Monday, 27 May 2013

You Can't Live Forever

I finally got round to seeing the new Baz Luhrmann film of The Great Gatsby today, but managed to pick the 2D version with subtitles. I was happy about the former but the latter was disconcerting. It's fair to say that Luhrmann signposts too much without the additional aid of spelling out the words (which he even does for some choice phrases in the vanilla version). The subtitles also mean you get a track listing of the Jay-Z produced music, which threw up some eye-catching ephemera, such as the key role of The Bryan Ferry Orchestra. Most people seem to dislike the use of the modern stylee, as if only trad jazz should have been allowed (they don't quibble about the use of colour film), but I found it unobjectionable without being helpful. The story is a series of dramatic interiors, like a well-made play, punctuated with woozy interludes in which you're thrown off-kilter by booze or fast cars. The music doesn't really signify.

The GG (that's an in-joke for anyone familiar with the future queen's uncle) is one of my favourite American novels simply because it adds so much to the understanding of everything that came after it, and not a little to what preceded it. Gatsby has the same blood as Natty Bumpo and Ishmael, the same vital force as Augie March and Ferris Bueller. The skill of Fitzgerald is in making him both utterly unusual and yet recognisably an everyman, simultaneously superhero and mensch. He is the perfectly poised American ("poise and how to attain it" is part of his dream). He really is quite impossible. The film is carried by Leonardo Di Caprio, who in his first appearance, the famous "smile" scene, looks like a young JFK (he is surely inching towards playing the role one day). There are intriguing parallels with his portrayal of Howard Hughes in Scorcese's The Aviator: two obsessives who are humoured because of their wealth (Hughes, coincidentally, was the model for Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, who has become the role-model for the Bay Area libertarian ubermensch). Of the other main roles, Carey Mulligan lacks the icicle in the heart of Daisy, while Joel Edgerton is an echt Tom Buchanan.

The film's central weakness is Tobey Maguire, who is insufficiently suspect for the role of the unreliable narrator, Nick Carraway. They may as well have cast Tim Nice-but-Dim. On the spectrum from Philip Marlowe to Patrick Bateman, Carraway is closer to the latter. There is something callous in his makeup. For all his judgementalism about the other characters, at heart he simply doesn't care enough, hence he tolerates Gatsby's obvious deceit, Jordan Baker's dishonesty (less apparent in the film than the book), Daisy's selfishness and Tom's brutality. This is his strange honesty. He ultimately savours and celebrates Gatsby for the sincerity of his shallow beliefs. When he says "They're a rotten crowd", he's talking about himself as well. That green light represents both the possibility of advance and the perils of naivety - green for go and as green as a cabbage. It symbolises Nick's inability to believe or commit, and his fascination with those that are able to, whether sincerely like Gatsby or insincerely like Daisy. He is a modern protagonist with a classic existential dilemma, which he finally resolves by retreating to the Midwest and respectable obscurity (the film recasts this as alcohol dependency and writing therapy, implying that Carraway is Fitzgerald's alter ego).

In the novel, Nick's final cutting of Tom Buchanan in the street, and his interior eulogy at Gatbsy's funeral (attended by the hick father), do not ring quite true, which perhaps explains why these scenes are omitted from the film. They are cliched, and would probably have come across as gross melodrama in Luhrmann's hands. Yes, Nick has become sickened by the moral nullity of the rich, but he is not disillusioned. That's because he didn't start with any illusions, unlike Gatsby. The film also skips the "ellipses" after the party at Tom and Myrtle's apartment, which suggest he has secrets of his own (his attraction to Gatsby may be partly sexual).

The "society" that Gatsby aspires to is made up of shallow and stupid people, notably Daisy and Tom. The social scenes that Carraway wanders through - the parties at Gatsby's mansion, the drinking session at Tom and Myrtle's, the "business" meeting with Meyer Wolfsheim (focused on food in the book, drink in the film) - are all morally adrift. Luhrmann overplays this with the inferno-like scenes of the ash-pits between West Egg and New York, which were actually just scrubby edge-lands that in time became Flushing Meadows (home to the 1939 World's Fair and later Shea Stadium). The modern echoes, in terms of scene and  mood, if not geography, can be found in Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms (for my money, Bret Easton Ellis is a more fitting inheritor of the "Fitzgerald des nos jours" accolade than the oft-cited Jay McInerney).

Perhaps the one authentic character is Myrtle, though she is conventionally despised by Fitzgerald for her lack of class and her cupidity (she buys a dog on a whim). She has the unapologetic spirit of desire that built America, even if she lacks the "capacity for wonder" of the original Dutch sailors arriving on the shore of Long Island. She is, more than Gatsby, who has managed to really live his dream for a while, the victim of the tale. If his key phrase centres on recreating the past, hers is the belief that "you can't live forever". She knows her time, her chance, is running out - that the fates are against her. Gatsby, in contrast, thinks he is inviolable. George Wilson, Myrtle's husband, is a weak man, in thrall to an idealised vision of his wife, and thus a doppelganger of Gatsby. Daisy kills Myrtle: dumb privilege trampling authentic vitality. Wilson ostensibly kills Gatsby in misdirected revenge, though the truth may be murkier - did Wolfsheim have Gatsby killed and then frame Wilson? The film invents dialogue to show Tom persuading Wilson to target and shoot Gatsby, while the novel leaves this open and doesn't show the act of murder, merely a punctured Gatsby floating suspiciously on an unpunctured lilo.

There have been a number of films of the story, though I've only previously seen the 1974 Jack Clayton version, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. I remember the main impact it had was on fashion: Oxford bags, saddle shoes and tank tops. No wonder Punk happened. Like all great tales, the finest cinematic treatment is actually oblique. I give you Withnail and I: an unreliable narrator, unrealised dreams, self-delusion, drink and drugs, the perils of the city, escape to the country, cars, and portentous closing words.

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