Thursday, August 20, 2015

Classic Watch: Gone With the Wind (1939)

I'm starting to suspect that Gone With The Wind (1939) might be a little racist.

I have sooooo many mixed feelings about this movie.

Of course it romanticizes and mythologizes The Old South, which...  you know, I grew up in Texas, a state that so enjoyed the Civil War that we had the last battle by accident before word got to us that it was all over.  People here aren't so enamored with the Civil War era here these days, but I can tell you, there was a time.

To say the least, I personally can't really get behind folks wanting to evoke memories of cotillions where the folks serving the food are doing so under punishment of death should the pigs-in-a-blanket get spilled.

But pointing out that Gone With the Wind is racist and celebrates a culture that maybe died for a reason, and maybe... just maybe... we should see what befell the post-war South as karma reminding folks that she can be a real bitch - all that is shooting fish in a barrel.

The thing to remember is that the movie was not made in the 1860's and 70's.  It was made in the late 1930's, within our grandparents' lifetime, and if you want a peek at what was okay to say and think in liberal Hollywood of the time - look no further.  Because everyone was on board with this movie (it's still the highest grossing domestic box office of all time, adjusted for inflation), and this was the version that the progressives felt was doing African Americans a solid.

The movie also features gender relations issues that are going to be problematic for your average media-studies undergrad, even while its a movie that puts the strength of women and their ability to thrive under duress at the center of the story (usually just that earns you super double brownie points).  It just also happens to revolve around a protagonist who, personally, I find to have some grade-A f'd up priorities and seems to perform both great and terrible deeds in pursuing them.

As much as I'm on board with criticism that takes apart and examines movies (1) I more or less believe in a statute of limitations for applying modern social mores onto older films, or at least feel the need to cry mercy for movies that were not made within recent history, and (2) both narratives and real humans - the thing we often try to emulate in stories - are not punchlists for a media studies class.  Just a reminder.

Jamie grew up with the book and movie in a way I did not.  It contained no robots, nor cops, nor robot-cops, and so I sort of wasn't all that interested until late in the game, realizing Gone With the Wind is sort of the Citizen Kane of popular movies, so you're sort of obligated, you know?  But she did get me to watch it.

The first time I saw the movie, I was a little surprised that it's about a truly reprehensible person, but at least she's got spunk...?  I mean, it's a curious movie, as in any other story, Scarlett O'Hara would definitely be on Team James Spader as a rich, good looking but evil girl making our Mary Jane character (Melanie) miserable until Ashley Wilkes sees through her schemes and wants to take Melanie to the prom (preferably while a Psychedelic Furs song played).

But, in recent years, I've really warmed to characters with a bit of complexity.  If you're going to be terrible, at least do it in style.

And, there's a lot to admire in Scarlett.  She can be good in a bad situation (sometimes with the cool demeanor of a sociopath), and she manages to pull everything together in spite of herself.  But it doesn't change the fact that she's a brat and makes no bones about marrying for spite and money, and just truly, epically not giving a shit when either husband is killed (or even her daughter, it seems).

Gone With the Wind is certainly not the first spectacle of a movie.  Hollywood had been doing that since the silent age, with movies like Intolerance and even...  Birth of a Nation (sigh).  But the scale, both in timeline and epic sweep is massive.  It's also absolutely visually arresting, in both detailed, massive yet specific scenes (See: anything in Atlanta) and then technicolor painterly canvases bleeding the wide-open skies of Tara.

There's a scope and magnitude to the story, and I have so many questions less for Margaret Mitchell, who I do think believed in the lost camelot ideal of the Antebellum south, but more for both the producer David O. Selznick, and what he was trying to say about what befell the South.  Was he trying to recreate the South of myth, did he feel he was showing the natural path of history in the South?  Did he see the fates of Tara and Twelve Oaks as a tragedy or an inevitability?

