Saturday, May 18, 2013

Let's Discuss: The Great Gatsby as seen by two lit teachers who love movies.

I've been contemplating Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of The Great Gatsby since it was announced he was filming it. 
With Leo. 
In 3D. 
Gold Hatted Gatsby was one of Fitzgerald's original titles.
Third was "I'm Really Bad at Titles"

I knew it would be either a trainwreck or the equivalent of a fun train wreck (like getting stuck on a roller coaster for about 15 minutes; unique but not annoying). In the end, I actually liked the movie much more than I expected I would and feel some of the things Lurhmann did well -- dare I say got right -- are not things he's known for. 
But I also believe that simply spouting my love for the movie is not really all that intriguing. Plus, I have many friends with varying opinions on Fitzgerald and his novel, so I thought it would be fun to talk to one of my favorite deep-thinkers, Monica D'Antonio (click to read her excellent thoughts on the novel that aren't guided by my own questions).

Monica and I both received our MA in literature from Rutgers and while we share similar literary loves (Heart of Darkness!) we don't necessarily agree on things. Fortunately, I always learn something from her. So I asked Monica a few questions, and added my own thoughts right after hers. The following is the result.
[Note: MD is Monica, ER is me. We have a strange medical theme going on with our initials. Perfect for a book that climaxes with a woman being hit by a car!]
1) What were your expectations for a new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby? Have you seen the Robert Redford version?
MD: I was in a weird place about this movie. I was SUPER excited to see it, but my expectations were low. I really thought it was going to be a big-budget, superhero movie-esq (especially with its release date near Iron Man 3) travesty. It turned out I was only partly right about that. I saw the Robert Redford version in high school but can’t say I remember it well enough to comment on it.
ER: Oh, the Redford one! I saw it years ago, after high school but before grad school, and it was so dull to me. I think Redford is too sure of himself. Gatsby plays the role of millionaire well, but there's an anxiety in the book when he's with Daisy. I think the first scene where he makes Nick's house & yard all pretty, then runs outside -- that's the nervous, human Gatsby that Dicaprio did really well. Redford, I have no recollection of him as anything other than the artifice Gatsby portrayed. 
As for my expectations, they were low. I never minded the Romeo & Juliet adaptation and knew Lurhmann's cinematic somersaults would be intrusive in this book, but in the end I think he restrained himself as the movie progressed. 

2) What is your relationship with the novel? A torrid affair? Frustrating flirtation? Mixed signals? Longterm & still in love?
MD: So, you’re asking: do I “like” it or do I “like it, like it”?? Haha! I just reread the novel after not having read it in at least a decade, but, from now on, I plan to take a page out of Steve Almond's (a writer I admire) playbook and read it once a year, probably in the summer. I am deeply in love with this book, and I believe that this book loves me (and my personal beliefs, ideologies, fears, anxieties etc.) back. I don’t think I will ever change our relationship status to “it’s complicated.”

