Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Baz Luhrmann’s final paper

Baz Luhrmann substitutes a high-school English paper for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel in scripting his film version of The Great Gatsby, released earlier this year and now available on DVD from Warner Home Video. The conflict between “old money” and “new money” and the symbolism of T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes as the “eyes of God,” those English-class favorites, are carefully enunciated and repeated by the actors just in case an unwary moviegoer might be under the illusion that Luhrmann’s purpose in remaking Gatsby is to scrape off the critical clichés and restore a classic to its original condition. The phrases appear nowhere in Fitzgerald’s text. They are, however, fixed as securely to the popular consciousness as Hamlet’s indecisiveness, which belongs not to Shakespeare’s play but to A. C. Bradley’s 1904 lectures on Shakespearean tragedy. No one who knows the commonplaces needs to read the texts with any attentiveness, because they have already been “read” for him—by general agreement.

The mistakes pile up. As the film opens, Nick Carraway is in a sanitarium, years after the events about to be shown, diagnosed as “morbidly alcoholic.” (In the novel, Nick says, “I have been drunk just twice in my life,” and Tobey Maguire, who plays Nick with demonstrative broadness, even repeats the line—as if oblivious to the nonsense the rest of the film makes of it.) Muttering aloud, Luhrmann’s Nick says, “Back then, we all drank too much. The more in tune with the times we were, the more we drank.” Fitzgerald’s Nick drinks too little, and tunes himself to the times in other ways, but Luhrmann’s mind is on finishing his English paper. He requires explanations, not subtleties. The movie’s Nick talks and talks in a voiceover that goes quickly from being intrusive to annoying. Why is he talking so much? He is addressing the psychiatrist who is treating him. “You see, Doctor,” he says at one point, dying to himself and being reborn as Alexander Portnoy.

The geography of the film is intentionally cartoonish. The Valley of Ashes, instead of being a narrow ash dump about the size of Flushing Meadow Park, is a monstrous waste land that has swallowed Queens whole. In an overhead shot reminiscent of Saul Steinberg’s View of the World from 9th Avenue, the lush green of Long Island ends abruptly in black-and-white, stretching from one edge of the frame to the other, with Manhattan glittering beyond it in the distance. Despite being a waste land, though, it is crawling with people. There are so many people milling around Wilson’s garage, in fact, that Gatsby is lucky he doesn’t hit someone long before his car runs over Myrtle Wilson.

Perhaps the worst thing about the film are Gatsby’s parties. Luhrmann has himself confused with Flo Ziegfeld. The parties are theatrical extravaganzas with chorus girls dancing in unison, dueling orchestras, announcers bellowing into microphones, streamers and confetti falling from the ceiling as if at a political convention, explosions of fireworks that must have kept the neighbors awake every night, and hundreds upon hundreds of guests packed so tightly in Gatsby’s rooms that they look like squirming maggots when viewed from above.

In the novel, when Nick attends one of Gatsby’s parties for the first time, he finds himself in conversation with “two girls in twin yellow dresses” and “three Mr. Mumbles,” all of them guessing at the truth about Gatsby. They lean forward confidentially and whisper to one another: “Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once,” “he was a German spy during the war.” Nick reflects knowingly: “It was testimony to the romantic speculation he inspired that there were whispers about him from those who had found little that it was necessary to whisper about in this world.” At Luhrmann’s parties, the guests find it necessary to shout. Anyone who whispered a romantic speculation would not have been heard even by himself.

In researching his final paper, Luhrmann must have learned that Fitzgerald planned originally to call his novel Trimalchio after the character in Petronius’ Satyricon who is famous for his immoderate dinner parties. Not that Luhrmann knows anything about Petronius. As a filmmaker with ambitions to greatness, though, he surely knows Fellini’s Satyricon. The parties in his film owe a deeper and more obvious debt to Fellini than to anything in Fitzgerald. The riots of sight and sound are proof merely that Luhrmann can do Fellini in the twenty-first century. They are the Folies Luhrmann, fantasies of pure excessive spectacle that have nothing whatever to do with the plot of Gatsby. In the novel, Gatsby throws his parties in the hope that Daisy will wander in one night. In the film, Gatsby would not be able to pick Daisy out of the swarm, even if she did happen to wander in.

