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Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Cinematic Alchemy: It's as If it had all been imagined for you.

Can a film made by racists, for racists still be a great work of cinema? Gone With the Wind isn't just a classic film. It's the classic. But that label comes with a powerful caveat. It is a film made in the 1930s about the American Civil War, written by an author from the South who, in her younger years, refused to attend a school that would admit black students, and considered D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation an inspiration.

It seems, in our more enlightened times, that Gone With the Wind is a time capsule more than a genuinely involving work of cinema. Most of the reviews of the Oscar-winning 12 years a Slave, note that it’s graphic, realistic depiction of the horrors of slavery renders Gone With the Wind all but obsolete as a film going experience, and certainly as a work of history. 12 Years a Slave is undoubtedly the superior work of history, based on a true story of slavery, told by a person who survived it. Apart from its obvious craft and artistry, Slaves’ credentials are unimpeachable. In the face of this big truth, then, can an ugly, antiquated old beast like Gone With the Wind  survive in the popular imagination?

Maybe not. The popular imagination is known to be quite stunted. For myself, though, I will make what I’m sure would be a controversial statement if this blog had more than a few readers: Gone With the Wind is a timeless work of art. I will go further to say that, in the world of cinema, there may not be another film that equals it.  

Allow me to explain. Gone With the Wind was released in 1939, on the heels of a wildly popular best seller and an (at that time) unprecedented amount of anticipation. It went on to sweep the Academy Awards and to this day holds the record for most seen film in history (based on adjusting its gross for inflation). Back then, the world was a different place. There were Civil War veterans still living, the Holocaust was unknown, interracial marriage was illegal, and the Walt Disney Company was close to bankruptcy. A radically different time.

This is the argument that’s made to defend every racist Grandma at Thanksgiving, and it is the argument that Gone With the Wind apologists use to silence its detractors. There’s no denying that this is a film made by racists, for racists, about racists. But, while 12 Years a Slave is explicitly about slavery, the "meaning" of Gone With the Wind has always been a little more fluid.
 Ultimately it's a movie about people who can’t let go, who ruin their lives by clinging to a past that does not want them anymore. This is true, whether we view that past as a hateful hell or rosy paradise.

In 2014, few people mourn the loss of the Old South, but we’re just as receptive to the idea that dwelling on the past can kill you. And that’s the theme of Gone With the Wind, when you cut right down to its heart: The people who thrive are the ones who can let go of the past and take charge of their future, who can change.
For anyone who has remained somehow oblivious to this tale, Gone With the Wind is the story of spoiled Southern Belle Scarlett O’Hara, through the civil war and reconstruction. Scarlett is beautiful, selfish and charismatic, so we don’t mind watching her gossip, pull her sister’s hair and throw herself at a man who doesn’t love her--as long as she gets her comeuppance in the end. To put it kindly, as Melanie Hamilton does, “Sclarlett’s just high spirited and vivacious.”

Sweet Melanie is Scarlett's polar opposite—unfailingly genteel and kind, the film begins with Melanie getting engaged to Ashley Wilkes, an aristocratic gentleman who Scarlett had decided is the only man worthy of her love. To anyone with a brain, it’s clear that Scarlett and Ashley would be a terrible match, but Scarlett clings to him, first, because he symbolizes wealth and class, later because he is a tie to the carefree existence she lost when the war started. 

Melanie characterizes the Old South as “A whole world that wants only to be graceful and beautiful”. Ashley remarks that it seems as it were made for her. If these were our heroes, the movie would be in big trouble. But  Scarlett is the lead, and it is to the films immense benefit that we were never meant to like her. In 2014, our reason for disliking the protagonists may be radically different than it was in 1939, but the film functions brilliantly either way. 
It’s helpful to evaluate this film with its radically different audiences in mind:
A person living in Atlanta in 1939, might believe in Melanie’s lie about the old south as “a world that wants only to be graceful and beautiful.” They may see the tragedy in her death, the nobility in Ashley’s involvement with the KKK (The group is never specifically named in the movie, but students of history should know what they mean when they "clear out those woods".)  And finally, though they enjoyed Scarlett’s exploits, it seems only right that this high spirited and vivacious woman should end up alone. As legendary film critic Roger Ebert put it:

