Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Great Gatsby

Like all great works, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby means different things to you at different times in your life.  When you're in college, the story seems remote and surreal -- but the aspirational theme of the world well lost for love is appealing in a romantic sort of way and parts of the book, particularly the description of returning home for the holidays, resonates with you and makes your feel deliciously lonely.  Read in middle age, the novella is parable about ambition and the folly of romantic love:  the book's meaning has reversed somehow.  When you're old and grey, The Great Gatsby no longer seems to have any particularly personal meaning at all -- it is a splendid, luminous historical document about what it is like to inhabit a new country in the bosom of the fresh new world.  Baz Luhrman, the director of the most recent version of Gatsby is an Australian and, therefore, I think well-suited to understand the book's theme of the new world and its wildly idealistic hopes and aspirations.  But he's probably too young and still too idealistic to view the book in that light and, when a voice-over announces the famous final words in the novel, he cuts out the stuff about the explorers' utopian hopes upon first encountering the vast New World.  Because he's a film director, and by necessity an optimist, he's not much attuned to the theme about ambition and the folly of ambition.  And, so, by a process of exclusion, he gives his viewers a college sophomore's vision of the book, immensely picturesque and vastly romantic.  If you've got Leonardo di Caprio and Carey Mulligan as Gatsby and Daisy respectively (and Toby Maguire as Nick Carraway), the outcome of the production isn't really in doubt -- the movie is going to be about the torments and glories of romantic love. 

Luhrman's style is all hyperbole, not a bad approach to the novella, but a little wearying in the end.  He strives to outdo Fitzgerald's extraordinary enameled and gilded style, a sort of art deco prose, with elaborately gaudy sets and swooping steadi-cam movements that sometimes look as if they were shot from the back of drones.  At times, the film resembles Fellini but without the Italian director's fascination with the grotesque and the sacramental -- Luhrman's picture is extravagantly beautiful, but the beauty threatens to devolve into mere prettiness or mere kitsch.  Carraway's cottage near the vast Walt Disney-style castle where Gatsby lives tends to resemble certain paintings by Terry Redlin:  we have the same flower beds rendered in neon colors, the same dusky, bat-haunted twilight, the same luminous windows glowing like honey-colored panes of amber.  Both Buchanan's estate and Gatsby's castle across the bay have Versailles-style fountains and immense grassy promenades:  the houses seem too incredibly vast and ornate to be real, but, in fact, in this detail Luhrman's version is probably reasonably accurate to Fitzgerald's intentions.  As a Midwesterner, I read Fitzgerald attentive to his inner voice  -- beneath all the glamor, there is a puritanical strain, something austere and censorious, a wintry breath of something highly moral.  This tone in Fitzgerald, an aspect of his writing that I think is best sensed by people from Minnesota, has always disguised for me the actual social milieu that the author is writing about in The Great Gatsby.  But if you study Fitzgerald's source material, the fantastic wealth and opulence shown by Luhrman in his film is, in fact, true to the society that he depicts.  Accordingly, Gatsby's famous parties, highlights for the reader in the book, are loving depicted as vast Jazz-age orgies of booze and dancing and Dixieland music.  A thousand guests writhe to the music in Gatsby's palatial halls and on his lawn (he has a mad organist related to Beethoven who plays his "Mighty Wurlitzer") and dancers choreographed to Busby Berkeley routines cavort on plinths mounted over a big swimming pool into which flappers and tuxedoed gangsters and movie stars are always being hurled.  Early in the film, when Nick joins Buchanan for a party in the city with his floozy mistress, Luhrman constructs a dream-like Harlem with a jazz trumpeter in fedora leaning out of window to play fanfares and blues for the concourses below -- the bridges gleam with light and well-dressed people surge through the streets next to vast, finned and majestic automobiles and, when Luhrman pulls back away, from the party, zooming over the city skyline, he finishes the shot with a bravura touch -- the camera has flown over the Empire State Building that is under construction and, as the sun sets, we see sparks cascading away from a welder's torch where men are laboring high in the sky.  In the book, the drunken scene with Buchanan, climaxing when Buchanan casually punches his mistress and breaks her nose, has some of the hallucinatory intensity of a party or squabble staged by Ingmar Bergman, like an episode from his Scenes from a Marriage.  Luhrman's gaudy and florescent portrayal of the scene isn't how I imagined it -- there's too much going on and you get distracted by all the details around the edges of the orgy.  I was disappointed in the scene, but in retrospect, understand why Luhrman stages the episode in this extravagant way.  Later, at the end of the movie, there is a nightmarish confrontation on the hottest day of the year, a hellish family fight at the Plaza Hotel where Gatsby demands that Daisy deny that she ever loved Buchanan -- a statement that is untrue and that she is unable to make.  This scene is staged austerely enough, with huge close-ups and a claustrophobic intensity -- it looks like Bergman and feels like Bergman and I can see that Luhrman thought that it would be too much to have two scenes of this force in the movie. 

As an admirer of Fitzgerald's novel, of course, I am inclined to criticize the movie as not being true to my vision of the book.  (For instance, the devastating scene in Gatsby where Nick sees Daisy and Buchanan acting like an old married couple, complicit in concealing Daisy's role in the traffic accident death of Buchanan's mistress, doesn't really make it onto the screen -- but this is a scene that Fitzgerald described with sufficient, homely detail that I think it could, and should have, been staged.  I also thought that the ending of the novel in which Gatsby's elderly father comes to the funeral and talks with Nick, an unbearably poignant and important part of the book, should not have been dropped from this adaptation.  Also dropped is the bestial Jewish gangster's renunciation of his business partner at the end of the novel -- Luhrman stages an early scene in which Nick and Gatsby meet Meyer Wolfsheim at a speakeasy and the gangster is an indelible and fascinating character.  But the scene has no pay-off without Wolfsheim's later refusal to attend Gatsby's funeral.  It's as if Luhrman is in a great hurry to get to the end of his movie once Gatsby has been murdered -- but this is false to the novel because, after all, Fitzgerald's book is not merely about Gatsby, but, also, most importantly about us -- that is, about our surrogate in the book, the narrator Nick Carraway).  Di Caprio is initially off-putting -- he speaks in a weird accent that can't be identified, but, in fact, this is true to the novella; Gatsby's affectations don't make sense:  he is literally a man from nowhere.  He uses the phrase "Old Sport" a thousand times, always pronouncing the words as "old spore" -- it's irritating, but I think also true to the spirit of the book and to the fact that Gatsby is entirely self-made.  Luhrman fits out the story with a frame narrative:  Nick Carraway is writing the book in an asylum to which he has been committed for morbid alcoholism.  The frame plot seems reasonable, creating a tension between the wintry solitude of Nick thinking back over Gatsby life and adventures and the warm, violently colorful Mediterranean action occurring over the enchanted summer in which the novel takes place.  I think the film is generally successful, splendidly mounted, and worth seeing.  The eclectic sound track, featuring tunes by Louis Armstrong, George Gershwin and Cole Porter, Fats Waller, Amy Winehouse and, at least, half dozen hip-hop songs by Jay Z (including his great "No Church in the Wild") is as spectacular as the film's production values.  Minnesota viewers will enjoy the brief, but vivid, image of a yacht running ashore under the cliffs of Split Rock Lighthouse on the north shore of Lake Superior.  It's an iconic landscape for Minnesotans and I was happy to see it represented in the film.

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