Balcony Opera

Photo credit: Christopher Hopkins for The Age. Lisette Bolton (left), Teresa Ingrilli (right).

By George Cox

A note from the editor- I was recently contacted by George Cox, a young writer who wanted to put together a piece on a creative venture by his two musical housemates, born out of lockdown necessity.

Balcony Opera is a Facebook and Instagram community which was created when young sopranos Lisette Bolton and Teresa Ingrilli began holding miniature recitals for their neighbours from their second storey balcony.

You can follow Lisette’s singing adventures through her Facebook and Instagram. Teresa’s can be found through her website, Facebook and Instagram.

If you would like to see more of Balcony Opera’s events, you can join their community Facebook group here or follow them on Instagram. In addition to pre-recorded events, they have begun live streaming. – Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)



What follows are a few thoughts on the plight of classically-trained singers during and post-pandemic. The occasion for these thoughts may be flippantly explained by the following six-word horror story: “Spending lockdown with two opera singers.”

Less flippantly, it is obvious that pandemics are bad for capitalism, and that living in capitalism is bad for music. What’s bad for our captors is bad for us, if it does not kill them.

There are deep structural problems with the industry that produces music in Australia that have always made it difficult to make a living therein. These problems have been addressed and written about at length, as has their magnification by current circumstances. What I want to introduce here is a plan – a kind of venture – currently being undertaken by the two aforementioned opera singers, whose craft occupies the ambient background sound of every one of my Zoom seminars.

Photo credit: Balcony Opera

Classical musicians are caught in something of a contradiction. Under lockdown, they must wring an income out of their passion more desperately than ever before, and yet like everyone else they must continue to seek solace (and sate their entertainment consumption needs) through the things they love. To be pricked by the horns of this dilemma is to fall into emotional dysregulation, to be unable to participate in our social and cultural communities in the ways we have before. Can we balance our ongoing self-commodification with our love of the craft?

Teresa and Lisette’s project, Balcony Opera, approaches this dilemma with a set of ideals that balances the caring with the practical. When you’re trapped in lockdown, it is easy to annoy your neighbours and your roommates with your frequent practice: not so good. Often the only realistic way to resolve this problem is to talk to your neighbours, to share your schedules and to commiserate over the different shapes that your lockdown challenges are taking. Much better!

Self-conscious lockdown practice therefore encourages us to be kinder to the people in our immediate physical community, as well as to ourselves and to our fellow musicians. But we also have to think a little selfishly – if not descend into profit-seeking beasts – about what new revenue streams are available to musicians under lockdown, in addition to the broader question of how to break opera back into the main stream(ing platforms) of cultural consumption.

Teresa and Lisette hope to create a space which attends to the pressing and self-interested need to preserve the viability of the classical voice economy for all its members. They also want to share their music-making more widely than they are currently able to from their literal balcony, partly through digital content distribution and partly through creating a dedicated Balcony Opera community.

Photo credit: Christopher Hopkins for The Age. Lisette Bolton (left), Teresa Ingrilli (right).

More specifically, they hope that this space, or platform, might eventually serve to connect singers, audiences, and distributors. Thus, to arrive at specifics, they record themselves singing from their balcony and share it on Facebook, via Zoom, and over a mailing list, inviting other singers and performers to do the same, taking the opportunity to break down the usual stratification of musical audiences through digital means. This is not to say that Teresa and Lisette are aiming to enter the already-crowded music distribution market. This project is an attempt to supplement the sharing and networking systems that used to work, in the before times.

*

‘Balcony Opera’ is a fairly figurative phrase. The balcony itself is a kind of metaphor for connection: a part of the home which is both inside and outside. They are always raised, on a second story or higher: they open onto a rarefied dimension of urban space, where birds and telephone lines live. This rarefied dimension perhaps corresponds, if I may mix a metaphor, to the space in which music lives.

Let’s not kid ourselves: music is not so low down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a hierarchy which has become a little bit more sharply defined recently. We can think of the operatic balcony as opening onto some of our higher-order needs: ‘self-actualisation’ and ‘esteem.’ But perhaps also ‘belonging,’ the third storey of the pyramid.

In this context, we can think of a balcony as much more than its physical properties. It is a platform for singing, which is to say, a stage, which Teresa and Lisette, and other singers around the world, have extracted from the institutionalised spaces of commercial musical performance and inserted into their own homes.

Photo credit: Emma Henley

They have brought the opera house home, in a sense, but only so they may effectively (re)export it to other homes, and thus the balcony is metonymically linked to the operatic stages of the world. It is a metonym for the home itself, to which it is architecturally linked, and to every other home in its immediate vicinity, to which it is linked by the propagation of sound waves. To sing from one’s balcony is always to sing from home, from the border of a private space. Teresa and Lisette thus effect a metonymic decentralisation of the operatic apparatus (‘operapparatus’).

This decentralisation sounds like a bad thing: how can you continue to make opera without the support of large institutions and central gathering places, without the regulated flow of bodies into ticketed spaces? The pandemic has forced exactly this problematic upon us, a problematic which was always latent in our fragile economy, and substituted a different form of bodily regulation. This new operapparatus takes these protective measures and adapts them into a revenue stream, and possibly a new normal for cultural consumption.

The only answer to a biological virus – besides medicine, paid sick leave, rent and mortgage freezes, and voting for the Victorian Socialists – is a digital one. The networked connections between consumers of live classical music have been severed; it was precisely those connections along which the coronavirus travelled from airway to airway. These connections can be electronically supplemented. The opera industry is rapidly being microbiologically balkanised, and must therefore be macrolocally balconised.

Teresa and Lisette would be the first to admit that their consumption of opera has been in many ways saved from complete destruction by the inventive and generous action of established musical institutions such as The Royal Opera House, with their series of streamed past performances, and newly-constructed platforms such as Melbourne Digital Concert Hall.

Photo credit: Balcony Opera

Some of these innovations represent predictable and reasonable moves by institutions to protect their audience and revenue base (two ways of saying the same thing?) against a temporary disaster. Others suggest more experimental approaches that might endure for longer than we expect. Balcony Opera as an initiative leans towards the latter approach, but also adds a new angle.

Teresa and Lisette are interested in devising a new set of horizontalising connections between opera institutions, singing communities, and choral associations in Melbourne and Victoria, potentially enfolding them into this new operapparatus that they might share their work and attract audiences and singers through a more accessible space. Accessibility here denotes not just a space that can operate under lockdown, but also a space that explicitly refuses, as far as it can, the material and prestige-based gatekeeping that filters emerging artists out of the networks of established venues and opera producers.

More specifically, these stakeholders could share, on a rotating and hopefully regular basis, and alongside struggling and emerging performers, in the proceeds from charity and recovery concerts run from all manner of balconies.

I say ‘horizontalising’ because the fear that afflicts emerging operatic performers often stems from their distance (figurative and literal) from the established institutions of quite a vertical industry. Recovery concerts and shared virtual performances can serve to materially support and advertise emerging performers, as well as reach out to audiences whose cultural consumption needs must be inventively sated.

At the moment these are general suggestions only. What I hope to have outlined here are the principles and the general contours of a venture which has emerged somewhat spontaneously from the material and aesthetic consequences of Victoria’s continuing lockdown. If this sounds interesting to you, feel free to follow Balcony Opera on Facebook and Instagram, or get in touch with its organisers if you would like to be involved somehow.

To take a step back from the reorganisation of flows of money and prestige (the bottom and the top of Maslow’s pyramid, respectively) that characterise any significant intervention into Victoria’s classical music economy, I’d conclude by suggesting that the balcony is also now increasingly the place where we belong-together without directly entering the virtual. It is the most ‘together’ of the places where we can be together-apart. Musicians I think are especially well-placed to make the balcony the locus of a new practice. As we haltingly emerge from our collective state of disaster we may be inclined to forget everything about the experience as quickly as possible; the things we did on our balconies may be worth remembering.

George Cox


George is an undergraduate student of English, philosophy, and musicology at the University of Melbourne and sometimes passes for a pianist and composer. In 2021 he will hopefully complete an honours thesis on Deleuze and materialist aesthetics. He edits an online magazine, secretaries a choir, privately teaches music theory, and shelves books in Southbank. He has written over 25 reviews on Goodreads this year.

You can keep up with his work and/or contact him on Twitter @george_r_t_c and on Instagram @george.r.t.c

What Writing a 12,000 Word Thesis Taught Me (yes, that’s a flex)

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

I’ve never climbed a mountain, backpacked through Europe, or run a marathon (or a half marathon for that matter). Aside from a three-week group tour of northern India when I was twenty, the most ‘extreme’ thing I’ve ever done is write a 12,000-word thesis during my Honours year in Musicology.

