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Link to our thread on the film

Last year I identified twenty novels that I had never read to try to get around to before I kicked the bucket. This was one. I'm about 90% done. (I actually have the 60 hour Audible recording that I listen to when I do my walking.)  I figured I'd go ahead and post this now since the film is in the news. I'm going to finish the book before going back to look at the film, which I haven't seen in years.

This is a strange book, with Scarlett O'Hara ranking right up there with Undine Sprague as least likable protagonist in American literature. Before I made the list I had shared on Facebook my standard  schtick about "where are the great love stories in American literature?" and a former student offered GWTW? 

Huh...

I guess maybe one could make that argument if one were willing to say that it the book is the love story between Scarlett and Ashley, but I don't think she is much capable of love and I'm reluctant to call anything she felt for anyone "love." 

The word I keep hearing about the film is "romanticizing." I don't think the book romanticizes the South or Scarlett or whatever. But neither does it condemn it...at least not consistently. There are people (most notably Rhett but sometimes Ashley by the end who question the culture and its values, though they are usually not taken seriously. Scarlett isn't a first-person narrator but so much of the book is filtered through her perceptions (limited-omniscient) that its impossible for me to not feel *some* sympathy for her, deplorable as she is. This is because the book is so frackin' long, and it illustrates how pervasive and relentless are the attitudes that shaped and warped her. Is it the Chinese who have the proverb that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down? Not that Scarlett sticks up much, but the social control mechanisms and peer pressure are very acutely shown.

The one very specific change in attitude that the book had on me was in the question of the use of the "N" word by Black people/characters. I was inundated in the 90s graduate school culture with lots of arguments about "appropriation"  and could at least see the arguments for people from within a group using such words to de-fang them. But the novel shows a history of Blacks using that word about other Blacks mostly to endear themselves to Whites and thus curry the favor of whites by adapting to the roles that were assigned them by the white culture. 

It's hard for me to get a sense of what Mitchell was up to in the novel. It's a very strong bit of mythopoeia -- world building. And it feels organically drawn and not just meticulously researched the way some historical fiction can be. Part of that is that the *culture* is *not* "gone with the wind" -- the culture is pervasive, and designed to perpetuate itself even through defeat and reconstruction and vast global changes. What is it, finally, that makes an individual or culture so resistant to change? 

 

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It's been years since I read Gone with the Wind, and I suspect I'd have less patience with it now than I did then--I think I was in 7th grade, and I may have re-read it in high school. I know the last time I watched the movie, I found Scarlett impressive as a character with more resilience than most, but she's also so self-centered that she destroys what should have been her "great love story"--with Rhett. But my memory may be fogged by Clark Gable. (I know there is an "approved" sequel in which Scarlett and Rhett reunite. I haven't read it.)

As for the mythopoeia, it is organic, I suspect because Mitchell was part of that culture in the same way Faulkner was part of "Yoknapatawpha County," Mississippi, when he was writing his stories and novels in the 1930s. GwtW was published in 1936, and though it is set in the 1860s, the Civil War past was still very present in Georgia where she grew up.
 


There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. (George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie)

Isn't narrative structure enough of an ideology for art? (Greg Wright)

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I have kind of a guilty fondness for the novel, which I first read as a teenager some time in the decade before last (yikes). It's a very readable book despite its length and leisurely pace, sippable like a mint julep. Scarlett O'Hara is indeed one of the great unlikable protagonists of American fiction. She's selfish, ruthless, manipulative, narrow-minded and incurious, naive and then cynical, etc. What redeems her, as a character if not a person, is her grounding in the only thing she has left at the end of the book, "the red earth of Tara": home, family, tradition, but also the farm, the cotton and corn fields that provide the necessities of life. Conceptualizing Scarlett's old life as the earth is what suggests that its essentials, whatever external events take place, are everlasting. The South will never really die.

What looked back then, to many readers, like a beautiful tribute to the old South, is now of course a damning indictment of it, because of what's not part of the picture: any notion of the evil of slavery. Good blacks, in the world of this book, don't even want freedom; they're loyal to their families (owners), who never mistreat or abuse them. It's kind of remarkable, actually, how the book acutely depicts some aspects of its society's mechanisms of control, as Ken points out, while lacking all self-awareness about this.

