Stone Mountain

03/21/2010

U.S.A. / 2005 / English

Directed by Kevin McGowan

Still from 'Stone Mountain'In his short-subject work Stone Mountain, documentarian Kevin McGowan offers a revisionist exploration of a famed monument in Georgia whose history is deeply entwined with the American South’s efforts to come to terms with its own past as well as its present situation. Having grown up near the titular granite formation, which is nearly comparable in size to Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia, the filmmaker recollects the awe and patriotic feeling conferred by the place when he was a child, which fed into his burgeoning, and one might say innate, enthusiasm for the story of the Civil War. At the Stone Mountain park, which is not far from downtown Atlanta, families of tourists are treated to a nighttime laser show depicting the ghostly images of Confederate heroes riding off into battle. A positive alternative to the retelling of, say, Sherman’s march to the sea (which does not lend itself to a family outing), the show presents an idealized exposition of events that were, in fact, economically and emotionally traumatic for the South. But you wouldn’t know that from visiting the theme park at Stone Mountain.

Throughout his personal narrative, McGowan delves into the history of the mountain and the importance that it has taken on in the consciousness of the region. Its place as a monument was secured more or less as an answer to the in-progress Lincoln Memorial in the 1920’s, and the artist who would later do Mt. Rushmore was commissioned to immortalize Robert E. Lee in the granite face of the mountain. The ebb and flow of the memorial’s realization broadly corresponds to the last century of Southern History; it was conceived during the first World War, shelved during the great depression, only to be completed in 1970. The resurrection of the project in 1956 seems an indirect response to the Civil Rights Movement that was dismantling the old order, as white Southern Nationalists wanted a powerful symbol to which they could turn.

Still from 'Stone Mountain'McGowan, through his encounters with what would otherwise seem like simple chauvinism and historical amnesia, happens upon a darker point in the mountain’s career that is very much glossed over by museums and the family-friendly park; the place was used as the rallying point by the Ku Klux Klan upon their revival in the 1920’s. Speaking to Chuck Burris, the African-American mayor of the city of Stone Mountain, McGowan learns about the highly visible presence that the KKK has kept in the area, even within his lifetime, and suddenly his fond memories of the place are pushed aside by the harsh reality of its troubled past. Burris characterizes his own campaign for office almost as an act of resistance, one of many contradictions in a place that would honor Stonewall Jackson and practically ignore slavery altogether, a place that lies in the shadow of a multiracial metropolis but where the KKK will still march proudly.

Today the park around the mountain, run by the people who primarily operate Branson, Missouri, is an idyllic vision of the South, peopled by long-bearded men playing the fiddle, and actors who appear in bizarrely Wild West-styled stage shows. The history and psychogeography of Stone Mountain and its environs seem to be secondary to all that the monument represents, boiled down to a Disneyland-inspired fairytale. And the importance of the mountain to Georgia and to Southerners in general seems to be largely symbolic, as the turnout to the park is low, the sanitized educational experience barely enough to warrant  a day trip. In spite of all the proud rallying cries and empty rhetoric that goes on, McGowan visits his favorite spot in the sprawling grounds of the park, a serene place where bells, gifted by the Coca Cola company, chime away. While his previously innocent outlook has been tarnished by the persistence of historical events as they perpetually press upon the current time, he searches for neutral space from which to contemplate and become at peace with the continuing narrative of his home state, all of its ugliness and grandeur apparent.

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2 Responses to “Stone Mountain”

  1. M.A. Hales said

    I certainly learned a lot about Stone Mountain from your film review. It would be interesting to know more about the company who arranged the show (and also at Branson). Do they have any “message” they are trying to convey, or just presenting their own interpretation of what they envision happened during the Civil War in Georgia?

    • chaiwalla said

      What I took away from the documentary was that, rather than having a specific agenda in mind, the owners of the park capitalize on the idealized notion of history that people really want to see enacted. So its presentation plays into a selective group memory, while being shown in a conservative and simplified context that would not be far afield from a place like Branson. The message of Southern pride at the expense of historical accuracy, while very present at the park since its inception, does not seem particular to it.
      Thanks for reading!

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