June 1, 2010
In elementary school, my desire to be white was so strong, I created two imaginary sisters. They were both older and white with red hair and lived in California. One’s name was Gina, and the other’s was Tammy. I named her Tammy after the character in the 1957 film Tammy and the Bachelor directed by Joseph Pevney. Who could be whiter than Tammy?
Tammy is not a good movie. It isn’t even a “bad” movie that amuses its way to being “good” (Frankie & Annette have a special place in my heart). It’s just bland and uninventive. I know the Beach Party movies aren’t winning any medals for innovation, but they at least possess a certain stupid energy. Tammy is a joyless film. A strange statement for a movie about a girl whose most cherished attribute is overzealousness, but even Reynold’s sparkling sparkles can’t cover up the fact (fact=my opinion) that no person’s love went into making the film. No one cared about it. Watching Tammy is like watching a small orphan roam through a busy market. We question the ways of the universe: How could this happen? How did it end up this way? Isn’t anyone looking after it? Doesn’t anyone care? Doesn’t anyone care?”
No. No one cares.
That is the problem.
How dare Universal slap this, AND subsequent Tammy movies, on the public, and how dare the public gobble this up. I am very forgiving when it comes to wide screen technicolor movies. Doubly so if it’s a movie that I enjoyed as a child. The very fact that they are Cinemascope with Stereophonic sound will keep me watching, but it cannot be faked with Tammy . It’s really unfortunate since Debbie Reynolds has no shortage of charm (in other movies).
Tambrey “Tammy” Tyree is a seventeen year old back woods girl living with her grandfather John Dinwitty (Walter Brennan, the film’s only saving grace) in the swamps of Mississippi. One day, while out being woefully ignorant of the modern world, she discovers the barely living body of Peter Brent (a dashingly handsome Leslie Nielsen) in the wreckage of a plane crash. She nurses him back to health, and of course falls for him. In return for her care, Brent promises her grandfather that should anything happen to him, Tammy would be more than welcome to stay at the Brent family home. In a shocking turn of events, something does happen to grandfather Dinwitty. He is arrested for moonshining, and off Tammy goes to appall/charm the Brents with her hardcore Christianity and heartwarming old fashioned ways.
In Mississippi, there’s no better celebration of heartwarming old fashioned ways than Pilgrimage Week, a journey back to the antebellum south:
The pilgrimage, according to The Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau, brings in tourists who want to visit the homes of the town. Scheduled tours are available to view seven antebellum homes. They are the Auburn, Longwood, Magnolia Hall, Melrose, Monmouth, Rosalie and Stanton Hall. In the Fall, plan to stay three days to see all of these homes.
The owners dress in period costumes and personally take a tour through their homes. They tell the history of the home, and the furniture of the period is intact. The monies collected from the pilgrimage are used to keep up the homes.
At the Brent home (Brentwood), Mother Brent (Fay Wray) takes Pilgrimage Week quite seriously thank you very much. Each year Brentwood hosts the “Rebel Ball.” A Jezebel style dance. Unfortunately for us, Bette Davis is not there to spice things up. Instead we must make do with pandering home owners and gullible tourists in a world where everyone has forgotten about the defining characteristic of the antebellum south: Slavery.
To say they have forgotten is actually not accurate. Members of the Brent household do reference slavery. In a matter of fact, off handed way. The maid Osai (played by the incredible Louise Beavers in an outrageously small part) expresses her irritation at being forced to wear the itchy “slave time bandanna” to the ball. Peter points out the work of the bookshelf is made by “slave artists”. Trying to make a buck, Peter’s aunt Renie (the very likable Mildred Natwick) tries somewhat jokingly to pass her own art off as the work of “slave artists”.
The problem is you cannot celebrate the antebellum South without celebrating slavery. A celebration of slavery is not just the celebration of the oppression of Black Americans, but of a pain wrought on all Americans. Every part of antebellum life was made possible by the enslavement of millions of people.
Hey remember those wonderful days of yore when we all used to wear pink suits? Ah yes those were lovely times. Easier times. Everyday was like Easter. What’s that? How did we get them so pink? Oh we dipped them in the blood of newborn Frenchmen.
In a coffee shop recently I overheard a conversation between a man and woman. Both were in their 60s, and both were white. They were talking about their heroes. The woman listed Thomas Jefferson as one (right after Secretariat). The man replied,
Man: Yeah, I used to think highly of Jefferson but then I visited Monticello, and the things he did…
Woman: Oh yeah, you mean the slaves…
Man: Yes, it’s just so horrible.
Woman: Yes I know, and I struggled with that, but you know, I’ve made peace with it.
Man: …But how do you make peace with something like that?