Without a doubt, it was the most intensive project I have ever undertaken, and the most drawn-out: I started brainstorming topics in February 2018, and didn’t stop writing and editing until the day I submitted in the last week of October, eight months later.

The thesis I wrote was a ‘baby’ version, completed over two semesters. It was a marathon, not a sprint, but two semesters is actually a pretty short timeframe when compared to the four or five years it takes to finish a Masters thesis or PhD.

The process of committing to a research project of this size forces you to confront certain situations head-on. Every student will experience this differently, but rest assured, breakdowns are a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’. Or rather ‘how many’ and ‘how severe’.

Musicology is a broad academic term which spans the fields of music history, music and culture, music theory, and other related fields. So it makes sense that a musicology thesis (take a shot every time I use the word) has a lot in common with an arts faculty thesis. It often takes the form of an enlarged essay, typically with three or four chapters as well as an introduction and conclusion.

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

But unlike a typical undergraduate essay, you have to attempt to find an ‘angle’ that hasn’t already been dissected in someone else’s work. Let’s say you’re really enthusiastic about the films scores of a certain composer. It’s not enough to simply describe a handful of those film scores, you have to find a way to use evidence and interpretation to show how the film scores achieved a certain creative goal, or were a part of a particular creative movement, etc, etc. (That’s what I did).

I’ve provided this dry background information so that I don’t come across as completely hysterical when I describe the heightened emotions a Really Big Essay caused me.

All I knew when I started the semester was that I wanted to study films scores written by Erich Korngold. I have always been someone who has a real ‘gut feeling’ reaction to music, someone who doesn’t enjoy decoding the chordal structure of a page of sheet music, or diving into the numbers-and-patterns side of thinking, but who will happily tell you the varied emotions a piece of music evokes. I’ll meander through adjectives until the cows come home.

It suited me perfectly that I actually couldn’t access the scores, as they weren’t out of copyright or available for sale, and the original annotated copies were kept in the Warner Bros. archive in Los Angeles.

But to finally arrive at my point! The act of finishing a task of this size taught me some valuable lessons. (As I’m sure those who have run a marathon will tell you). If you are interested in finding out what these were, please read on.

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

De-mystify the creative process

Every single artist whose work you revere, was an imperfect human being. An extremely talented one, but a human being nonetheless.

I will never stop feeling inspired (and intimidated) by freakishly talented people. But feeling that way shouldn’t prevent you from contributing your own work.

200 words a day/ create a daily baseline

I hate the word ‘goal’. The overuse of the word makes it sound so disingenuous and unachievable.

Putting that feeling aside, I realised if I was going to finish 12,000 words by my deadline and have time left to edit them, I needed a daily baseline so that even on an ‘off’ or ‘average’ day, I would produce a minimum number of words. It wouldn’t actually matter if those words ended up in the final draft. The importance was in the fact that those initial rough paragraphs would create a jumping off point for the finished product. Every day that you’ve written something, is a productive day.

Ride the wave/ Follow the rhythm of your natural work habits

I am not a morning person and I never have been. But I realised that if I got up about 8am or 9am each ‘writing’ day, got myself set up in a café by about 11am or 12pm, I would be able to work solidly for about three hours. I am the kind of person who concentrates better with the hum of background noise (assisted by caffeine, of course) so a café is my perfect working environment.

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

I’m also quite extraverted, so I baulk at the idea of sitting in a silent room, completely undisturbed. I became very friendly with my local baristas, and the relaxed environment was great for starving off anxiety. (I actually mentioned these coffee creators in my acknowledgement page, because who knows if anything would have gotten done without the holy power of soy lattes)

You can learn! And you can learn quickly!

When I first met my thesis supervisor, she casually mentioned a handful of film criticism resources I had never even heard of. I felt like an absolute pretender, to say the least. But I picked up the fundamentals pretty quickly, and after a few months I felt quite confident in expressing my opinions when it came to analysing the interplay between music and film.

I will always have the tendency to underestimate my own knowledge. There’s nothing wrong with being a beginner, but we should all remember that it isn’t a permanent state. If you’re hungry for knowledge and read widely with a discerning mind, you’ll become more confident in no time.

Grace under pressure

When working on a significant milestone along the path of your studies or career, you can start to feel the pressure. You want to do your best but it can be exhausting to sustain that intensity.

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

There will be moments where you will feel like everything is suspended in a delicate moment of balance, and could hurtle towards disaster any second if you don’t hold your nerve. Becoming comfortable with this discomfort is a skill in itself.

Roll with the punches

A thesis, much like a home renovation, will throw certain roadblocks your way. Some of them will be immovable. It doesn’t make you a ‘quitter’ to admit that

An absolute favourite quote of mine comes from intrepid adventurer Bear Grylls: ‘Improvise, Adapt, Overcome’. It places the focus squarely on the present, and responding to the circumstances in front of you. Don’t waste time thinking about all the ways your current situation could be better, because you could do that forever.

.

A reply to ‘In Defence of Lost Chords’

By Meadow Ground

A note from the editor: shortly after Professor Peter Tregear’s article appeared in the Australian Book Review, I received a message from someone who had felt compelled to write a response. They have chosen to go by the pen name Meadow Ground.

One of my goals for Fever Pitch is to encourage active and ongoing conversation on possible barriers to classical music having a flourishing future in Australia. I hope you enjoy this thought-provoking piece, with the original article linked below for your perusal. – Stella Joseph-Jarecki


Professor Peter Tregear recently published an article in the Australian Book Review which summarises several structural problems in the Australian classical music industry and the many ways the coronavirus pandemic has transformed these problems into crises. He argues, in a way that classical musicians will find surely find familiar, that state and federal governments consistently underestimate the educational value of music, with funding consequences for almost all educational and performing institutions (with the possible and problematic exception of so-called Major Performing Arts organisations). Fundamentally, Tregear thinks, we need to supplement the lack of “sustained public advocacy,” which seems responsible for classical music’s fall out of the public sphere, by ever-more-courageously enjoying and sharing our work.

This all seems reasonable. However, Tregear’s more specific intention in this article is to tie this advocacy to a ‘transcendent’ conception of musical value, which I find unsatisfying for a few reasons. This reply should be taken as good-faith critique, not as polemical bristling, because much of the detail in Tregear’s article is useful and accurate, and we share many goals.

Tregear wants to claim that Beethoven – whose 250th anniversary has been singled out for cosmic disrespect by our ongoing catastrophe – has a universal appeal, genuinely transcendental cultural and musical value. He draws, for an analogy, on a story told by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who lamented being a young Black intellectual for whom the burning question was (as posed by Saul Bellow) “who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” The ironic answer to this question, which satisfies Coates and Tregear, is “Tolstoy!”

Coates continues: “If you reject the very premise of racism – the idea skin color directly contributes to genius or sloth – then all of humanity becomes ‘native’ to you.”

I want to push back against this analogy a little bit. It is possible to disagree with Coates on his specific claim: the ‘premise’ of racism that we should worry about is less this contextless prejudice against colour and more the structural fact of continuing, asymmetric violence enacted by one specific race against another, a violence which is surely registered in the very texture of the cultural works we’re here talking about. There is a sense in which Coates’ progressive erasure of racial and cultural distinctions potentially facilitates the smooth translation (or globalisation) of the canonical figures of one culture into and across other cultures. Especially those outside of Europe whose canons aren’t sufficiently powerful or institutionalised to resist having Beethoven or Tolstoy thrust upon them.

However, if we search up Coates’ original piece in The Atlantic we find that his real desire was not to rescue the canon from criticism and restore the transcendent value of Tolstoy, but instead to “create [his] own intellectual and artistic pedigree … to have it extend from Biggie to Wharton to Melville to Hayden.” This represents a kind of inclusive flattening out of cultural highpoints, an anti-canonical move, on Coates’ part.

Tregear’s article doesn’t quite fit in with this, the way I read it. He contradicts himself somewhat: on the one hand, Beethoven has universal appeal and value. On the other hand, this claim to value should be grounded in an engagement “with the inner workings of music” and not identity politics. Certainly I agree with this latter point. But a problem arises for Tregear: the more closely we analyse musical works, the more likely we are to arrive at an understanding of their value which is irreducibly immanent. In other words, we should stick close to the notes, to the properties of the artwork which are immanent to it, rather than properties which transcend it or which locate it in some transhistorical canon, for example. It is the historical specificity of Beethoven’s technical achievement which makes him worth talking about.

There is nothing transcendent, or universal, about Beethoven’s innovations in orchestration, or the length and complexity of his modulatory schemata, or the sublime and shocking violence of his dominant pedals or his flattened ninths, although certainly these innovations are incredibly interesting and valuable. Tregear insists on the “mesmerising intricacy of Beethoven’s musical constructions” and his ability to let us “think musically, to partake of a heightened kind of listening,” but I don’t see why this doesn’t apply to all music, sufficiently closely analysed, including, as Tregear mentions, the Indigenous musical traditions of Australia.

