Tuesday, August 25, 2015

EW #10: Gone With The Wind (1939)

Vivien Leigh and Thomas Mitchell in Gone with the Wind

Film fandom is a changeable, ever-morphing thing. It is a dynamic process that unfolds over a potentially long stretch of time (i.e., a filmgoer's lifetime). Films I revered quite highly in my youth may not resonate as much with me as I get older. As I change, and as the world changes, my perception of and feelings about films I've loved transmogrify and shift, sometimes quite dramatically.

One example of this is my changing relationship to the James Bond films. I grew up loving those movies, especially the Sean Connery ones. My god, I watched the shit out of those things. Yet as I have aged, the politics of those films -- their flagrant racism and sexism -- have become harder and harder for me to bracket aside or reconcile or feel okay about. As I get older and as I deliberately pursue learning all I can about cinema and its aesthetic and thematic possibilities, I find that my appetite for good ol' male-centered action films of all kinds (be they Bond films or superhero films or what have you) has diminished significantly. This is not a judgment about the genre, I know that action films can be great (hell, check out my gushy review of Mad Max: Fury Road) but it is certainly a genre from which I have drifted away over time. I may drift back. Who knows?

My point is that we longtime film fans often find ourselves in a position of loving a thing -- or starting to shift away from loving a thing -- that we do not wish to utterly repudiate or disown, but that makes us uncomfortable as we (and our movie tastes) mature. Gone with the Wind is just such a movie for me. As an exemplar of its genre (period melodrama), as an amazing aesthetic achievement, and as an absolute high water-mark in Hollywood film history, I love this film dearly. Put Gone with the Wind on in a room and I am absolutely glued to it. It is one of the best Technicolor films ever made and from an overall aesthetic point of view probably one of the best Hollywood studio films ever made, bar none. It is female-centered (a plus) and its performances (particularly by Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Hattie McDaniel, Thomas Mitchell, and Olivia de Havilland) are uniformly superb, in many cases outright iconic. In terms of its historical importance, artistic superiority, and overall yield of viewing pleasure, I would place Wind higher on Entertainment Weekly's Top 100 List than Casablanca, which is romantic and well-crafted and chock full of great performances, yet not actually as good as many other great black and white films of the same period in my view.*

All that said, Gone With the Wind is, like many popular Hollywood mega-hits, morally reprehensible. Like its earlier cinematic forebear, Birth of a Nation (1915), Wind is brazenly racist throughout. The movie views slavery with benevolent nostalgia, and it endorses (or at least excuses) domestic violence and rape as well. So my love of Gone with the Wind as an aesthetic object is at odds with my disgust over the film's ideological messages.

This brings me to a deeper question about "best of" lists like EW's. If one includes Gone with the Wind on the list despite its overt racism and misogynistic endorsement of domestic abuse, why not include Birth of a Nation? Alternately, if one brackets out Birth on moral/ethical grounds, then why include the equally conservative, reactionary, racist, and sexist The Dark Knight (2007)? I don't have ready answers to these questions but I wonder about them.

In any case, for me, Gone with the Wind goes into the same category as the James Bond film Thunderball (which, despite my recognition of its retrograde morality, I love as a perfect piece of action cinema) or George Miller's recent masterwork Mad Max: Fury Road. I know there are some serious ideological (or in the case of Fury Road, environmental) problems with it, yet I love the film itself with all my cinephile's soul.

Particularly given that the white population of the U.S.A. is still largely in denial about the structural racism that pervades our society, it is hard to write about Wind without calling it out for its discriminatory ideas. So let us begin with the film's most subtly sinister scene, the one I call the "Scarlett as benevolent slaver" scene. This comes halfway through the film, when, after the Civil War, Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) is running her own mill and chooses to lease some convicts as laborers. After looking at a lineup of convicts for hire, Scarlett's longtime friend and business partner Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) raises an objection to her plan, saying:
I do wish you'd let me hire free darkies instead of using convicts. I do believe we could do better.
Scarlett protests, accusing Ashley of being too soft on such people. Then this dialogue ensues:
Ashley: Scarlett, I will not make money out of the enforced labor and misery of others.

Scarlett: You weren't so particular about owning slaves.

Ashley: That was different, we didn't treat them that way.
Oh, I get it now. Slavery was totally fine in Ashley's mind because, at least in his imagined version of it, whites never mistreated their slaves the way Scarlett's foreman whips and starves her newly hired convict labor force. So long as we enslave people NICELY, it's okay, is it? Thanks for explaining that one, Ashley.

An extremely strange and morally backward sequence in which Ashley (Leslie Howard) explains why slavery was actually really good for black people -- so long as it was conducted nicely. 