ER: Gatsby is one of my top 5 favorites. I've never taught it (and I think that makes a difference in my expectations of the film), but I've read it every 3 years or so since high school. For me, it's the sentences. The classic opening, the classic ending-- so many things. But I gained an ever stronger love in grad school when I learned about Fitzgerald's love of Joseph Conrad and how the whole "American Dream" interpretation really isn't what Fitzgerald was going for. (Funfact for readers: The American Dream philosophy is popularized in the early 1930s.) 
What I love is that Gatsby is a story about outsiders. It's certainly about New vs Old (money as much as mores). But Tom Buchannan's speech about how the superior race needs to defend itself is rooted in the late teens early 20s US Nativist movement. Gatsby can't be trusted because his origins are unknown. His business partner is Meyer Wolfshiem -- a wolf. But specifically a Jew. And if we know anything about the attitude towards the Jews in this part of the century, it's one of distrust, even amongst artists (T.S. Eliot famously wrote some anti-semitic poems as a young man). While I don't see Fitzgerald as sharing that attitude, he clearly needs Gatsby to be associated with the underworld and outsiders.
3) Did the film elicit a strong reaction from you? Was it a specific scene or the overall piece that did so?
MD: When I first walked out of the theater, my initial reaction was simply: “Well, I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I was going to.” I let my opinion rest there for a bit, but throughout the remainder of the weekend, I found myself still thinking deeply about the movie. So, I guess the fact that I’m still thinking about it (I’m even contemplating a blog post about it right now, though I guess I’m showing a bit too much of my hand with this little project we’re doing) shows that it certainly elicited a strong reaction from me. What I’m still not sure about is whether the reaction is positive, negative, or a healthy mix of all of the above. I’m inclined to go with the latter.
It’s been said that this novel is un-filmable, and for the most part, I’d agree with that sentiment because I think, above all, that Gatsby is a book about language, which I gather is hard to film. But, there were some scenes that, while great in the book, really came alive in the movie (side note: I saw it in 2D not 3D). For example, the scene with Gatsby throwing his shirts on Daisy is stellar. It’s awesome because we seem him devolving in to complete MANIA. This is when we’re really seeing him start to fall apart. Second, he is literally drowning her in his expensive shirts. It’s like when someone tickles you, and at first it’s funny, but then it gets really aggressive, and you start to lose your breath. I felt her anxiety and suffocation as he continued to pile shirt after shirt on her. He was trying to show off and it wound up becoming super creepy. It was a great scene.
There were some scenes, however, that I viscerally hated. The apartment scene with Tom, Myrtle, Catherine and the neighbors is TERRIBLE, mainly because it’s there purely for the orgy of it all and is not in any way an accurate recounting of Nick’s POV of that scene in the book. Not only is the POV inaccurate, but the way the scene was shot (and scores of others like it with all the jump cuts and sweeping/zooming shots – I can’t speak film language, so pardon me if I’m using the wrong terminology here) made me physically nauseous. I often felt assaulted by all of the cinematic gymnastics that were going on. That, to me, is where the book and the movie diverge so greatly. Fitzgerald is just so clean, so tight, so beautiful without being fussy…you never feel beat over the head with any one trope, one theme, one character.
ER: I agree with you about the shirt scene. It could've so easily been done poorly. But it's one moment where I realized Daisy was going to get a more complex presentation. Her tears are earned for exactly the reason you describe. I also think her comment "They're such beautiful shirts" is almost made because Nick is watching them (from up high) not because she's shallow.
I think what film does is it creates a dual narrator no matter who the character-narrator is. The camera is a narrator which can show us things that Nick might not. And I think that's why the book feels so unfilmable. Nick famously considers himself an honest man and everyone in the book is labeled a liar (or duplicitous, at least) very specifically. So, Lurhmann constantly has to fight to not show us when Nick, too, is lying or "prettying-up" the truth. In some ways it succeeds, like in that sequence with the shirts and after where we're supposed to know that Gatsby & Daisy might be behaving a little differently because Nick is present. But other times, Nick looks too overwhelmed and the camera seems to be more cynical than him. Early on, that's okay, but I believe this novel is about Nick's cynicism, which is why he admires Gatsby, despite the fact he should probably be just as cynical of a man who thinks he can repeat the past.
4) How do you feel about the Daisy character in the book and in the film (if you see differences)?
MD: Funny you should ask this…when I read the book most recently, my immediate reaction to Daisy, Jordan, and Myrtle’s characters was “Wow! Fitzgerald really hates women.” This may or may not be true, but upon further reflection of the novel itself, he throws the hate around pretty evenly across all characters. No one is above reproach. And no one comes out a hero. So, I guess there’s a certain gender equity in the fact that both sexes are portrayed in equally abhorrent ways.
As for the movie, in general, I like Carey Mulligan. I love her in An Education, and I thought she did a fine job with Daisy. I thought she handled that breathless, Marilyn Monroe-esq voice nicely, and that was certainly something Fitzgerald emphasized in the novel. Overall, though, she’s not one of the most memorable aspects of the movie.
ER: The women in the film are so negatively portrayed. The last shot of Daisy condemns her to ongoing satisfaction with Tom whereas we know she had the possibility with Gatsby. Fitzgerald was reportedly charming to women. He wasn't necessarily a serial cheater, though I wouldn't be surprised. I've read that he was always more comfortable with women than men. (I guess if you're friends with men like Hemingway, you'd prefer to hang out with women.) 
Alright, Hemingway's pretty awesome.

I think in the novel, the women really are condemned and that's why the movie does Daisy some justice—she's not as shallow. Or, she's not a cipher, which Fitzgerald believed (he was dissatisfied with how he rendered her in the final version). I think Mulligan's Daisy really sells the idea that she loved Gatsby, but then married Tom and loved him. She can't say whether one was true love and the other was the love of circumstance. To her, there's no need to decide because she looks ahead to time with Gatsby (though she's clearly not strong enough to stand up and make a choice for herself.)
What's such a huge huge bummer is that Jordan, while played very, very well by Elizabeth Debicki, is not labelled a liar in the film. One sentence. Maybe two would've done it. Jordan Baker was accused of cheating in a golf tournament. The fact that she's not indicted as a liar is a big, easily avoided mistake. I believe we have to accept Nick's belief that he's honest and everyone else is dishonest in order for Gatsby's mysterious allure to work. Jordan is not even clearly Nick's love interest in the film, so Nick never seems like he's totally slipping into the world before pulling back out. So, when Nick shuns her towards the end, it doesn't have the same meaning. Jordan, too, loses depth because I think she wants Nick to be with her, to share in this weird world. Maybe to corrupt him, but maybe because she senses that Nick isn't as annoying as everyone else.
5) Do you think the film will get people to read the book?
MD: I’m not sure, and I’m not sure that was the intent (which doesn’t really matter one way or the other). My gut wants to say NO, only because the movie—for a younger audience anyway – is more “exciting” than the book. So, once you see this version, why bother with the real deal? I think this movie is Lurhman’s homage to Fitzgerald, and, for some people, the homage is better than the thing itself.
ER: Ha! Very true. I have no idea. I want to believe more people will read it. I assume it will just get more people to want to ban the book because of that orgy scene (which was totally over the top though I thought that was kind of the point—to show Nick being seduced while also showing it's a temporary euphoria).