It would be fun not to know that Baz Luhrmann’s new movie is an adaptation, not to have read the book that it’s an adaptation of, not to bother comparing the movie to its source or evaluating its fidelity to or imaginative reinterpretation of the novel, but simply to watch “The Great Gatsby” as a movie that brings some notable actors together in a sumptuously-realized Jazz Age extravaganza to tell a tumble of good stories—of a lost love fleetingly recaptured, a couple of marriages unhinged, a crime unsolved, lives violently lost, a fledgling romance dissolved, the disillusionment of a New York newcomer, and, overall, of the end of a time of fabled exuberance—by way of vividly conceived characters and finely rhetorical dialogue. It wouldn’t make the resulting movie any better, but it would at least make for a source of wonder that an early-twenty-first-century screenwriter could offer up such a rich lode of material, regardless of the use made of it.
Yet, unlike the “Quixote” of Pierre Menard—the latter-day word-for-word recreation of the novel that, Borges joked, would be an even greater act of imagination than is Cervantes’s account of his contemporary world—Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby” would still be a greater achievement than that of Luhrmann and his co-writer, Craig Pearce, for the same reason that the novel became widely acclaimed and popular decades after its own time. “The Great Gatsby,” which was published in 1925, is a work of brilliant, fine-tuned clairvoyance—it sounded the death knell for a generation that was still alive. Beside the book’s intrinsically romantic qualities (and a doomed romance is often even more popularly romantic than one that works out), it reveals how Prohibition—which became the law of the land in 1919—infected the American character and offers a dim view of the financial markets that foreshadows the 1929 crash. The book is a cautionary tale that was offered to readers who, at the time, sought no caution. In the retrospective post-Depression view, however, “The Great Gatsby” all made perfect sense, its iridescent beauty and poetic fancy appearing as no more than a bright and floating bubble that, as everyone knew, had catastrophically burst. It’s easy to be cautionary after things go to hell; Fitzgerald saw, and warned of, hell breaking through the collective illusion of paradise.
The filmmakers’ most audacious creation is a framing story that renders the book’s predictive power explicit: that of Nick Carraway, who, in December, 1929, checks into a clinic to get off alcohol and to get over an apparent breakdown (or what Fitzgerald, writing about his own mental and physical crisis in 1936, called his “Crack Up”). In the clinic, Nick is induced by his doctor to delve into his past—by means of writing—and, supplied with a typewriter, he undertakes a retrospective view of his life as it led to his collapse and begins it with the first words of “The Great Gatsby,” which, as he writes the words, becomes the story that’s shown on screen. The framing device sets the movie explicitly in the context of the burst Wall Street bubble and the nation’s collective breakdown, the economic collapse as well as the rampant gangsterism that was a mere sanguinary trickle in the novel’s 1922 setting but which, by the late twenties, became a world-famous bloodletting. (Fascinatingly, the 1949 film of the novel updates the action to 1928 and sets it explicitly in the milieu of gangland murders and the Wall Street boom-time “gravy train”—and also establishes Nick Carraway as a former aspiring writer.)
The conceit of Nick Carraway as the stand-in for Fitzgerald may not be quite exact, though. Famously, Fitzgerald himself had lost an early but great love due to his own poverty and then, soon thereafter and quickly, made a big pile of money—but let Fitzgerald tell the story, as he did in 1936, in the autobiographical essay “Handle with Care” (the sequel to the title essay of the book “The Crack-Up”):
It was one of those tragic loves doomed for lack of money, and one day the girl closed it out on the basis of common sense. During a long summer of despair I wrote a novel instead of letters, so it came out all right, but it came out all right for a different person. The man with the jingle of money in his pocket who married the girl a year later would always cherish an abiding distrust, an animosity, toward the leisure class—not the conviction of a revolutionist but the smouldering hatred of a peasant. In the years since then I have never been able to stop wondering where my friends’ money came from, nor to stop thinking that at one time a sort of droit de seigneur might have been exercised to give one of them my girl.
In other words, Fitzgerald had been in love with Ginevra King, who instead married a wealthy young man. Soon thereafter, Fitzgerald, a successful writer, married Zelda Sayre. Nick Carraway may have learned where his friends’ money came from and headed back to the Midwest (so did Fitzgerald, in the summer of 1919, where he wrote “This Side of Paradise”), but Fitzgerald returned to New York with “the jingle of money in his pocket” and became a Gatsby-like overnight grandee of wild parties.
Fitzgerald’s literary and personal conception of the aphrodisiac power of money, though, was remote to two of the most important writers of the day—D. H. Lawrence, and Fitzgerald’s friend Ernest Hemingway, whose prime themes are virility and vitality, the physical energy and mental discipline which carry a sexual charge. In effect, they wrote of the higher animal prowling around the edges of a society and making incursions; Fitzgerald, however, wrote of society, remained an insider, and his view of social gamesmanship and the finely-calibrated inflections and higher frequencies with which insiders speak to each other—and the forceful desires that those glittering games both conceal and express—is the essence of his poetic vision of the world, the charm of his despair.