Ashley's swift glossing over of the multitude of cruel horrors visited upon blacks during the transatlantic slave trading years is not the only way in which Gone with the Wind offends. The even bigger lie here is that the film shows us a line of mostly white convicts. As has been extensively documented in Slavery by Another Name, what actually happened after Reconstruction is that white authorities arrested black folks in great numbers on virtually any pretense, placing them into the prison system, thereby allowing them to be contracted out to various industries for essentially no wages. This was how the practice of slavery was continued even after the formal institution of slavery was abolished in the U.S.

Mill foreman Johnny Gallagher displays his line of white convicts for lease as hard laborers. This sequence glosses over the reality that the majority of leased convicts were black men.

Oddly, then, Gone with the Wind suggests that blacks are somehow better off being slaves than they are being free. Taken together with the film's depiction of blissfully loyal plantation blacks including Hattie McDaniel's famous "mammy" character, plus the deep, melodramatic pathos the film asks us to lavish upon the whites of the postbellum South, the film's pervasive racism is undeniable.

This shot of the tattered Confederate flag flying over the South's war dead succinctly conveys Gone with the Wind's racist ideological sympathies. On the other side of the coin, this shot concludes a breathtaking and technically masterful crane shot involving hundreds of extras, illustrating why Wind was such an enormously popular blockbuster.

All that said, one of the great strengths of Gone with the Wind, as with so many other classic women's pictures, is its foregrounding of an unrepentant, hard-charging heroine who takes command of her own destiny.** Indeed, it is the figure of Scarlett O'Hara that keeps me watching this lengthy film every time. Gone with the Wind is Scarlett's story, and she is one of the greatest screen heroines in Hollywood history, surviving war and impoverishment to rise again via strength of will and commitment to the land (helped by her loyal black servants, of course).

Scarlett's general greatness makes Rhett Butler's (Clark Gable's) callous rape of her in the last act of the film all the more marring and egregious. Presented as a jilted husband's attempt to get his due, the scene in which a drunken Rhett takes Scarlett by force is one of the most disturbing of the film. Maybe the scene is the film's attempt to show how corrupt masculinity is, even in the otherwise noble (if scoundrelly) Rhett, thereby strengthening Scarlett's motivation to press on without him. But I am not sure that reading is supported by what we see. Instead, I am left with the feeling that Wind wants us to view its intramarital rape scene as something Scarlett brought upon herself by rejecting her husband's sexual advances for too long, that her body was Rhett's to exploit and by god he was going to do it. This is a reprehensibly sexist and horrifying message.

Rhett Butler as acquaintance rapist. Like the recent film Gone Girl, Gone with the Wind implies that Scarlett provokes Rhett's violation of her, casting the blame for her rape back on her, the female victim, rather than on the rapist. 

Whatever else it may be, Gone with the Wind will always stand as independent producer David O. Selznick's magnum opus and as one of the most popular and successful big-budget pictures of all time. It is a major landmark in Hollywood history and one of the greatest aesthetic and dramatic triumphs of the Golden Age. And, like it or not, it is accurately reflective of America's extremely conflicted history of race relations. Gone with the Wind may wish white America to feel better about itself by glossing over our ugly history with comforting romanticism presented in lush, three-strip Technicolor. What I hope the film does for us today -- besides enchanting us with its cinematic virtuosity and epic narrative sweep -- is to remind us how far we still have to go to achieve social justice and a discrimination-free society.

* Vaguely noirish and/or romantic black and white films of the 1940s I would place above Casablanca include Double Indemnity, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, To Have and Have Not, and probably even Hitchcock's Spellbound. If we include the early 1950s I'd also throw in From Here to Eternity, A Place in the Sun, and Night of the Hunter. I don't mean I would strike Casablanca from the Top 100 list, just that I would rank any of these films higher.
** More great examples of classic women-centered melodramas include the Bette Davis vehicles Now, Voyager (1942), Dark Victory (1939), and Jezebel (1938), Olivia de Havilland in William Wyler's The Heiress (1949), Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945), and Barbara Stanwyk's astounding turn as the title character in Stella Dallas (1937). 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Fantastic Four (2015), Brand Loyalty, and "The Genius of the System"

I saw Josh Trank's Fantastic Four movie last week and what surprised me most was that, while it wasn't outright terrific, it actually wasn't all that bad. The critical and fan backlash against the film would have us believe that it was one of the worst movies of all time, which clearly is not the case.