I don't know.  I know the movie has provided the imagination of many of us with a false idea of the past, of an idyllic south that maybe the youthful exuberance that led to an ill-thought war - one that had been brewing since the Constitutional Convention.  There's no reflection as to how The South fell, and Sherman is nothing but a title card and billows of flame.  Fair enough.  But the colossal moral failing of the South, not to mention the hubris of same, gets mostly swept under the rug and no one ever sees it as much other than a glorious lost cause (and if the monuments you grow up around in Southern states are any indication, that may not be all that inaccurate), that the Yankees did something to the South, that neither the karmic wheel could turn nor had the possibility of the consequences of defeat ever been really pondered.

I am squarely outside the demographic for Gone With the Wind, I think.  Maybe.  But it's certainly worth noting that the audience, to the tune of massively successful box office, has found something to admire in Scarlett, and that's fascinating.  I don't even know what to do with that information, and it's not something you see discussed a whole lot.  People immediately go to the amazing sets and costumes and directing, etc... but people rarely talk about how weirdly broken Scarlett is as a traditional heroine.  Even in other books about characters surviving years of abuse (see: the interminable Tess of the D'Urbervilles.  Or, better yet, don't.), the lead is just buffeted around by evil people and misfortune.  Scarlett makes her own trouble, and often seems a candidate for a Springer appearance ("She's in Love With My Man!" or "My Wife Married Me For $300").  I dunno.  You explain it to me.


mcsteans said...

As you know, I'd read the book at least a couple of times before I saw the movie. It was my mom's hardback copy from when she was a child and had been well loved. The spine was cracking and the pages separating by the time I got a hold of it. Scarlett is such a fascinating character and it's hard to describe her appeal. I carefully chose the word 'fascinating' because I would never say I love the character or even admire her because she makes some truly questionable life choices. There are many headstrong characters in fiction that are admired because they do what they have to to survive, but Scarlett's drive seems to be a mixture of survival and selfishness with a complete disregard for anyone but herself including the man she supposedly 'loves'. She's the kind of character you can't look away from, that makes you want to just grab the popcorn to see whose life she's going to destroy next.

The romance storyline I feel is pretty classic, a standard 'person doesn't see what's right in front of them because they're convinced they're in love with someone else' tale as old as time. What sets this story apart, however, is Scarlett's discovery at the end of the movie (spoiler) that not only does she love Rhett, she also loves Melanie and the red earth of Tara. But now she's saddled by a deathbed-promise to Melanie with sadsack Ashley, the very man she thought she was in love with right up until that very moment. That's some poetic justice right there.

Story aside, I'm still blown away by the sheer beauty and technical achievements of the film. It is truly a masterpiece.

Maxo said...

I have a lot of the same problems with Gone With the Wind, because ... damn, these are some awful people living in an awful world (well, for everyone else), and they just have no idea.

And yet ...

There's something about Wind. Fascinating is the perfect word for it; once you start watching it, it's almost impossible to look away. These are people who seem perfectly, obliviously, willing to thrown their lives away for the most petty things, while their world literally burns down around them. It's a soap opera writ large in all the best ways.

On the other hand, I do blame the movie for the way some folks, especially Southerners, have taken to this mythology of a genteel South.

For what it's worth, I always saw Scarlett and Rhett as personifications of the South itself, with Scarlett as the comfortable, plantation-living South that prefers to blithely ignore how it achieved that comfort (or worse, feel it's an entitlement), and Rhett as the more pragmatic-minded South that sees the writing on the wall.

The League said...

I tend to agree with how you see Scarlett and Rhett. And it's kind of interesting to see a scene in a movie with the all-too-American "we can whip their butts!" attitude and calls of treachery and treason when Rhett quite rightly points out that fighting spirit doesn't give them an industrial, economic or naval advantage. He's also smart enough to play both sides in the Reconstruction era while near everyone else clings to memories of what was.

And that's kind of what's interesting about the end of the movie. Scarlett is to return back to Tara, a source of strength, but we all know Tara is a shadow of its former self, and will be near-abandoned and hard to maintain. But I don't think that's what the movie wants us to think. It's romantic if not magical thinking, and it gets us back to that Mythology of the South issue.

This was my 3rd or fourth viewing, and there's so much to unpack, I think that's why I don't have a problem watching and re-watching it.