Tregear seems to agree with this claim when he writes that “great music in all its forms, in all its genres, where it is found, and however it is ultimately labelled by us, should be understood as belonging to, speaking for, and challenging each and every one of us.” This is a fine and proper sentiment. What I find unconvincing is his worry that when we insist on a connection between Beethoven and patriarchy or imperialism, or the entrenchment of “privilege”, we’re at risk of “[replacing] one set of unexamined assumptions about classical music with another”.

He quotes Richard Morrison, music critic for The Times, who argues that the class characteristics of composer Edward Elgar and contemporary pop singer Jess Glynne are basically the same, or more or less irrelevant, because Elgar had a shopkeeper for a parent and Glynne had a real estate agent for a parent. I find this stunningly lame, and much worse than anything Tregear himself sets down. Morrison’s claim here ignores everything about the actual musical reception and reproduction of the works of these two artists, and, more to the point, doesn’t do what Tregear insists we should: engage closely with the inner workings of the music. I don’t think it would be too controversial, so many decades after Susan McClary wrote about Beethoven, for me to insist that a close engagement with the inner workings of the music might be exactly where we locate the class qualities, the patriarchal desire and the imperialist functions, of Beethoven or Elgar.

This is why I find Tregear’s article unconvincing: I don’t think that claims for the transcendent value of canonical figures will help us in regenerating the consumption and discussion of classical music in the contemporary moment, especially when such airy universalisations pull us away from the richest possible engagement with the work itself. Beethoven doesn’t belong in the air, hovering transcendentally over all Australian music-making. We should bring him down to the stolen soil which figuratively and literally grounds our contemporary practice, which marks our culture with the imperialism which we have to acknowledge and work through. Immanently!

Tregear began his article with a quote from Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory ­– a philosopher who in many ways exemplifies this critique of transcendence – and so, if I may be rather impertinent in conclusion, here is another Adorno quote, from, of course, “Bach Defended Against his Devotees:”

In being placed into the service of proselytizing zeal, the neo-religious Bach is impoverished, reduced and stripped of the specific musical content which was the basis of his prestige. He suffers the very fate which his fervent protectors are least willing to admit: he is changed into a neutral cultural monument, in which aesthetic success mingles obscurely with a truth that has lost its intrinsic substance. They have made him into a composer for organ festivals in well-preserved Baroque towns, into ideology. (Prisms 136)

Why I Never Want to Forget COVID-19

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)


I never want to forget this pandemic. I’m sure no one will be able to erase the event from their memory, but humans can adjust to almost anything. I suspect that after a few weeks of returning to Stage 3 restrictions, many of us will forget how we felt during Stage 4 (and so on…)

Of course, I am all for jumping headfirst into the happier future. We are going to be giddy, excited, experiencing an emotional equivalent of three Christmases at once, when bars and venues can start welcoming patrons again. And it will be fantastic.

I am planning on being among the first audiences to return to live gigs. Through my work behind the scenes at a music venue, I’ve seen the incredible thought and care that is being put into making these events as safe as possible. I also understand that some people will desperately want to be there in the flesh but won’t feel comfortable taking that risk initially. That is why I am determined to do my bit during those first cautious months.

Like everybody else, I want to turn a new page and fling the remainder of 2020 into a bottomless abyss.

But I don’t want to forget all the angst, restlessness and loneliness I’ve felt over the last five months. I don’t ever want to forget that six or seven weeks into working from home, I was absolutely hating the claustrophobia and lack of social interaction. I couldn’t even picture myself making it to the 1st July (my workplace’s tentative date for select staff to return to the office) without murdering someone. It’s currently the 31st of August, so somehow I managed this and then some.

Whenever I am having a bad day in the distant lockdown-free future, I want to be able to remind myself that I found my feet in a brand new job while limited to the medium of video calls and emails. It was far from ideal, but I did it.

When I look back on this time, I don’t want to forget the friends who made the effort to pick up the phone. Over the past five months, video calls and Zoom catch-ups have been more than just a fun distraction. They have been a mental and spiritual lifeline. I laugh more during my weekly choir catchup than in the previous six days combined.

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

I don’t want to forget the hundreds of hours of solo lockdown walks I went on (and will continue to go on), purely to keep my brain from collapsing in on itself.

I don’t want to forget the grey feeling of every day being a Monday, and every Monday stretching out forever.

I don’t want to forget needing an entire Saturday of sitting around not answering my emails to recover from the exhaustion of… sitting around answering my emails. (Mental exhaustion, all right?!)

When you casually colour-coordinate with the sky.

I don’t want to forget the things I’ve learnt about the importance of balance. As illustrated by my previous point, mental fatigue occurs independently of physical fatigue. So while I’ve conceivably had all the time in the world to attend webinars, up-skill myself, watch documentaries, learn a language, teach myself to become a yoga instructor, I’ve chosen not to.

Through my 9-5 job, I’ve been getting snippets of insight into what disaster-recovery looks like for the arts industry in Australia. So the last thing I want to do after I clock off is attend a lecture on the fate of audiences in Australia post-lockdown. As a young writer and singer I already want to take a long walk off a short pier. Too much content turns my brain to mush and my mood to crap.

So yeah, I don’t want to forget COVID-19. I don’t want to forget how I’ve struggled, because that would mean forgetting how I’ve persevered.

Hang in there, everyone. In a few months, this will all feel like a distant nightmare.

Gone With The Wind: Cinematic Extravaganza or Extravagant Waste of Time?

Gone With The Wind is the most famous film you’ve probably never seen. It awakens a mixture of emotions in me: fascination, disbelief, nausea, amusement… I recently sat through it for a second time to properly put my thoughts down on paper.

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)


I first saw Gone With the Wind when I was twenty-two years old. It was recommended to me as essential background research, as I was in the process of writing a thesis on 1940s film scores. The music of Gone With the Wind was written by Max Steiner, a composer extraordinaire who churned out over 300 film scores in his decades-long career. I wasn’t studying Steiner’s work specifically, but he was such a towering figure that his influence was inescapable. Steiner popularised many of the film music tropes that audiences would subconsciously be familiar with today.

Although Gone With The Wind is regarded as one the most famous films of all time, I’d never felt curious enough to watch it. You can imagine my surprise when I found out it has a running time of THREE HOURS AND FORTY-FIVE MINUTES. That’s epic even by Hollywood standards. Have you heard the saying that something is “Bigger than Ben Hur”? The 1959 sword-and-sandal epic became synonymous with massive set pieces and bombastic cinematic scope. Turns out it’s the same length as Gone With The Wind.

This poster is misleading. It makes the film look sexy and exciting. It is neither of those things.

While I wasn’t looking forward to concentrating on a film for such obscene amount of time (it doesn’t even fit on one DVD), I went in with almost no expectations. All I knew about the film was that it starred the stunning ice queen Vivien Leigh, and was meant to be a sprawling romance epic.  

Gone With the Wind is an adaptation of the 1936 novel of the same name by Margaret Mitchell. It’s a massive 1036 pages long, and is set in the state of Georgia during the Civil War. The book was a colossal success, selling millions of copies and securing Mitchell the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The movie was released in 1939, so please bear that in mind if you feel tempted to cry out ‘But it was a different tiiiime!’ as some kind of excuse for the content.

For my own sanity, I felt compelled to deconstruct this bat-shit crazy and unbelievably frustrating movie. If you want the two sentence version, here it is: Gone With the Wind is an overblown and nauseatingly romanticised film focused on one deeply annoying woman during the Civil War. It contains brief cringe-worthy depictions of domestic slaves but the real sin is the way it pushes the lives of millions of slaves to the complete background.

For a long-winded (and hopefully entertaining) version, read on.

The opening titles are an indication of what’s to come. The music is schmaltzy and sentimental (which was not really Max Steiner’s fault, as the studio heads repeatedly demanded that he incorporate the title theme at every opportunity).

I’m going to let the opening prologue text speak for itself: (3:36 in the video)

There was a land of Cavaliers and cotton fields called the Old South…

Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow…

Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave…

Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered.

A Civilization gone with the wind…

Me:


Gone With the Wind follows the trials and tribulations of Scarlett O’Hara, a southern belle whose family owns Tara plantation. Her father is a proud Irishman and her mother is a saintly woman who helps the local housewives give birth. Scarlett is the eldest of three daughters.

I would say that this movie is the story of the O’Hara family, but it’s not. The events of the film are squarely focused on Scarlett, played by Vivienne Leigh, who possessed a fantastically compelling face. (Those cheekbones!) It’s a shame then that Scarlett is one of most detestable main characters to ever exist.

