Tom Hanks Is Still A Good Idea
by Nicholas Grider
Tom Hanks is a good idea. Like many good ideas (such as loyalty, consonance, simultaneity, Photoshop, and pockets) it may seem as if Tom Hanks must be naturally-occurring and evolved long ago when fresh water was easier to locate and imbibe than to purchase on sale in bulk. Idea experts have yet to reach a consensus, but in the meantime, let’s take a closer look at why Tom Hanks is such a good idea, may always have been and might forever light our way, never fading from the firmament the way that laugh tracks and summer camp and the Electoral College have, tenacious though they may be, the flower’s torn which Tom Hanks removes before handing it to us, so let’s delve deeper into the nexus of goodness and distraction and “Jimmy Stewartification.” Shall we? Let’s.
Tom Hanks, according to a vote held by the people in charge of public idea maintenance, is officially declared a Good Idea on May 20th, 1995 in a ceremony in a part of Los Angeles hard to distinguish from many other parts of Los Angeles because the cameras never pull back far enough to show you bunker-like apartments or formerly winsome fast food establishments or a forest either of palm and other kinds of trees and the related forest, native to Los Angeles, that overtook the land during the national era in which a forest of extraneously sharp or curved signs, glowing by virtue of mechanisms, seemed like a good idea because, considering it was a more innocent time, inhabitants of the city-states and ambiguously empty swirls of territory that comprise America (and sadness) were certain that their vigorous adult glamour would, like people who have personal trainers and are highly symmetrical, always and forever be glamorous, the icy sleaze of signage that would later come to be deemed “kind of extra” would remain as unchangeably itself as the partly occluded night sky above it, and fire season, and the curls of dented hope people throughout the land as far as a late-model used sedan can drive in a day at a reasonable pace that one day they may themselves bear witness to the supernal glory and/or Kantian sublime of a palm tree, at night, on fire for unknown reasons. Did Emmanuel Kant ever witness a palm tree on fire, a reporter asks Tom Hanks as he walks down a convincing facsimile of velvet toward an award waiting for him, but Tom Hanks, minutes away from being a good idea, smiles sadly and shakes his head and simply tells the reporter “our mysteries have always outnumbered us, and they always will.”
Weeks later, while simmering between undertakings at his primary hillside residence and comparison shopping for pleasantness-maintenance consultants, Tom Hanks receives, via the USPS, an embossed card from what he claims to have assumed are the people who would know, a white-on-white card that, when folded open, simply reads “ps also we forgot about it because we got swept up in things but we also forgive you for Bosom Buddies and for making lanky hot dada types attractive and we actually think Turner & Hooch is the kind of mistake any desperate young actor torn between iconic goofball and romantic lead might make, and we promise not to tell anyone about that time you had a bit part on Happy Days, but keep in mind Bosom Buddies footage never really goes away” at which Tom Hanks emits a measured chuckle, having mastered chuckling during the late 1970s, though he later calls his good-idea colleague Julia Roberts on what was formerly known as a Land Line and chuckles both before and after he says to her, “Julia please stop fucking around with me and I’ll stop sending you tiny pewter coffins the size of hamsters which sometimes contain non-pewter gifts, like when you told everyone I was a leather daddy, but I’m prepared to keep going as long as you are, and we haven’t even co-starred in anything yet, to which Julia Roberts responds “this is not Julia Roberts,” and after Tom Hanks asks why that’s her answer to everything she tells him that it is a conceptual art project: she is secretly keeping careful record of how many people she can inform, how many times, she is not Julia Roberts before someone believes her denial, or appears to. Tom Hanks chuckles and tells her she seems more like a video artist type, and that he’s watched the collection of clips of palm trees on fire on her Instagram. She laughs at this and, before hanging up with the sloppy satisfying click of land line phones, she says, “I am too cool school for school, my bosom buddy.” After Tom Hanks also hangs up he inspects the graceful curves of the phone unit, sitting on something resembling a doily in a sunroom-adjacent breezeway currently lacking a defined purpose other than housing stacks of People in dingy yellow milk crates, and after he allows his spacious home’s silence a moment to shine, he says to no one, softly, “This is not a movie. I am sometimes in a movie but not always in a movie. I know what the difference is.”
