“The only thing that lasts” – Film, Memory and Gone With The Wind

I can trace my obsession with blonde men to Ashley Wilkes.

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Kind, valiant Ashley doesn’t want to fight in the war because he doesn’t want to leave his darling Melanie, equally pure and saintly. But he’ll do it, for the love of the South, which is all he’s ever known. Handsome but weighed down by the horror of all of it. He’s a dreamboat; he’s the dreamboat that I’ve been falling for, in one form or another, for my whole life.

Ashley is extra magical for his ability to resist the volcanic Scarlett O’Hara, who coincidentally was my first girl crush.

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I wanted to be her; deep down, I still do. She’s able to wilt a man with a single lifted brow. And for all the screaming and yelling that goes on, Scarlett has a mind for business and she’s the one who saves Tara. Also she saves her family by shooting that creepy Yankee.

Unfortunately, Ashley Wilkes is the one man that this barbed Southern Belle Scarlett can’t have. Instead, she can have tall, dark and dangerous Rhett Butler – object of lust for every other straight woman who has ever watched this film. But she doesn’t want him until it’s too late and he just can’t be f****d, or something.

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Let me say this: all of the above is terrible.

It’s all so awful that I’m actually afraid to say it. Gone With The Wind is racist, sexist, and classist in that order. The world it portrays is an illusion entirely built on an imagined memory by some segment of America that is now 100% dead. The Old South was a society sustained by the forced labour of thousands of people of colour. There’s no escaping the brutality and shame that comes with that, no matter how “nice” and “happy” Big Sam is.

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But as a four-year-old child, I channelled Scarlett’s temper and slapped my mother in the face. I thought that was a perfectly acceptable, albeit theatrical, way to act. (Violence corrupts children, make no mistake.) Basically, I can trace my melodramatic temperament and general pursuit of passion to Gone With The Wind.

Where can I start? It was probably the first film that I ever saw. I watched it because my grandmother watched it, and I loved it because she did.

We didn’t just watch it once. We watched it all the time. When we finished watching it, we’d rewind the video and watch it again (this is the early nineties we’re talking about – Big Ma had a well-loved and well-used double VHS box set). I remember that the tapes were so tired that the beginning was always cut off, and so first up, instead of the opening title, we’d always see Scarlett sitting on the steps flirting with her two dopey “suitors”.

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Typical of an unaware non-feminist, non-inclusive child, the love story was what captivated me. My little romantic heart knew all about it, and that has never died. Amid the backdrop of war and destruction of the Old South, what I most keenly felt is Ashley rejecting Scarlett, over and over again. But of course I knew that there were something wrong with it. These beautiful white people live in a huge house and the black people who work for them don’t get paid and can’t leave…I knew that much as a child.

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In the intervening two decades, I learnt that GWTW was a problematic film to associate with a regional Australian childhood. I came to understand that films are valuable products of their time, but that we should still watch them with critical eyes. I learnt about “Classical Hollywood” and the cinematic conventions of melodrama. I realised the the film’s characterisation of African-Americans was fairly unforgivable. I found feminism. This year, I read all about where Gone With The Wind stands as a cultural phenomenon, 75 years after it was made. I didn’t read the novel.

In this time I also lost my grandmother. It had never occurred to me that she would ever die, and then she did, after being ill for hardly any time at all. I spent every afternoon with her until I was a teenager, or at least I remember it that way. She seemed to have been everywhere, know everything and everyone (this was actually true), and find everything I ever said to be the most interesting thing in the world (not always). I always knew that I was lucky to have my grandma Ethel. I still wear her jewellery all the time.

So when, at the end of my five months alone overseas, I found GWTW on my list of in-flight movies, it seemed like the right time to watch it. I was leaving all my adventures to go home to the familiar, and gulping back tears every few minutes anyway, so I thought I may as well. Nobody was going to see me cry.

I had not seen the film all the way through since I was in primary school. This time, I watched it under a blanket and seatbelt while everyone else was asleep. The staff kept refilling my wine, which was nice. The film’s gorgeous theme made my heart jump.

And now, I hate Rhett Butler. His relationship with Scarlett is violent from the start. He belittles, controls and humiliates her, while professing to “really know” what she wants and what is best for her. He straight-out admits that he wants her to be as a powerless child that he can dote on. His jealousy is extreme.

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Rhett rapes Scarlett. Yes, that is really what happens. This scene is apparently so “sexy”, Scarlett’s red dress falling off her luscious shoulders, that it is the most enduring image of the film, immortalised on every poster and DVD cover .

So, we can add all of this to the film’s multitude of sins. But I still don’t hate the film. Because so many things go into making us.

