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Monday, August 15, 2016

AFI Film Review: Gone with the Wind

As punishment for my film school sins I’m watching all of the AFI Top 100 films that I haven’t seen. I will be reviewing them and grading them as I watch them.

Grade: C

I once watched Stalker with a group of counselors at summer camp. We were told by the counselor who suggested the film that in Russia they watched half the movie and then they opened the vodka in order to get through the other half. He did not mean this as a joke.

I suppose with Gone with the Wind the drink would have to be a julep which is what the two brothers at the opening of the film appear to be drinking. Probably it isn’t necessary to turn to hard liquor to finish off Gone with the Wind; the move isn’t challenging like a Tarkovsky film which is like pointing out that Britney Spears isn’t quite as good as Rachmaninoff. Still, the point has to be made and extended: Gone with the Wind isn’t as good as the David Lean epics or 2001 or Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. It has more flaws than all of these films combined but that doesn’t take away from the film’s importance. Gone with the Wind is a self-aggrandizing legend about a self-aggrandizing legend, a legend which defines large portions of America and the American psyche.

Every frame of the film is meticulously crafted. Establishing shots and long shots are made to look as though they’re peeking through the trees of an enchanted forest. The film states its thesis from the outset; the movie will endeavor to capture the glory that was the antebellum South. In order to do so the script engages in unabashed farce. The gentry and the ladies and the Negroes; the histrionics and the gentility and the graciousness; the codes of honor and disgraced reputations and the unrequited loves. It’s all so ridiculous that it’s hard to believe.

Of course many have derided the work for it’s depiction of Sambos and happy plantation life. Every Black character in the film is completely absurd. Every Black person appearing on screen is either shrill (Prissy), sassy (Mammy) or docile (Sam and his pack of singin’ Negro friends). The only Black characters that don’t come off as afterthoughts of the original writer’s imagination are the two jiving Black men in suits and cigars who are hightailing around Atlanta clearly making money off the poor, unfortunate White Southerners. They constitute the only authentic part of the story other than Clark Gable, for at least it depicts Black people as something more than absurdly loyal to their kindly masters (Prissy’s slight subterfuge notwithstanding).

Clark Gable’s entrance into the film is so jarring that I laughed out loud. Interjected into the middle of this farce is the one character who represents a real person and the one actor able to make his character live on screen. Vivien Leigh did an admiral job trying to make Scarlett O’Hara seem like a real person, but the source material wouldn’t allow for it. Even in the context of the antebellum South, Scarlett O’Hara has to be like no woman who has ever before existed. She’s manipulative and conniving, able to do what it takes to keep the farm going, keep herself going, all in the pursuit of mostly personal gains. But then she’s undermined by her love for a man, a man she seems to barely know or at least barely understand. The movie introduces Ashley rather quickly, and though that quick introduction was sufficient to show his moral fiber, it didn’t convince me that there was anything real between Ashley and Scarlet. In a film full of fanciful, storybook interpretations of real life that is perhaps the most farcical, that a woman as strong as Scarlett O’Hara could naively convince herself that she really loved Ashley.

It seems to me that the film’s cinematic doppelganger is The Wizard of Oz which was also released in 1939. Both films feature a female protagonist who goes from one unfortunate situation (Dorothy’s farm life, Scarlett’s unrequited love) to another much worse situation (Oz, The Civil War). The worlds are populated with unrealistic characters (The Tin Man, The Cowardly Lion, Sambos) and absurdly malevolent villains (The Wicked Witch, Yankees). The only difference comes down to the protagonist. In The Wizard of Oz it is perfectly natural that Dorothy, a young girl, should be frightened; though her fear doesn’t send her running headlong into the arms of a man. In Gone with the Wind, however, it’s impossible to watch Scarlett overcome every obstacle yet still believe she needs Ashley, and not feel duped as an audience member. The story is premised around the idea of the soft, delicate Georgia girl who even when roughed up by the world still retains her pesky femininity that keeps her from truly getting on in the world, as if Scarlett couldn’t do both. As if Scarlett O’Hara couldn’t have been feminine and strong but not childish.

As much as I loved Clark Gable’s acting, Rhett Butler’s role in Scarlett’s infantilization is rather large as well. He spoils her until she rebuffs him (not for spoiling her but for making her fat) at which time he lavishes his money and attention on their daughter Bonnie. He treats Scarlett worse than Dora in A Doll’s House, indulging her every whim without the scolding; why should he scold a child for behaving as children do? And more than once he explains to Scarlett that he’ll teach her how to behave with his masculine "charms." He kisses her until she wilts and later drapes her over his shoulder like a Neanderthal and brings her upstairs. This is the same woman who killed a Yankee intruder, started a company, and married (forcibly) for capital gain. It’s not to say that such a woman couldn’t be the victim of sexual abuse, but would she be swept off her feet by a kiss from Rhett Butler? This woman who worked the earth until her hands cracked and bled gets put in her place by a firm kiss from a man who she may or may not have loved at the time?

In a country in which Mark Twain and Toni Morrison are sometimes derogated for their depictions of race relations you have to wonder what we’re doing by showing future generations this film without a much bigger disclaimer about the gigantic grain of salt that should be accompanying it. The film isn’t The Birth of a Nation, but in its own subversive way it’s just as bad. It reinforces myths of womanhood, myths of Black people and the storybook version of Old Dixie. That being said, the film is important and should be viewed with the proverbial grain of salt at the ready.

For all of the problems I had with the film, it’s undeniably engaging for a while. I even managed to ignore the ridiculous performances by the Black characters, Aunt Patty and several of Scarlett’s potential suitors. The film moves as well as one could reasonably expect of an eighty year old, four hour long film. And the storybook look of the film is interesting; the Tara plantation and Scarlett’s journey back to Tara after the invasion of Atlanta look like Gothic paintings. The film should be watched and studied and talked about for so many reasons. There is no sense in hiding something ignorant or even hurtful, especially something that resonated so largely in American society. Understanding Gone with the Wind can help us understand the story of America in all of its misguided glory. 

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