"Of course, she could not quite be allowed to get away with marrying three times, coveting sweet Melanie's husband Ashley, shooting a plundering Yankee, and banning her third husband from the marital bed in order to protect her petite waistline from the toll of childbearing. It fascinated audiences (it fascinates us still) to see her high-wire defiance in a male chauvinist world, but eventually such behavior had to be punished, and that is what “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn” is all about. If “GWTW” had ended with Scarlett's unquestioned triumph, it might not have been nearly as successful. Its original audiences (women, I suspect, even more than men) wanted to see her swatted down--even though, of course, tomorrow would be another day."

But to an American in 2014, Melanie is not so very sweet, while Scarlett gets more and more likeable. She is, after all, an equal opportunity slapper. For eight decades, Scarlett has been getting her comeuppance on screen. Its the sins that we need to reevaluate.

A funny thing happens to Gone With the Wind when you look at it with a keen eye for history. The characters became more complex, less stereotypical—even Mammy and Prissy get a new kind of humanity.
When Scarlett O’Hara hires convicts as cheap labour, honourable Ashley proclaims, “I will not profit from the forced labour and misery of others!”
Scarlett's response: “You weren’t so particular about owning slaves.”
Ashley defends himself: “That was different. We didn’t treat them that way. I would have set them all free when father died.”

12 Years A Slave effectively killed the notion of a kind slave owner—when it came down to the line, they were all profiting off human misery. Yet the lie which Ashley told himself is the same lie than many Americans in the 20th century chose to believe. Thus, to our modern eyes, Ashley symbolizes not a gallant knight who’s lost his castle, but a pathetic, broken man who must lie to himself to hold his head up.

And what of Melanie? To the 1940s viewer she is the pinnacle of femininity destroyed, first by the war, then by those suffragettes and mangy flappers. As the line goes, she’s too honourable a person to ever conceive of dishonour in anyone she loves. And she just happens to love Scarlett.

Parond my French, but this makes No Fucking Sense. For all her talk about how Scarlett is “just high spirited and vivacious,” Melanie would have to be brain damaged to believe half the things she says about her best friend. She certainly knows about the convicts, and about Scarlett’s stealing her own sister’s fiancĂ©e. She’s had a front seat to Scarlett’s scheming in a way that virtually no other character has. But she stands by her, I suspect, for two possible reasons:
1)  Melanie is a closeted Lesbian in love with Scarlett.
2) Melanie is smarter than she looks, resigned to make the most of the role society has cast her in.

Lesbianism is the easiest way to explain Melanie’s doe-eyed forgiveness, and the way she seems to not care overmuch about Scarlett’s pursuit of Ashley. The only time in the whole film where Melanie seems like she might lose her cool is when Scareltt arrives at Ashley’s birthday party, on the heels of town gossip, after she's been caught embracing Ashley in a way that could be considered highly inappropriate. Observe Melanie's face when Scarlett walks in:

She's the one in focus. Sorry about that.

That is not the face of a woman who’s forgiven. It’s not the face of a woman who’s too sweet to see wickedness in others. But its not the face of a woman who feels betrayed, either. Her expression is less "I can't believe you betrayed me" and more "I can't believe you put me in this position, socially"

 Would it surprise you, hypothetical reader, to know that Melanie does not throw Scarlett out of her house? That she welcomes her into her home with a kiss on the cheek, and a request that she help her see to her guests? By the way, this is what Scarlett is wearing:
Even in the 1930s that was some sexy shit.

Melanie Wilkes, strikes me at all times, as a woman who knows a great deal more than she lets on, born into a world that rewards the type of meek behaviour that is her trademark. When that world passes away, her strength goes with it, and she must depend her contemptible, modern counterpart to survive.

