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Monday, May 20, 2013

The One That Got Away: Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby"

Writing about The Great Gatsby might be like making a film of it. I can hear Mickey Rourke in Body Heat telling me, “There are 50 ways to screw up when you’re doing Gatsby. Figure out half of those, you’re a genius.” And, though you don't have to rub it in, I’m no genius.

I do love F. Scott Fitzgerald and his heralded novel, though I’m not sure I love it for the same reasons a lot of other people do. Reviews of Baz Luhrmann’s new and mostly faithful adaptation of Gatsby are divided, sometimes condescendingly hostile, sometimes suspiciously defensive (they kind of sound like me talking about Godfather III). There’s an inconsistency to what works and what doesn’t, what Luhrmann should have done vs. what he did do, and a lot of it goes back to critics’ impressions of the novel. Did Luhrmann respect the text, or did he trivialize it? My conclusion is that he respected the plot and incidents, but a refusal to let the story breathe along with ignorance to the novel’s stinging ironies and textures has resulted in a gross, even insulting, trivialization.

The themes of Gatsby are repeatedly thrown around: the Jazz Age, class, lost love and lost time, the frenzy before the storm of the Depression, and “America,” whatever that is. Then there’s the iconic symbols and images like the Green Light, the Eyes of Dr. Eckleburg, the Valley of Ashes, the new rich of West Egg vs. the old rich of East Egg, and the unforgettable description of Myrtle Wilson’s detached, floppy breast. There’s the familiar cast of Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), George and Myrtle Wilson (Jason Clarke and Isla Fisher), spread widely apart in a web of passion across New York and then tragically tied together in the final act. Fitzgerald’s novel carries intimations of transcendence while wearing the costume of hopeless romanticism. It’s about accomplishing aspirations and moving beyond the confines of a given identity, the hero as shape-shifter. It centers on the boy/man “child of God” who moves mountains to win the girl/woman he loves, while she embodies the fantasy anyone may have of being so loved that another would do anything to be with them.

Because of that, Gatsby is misinterpreted as a love story, a kind of Jazz Age Tristan and Isolde (which, with the novel’s references to mythic and medieval images, was probably on Fitzgerald’s mind) with the poor boy trying to win the rich girl, climbing high, grasping for satisfaction, and failing, the lovers foiled by the mores and structures long held in place. Certainly this is pertinent to the tale, especially when one thinks about The Great Gatsby as being set in a world of tribes dictating identity and what a person can legitimately accomplish, an American ideal that is nevertheless repulsive to the ruling class who seem transplanted from European nobility, and who’ve evolved alongside the infrastructures of power.
My assessment of the film might not be fair, because we’re judging something apart from the book, and whether it’s Kubrick’s The Shining, Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Davies’ The House of Mirth, or Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (which addresses a similar point about remakes), the film must be ingested and processed by virtue of its own integrity and consonance.

The problem is that films don’t exist in vacuums, and Gatsby brings with it some great baggage as, um, one of the main contenders for The Great American Novel. Luhrmann relishes the big city verve and delectable vice while neglecting the significance and lost simplicity of the whole nation behind the extravagance — the place that all of these characters are from, and from which they’re running. Luhrmann is also telling a sincere love story, when Gatsby was undermining a love story. A number of critics have alleged that the fault of this film is that old tired trope of “style over substance,” but that’s crap. Even if Baz Luhrmann’s style never hits the right register for Fitzgerald, the problem is his calibration of the (quite) abundant substance.