An astute question sir. How do you make peace with something like that? Should it be made peace with? If not, how do you go about living in this country, especially as an African American? Do we forget? In Tammy it seems to just be a fact of life. Something to even joke about. Humor is the greatest coping mechanism, but how do you reconcile the history of your family, home, city, culture etc without grieving everyday?
I do not know much about modern daily life in the south, and I have only been there once. I am a yankee through and through. The rural south has always seemed magical and mysterious and full of secrets to me. Both beautiful and frightening.
To some people (my sister), this is due to the different natural environment, somber swamps and weeping willows.
To other people (me) this air of otherwordlyness is a direct result of that peculiar institution, as though the years of trauma climbed slowly up into the air where it hangs forever in a cloud discernible only to those who look for it (we may notice the shade but not what’s blocking the light). Once they do, they will see that haze. It has been there all along.
We are haunted by the ghost of slavery.
This past fall I went to Montgomery for a wedding. The city was like any other city (though somewhat deserted). Our host, a native Montgomerian, wished to show us a house he used to break into as a kid. It was in the outskirts of the city, a more rural area. It was indeed a magical looking place (see for yourself below). Abandoned and falling apart.
My friend pointed out interesting elements about the house, it had a moat for instance. He then casually mentioned the decaying “slave quarters” behind the house. There was a distinct air of discomfort and feet shuffled. The subject was changed rather swiftly and normal breathing was resumed. Amazingly no other member of my party seemed too interested in checking out these slave quarters, so I alone braved the meanest swarm of mosquitoes known to man, to see two small brick buildings standing quietly, side by side, in the shade of the backyard.
Each had only one room and was short and square.
A plastic rake leaned on the side of one. A shiny green hose at its base.
I stood on the moss, nearly covered by mosquitoes, and looked at these little buildings.
I thought of how new they looked. How recent slavery was. How we forget that.
And it happened suddenly.
I was overcome with emotion.
It wasn’t shocking that I should be moved. I am generally one of the most overly-sensitive people in existence. What was surprising was the intensity of my reaction. It felt out of my control and I could not identify the emotion. The sobs were deep and accompanied by a strong urge to vomit. It wasn’t simply anger or sadness or pain. I’m not sure it was even a mix of the three.
Maybe it most resembled helplessness.
I have traced my father’s family back. I know I have ancestors that were slaves in Virginia. And though I did think of them as I faced the quarters, it was my grandparents that were on my mind. Family I knew. The deep toll that racism took on their lives. Wearing and tearing. Eroding body and soul. And finally, after a succession of dramatic grieving focal points (all black people -> all African people -> all Afro Caribbean people -> all people of color -> all enslaved people -> all suffering people everywhere etc), it was the country I cried for, and the wound that will never heal, and maybe should never heal.
It is so recent.
I walked around to the front of the house away from the others, and stood on the corner waiting for my face to depuff. There was a house across the street. Through the window I saw a black woman watching television. I was amazed. How could life go on with this here. Right here. Always here.
Of course this was my in the moment melodramatic bullshit, and on that corner I could have been mistaken for the stereotypical light skinned activist-y negro (the idea being we feel we have to prove our blackness and so become Blacky McBlack the blackest of them all).
If freedom means being constantly chained to sorrows of the past, then it’s no freedom at all. But I am a proponent of frequent reflection. Though painful, it often times leads to movement. There’s nothing worse than stagnation. As Cocteau says “comfort kills creativity.”
…What does this have to do with anything you long winded ho?
I’ll tell you.
There is a shot in Tammy that is significant for two reasons:
1) It’s horrible.
2) Out of the ashes of its horribleness was born a glittering phoenix of unintentional symbolism.
When I first noticed this shot, I was convinced it was a mistake.
After all, this was a romantic scene. We are meant to focus on Tammy’s earnestness and melt under the spell of her innocent charm.
We may find this difficult to do however, for someone is lurking in the corner of the screen. It is Osai the maid in her slave time bandanna.
This might be slightly less distracting if Osai were occupied with some other business, but she isn’t. She pays close attention to Tammy’s conversation. She watches. This is really what makes it feel like a mistake. Beavers seems almost as though she is off camera watching Reynold’s performance. No other character is paying attention. This is sloppy direction. Why didn’t Pevney tell Beavers “hey, talk to that guy to your left during the scene” or “fill the cups with punch”. See how easy it is? I’m so aggravated by this shot. It’s the the icing on a “couldnt care less” cake.
As infuriating as the shot is, Osai is aware and this is striking. She is watching. She is there. A presence. Most importantly, she is judging. Beavers becomes the focus of the scene. She is silent, but her presence is clearly felt. Like the legacy of slavery itself. It is always there, lurking in the corner of our minds.
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