Gone With the Wind
Finding Ourselves at the Cinema
One of the most obvious problems with various approaches to film in the sixties that went under the rubric of apparatus theory was that viewers were hypothetical rather than actual. When Jean-Louis Baudry said, "both specular tranquillity and the assurance of one's own identity collapse simultaneously with the revealing of the mechanism, that is of the inscription of the film work" ('Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus'), he was generalising how the viewers reacted to the breaking of conventions. The viewer was held in place by the film and any loosening of this place might generate anxiety, confusion, restlessness. There may be some truth in such claims but the spectator was assumed, not asked. As Stephen Prince would later say, questioning a psychoanalytic approach to the image, "one result of film studies' disdain for empirical methods has been the construction of theories that deal with "subjects" but not real viewers, with ideal spectators who exist in the theories but have no flesh-and-blood counterparts." ('Psychoanalytic Film Theory and The Missing Spectator') Helen Taylor decided to do something about that, offering an ethnographic study of spectatorship in the context of Gone With the Wind. Placing an advert in a wide-range of British publications she received in response "427 letters and also amassed 335 questionnaires, mostly from women (25 men responded). The respondents represented a cross-section of women of all ages, from different backgrounds, including a handful of black women and a few dozen Americans." (The Cinema Book)
One of the interesting aspects of the study was the perception of the two black women in the film. "Many white women distinguished between Mammy and Prissy, viewing the former as a figure of nobility and dignity and the latter as a more irritating and offensive stereotype. Black viewers by contrast, tended to see both characters as offensive stereotypes." (The Cinema Book) In the film, Mammy is the wise, bossy servant who often acts as if the whites around her need a good telling off, while Prissy is the young, clumsy and not very bright girl who is constantly scolded by Mammy. What Taylor also found was that viewers liked that the ending was unresolved, that it raised new enigmas rather than possessed a conclusion which arrived at what viewers perceived would be a typical Hollywood ending, one where the central characters Scarlett O'Hara (Vivian Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) would have settled into a happy marriage. If Baudry reckoned the viewer had a problem with a film that didn't close off and down meaning, Taylor proposes that the audience disagrees, and as viewers are inclined to disagree with each other as well, evident in the different takes on Mammy and Prissy. Hollywood and the viewer was less homogenous than Baudry appeared to be proposing. Will at the end of Gone With the Wind Scarlett and Rhett settle their differences, or will the death of their child, the violence Rhett has shown towards Scarlett, and the brusqueness with which Scarlett has insistently treated Rhett, make the likelihood of a reunion impossible? The film ends with Rhett walking out on her, offering the famous line after Scarlett says where will she go, what will she do, "quite frankly dear, I don't give a damn."
But whether he gives a damn or not, the film doesn't really work if the viewer cares little for what will happen to Scarlett. Throughout this epic almost four-hour film we have seen her marry two men without much enthusiasm and met the news of their deaths with indifference, and married a third (Rhett) by proclaiming that she is nevertheless in love with another man. The man is Ashley, who is married until her death to the quite saintly Melanie but a man who Scarlett constantly tries to poach away from her. A central question for film spectatorship has been identification and frequently one identifies with characters who draw upon our sympathies and reflect at least a little our values in the world. When Murray Smith differentiates between allegiance and alignment ('Character and Emotional Response in the Cinema'), between characters whose values we share and/or those we have to follow by virtue of the film's focus, there are few more famous examples of a character we follow but whose values we are consistently in disagreement over than Scarlett O'Hara. Yet what Taylor's study makes clear is that when it comes to the evaluation of character the area is much more grey than when, for example, we are evaluating form. Nobody can argue with fact that when Rhett and Scarlett discuss their love at the top of the stairs it is shot in close-up, nor that as he turns away from her to go down the stairs the film cuts to a medium-shot before cutting again to a close-up of Scarlett.
Does this suggest that professional film analysis should concentrate exclusively on the information it can universalise, and ignore what exists much more in the realm of viewer feeling? To say that a viewer has a problem with Scarlett's behaviour is quite different from stating that she comes down the stairs in a low-angled long-shot. Theorists like David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson are likely to insist on categorical agreement rather than musing over the thoughts and feelings of both the characters and the viewer. Speaking of Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story, the writers say, "scenes do not begin and end with shots that frame the most important narrative elements in the mise-en-scene. Instead of the usual transitional devices, such as dissolves and fades, Ozu typically employs a series of separate transitional shots linked by cuts." (Film Art: An Introduction) Bordwell and Thompson concentrate more or less exclusively on how the film is made rather than what the film appears to be saying. In contrast, Donald Richie, discussing Oz's work more generally, reckons, "these people are no longer themselves. We know they will somehow survive, but we also know at what cost. They are not bitter, they know this is the way of their world, but they are bereft. The reason they impel our sympathy is that they are neither victims of their own flaws, nor the prey of a badly organized society; they are the casualties of things as they are, the way that life is. And here we are, all of us, similar casualties." (Ozu: His Life and Films) These are claims that we can dispute but that doesn't mean they are invalid. Bordwell's and Thompson's comments are indisputable but that doesn't mean they are at all insightful. Anybody with eyes to see and a technical vocabulary will be able to observe what Bordwell and Thompson witness, but Richie asks us to see what only he sees, and thus creates plenty of room for disagreement.