Bluntly (and with apologies for the cliche), Luhrmann doesn’t know the music, but he certainly knows the words. The aforementioned films, most particularly The Shining (detested by author Stephen King), effectively built atop their source material to become  richly fascinating independent organisms, yet Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby refuses to free itself. The writing is literally scrawled out for us and several passages are spoken with Tobey Maguire’s sludgy narration as Nick Carraway — ironic, because Fitzgerald’s Gatsby could be interpreted as a story about the insufficiency of words, which we use to capture lost time in a script (Daisy must repeat Gatsby’s dictated words to Tom: I never loved you). The structure, even repeated flashbacks, is scrupulously in accord with Fitzgerald’s eight chapter chronology. Luhrmann fetishizes Fitzgerald’s particular details, such as the curtains at the Buchanan residence which blow through the room “like pale flags twisting…toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea,” while literalizing others, like when Nick says that he’s both inside and outside of the decadent world of New York, looking out over the city with the camera falling onto him looking up from the street. Luhrmann throws in most of the plot points, even some details and dialogue from other Fitzgerald stuff (such as “The Crack-Up,” selected letters, biographical data, and Gatsby‘s inferior early draft, Trimalchio) but he fudges with the nuances in between the incidents. It can perhaps be defended then as a dazzling auteur statement, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, but it’s rather infuriating when you consider how the filmmaker panders for an audience that indulges in blindness and illusion (and yet again — a postmodern reading here justifies this Gatsby entry, what with its 3D cinematography and the motifs of seeing and blindness taken from the book, even including Jack White’s cover of U2′s “Love is Blindness”).

Luhrmann’s made a Gatsby that’s more palatable for audiences, his renowned (or infamous) PG-13 Ken Russellfied visual audaciousness hushed by textual cowardice. The Great Gatsby becomes a Moulin Rouge! tempered love story, a big city tragedy with East Coast decadence doubling for the TMZ Kardashian madness of the 21st century where we’re pretty sure who to root for. The full story, framed by the original device of the now morbidly alcoholic and depressed Carraway writing his reminiscences of 1922 at a sanitarium months after the 1929 crash, warmly blankets the wounds of a crippled and hungover nation after its expired Gilded Age.  The titular Gatsby here is indeed, as the final moments emphasize, great — and not “great.” What would originally conclude with a hushed death rattle of wasted melancholic futility before the future, where longing leads nowhere, is now reverent and consoling.

The problems of the novel — the amoral character of Daisy, the ambivalent presence of Henry Gatz and Gatsby’s relationship to his origins, the symbiotic relevance of George and Myrtle Wilson in relation to the question of marrying for love, Nick’s questionable sexuality and how his adoration of Gatsby might be, as Tom Buchanan tells him, based on the same kind of blindness that’s trapped everyone else in the narrative — are worked out for us or ignored.

In the film, the love between Gatsby and Daisy is total and mutual, without her apathy, privilege, or his resentment that flows between the tenders of his affection. In truth, Gatsby doesn’t simply want to love Daisy, but he wants to control her, an adoring and adored puppet of flesh and blood representative of a world that’s been denied him because of his station. He lied to seduce her initially, and he schemed his way with a variety of other fronts to “earn” her as a wealthy man. There’s a lot of contempt for the object of desire in The Great Gatsby, and one might remember that Fitzgerald wrote it while nursing wounded pride, recently discovering his wife Zelda was having an affair with an aviator (he also apparently called his first love, Ginevra King, the primary influence for Daisy’s character, “an unprintable verbal insult” when they met again).  “Her voice is full of money,” Gatsby says to Nick about Daisy in the novel, something carefully omitted by Luhrmann, a director who wants his (mostly) female audience to identify with her, when in fact her privilege makes her something of another species from the worry-laden lives of Gatsby and Nick — and us.

