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Who Is Savannah?

2009.March.31

[I thought I posted this yesterday… anyway, it’s here at last!]

The pertinent reason for my Birmingham disclosure was that my traveling companion had a similar moment of self-discovery in Savannah. Without going too far into telling someone else’s story, I will share that she is another White Southerner (though from a different part of the South as me), for whom Savannah highlighted a personal conflict: ambivalence in one’s personal heritage, taking pride in some-but-not-all elements (both traditional and subversive) and shame in others.

The Savannah I saw in 2009 was very different from the one I had seen in 2005. This year, I saw little-to-no evidence of conspicuous segregation between White and Black – quite the contrary in fact. Many shops (and even our motel) were surprisingly integrated, with customers and staff inclusively White, Black, and even occasionally Latino. Only River Street, Savannah’s most densely tourist district, matched what I had seen before; the color line there was almost literal, with the waterfront populated almost entirely by Black buskers and the cityfront lapped by waves of White tourists meandering in and out of shops and restaurants. I was, as before, engrossed by the atmosphere and attitude of SCAD, even as its urban sprawl reminded me of NYU in The Village and its funky White eclecticism belied the rest of downtown’s pleasant integration. Generally, there was a lack of visible tension or ominousness like in just about any other downtown, so much so that it seemed the economic downturn had not hit Savannah very hard (yet).

Downtown Savannah seemed less mysterious than the Spanish moss might lead one to believe, but then we took the time to watch “The Movie”, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The film and its source crime narrative are largely responsible for tourism in Savannah since the 90’s. I was once told that the fascination with ghost tours and gothic statues did not really exist before The Movie’s 1997 release, but seeing the film raised a lot of questions about its prominence, especially since the film’s supernatural aspects are more ambient than relevant, and there is rarely in downtown any open reference to any of the story’s character or events.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a lightly fictionalized account of an actual murder that happened in Savannah in 1981, when a wealthy, middle-aged antiques dealer killed his gay lover in the historic home of Johnny Mercer while the victim was high and possibly threatening. The story unfolds from the perspective of a visiting magazine writer from New York City, who has befriended the dealer just before the slaying. The New Yorker is sympathetic, but suspicious; he turns his personality profile into a murder investigation, relying heavily on a mischievous transsexual performer and a sexy blond neighbor to navigate his way through the lifestyles of the Rich and Southern. Wackiness ensues, but under dark and foreboding cinematography.

The Movie was interesting, but more as a cultural phenomenon than as art or entertainment. As I said above, Savannah has wrapped a not-small segment of its tourism around this film, yet signs and solicitations never make direct reference to the movie’s subject matter. The scenery is all Savannah (that city looks like no place else!), but the story as told could have been set with different accents in just about any city in the U.S. (or many others around the world). Local celebrities living semi-closeted lives, having to explain to some out-of-stater the way things are done ’round here (and how can a writer from New York City be so naïve about drag queens anyway?), mutual suspicion and derision between the out-of-stater and his smug, amused hosts…

There seemed to be many swaths of rich material, but no hems to fit it all together; more to the point of this blog, where were the race and class issues? The accused makes a point of explaining that he is nouveau-riche, and his lover was clearly working class, but these tidbits don’t seem terribly relevant to the course of the story. Similarly, the two Black characters are vaudevillian for their entertainment value and receive much critical camera time, but neither exerts much direct impact on plot. Perhaps their roles could have been expanded, to redirect the film toward a study not of a murder investigation but of the quirky community around it – but then it would lose what little was credibly left of the Southern Gothic motif. Conversely, the superfluous parts could have been trimmed (I daresay cut) to allow for a more straightforward narrative, but then it would have lost pretty much all entertainment value (Lady Chablis, who convincingly played herself fifteen years after the actual murder, was the best part of the film). I hope The Book was better.

But even if The Book and The Movie are great works (and I’m no expert, plenty of others seem to think so), it still surprised us that Savannah has so wholly embraced them. Sure, Midnight conveyed Savannah’s haunting beauty, but what did it say about the city and its people that can be such a source of pride and draw to Savannah? Uppity and aloof people of wealth gossiping impersonally over alcohol? Nothing unusual there. Thriving but underground gay culture? Not your usual source of pride (well, not in the lower-case, non-parade variety). A place where Black Americans are not defined by their race, but by their skills as drag performers and Voodoo priestesses? Entire classes could be taught on what’s wrong with that… Was it the notion that eccentric Southerners can charm any Northerner into relocating without really trying?

Actually, let’s think about that. Because the trial, the denouement that follows… those were anticlimactic. They’re kind of benchmarks to let you know the story’s almost over. Really, they’re just props, no emotional reaction. And all those lovely, eccentric, one-and-a-half-dimensional characters who stretch the film out well past two hours… most of them are kind of props, too. The mistrust, the culture-clash, the anticipation of twists and turns that never quite materialize… these are the most powerful elements, and the film isn’t over until the narrator tells his new love interest that he’s not going back to New York. But he’s still little more than a prop. That plot I was kind of ragging on? Prop. The gay community and its thin closet, the Black characters (and lack thereof), the rich and the poor – they’re all just props.

The real protagonist of the story is the city of Savannah. Between dialogues, the city calls out to viewers and lures their eyes away from the foreground with beautiful townhouses and creeping Spanish Moss and says, “Look at these crazy people. Only a real city could produce a story like this. Someplace with history and beauty and tragedy behind tired eyes that you’ll never see because I am too gorgeous to let you in on the baggage. I can’t change who I am. I can’t change my history and I’m not sure I would if I could, so I’m just going to put it out there: the eccentric, the ostentatious, the best and the worst of myself, and I dare you to assume that’s all there is to me.” This city puts on a fabulous show of everything it is and everything it wants to be but can’t and celebrates that which it cannot hide with undulating flair.

Savannah is a drag queen.

But not just any drag queen; Savannah is THE drag queen of The Old South. In a good economy, you can’t even tell black from white, happy from sad, any part of any dichotomy from its opposite, because all the polarities are just jumbled up around you and inviting you to savor the blend. As the economic shifts catch up, well, we’ll see who gets invited into the next, more meager concoction, but for now Savannah bears whatever scars it must without trying to hide them, neither flaunting nor obscuring, just getting by on personality and hotness and hoping they will keep you from asking another one of those questions it’s already tired of answering.

On the drive to our next destination, we stopped at a 24-hour Starbucks near Auburn University for warm beverages and people-watching. We couldn’t decide how to feel about the strange blend of gymnasts and debutantes, hipsters and hicks; was it all too illogical or simply our own lives flashing before our eyes? At least it seemed integrated. There’s a lot to be said for how easily it comes to people my age and younger, even here in the South.

Any other day, we would have been talking about that Starbucks for hours, but Savannah had already stolen the show. We would talk about those two days for weeks to come…

Sights: Bamboo Farm and Coastal Gardens, E. Shaver, Bookseller, River Street, Savannah’s Candy Kitchen

Topics: Speculating on the political leanings of employees and clientele at E. Shaver, cheap toilet paper at expensive hotels, how great it would be to live in Savannah for a month while writing a book, gender, race, class, acceptance vs. tolerance.

Soundtrack: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Martha Wainwright, Placebo, Simon and Garfunkel

We were a bit late heading out of town, but it was okay. There was very little to see in Montgomery.

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One comment

  1. Very interesting.

    I always wanted to see that movie. Or read the book. I’ll have to do one or the other now.



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