Saturday, June 15, 2013

Back to High School: The Great Gatsby

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby bears little resemblance to the slender masterpiece on which it is based – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s now iconic 1925 novel – but that probably won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has followed this director’s career. While his critics see him as a sort of Andrew Lloyd Webber of movies whose histrionic period pieces (Moulin Rouge!Romeo + Juliet) put one in mind, to borrow a phrase from Pauline Kael, of “a dog with the broken bones of a cat sticking out,” few of Luhrmann’s fans would likely contest that characterization. To them, Luhrmann’s movies are carnival sensations, romances to excess that celebrate the hysterical pace of the modern age in brazen, trashy style (and anyone who doesn’t like their cats grafted messily onto dogs is just a purist, patrician snob). There’s a faint odor of schoolyard allegiance that clings to the debate around Baz Luhrmann, and it never fails to make me feel like the teenager who chooses to stay home with a book while all her friends go out to a rave.

In all the fuss, The Great Gatsby – Fitzgerald’s Gatsby – becomes a black box in the debate, like the boxes Shakespeare used as metaphors for young women in his plays (his point being that everyone fights over their ownership without any clue as to what’s inside). Even A.O. Scott in The New York Times seems to play right into this evasive logic when he defends Luhrmann’s approach – or at least his right to his own approach – on the grounds that Fitzgerald’s novel is “grist for endless reinterpretation,” as though adaptors less bombastic and more faithful to their source were doing something other than reinterpreting. (The full quote is “Gatsby is not gospel; it is grist for endless reinterpretation” – have we all forgotten that the gospels are perhaps the original grist in the ol’ interpretive mill?)

The truth is that Luhrmann’s baggy monster re-telling of Gatsby has all the literary sophistication of a high school book report; it plays right into the mistakes students (and many teachers) make about the novel and then raises the stakes. Here, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is an inmate at a sanatorium where he is being treated for alcoholism, and his fixation on a fellow named Gatsby (as though he were Mozart to Nick’s demented Salieri) prompts his psychiatrist to encourage him to write down his memories in a journal. They become a voice-over narration (and inevitably end up as Nick’s novel manuscript) for Nick’s remembrance of his time as the neighbor of the eponymous antihero (Leonardo DiCaprio) on Long Island Sound, where he relocated after the war to set up as a stockbroker. His link to Gatsby is his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who lives across the Sound with her husband and Nick’s Yale chum Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), and Daisy’s frequent companion, the golf champion Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), who has been to Gatsby’s wild parties. Daisy and Gatsby used to be lovers back when Gatsby was in the army and Daisy the belle of Louisville’s upper crust; she left him for Tom, a man of higher breeding and incredible wealth who now keeps a mistress in the city, Myrtle (Isla Fisher), whose husband George (Jason Clarke), a mechanic, he taunts with the business he never brings him. There’s sex, parties that make Cecil B. DeMille’s orgies look like understatement, and a lot of yelling; and in the end Gatsby, Myrtle and George are dead, Daisy and Tom have fled New York, Jordan’s been jilted, and it’s all because of capitalist greed, or idealism, or fate, or something.

A still from The Great Gatsby

Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, who co-wrote the film, mostly leave Fitzgerald’s first person prose in tact during Nick’s narration, but you can’t always tell. The language becomes just another special effect, and the direction is so tone-deaf that the poetry of the lines sounds purplish and often dramatically incongruous with what is happening on the screen.  So when Nick, learning that Gatsby wants him to invite Daisy to tea so that they can meet, reflects in voice over that “the modesty of the demand shook me,” it sounds, the way Maguire gives the line, like Gatsby has impressed Nick as a genuinely modest chap, a disarming fellow of understated romantic idealism – when of course the line is meant to be ironic, because Gatsby is a man of immodest, even megalomaniacal demands. The cognitive dissonance of all this weird synchronization is kind of like what you feel when you see a bad student production of a play you love – the actors are so sincere and the material so beloved you really wish it all made the least damned sense. 

