Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Wind Rises: Cody Decker Vs. Margaret Mitchell and David O. Selznick

The Accused:
I Ain't No Grand Wizard!

I don't have a Twitter handle, still believing that Twitter is The Work of The Devil.  I do on occasion look in on Twitter accounts.  One of them is that of EP Baseball player Cody Decker.  I am unabashed fan of Decker on and off the field.  The fact that he's a Whovian elevates him more in my eyes (though I wonder just how much of Classic Who he knows).  His Twitter feed is witty, sharp, and on the whole a delight to read.  Casually looking at the private thoughts of our favorite First Baseman, this tweet from June 25th caught my eye:

Some say Gone With the Wind is the greatest movie of all time. If by "greatest movie of all time" you mean KKK recruitment film, then maybe.

Now, as someone who a.) loves Gone With the Wind and b.) loves cinema in general, this nugget of wisdom more than raised my eyebrows.  It's a curious thing about Decker's tweets: one isn't quite sure how seriously to take them.   However, there was something about this particular insight that struck a nerve.  One can criticize both the Margaret Mitchell novel and GWTW the film for many things (and I personally don't hold it to be 'the greatest movie of all time'), but one thing that it is NOT is a 'KKK recruitment film' by any stretch of the imagination;  the suggestion that Gone With the Wind is on the same level as The Birth of a Nation or The Eternal Jew is more than inaccurate.  It's a flat-out lie. 

There is something within me that cannot accept someone saying something that I think smears someone or something.  Decker's tweet, to me, hit that threshold, and no amount of respect for him could allow me to not have my own say on the matter.  Again, if one wants to say 'it was a lousy story', or 'the performances were terrible', then we can have a healthy debate on the matter.  However, to say that Gone With the Wind endorses racism, that is something I cannot hold myself on.

The Accuser:
Yes, Bow Ties ARE Cool...
However, I believe people should have an opportunity for clarification, so I went to the Team Meet-and-Greet which was part of my Season Ticket privileges.  I got my picture taken with all the players, and one of the last was Decker.  He was pleasant, apologizing for not shaking my hand due to a cold and encouraging me to get a Twitter. 

In retrospect, he might not like that, as I can be fiercely opinionated.

As I left, I did something I rarely do: I openly (and mildly, given my nature) contradicted someone.  "By the way, you're wrong about Gone With the Wind," I said.  "It's not a KKK recruitment film."  He, in my estimation, wasn't taken aback, but he wasn't about to give in.  "No, it is" he replied.  "It's an epic film," I added.  "It's NOT an epic," was the answer.  "Horrible," Decker added.  Rocky Gale, who was standing next to him, to my mind looked slightly alarmed.

Please...I'm too short to fear.

Alas, poor Cody.  He may be the coolest guy on Twitter, but he was unaware he was tangling with a certified film critic, with someone who had taken both film and debate courses, and who is the only Online Film Critics Society representative between Austin and Albuquerque.  Also, he was tangling with a slightly obnoxious and equally stubborn fellow.

Now, we have This Great Debate.  Is Gone With the Wind a 'KKK recruitment film'?

Let's start with things that Decker and I probably agree on.  In my Personal Reflections on Gone With the Wind, I did point out that its portrayal of slavery was so genteel one did wonder what all the fighting was about.  If one looks at Gone With the Wind for historical accuracy, one is looking at the wrong place.  While I would argue that no film will ever truly capture the horrors and evil of slavery (not just in America, but worldwide), both Roots and 12 Years a Slave are more honest about 'the peculiar institution'.

