Sunday, May 12, 2013

How Baz Luhrmann's 'The Great Gatsby' gets it right

First of all, it's good. It's very good. Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of "The Great Gatsby" doesn't cast aside the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, nor does it try too hard to be slavishly faithful to the source material. The performances are nuanced and perfect for the moment. In the process, the film creates something new and contemporary while adhering to the spirit of its 90-year-old inspiration.

(By the way, if you haven't seen the movie and want to avoid spoilers, you might want to bail out here.)

I previously wrote about the problems of adapting "The Great Gatsby" for the screen here. Some of those problems stem from the largely internal observations that the narrator, Nick Carraway, makes. If you lose those, you lose the language of the novel and much of the magic Fitzgerald wrought in rendering his time and place. One aspect of that voice - Nick is telling us a story that happened presumably one year before the novel's publication, but he is telling the story with a voice of experience that seems gifted with a perspective many years after the fact.

To solve this problem, Nick (Tobey McGuire) is presented to us not in 1924, but in 1929 - the year of the Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, when the Jazz Age seems as distant as a dinosaur. And instead of viewing the vanished bacchanalia of New York from the comfort of the Midwest, he is in an asylum there, drying out after a long drinking binge, the line between Nick and Fitzgerald at last blurred. (The Perkins Sanitarium - a tip of the hat to Fitzgerald's editor Max Perkins?) And Nick is now, after the fact, not a bond trader, but a writer - and was a frustrated writer before in New York while he worked on Wall Street. The movie goes so far as to show Nick discarding Joyce's "Ulysses" in favor of his new books on finance. This change in vocations isn't a total invention; after all, doesn't Nick himself say that he was "rather literary" at Yale? And doesn't Nick tell us that even then, he became, against his will, the guardian of other people's secrets?

Being the narrator, we understand now that Nick is a voyeur, which explains in part his obsession with Gatsby. (It also makes Nick a sort of cousin with Ewan McGregor's character from "Moulin Rouge!" in that he recounts his memories as a narrative.) But by making him a writer working out a sense of the past for therapeutic reasons, Luhrmann allows us as an audience to experience Nick's observations - and the language - in voiceover, preserving some of the original words. But the screenplay also makes an interesting decision to occasionally paraphrase Nick. Nick's father's advice - "Whenever you feel like criticizing anybody, remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages you've had" instead becomes ""Always try to see the best in people." To some ears, this may sound like dumbing down, but it serves the purpose of moving the narrative forward. And Luhrmann isn't afraid of occasionally mixing his own words with Nick's/Fitzgerald's - there are moments when the observations don't come from the book, and they don't necessarily draw undue attention to themselves as being wildly out of place. When Nick remarks on the "heiresses comparing inheritances" at Gatsby's parties, one has to remember that this melodic snippet isn't from the novel.

These changes in pace and presentation are necessary, as the movie doesn't really hit its stride until Gatsby appears on screen for the first time - faithfully to the book, having Nick suddenly and unknowingly encounter him at one of his parties. We see Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) for the first time in the face, flashing one of his incomparable smiles, as "Rhapsody In Blue" reaches its climax in the background and fireworks burst overhead. Leo's Gatsby is at times subtle, at times dashing, at times affected as he should be (one could play a drinking game based on how many times he utters Gatsby's distinctive "Old Sport" expression), and his performance marks another step forward in his maturation as an actor. He doesn't seem to feel the need to fill the screen, as he did in "Gangs of New York" or "The Aviator." He understands the power of the material and how it is being represented on the screen.

Another change is actually inspired by Fitzgerald - Gatsby's original story of his background to Nick as they drive into town. In the novel, Gatsby tells an incredulous Nick about his war career, his time in the European capitals and his "sad" background, as Nick's skepticism mounts. In the middle of it, a policeman attempts to pull Gatsby over for speeding, but Gatsby flashes a card at the man who promises to remember him next time. The movie translates this fact, which occupies only a few sentences in the larger scene, into Gatsby being a manic driver. The change is inspired. What could be a static scene suddenly is supercharged, and in 3D on the screen, as Nick negotiates both his skepticism and his fear of Gatsby's driving. It also serves another purpose - it makes it easier for the portion of the audience which hasn't read the book to believe it is Gatsby who strikes Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) dead later in the story.

