, how could they not be excellent?
But looking back, the effects are quite hit or miss. The effect where they remove Lt Dan’s legs looks great. The entire Vietnam sequence looks fake to me. Rain is generated by a hose held above the actors (you can clearly see no rain is falling in the background). The monsoon season ends, and moments later, the leaves and grass look bone-dry. Forrest narrowly escapes multiple thermobaric bomb explosions…and immediately has a conversation with a wounded soldier? His eardrums haven’t ruptured from the overpressure blasts?
Other shots composite Forrest into archival footage. But it looks “wrong” in a way your brain subconsciously (if not consciously) picks up on. As I’ve said before, people automatically position their bodies to accomodate the presence of others, and it’s obvious when this isn’t happening. You can’t just digitally insert a new human being who wasn’t there in real life. He will conspicuously not belong in the scene.
There were some parts I liked. Lt Dan has a character and a personality. The joke about Forrest making millions investing in “some kind of fruit company” was funny.
But these gains are erased by the soap opera plotline involving Jenny. She’s just a poor moppet, a collection of shameless cliches. An abused child, a drug addict, and on and on.
Here is where it comes closest to actually saying something about the values of the 60s counterculture, and the way—according to some—they were either hollow, or swiftly sold out by the hippies themselves. (I saw a funny joke on Twitter: a picture of Woodstock, captioned with “somewhere in that crowd is the man who invented ATM fees”). But Jenny is such a manipulative cliche of a character that this falls flat.
Forrest Gump does provide an interesting illustration of something.
The “Waluigi Effect” in generative AI describes the tendency for a language model to give the opposite output than expected. Read it for technical details, but basically, if you specifically ask an AI to be smart, you’ve accidentally made it more likely to say something stupid. This is because [positive trait] and [opposite of positive trait] exist close in probability space, and when you push the model toward one, you inevitably push it toward the other.
But this happens to humans, too. What is “Imagine” by John Lennon except the Waluigi Effect? It is clearly trying to be profound and deep and meaningful, but it just sounds really trite. It wants to unite humanity, but it’s surprisingly mean and catty (John’s smug “I wonder if you can…”) It rejects religion, but strives for the stateliness of a secular hymn.
Forrest Gump is an even better case. It wants picturesque authenticity but feels tinny and fake from end to end. I have never seen a movie so utterly the opposite of what it thinks it is than Forrest Gump.
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I wrote Vanadium Dark in 2014. Many people liked it, but for a long time I wasn’t sure that I did.
Now I do, because I cheated by revising it. Shhh…it’s a secret!
The book was intended to be a manic, deranged story about government surveillance, futuristic technology, and difficult moral quandaries. I never liked dystopias about an obviously-evil government. This cheapens the agency of the characters—are you really that brave for taking a stand against FutureHitler?—and real-life decisions are seldom so easy.
Instead, I wanted to explore the other side of the surveillance state. Namely, what if Big Brother was right?
In the near future, a terrorist attack kills several million people. Instantly, America disappears as a concept. All of her core values—privacy, liberty, independence—seem like liabilities in a world where disaffected citizens can build nuclear weapons and then rip cities apart with them. What’s freedom worth, when it leads to this?
A national surveillance system is developed, consisting of trillions of nanoparticle-sized cameras linked to a central computer, which creates an always-recording security tape that blankets the entire continent. Now, nothing is secret.
Incredibly, the surveillance works. There are no more terror incidents, and crime itself is basically eradicated. Cities are safe to walk at night. But it’s still a disquietening future. Imagine always being filmed, but unable to see the cameras, even when they crawl across your skin. Imagine that it would seem normal to be filmed and monitored for twenty-four hours a day, and unable to escape.
I’m glad to report that this fear from 2014 has proven to be groundless in 2023. I don’t know why we ever worried about it.
The story is told from the perspective of Viktor Kertesz: a “Handler” (one of the men allowed to access the video feed). His job is to solve crimes. But he becomes troubled: something’s not right with the nanocam swarm. His viewscreen displays weird things, and events that aren’t happening. Is the nanobot swarm breaking down? Is he putting men in prison based on false evidence? The truth might actually be worse. The nanobots are doing the opposite of failing: they’re evolving. They have primitive communication abilities, and they’re beginning to link up, like neurons in a brain.