The film begins by depicting the idyllic, beautiful grounds of Tara plantation. The field foreman announces “Quittin’ time!” when the bell rings at sunset. For a bit of fun at the end of the day, the bell is rung by two barefoot slave boys. What a sweet childhood ritual! Uh, wait…

Back to the more important issue, Scarlett’s dating life. She’s obsessed with Ashley Wilkes, who is rumoured to be engaged. We follow Scarlett to a social function at Twelve Oaks, the plantation owned by the Wilkes family.

Scarlett immediately begins using her considerable power over the men present to make Ashley jealous. But it looks like for once, she’s not going to get the guy she wants, as Ashley is indeed happily engaged to Melanie Hamilton.

Twelve Oaks plantation
Melanie Hamilton (left) and Ashley Wilkes (right).

We are given a brief glimpse into a charming Southern custom: that of the ladies’ mid-afternoon nap. Complete with a pig-tailed slave girl whose job is to just stand there and fan them while they snooze. Cute!

Scarlett throws caution to the wind and tells Ashley that she LOVES HIM, and that he cannot possibly marry Melanie now that she’s made it clear she is available. He says, I’m sorry darling, no can do, I’m getting married. She slaps him and throws a porcelain vase against the wall.

Enter the only interesting character in the whole film, Rhett Butler. Rhett Butler is played by Clark Gable and has absolute big dick energy on steroids. He is the only one capable of putting Scarlett in her place with well-deserved verbal barbs. I am deeply grateful for his presence.

Rhett Butler has a reputation as a bit of a player and you know he’s been around the proverbial block a few times. Apparently his family are ashamed of him because he took a young woman out on a buggy ride without a chaperone, then refused to marry her. (I’m not sure if that’s code for something). But it’s easy to believe when you see the way he looks at women at parties:

He might be a player, but he’s not an idiot. When the topic of the looming war with the Yankees comes up, the southern gentlemen are foaming at the mouth for some good old wartime fun. Rhett is the only one who talks sense:

“There’s not a cannon factory in the whole South.”

“What difference does that make sir, to a gentleman?”

“I’m afraid it’s going to make a great deal of difference to a great many gentleman, sir.”

“Are you hinting, Mr. Butler, that the Yankees can lick us?”

“I’m not hinting. I’m saying very plainly that the Yankees are better equipped than we. They’re got factories, ship-yards, coalmines, and a fleet to bottle up our harbours and starve us to death. All we’ve got is cotton, slaves… and arrogance.”

“I refuse to listen to any renegade talk!”

“I’m sorry if the truth offends you, sir.”

And with that he waltzes away from the outraged men, causally saying that he “[seems] to be spoiling everyone’s brandy, cigars and dreams of victory.” What a gangster.

Conveniently, minutes later at the same party, the Civil War is announced. The men are ecstatic and run off to enlist. Before joining them, a sweet deluded young bachelor asks Scarlett to marry him, because he’s so enraptured by how pretty she is. He’s clearly never had a full conversation with her otherwise he’d know better.  

She stares out the window, spots Ashley and Melanie kissing goodbye because, you know, they are engaged and happy, and she decides to MARRY THIS RANDOM GUY FOR REVENGE PURPOSES.

Seconds later, we cut to Scarlett looking absolutely miserable in a wedding dress. She is shocked and appalled that her agreement to marry this man, has actually led to her marrying this man. (What’s his name again?)

But guess what! Scarlett is handed a Get Out of Jail Free card! Barely a minute later, it’s revealed that the sap she married has died from pneumonia (through a fade-cut to a handwritten letter, so that should tell you how important he was to the story.)

Now Scarlett’s a widow and has to avoid all social events while officially in mourning. Which sucks, but it’s not like anyone forced her to marry that guy. Now at least she won’t have to live with him or interact with him in any way.

Scarlett’s mum tries to cheer her up and suggests she stay with Melanie in Atlanta for a while. Scarlett hears the words “Visit Melanie” and immediately converts them to “Melanie’s husband Ashley, who I am intending to steal.”

At a fundraising gala for the boys on the front, Scarlett is reunited with the dastardly Rhett, the only man who can look her in the eye without melting into a puddle. He makes it clear he still has the hots for her.

He says that he wants to hear Scarlett say the same words she said to Ashley Wilkes, “I love you”. Scarlett smirks and says “That’s something you’ll never hear from me say Captain Butler, as long as you live!” Which is a good indicator she’s going to turn out to be completely wrong, as usual.

Despite the acerbic nature of their encounters, it’s revealed in the next scene that Scarlett has been getting regular visits from Rhett. He’s been bringing her gifts, like a silk bonnet from Paris, which he explains is most definitely a bribe:

“I’m not kind, I’m just tempting you. I never give anything without expecting something in return. I always get paid.”

“If you think I’ll marry you just to pay for the bonnet, I won’t!”

“Don’t flatter yourself. I’m not a marrying man.”

“Well, I won’t kiss you for it either.”

They have a moment, or rather they don’t, because Rhett decides against kissing Scarlett after all. They have one of their typically fiery exchanges:

… actually, nah.

Rhett: “You need kissing, badly! That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed, and often! And by someone who knows how.”

“And I suppose you think you’re the proper person!”

“I might be, if the right moment ever came.”

“You’re a conceited, black-hearted varmint, Rhett Butler. And I don’t know why I let you come and see me.”

“Because I’m the only man over 16 and under 60 who’s around to show you a good time. But cheer up, the war can’t last forever!”

This is how thrilled Scarlett was to see Melanie and Ashley reunited. This is her ‘thrilled’ face.

For all my shit-talking, the next hour of this almost four-hour-long movie is actually compelling.

A particularly interesting scene is where we see the Confederate army casualty lists passed out in Atlanta. The city square is full of weeping mothers, wives and children, as they start to realise victory over the Yankees may not be guaranteed after all. It’s pretty sad. It’s impossible to sympathise with the ‘noble cause’ the Confederate army were fighting for, but most of the army was made up of naive teenagers and young men.

Rhett randomly pops up again, as he tends to do. He’s angered by the senseless loss of human life: “The South’s sinking to its knees and will never rise again. The cause… the cause of living in the past is dying right in front of us.”

Anyway, back to Scarlett! She’s still living with Melanie, who has the patience of a saint. Ashley briefly returns home over Christmas. Scarlett makes a move on him again. Her attraction to him is puzzling, as he has all the personality of a pet rock. He rejects her far too politely considering his angelic wife is lying in a bed upstairs

Ashley goes off to fight more Civil War battles.

That man is not your husband.

The pacing of this film is bonkers. Suddenly we’ve fast-forwarded nine months and Melanie is heavily pregnant. How convenient, Ashley was only home for a couple of days. Melanie just willed her menstrual cycle to co-operate.

Shit has started to hit the fan by this point. Despite the South’s staunch belief that Atlanta could never be taken by the Yankee army, Atlanta is days away from being taken by the Yankee army.

The hospital is overrun by horrifically injured men- a doctor is forced to amputate a soldier’s gangrenous leg without any chloroform. Scarlett takes one look and runs out of the hospital. For once I don’t judge her.

She’s halfway inside a buggy, ready to ride all the way back to Tara, when the doctor who lives next door reminds her that she has a heavily pregnant, bed-bound sister-in-law. Scarlett’s really pissed off and only stays behind because she promised Ashley she’d look after Melanie. You know, right before she tried to seduce him.

Soon Scarlett is having what is known as a ‘really shitty Tuesday’: Melanie is having contractions, Scarlett’s maidservant Prissy is cracking up under the pressure, and the doctor can’t help them because he’s tending to hundreds of dying men without access to painkillers. Oh, and the Yankees are set to break through the Confederate defense line in about fifteen minutes. Urgh, Tuesdays!

A famous example of cinematography takes place when Scarlett first goes looking for the doctor. As she weaves her way in between injured soldiers, we see they’re no longer able to fit them inside the hospital. The camera pans out to reveal hundreds of them lying in agony on the dirt road, and a tattered Confederate flag moving rather pathetically in the wind.

A bunch of things happen in rapid succession: Melanie gives birth to her baby and miraculously doesn’t die. Scarlett sends Prissy out to find Rhett (he’s at the local brothel). If you needed any more proof that Rhett actually has genuine feelings for Scarlett, for some reason, he steals a horse and buggy to help her and her posse flee.

In true Gone With The Wind fashion, that isn’t a stressful enough. As the Confederate soldiers retreat, they set fire to the leftover ammunition so the Yankee soldiers can’t use it. So now the horse and cart (carrying an infirm Melanie, a two-minute old baby, a panicked maid, and Scarlett and Rhett) is facing down a wall of fire threatening to blow up any second.  

They all survive, of course. Death at this point of the story would be too kind.

