The Great Gatsby

I wrote briefly about The Great Gatsby before. After watching Baz Luhrmann’s version in theatres this weekend, I may as well add my thoughts to the plethora of critiques and articles out there.

If you haven’t watched it or read the book, which I highly suggest you do, you might not want to read further. In other words, spoiler alert. Then again, if you haven’t read The Great Gatsby, come on, it’s been around since 1925!

The Great Gatsby movie posterFirst off, I liked the movie. It was more faithful to the book than I anticipated. I don’t know why I anticipated otherwise. In fact, when I got home, I re-read sections of the book and kept muttering to myself, “Oh, that line was actually in the book!” “Oh, so was this one!” If you’re going to make a cinematic adaptation of a literary classic, it SHOULD be close to the book, but I guess I didn’t go into it with super high hopes in this regard.

This article is the best one I’ve read on the movie, commenting more specifically on Daisy’s character and why we dislike her and yet also pity her. I love Carey Mulligan’s acting and thought she did a good a job as possible to capture the ephemeral, delicate, and superficial nature of a girl like Daisy who floats from room to room in Gatsby’s mansion as fascinated by his objects as he is by her. The article makes an astute comment linking one of the covers of the book where Daisy is clad in green to the green light that symbolizes her presence but also her unattainableness.

I don’t think this was the cover the article talks about, but it’s green so it still works

She’s the enchanted object, the great American dream, all bright eyes and a voice full of money—and of course she’s the light, that green light, drawing men, mothlike, to her flame. (by Katie Baker)

Overall, I think the characters were well cast. The first time we see Leonardo DiCaprio out on his dock with the stars and fireworks twinkling behind him, well, that’s the essence of Gatsby right there: a dazzling spectacle who believes himself a “son of God.”

Gatsby’s signature smile Fitzgerald devotes an entire paragraph to

Jordan Baker is the one character who’s much better developed in the book than the movie. Would those who haven’t read the book pick up on the irony of her golf career and the narrator’s descriptions of her always reclining on a couch as if she’s the most sloth-like person to exist? Or the complicated attraction between her and Nick? It’s not surprising nothing works out between those two. I think they find themselves only drawn to one another because they’re both secondary acts to the central drama between Gatsby and Daisy. Nevertheless, Jordan perfectly wore the aloof/bored/cool expression Fitzgerald gives her in the book:

The bored haughty face that she turned to the world concealed something – most affections conceal something eventually, even though they don’t in the beginning. . . I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young in order to keep that cool, insolent smile turned to the world and yet satisfy the demands of her hard, jaunty body.

The mysterious Jordan Baker

I had to laugh at Jordan’s expression in the Plaza Hotel when Gatsby loses his temper at Tom and looks “as if he had killed a man.” Jordan is sitting on a chair, fanning herself and wearing a staged expression of shock. I think we’re meant to be amused by her aloofness. Nick’s comment that ends the scene, “I just remembered it’s my birthday” adds to this point that Nick and Jordan are only significant insofar as they create the opportunity for Gatsby and Daisy to meet, and then become wallflowers to their stories. They are the onlookers in the same room at the Plaza Hotel who may as well be watching the scene from the street below.

Tension in the Plaza Hotel. Notice how Nick and Jordan are on the peripherals of this shot.

Yet Nick is the necessary wallflower without whom we wouldn’t have a story, as we learn about and see Daisy and Gatsby through his eyes. This, however, leads to a problem I had with Nick’s interpretation – is it just me or did anyone else find themselves needing more convincing of why Nick had such admiration for Gatsby? Sure, he had never seen a man so full of hope before and with such a grand vision for his life, but is that really it? His last phrases to Gatsby is, “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” I don’t really believe these words and, in the movie, Gatsby doesn’t look like he believes them either. Gatsby’s quintessential gesture is the outstretched arm grasping at the green light on Daisy’s dock, a gesture that signifies he kept climbing and reaching for more. This didn’t really strike me as admirable though – more pitiable in that it’s a symbol of the human condition. We all have our green light we extend our hands towards, and even if we attain it, something else calls to us from across the bay, an evanescent light reminding us we are never satisfied. And how fitting that it’s green – a constant reminder to keep striving. Enough is never enough. Such a “great” man and yet nobody came to his funeral.

The green light

The green light

That aside, I liked how the directors played with Nick Carraway’s role insofar as he is the first person narrator of the story (as he is in the book), but because he’s writing a memoir in the movie, he also becomes F. Scott Fitzgerald. There aren’t many roles I think Tobey Maguire is perfectly suited for, but he plays the unassuming character well (he always looks slightly surprised) and thus he makes the perfect embodiment of Nick Carraway who is “within and without.” The scene where he stands out on the balcony after the party in Myrtle’s apartment and peers into all the other New York apartment windows was probably my favourite part. It was brilliantly done, and very postmodern. The movie presents the city as the collector of our narratives – these windows of our lives that strangers can glimpse in and out of from street level or parallel balconies without ever knowing us. Closeness without togetherness (reminds me of Sidewalls in that way).

“I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

It’s interesting that New York repels Nick after Gatsby’s death. I don’t think Nick ever really loved the city, but his relationship with it shows the big city is vibrant and teeming with life when you feel full of life yourself, and a complete bore when you are disenchanted, walking around dead. In that sense, maybe the city is just a macrocosm for the emotions and experiences of the individual. Like a magnifying glass, the city amplifies ourselves. I think New York does this on a bigger scale than any other city, and for that reason, the novel couldn’t have taken place anywhere else.

What are your thoughts on the film?

That which we call a city by any other name . . .

October 23-30 – the dates I was in New York, almost a year ago now. Whenever anniversaries of big life events come around, I like to revisit their time and space.

I recently re-read The Great Gatsby upon finding this hardcover edition at my favourite used bookstore in Victoria.

I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others – poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner – young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

I also re-read it so I could compare Fitzgerald’s 1920s New York to Amor Towles’ late 1930s New York in Rules of Civility, which I was reading with my book club.

Fitzgerald’s protagonist is male; Towles’ is female. Neither book could take place in any other city in their respective times. Filled with young people and deceptive appearances, their characters climb social ladders and never cease to be invited to party after party after [really? I can’t believe what drives the plot of this novel is another] party. But then again, The Great Gatsby explores the Roaring Twenties and the disillusionment after WWI. The Rules of Civility explores the hopes and ambitions of two fiercely independent best friends still trying to make it in very much a man’s world in 1938 through whatever it takes. Towles’ book isn’t the kind I highlighted for profound or insightful phrases (the fact that it was a library book hindered this possibility anyway), but I liked it just the same.

Now it seems I am doing with New York what I do with CDs – exhaust a disc by listening to it over and over. I am exhausting New York by listening to it in song and conversation, in re-reading my own notes from New York and in reading it in others’ words.

Yet as much as I read New York, I could never exhaust it. The city gives more than it takes, and it gives something different each time.