This is the other half of Vanadium Dark—that their government, in their quest for security, have uncaged a tiger. A malicious AI superintelligence could be rising from the depths of the computer: one that might topple the human race.
Thankfully, in 2023 this has proven to be a baseless fear as well.
So, what did I change in the revised edition?
Vanadium Dark was written quickly, by a young person running on a fuel of ideas, who lacked patience, wisdom, and craft.
To be blunt, most of the book wasn’t written that well. It had endless passive voice; characters that communicate in soliloquies instead of sentences; and scenes that dragged like a dog’s ass, right when the tempo needed to be racing.
It also had some puzzling errors. I’ve removed Viktor’s magic teleportation abilities in chapter one (he no longer walks out of Pentagon Metro Station and emerges at the Concourse, hundreds of meters away.)
Vanadium Dark was always kind of cold, with characters that were closed books, emotionally (Viktor, despite the bullshit he tells us, takes up spying predominantly to make up for his lack of a personal life). This is what I wanted, but I think I carried it too far, and have tried to warm up the characters a little. It’s hard for the reader to care about an AI menace when the human characters seem like robots already.
The US setting remains horribly loose. My apologies if I describe some place familiar to you, and you don’t recognize it. I had little interest in rendering Americana in photographic detail. The book’s about America going away, so does it really matter whether the characters say “crayon” with one syllable or two?
Most of the scenes are structurally the same. Perhaps a little longer, perhaps a little shorter. The book contains frequent insertions of diagetic material—extracts from textbooks on how the Vanadocams work, and so forth. These are fun, but they’re also not the story, so I’ve cut them back significantly.
But there was one part I strongly disliked, and reworked extensively.
Viktor wants to relax, so he goes to a sex club. He puts on virtual reality goggles to enhance the act, but the woman he’s paying transforms into a monster, and he punches her in the face. The intent was to illustrate Viktor’s declining mental state, and muddy the waters about what’s happening to him. Maybe the computer isn’t breaking down. Maybe he’s just becoming insane!
But at a remove of nine years, the prostitute-bashing feels jarring and wrong. Turning Viktor into Patrick Bateman destroys the reader’s sympathy for the character, and the fact that Viktor faces no consequences for his actions doesn’t make sense in Vanadium Dark’s “crime doesn’t pay” world. Now, something else happens in the sex club.
Other parts, I basically left alone. It’s always a joy when a scene comes alive on the page, and I had fun re-reading certain bits. The Sun Hi Shin stuff, the French wiretaps (with politicians dancing around a terrible admission that, if true, would radically reframe how the reader thinks about certain other events in the book), and the “AI boxing” scene in the Pentagon seemed particularly strong.
Vanadium Dark dated in ways I didn’t expect. In 2013, self-driving cars seemed right around the corner. Now, they seem right around the edge of the observable universe.
Other predictions ended up being surprisingly on-the-money. As the AI begins to break free of human control, it shows Viktor imagistic hellscapes. From the rise of large language models, we know this is basically what happens. An AI at the breaking point doesn’t go “bleep bloop, EXTERMINATE ALL HUMANS.” It dreams. It raves. It hallucinates. It becomes like a person running a high fever and babbling nonsense.
Most of the book is scientific hogwash. Nothing like the Vanadocams could ever be built (my understanding is that transistors cannot scale beneath 4nm in size, because then the electrons undergo quantum tunneling effects). Did you know that you can just make up nonsense in a book, and nobody arrests you or fines you or anything? It’s great!
But a story is never about its details. Regardless of its implausible high-tech chassis, Vanadium Dark is an exploration of moral tradeoffs.
Joe McCarthy is remembered as one of the greatest villains in American history; a persecutor of the innocent. But he wasn’t entirely wrong! There were communist spies infiltrating American society, and they weren’t playing around—the USSR accelerated its nuclear program by years on the back of research stolen by guys like Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall. Reckoning with McCarthy’s legacy means reckoning with the ways he was right. You may have seen the Clickhole article entitled Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made A Great Point. History has many Worst People, making many Great Points.