None of the performances come off, in part because so many of the actors are miscast. Carey Mulligan, who was charming in the light ingénue roles she started out in (Pride and Prejudice, BBC’s Bleak House), gives a sleepy, breathy performance as Daisy; she’s like a young girl playing dress-up. Maguire might be right for the role of Nick in a better movie, but I can’t imagine what he thought he was doing here. He looks and sounds like one of Peter Jackson’s hobbits. Like Jack Clayton, whose 1974 The Great Gatsby starred Robert Redford, Luhrmann makes the mistake of casting a movie star of totemic all-American good looks in the title role, but DiCaprio has the wrong kind of charisma; it’s a part a younger Robert Downey, Jr., with his slightly off-kilter handsomeness and his agile, frenetic grace, could have played. Luhrmann’s concept of Gatsby, meanwhile, is as a cross between the emotionally turbulent, mysterious Mr. Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and what can only be described as a very classy gay pimp: moody, hysterical, immaculately tidy, and, in his quixotic pursuit of Daisy, entirely without sex appeal. DiCaprio, who gave an eloquent, sensitive performance opposite Clare Danes in Romeo + Juliet in 1996 that turned their scenes together into a slight but luminous film-within-the-film, seems to have decided with this one to simply close his eyes and think of England. His performance may not be the most embarrassing in the film, but it is certainly the most pained.

Robert Redford as Gatsby in 1974
Taking Luhrmann seriously as a film artist for a moment (which may be more than he deserves), and taking the movie seriously as literary adaptation (which is definitely more than it deserves), it’s worth asking why attempts to adapt a novel as ubiquitous to twentieth century American culture as The Great Gatsby go so terribly awry. (Jack Clayton’s big-budget adaptation, all gauzy pastels, is not quite as big a fiasco as Luhrmann’s, but it does miss the point by as wide a margin.) It’s more curious that there is no definitive film adaptation of Gatsby when you consider how deeply the novel has entered the popular imagination. It’s so present in film culture it’s become nearly invisible. When Truman Capote wrote his novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s about a young New York writer’s fascination with the eccentric, self-made playgirl Holly Golightly who lives below him, he was undoubtedly thinking of Nick’s curious friendship with the elusive Gatsby. “I was in love with her,” the narrator remarks, “Just as I’d once been in love with my mother’s elderly colored cook and a postman who let me follow him on his rounds and a whole family named McKendrick,” although Blake Edwards, in his better-known film adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn, corrupts that Fitzgerald-like sentiment by turning the relationship into a more conventional love affair. (He does nail Holly’s parties, which are a small-scale version of Gatsby’s.) So is Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) a Gatsby story – it’s about a disillusioned screenwriter (William Holden) taken in by an aging silent film actress (Gloria Swanson) whose spidery reclusion in a decrepit Hollywood mansion supports her megalomaniac belief that she is still a star. (Both Luhrmann and Robert Markowitz, in his 2000 made-for-TV adaptation, quote Wilder’s iconic underwater pool shot of William Holden for Gatsby’s death, an image that Wilder surely adapted from Fitzgerald’s description.)

Then there’s Six Degrees of Separation, John Guare’s great American play about a young con man who feels more real to the to the Upper West Side art collectors he cons than their own adult children. It’s a play that understands, as Fitzgerald did, that lies, like art, can sometimes tell the deepest truth. (Like Gatsby, the con artist Paul affects an aristocratic lineage; he’s the trickster figure as self-made man.) When Fred Schepisi turned Six Degrees of Separation into a film in 1993 with Will Smith as Paul and Stockard Channing as Ouisa, the socialite whose empathy he stirs even after she knows she’s been duped, he tweaked the ending to emphasize that like Nick Carraway, Ouisa has to break from her comfortable cocktail party existence: the art of Paul’s lie has shown her the real lie she’s been living.