However, is its sanitation of slavery ALONE be enough to justify calling it a 'KKK recruitment film'?  I say no, especially when you look at a genuine KKK recruitment film: The Birth of a Nation.  Now, Birth of a Nation is a cinematic landmark technically, but its story and portrayal of African-Americans is sickening and for the uninitiated, quite shocking.  While Birth of a Nation made no effort to reject stereotypes (I think it might have thrown in a few more for good measure), Gone With the Wind's portrayals of the black characters is far more nuanced that Decker and those of like-minds are willing to give it credit for.   Hattie McDaniel's Mammy is, in the words of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs (who is African-American), the smartest character in the film.  Mammy is the only character who is not fooled by Scarlett, even having the temerity to say she and Scarlett's third husband Rhett Butler were 'mules in horse's harnesses', pretending to be something they weren't.  Rhett for his part said that Mammy was the only person whose respect he'd like to have.

A film that is suppose to be a vile propaganda film would never suggest that a white man would want the respect of a black woman.

Furthermore, when the scheming Scarlett gets her sister's beau to throw her over for Scarlett, we end that scene with Mammy's shocked and horrified face (as she was sitting in the back listening to all the lies Scarlett was spinning to convince Frank Kennedy that Suellen had abandoned Kennedy).  In fact, the film has us identify with Mammy and her horror at Scarlett's duplicitousness.  Mammy in this scene is the audience's conscience, the moral authority who, like all the audience regardless of race, knows that Scarlett is actually quite horrid in this situation.

In short, we identify with Mammy (the black character), not Scarlett (the white character).  I'm sure the Klan would approve.

Strike One.

Django Unchained: 112 uses of 'n----r'
yet Gone With the Wind is racist?

Gone With the Wind the film also made a wise choice.  Producer David O. Selznick removed any mention of the Ku Klux Klan from the script.  The closest the film itself came to suggesting any KKK connection was when Scarlett's second husband, Frank Kennedy, told her he was going to a 'political meeting' after her attack while driving through the shantytown.  If memory serves correct, in the novel this 'political meeting' was indeed a Ku Klux Klan meeting.  While Birth of a Nation was clearly pro-Klan, Gone With the Wind simply sidesteps the whole issue.  If one hadn't read the novel, he/she would be none the wiser.  Even those who had would not object to making the change.

In regards to the novel, given that it takes place in an antebellum and Reconstruction South, what would Decker want the characters to do: join the NAACP?  Mitchell I think was being realistic about how these white characters would react.  Is it celebratory of the Klan?  It's been far too long since I've read the book, so I can't offer a definitive answer.  However, again I would offer that the rise of the Klan in the post-war South was a sad part of life, and having the novel ignore that would be disingenuous.  

I should also note that Gone With the Wind eliminated all uses of a particular word that I have never uttered regarding African-Americans from the script (whereas the novel was more forthcoming about it).  The cast does call the black characters 'darkies', but a.) this is a remarkably tame, even progressive for both 1865 and 1939, and b.) a historical inaccuracy given the time the story is set.  Django Unchained had 112 uses of that word (and won Best Original Screenplay for it).  A perfectly sound argument could be made that Django Unchained was being historically accurate (though I have found Tarantino's liberal use of the term concerning).  However, to say that Django Unchained's use of that word is NOT racist but the use of 'darkies' in Gone With the Wind IS racist is I think hypocritical and absurd.  For the times Gone With the Wind was less anti-racist and more an effort to not cause offense.

One last point on charges of bigotry.  Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy, flat-out refused to eat watermelon for the film.  On this, she was absolutely right and mercifully, the fierce Selznick did not press her. 

Thank Heavens for that.

Strike Two.

Finally, slavery and the African-American experience was not the subject of Gone With the Wind.   The film is about Scarlett O'Hara and her struggles: against the circumstances she faces and creates herself.  Its setting is the American South pre and post-Civil War, where slavery existed.  However, slavery is not the central point of the film.  It never has been.  This puts it in sharp contrast to The Birth of the Nation, where the creation of the Klan IS its story, or The Eternal Jew, where the audience was told that Jews were the human equivalent of rats.