Yes, the film is a bit slow-paced, which works fine in the opening 30-40 minutes as characters are being introduced, but dampens the fun in the back half. Yes, there is a devastating lack of witty banter of the sort one expects from the FF -- Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm do not flip each other any shit until the very last scene of the film, and that is a major problem. In general, Trank's take on the FF is a bit too serious in tone, which works well in the horrific segments depicting how the individual characters react to their newly acquired powers, but kills the buzz when it comes to the group's interpersonal dynamics. Omitting the traditional witty banter between the members of the FF is the biggest crime this film commits.

On the other hand, the movie's overall plot is well thought out; the idea that the military would try to control and exploit the FF really works for me. Furthermore, the film's portrayal of Victor Von Doom is absolutely spot-on, one of the best things about Trank's version. The darker tone really suits that particular character, and the parts where he starts wreaking havoc are terrific, although arguably they come along a bit late in the proceedings.

Toby Kebbell as Victor Von Doom -- the best part of Josh Trank's Fantastic Four movie. 

In other words, the FF film is flawed but not a disaster. As the Red Letter Media guys tell us, there are many good things about it, enough to keep it from being an outright failure. I personally enjoyed the film about as much as I enjoyed Marvel's Thor (2011), which had some good parts (its Asgard sequences) and, like the middle third of Trank's FF movie, just as many parts that dragged lifelessly and bored me (in Thor's case, pretty much everything that takes place on Earth).

Yet the Marvel movie fanbase seems to think that all Marvel Studios movies are somehow better than any other superhero action films these days and are rooting for Fox to hand the rights to the FF to Marvel Studios in the wake of Trank's reboot's under-performance. Bracketing aside that for economic reasons alone, that will never happen, I am not actually sure that is such a great idea. I think having different studios producing different "takes" on Marvel properties is probably a good thing, and I am not convinced that the Marvel Studios-produced films are really as consistently good as their brand-loyal fans think they are.

I am not saying that Marvel Studios isn't good at what they do. I enjoyed the first Iron Man and the first Avengers movies and thought the first Hulk and Thor movies were at least watchable. But the second Iron Man movie was a hot mess, and there is a kind of formulaic sameness that infects all Marvel's films that is getting really boring to me at this late stage in the game.*

Not that Trank didn't have his own problems with Fox Studios -- he did. As Mark Harris documented in 2014, we are in a completely franchise-dominated, bottom-line driven era of blockbuster film production, in which Disney-owned Marvel is just one particularly exemplary participant.** To be sure, Marvel Studios showed its true colors when it foolishly drove Edgar Wright off Ant-Man and pushed Joss Whedon to the point of exhaustion on Avengers 2, yet Fox and Universal are just as capable of crushing originality and creativity (or at least crushing the possibility of great mid-budget movies from directors like Trank) as is Marvel.

And my critique here reveals my own bias, doesn't it? I still tend to trust the individual director more so than I trust the larger Studio-as-auteur model now dominating Hollywood (just as it did in the Golden Age of the 1930s and '40s). To be fair, my preference for the individual director over the "house style" of a studio like Marvel (which is really Disney) is surely misguided. As Thomas Schatz writes in his brilliant book The Genius of the System,
the closer we look at Hollywood's relations of power and hierarchy of authority during the studio era, at its division of labor and assembly-line production process, the less sense it makes to assess filmmaking or film style in terms of the individual director -- or any individual, for that matter. [. . .] The quality and artistry of all these films were the product not simply of individual human expression, but of a melding of institutional forces. [. . .] The chief architects of a studio's style were its executives*** 
While it is not entirely accurate to compare today's Hollywood, dominated by unit-production and run by multinational conglomerates, to the vertically integrated major studios of the Golden Age, there are nevertheless some illuminating parallels to be drawn when discussing Marvel Studios in Schatz's terms.† Mark Harris has recently argued that studio executives like Marvel's Kevin Feige are the new power brokers in a Hollywood addicted to franchises and "live-action trailers" such as Feige's attention-getting 2014 reveal of the MCU's Phase 3. Indeed, Marvel Studios' Feige is surely the contemporary analogue to those executives to whom Schatz refers, and it is Feige, along with his corporate overlords at Disney, who chart the course of the MCU and make the final decisions about the tone, style, and content of each Marvel film.

No wonder idiosyncratic directors like Edgar Wright and Josh Trank, used to working in the somewhat more freewheeling indie sector, chafe at the dictates handed down by Disney/Marvel and Fox Studios.

Embattled director Josh Trank. 