Will Smith and Stockard Channing in Six Degrees of Separation
Guare and Schepisi have perhaps come closest to capturing the grain of Fitzgerald’s novel, which, in spite of its luxurious visual descriptions, is more dramatic than cinematic. To take Six Degrees as an unconventional Gatsby adaptation – which, in a sense, it is – Guare’s approach to Fitzgerald’s material reveals that The Great Gatsby is actually a chamber drama that doubles as a comedy of manners. It’s about the hypocrisy of upper class life, with its indulgence and spectacle and its divine narcissism, a mise-en-scène from high comedy the perspective  of which can only be fulfilled in tragic realism. (In Heartbreak House, which premiered in New York in 1920, George Bernard Shaw similarly depicted the tragic possibilities already built in to comedy and farce as a commentary on the self-destruction of the British leisure class.) Luhrmann and Clayton both look to epic and allegory for narrative form, as though Gatsby were an Edwardian saga, and it’s no wonder their adaptations, both of which come in at about two and a half hours, end up bloated and misshapen; you could read the novel in the time it takes to sit through either of their pictures. They miss the distinctive modernism of the novel, which is in its poetic realism (picked up by Tennessee Williams in American drama and Elia Kazan and Fred Zinnemann in American movies) and its economical, understated rendering of the fate of its characters. For all the set pieces of party crowds, the entire plot is contained in the dramatic and thematic interactions of Nick, Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, Jordan Baker, and Myrtle and George Wilson. This is the collapse of American idealism in seven degrees of separation.

Schepisi’s Six Degrees suggests that Will Smith, like Downey, Jr., might have been an inspired Gatsby, though you’d never think to cast him if you adapted the novel as a period piece – it would feel forced if it was a color blind production, pedantic tokenism if it was intended as social commentary. But if you stripped away the lush pageantry we’re tempted to associate with The Great Gatsby, and trusted in its dramatic premise as John Guare did when he re-imagined its socio-political critique for New York at the end of the century, you might find that an actor like Smith, who can play the melancholy of the ineffable charmer as well as the bravado, could turn his race into part of the performance rather than allowing it to dictate it. It would after all be not unlike the way Gatsby turns his oddness, his trumped-up mannerisms and his specious origin story, into part of the performance that captivates the wealthy society he only half-succeeds in imitating. (It captivates them precisely because he both belongs to their world and is so mysteriously foreign to it.) These are the kinds of dramatic possibilities that fascinate me, but it seems like it’s the writers and directors whose work is informed by Gatsby, and not the ones who want to adapt it, who are asking what I think are the right questions, the questions that cut to the very quick of these characters and what the right actors might do for them. Luhrmann dwells on the glamorous surface of the novel’s cultural prestige – its nostalgic cache as what as teenagers we happily misread as romance. Instead of dramatizing its themes of narcissism and blind prosperity, he simply acts them out.

There’s a moment at the end of Luhrmann’s Gatsby that proves that he doesn’t even understand his own title. When Nick is assembling the manuscript he has titled “Gatsby,” he pauses over it and adds the impulsive honorific, “The Great,” as though he’s weighed the evidence and decided that, after all, Gatsby was a really good guy. (Apparently, in this realization lies Nick’s redemption – or at least his release from rehab.) But Gatsby is the Great Gatsby because he’s an illusionist. Fitzgerald’s title marks him as a sort of magician who captivates his audience with the spectacles of his parties and the elaborate mystery of his own person. You’d think that the movie magic of today might bring Gatsby’s magic to life, the way Scorsese brought the magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Meliès’ work to life using 3-D technology in Hugo. Luhrmann’s Gatsby trips over itself to be contemporary and relevant, but there’s simply no present tense to this picture. It’s all visual and thematic associations without dramatic follow-through. To say he missed the magic is quite literally to say he missed the meaning – both what makes the book dramatic and what makes it simultaneously of its time and remarkably conversant with our own.

– Amanda Shubert is a graduate student in English at the University of Chicago. Previously, she held a curatorial fellowship at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, working with their collection of prints, drawings and photographs. She is a founding editor of the literary journal Full Stop.

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