Perhaps the question isn't whether professionals should only write about the formal elements while fans and admirers can be sought out for their opinion about a film, but that critics themselves can acknowledge in a Whitmanesque way that they contain multitudes. They can be simultaneously the 'average' spectator who mourns the loss of Rhett and Scarlett's daughter, the ideologically informed viewer who wonders about race in the film, the formalist who notices the camera shots and the non-diegetic music, and the ruminative viewer who wonders why exactly Rhett insists on marrying a woman who has cheerfully accepted the death of two husbands and declares that she doesn't love him either. When Stanley Cavell writes on Gone with the Wind, that in classic Hollywood "black human beings were not created in film: black people were stereotypes mammies, shiftless servants, loyal retainers, entertainers," he addresses the question in the context of a broader one as he wonders what it means to create individuals in film. "Does this mean that movies can never create individuals, only types? What it means is that this is the movies' way of creating individuals: they create individualities. For what makes someone a type is not his similarity with other members of that type but his striking separateness from other people." (The World Viewed) Characters played by Bogart, Wayne and Gable, characters played by Leigh, Davis and Crawford, could be types but not stereotypes because their individuality was recognised. In the case of blacks this wasn't so, hence why Taylor can find that for black audience members both Mammie and Prissy are equally stereotypical. Cavell arrives at such thoughts without audience research, as if aware in himself of the various and constantly changing perceptions and positions a viewer can take in the viewing experience.
A common notion taken from literature but applied to cinema is focalisation. When Smith discusses allegiance and alignment we are often focalised on a character we may not like or whose values we find questionable. But, due the attention the film gives to that particular character, they are our main focus even if others represent better values. Surely the caring and considerate Melanie is a much nicer person than Scarlett but she remains peripheral, someone whose goodness Scarlett could learn from but who wouldn't be a very exciting character to follow. Yet Rhett would be a more adventurous figure, travelling aplenty, interested in gambling and womanising, and someone who reckons he can get Scarlett to love him by force of will and personality. But what if focalisation is only the means by which a filmmaker tells the story while at the same time the viewer constantly refocalises in the process of watching the film? This can take the form of onscreen observation or offscreen speculation. In a scene where the white young women at a party rest in the heat of the afternoon, the film introduces us to a young black servant girl standing over some of the women as they lie in bed, waving a branch to create a breeze. The camera pulls away from the girl to show Scarlett entering from one room into another, before looking at her reflection. One can see in the background of the shot as she enters the second room another black girl cooling the women down as they rest, also another bush in the foreground as Scarlett goes towards the mirror, as well as a very young black girl seated fanning a couple of sleeping ladies. The purpose of the scene rests on Scarlett unable to sleep, no doubt thinking about seeing Ashley and his fiancee, namely Melanie, a little while earlier as she then goes downstairs and hears a heated debate about the Civil War. The degree to which the viewer attends to the hurt pride of Scarlett, the exhaustion of the ladies or the inferior status of the black girls who were probably no less tired than the white women, is a matter of choice within an accepted set of narrative priorities. From the film's point of view, the young black girls are the least important aspect and Scarlett's pride most significant. Proof of this would be the surprise one might feel if instead of following Scarlett as she goes down the stairs, one stayed on one of the young girls as she registered her own exhaustion. The scene could easily be described by saying that Scarlett, unable to sleep, eavesdrops on the men's conversation. Yet just because the film focuses our narrative attention in one direction that doesn't mean we cannot observe what happens to be in the scene which is ostensibly of less importance. A viewer will always miss things, but an attentive viewer won't only follow the categorical focalisation that the film offers but also witness within the scenes elements that are ostensibly less important but have a significance nevertheless.
Out of this individualised focalisation, out of this insistent need to view the film on one's own terms and not only on the narrative throughlines and what the filmmakers put much more obviously in front of one's eyes, the viewer can also speculate over events that the film does not divulge or even appear to concern itself with. We might wonder whether Rhett actually quite frankly never gave a damn but did like a challenge playing the longest of games to get Scarlett to say to him that she loves him, as she does just before the film's conclusion. Earlier in the film, with Scarlett dressed in black, mourning a husband sartorially but not emotionally, she dances with Rhett at a ball and he says to her: "some day I want you to say to me the words I heard you say to Ashley WIlkes": 'namely I love you.' Scarlett replies "that's something you'll never hear from me Captain Butler as long as you live." Just before the film ends, though, Scarlett says the only thing she knows is that she loves him as she wonders if it too late, but is this all Rhett ever wanted to hear as proof of his own prowess? Such a reading would have to incorporate what we hear and observe in numerous other scenes, however. Much earlier in the film, long before they are married, Scarlett asks him if he cares about the war and he says the only thing he cares about is himself, bolstering the reading that he is only concerned with his own ego. But much later in the film, he looks despairing as he says to Melanie that he thought he could make Scarlett care for him but he couldn't, while Melanie insists that Scarlett does indeed love him. The viewer plays as fair as possible to the nuances involved (that Rhett can be both egomaniac who always gets what he wants and the doting husband who really wishes for his wife to love him) without refusing the speculation that can allow one to read the film just a little against the grain.
In questioning the merits of cognitivist analysis, the sort of work that Bordwell and Thompson are interested in, as well as Gregory Currie and Noel Carroll, French critic Raymond Bellour wondered whether such an 'objective' approach to filmic thought and feeling was useful. "As a result, a notion such as identification is challenged, being replaced by a kind of 'programming' of the spectator in response to the succession of narrative developments within which this logic of emotion is inscribed." (Raymond Bellour) Such a spectator can rationally work out the cues and clues but are they a spectator at all? That depends on whether ones sees a viewer as faithfully following the salient details of a film or insistently rebelling and finding their own aesthetic experience that needn't counter a standardised reading but can certainly augment and subvert it. Gone with the Wind is the most commercially successful film ever made (inflation-adjusted), one that will surely be read differently by different audiences, different by white people and people of colour, those from the South and those in the North, those who cannot tolerate Scarlett's ways and others who are mesmerised by her force of will. We can all agree that Scarlett is the film's central character but can we all agree on what we make of her often perplexing behaviour throughout this epic? It is in the latter instance where much that passes for viewership can take place.
© Tony McKibbin