8:26 AM – Talking to moms. Drinking coffees. Listening to Coltrane. Prepping for road trip with my pug-dog. There is only Sabbath here.
“And I had the intentions of reading many other books besides.” – Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby
The wife and I each read The Great Gatsby again this past week. It had been years for either of us, and we read Gatsby out of mutual interest in the film and our own fuzzy memories. Before we scavenged out our old Scribner copy, we shared our memories of the language, the parties, Daisy’s vapidness and Gatsby’s mystery, but we remembered little else. Suddenly, the book entered most of our conversations. Again there was the language. Again the parties and Daisy and Gatsby. But now there was much more. Things we did not remember from a decade’s pass between readings.
Like Nick’s naivety, his wide-eyed school-boy notion to conquer the world through books: an outlook possessed before tasting life’s salty skin at parties near whisky and music and broken noses. Nick, the innocent interpreter of perverse wealth, the last remaining Victorian seeing the poetry in people’s motions and motives, weighing the raging sexuality of both Jay Gatsby and Jordan Baker as equally inviting. Only Nick Carraway could see the purity of Gatsby’s hope to fulfill self-determined divinity.
And the story of America. Not just the framework of the roaring twenties, but America. The confusion of integration and immigration, all that mucking about without invitation or purpose. The Rise of the Colored Empire and old verses new money. I wondered more than once if Nick was talking about Gatsby’s Long Island or the influx of nations at Ellis Island:
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. They got into automobiles which bore them out to Long Island, and somehow they ended up at Gatsby’s door. Once there they were introduced by somebody who knew Gatsby, and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with amusement parks. Sometimes they came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission.
The book is as much epic poetry as it is a novel, electrically charged with large characters and the eyes of God and mythic proportions titillating everything from the purchase of a puppy to so many beautiful shirts. I wanted to re-read it immediately, and, in fact, I re-read the first chapter after the last to feel the circular pull of it, of those damn sentences and descriptions – People disappeared, reappeared, made plans to go somewhere, and then lost each other, searched for each other, found each other a few feet away – in which Fitzgerald tapped a singular inspired vein, one he never found vibrant again. It’s no wonder he drank himself underneath.
Baz Lurhmann’s film succeeds and fails in equally awkward and glorious degrees. Successfully, Lurhmann captures the superficial, vacant roar of that decade and those people by creating a film that also feels superficially vacant. The flashy cameras, layered imagery, popping colors, and anachronistic hip-hop soundtrack speak more to Lurhmann’s own Gatsby-ish self-importance than to Fitzgerald’s source. Cinematically, everything in the narrative before Daisy’s tea at Nick’s cottage and after Myrtle’s demise is a chest-beating wash. If these bookended scenes are all the critics endured, then I understand their distain.
But Lurhmann’s film works when and where it needs most. As mentioned, everything between Daisy’s tea and Myrtle’s loss – basically, the heart of the story – is essentially Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. All the humor and awkwardness Fitzgerald wrote into his pages finally found place in film, which is as much credit to the cast as the direction. Surprisingly, Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway almost overshadowed Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby until the final hotel room scene when Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) pushes Gatsby to a brink that reveals the difference between old and new money. Prior to this point, DiCaprio’s performance is reserved and cool, as handsome and flawless as Jay Gatsby’s library of real books. And Carey Mulligan’s Daisy is irresistible and slightly despicable, so much that you simultaneously want to run away with her and push her in front of your Westward fleeing car.
Still, Lurhmann’s truest success was in his reading of many difficult passages. He brought a childlike interpretation to Gatsby’s throwing the shirts and an utter speechlessness to Daisy’s weeping on them. He explored Jay Gatsby’s silent, hidden crookedness in ways that shined light on Wolfsheim and those pesky party time phone calls. And he showed us in Gatsby what Tom wanted to reveal to Daisy all along. Fitzgerald offered scant but sufficient detail for readers, opening keyholes rather than windows into his story. Lurhmann and associates read between the lines and gave us interpretive probabilities authentic enough to drive us back to our own copies of The Great Gatsby. For this reason alone, the film succeeds more than fails.
- Fitzgerald’s book – 5 required readings out of 5
- Lurhmann’s film – 3 perfectly placed Lana Del Ray vocals out of 5