In the novel, Nick deducts that Daisy is turned off by Gatsby’s West Egg party with the wild outsiders who come without invitation (“She was appalled by West Egg, this unprecedented ‘place’ that Broadway had begotten upon a Long Island fishing village–appalled by its raw vigor that chafed under the old euphemisms and by the too obtrusive fate that herded its inhabitants along a short-cut from nothing to nothing. She saw something awful in the very simplicity she failed to understand”). Not so in the film. Nick also believes that she’s responsible for Gatsby laying off his servants (“So the whole caravansary had fallen in like a card house at the disapproval in her eyes”). Again, this trait which would make us feel differently about her is left alone. And while we know that it’s her behind the wheel, crashing Gatsby’s yellow car into Myrtle, not only does Luhrmann’s Gatsby plan on taking the fall, but he also verbally says in the film repeatedly, “It was my fault.” Luhrmann cuts to a flashback of the accident and amidst the confusion of the wheel, with Gatsby grabbing it away from Daisy at the crucial moment, we are invited to believe him. Luhrmann also gives her the benefit of the doubt that she’d be tempted to call Gatsby after the accident.  No longer does she show off her daughter Pammy as a plaything who is handled by silent servants, but Daisy attends to the child in her closing moments, carefully preparing Pammy for a journey the Buchanans will take. Luhrmann’s Daisy gets a free pass, and I call total bullshit.

The aspirant glory of the Green Light loses its magic for Gatsby when it appears he’s won Daisy back while Daisy, though not happy with Tom Buchanan, isn’t unhappy. She’s contented enough and electively vapid, devoid of responsibilities while suffering Tom’s infidelities. Her lack of concern for her daughter, who emerges as a plaything to show off to Gatsby, demonstrates a present weightlessness. Time isn’t a burden for her. The Daisy Gatsby loves is in those fading words and promises in Louisville, five years before, a ghost roaming the West alongside the diametrically opposed ghosts of the rejected father, Henry Gatz, in North Dakota and Minnesota. It’s a faint echo that tantalizes while refusing to materialize into clarity.

All this kind of makes me wish that, with Luhrmann’s pop soundtrack sensibilities, the filmmaker would have included Jarvis Cocker and Pulp’s “Common People” from the Different Class album, a song about a privileged girl who wants to walk with the bohemians and stragglers, but will never understand them. (I also can’t help but feel Arcade Fire’s Suburbs album, where the sprawl of youth becomes spoiled with passing time, would fit in better with Gatsby than Jay-Z, Fergie, Jack White and others on this soundtrack, but maybe that’s just my stupid taste). Class is more tribal than race, and just as there have been theories of Nick Carraway’s bisexuality, there are literary theories that Gatsby is black. I don’t necessarily believe it, but there is definitely a racial subtext in the book, beginning with Tom’s praises for eugenic pseudo-science which predicts the end of civilization with the ascendancy of African descendents, and images like the black individuals riding in a limo–driven by a white man. The implication is that anything is possible on this side of the world.

Later on at the Plaza Hotel, Tom relates a roughneck like Gatsby romancing Daisy to “intermarriage between black and white.” This is in the film, followed by some original dialogue where Tom differentiates Gatsby from everyone else in the room, based on his poverty, but Luhrmann omits something Jordan says after Tom’s insinuation: “We’re all white here.” It’s something she doesn’t have to say, obviously, or which the narrator Nick wouldn’t have to remember. But it’s there for a reason, and the irony of Jordan’s line – of which she’s probably unaware – is that for Fitzgerald, the rich are different from “us,” or as Warren Beatty points out in Bulworth (a film remembered this week because of political happenings in the Obama Administration), “Rich people have always stayed on top by dividing white people from colored people. But white people got more in common with colored people than they do with rich people.”  For a viewing audience, the world of the Valley of Ashes feels much more alien than the Buchanan residence. I’m also not sure how I feel about Luhrmann’s casting of Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan as Jewish gangster Meyer Wolfsheim, which is partially a playful reference to deceiving fronts cutting across tribal boundaries, and has been admired by critics as a way of bypassing the perceived anti-Semitic stereotype Fitzgerald created in the novel, Wolfsheim being a stand-in for real-life gangster Arnold Rothstein (played by Michael Stuhlbarg in Boardwalk Empire and Michael Lerner in Eight Men Out).  But it also feels like another refusal of Luhrmann to confront the troubling aspects of Fitzgerald. Is Fitzgerald, who elsewhere seems so sensitive to racism in the book (two characters use the word “kike”: the intolerant Tom and decidedly unlikable Mrs. McKee), the anti-Semite, or is Nick? Or is Wolfsheim’s conspicuous Jewishness another tribal marker in the chaotic power-grab of Gilded Age New York, his illiteracy and barriers requiring him to use the “fine breeding” of Jay Gatsby as his front?