The problem with Luhrmann’s film is that it’s under the top. For all of its lurching and gyrating party scenes, for all the inflated pomp of the Gatsby palace and the Buchanan mansion, for all the colorful clothing and elaborate personal styling, Luhrmann takes none of it seriously, and makes none of it look remotely alluring, enticing, fun. His whizzing 3-D cinematography offers lots of motion but no seduction; his parties are turbulent and raucous without being promising, without holding out the allure of magical encounters. They’re in the story, of course, those encounters—there’s no story without them—but Luhrmann, a man of his times, has no patience for mystery, no sense of true and brazen immodesty. He may have spent a lot of money to put his grandiose vision of the novel onto the screen, but he seems to be apologizing for it in advance. There was something in that most profligate night life, in the obscenely indulgent expenditures of the rich on destructive amusements for themselves and their friends and the hangers-on, that had a diabolical appeal to Fitzgerald—but it has none for Luhrmann, and the movie offers none.
The same is true of the casting and the acting. Leonardo DiCaprio has the laser-fix eyebeams and the megawatt smile, but not the sense of being—which Fitzgerald mentions in the book—“an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.” DiCaprio’s speech, with its J.F.K.-tinged accent, is simply and patently absurd, and there’s no roughness whatsoever to his character, none of life’s burrs or scrapes, no tinge of real power. And he’s the best among the principals. Carey Mulligan, though a fine actress, is simply overmatched by the part of Daisy Buchanan; she doesn’t invest the character with style or with substance, doesn’t have a sufficiently high-handed irony or sense of intimate secrecy. She plays the role entirely out front, as if in keeping with a cynical conception—in keeping with Luhrmann’s superficial churning of the party scenes—of the young woman of impossible dreams being an ordinary person of not-unusual substance or character whose wonder exists only in Gatsby’s fantastic visions. Here, too, Luhrmann—unlike Fitzgerald—is unable to take society seriously, to recognize the extraordinary character that extraordinary manners both hide and (for those attuned to them) display. Joel Edgerton brings crude weight to the character of Tom Buchanan but not the refinement of wealth; as Nick Carraway, Tobey Maguire plays a bit too bewildered, too awkward and unknowing. The simplicity of Luhrmann’s conception filters into their portrayals.
That notion brings to mind what is perhaps Fitzgerald’s most famous sentence, from the essay “The Crack-Up,” in which, preparing to describe his own breakdown, he adds:
Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation—the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.
The movie conveys the sense of waste but not of what was wasted, of the superfluous but not of excess, and of the phony but not of the gloriously theatre of life. In its reductive way, it not only doesn’t display two opposed ideas; it offers no ideas at all.
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The narrator, Nick, of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald describes Gatsby’s parties as elaborate and grand affairs that attract entertainers, socialites, and even ordinary people. “There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. ” (39) Gatsby plays as a perfect host, generous and hospitable. In fact, he is courteous to the point of being taken advantage of.
People come to his house for parties like it is the everyday routine, but also use his boats, plane, his cars, and so on. Gatsby does not mind all his guests, because every weekend continues in the same patterns of excess and lavishness as he provides his guests with only the finest food, drink, and entertainment. Nick observes Gatsby’s parties from a distance until he is officially invited to attend one. Nick is able to provide an informed view of not only what goes on at Gatsby’s parties, but also what the people who attend are like.
He notices that, “I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby’s house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited-they went there. ” (41) The impression that Nick gives is not appealing. It turns out that the glamorous party guests are actually quite shallow. Nick observes that they are “agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity and convinced that it was theirs for a few words in the right key. ” (42) Fitzgerald is also suggesting that the only way in which a sense of meaning is found through altering one’s sense of consciousness.
Through the partying, people are able to bring meaning into their otherwise meaningless lives. Nick explains “? that I slunk off in the direction of the cocktail table- the only place in the garden where a single man could linger without looking purposeless and alone. ” (42) Also “I was enjoying myself now. I had taken two finger-bowls of champagne, and the scene has changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental, and profound. ” (47) For them, it seems like drinking was an escape, allowing them to exit the mundane world of security.
The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names. ” (40) The reader learns a lot about Daisy and the relationship she and Gatsby had through the party scenes. Jordan explains to Nick that it was not a coincidence that Gatsby’s house is across the Sound from Daisy’s. He purposely chose the less fashionable West Egg so that he could be across from Daisy.
Jordan also explains that the parties he hosts are for no other reason than to try to get Daisy’s attention. Gatsby puts on excessive displays of wealth, entertaining people he does not know and who do not know him in hopes of reuniting with Daisy. He starts asking around, seeing if anyone knows Daisy and soon finds out that Jordan is a good friend of hers. He explains to Jordan all of this and says that if he shows her that he has money, he could win Daisy back. Through the parties, Gatsby planned to show Daisy the “new” him, the “new” him with money.
Author: Wallace Hartsell
The Great Gatsby “Party Scene”
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