4.01.2016

Gothic silhouettes


Vivien Leigh with tree and David O. Selznick sunset in Gone with the Wind (1939).
“Images of blinding whiteness seem to function as both antidote for and meditation on the shadow that is companion to this whiteness—a dark and abiding presence that moves the hearts and texts of American literature with fear and longing.” – Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark

Everyone who has ever seen Gone with the Wind remembers the shots of Scarlett O’Hara silhouetted against a blazing red sky.  These shots function as a kind of visual motif throughout the film, occurring at moments of dramatic crescendo and nearly always accompanied by the swelling of Max Steiner’s score.  The first such shot occurs ten minutes or so into the film, when Scarlett and her father survey Tara at sunset.  It’s a moment when the characters and the film itself wax romantic about a supposedly gracious and beautiful antebellum South that, unbeknownst to them, is about to start going with the wind.  The next time such a shot occurs, it’s already gone: Atlanta has been burned, Tara lies in shambles, and Scarlett’s father has succumbed to madness.  The film as a whole has taken a turn for the Gothic.  Scarlett stands under the same tree, now battered and almost broken, and raises her fist to declare that, as God as her witness, she’ll never be hungry again.

These shots also work to reveal how blackness structures Gone with the Wind, a film that is simultaneously obsessed by and silent about issues of race.  This is a Civil War drama in which the word “abolition” is never uttered, and in which the lives of the three main black characters appear completely unaffected by the fact of their emancipation.  As countless critics and scholars have observed, Margaret Mitchell’s “Tale of the Old South” is one told by, about, and for white people.  And yet so much of Gone with the Wind depends upon the presence of blackness—as a color, a flavoring particle, a source of drama, a visual cue, a form of signification.  In the Gothic middle section of the film, Tara is a house of long shadows, shrouded in darkness, where even the faces of black characters like Mammy (Hattie McDaniels) are lit in such a way as to contribute to this effect.  In these scenes, as throughout so much of the Gothic tradition, blackness and darkness are used to evoke mystery and terror.  

Hattie McDaniel as Mammy.  The use of lighting and shadows here transform her from a figure of jollity into one of ominousness.

Those iconic silhouettes, in other words, testify to the ways in which Gone with the Wind relies on blackness for much of its visual and dramatic power even when it most appears to be a movie about the exploits of a self-absorbed white lady.  They act as reminders of the blackness (what Toni Morrison would call an "Africanist presence") that informs the film at every turn. Another such moment occurs when Scarlett, attended by Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), helps deliver Melanie’s baby.  The evening sun streams through the windows, transforming all three women into black shadows.  It’s possible to overlook Prissy in this scene as she mutters to herself at the edges of the frame; the movie itself encourages us to not see her (she's eventually dropped from the second half of the film altogether).  But the lighting of this scene forces us, however, unconsciously, to see the blackness that is almost always right in front of our eyes.   

Three women: Butterfly McQueen as Prissy, Vivien Leigh as Scarlett, Olivia de Havilland as Melanie.

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