Making matters easier for us, Tom becomes a bigger jerk, less humanely drawn. Fitzgerald certainly doesn’t allot him much sympathy in the novel, but Tom is still unexpectedly grief-stricken when Myrtle is killed, and hurt when confronted with the possibility of Daisy never loving him. Such feeling isn’t afforded him in the film, certainly when the talented Joel Edgerton plays him like a cartoon. There’s a telling alteration in the story during Gatsby’s party, with Tom becoming entranced with a movie actress and following her inside Gatsby’s castle for some certain debauchery (earlier with Myrtle, he is quite loud and impolite with his lovemaking as Nick awkwardly sits and stares at the couple’s dog — in the book he’s more discrete). The scene is different in the novel, as a drunken and suspicious Tom stumbles apart from Daisy and Gatsby’s flirtations. It’s Daisy who has her eye on the actress, the only familiar face for her at the party, and instead of Tom salivating over her it’s the actress’ producer, whose gaze falls closer and closer on her, as if spellbound — and rendered ridiculous — by an obscure object of desire. It’s an image that would be so wonderful for a Gatsby film, reinforcing the story’s paradoxical themes of gazing and blindness, of moth-to-flame obsession with an ungraspable surface of beauty, like a celluloid screen gem or wealthy and beautiful person (Daisy to Gatsby, Tom to Myrtle). But no, obviously there’s still some ambivalence about Tom for Luhrmann, so he makes the hulking husband more of a douche.

And so, faded are complexity and ambiguity. The villain is made worse while the damsel in distress and her knight are made better. A token tip of the hat is given to expectation that the rich are assholes, while the devastating disparity between wealthy and poor remains unexplored. Our ideals of pure love (while it may be quashed by social mores) are validated and unquestioned.  Then there is an all-star cast, a pop soundtrack, the dynamic fast-moving rhythm, and clothes, clothes, clothes that set tabloid radio and TV talk shows afire with delight.  How are we not surprised that Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is adored by audiences and a solid hit in spite of its reviews?

It’s not that filmmakers can’t lick Gatsby. This new movie is well loved by some, and a commercial success — as was the listless and gauzy 1974 adaptation directed by Jack Clayton and starring Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, and Bruce Dern (who, despite his lack of physical similarity to the book’s Tom, gives an incredible performance that’s leaked into my subsequent readings of the book).  Sumptuously dressed and melodramatic, these two films aren’t Gatsby. They refuse to focus on the mystery of Gatsby and the distance of Fitzgerald, needing us to get close with Gatsby and Daisy through either lovely and romantic montages or scenes of awkward dialogue.  The filmmakers can justify this by citing Fitzgerald’s own dissatisfaction with the way he treats Gatsby too vaguely, and yet, if you read Trimalchio (which inspires the new Gatsby with a revealing scene between Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom), you see why the mystique of the final draft works.  Breaking through the walls to bring us closer to Gatsby, one wishes Luhrmann had completely reframed the story — which means taking it away from Nick Carraway. Luhrmann should have “betrayed the novel to be true to it,” as David Cronenberg repeatedly says of his adaptations, or as Milan Kundera simply told Philip Kaufman regarding the adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (another seemingly unadaptable book), “Eliminate.”

The truth is several filmmakers could probably give us the Gatsby Fitzgerald deserves, but if you look at my suggestions (Sofia Coppola, Terrence Malick, Terrence Davies, Andrew Dominik, David Gordon Green, Andrea Arnold, and considering the Before trilogy, particularly Before Midnight, Richard Linklater) it’s clear that — what I consider the appropriate sensibility anyway (excluding possibly Martin Scorsese, whose The Aviator with DiCaprio is a fantastic film about predestined apart-ness amidst the whirlwind of a luxurious in-crowd, so akin to Gatsby) — audiences wouldn’t bite and probably be turned off.

