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Michael Maiello's picture

Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby is a Triumph (whether you like it or not)

Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, is a fable.  It is not a fable now, years after it was written.  Fitzgerald structured it as a fable and intended it to be read as such. Its original title was Trimalchio in West Egg.  Gatsby is based on a party-thrower created by the Greek satirist Petronius.  So, when I hear people talking about Gatsby almost as if it’s reportage on Jazz Age America, I think that they are reading the wrong book.  Fitzgerald is not Tom Wolfe or Theodore Dreiser.  In creating Gatsby, he worked in the manner of Shakespeare, taking his inspiration from ancient and timeless source material.

The Great Gatsby is a fable and that’s why it’s fabulous.  The novel is about huge issues like the passage of time, the endurance of love, the selfishness of well-meaning people, and the prejudices caused by our notions of race and class.  In the end, our tragic hero is venerated (and martyred) for covering up the vehicular homicide committed by the woman he loves.  We’re in myth-land.  The Great Gatsby is hardcore modernism and that’s distinct from psychological or social realism.

This is why Baz Luhrman was a great choice to direct its film adaptation.  The knock on Luhrman is that he’s all surface and all show.  Well Gatsby doesn’t require hermeneutic analysis and, in fact, would defy any attempt.  Gatsby is easy to read and understand and I think one of the reasons that it is so loved by writers is that writers know how hard it is to write something that’s easy to read.  The narrative is light and linear.  The backstory is all revealed, in due course.  The most important gestures are grand.

The critical reaction to Luhrman’s film has been mixed.  Negative reactions say the film has no soul.  Positive responses seem positively apologetic.  Rotten Tomatoes sums it up well.  Where’s the big heart of the movie’s source material?  I think it’s there, as Fitzgerald attended.  It’s a matter of taste, but I don’t think any of that’s missing.  The heartbreak of Daisy being married to the wrong man, a boorish polo player, when Gatsby is present, vibrant and devoted is, to me, poignant as ever in the movie.

But, let’s think about Fitzgerald’s intentions and his life.  Our author had money trouble.  After the Army, he wrote advertising copy to fund his courtship of Zelda Sayre.  Only the breakaway success of This Side of Paradise moneyed him up enough to make him marryable.  Had that novel flopped, Fitzgerald might have lost his Daisy.  Gatsby is about all of this class nonsense that we allow to destroy us and keep us apart.

Luhrman’s pyrotechnics, including the anachronistic score by Jay-Z helped me think about the themes by evoking just a bit of Bertolt Brecht’s alienation technique.  No two ways about it, you never forget, watching The Great Gatsby that you’re watching a movie.  All of the colors are amped up.  Women are hip hop dancing in the speakeasy.  To hip hop music.  Buchanan’s Manhattan pied a terre is right next to a Harlem rent party.  Oh, and Luhrman even amps up the voice of the moralistic narrator Nick Carraway by putting him in rehab, at a facility named for the Scribner’s editor who tried against all odds to dry Fitzgerald out.  What some critics are dismissing as gimmicks, I’m calling Luhrman’s whole enterprise a triumph of technique.

I suspect that part of what’s going on is that America’s sensitive culture, such as it is, has long wanted to coddle the memory of Fitzgerald.  We’re addicted to an only partially true narrative of a precocious talent who was consumed by alcoholism and unable to please an emotionally and financially demanding wife.  We’re told (Ernest Hemingway told us first) that Fitzgerald wasted his talents on money-making short stories.  In later life he went to Hollywood, where John dos Passos and Hemingway both claimed that Fitzgerald was further corrupted and further squandered his talents.

I used to believe this.  A few things have changed, though.  First, my friend, the scholar and writer Jonathan Enfield has argued persuasively that film and working on film had a positive effect on Fitzgerald’s writing and his preferred storytelling structure.  The second is that I’ve learned through experience that work leads to more work, not less.  The creative mind is nourished by work, not depleted by it.  Look, I think that 2 Broke Girls is a pretty badly written sitcom but I bet that the writing staff, driven by deadlines and a competitive work environment, are all razor sharp and at the top of their powers.  Work is the best thing.  I’m writing this partly so that I can write something else.  The worst thing is not to write at all.  Neglect is the best way to lose a talent.