Instead, Gone With the Wind has slavery as an element, but not its subject.  As such, how can an argument be made that the film is pro-KKK when the film doesn't deal with the Klan, which gives the main black actor the most noble and sensible character in the film (for the time), which doesn't have slavery as its main subject, and which, again for both the setting and the times the film was made, did not use racial slurs.

Ultimately, Gone With the Wind isn't about race or an endorsement of the Klan.  It's about Scarlett, portrayed by British actress Vivien Leigh in what I think is the greatest female performance ever captured on film.  As monstrous as Scarlett is, as manipulative and deceitful and selfish as she is, she is also a determined survivor, one who both holds on to her childhood dreams and maintains a cold realistic eye on almost everything but herself.  Perhaps she in the end realized that her fantasies about Ashley were the only things that kept her from totally surrendering to despair.  Despite herself (and ourselves), we are for the most part rooting for Scarlett. 

What Scarlett's yearnings have to do with the Ku Klux Klan both Decker and the film's detractors have not answered.

Strike Three.  Decker's Out.

Why does that First Baseman
hate us so?

I'm going to bench Decker in regards with one last criticism he made, not on Twitter, but to me: Gone With the Wind is NOT an epic.  If Gone With the Wind ISN'T an epic, then what is?  I hold that GWTW is not just an epic, it's the Citizen Kane of Epics: the Granddaddy of 'Em All. All succeeding large-scale films: Ben-Hur, Cleopatra, Giant, even Titanic, are measured against Gone With the Wind

As a side note, I find Giant to be more racist in its depictions of Mexican-Americans (of which I am one) than Gone With the Wind is in its depictions of African-Americans (which I am not).  However, at least Giant makes this bigotry part of its large story while Gone With the Wind merely has slavery as a minor element.

Using the Merriam-Webster definition of epic, I don't see how Decker could flat-out deny Gone With the Wind isn't an epic.  It sure ain't an art-house feature.  You've got this sweeping romance, the Burning of Atlanta (guess that's where 'Hotlanta' came from, right), this massive canvas to which to paint our tale, and these larger-than-life figures constantly battling and loving, and you've got an epic.

A fair argument can be made that the portrayal of slavery and slaves in Gone With the Wind is false.  However, my response would be that EVERYTHING about Gone With the Wind is romanticized.  Gone With the Wind, with its racial problems, is no pro-Ku Klux Klan feature.  It is not an endorsement of the Klan.  It IS an epic.  It is also a more complex and intelligent film that Decker will acknowledge. 

If he doesn't want to take my word for Gone With the Wind being both an epic and one of the greatest films ever made, try these on for size:

Unlike most historical epics, “GWTW” has a genuine sweep, a convincing feel for the passage of time (Roger Ebert).

More than a gorgeous monument, Gone With the Wind, along with Citizen Kane, is probably the darkest great movie ever produced within the studio system (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly).

As few American films have, "Gone With the Wind" succeeds both as historical epic and as intimate drama...(Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times). 

...a closer reading finds a cutting commentary on the South's hypocritical, opportunistic, and racist attitudes that continue to infect American culture (Cole Smithey, fellow OFCS member).

The epic film that to this day stands as the benchmark against which all other epics are judged (Tim Brayton, fellow OFCS member, who incidently agrees with Decker on the KKK element but not on his 'it's not an epic' argument).

By his own admission, Cody Decker is 'rarely wrong'.  Well kid, on this point, you ARE wrong, wrong as you can be.  I'll still cheer for him when he's at bat.  I'll still read with bemusement his various thoughts on things.  I still think he's an awesome fellow.  I may even name a son after him, should I have one.  However, on this one point I will not concede, I will not acquiesce, I will not give in on. 

I don't think Gone With the Wind is the greatest film ever made.  However, I think Gone With the Wind is ONE of the greatest films ever made....and it is an epic, and it is NOT, repeat NOT a KKK recruitment film. 

I leave the home runs to you.
Leave the film studies to me.

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