I also think of David Fincher’s most divisive of his recent films, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which was deplored by many moviegoers and critics as overblown Oscar-bait courtesy of Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth, humorously castigated on both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as a bore in December 2008 (meanwhile, both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have been quite welcoming to Luhrmann’s Gatsby). Adapted from a Fitzgerald short story with which it has virtually no similarities other than the bare premise (Benjamin Button is born an old man and ages backwards), Fincher and Roth nevertheless were drawing from the author’s well, particularly Gatsby, the golden girl lead (Cate Blanchett) named Daisy, as the film is in tune with Gatsby’s desire to repeat the past.  Kent Jones writes about it, “Every second of Benjamin Button, every shot and every cut, every gesture and every facial expression, every turn in its narrative and every visual effect, is devoted to the contemplation of time’s passing.” He adds, “[It] is easy to imagine the film directed by someone else, anyone else apart from Fincher, and made into a poignant love story about two people who ‘meet in the middle,’ set against the backdrop of the American century. I’ve ready many descriptions of this phantom movie, Roth’s script as directed by Ron Howard or Nora Ephron. They are very far from the mysterious and troubling film Fincher has actually made.”

Fincher’s Button may have its flaws, but Jones is right about how it captures the passing of time, in addition to the “troubling” film Fincher has made. Like Fitzgerald, Fincher dresses up the film as an inspirational “poignant love story,” but reading the film closely reveals a journey toward entropy, about the omissions people make in their reminiscences and the lies they tell themselves in pursuit for an everlasting moment. As Benjamin (Brad Pitt) moves into youth with the future, he throws off connection to the past. A masterly display of digital cinema, Fincher’s Button is about the digital, the posterboards of Citizen Soldiers and inspiration (“You can accomplish anything”) underwritten by the ghastly silence in the final images, a Hurricane swallowing the Blind Clockmaker (Elias Koteas) ‘s clock, alongside the the dissolved memories of Benjamin. As readers misinterpret Gatsby as a love story, so did viewers misinterpret the misanthropic Fincher’s film as inspirational woo-woo, labeling it a Forrest Gump retread.  His next film also seemed to cover Gatsby ground more effectively than what other Gatsby films have offered, as cyborg Mark Zuckerberg invents a virtual world after being rejected by a woman in The Social Network.
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Almost totally excised along with ambiguities about character is the memory of the “Middle West,” the haunting breeze of which gives the novel its wistful ache, a great tangible space that doubles for the prospects of a country and of a romance, though it’s empty with the echoes of what-could-have-been. “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all — Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.” With that excision of space goes the sense of loss and longing, Luhrmann working on the more familiar and snazzy turf of the Big City, with which Luhrmann relies on a popular pastiche associated with Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age. This Gatsby is more like one of those flapper parties local fashionistas organize than Fitzgerald’s novel. And in presenting us a party, Luhrmann also refuses to make us feel the downside of excess, like the incoherent drunks who people the novel, unable to walk or communicate, their resentments uninhibited. Luhrmann will give us “Owl Eyes,” the old man in Gatsby’s library, but he’s not the bewildered coot from the book, but a funny looking old man who wants to bathe us in the amazement of Gatsby: “He doesn’t exist,” he says in the film, while in the book “Owl Eyes” is overwhelmed by how this “theatrical production” is, in fact, real, as he inspects the volumes on the wall.

Behind the allure of decadent parties and modernity, though, is the Frontier, the hallowed thing around which the American Romanticism of Whitman and Emerson developed, or the river of Mark Twain, leading to a vast elsewhere of possibilities and freedom. With Gatsby, Fitzgerald not only prophesied the end of the time for which he was a sparkling representative (the Crash was four years after the novel’s publication), but, I think more importantly, he sees the end of that Frontier’s possibilities, the emptiness in a space that’s been conquered and canvassed by pilgrims who moved westward against midnight and exhausted themselves with dreaming before tidally curving back to the Eastern shores where they initially landed, or as Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway puts it so much better than I ever could, “I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes–a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither stood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” The Great Gatsby is the death knell of American literary Romanticism.

