Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Movie I Hate to Love and Love to Hate

I first saw Gone With the Wind at the 25th anniversary of its premier, in the city of its premier (Atlanta) at the theater where it premiered (the old Loew's Grand, on Peachtree Street). I was nine, and to this day, I can still recall the thrill, the electric excitement, the flourish of the heavy velvet curtains as they swept aside and that familiar theme music swelled. And then there were these words, superimposed on scenes of slaves herding cows up from the field at evening, accompanied by violins playing a sweetly mournful "Dixie"--eccentric spelling and punctuation unchanged:

"There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South...Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow..Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind..."

By then, I was all goosebumps.

And here's the thing: I still get goosebumps watching that opening sequence. It touches something atavistic in me, some primal longing--and this is a difficult thing to admit to, because as everyone but the most diehard of  neo-Confederates would admit, that characterization of the South is pure fiction, except of course for the masters and slaves part. There were no "cavaliers" in the South; Southern aristocracy--the tiny percentage of the white population who had any plausible claim to that label, that is-- was not descended from English aristocracy; most of the South was made up of yeoman farmers who owned, at most, two or three slaves, if that; Tara never existed....The list of historical errors we're talking about here is a long one, and we haven't even gotten to the subject of race. But you get my point.

So how is it possible to love a piece of cinematic history that gets everything so fundamentally wrong? I think it's because GWTW is a fairy tale, and fairy tales are one way we make sense of the world. The "history" depicted in GWTW has only the most superficial connection with reality, but on a deeper level, it's the way generations of white Southerners fervently wished things had been. And even though it's ostensibly about a love triangle--Scarlett's pursuit of Ashley, Rhett's pursuit of Scarlett, etc etc--the real story is about a child's powerful love for her home and her mother. Scarlett never grows up, never stops longing to be reunited with her mother, never really ever leaves home. At nine, I was in exactly the same psychological condition--and like Scarlett, I lived in a time and place (Atlanta, during the height of the civil rights era) when the only thing that was absolutely certain was that the world I knew was in the process of swift and profound change.

A long time ago, a work colleague who was from South Carolina said something to me about how you had to be a white Southerner of a certain generation to know what it was like to hear truly godawful racist bile from the lips of someone you truly loved--a parent, maybe, or an elderly relative, or an old family friend. I knew exactly what she meant; I'd felt that simultaneous reaction of recoil and affection more times than I could count--and GWTW is just one more example of that weird phenomenon. I can't believe this crap, I think to myself, seeing those happy darkies and Clayton County plantation halls that look like the freaking Palace of Versailles, and then the next thing I know I am blinking back tears.