But, really, I have been saving the worst for last. The worst is Luhrmann’s decision to make Nick Carraway into a writer. The “text” of his film is a large blank book that Nick’s psychiatrist gives him as part of his cure. “Write about it,” his doctor says. “You said yourself that writing brought you solace.” Nick has already admitted that he wanted to be a writer when he was at Yale. He picks up a green hardback copy of Ulysses to drive the point home, even though Ulysses was not published until 1922, the same year as the events in Gatsby. But why let an anachronism stand in the way of reconceiving Nick Carraway as a modernist genius?

I can think of two reasons. First, if Nick is a writer with visions of Joyce dancing in his head then he is that most tedious of creatures—the unreliable narrator. Maybe that’s why he can be “morbidly alcoholic” and also “drunk just twice in [his] life.” Whatever he says about himself is not entirely to be trusted. In the novel, Nick says at one point: “Reading over what I have written so far I see I have given the impression that the events of three nights several weeks apart were all that absorbed me”—that is, he has given a false impression. If he is unreliable, though, is the impression false or is the claim about its falsity false? In Luhrmann’s script, this line becomes: “Looking over my story so far, I’m reminded that, for the second time that summer, I was guarding other people’s secrets.” The shift to the word story is unconscious, I would wager, because Luhrmann and his co-author Craig Pearce never for a moment imagined Gatsby as anything else than make believe. The line about guarding other people’s secrets, which appears nowhere in the book, is also a reminder never to invite comparison with a better writer’s prose.

The second reason is the more important. A few days ago I argued that Nick is not a writer, at least not in the modernist sense, but a kind of confessor who is “privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men” like Jay Gatsby. If he is what Elias Canetti called an earwitness to the “intimate revelations” by and about Gatsby—not composing, merely listening—then the splendor of the book’s prose belongs, not to him, but to Gatsby and his dreams. To take the “creative passion” of the style away from Gatsby and bestow it upon Nick, a “normal person” who can only wonder at “what a man will store up in his ghostly heart,” is to inflate Nick into something he is not, rob Gatsby of his greatness, and get The Great Gatsby wrong at the most fundamental level. I grant you this is what high-school English students are routinely assigned to do, but that doesn’t make it right.

8 comments:

PMH said...

When I taught Literature and Film I never assumed that the film could be anything more than an interpretation of the book--if that. A film's first job, of course, is to be effective cinema. Perhaps (and I only say perhaps)it can also interpret. There is this same problem with books that use history, the kind I write. I use history. Perhaps on my best days I "interpret" it or have an affective relationship to what might have happened, but I don't think that I recreate it. I think that is what historians do. So I would not expect BL to do much with a great book except perhaps to give us his interpretation. And maybe he doesn't even do that. Is it good cinema? Maybe it should be entitled _Nick_.

Palinurus said...

Interesting and clever reading, but I disagree with several points.

First, the worst, primordial cliché of the movie seems to me to be (I haven’t seen the movie; but based on your post) its therapeutic turn – that writers are damaged and their writing, their art, a sort of therapy. Among other things, this sanitizes and neuters what should be the effect of this book’s art; far from a “journey” to normalcy, health, and “fitting in,” it engenders a sort of “sickness” by confronting the reader with the quintessential questions of modern literature, as Trilling outlined them: are you really happy with your marriage, your stuff, your friends, your job, your life, or was it really something else you wanted?