The “green breast” the Dutch see parallels the Green Light Jay Gatsby associates with his much longed-for Daisy, a woman so disparate from his origins and temperament, yet the only person who can unlock his intimacy. Courting and making love to Daisy in Louisville is presented as a memory of religious significance, a consecration with the moon looking on in benediction, the woman compared to the “grail.” As a grail myth, we can wonder if Gatsby is the fool Parzival, suddenly conscious of himself and searching for the grail castle that’s disappeared from his view, or the Grail King Amfortas, who was overwhelmed with a dream of glory and triumph with the grail instead of humility. The grail is lost and, imprisoned in his own castle, he is maimed and permanently is discomfort, restless (Nick notes how Gatsby is always jittery, never at ease), the resultant world a “Waste Land” much like Fitzgerald’s “Valley of Ashes,” where George and Myrtle Wilson are used and forgotten — by the Buchanans, and by Baz Luhrmann. The rich display vicious negligence with the bodies and souls of others.  Romantic desire isn’t sentimental but amounts to corpulent selfishness and excesses of countless shirts, mistresses, servants, and opulence. The rapturous promise of new discoveries is married to some diabolical transgression. Fitzgerald’s epilogue reminds me of the prologue of Terrence Malick’s The New World, where the wide-eyed enthusiasm of Europeans and Native Americans at the Jamestown landing is scored to Wagner’s Das Rhinegold prelude, referencing the dwarf Albrecht’s theft of the Ring of Power, setting the Ring Cycle into motion, and soon later scores the recognition of love between John Smith and Pocahontas. It’s a dangerous and unquenchable love that can only exist in “the forest,” the magical Frontier. The toll of this enthusiasm will be, on a grand scale, thousands dead, and on an intimate one, broken hearts stirred to look both forward and back to a horizon that beckons silently.

The “green breast” is trampled upon and chewed up, and finds a gruesome parallel with Myrtle Wilson’s breast, “swinging loose like a flap.” A resident of the Waste Land, she also had aspirations for social climbing and was swept up in amorous feelings congruent to that goal.  Myrtle’s corpse is seen in the film, but the grotesque detail isn’t emphasized at all: yet it must be.  It’s another example of Luhrmann cowering to the challenge of Fitzgerald and to confront the corporeal reality of a suffering human being. Myrtle’s “mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners, as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long.” The death visage recalls Nick’s thoughts after hearing Gatsby’s reminiscences of Louisville, where he’s “reminded of something–an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.”

The inability to fully articulate a feeling, a memory and longing, the failure of words (in such a well-written novel), connects to the novel’s unbearable ache, a paralyzing longing for something one can never have. The Great Gatsby isn’t simply Horatio Alger gone wrong, but is a wrenching siren song of restless hope writhing to its last breath and beat under the annihilation of hope, F. Scott Fitzgerald interrogating his own desires and appetites, much as he did in This Side of Paradise‘s Amory Blaine and would with Dick Diver in his more ambitious Tender is the Night. Gatsby and Dick Diver are Faustian figures, exposing a devil’s bargain etched into the rock of American dreams, played out in similar variations with Charles Foster Kane, the Corleone family, Noah Cross, and Daniel Plainview. Gatsby, surrounded by “child of God” references (for example, up to “his father’s business” much like Christ in Luke 2:49, the son of God having thrown off his biological parents), is also a Miltonic figure. He’s like the Satan who cannot abide his place in the scheme of heaven, and is resolute in committed and absurd defiance. The American Paradise is lost, and in lieu of a Frontier the American Dreamer (Gatsby, Kane, Plainview — or how about Jack Torrence?) encloses himself hermetically in a self-made compound, submitting to ungraspable dreams and staring out of a magic play-set castle. Out of space, they try to buy time, or “The future!” as Noah Cross puts it to Jake Gittes in Chinatown. Laced in with the dream is dismemberment. The rich don’t only silence the poor, but what Fitzgerald observes between disparate worlds is utter destruction, rapacious, repugnant, and dismembering: literally cutting off the fleshy Myrtle’s organ of enticement.