In an anemic but valiant attempt to rescue the American populace from pale and narrow national gloom, two rich white people who live in distant American cities decide to fall in love, their pale and narrow lips and fingertips separated only by an ocean of American hesitation and a montage of people dancing in department stores to cut-rate pop hits from the 1960’s. One of the rich white people for whom romance is an easy solution to things is Tom Hanks; he eventually valiantly uses Expedia to book a flight, but the plane crashes on a tropical island in the middle of Nebraska and Tom Hanks is stranded forever, surrounded by damaged parcels and a Bruce Springsteen soundtrack lacking hits or good deep cuts, so he marries a nice local volleyball instead. One night, while a pale Tom Hanks sleeps on the shores of the black ocean forever swirling in the forbidden heart of Nebraska, the restless volleyball whispers to him, “Tom, the past. The past is not cumulative. The past is a string of pearls, except without the string and the pearls are fake. Is this the answer we’ve been looking for?”
Tom Hanks is perhaps one of America’s best ideas, produced in collaboration with his parents, the US Educational System, a dash of chutzpah, and a team of scientists working in an underground bunker at Fort McCoy, not all of whom are necessarily fused (their term) with the military-industrial complex but many of whom have a habit of pushing slightly loose wire-rimmed glasses back onto the stately bridges of their pale noses and telling you, were you to ask how the idea of Tom Hanks was arrived at, “Well, it’s more complicated than that,” pausing to gauge your expectant silence before adding, “a lot more complicated. These things just don’t happen overnight, or by themselves, or without a proper research and development phase.” If, later in the cafeteria as you survey harmless-seeming scientists of indeterminate age and pragmatic haircuts dip apple slices into yogurt and squint at you when your itch still seems not yet scratched they may address the matter this way: “For one thing, ideas don’t always have origin stories the way superheroes do. Not all ideas are superheroes. Embarrassment is an idea, for example, not a superhero. As far as we know, that Marvel Universe character isn’t getting his own film,” they may say, then nodding a little, as much as if toward you as at you, continuing, “That’s a joke. But what you might be wondering is why some good ideas weather the test of time better than others. I’m afraid we can’t answer that. But here’s another idea, in the public domain: much of the time, if something seems like a good idea, it also often seems inevitable. So, in a sense, although we are ruled less by thoughts and prayers than by fear and chaos, you could say, regarding Mr. Hanks, if it works, it works,” before cautioning you against universalizing anything.
Experts trained in the pricey alchemy of expertise are fairly certain that desire and its cold mirror terror first arose in human civilization as named and commonly understood feelings, both responsive and ambient, at roughly the same time. Dr. Gerald Goldman, a kind and somewhat hesitant man who is tired of telling people at conferences “yes I know I look like Edward Morrow, except Jewish, whatever the fuck that means, I mean if it didn’t mean me I’d have a hard time imagining it, but whatever” opines, in a rare New York Times op-ed not designed by professional amateur experts solely to induce a buzz of cringes and impulse spending on subsidiary information, that it’s sort of hard to imagine one with out the other, but then again who knows, things are already different now from how they were, so change was likely always possible and always will be. The last part of this, so much startlingly more reasonable than anything appearing on the NYT op-ed page, is later emblazoned on the base of a monument in New Hampshire but due to embezzlement complexities and hot tub misallocations public funding for the monument dries up before it can be finished and only the base remains, pushy enough in its stark geometry that after a while, people forget that anything’s missing, and a great celebration honoring public aesthetic stuff is held in the town square, as is the custom for Americans whenever something has been successfully forgotten by everyone, but the mood turns when a woman named Martina, holding an ironic wine cooler, squints at her husband and asks why he only ever kisses her in public, and once more the harsh truths of life must be confronted the way a person might confront a deadly serpent if they were armed only with a shovel.
Long ago, in a part of history painted a kind of dingy rust red and yellowish gray under a pale blue sky, Moses Mendelssohn apologizes to Immanuel Kant while they drink Irish coffees and play checkers, saying he had no idea he’d win that essay thing and Immanuel mutters not a big deal but could you let me win at checkers one fucking time, to which Moses says sure, but also keep in mind that my children will mostly become Convenience Christians and history will forget me except for a play some rando writes that can best be described as well-intentioned while you’ll be the one whose work people will go into debt in order to get degrees like ours to explain to young people like Janet and Tyler and Cassandra what the whole deal is even though Tyler just keeps saying but I don’t get it, does anyone else get this, leading to a discussion of how the vectors of limitless dread shift when you are terrified of something you cannot name vs. something you can, like how Mr. Whiskers isn’t going to live forever and Grant might be cheating on you and what if this era will later be viewed as a Golden Era and it doesn’t seem golden at all but more like an empty DMV parking lot across which fast-food detritus drifts as if to suggest important lessons lurk in the mundane when sometimes that’s an overreach and the obvious remains steadfastly obvious.