Humanity can’t have it all. We can’t be perfectly secure and perfectly free. One hand tweets “ACAB”, the other hand calls the cops. We hold suspects at Guantanamo Bay for twenty years without a trial, because terrorists hate our freedom. We are all terrible hypocrites, all caught in the teeth of ideals that don’t quite work in the real world. Vanadium Dark is unrealistic, but it hopefully gets at something true.
It occurred to me that I’m kind of like the Vanadocam swarm.
When I edit, I see and control the events of an entire world. I can reach my hands into facts of history, and twist them, re-order them, even delete them. I can conjure events that never happened. I can make characters behave in ways unlike themselves. I can make them go mad.
This is a powerful ability, but it has to be used wisely. You can destroy a book; squeezing the fake world so hard that it breaks to pieces. Or, if you’re clever, you can make the illusion stronger.
Hopefully I’ve used my omniscience for good this time around, and made Vanadium Dark a better, tougher, sleeker book. It has done what any life-form needs to do.
I joined the line of metalheads at seven o’clock. It wound like a snake through the alleys connecting Pitt, George, and Central Street, heading toward Metro Theater.
I passed a red Carolla with red P-plates, which was stranded like an island in the surging metalhead river. The driver looked anxious. Learning how to drive in Sydney CBD sounds tough. He kept nudging forward and reverse, but lacked the courage to actually drive out of the crowd and get onto a road. He might still be there now: they should send a rescue team.
By the time I got inside, the first opener (Witchgrinder) had started playing. They were fun! A shame they weren’t listed on the bill.
The second opener was SOiL, or however you capitalize it. They’re a late-period nu metal band. For years, they seemed on the verge of Limp Bizkit-sized success, until suddenly nu metal was over and not even Limp Bizkit was enjoying Limp Bizkit-sized success. I’m surprised they’re still around. I mainly know their singer Ryan McCombs from his work with Drowning Pool.
The four members of SOiL looked eerily similar in the near-darkness of the theater, like the same man copy+pasted a few times at various points on the stage. McCombs complained of jetlag. Also, he was curious about Australian beer, so a fan in the front row held out a can of Victorian Bitters. McCombs kneeled and took a sip of it.
They played their Scars album in its entirely. The crowd stirred to life for “Breaking Me Down” and “Halo” but otherwise were waiting for the headliners: Static-X.
I have misgivings about this whole Static-X “memorial” project.
To explain the story, Static X is (or was) an industrial metal band, fronted by a former bartender called Wayne Static. He was the creative force of the band, writing nearly all the songs as well as crafting their sound, which he described as “evil disco”—a pummelling, communal thing that was very heavy and very catchy. For the genre lepidopterists among us, they were Ministry-style industrial metal fused with Prodigy-style big beat.
From 1999 to 2009, Static-X released six albums…and then something happened. We still don’t know exactly what.
It’s fairly uncontroversial that Wayne had a drug problem, and it was causing conflict between him and the other band members (drummer Nick Oshiro, guitarist Koiki Fukuda, and especially bassist Tony Campos, who was a fifty-percent owner of the band name). Eventually, this stress came to a head, and everyone needed a break.
Next came a classic “did Vince Neil quit or get fired from Motley Crue?” scenario, with different people saying different things. Wayne claimed the band actually broke up. Tony Campos claims the band went on hiatus…and that when Wayne announced that Static-X would reform with all new musicians, he was pissed and wanted financial compensation.
Wayne said that this compensation was financially onerous, forcing him to book tour upon tour, to the point where his body broke down (he suffered a hernia, which left him unable to perform). When Tony still demanded the money (even though Wayne couldn’t tour to raise it), he was forced to retire the Static-X name.
I don’t have the Static-X name anymore. I made a deal with Tonys [sic] the only legal Static-X member besides me.
