Saturday, June 1, 2013

In Which I Review The Great Gatsby

Confession: I first read The Great Gatsby a number of years ago, and like many people when they read (probably forcibly in high school) Fitzgerald's classic novel, I hated it. The characters are vapid and shallow, too idly rich to care about anyone but themselves and their money. There is very little in the way of plot and the central character--the so called GREAT Jay Gatsby--is a racketeering swindler hell bent on reconstructing his perfect past. He also has the habit of calling everyone "old sport" all the time, much to the annoyance of the reader. It took one of my favorite authors, John Green, discussing the book in a less pretentious but still pedantic way for me to investigate the book again (see John's excellent discussion of the novel here--part one and part two). And this time, to my surprise and pleasure, I liked it...a lot. I was cautiously optimistic for thew new version of the film; I say cautiously optimistic because, for me at least, Baz Lurhman films are hit or miss. His aesthetic is highly distinct: bombastic, colorful, at times overly indulgent, and depending on story can work for the film or do it a disservice. It works amazing well for Moulin Rouge but not so well for Romeo + Juliett. The former of these two films is set at a time when Lurhman's artistic temperament of flash and color are acceptable, the latter not so much. Fully prepared to hate this film, I was pleasantly surprised.

The novel The Great Gatsby is considered one of the classics of American Literature--perhaps ironically so, as the novel focuses on the so called American Dream and how the ideals of that dream are crushed under the weight of expectations and limits of opportunity. The story itself is simple and rather straightforward; Jay Gatsby, an incredibly wealthy man of "new" money, about whom no one can say anything factual, is in love with his neighbor across the bay, Daisy Buchanan, whom he met five years ago at a party. Daisy is married to Tom, a wealthy man of old money who's glory days are long behind him (he's also an entitled racist misogynist and it is perfectly ok to hate him). The novel is told through the eyes of Nick Carraway (get it: CARE...AWAY) who lives next door to Jay Gatsby and befriends him--in as much as anyone can befriend Gatsby. Gatsby throws a lot of parties and in the style of the 1920s they are crazy: drinks, dancers, drugs, back door deals, flappers, secret affairs, and illicit gambling. Nick manages to get caught up in the raucous world of the 1920s, but also gets caught up with the affair that begins between Gatsby and Daisy. The affair ends tragically, Nick retreats back to the Midwest, and Daisy and Tom live out their lives as the careless rich people they are. The novel has several important symbols which every English teacher points out and students are expected to remember: the green light at the end of Daisy's dock that Gatsby is forever reaching out toward (symbolizing the great American Dream and the fulfillment of all of Gatsby's desires), and the color yellow which liters the work (symbolizing wealth, the past, and to some extent decay).

The movie is a strong showing. The characters are just as unlikable as they are in the book. Daisy is vapid and silly and altogether useless. Her most famous line about her daughter: "And I hope she'll be a fool — that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool," is believable because even though Daisy has only been present for a few moments on screen, the audience can tell that she is a beautiful little fool. Jordan Baker, the golf player, is aloof and almost cold with her ice white skin. Tom is perfectly despicable. My one complaint is Nick; he is portrayed in a naive manner, as if he too is a poor boy from the Midwest (thus paralleling the true Gatsby) but this is not true. Nick may work for a living, but his family is rich, their ill gotten gains courtesy of an ancestor who paid off someone to fight for them in the Civil War, thus freeing the ancestor to become so wealthy. This is never mentioned in the movie, though it's an important part of Nick's character. On the subject of Nick, another aspect I was not overly pleased with was Lurhman's placing Nick (in the future) in an institution. While Nick is definitely haunted by the events in the summer of 1922, we do not know that he wound up seeking professional help, and this bit seems indulgent and insignificant; Nick's voice overs would have played better than watching him write the book. Gatsby himself is wonderfully portrayed by Leonardo Dicaprio. Gatsby is perfectly put together, trying to present himself as upper crust and rich, a man of breeding and taste who can mingle with senators and police commissioners, throw the loudest, most expensive parties on his bootlegged liquor, and obtain his American Dream: the life of an ideal rich man and the love of Daisy Buchanan. However, like all the lies Gatsby tells about himself, this is only a ruse and slowly over the course of the film and novel, unravels as he slowly looses everything.
One of the highlights of the film are the great parties at Gatsby's house/mansion/castle; in true Lurhman style they are feasts for the eyes. Explosions of color and music, it is sensory overload. I found myself grinning just watching the flappers in their gorgeous gowns drink way too much champagne as men in elegant tuxedo's danced the Charleston and applauded how simply fabulous they were. Everyone wants to live in the 1920s, provided they can live like that. At this point, it would be smart to mention the soundtrack to the film, one of the more hotly contested bits of the movie. Some critics loved and some hated it. Lurhman pairs these party scenes with modern music, something that may have been innovative if it wasn't so obviously derivative of his previous work in Moulin Rouge--where it worked exquisitely. Personally, the music neither added anything nor took anything away. Half the time, I barely noticed what song was playing, I was more focused on the set pieces, the costumes and the dialogue. And make no mistake, the costumes are to die for. Oscar nomination for sure if not a win for the costume designer.