Meg Ryan’s response to the people who do this kind of thing, when they tell her she’s definitely memorable and has the kind and amount of oomph you need to be a star but they’re not yet settled on the good idea part, is: “Are you fucking kidding me? Who was born for unassailable rom-coms that make serious bank, me or Forrest fucking Gump?” Because this utterance is public during an era in which it has become possible to record so much of everything that no one has to remember anything, British electronic musician Powell samples it for a remix of the Frank Ocean song “Forrest Gump,” with Powell and Frank Ocean having met via a mutual acquaintance, artist and “I also do other stuff” practitioner Wolfgang Tillmans, and the sample is quickly cleared because America has reached the era in which the one thing all Americans can agree on is you do not say no to Frank Ocean, ever, and comments regarding the remix are scattered across social media like the seeds of fruit trees thrown into the (non Frank Ocean-related) ocean, comments such as “this slaps” and “this fucking slaps, holy shit” which eventually leads to a longform think piece at Pitchfork about whether enforced “song of the summer” consensus is now, in fact, altering perceptions of the season to fit a given summer’s chosen track.
Experts often agree about things other than Tom Hanks. For example, experts agree while both volleyballs and the game requiring them predate Tom Hanks, interest in volleyball as something more than a way for people to exhibit musculature and swiftness while hanging out scantily-clad near large bodies of water roughly coincides with increasing interest in Tom Hanks as the kind of Hollywood leading man who wins surprisingly heavy awards vs. the kind of leading man whose visage mainly lingers in comic films that feature mermaids. When volleyballs are asked about this by an investigative reporter from The Washington Post they offer no comment, which leads approximately 42% of US citizens to rejoice, this being the percentage of Americans who strongly believe answers to questions are generally a bad thing, saying “facts don’t print money” before holding forth about the most recent conspiracy theory regarding an alleged dark army of Satanic trees.
After a night of rough and broken sleep following the plane crash (a plot mechanism in which no one was harmed), Tom Hanks asks the volleyball who was it who said “this too shall pass” but the volleyball, deflating a bit, replies that Jeopardy kind of junk is not really its thing before offering to give Tom Hanks a back rub, which Hanks declines, lying back down on a conveniently leafy bed of clover under an expanse of sky so wide and bright it seems heavy and saying don’t sweat this one, it’s just a rhetorical, but is it better to be a good idea or to have a good idea? Not needing to answer, the volleyball does anyway, whispering its reply into the hush of Tom Hanks’ contemplative silence: “Both.”
Meanwhile, in an infinite elsewhere Los Angeles contains called Hollywood, we sing:
O Katie Holmes, where are you now? For whose lens
do you let shine your za? Upon which velvet lawn
have you discarded your blue veil, piercing the silence
of night to sing of comebacks: you’re set to play a swan
in a reboot of Ovid in which the swan, pursued
by risk/benefit analyses, is god-transformed into
a two-hour chase scene that ends where it begins––
in the cavernous dreams of heartland teens
forever skeptical about the naming of things?
O Katie Holmes, is everything still as it seems?
This supercut, Meg Ryan declares, shall suffice. A double mini-feature produced by grad students at USC aiming to ingratiatingly provoke, Sleepless Messages is, cumulatively, seven hours long, enough that cheerful white men in fitted shirts and joke in the dark about working hard and hardly working, about the sharp steel craving for the feeling of the familiar but not the familiar thing itself. Part one consists of a shuffled combination of Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail in which any scene that otherwise would have cutaway to gently caramel celluloid of Ryan alone in the frame, charming the world through seeming but not being approachable, like triumph, with still images of a partly deflated volleyball on which is written in Sharpie in block print MEANING FEELS BETTER WITH YOU. Part two of the extravaganza is an edit of the film Cast Away in which all cutaway shots to the forlorn hope of the volleyball companion are replaced by lo-fi shots of Meg Ryan on a windswept beach near Oxnard reciting lyrics from Lana Del Rey songs in a withering tone. Between the two halves is a short interlude consisting of films featuring James Franco and/or Shia Leboeuf edited so crisply that individual syllables have been cut and recast as a conversation between the two actors about whether suffering is meaningful. When Meg Ryan queries the filmmakers about this, they freeze until the taller mumbles something about the generosity of confusion, which Ryan deems sufficient as well. Just don’t add any explosions, she says, explaining that the only detonation that matters to her bottom line is the detonation of the heart. The confused filmmakers nod enthusiastically at this, after which they decamp to a new eatery in Los Feliz specializing in microjuices, volleying the phrase “we sure dodged a bullet there” between sips until they regain enough of their awkward swagger to proceed.