Second, Nick’s normalcy does not parse with the book; the book is rife with signs of his abnormality. The normal people are those who see Gatsby as merely a colorful gangster and want to have their fun mau-mauing with his gangster chic at his parties; their contemporary analogues are the suburban types who safely and passingly indulge in gangster culture. Nick, by contrast, is related to Daisy; went to school with Tom; lives next door to Gatsby; and is chosen by Gatsby to be the instrument of his romantic aspirations. A “normal” person would not simply arrange an adulterous relationship between a relative and a bootlegger. That Nick’s sentimental affinity with Gatsby trumps his consanguinity with Daisy and social relations with Tom is given to Jordan Baker to say – it turns out he really is a careless driver after all.

Nor does a “normal” person write the last novel’s concluding passages. That’s composing, not listening. That Nick is not simply Gatsby’s Boswell is evident by a comparison of the two works. The Great Gatsby, in contrast to Boswell’s book, is devoid of Gatsby’s voice; however much Nick might have listened, he lets Gatsby say little and gives him only one memorable line, the one about Daisy’s voice sounding like money.

To say Nick is composing is not to diminish Gatsby’s greatness but to frame it. Achilles is not diminished because Homer sings of his wrath, or Caesar because Marc Antony gives his funeral oration, or Ahab because Ismael tells the story his quest for the white whale. Achilles, Caesar, and Ahab are men of deeds; they are their own artistic creation in a sense; it is for others to tell their story. As Nick puts it, “the truth was that Jay Gatsby … sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God …” This is hardly the sort of thing that Gatsby, of few memorable lines, would say about himself. That Nick could compose this pious, blasphemous aphorism tells us not only about Gatsby but about the sort of person that could appreciate and communicate his greatness. To parse the blasphemous joke: Gatsby is Jesus, Nick an evangelizing apostle, and the Great Gatsby the gospel. While true -- and close to your reading -- this is of course not literally true. Nick might like to play at being an apostle, but those who play at this role are more than mere apostles.

D. G. Myers said...

Brilliant comment re: therapy, Palinurus. If you don’t already know Philip Rieff’s Triumph of the Therapeutic (1968), you’d like it enormously and find much in it to broaden and deepen your observations. In literary terms, of course, the fiction of an experience’s being narrated to a therapist was invented by (belongs to) Philip Roth in Portnoy’s Complaint. (My discussion of the device is here.)

As for Nick’s being a “normal person.” The phrase is his. I’m merely quoting. He uses the phrase to distinguish himself from the “veteran bores” and “wild, unknown men” who, like Gatsby, reveal themselves to him.

To say that the splendor of the novel’s prose belongs to Gatsby and his dreams (as I do above) is not to suggest that Gatsby writes it. Although I like the image of Nick as an apostle, I am an Orthodox Jew. Perhaps it might be better to describe Gatsby as a pseudepigraphic work in which Nick is Gatsby’s scribe, passing off his work as that of the greater (holier) man.

zk said...

You believe Nick when he says he's been drunk twice? He's drunk three times in his narrative of Gatsby's life and death alone.

Palinurus said...

Pseudepigraphic? I like the idea that Nick might be passing off his work as that of a greater man because it invokes the spirit of Socratic irony. This is the spirit that, it seems to me, animates the opening passage you began this string of blogs with. You might even call the passage an invocation of the muse of Socratic irony. The Socratic variant of irony is not tragic irony, where the hero is blind to the fate that is obvious to everyone else, or whatever it is that is meant when irony is used nowadays. This form of irony is characterized rather by the meaning of the original Greek word for irony, to dissemble.

Socrates dissembled by feigning ignorance. This pose drew out those he spoke with, who pretended to teach Socrates what he pretended not to know – the meaning of friendship, virtue, piety, etc. Yet in teaching Socrates, his interlocutors would unwittingly reveal that their supposed knowledge was really an incoherent mess of contradictory opinions, and that they themselves were, in a comic version of tragic irony, ignorant of their now evident ignorance.