The movie capitalizes on the famous enchanted objects; the green light is shown over and over again from several perspectives, both at day and at night. The color yellow is everywhere, not just in the places where it should be (Daisy's dress, Gatsby's car) but all throughout the scenes and at several points, objects or times or items are referred to as "golden." While I don't consider myself a Fitzgearld scholar, I am a purist and I love it when movies based on books drop exact lines from their sources and this film did that a number of times to an extent. The opening line is so important and well written (its got a beat and a certain cadence) but the movie cuts it off at the head, though I suppose I should just be grateful it's in there at all because one of the other very important lines doesn't even make it into the film (Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it was what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elation's of men). The most important line in the book is faithfully recreated and delivered superbly:
"I wouldn’t ask too much of her," I ventured. "You can’t repeat the past."
"Can’t repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!"
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
"I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before," he said, nodding determinedly. "She’ll see."

For the past five years, Gatsby--a man who has an extraordinary gift for hope--has been trying to recreate the perfect past. In his mind, Daisy will leave Tom (after declaring she never loved her husband at all) and she and Gatsby will go back to her home and be married from there as if it was five years ago. A recreation of the perfect past--the golden age in Gatsby's mind--is the final puzzle piece of Gatsby's great American Dream. But what Gatsby wants is always out of reach--Daisy cannot admit that she never loved Tom for she did and this realization-this loss of his enchanted object--is the true tragedy for Gatsby. His American Dream is crushed, burnt, gone to rest among the rest of the ashes that lie under the eyes of T.J. Eckelburg (which represent God, by the way). The city of ashes was really wonderfully depicted, the hopeless despair of being between the working party-goers in New York City and the idle party-throwers of those in West and East Egg, with only God watching.

In the end, what makes the novel great--and Gatsby himself--is how applicable it is, no matter what era. We all have our own green lights, our own American Dream that we are forever trying to reach. It could be the perfect career, the perfect spouse, the perfect reputation. We believe in our enchanted objects so intensely and with such conviction that we are convinced that when we reach them, our lives will finally be fulfilled. We will have everything. But Gatsby teaches that achieving your enchanted object ipso facto means losing it, and once the object has been had, you can never reach for it again. Perhaps one fine morning we will all wake up and have our dreams, but they will be empty and meaningless.

Some things I did not enjoy about the film (briefly)
--The funeral scene is completely wrong. Nick devotes the last chapter to trying to bring people to Gatsby's funeral but no one comes except Gatsby's father and Owl Eyes. In the movie, the funeral is nonexistent, and only Nick mourns the loss of Gatsby. The funeral is important as it is a reminder of the emptiness of the American Dream--Gatsby seemed to have it all, but in the end he had nothing and no one missed him; Gatsby is remembered in the novel by outsiders as a murderer, a lair, and a cheat. The only people unscathed are the ideal rich, who neither contribute or make anything for society, but simply live off their liquor and money. (Owl Eyes, by the way, is another substitute for God).
-- There were some indulgent scenes that try to emphasize Nick's dislocation of both being within and without, but they come across as odd and hard to decipher (Nick standing outside looking up at himself, one version clean and sober, the other dirty and drunk just did not play well.)
--The drunk driving scene is redacted, which is minor issue but tragic as it is one of the finest drunk driving scenes in literature. 
--No consideration is given to the romance between Nick and Jordan, which perhaps makes sense as it is a one way street.

Some things that I really enjoyed about the film (briefly)
--The costumes! Simply spectacular. I loved Gatsby's pink suit, every man should be required to wear a light pink suit.
--The final lines of the movie are the final lines of the book, and those lines resonate with the reader and the audience(Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning —So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past). Not ending the film with those lines would have been a great mistake as they sum up the themes of the book and I'm glad Lurhman did not ignore them.
--Great acting all around, especially from Dicaprio. 
--It was faithful to the novel, which is really the hallmark of any good film derived from a classic. Artistic spin is one thing, but classics are classics for a reason.

Overall Grade: A-, whether you've read the book or not, it's a very good film.

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