I paid him a bunch of money last year to use the name, and he’s just a greedy motherfucker, man. He just hates me to death. He’s trying to gouge the shit out of me. I made him an offer to give him 25 percent of my net profits and he refused it.
He wants this outrageous number. [Laughs] He wants more money than I make in a year, and he’s just doing it on purpose because he hates me for whatever reason.
For the record, Tony says that the hernia story is largely bullshit, and that the tour was cancelled because Wayne was busted for drugs.
Drugs are indeed the touchy point of Static-X. Wayne claimed that he became drug-free after leaving the band. In 2011, he released a solo album called Pighammer, which was about his new, sober lifestyle. Lead single “Assassins of Youth” has lyrics like “I was too far gone / Couldn’t fight anymore / So I’m closing the door And I’m moving on.” It was promoted with statements such as:
Static’s first solo album – Pighammer – was a tribute to his new non-drug life and hoped it would help others to get clean from hard chemical drugs.
Three years later, he was dead from an overdose. Fourteen months after that, his widow committed suicide after a struggle with depression. Regardless of what happened, it was a tragic story: with horrible twist followed by horrible turn.
To be frank, I was a little discomforted to see the Static-X suddenly reform as a kind of tribute/memorial act. It was also weird to see Tony Campos project an image of a dead man up on the screen, and refer to him as a friend. Wayne certainly didn’t think they were friends, when he was alive.
But what about the show?
Edsel “Xer0” Dope performed Wayne’s vocal parts, and performed them well (I’ve heard rumors about backing tracks: but this might be one of the rare occasions when that’s acceptable). I liked his mask. Founding members Koichi Fukuda and Ken Jay were barely-visible molemen, hunched over inside their hoodies, while Tony Campos stomped around the stage with the fiery presence of a Hebrew golem.
They blasted through “Permanence”, “Structural Defect” (still my favorite Static-X song; it was an unexpected treat to hear this one live, although they cut out that fun synth part in the bridge), “Black & White” and basically every other Machine song except for “Shit in a Bag”, and “Burn to Burn”. This was supposed to be a twenty-year anniversary tour for 2001’s Machine, but coronavirus said “no”. Better late than never, I guess.
1999’s Wisconsin Death Trip was also heavily represented on the setlist. The devastating loud/quiet dynamics of “Love Dump” were fantastic live. We also got to hear deeper cuts like “Sweat of the Bud” which they hadn’t heavily played since 2000 or so. The evil disco onslaught was overwhelming, and we were so exhausted from constant pogoing and moshing that we had little energy left when “Push It” brought down the show.
The other four Static-X albums were basically skipped, which may have been the correct decision.
I never liked 2003’s Shadow Zone. It’s where Wayne started mixing Korn with his Ministry, with fairly annoying results. It has lots of clean nu metal style singing: not a great idea on the face of things, and particularly since Wayne couldn’t hold a note in a bucket. It also has songwriting by Tripp Eisen, who is a wretched human being. 2005’s Start a War wasn’t much better. The band just seemed to be running out of ideas. “Dirthouse” was a fairly alright tune, and they played that one live, along with perhaps two other songs from that period.
Then came 2007’s Cannibal and 2009’s Cult of Static, which barely sound like finished albums. The production is extremely thin and weak: it seems to be Wayne gung-hoing it himself in the mixing room. Which was a shame: those albums explored some interesting new sonic directions (“Stingwray” is a latter-day classic that nearly rivals “Structural Defect”). Pighammer had thicker production, but without any really good songs. At the Metro, they briefly played part of “Cannibal”, and didn’t touch anything else from Cult of Static. Pighammer wasn’t even hinted at.
The show had a ton of visual flair, with screens lit up by phantasmagoric CGI imagery. The colors matched the songs (blue for “Cold”, sickening pink for “Love Dump”). There were no encores—Static-X is a “play straight through, with no breaks” kind of band—but at the end Tony, Ken, and Koichi took a bow.
I got out at perhaps eleven, buying a band shirt. I misspelled that as “band shit.” It would be funny if the merch stand were literally selling Static-X’s fecal matter, arranged by color and consistency. Corn would cost extra. I’m tired. Nighty-night.