The most obvious changes are in music, as the film score is a mix of hip-hop and pop with a few concessions toward twenties era jazz. This gives the movie a vitality as we navigate our way through a fantasia New York in CGI madness, with 3D tricks and sudden zooms across the bay that separates East and West Egg. The mansions are larger, the parties are wilder and brasher, and even the improvised bash that Tom and Myrtle throw grows into a wilder and cheaper gathering - providing a contrast with Gatsby's much larger "menagerie." These changes may seem cheap, but they accomplish in a visual sense what Fitzgerald's prose does in investing Gatsby's parties, his surroundings, his dreams with both the ecstatic quality that he must view them through, and the "foul dust" that floats around him.

There are also occasional moments where Luhrmann goes a little further than the text in underlining moments for the audience's benefit. When Daisy weeps over the fineness of Gatsby's shirts, we who read the novel know why she is weeping, but on its face, this scene normally appears overwrought on the screen. So for our benefit, Nick's voice tells us that it is suddenly clear what Daisy (Carey Mulligan) has missed in the five years since Gatsby left her life. When Nick and Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki) encounter "Owl Eyes" in the library, the partygoer goes farther in telling us how "genuine" the books are, and makes it clearer that Gatsby's image is only a mirage, and that the man may not even exist. (And for the purposes of speed, we are spared Nick's relationship with Jordan, as well as the timely appearance of Mr. Gatz following his son's death. Jordan remains unattainable because of her wealth and fame, and Mr. Gatz's absence underlines the tragedy of Gatsby's funeral, with only Nick there to mourn.)

And during the climatic scene when Gatsby tries to force Daisy's hand and make her tell Tom she never loved him, Tom succeeds in rattling Gatsby so much that Gatsby's cool cracks. Instead of his demeanor subtly dissolving under Tom's brutality, Gatsby lashes out and threatens Tom physically - and Nick sees that Gatsby probably has "killed a man." Cheap? Perhaps, but one hardly minds. It's a movie. Luhrmann uses the big screen and the possibilities of 3D to tell the story more completely than anyone has attempted. One of the reasons for "The Great Gatsby"'s continuing life on the page is the vibrancy of Fitzgerald's vision, not just in the words chosen but the images and their ability to entertain and teach. This movie renders those images tangible - if it isn't quite the book we see in our minds when we read, it is as close as filmed entertainment can get to it.

Just before Gatsby's inevitable murder at the hands of Mr. Wilson, Nick says something telling. For most of the movie, we have understood that Nick is both "within and without" - that he is of the Midwest and not New York, that he is of some privilege and not self-made like Gatsby, that he is a part of the events around him but not engaged in them, that he is like the Buchanans but not infected by their malicious carelessness. But as Nick leaves Gatsby's for the last time, he says, "I have to go. I have to work."

Of course he does - it is the one moment that we see the undercurrent of the novel projected on the screen. "The Great Gatsby" teaches us what the Declaration of Independence does not - that happiness may be pursued, but not necessarily attained. No matter how ambitious the parties, or those who throw them, the business of America is business - and it never stops.

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Saturday, May 4, 2013

Going to the movies with 'The Great Gatsby'

The coming of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” has inspired a great deal of angst amongst careful readers of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, including me. I find myself expecting both spectacle and disappointment, and not just because that’s usually the feeling one gets in leaving a big-budget Hollywood summer film. It’s the feeling that there is something within “Gatsby” that cannot be translated beyond the page – though it may be attempted a thousand times, there is something about the book itself that not only has eluded the camera, but has never even been glimpsed. 

And why is that? One would think “The Great Gatsby” would be a natural for the movies.After all, many of the guests at Gatsby's parties, we're told, were in the movie business. At least three other big screen versions have been made, yet none of them have been particularly successful. I think one of the reasons “The Great Gatsby” has bedeviled filmmakers is that the book illustrates the fundamental differences between the two media – print and the movies. 