All that said, perhaps the most noteworthy thing to me about Trank's Fantastic Four is its refusal to objectify or diminish Kate Mara's Sue Storm -- yes, amazingly, the film avoids the sexism that has so far pervaded the "official" Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel Studios' ongoing refusal to give Black Widow her own movie is only the best-known instance of this problem, dubbed "The Black Widow Conundrum" by Entertainment Weekly's Darren Franich. Franich writes:
isn’t it weird that, by the final action sequence [of Avengers 2], Black Widow’s main role is the same role as Pepper Potts in Iron Man, or Jane Foster in Thor: The lady who helps her man become a hero? “I adore you,” she tells Bruce Banner, right before she forces him to Hulk out and save the day. He also saves her life, and then makes the executive decision to disappear—To protect her, I guess? Even though the last time they talked, she made it pretty clear that she didn’t need to be protected?
Similarly, Natalie Portman's role in the Thor films is so transparently that of a two-dimensional damsel in distress that the actress attempted to escape the franchise after the first movie, to no avail.

Evangeline Lilly's Hope Van Dyne is relegated to training Ant-Man, her male replacement, because sexism.

To take an even more recent example, as Allyson Johnson argues in Marvel’s Ant-Man Went Out of Its Way to Shrink Hope Van Dyne’s Role and Suffered for It,
There is absolutely no reason why [Hope] shouldn’t have been the hero of the story. She’s relegated to being mad at her father and to training Scott, who in reality, has no real reason [for] being Ant-Man in this narrative aside from the fact that the larger narrative in the Marvel cinematic universe needs him to be. Hope is skilled in fighting, wildly intelligent and knows the lay of the company they will be infiltrating, and she continuously tells her father that she should be the one putting on the suit.
Indeed. Sadly, Ant-Man's Hope Van Dyne is just the latest female action hero to fall prey to what Tasha Robinson calls Trinity Syndrome, in which a female character initially presented as an ass-kicker is given very little to do in the film's narrative besides support the male protagonist. According to Robinson, this increasingly common character type ends the films she appears in as "the hugely capable woman who never once becomes as independent, significant, and exciting as she is in her introductory scene."

 Kate Mara as Sue Storm.

Fantastic Four's Sue Storm does not suffer this same fate. Hell, she does not even become Reed Richards's love interest in any palpable way during this film! She does become the target of Victor Von Doom's inappropriate affection/vengeance, but the film makes clear that she never encourages this. Furthermore, she never "uses" her feminine sexuality as a weapon or trap and the film never visually objectifies her. She simply plays her capable role on the team and that's that. What a refreshing breath of fresh air that was, believe me.

So in the end, I guess I am somewhat invested in keeping some of these Marvel characters in the hands of other studios and other directors. Trank's film may have been something of a noble failure, but for its casting, tone, refusal to objectify Sue Storm, and a few other nifty ideas, I respect it. While taking nothing away from Marvel Studios and what they do so well, I would rather see a few more of these offbeat attempts at something different than the same formulaic and predictable product Marvel/Disney seems intent on pumping out until the turn of the next millennium.

UPDATE 8/30/2015: Here is a list from Cracked.com that addresses the sexism of the MCU in an amusing yet accurate way.

* In truth, I have not actually seen any Marvel Studios film since The Avengers in 2012.
** Harris updated his comments in this 2015 follow-up, written after Jurassic World's release.
*** Schatz, The Genius of the System (Pantheon Books, 1988), pp. 5-7.
† Unit production, which has been the dominant way of making Hollywood films since the 1950s, is when a unique constellation of creative and technical personnel (the "unit") are assembled to make each individual film. As Schatz documents, while some studios flirted with unit-production methods during the studio era (1920s-1940s), the dominant mode of production back then was to have one supervising producer in charge of several films at a time at a given studio. The authority of this creative studio executive, who usually reported only to the studio boss, was so great that key personnel on individual films, even directors, were considered interchangeable. These producers (Irving Thalberg at MGM, David Selznick at RKO, Darryl Zanuck at Warners) were indeed the auteurs of the films they supervised, and they frequently mixed and matched directors, writers, cinematographers, etc., as each project required, thereby diffusing the creative control of those adjuvant personnel.
†† As io9's Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta have noted, Marvel/Disney's disservice to Black Widow extends beyond the films: they cite Jeremy Renner's public slut-shaming of the character and the lack of Black Widow merchandise as evidence of the structural sexism surrounding her at Disney/Marvel. Of course, they also note the unfortunate sexism of her "forced sterilization" back story in Avengers 2: "Instead of wading into the 'red ledger' of a complicated person who did seriously heinous acts and is trying desperately to buy redemption with good deeds, we get the character who feels ruined by her barren womb." Much of my diminishing interest in Marvel movies is due to crap like this.