The motley crew somehow arrive at the turnoff to Tara. While the horse rests, Rhett announces that Scarlett will have to steer the rest of the way without him, because he’s off to join the Confederate soldiers. Presumably he’s just going to walk in their general direction. He’s having some kind of crisis of conscience and wants to help the army in their last attempts at a graceful defeat. This makes no sense to Scarlett, or to me.

Before Rhett leaves they have another really awkward kiss moment. On top of all the other problematic stuff in this movie, Rhett kisses Scarlett with a fair bit of manhandling, bulldozing through her obvious reluctance. Not good at all.

Things get weird: Scarlett and co arrive at Tara while it’s still dark. Scarlett tries urging the horse on the final two hundred metres and it quite literally drops dead. Unfazed, she steps over its corpse, sprints up to the manor and sees that it’s somehow all in one piece. The door is locked, but she yells out and pounds on it. It swings open to reveal her father. He’s clearly traumatised and doesn’t say much.

Scarlett spots the family nursemaid Mammy, who as usual lifts the entire movie by just appearing. Actress Hattie McDaniel somehow managed to draw a vibrant performance out of a two-dimensional role.

Mammy tells Scarlett the reason the mansion is untouched is because it was used as a base by Yankee troops. They took everything they wanted on their way out and burnt everything else. The O’Hara family are living in dark, empty mansion with no food or money. The turnips growing in the fields are their only immediate options for sustenance.

Things get even weirder. It turns out Scarlett’s mother passed away the night before from typhoid, and her DEAD BODY IS BEING KEPT IN A MAKESHIFT CANDLELIT SHRINE. Of course the family should mourn her but what an insane way for someone to find out their mother has died.

Scarlett is thoroughly shell-shocked by this point. She discovers the only family asset left is a handful of Confederate bonds, which are completely meaningless now. She stumbles out of the house, spots a carrot poking out of the soil, immediately shoves it in her mouth and doubles over (either from hunger pains or the bitterness of this random vegetable, we don’t know). The camera zooms into her face she raises her first, and starts monologue-ing:

“As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me! I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again! No, nor any of my folk… If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”

The camera pans out in a fantastic shot, the orchestra working overtime to make this a really meaningful moment, and that takes us to interval.

That’s it. The film is only going to deteriorate from this point and we have another two hours to go.

STRAP YOURSELVES IN.

When we return, it’s a bright new day. In a divine stroke of irony, Scarlett and her two sisters have been forced to work the fields themselves. They are actually growing and picking cotton, and the youngest sister Sue-Ellen has the gall to complain that her arms are tired???

There are no words.

For once Scarlett isn’t the most annoying character on screen, because she’s working harder than all of them and telling everyone to toughen up. In slightly concerning development, Papa O’Hara keeps referring to his wife as if she’s still alive.

Turns out Scarlett not being annoying is a short-lived phenomena. Soon after the Confederate army officially surrenders, Ashley manages to find his way back to Tara. Scarlett makes a move on him for the third time. Sweet merciful God. He has all the charisma of a damp sock, I don’t understand why she’s doing this. They kiss, but Ashley immediately regrets it and says he will never leave Melanie.

A new problem emerges: the occupying forces are raising the land tax on Tara to $300 (the O’Hara’s have $0).

A second problem emerges: a stray Yankee soldier, probably a deserter, arrives at Tara to loot stuff. Scarlett spots him while she’s upstairs, so she grabs the gun Rhett gave her and shoots him dead. This has no further bearing on the story from this moment on.

Bad things come in threes: While chasing an opportunistic businessman off the Tara property, Scarlett’s father falls off his horse and breaks his neck.

What an eventful few days.

Scarlett decides to go to Atlanta to manipulate someone into giving her $300. Her first victim: Rhett, of course. He’s being held in a Yankee prison but is in no great discomfort. (His guards regularly let him out of his cell so he can take part in their poker games.)

As if things couldn’t get any more ludicrous, Scarlett is wearing a dress, cape and hat that Mammy sewed the day before from the velvet curtains still hanging in the manor. She has the curtain rope tied around her waist as a belt. WHAT IS THIS FILM?

Rhett wises up in time, thank goodness, and tells Scarlett to shove the $300 up her ass.

A stroke of luck for Scarlett darling: she bumps into Frank Kennedy, a sweet man who is engaged to Sue-Ellen. He’s held off marrying her until his business is well-established and he can comfortably provide for her. Awww.

Scarlett clocks that Frank does indeed have $300. And the beginnings of a decent business selling lumber! So she asks him to drive her to her Aunty’s house, and blatantly cooks up a bullshit story about Sue-Ellen marrying a young man because she was tired of waiting around for Frank.

Scarlett’s second marriage is consecrated: between her and Frank’s cheque-book.

You’d think Scarlett’s time mired in poverty would have made her humble, but no. Instead of paying free men to work the lumber yard, she hires a foreman who owns a bunch of convicts, and he’s just going to starve and beat them into being productive. Niiice. She’s roped Ashley into running the business with her and gives her husband Frank a two-metre berth at all times.

Soon business is booming. Scarlett runs into Rhett in Atlanta because of course she does. He’s been released from prison because he’s a straight white man and consequences simply bounce off him.

Scarlett is about to ride her buggy to her lumber mill alone, following a route which cuts through a dodgy-shanty town downriver. We know this isn’t going to end well because Rhett says, “You’re not going to ride that way alone, are you? It’s DANGEROUS.”

Spotting an expensive buggy and an attractive, well-dressed woman inside it, an opportunistic vagrant attacks the cart. He tries to pull Scarlett out of it but she is rescued by another inhabitant of the shanty town. This man turns out to be Big Sam, the former field foreman at Tara. In the book, Scarlett’s attacker is a black man but in the film he is definitely white, I suppose to make some minor concessions.

Also to create plausible deniability around the next part of the story: where Frank, Ashley and a bunch of other men participate in a ‘political meeting’ that is in fact a raid by the fucking KU KLUX KLAN. I’m not joking.

It’s an easy thing to miss in the movie; after all, Scarlett’s attacker isn’t black in the movie. After Scarlett is rescued, she makes it home shaken but unharmed. That evening Frank, Ashley and a few others go to a ‘political meeting’ which turns out to be a revenge attack on the shanty town. (This isn’t shown).

Rhett somehow catches wind of the plot, and manages to stop the police arresting the men by claiming they were out drinking with him all night. Ashley is unsteady on his feet and slurring his words, but from a gunshot wound. Thankfully one of the fellow racists is a doctor.

Scarlett is so concerned about Ashley (yuck) that she hasn’t even noticed her husband Frank hasn’t returned yet. Turns out he’s dead! Shot through the head defending his wife’s non-existent honour!

Finally, after two and a half hours of saying he’s not a marrying man, Rhett decides to eat his words. He visits the newly widowed Scarlett and proposes. It sounds more like a business arrangement. He reminds her of his wealth and the fact they could have fun together. He isn’t foolish enough to expect any great emotional investment from her.

She’s only smiling because he promised her a big diamond.

She’s hesitant, but then after some forceful kissing and the promise of a really big diamond ring, she agrees. She’s overjoyed that she will continue to be rich.

So they have an lavish honeymoon. Scarlett’s dressed in designer clothing constantly (she does look pretty fantastic), and Rhett even promises to help her restore Tara manor to its former glory.

Half an hour before this godforsaken film ends, Scarlett gives birth to their baby. She doesn’t seem super maternal but Rhett is besotted with the little girl, who he names Bonnie Blue Butler.

While she is finally back living the life of luxury she always knew she deserved, for some reason Scarlett is still pining after the wet blanket Ashley. She informs Rhett she doesn’t want any more children, or for him to touch her in any way anymore. Ouch.

She’s brainstorming new and inventive ways of wasting Rhett’s time.

Rhett is as pragmatic as always, and despite his obvious feelings of hurt, he channels his attention into being a good dad and thoroughly spoiling his kid.

Scarlett visits Ashley at their lumber mill. Blah blah blah, they talk about the old days, blah blah blah. Fond reminisces lead to them sharing a platonic embrace, and at that exact moment Ashley’s sister and mother walk into the mill. Despite the fact Scarlett and Ashley are old friends and business partners, this is apparently a shocking sight. (??)

I gotta say, a hug is a really underwhelming and illogical thing to get slut-shamed for. I’m also surprised that this is the first time eyebrows have been raised over the nature of Scarett and Ashley’s relationship, all things considered.

So Scarlett is embarrassed (why?? She’s done way worse without conscience) but perhaps she’s never been called a harlot before. She doesn’t want to attend Ashley’s birthday party that night but Rhett makes her go, saying he doesn’t care about her reputation but if she doesn’t show her face, she will be effectively admitting guilt and making their daughter look bad by default. Because he’s feeling spiteful, he picks out her raunchiest dress and drops her off at the party alone.

