The Great Gatsby

Let me get my impressions and thoughts down while the images are fresh in my mind. The latest screen version of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby excited my imagination and feelings in ways that I don’t clearly understand but was able to make the viewing of the story at once a sparkling review of the story I know well and was able to make it a story I came to as if for the very first time.

Who was to know that The Great Gatsby was a surreal work of art? Certainly, Fitzgerald lived amongst surrealists, had a life that perhaps could be called surreal in many ways and wrote in Gatsby sections that now seeing this movie I can look back on and call surreal though they have to my recollection only been before called symbolic.  The sign featuring the eyes of Eckleberg certainly is the foremost of these. But the very valley of ashes, the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the glitter of the parties at Gatsby’s, perhaps the odd meeting with Wolfsheim in New York, and a scene I have always admired and loved the shearing of the wheel in the drunken, horn-honking fest after one of Gatsby’s parties. Drunkenness may very well be the mother of surrealism.  Had I thought any of this prior to the release of this film, the Literature-Police would be pursuing a warrant for my arrest.  But now? I say with certainty, and will certainly offend lovers of the book, that Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a surreal book.  I like, have always admired and been fascinated by, surrealism. But that is not all.

I went to see Carrie Mulligan.  Her performance was at once more compelling, less a veneer, and sympathetically cleaner than Mia Farrow’s Daisy. Though presented, as all the characters were at some time in the film, in something like an odd cameo performance, Mulligan’s Daisy reached me on an emotional level. Perhaps the film goes too far building sympathy for Daisy – Tom Buchannan also comes out a more decent buffoon and bigot than in the Redford movie, or than in the book. Maybe since that earlier film, what 30 years ago, we have all worn a bit, become more of what we feared and perhaps hated, and so can forgive people like Tom and Daisy even when they go about smashing things up and retreating into their money. Aren’t they like reckless bankers uncowed by their recession inducing activities that smash lives of millions. Don’t we understand and forgive them? Aren’t we rooting the stock market upwards? Despite the character herself, Mulligan plays a sympathetic Daisy.  She is less a siren, than enraptured in her siren’s song of love.

Tobey McGwire brought me in as well. I was not disappointed. Even Luhrmann’s confusion of Caraway with Fitzgerald (though there is undoubtedly some truth to it) and with Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye fame cannot depose McGwire as credible and wonderful to watch. The peak is reached early: his honest, friendly assurance to Gatsby that he will do him the favor of inviting Cousin Daisy to tea is both a high point of film acting and confirmation of correct, wise casting. There are many other times when McGwire’s Caraway is wonderful for embarrassment, gullibility and sophomorism, as well as moral rectitude, but that friendly assurance to his neighbor – a simple, smiling gesture after Gatsby’s clumsy machinations to position his request –  is the best. He convinced Gatsby and the audience, too. I suppose the therapy sequences dramatize Carraway’s suffering more than do his scruffy, unshaven looks at various points of the narrative, a definite mistake, but I have to say it isn’t true to the book though it – again – may be true of our society in what has become since the publishing of the book a truly empty, draining and debauching chase for the “American Dream” which Gatsby has always been said to represent. Luhrmann may have the outsider’s eye to see more clearly what we have become since Fitzgerald wrote the story.

Another word or two about outsiders. The Australian crowd in this film may be responsible for the feeling of newness I experienced even after “teaching” the book several years running. The new but not unknown faces of Egerton’s and Clarke’s Tom and Wilson, respectively, did make the vision fresh. Tom was more human, not more humane. Wilson turned into a more pitiable and less an idiotic dupe through Clarke’s compelling portrayal of suffering. Clarke reveals Wilson’s dementia but also his humanity. By head count of the top five billed actors 2 Americans, 2 Australians, 1 Brit, foreigners win; add the director and site of shooting, Australia as I understand, and you wonder if the Americans are simply window dressing for the Hollywood-followers. Well, that cannot be true.

This time Gatsby is played by an actor capable of internal acting and played on by a director capable of squeezing more from the background story and script than is written on the page. All the irritating discomfort of Redford’s performance and the unsettling disparity of Fitzgerald’s character himself present themselves in this film. But to no avail. The interior strength of DiCaprio’s Gatsby is show through restraint, by what is just barely there, more than through emotive disclosure. Redford stayed so, well, Redford that you couldn’t get farther away from the character if you tried. At least by comparison.

In DiCaprio’s Gatsby, tension is the man, the character, the force of the dream. It is hard to believe that in such an extravagant movie, though, that understatement carries the day. It is clearest in the post-accident scene outside Daisy’s house when Nick discovers it was Daisy, not Gatsby driving the car. It is not what is said, at first, but left unsaid – and the way the unsaid is portrayed by DiCaprio – that tells the story. Even at his fiercest, Gatsby attacking Tom at Plaza Hotel, DiCaprio convinces us there is more underneath than is shown on the surface. By what was behind, underneath his grimace, I was convinced he could kill a man.

To tell the story of The Great Gatsby the director and actors had to go beyond the story itself. It is not the adding of “modern music” or camera angle or Aussie-speech so much that carries the day, but the practice of going deeper than the story to the human struggle Fitzgerald wanted to represent that allows us to see what he hoped for us to see, what Nick Carraway could see most of the time, that which is beyond the glitter, that which we can have even when it is past.


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