Me, as a little girl loving GWTW because my grandmother did, that’s something worth remembering. The scenes themselves are so beautiful, have so much of everything that a classic film should have. It’s almost as if somewhere in the dreamy technicolor fields of Tara or the grandeur of Rhett and Scarlett’s mansion, I’ll see my small self sitting on the carpet in my grandmother’s living room, the smoke from her Longbeach cigarettes floating up to the ceiling.

On the plane, I didn’t even get to the end. It’s so long. But what I saw was enough to trigger all of this. We remember how films make us feel, and so familiar was this film to my childhood years that Scarlett at the barbecue and little me eating my banana cake may as well have been happening in the same room.

I decided then that I’ll keep watching Gone With The Wind. Each time, I’ll see something new, and remember something old. It is a masterpiece, after all.

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Majestic wind turbines of Germany

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Germany has a plan to meet 80% of its energy needs with renewables like wind power by 2050. Incentives for producers are now being scaled back but in the first six months of 2014, wind power increased by more than 60% (according to this article from TheLocal.de).

It’s a forward-thinking country and it was wonderful to see plenty of handsome wind turbines on our road trip from Berlin to Olganitz for the Nachtdigital festival. Joe Hockey thinks they’re a “blight on the landscape” but I think they’re pretty great.

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wind turbine lying down on the job!

“Body image” is not the be-all and end-all, is it?

I see beautiful women everywhere.

On the streets in the daytime or out in the city at nighttime, their not-messy hair, smooth complexions and perfumed auras make my heart all aflutter. Sometimes they even want to be my friend! When I start watching movies or TV dramas, I am treated to glimpses of creatures who are barely human – beings of pure feminine energy who could make you melt into a puddle with one wink. It’s the same with magazines. The same with television, fashion photography and art.

But then I switch off or go home to bed, and everything’s ok. I wake up in the same imperfect body and mind, and life goes on. I think to myself when I see a billboard or TV commercial, “Wow, doesn’t Charlize Theron (or whatever angel they choose) look gorgeous in that dress? I don’t look like her, but it’s cool because there are plenty of other things that are good about me.”

Am I going to agonise over the fact that society loves attractive people? No, because it was always thus for the last gazillion years. And what about the fact that it just so happens that these last few decades it’s been considered more attractive to be more skinny than my actual self? Am I going to demand that all the fashion houses start employing models who look like me, because I’m a “real woman”? Is that going to solve every problem I have ever had in life?

NO I DON’T THINK SO.

I recently learnt, from watching a certain tedious Dove commercial (hey everyone, Dove is a company that sells beauty products), that not every woman considers herself beautiful, although she totally is because strangers think so. Do I need to list all the actual problems facing women today? The advertisement made me feel uncomfortable the way all the incessant internet talk about “body image” does. The truth is that anybody who derives the majority of their self-worth from their appearance is destined to ultimate unhappiness.

Today, for instance, I read about a new “body image initiative” whereby people can dump their fashion magazines into a box that says “Shed your weight problem here”. The group responsible for the installation say this:

Your ads and fashion spreads are an inspiration to many girls and women. We look at your ultra thin models and think – if I’m skinny, I’ll be perfect just like her… All we ask is that you think before you cast and that you consider inspiring us with a look that’s both beautiful and attainable.

Their hearts are obviously in the right place. The thing about beauty and fashion and art, though, is that by being “attainable”, it might lose some of its reason for existing in the first place. Modern-day gals might see Botticelli’s Venus as having a “healthier” body shape than 21st-century supermodels – more “womanly”, as it were – but I’m guessing that Botticelli wasn’t aiming for realism. He, too, was painting a beautiful fantasy goddess, and a work of art that takes us all away from the real world, if only for a few seconds.

Young girls are vulnerable and need to be taught something important – it’s not all about the way you look. It sounds obvious, but something isn’t working if all we are doing is blaming the media for “pressuring” them into disordered eating. Men and women need to be able to appreciate beauty without then hating some part of themselves. As a teenager, I thought I was pretty ugly too. Then I left high school and discovered that actually, people of all shapes and sizes and features are attractive to others. Welcome to the real world, not the world that only exists on pages and big screens. Even those of us who are stunning now might not be forever, and there’s no shame in that. Let’s all move on from “body image” and start really living.

 

Why Pete Campbell is the best character on Mad Men

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In defence of Pete Campbell.

Well, not him exactly. Rather, in defence of Vincent Kartheiser’s performance. Am I the only one who thinks this? It’s spine-tingling.