Against this backdrop, where those who care invariably believe that Hollywood did Fitzgerald a bad turn in life, any film based on his beloved work is fighting an uphill emotional battle with its core audience.  Please, we are tempted to say.  Do what you will to Benjamin Button but leave Daisy out of it.

So, we hold The Great Gatsby the novel as something just too precious.  Luhrman is the besotted party guest who has overstayed his welcome but insists on banging the piano singing “Dog! Dog! Dog!” as Fitzgerald did in his later Hollywood years. Meanwhile, we are treating Fitzgerald’s memory with the same condescending paternalism that Hemingway inflicted on him in life.  It’s not necessary.  Fitzgerald’s body of work is strong.  Luhrman can add to it, but he can’t detract from it.  Gatsby is not sullied in the least by Jay-Z’s music, beautiful 3D, or the Brandoesque qualities of Leonardo diCaprio. I say it’s enhanced.  Your mileage may vary, but I think there’s no more reason to worry about the “heart” of Gatsby than there is to worry about the heart of Romeo and Juliet, a movie that earned Luhrman similar criticisms as if a story borrowed from Italian antiquity that had already been turned into West Side Story hadn’t already proven enduring enough that it would never break.

Go see the movie, if you haven’t.  And… please, try to enjoy yourself.  It’s a good thing that’s happened to our culture, if you let it be that.

I haven't see the movie, but this is a seriously asskicking review. You should do more of them.

x2.  Well done, M.

I recently read, and thoroughly enjoyed, the late movie reviewer Roger Ebert's memoir Life Itself.  Your staccato review is stylistically similar to it, and similarly easy and fun to read for that. I think Ann Hornaday, the Washington Post's lead movie reviewer, is excellent, among film reviewers I read.

x2 too.   Great piece.  I'm putting my money on you at the next Moviecritic-mania, where I'm sure you'll put a figure four leg-lock on Richard Roeper and clinch the title with a literary submission hold.   I wasn't particularly interested in seeing this version of Gatsby, but now I've put it on my must-see list.  Thanks for the good read.

 

 

I wonder how the film was pitched, as in the fashion seen in the beginning of Robert Altman's The Player.  My guess is something like "It's Dallas meets Moulin Rouge...I hear Robert Downey Jr is very interested in the Jay Gatsby role..."

Thank goodness Fitzgerald was no Theodore Dreiser. Speaking as a fellow Hoosier subjected against her teenage will to a high-school reading of Sister Carrie, one Dreiser was more than enough.

I doubt the movie will come this way--in my smallish city, we get all the action movies and cartoons you could want, but none of the artistic or quiet movies. I like Luhrman's movies for their rock opera, dreamy quality but Gatsby was another (albeit better) novel I was subjected to in a high school English class that focused way too heavily on dead, white guys. I'm not sure I've ever recovered. 

I recently finished The Paris Wife, which is a fictionalized version of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife during the time they lived in Paris. The Fitzgeralds are in there, along with Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and all the others. It was Mad Men for the Roaring Twenties.

My understanding of Gatsby never progressed much past the 16-year-old level, but I like the idea that it is a fable rather than an honest telling of the times. It makes me like it more. Maybe enough to give it another read. Definitely enough to see the movie, if I get the chance.  

This is just insanely wonderful.  I'm in awe.  (I may even watch the movie now.)

Great review, Michael.

I did see it, today.  And I did enjoy it.  Having seen both the 1974 and 2000 movie versions within the past six months, I was most struck by how much more on-his-sleeves emotionally vulnerable DiCaprio's Gatsby was compared to Redford's.  Although I like Redford a ton, because he is often subtle in his character portrayals (some here might enjoy The Company You Keep, his most recent, as I did), I actually thought DiCaprio's rendition gave this version far more heart and soul than the 1974 (or the 2000, which I liked least of the three, notwithstanding Paul Rudd, who my wife thought was a hottie, as Carroway) effort had. 

I'd forgotten about the 2000 version!  Mira Sorvino, right?  I believe she was enjoying the cache of her 1995 Oscar win, still (for Mighty Aphrodite).

Yes.  Someone I found exceptionally uncommanding, compared to Redford and now Leo, played Gatsby.

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