She walks in the door, everyone spots her and goes all silent, and she stands there looking hot as hell and absolutely overdressed:

The iconic icy glare! This single frame is worth more than the rest of the film.

I really wish this iconic outfit could have been worn by more sympathetic character as a ‘revenge’ moment. Scarlett’s serving an absolute look, but it’s not as if she’s been suffering the entire movie and she finally gets to stick it to some judgemental old women. It’s simply a rather odd moment, much like every other moment in this fucking film.

Melanie is a class act as usual. She graciously welcomes Scarlett to the party, saying, “What a lovely dress!” without even adding ‘For a mob wife hitting the town in Vegas!”.

Stay with me, we’re almost there.

Later that night, Scarlett waltzes down her mansion’s ridiculously massive staircase for a nightcap. Unfortunately she runs into her very drunk husband.

I really can’t say for sure without reading the book, which I have absolutely no intention of doing, but it seems like Margaret Mitchell had some really problematic ideas about what constituted a sexy love/hate relationship (if such a thing can even exist). Rhett and Scarlett never, not once, have a moment where they mutually lean in to share a kiss. Every moment of physical intimacy we witness are ones wrestled from Scarlett by force.

I’m well aware of the love/ hate romance trope: two strong personalities meet, initially clash, constantly argue, but fall in love along the way because of how honest they can be with each other. Some of my favourite literary/ TV couples fall into this category.

I think this trope is what Mitchell was going for. Why else would she write such an elaborate and involved history between two characters, seemingly unable to escape each other? But their relationship is a pretty textbook example of a terrible one.

So Scarlett finds Rhett massively drunk, alone, sitting at the dining room table in the dark. (Never a good sign…) Rhett teases Scarlett about Ashley’s birthday party, correctly guessing that Melanie didn’t try to embarrass Scarlett in any way.

They bicker about Ashley for the 400th time… Scarlett says Rhett is ‘jealous of something he will never understand’, but Rhett gets a jab in by saying he knows that Scarlett hasn’t cheated on him, but only because Ashley is a gentleman. He also says something really awful about wanting to ‘crush her skull like a walnut’ to get thoughts of Ashley out of her head. He even jokingly pretends to do it:

Scarlett keeps her cool, gets up and walks away. Rhett chases after her, forcefully kisses her at the base of the stairs, she tries to push him off but isn’t able to, and as dark and stormy music crashes in the background, Rhett carries Scarlett up the stairs exclaiming, “This is one night you won’t lock me out!”

In other words, a highly disturbing precursor to a sexual assault. Is there any other possible way of interpreting it? When Scarlett and Rhett first agree to start sleeping in separate beds, Scarlett makes a point of reminding Rhett that she’ll be locking her bedroom door. Rhett contemptuously replies that if he wanted to get into her bedroom, a locked door wouldn’t stop him. (!!!!!) That is an actual threat!

If your first instinct is to say, well it was a different time, I would say: yes that’s true, and that’s what makes it disturbing. It used to be impossible to reach a conviction in cases of martial rape, because being married to a man used to make you their legal property.

We cut to the morning after. Scarlett wakes up alone, smiling and seemingly happy as a clam. This is been cited by some viewers as proof that Rhett didn’t force himself on Scarlett, otherwise why would she be smiling?

But this is happening within the twisted, upside-down logic of a bad relationship. Scarlett O’Hara has never been given a healthy way of expressing her strong personality as a woman. Her need to survive at all costs manifests in a distrustful, ‘every person for themselves’ attitude. She’s never let herself believe that Rhett genuinely likes being around her, spiky personality and all (he says several times that he ‘admires her spirit’ and likes the fact she’s selfish and ambitious). So perhaps in Scarlett’s brain, Rhett’s actions finally prove that he does indeed desire her.

As twenty-first century audiences, we can recognise that Rhett did something terrible and not excusable. His feelings for Scarlett, and the fact he is married to her, does not magically stop this from being an instance of rape.

Apparently in the book, Rhett is immediately ashamed of what he’s done and avoids Scarlett for weeks. In the film, he appears the following morning and awkwardly apologises. He suggests they get a divorce, because clearly their union isn’t working, and makes a point of saying he will financially provide for her. Weirdly enough, Scarlett gets frustrated and says she doesn’t want a divorce. (Again, I think this is Margaret Mitchell doing the whole “they secretly love each other but are too proud to say so, awww” thing). Rhett says he’s taking Bonnie to London, effective immediately.

Okay, again with the erratic pacing! Somehow in the space of a few minutes, Bonnie has become a four year old. For reasons unbeknownst to me, Rhett and Bonnie go to London for exactly one scene.

Why is this child in this story?

Rhett and Bonnie return to Atlanta. I have no idea how much time has passed in the story because time is an illusion and this entire film is pain.

Up their return, Scarlett and Rhett have a tense exchange at the top of the stairs. He comments that she looks pale, she says it’s because she’s pregnant (he’s the father), she adds that she doesn’t want the baby any more than he does, and he replies, “Don’t worry, you might get lucky and have an accident!”. Outraged, Scarlett lunges at him, overbalances and falls down the stairs. I just-

Scarlett loses the baby, which is super sad. She wants to call Rhett to her bedside so they can mourn together but she doesn’t. In another room he is drinking himself to death from guilt, and somehow they don’t end up having a conversation. Guys!! COMMUNICATE.

The next day Rhett tries to apologise for the things he said and suggests they start over, if that’s what Scarlett wants. Meanwhile their daughter is frolicking in the backyard. She is definitely not spoiled, she’s just dressed in head-to-toe custom couture while riding her miniature pony around the backyard.

I wish I was joking, but seconds after this, Bonnie attempts to do a trick-jump while riding side-saddle, falls off her pony and dies.

!!!!!

Words fail me. This toddler was introduced fifteen minutes ago, added absolutely nothing to the story, and gets killed off in a tragic accident ten minutes before the film finishes.

Rhett has a nervous breakdown and refuses to let them take Bonnie’s body for burial for three days. What is it with this film and dead bodies? Melanie comes over, coaxes him out of his psychotic state, and promptly collapses from her own chronic health condition.

A visual representation of how I feel after watching this film.

Everyone congregates outside Melanie’s sickbed. She clearly does not have long left. Everyone is very sad, yadda, yadda, yadda. Scarlett finally starts to realise that Melanie was her only friend and she treated her like total crap. She starts to feel guilty and sad, almost like someone developing a conscience for the first time in 30 years.

Melanie gives Scarlett some advice before moving on to the spirit world, far away from everyone’s shit. Something along the lines of: ‘Maybe actually talk to your husband, he loves you. And do me a favour and look after Ashley and my son.’ She is so classically angelic and doesn’t even take her final chance to indulge in some petty comments, like, keep your tongue out of my husband’s mouth, or, why can’t you focus on the man standing in front of you, who is happy to take your shit day in, day out?

That’s because she’s so nice.

So Scarlett returns to the living room. Ashley starts lamenting that he won’t be able to live without Melanie, that she saved him and he loves her so much, etc, etc. It finally dawns on Scarlett that she’s been pining after a fantasy of a life with Ashley which never existed. SCARLETT BABE, I COULD HAVE TOLD YOU THAT THREE HOURS AGO.

It was at this precise moment, she realised that she’d fucked up.

Startled, Scarlett looks up to realise Rhett has gone back to their house. She’s having a very theatrical moment because it finally dawns on her that she DOES ACTUALLY LOVE RHETT and she needs to RUSH HOME AND TELL HIM. By this point, I don’t even know if I care whether these two assholes end up together.

Scarlett finds Rhett packing up his stuff. I can’t help feeling sorry for him, because aside from the really terrible thing, he has spent the rest of the film trying to communicate with Scarlett and getting absolutely nothing back. He displayed some semblance of a conscience and at least admitted when he was wrong. And he lost his cute daughter who was only alive for three scenes.

He tells Scarlett that he really is leaving and there’s no way she can dissuade him.

She starts cracking up for real. She chases after him, begging him to stay: “But if you leave, what will I dooo?”

Rhett looks her squarely in the eye, mentally ravaged by the last eight years interacting with this woman, and says it.

“Frankly my dear, I just don’t give a damn.”

The last thing we see is Scarlett tearfully realising her only option is to spiritually recuperate at Tara. She’s monologe-ing again, going on tangents about winning Rhett back, but I’m not holding my breath. The smaltzy music kicks in again and thankfully, mercifully, the parade of torture ends.

THERE YOU HAVE IT FOLKS. Without a doubt the absolute worst ‘best film of all time’. Good grief.