As we all count down to when we can dive in to the world of Mad Men again, I’d like to make a tribute to a guy who doesn’t seem to get many tributes.

There is nothing unsettling about Mad Men – the unbelievably good acting and writing, the bright colours and perfect skin, the crispy sound design – except for the show’s strong undercurrent of pure, privileged misery, which is best personified in Pete Campbell.

I’ve read descriptions of Pete as a “villain”, or a character you “love to hate”, but in the Mad Men universe nothing is that simple. Pete is an antagonist, for sure, but he’s far from shallow – in those blue eyes we see all the shades of hatred, but also of despair, and it’s amazing to watch.

It’s not just Campbell’s ridiculously pompous sense of entitlement, a consequence of a a life spent getting everything for free, being a descendant of a gilded New York governor. His sneering insults and tantrums, delivered in that slimy WASP voice under his slick hair, can make your skin crawl. It’s not even his crippling jealousy of Don Draper in Season 1, his inability to reconcile his own lack of manliness and gravitas while someone he sees as unworthy gets all the praise and the ladies. Later, in Season 5, Pete tries out expensive infidelity for himself, trying to emulate the masculinity he sees in Don. It doesn’t make him feel more like a man, and Don is indifferent. I couldn’t help but feel Pete’s shame along with him.

What really sets Pete/Vincent apart is the big void inside of him, that money, status, women and a family in the country can’t fill. He has everything he could ever want, but it means nothing. He comes to hate the world, and himself, and it’s illustrated so perfectly. Kartheiser even says in this video that he imagines Pete Campbell committing suicide before he reached old age. This video below must be one of the best examples of the whole point of Mad Men – the ultimate nothingness of materialism and the futility of the American Dream. And who better to demonstrate this, than Pete Campbell.

(P.S. If a better television sequence is ever made, I don’t want to know about it.)

 

On International Women’s Day

“This International Women’s Day I am grateful that I have lived to be 23 without dying in childbirth, being raped, forced into marriage or prostitution or denied an education. It’s not a ridiculous thing to say – it’s a tragedy of our times that not every woman around the world can say the same.”

Last Friday I posted this status on Facebook. It was completely sincere, and I was humbled by how much response I got from people, including those who shared it for their own friends. I am grateful that I live here in Australia and am taking full advantage of all the freedoms afforded to me, those fought for by all the strong women who came before. But at the same time I think we shouldn’t have to be “thankful” that women have the same freedoms as men – we should assume that all women have those freedoms, and shouldn’t have to fight for them, and if they are not being respected, then that is a call to action.

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I recorded this interview with Karen Willis, the Executive Officer of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre, to play on 2SER for the special programming for IWD. Even though “victim-blaming” is getting talked about a lot in the public sphere recently, conversations I have on a daily basis, even with my family (“You’re too pretty to walk by yourself at night!” says my grandmother), show that women are still blamed for becoming the objects and victims of male aggression.

On Friday morning I read this article about a proposal to introduce “pink carriages” for women and children using trains at night. It seemed to be partially Karen’s idea but since the interview had already happened, I didn’t get to ask her anything about it. My first reaction to the pink carriage idea was positive – “I would totally use them!” I thought. More secure carriages to travel in at night? Yes, please. However, while it is no doubt being proposed with the best of intentions, the pink carriage plan is a cop-out. Once again, it enforces the idea that women need to do more things to protect themselves, or be protected, from violence. In the same way that enforcing a curfew on women to protect them from serial rapists is illogical – the women are not doing the raping – segregating women on trains to protect them doesn’t put any onus on the (presumably from the looks of it) men to stop harassing them. Because I just know that if a woman is assaulted elsewhere on the train, people will ask why she wasn’t in the pink carriage.

So even though we’ve all had a gutful, it’s a conversation that we need to keep having, and having, and having, until it’s not considered reckless for a young woman to go where she pleases, no matter the time of day or night.

My new toy – Zoom H4n

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Yesterday I morphed into a serious person with actual career ambitions (I kid – even as a 4 year-old wearing a tiara I was serious about being a princess one day) when I spent a wad of cash on some equipment for recording in the field.

This new thing – Zoom H4n – looks cool, fits in my handbag and impressed my housemate. It also has a cute windsock hat which makes it look like one of those troll dolls. More importantly, I tested it out this morning and couldn’t believe the clarity of the recordings that I made. True, I don’t have a wealth of experience with this kind of technology but I think for my purposes I will be very satisfied. The two mics on the top are apparently a great improvement on the last Zoom model. So I’m not sure if it’s necessary to use an external mic. I guess I will find out the hard way!

Now for some hard-hitting interviewing.