FWIW, I work at an indie bookstore, and as soon as HBO announced it was temporarily withdrawing the film from streaming, we immediately sold out of copies of the book, which had been in stock for years. New copies also seem to be out of stock from the publisher. While I want the book to be available and do consider it worth (critically) reading, and some of this is the predictable effect of a book being for in the news for any reason, I can't help but see the irony in a book that's basically about ignoring racism flying off the shelves at this particular moment.

Edited by Rushmore

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I read Anglica Jade Bastién's piece on "What Are We to Do With Cinematic Monuments to the Confederacy?" and I thought it was very good.

Quote

Despite its bloody rendition of the conditions of slavery, I believe 12 Years a Slave is an easier watch for liberal whites given the distancing effect of the violence it displays. It’s easy to look upon the whipped backs of Solomon Northup and other characters and think, Well, I’m not that bad. I do not enforce such violence. This emotional distance allows modern white audiences to indict not their own bigotry, but those forms they feel are squarely in the past or wholly outside of their social circle. When watching Gone With the Wind, white audiences today who are willing to examine their racist failings must also examine how they specifically propagate the mythology that upholds white supremacy, even if they don’t have the particular delusions that exist among white nationalists and people in the South, crying in horror at Confederate monuments being torn down. What makes Gone With the Wind’s racism so important and difficult to taxonomize is the deftness of its characterization. The white characters in the film, including minor bit players, feel real, complex, and human in ways many period epics fail to conceptualize. They are heroes it can be hard not to root for. For all her cruelty and selfishness, Scarlett’s prickly nature make her a fascinating anti-heroine. Yet everyone — including Melanie, one of the most selfless and naïvely angelic women ever portrayed in film — are still complicit in, and directly benefit from, the enslavement of black people. As an audience, you are captivated by them, and even root for their triumphs, while still being unable to forget the darkness teeming underneath the surface of the gorgeously wrought antebellum society Gone With the Wind brings to life. Their great capacity for racism exists in tandem with their own admirable qualities, making them frustratingly human and trickier to demonize than the more one-dimensionally villainous white characters in other slavery epics. The same can be said of white people today who, no matter how powerful they are as allies or how moved by films like 12 Years a Slave, benefit from the horrors that have existed against black people in this country since its beginnings.

 


"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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Reviews and essays at Three Brothers Film.

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I finished the novel yesterday. It is loooong.

One thing I felt more at the end was that maybe Mitchell went once too often to the well of having someone (usually Rhett) explain Scarlett to herself...exposition in the form of dialogue. 

This is a tricky thing because some people are insightful and do analyze other people, and there are conversations like that. And I feel as I've grown older that people talk more and more "like" movies in real life because they grow up on more videos (or books). So for right now it. is hard for me to pinpoint when this literary device crosses the edge, but the final chapter of GWTW felt that way to me. 

Granted, I'm reading the book in 2020, but I had a slightly different response than Bastién. I didn't feel the characters were complex. They are relentlessly, obstinately static. Now, there are people like that in real life, people who are committed to not changing, ever. (I think of the exchange in Mississippi Burning where where Baldwin's character leaves his wife and she asks, "Are you saying I've changed?" and he replies, "I'm saying you haven't...'). Thus the characters in GWTW, for me, are not that interesting. Particularly in the latter third of the novel, I expected experience to make a mark on somebody, anybody. For somebody to change in a positive way. But it's a book mostly about plot...situations change but characters remain the static. That's a mark of a soap opera, really. 

Having said that, I do have a begrudging appreciation for the book. The world-building is quite  extraordinary.

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2 minutes ago, kenmorefield said:

Granted, I'm reading the book in 2020, but I had a slightly different response than Bastién.

I think she's only talking about the film, so maybe this is a case where the film is better than the book? (I have not read the book).


"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

Twitter.
Letterboxd.

Reviews and essays at Three Brothers Film.

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