“Oh Tommy Hanks,” Tom Hanks whispers to the puppet version of himself on the set of his new film, a remake of Being John Malkovich as enacted by the characters from Splash, “why didn’t you ever come home?” Tom Hanks the good idea looks down at Tom Hanks the complexly carved foam prop as if in conversation, but he does not really expect a reply, not after all this time, nor does he receive one. As information continues to arrive in competing waves, both life and good ideas continue to get more complicated. Cities hum, palm trees burn, celebrities flex, everyone moves a little bit farther away from everyone else because of the burnt sugar smell we carry around now like our tired pets and our curated fears. “Who will save us now,” we whisper in clean but underlit corporate bathrooms, before turning to the mirror is if it might approximate a camera lens and practicing the insertion of slate-gray tone into our tired voices as we say, “and what do we mean by ‘us’, and is save even the right word? Is being saved different from being rescued, and which is the better deal? And, regardless if whether it’s erstwhile van-dweller, yodeler and poet of renown Jewel asking us who will save our souls, does that lay bare the fundamentally theological subtext of speaking of things in terms of salvation, especially salvation from something, and why did Joan Osborne not take the opportunity to weigh in on this and why aren’t Jewel or Joan Osborne the good ideas at the heart of American civilization’s erratic sunset, or Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts or your neighbor who got you into the Hu Band (Mongolian hard rock, you should check it out) or Hooch rather than Turner or crabgrass or spider monkeys or chunks of fallen masonry, and do we even need saviors at this point, whether it’s Tom Hanks or Jesus or some other Christlike white person with a corporate handshake?”
“If, for example,” the young potential celebrity says to himself, looking in the mirror after trying on the white turtleneck sweater bequeathed to him by a dead cousin, “there were a way to convince myself that right now, as I stand here in a subpar sweater filthy with the shadows of dead men who knew how to dance indefinitely and when to keep their mouths shut, I am being sought after by a nameless destiny, would that be enough? If, some day, I am anointed the newest iteration of the idea of Tom Hanks, will I be ready? If I am not ready, will I seem ready, and is seeming ready enough?” After a long pause during which the apprentice superstar tries not to begin yet again to sort and organize the nameless stains he accumulated during his tense and spartan childhood, he says to the person he would like to imagine is the real him, “Yes. If illusions were not enough, we wouldn’t be allowed to love them so much.” Then, having finished his daily meditation on actually having something to say, he cautiously bites his lower lip, tugging at the collar of the cream cashmere turtleneck sweater, wondering whether he should chip away at his daily practice of seeming busy or stay home and permit himself to sit in the walk-in closet and cry until he falls asleep or it’s time to do some crunches.
The Sunset Philosophy Committee, which only rarely deals with good ideas, issues a statement to the effect that while sunsets are not cumulative, small acts of drifting away are cumulative, as are private haphazard attempts to put out the small blue fires of desperation. Billboards flood the caramel-brown countryside to inform America in upscale sans-serif letters CONSTANT TERROR DOES WONDERS FOR YOUR POINT OF VIEW. In response, the secret army known as I’d Rather Be Golfing begins airing, on cable channels no longer watched by anyone, found footage of a suburban dad-type yelling at a split-open bag of trash on his front lawn, “No one is going to rescue you!” and hold hushed meetings in which they say to each other “what else, what else is there, what else” but are tired and bored and distracted by whether they’ve packed everything they need for their looming Adventure Vacations they do not yet know from which they will never return.
“All I want in return for my services,” the impressively-coiffed superhero whispers to the sleeping populace in their slow, undersaturated dreams after disaster has once again been narrowly averted and there are no palm trees or beloved authority figures on fire for the time being, “is for you to adore me like I just wrote your mom a blank check.” Knowing there will not be an answer, now or ever, Captain Embarrassment shuffles back to his underground luxury lair to remove his flattering red costume and the Spanx he wears beneath it, crawling into bed at dawn relieved, at least, he no longer has that fucking third-shift warehouse job spending five nights a week trying to come up with unintended forklift uses.
Tom Hanks, meanwhile, is still a good idea.
As for the rest of us? The rest of us whisper we’re still here. More than ever before. Tonight, maybe, is when we take ourselves over. We don’t have names or faces but we do have facts and stats, hot takes and talking points. We have gathered all the loose menace in the world and fashioned it into a mirror no one can resist. We’re still here, and we’re not Tom Hanks but we don’t need to be. We don’t need names or faces. We’re here where the far fields of exposition shots are forever burning. We’re footloose and photogenic. All disasters are now equally likely. All disasters are now equally good ideas. We’ll never survive unless we supply ourselves a new plot, and every good story has victims and villains.
So here we are. As permanent as publicity and doubt. Coming soon to a good idea near you.
Nicholas Grider is the author of the story collection Misadventure (A Strange Object, 2014) and their work has appeared in Conjunctions, Guernica, Midnight Breakfast, and other publications.