My biggest problem with the Gone With the Wind is its pervasive, overblown sense of self importance, and the fact your enjoyment as an audience member entirely hinges on whether you find Scarlett O’Hara’s terrible behaviour amusing.

If you run through the erratic zig-zagging line of plot points, you can see just how nonsensical it is. Almost four hours, and for what??? What is the payoff?? What is it??? I DON’T THINK THERE IS ONE!

Like I mentioned at the beginning of this piece: the black characters of Gone With the Wind are poorly drawn caricatures, but they’re also barely in the film. The real sin is the way the film pushes the lives and suffering of millions of slaves to the complete background. Whether individual plantation owners treated their slaves well is besides the point: the Confederate Army were fighting for their ‘right’ to own other people.

The practice of slavery itself is only mentioned a handful of times in the movie and always as a throwaway line of dialogue. Scarlett’s dad talks about the importance of ‘treating the darkies kindly’ and Ashley flippantly claims he would have freed his father’s slaves if the war hadn’t happened first. I suppose these lines were included to make the characters more sympathetic. (It didn’t work.)

The film has been involved in some recent discussions, especially in light of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests. In June of this year, HBO unveiled its revamped streaming service HBO MAX. Gone With The Wind was featured on the platform and was not paired with any kind of accompanying material dissecting the flagrant biases and racism present in the film.

This prompted director and screenwriter John Ridley (Twelve Years A Slave) to write a piece which was published in the LA Times. I have copied some quotes from his excellent piece down below, and linked the full article. HBO did indeed end up removing the film, and will be bringing it back to the service once they have created some accompanying material to more appropriately place it in its troublesome context. (Which I believe is a measured and sensible approach.)

“[Gone With The Wind] doesn’t just ‘fall short’ with regard to representation. It is a film that glorifies the antebellum south. It is a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color.”

“It’s a film that, as part of the narrative of the ‘Lost Cause,’ romanticizes the Confederacy in a way that continues to give legitimacy to the notion that the secessionist movement was something more, or better, or more noble than what it was — a bloody insurrection to maintain the “right” to own, sell and buy human beings.”

“Let me be real clear. I don’t believe in censorship. I don’t think Gone With the Wind should be relegated to a vault in Burbank. I would just ask, after a respectful amount of time has passed, that the film be re-introduced to the HBO Max platform along with other films that give a more broad-based and complete picture of what slavery and the Confederacy truly were. Or, perhaps it could be paired with conversations about narratives and why it’s important to have many voices sharing stories from different perspectives rather than merely those reinforcing the views of the prevailing culture.”

You can read John Ridely’s full piece in the LA Times here.

Creativity Amongst Crisis: James Emerson

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

I recently put out the call to my immediate musical network, to see who would be happy to share with Fever Pitch Magazine how they have adapted during this period of social distancing. The last few months have been disorientating and frequently exhausting, and stage four lockdown has recently been implemented in Victoria. Prioritising your mental and physical wellbeing is more important than ever.

This prompted me to start an ongoing series called Creativity Amongst Crisis. Today we will be hearing from James Emerson, a young baritone who is currently studying his Masters of Music in Opera Performance (and consequently experiencing this new age of Zoom lectures, Zoom rehearsals, Zoom singing lessons…) You can follow James’ projects through his Instagram account here.


Can you tell us a bit about the kind of repertoire and musical career you are interested in, and how you’re currently working towards it?

I am a young baritone currently doing my Masters of Music in Opera Performance at The University of Melbourne. I am aiming to have a career as a versatile classical singer who is able to perform in operas, concerts, recitals and perhaps some musical theatre too! 

What have you found to be most challenging aspects of this time of COVID-19, as a performing artist and more generally day to day?

One of the most difficult things has been being unable to perform for others, as well as being a bit restricted when it comes to working collaboratively in a team. The online space has been really interesting, but I hope it has made many of us realise just how important social interactions are.

I really do miss singing in front of an audience and being able to work with some truly amazing people. It has been such a tough time for the entire industry, but I know once we get through this, the arts will thrive more than ever. On a more personal note, I miss being able to catch up with family and friends and being able to work with my singing students in person, rather than over Zoom or Google Meet.

Anything particular you’d like to reflect on in this strange and disorientating socially-distanced period?

I was very fortunate to go on my first Europe Trip from Christmas until the end of January. I had never been overseas before (except to New Zealand once) and it truly was a life changing experience for me. Reflecting upon this now, I cannot believe I was just over there and just how quickly the world has changed due to this pandemic.

I do feel very blessed and lucky to have had this experience as I was able to do something on my own and see a different side to the world, as well as doing it all just before everything happened. It has greatly inspired me to continue my work and to keep on singing.

Do you have any projects in the works you’d like to share?

Currently I am involved in our Masters performance of Die Zauberflöte, where I have been cast as Papageno. Before Stage 4 was introduced to Melbourne, we were intending to have this filmed/ performed in September, but it has now been postponed until the end of the year.

I really am looking forward to this production, as I performed the role of First Boy with Opera Australia back in 2009 and Papageno has always been my dream role. So to have this time to learn the role and perform is really exciting!

James as First Boy, in Opera Australia’s 2009 production of Die Zauberflöte.

Have you learnt anything specific that you may not have been forced to learn, were it not for COVID-19 restrictions and the flow-on effects?

During this time, I’ve been able to reflect on myself as a performer and what I need to fix in order to hopefully take things to the next level. For me, acting is one of my weaknesses, but over the last few months and with some excellent coaching from our Masters course, I feel like I am starting to gain a better understanding of what is needed in a role and how to go above and beyond what is written in the score.

How do you sustain hope for the future, or overcome periods where you feel less motivated?

To me the answer is quite simple. We sustain hope by ensuring that we leave a legacy for the next generation. It’s not about me, it’s about the others.

My family, friends, singing students, mentors and fellow colleagues all inspire me to continue, to feel like I have something to contribute to this world, and that’s what I intend to do once we return to some kind of normalcy.

There are periods, which I am sure many of us have experienced throughout this year, where we can feel completely unmotivated and perhaps even question why we do what we do. I personally think you need to look beyond the present, and have some hope and drive to go above and beyond. It helps to see this time as an opportunity to plan, to work on a role, a new piece, a language or just do something that you’ve always wanted to do, but haven’t had time.

I really believe our generation has a great opportunity ahead of us to shape the future of the performing arts in this country. When we are able to perform again, I’m sure many new ideas will come to surface and it will inspire more people to take an interest in what we do.

James Emerson

Baritone

James Emerson holds a Bachelor of Music with first class Honours from the University of Melbourne and is currently completing his Masters of Music – Opera Performance. In 2019 James was a finalist in the National Liederfest competition and was runner up in the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic’s Aria Competition.

James made his debut as a soloist in the Melbourne Recital Centre with the Melbourne Bach Choir’s performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion where he performed the roles of Peter, The High Priest and the 1st Priest. The Age stated that “bass-baritone James Emerson enjoyed a laudable debut in handling the second bass’s responsibilities”.

Selfishness or Self-Maintenance?

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

Selfish, self-centred, self-absorbed, self-serving. All of these terms skew negative; selfish implies a person who is happy to put themselves first to the detriment of others, even when they have other options. The other three call to mind a person who would think about every event in relation to themselves, or who may not even consider that other people and their problems exist.

What are the words that exist at the other end of the spectrum? I’ve always found the phrase ‘self-care’ a bit grating, but the definition is rather lovely: “The practice of taking an active role in protecting and maintaining one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.”

I’m trying to become more conscious about putting myself first, or more accurately, in the centre of my own plans for my own life. (Which is pretty logical when you think about it.) It doesn’t sit naturally with me but I’ve found a good way of framing it: you either develop an ego, or you learn to act like you do.

I used to be reluctant to take on new opportunities because I vaguely thought I needed to be ‘ready’ first, and perfect my skills in theory. A few years ago I would never have started up a blog! Although that wasn’t entirely due to lack of confidence- I didn’t want to start a blog unless I knew I could structure it well and tackle particular topics I was passionate about. After a year of studying musicology, I realised I could treat a blog as means to an end, the end being practical journalism and writing experience.

The following two quotes helped me completely flip my mindset on being ready/ taking random opportunities life throws you:

It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.

Hugh Laurie- Actor, writer, musician

If someone offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure that you can do it, say yes, and work out how to do it later.

Richard Branson- Serial entrepreneur, founder of Virgin Airlines, general out-of-the-box thinker

The way these two men describe it (and it’s worth noting that both have had sustained and successful portfolio careers), the willingness to take chances and try new things can be learnt. And it’s true! You can become better at putting your hand up, without being stopped by the thought ‘Am I worthy of this opportunity?’. You’ll probably never stop asking yourself that question, but you can learn to ignore it.

