Wednesday 4 June 2008
Johann Hari: No wonder 'Gone With The Wind' has failed
Lordly lordy lord Miss Scarlett, this musical be one biiiiiig turkey! The Gone With The Wind musical in London – a thrilling experiment in singalong slavery and whoopin' white supremacy – is closing after six weeks. I sensed something was wrong when I settled into my seat and realised I was opposite a large sign saying "Negroes For Sale", with a group of black audience members sitting uncomfortably below. We watched – open-mouthed and gaping – for three-and-a-half hours as the Confederacy tap-danced and jazz-handed its way to defeat.
Yet there is something sweetly appropriate about the shuttering of this musical at the very moment when the world watches the closing acts of America's eight-year Scarlett O'Hara Presidency. Gone With the Wind is the demon twin of that other iconic Hollywood movie, Casablanca. Both are love stories about a couple that meet and dance and part during a war, but at their core they represent the two great clashing poles of the American personality: idealism, and narcissism.
Casablanca is the America the world loves. We all know its love story – the greatest ever told, for my money. In a Paris that is waiting for the Nazi hordes to invade, Rick and Ilsa lock eyes. They have both been resisting the foaming black tide – Rick by running guns for the republicans in Spain, and Ilsa by travelling underground with her husband until he was carted off to a concentration camp.
They waltz awhile, but as the Nazis march on the city, Ilsa hears that her husband is alive after all, and flees. Rick ends up drunk and disillusioned in Casablanca, running a bar. Then one day, of all the gin-joints in all the towns in all the world, Ilsa and her husband walk into Rick's Bar – where she needs his help.
But the great thing about Casablanca is not, ultimately, this romance. No: it is the fact that the characters decide that there is something more important than their own emotions.
"Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble," Rick says, "but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."
They choose to part, making a sacrifice for the greater moral cause. There have been glorious moments when America did exactly the same: the abolition of slavery, the Second World War, the Marshall Plan. The world gaped and muttered: "Here's lookin' at you, kid."
Gone With The Wind is the opposite. Here is another war, and another love story. But this time, the heroes' cause is the Confederate side in the American Civil War – and the movie takes this vast and epic battle and shrinks it to a squalid little story that is about nothing but itself. Scarlett O'Hara is a spoiled white girl living on a Georgia plantation, obsessed with herself and a few fickle romances.
As the Civil War breaks out, she meets Rhett Butler, a smug mercenary fighting to save slavery because it's the side that pays him best. She decides she wants him. Scarlett becomes hardened – she watches Atlanta burn, and her Poppa go crazy – and inches closer and closer to having Rhett.
At every turn, the lovers show no awareness – none – of the larger, repellent cause they are working for. At one point Scarlett curses: "War, war, war – that's all I hear about!"
Well, fiddle-de-dee. Rhett is only in it for the money, while Scarlett doesn't seem to wonder even for a moment if her pet blacks would prefer to be free with a Yankee victory. ("Mammy – fetch me some water! Fast!") If Casablanca's greatest moments are about sacrifice, Gone With the Wind's are simply narcissistic whines – "I'll never be hungry again!"
George Bush has governed in the Deep Southern spirit of Scarlett, telling Americans incessantly it's all about them. For him, every cause can be solved with more self-indulgence: his first and only injunction to Americans after 11 September was to go shopping. He even watched inert and unhelping as a major American city became gone with the wind. The solidarity of Rick and Ilsa has been replaced by the mercenary smarm of Rhett Butler, fighting for a share of the spoils.
But in the current Presidential campaign, there are faint and gentle stirrings of "As Time Goes By", and the other America we miss so much. To figure out which side you're on in this election, you can ask yourself – would you would rather be singing La Marseillaise with the émigrés in Rick's Bar, or gossiping with the clucking white girls on Tara? Would you would rather smuggle visas for Rick, or run guns for Rhett? But I beg you: whatever you decide, do not set your answer to music.
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