Saturday, September 13, 2008

Moving Midway

In Moving Midway, unchecked commercial expansion threatens to accomplish what 140 years of post-Civil War misremembering could not: destroy the myth of the Southern plantation. Godfrey Cheshire's film - an exploration of the ambivalence felt towards that myth by himself, his family and American culture at large - takes pains to show the continued relevance of the Civil War and its implications to 21st century lives (even beginning the film with that oft-quoted Faulkner line "The past is never dead. It isn't even past") but it also suggests an approaching end to a harmful mythology that continues to exert an absurdly pervasive influence over an entire region.

The impetus for Cheshire's film - part personal essay, part work of film/cultural criticism - is the decision of his cousin, Charles Hinton, to move the family plantation (located just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina) where he grew up and where Cheshire spent his childhood summers, to a quieter area as rapid commercialization has turned the bucolic area into a paint-by-numbers shopping district. (Hinton has no qualms, however, about assisting this process, having sold the land to a developer who will transform the property into something called The Shoppes at Midway Plantation, an ill-advised name indicative of the country's lack of critical perspective toward its own past.) As Cheshire chronicles the preparations for the move, he gamely works through his mixed feelings toward the plantation - his subjective enthusiasms checked by his objective understanding of the property's historical usage. Understandably more critical of the mythology is the filmmaker's companion, NYU Professor Robert Hinton, a descendant of the plantation's slaves who thrills that the land will be paved over so that nothing can ever grow on the ground where his ancestors toiled. And yet, Hinton maintains a strange reverence for the house itself. Even as the concept of the plantation holds less and less allure for each succeeding generation, its mythology is far from being fully eradicated.

But where did this mythology - transforming what was often a dilapidated manor house run by brutal forced labor into a glorious representation of Southern life - come from? Mostly, Cheshire suggests, it didn't start until well after the Civil War, in the early years of the 20th century, and arose largely from a false nostalgia for a "simpler" time. Tracing the development of the myth through film and literature, Cheshire highlights the two key cinematic works (both based on popular novels) that cemented the enduring images of Southern life: The Birth of a Nation (which directly triggered the rebirth of the KKK) and Gone with the Wind (which presented the lasting paradigm of the plantation myth). Interestingly, the counter-myth had been developed decades before in Harriet Beecher Stowe's enormously influential antebellum novel Uncle Tom's Cabin which exposed the injustices of the slave-labor system. But as Cheshire points out, the counter-myth may have won the war, but it was the myth that won the peace. At least, potentially, until now. Americans may still re-enact the Civil War and Southerners may still talk of "state's rights," but with the rapid rebuilding of the American landscape as one continuous strip-mall, the pull of an individualized, regional past seems to finally be lessening. Charles Hinton may, like the Confederate Army after Gettysburg, be forced to retreat in the face of an encroaching enemy, but how long before his new property becomes threatened with a fresh suburban development? With the increasing homogenization of the landscape, the dying out of antiquated notions of Southern identity (as still articulated by Cheshire's 79-year old mother) and an increasingly prevalent understanding of the South as, in the filmmaker's words, a "multi-racial culture" (which can no longer be contained by the simple black/white dichotomy), comes the foreseeable end to such regrettable myths as that of the glorious plantation. Whatever the negative effects of cultural homogenization, there is at least this one positive to be found. In the end, this may be the true lesson of Cheshire's remarkable film.

1 comment:

gina landi said...

Sounds fascinating - and probably an important film for the non-Southerner to see. I'm not from the South and barely have an understand of the complex history, but I've always felt people have been way too afraid of this whole region. Understandable, given what happened down there, but it needs to be examined and experienced before we react.