Nick’s dissembling pose of non-judgmental, normal openness – what mere non-judgmental observer of his fellows tells a tale of one man’s greatness, the Great Gatsby, after all – has a similar cause and effect. It induces young men to reveal their plagiaristic confidences and leads to Nick’s being “unjustly accused” of being a politician, as Socrates was of corrupting the youth. The dissembling Nick is not who he seems to be to others. That most people still won’t get Nick’s game even as he gives it away – that his readers will, like his fellows, “unjustly” accuse him of something comically inapt– shows that the problem is not that Nick is an unreliable narrator. It is rather that we are likely to be unreliable readers. Of Nick and Gatsby and, ultimately, Fitzgerald.

(cont'd.)

Palinurus said...

(Cont'd ...)

Nick is similarly dissembling about Gatsby’s greatness. This greatness is at once uniquely American but yet tragically and comically at odds with America; it is greatness in the form it would assume in a land where all men are presumed equal; and that’s a greatness that must dissemble. Hence, to make his greatness palatable and accessible, James Gatz must dissemble as Jay Gatsby and assume the disguise of a recognized American form of greatness – celebrity – and in its 1920s safe-for-mass-consumption fashion – the country-squire gangster who throws extravagant, booze-fueled parties and balances a hint of violent criminality with Oxford-educated gentility. As Nick puts it, Gatsby was “a son of God … and he must be about his Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.” Hence, it is little surprise that the greatness of the Great Gatsby should be earnestly but spectacularly misunderstood as mere celebrity in the “vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty” serviced by Bar Luhrmann’s movie. Most readers of Plato think Socrates is really a nice, humble guy who just wants to learn the trust. So too most of the characters in the Great Gatsby only know Gatsby as the gangster and party-thrower extraordinaire, and most people will know Luhrmann’s and not the Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby.

The real greatness of Gatsby, and the reason why it must be hidden, slips its disguise in what is perhaps one of the most astounding lines ever uttered in a novel. Acknowledging that Daisy did after all love her husband, the Great Gatsby says: “In any case, it was just personal.” Lionel Trilling wrote that with this sentence Gatsby achieved an “insane greatness.” Indeed he did; for if love of Gatsby is impersonal, it must be something like the love of God. It is the love of God, of God and by God, that is quintessentially impersonal. That is a love for what is good in itself – “the Platonic conception,” to use another phrase Nick uses for Gatsby – as to opposed to what is loveable because it is our own or “personal,” like the love of siblings, children, or spouses, who are an extension of ourselves. Here’s Gatsby the real Son of God; he is god-like, more than merely personal and merely human (indeed, he is beloved by Daisy in the persons of James Gatz and Jay Gatsby), and commands a love like the one that might be offered to or flow from God. No wonder Daisy says he asks too much.

And perhaps Fitzgerald does too. He is the ultimate creator and his story can be read as one of his own demands of love for the Great Gatsby as his creation (or son, in a sense) and his greatness as an artist. Fitzgerald has tried to make these insanely great demands palatable and accessible by putting them in the mouth of the mock-humble Nick and a story about Gatsby’s greatness. But you cannot read his book without suspecting Fitzgerald’s anxiety that the kernel of this greatness would be lost in its chaff of “vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty,” or that in servicing this beauty, as he must, Fitzgerald would, like Gatsby, meet a bad end. Can literary fame in American ever be more than celebrity, and great novels aspire to be more than celebrity-vehicle movies or the subject of plagiaristic, clichéd high school papers? Or, is it the case that Fitzgerald, like Gatsby – and perhaps you, too, with your movie review – ask too much.

R.T. said...

Thank you for your provocation and warning. I am warned to avoid the Gatsby film, and I cannot find a single critic who would tell me to do otherwise. I am provoked into rereading Fitzgerald's novel. I am reminded of two collateral topics worth reconsidering within the context of the rereading: Maxwell Perkins was the editor; Fitzgerald advised Hemingway about the draft of TSAR. What a golden age of American fiction!

BTW, I wish you belated holiday greetings on the New Year.

All the best

stone said...

I agree with PMH. "Maybe it should be entitled"