To be honest and quite rude, the world is full of people who may not deserve the opportunities they have been given (look at the president of the United States, and the person who wrote a few chapters of Twilight fan fiction and got a book deal and a multi-million dollar film adaptation in exchange). They aren’t apologising, so why should you?

Now for some music-orientated thoughts on the topic… After years of being an avid music student, soaking up everything said to me by teachers and coaches, I’ve realised the best thing I ever did for myself as a performer was concentrate my energy on the skills that had nothing to do with singing.

Being a capable singer is a matter of discipline, technique and healthy sound production. I’m not downplaying the skill of being able to accurately replicate pitch and rhythm, read music, and be heard across a concert hall. But those things alone don’t make you an artist. Interpretation, acting, nuance of phrasing, being generous with your colleagues, telling a story, having charisma on stage… These are the qualities that make you a performer. And they require you to form your own opinions.

Photo credit: Stella J.J.

More than becoming technically faultless, my ultimate goal is to become an independent artist who is capable of maturely receiving constructive critique, but is still strongly guided by my own internal compass and creative ideas. Finding some midway point between trusting myself, but still being able to listen to others.

Listening to mentors and experts is essential but it can be hard. Especially if you’ve thrown years of your life and thousands of dollars at a dream of singing opera in Europe, for example.

Over the course of many conversations during my degree, I learnt that while there are hundreds of opera houses in Europe (Germany has one in almost every town), there must be thousands of singers. The general standard of talent and technique that a top or mid-tier opera house would see during their auditions would be staggering. I have no doubt there would be hundreds of working singers in Europe who could become star soloists overnight. They might spend their entire careers singing in the chorus without progressing past an audition.

So the odds are intimidating and kind of ridiculous. Why would anyone bother? I guess the better question to ask is, why not?

Nothing is certain. In many sad and scary ways, COVID-19 has proven that. So if chasing a difficult dream is what you want to do, I absolutely respect that. Go for it. But go for it with your eyes wide open. Know that things aren’t necessarily ‘fair’. No matter how talented or determined you are, there is no absolute guarantee of success. You will always be at the mercy of certain forces outside your control: the random alignment of being in the right room on the right day, the people around you auditioning, the people on the audition panel…

But no matter the outcome, pursuing a goal you are passionate about will bring its own rewards. You might end up having an exciting and fulfilling life in the process!

Creativity Amongst Crisis: Josh Winestock, composer

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

I recently put out the call to my immediate musical network, to see who would be happy to share with Fever Pitch Magazine how they have adapted during this period of social distancing. The last few months have been disorientating and frequently exhausting, and stage three lockdown has recently been re-implemented in Victoria. Prioritising your mental and physical wellbeing is more important than ever.

This prompted me to start an ongoing series called Creativity Amongst Crisis. Today we will be hearing from emerging composer Josh Winestock. Josh is currently based in Sydney and works within a variety of ensembles, including new music ensemble SPIRAL and protest choir The Black-Throated Finches, part of environmental advocacy group Extinction Rebellion (XR).


Can you tell us a few sentences about yourself, what your musical practice is, and how you’re currently working on it.

I’m a Sydney-based composer and improvisor interested in experimental, independent and community music making. Before the pandemic I was involved in a collaboration with dancers, running an activist choir, playing with and writing for my amplified ensemble Spiral, and writing a bit of acoustic instrumental music here and there as well. I try to exist in many musical worlds, but I think my music takes a lot from minimalism, impressionism, folk and modern jazz fusion.

Josh conducting a flash mob choir as part of a protest by Extinction Rebellion Sydney (XR), December 2019. Photo credit: Rigmor Helene Berg

What have you found to be most challenging aspects of this time of COVID-19, as a performing artist and more generally day to day?

Like many people I went into lockdown with many projects that I thought I would be able to get through, and of course it wasn’t that simple. The uncertainty of the situation, the many questions of ‘how much can I get done’, ‘how much am I supposed to get done during this time’, ‘what is even possible at the moment’, ‘how long will we be locked down’, were part of why it was difficult to stay focused. I started the lockdown by practicing guitar a lot, but as months went on I found it difficult to motivate myself with no rehearsals or performances to work towards.

Josh conducting protest choir The Black-Throated Finches as part of Extinction Rebellion Sydney (XR). December 2019. Photo credit: Rigmor Helene Berg

Anything particular you’d like to reflect on in this strange and disorientating socially-distanced period?

I think musicians have a really strong awareness of time, since we have to divide and manipulate it pretty carefully when we’re writing or playing music. Being on online calls I became really aware of how relative time is on this platform. Anyone who’s tried to make music over web conferencing knows about the staggering time delay that makes it impossible to play any conventional music together without comical results.

Experimenting with it made me realise how time is relative in that online space; two people clapping might be perceived as in sync from your perspective but out of sync from mine, just based on the speed at which each person’s video stream reaches our computers. Maybe one person’s internet connection is getting worse, so they might slow down from our perspective, but for them it’s the rest of us who are getting slower. It’s a bit like the way the universe works, where we “see” distant stars thousands of years into the past, where time and space are literally distorted according to the speed of light. In this environment we may think we’re playing “out of time”, but there’s actually no such thing as playing “in time”, there’s no objective perspective on the flow of time; how can you play in time in a space where the word “simultaneous” is meaningless? That’s pretty cool I reckon, and I think there’s a good piece in there somewhere…

Do you have any projects in the works you’d like to share?

I’ve been involved in pretty diverse bunch of web-based musical projects during lockdown: a few socially distanced orchestras, an isolated choir video project I’m still editing, and some specially commissioned pieces for Zoom with Ensemble Onsombl. So I’m feeling like a bit of an expert on isolation internet music! One project has stood out to me, something I think produced genuine and worthwhile art that embraced the circumstances rather than trying to recreate the music we would otherwise be making.

For a while I’ve been playing with a longstanding free-improv collective in Sydney, the Splinter Orchestra, and we were invited to play at the Avant Whatever festival in Melbourne, which was sabotaged by the pandemic. The organiser decided to take the festival online, which isn’t self-explanatory at all; “taking the festival online” isn’t itself a course of action, it’s the start of a complex and unfamiliar discussion.

Still from the full video performance by Splinter Orchestra, ‘Gesture & Suerte’. You can find the full video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acW0PNvfHCg

The Splinter Orchestra, as a group, has a really strong connection to “place”; they’ve gone into the bush multiple times to play, walking around and engaging with the sounds of nature. During lockdown we took our regular weekly plays onto Zoom, chatting and catching up before trying to improvise with each other through our microphones, recording our sound locally at high quality to sync up later.

Fortunately we don’t generally play music with a central rhythmic pulse, so the time delay that sabotages most attempts at music making over the web didn’t destroy us, but of course there were a lot of other issues. We could only ever hear a few of the fifteen-odd people on the call, and even those not very well, with Zoom struggling to distinguish between intentional sound and background noise, mangling our playing in the process. We got some decent recordings out of those early sessions when we combined our recorded audio in post, but while we were playing it was unsettling and frustrating, and the online environment was obviously totally at odds with Splinter’s usual engagement with place.

Over time though we found different ways of working with the medium. A couple of people had been messing around with virtual backgrounds (as you do on a friendly Zoom call), or typing stupid comments in the chat box during a play. One of us put a doll in front of the camera to replace his own face.

Still from the full video performance by Splinter Orchestra, ‘Gesture & Suerte’. You can find the full video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acW0PNvfHCg

We gradually realised that these were the kinds of things that Zoom was good at conveying, and we learned to focus on them; we had people using coloured lights and knitted hats to create kaleidoscopic patterns in their window, or people putting coloured film over the camera and distorting their own faces, people dressing up in costumes and face paint, people tricking their virtual backgrounds into painting their faces digitally, or combining themselves with swarms of monochrome pigeons or cartoon characters.

I enjoyed using brights lights to create abstract patterns over video I had lying around on my computer. We captured both the gallery view and several different speaker views to edit together and overlay in post, and we could embrace the subjectivity of each person’s perceived experience of the improv, influenced by their connection speed and the mysteries of the algorithm.

We ended up presenting a 73-minute video piece at the festival, and I’m really proud of it. I think we moved past trying to cling on to what we had lost, and we found something really new. It felt distinctive to this era of isolation, but not hopeless or a pale imitation of something that would have been better in person. It was different; not better, but under the circumstances kinda “right”.

How do you sustain hope for the future, or overcome periods where you feel less motivated?

I think I got pretty weighed down by all my plans when the lockdown first started. Things felt a lot more positive when I moved on from the projects I had originally planned that I was obviously not going to get around to. I’ve ended up being pretty busy recently just by embracing things as they come up, doing this as they interest me, and I think there’s something to learn from that. As for hope for the future though, that’s a hard one…