Monday, May 27, 2013

Gatsby: The Rise and Fall of the American Dream in Cinema

"You are always surrounded by lovers,
And you are never as broke as you seem,
I still think I fought for the right side,
But it was never this cold in my dreams" - Franz Nicolay

(Spoiler filled as I drift off into exposition)

 When I first picked up a copy of "The Great Gatsby" I have to confess that I didn't particularly care for it. Maybe a part of that was because I was annoyed at the concept of "required reading". Anyway, as sanctimonious as that sounds, I found myself thinking that I didn't have a particular reason as to just why that was. At the time I didn't have any answers.

But now, separating myself nine years from my initial reading of it, and after viewing Baz Luhrmann's spectacle a couple times, I know. It isn't because the story is bad, or the characters fail to be compelling, but there is simply something so crushing about Gatsby's story. To date I've only been moved to tears in a theater twice. The first was viewing L' Miserables, and the second, watching The Great Gatsby. Why should you watch this, even if you hate the book? Because when you get right down to it, anyone can identify with the themes present, as they are woven directly into the quintessential fabric of American myth.

What is Gatsby really about? It is quest of identification and distinction in a land of ever shifting classes and hierarchies. Gatsby is the Horatio Alger creation myth of the self-made man incarnate. A man who can 'rise above' his common station and become something more, greater than what he is. It is about the recklessness of youth. Jay Gatsby may have been James Gatz, a "Mr. Nobody from Nowhere." But that doesn't matter. He's left his roots far, far, behind, and his life is guided by his destiny. Led on only by his will and his dreams, he reaches-and oversteps. 

Luhrmann's take on Fitzgerald's novel isn't the first in cinema. There is the well known 1974 version starring Robert Redford as Gatsby, and two other films in 1949 and '26 respectively. I haven't seen either of these two older films, and only watched the 1974 film long ago so there isn't much I can say about it. However, watching Luhrmann's decadent, heavily stylized New York come alive with all the glamor that the decade of excess had to offer inserted me right into the story as a viewer. Taking the point of view of Nick Carraway, who provides voice-overs from a sanitarium where he eventually types "The Great Gatsby" up as a way of therapy takes a little getting used too, but ultimately is an 'everyman' point of view where we can watch the action unfold on screen.

The greatest complaint that most viewers have is the soundtrack. Admittedly, it is a little odd to hear tracks like "No Church in the Wild" done by Jay Z and Kanye West but the 1920s is one of those decades that as a whole in the collective memory of the United States is viewed through a lens of nostalgia, and has been for many, many years. It seems fitting then, with the re-imaging of the decade on screen, that modern viewers look back at the past not with a roller piano providing the soundtrack, but with modern artists at the helm.

The party scenes at Gatsby's are orgiastic, bacchanal affairs that truly bring to light the age of opulence and displays with vulgarity the wealth and garishness of an age that very few living Americans can yet recall. And I rollicked and thrived seeing all the exaggerated camera angles, sweeping style, glittering burning hordes of shining faces. I watched the scene twice and still found new things to look at every time. I'm sure that further viewings will net the same result. Still, it is at the most tense point in the film that Luhrmann's skill as a director shows through.

"Just tell him the truth," Gatsby demands of Daisy, "you never loved him -- and it's all wiped out forever." This request is terrible, and required. It isn't enough for Gatsby that Daisy now loves him and wants to leave Tom, he needs to have never lost her at all. The last five years between them being nothing but a bump in the road. This request, so cruel and terrible a gesture is where the line is ultimately drawn.

"Oh, you want too much!" Daisy cries before breaking down into tears. Gatsby has selfishly pursued his dreams without thought or care to other people or their wants and desires. His 'purity' and 'incorruptibility' become his undoing. This lesson that we often learn so early in life that our desires must be tempered with the wants and needs of others is a necessary one to ensure that the human world remains just that - humane. In the glory of narcissistic youth, we cast this aside until we make the mistakes necessary that we learn this lesson. Gatsby gets no such chance. He is blinded by his "extraordinary gift for hope", a belief in boundless opportunity and self-creation beyond the bounds that would place us under the thumbs of the Tom Buchanan's of the world. Gatsby believed in Gatsby just as we would like to believed in and understood, just as I believe in this film.   

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