A defense thrown about for the film is that The Great Gatsby isn’t simply an adaptation, but is Gatsby himself, drawn up of the same imagination, hope, and enthusiasm he’s said to represent. The film’s best scene, the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy, hints that Luhrmann has this in mind when Gatsby asks Nick of the abundant flowers he’s brought over the occasion, “It isn’t too much, is it?” The director is winking, asking us the same question. The film is as garishly affective and clothed as Jay Gatsby, and it’s true that with its opening moments as the green light reaches out to us in 3D that I felt stirred by the associations Fitzgerald’s novel has cemented into my mind over several readings of the book.  When Lana Del Rey’s theme song (which I admit, I kind of guiltily like) asks “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” I want to think it’s Gatsby asking, and not, as would be supposed, Daisy. His floating corpse is a blatant allusion to William Holden’s in Sunset Blvd, the dead narrating his story in the reflective palace of movie excess, quashed hopes, and faded glamor.

The film then is a glorification of weightlessness, an evasion from its source material as Jay Gatsby runs from James Gatz. Maybe that’s why Daisy comes off so well here, and Tom, his nemesis, so bad. Luhrmann is a filmmaker whose scenarios are hidden in theatrical curtains and art: the ballroom dancing of Strictly Ballroom, the modern stage of a television set that opens William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, the cabaret and written reminiscence of the poet in Moulin Rouge!, and The Wizard of Oz finding correlation with aboriginal Dreamtime and Rainbow Serpent mythology in Australia: love and war are safely enclosed in the filmmaker’s egg, his tools shamelessly on display. The Great Gatsby reminded me particularly of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Dracula, a deliciously over-the-top extravaganza also in love with its artifice; interestingly, Luhrmann has said Coppola — who is credited as adapting the 1974 film — advised him on how to approach writing the Gatsby script.

The weightlessness, though, is aggravating when we consider Gatsby and Gatsby‘s origins, his quest to reclaim the past and fading away as Louisville drifts away into the prairie night from his train view, time and love moving quickly away as forgetfulness clouds the horizon. Luhrmann quotes most of Fitzgerald’s concluding words, “And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him–” but then he cuts the following passage, “–somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”

Hope relies on the memory of something hoped for. Luhrmann’s sin is to remove that memory, those dark fields of the republic that bore James Gatz, a shape shifter not unlike Robert Zimmerman, and with the filmmaker’s omissions and emphasis on delight, his film can’t be defended as being “Gatsby.” The obsession he’s tried to dramatize is as thin as the paper on which the depressed Nick writes in the picture. The German author Thomas Mann, whose renderings of hopeless longing were so similar to Fitzgerald’s (The Magic Mountain was published within a year of Gatsby), had his bourgeois engineer Hans Castorp pursue the cat-eyed Clavdia Chaucat while saying “Love is an adventure in evil,” later observing in Joseph and His Brothers, “Too much evidence goes to show that [man] is headed straight toward ecstasy and ruin — and thanks nobody who holds him back.”   The haunting “disembodied face” that “floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs” entreating the lover Gatsby to a Danse Macabre is now just a beautiful love story and unboring melodrama — and so the fascination and danger of desire isn’t there.

4 comments:

  1. Good review. The novel will probably forever, and always will be considered unfilmable, no matter how hard this movie tries to make it work.

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  2. This is an amazing essay, one of your best. It clarifies and deepens my understanding of the novel as much as the film, and prods me to go watch Benjamin Button again. I think the angles you open up on The New World could be explored even further--that film strikes me as endlessly rich and rewarding, a meditation on the origin of America and the American dream unlike any other. Thank you.

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  3. Thanks for sharing this brilliant review.

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