There are two ways to view Melanie Wilkes, across two centuries, and the modern one makes her and her husband far more interesting characters—people who lie to themselves to maintain their way of life and have nothing left when those lies go out of fashion. 

But what of the slaves? There’s no sugar-coating it. The slaves are depicted on a continuum from stupid and lucky (Prissy) to contented and lucky (Mammy). Yet the only slave scenes that truly detract from the movie are those where black characters are seen on their own (“Quittin’ tiiiiiiime!” is, and will always be, cringeworthy).

Mammy would fulfill the “Magic Negro” stereotype if the other characters ever listened to what she said. Instead she is left to be the voice of reason (and the audience) that Scarlett ignores. She seems all too fond of the South’s social mores, but then again, look who she’s playing to. The performance by Hattie McDaniel is so good, one gets the sense that she spends any and all personal time talking shit about the O'Hara's to the other slaves, who are certainly smarter than they let on. 

Prissy's annoying voice is the stuff of hell and Rhett’s assessment of her as a “simple minded darky” doesn’t seem totally underserved. And yet, I invite the modern viewer to revisit the infamous "birthin babies" sequence. Prissy dawdles on her way to the doctor and doesn’t seem to care all that much whether Melanie’s baby lives or dies.
But why would she? Once again, the time divides our audience. In 1940, Prissy is an obnoxious idiot who deserves that smack across the face. In 2014, she’s a woman who play’s dumb and sabotages the system in whatever little way she can. If at all possible, rewatch the scene where Scarlett sets out to find doctor Meade and warns Prissy that she'll "whip the hide off you" if she annoys Melanie. It's hard to capture it in stills, but here's the best I can do:

It's hard to tell from stills but she seems to be mouthing the 19th century equivalent of "Fuck You" to her slap-happy overlord. Oh yeah, she knows she’s gonna get a smack later, but its gonna be worth it. 

From this side of the millennium we can’t really blame her. For every character that seems to reinforce the toxic stereotype of the Old South, there’s a moment when we the viewer are made to believe that they are not all that they seem. I chalk this up to great performances. 

I haven't talked much about Rhett Butler, because his behavior seems mostly unimpeachable. He, to our knowledge has never owned a slave, and from the first scene calls the Southerner out on their bullshit. He may abandon Scarlett to fight with the Confederate army, because he’s "always had a weakness for lost causes, once they’re really lost", but that’s a load of horseshit. He went back to so he could steal the confederate treasury and more power to him, I suppose.

Of course, this argument loses a lot of air when we consider scenes of reconstruction, where “black people having fun” is meant to be code for “the decline of civilization.” And even thought they have the decency to have Scarlett O’Hara attacked by a white man during her trip to Shantytown, there’s no disguising Ashley and co.’s act of retribution as a Klan Raid. But at least Rhett wasn’t a member. He would rather cavort with hookers, and if he saves this violent Southern Gentlemen from the oppressive law, it’s understood that he did so for Melanie’s sake, not out of any sympathy for the cause.

Seventy five years ago, maybe I could watch Gone with the Wind and see it as a movie about courage, and survival. To modern eyes, it’s a movie about self-delusion and the ability to change, the way the old South was propped up by lies. The film was always at least a little bit about that, hence Scarlett’s epiphany: “I have loved something that doesn’t exist”. To me, its not Scarlett's single-mindedness that earn her her comeuppance, its her refusal to see the Old South for what it was--a myth, or, in her own words, "something that doesn't exist."

Melanie, Ashley, Scarlett, and even the slaves, I'd wager, put on a false front so they can fit themselves into the phony image of the Old South. Scarlett's aha moment is when she can admit to herself that that world is gone, and she never fully belonged there anyway. It’s her inability to let go to her old life that leaves her alone, but endlessly resilient.

Where an audience in 1940 would see a boisterous woman who finally got what she deserved, we see a character coming to grips with the lie of the past, while those who can’t have melted away.

And that, is timeless cinema.