An example: Gatsby is mentioned early, but we don’t actually meet him until more than a third of the way into the book. Then his appearance is meant to pleasantly shock us – Nick Carraway is engaged in conversation during one of the parties when he suddenly realizes he’s talking to the mysterious host. Later it becomes apparent that Gatsby has arranged for Nick to meet him because he wants to arrange a meeting with Daisy Buchanan. To do this, Gatsby invites Nick with him on a trip into the city, and on the way, Gatsby initiates a conversation with the awkward question, “What’s your opinion of me?” The question puts Nick ill at ease, as Gatsby begins spinning out his “origin” story as being the child of rich people, now dead, and relating his career as a haunted scion in the great capitals of Europe. Internally, Nick believes none of it, and we perceive his earlier observation that Gatsby embodies “everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.”  It is only when Gatsby produces a medal from his service in the war that Nick begins to believe some part of his story.

Now, let’s look at how these sets of events were portrayed in the last incarnation of “The Great Gatsby,” the film from 1974 starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. When Nick finally meets Gatsby, it is at a party – but one of Gatsby’s tuxedo-clad henchmen comes to fetch Nick for reasons he won’t reveal. Then Nick is ushered alone into Gatsby’s office – and Robert Redford is allowed to be a star and flash, not the confident but sinister smile of the self-made man, but the Robert Redford star smile, impressive and impressively bland. Then, when he takes Nick, played by Sam Waterson, into the city and explains his past, Nick listens impassively as the tale spins out. We only perceive him as listening without judgment.  

Anyone who has read the book can tell the difference – the fact that we do not sense Gatsby’s simultaneously myth-making and Nick’s skepticism is an immediate, grave handicap. Even though Gatsby in the novel is a thin, barely perceptible character, he is as solid as Mount Rushmore compared to the character Redford embodies on the screen. And herein is the distance between the word and the picture. Great literature does not deal in the exterior, but the interior. Most of the great scenes, and great books, give us characters sometimes acting in direct contradiction to their deepest desires, motivated by social concern for their image, and it is only when we get inside their minds that we get a glimpse of the confusion, and desperation, gripping them. These contradictions, carried simultaneously, are what make them real to us, and both unique and commonplace. There is still no effective way to do this in the movies – voiceover is only so effective, and can only be used sparingly. The screen is invariably superficial as a result, and deals in emotions that can only be expressed visually – and quickly, because we have only a limited amount of time before the audience grows weary.  

Another example: The 1974 movie gamely tries to render one aspect of the book on screen. In the novel, after Nick has established the pattern of Gatsby’s parties, he then gives a long list of the guests who used to come. The list comprises about six paragraphs, and would be boring by itself except that Fitzgerald embroiders the names with little details about some the fates of the individuals once they left Gatsby’s hospitality. One man strangled his wife, while another drowned, while another stepped in front of a subway train. There are mentions of what happened at the parties-one man so drunk a car ran over his hand. And there are the sound of some of the names, which are occasionally Dickensian in their ability to conjure up feelings just by their distinctive sound – Leech, Bunson, Hornbeam, Blackbuck, Whitebait, Flink, Belcher, Hipp, Smirk, and James B. “Rot-Gut” Ferret. It is one aspect of Fitzgerald’s genius that he manages to flesh out the parties, contribute to the myth of Gatsby, and conjure up the Jazz Age in just a few sentences with what, on the surface, might be just a sequence of names. 

In the movie, this is inserted later in the script, when Daisy finally shows up at what inevitably is Gatsby’s last party. As she and Tom enter the festivities, Tom begins to point out the people there, mentioning the same names as in the book. But the effect isn’t quite the same. We aren’t paying attention to the names or the people. Tom’s recitation draws attention to him, not them. And when he states them, he is merely restating something we already knew – important people of high and low society come to Gatsby’s.  

This illustrates again that the movies are a different experience than the printed word, and filmmakers are usually conscious of the difference. When passionate readers of a particular book are disappointed that this or that detail doesn’t wind up on a screen, it is usually because it can’t be rendered visually. Not only that, it does not move the narrative forward, since every frame of a movie reveals producers and directors panicking that the story is not progressing fast enough to its conclusion. One of the best bits of the book is when Nick and Jordan wander through Gatsby’s party and encounter strange characters, much like the list, such as “Owl Eyes,” who seems flabbergasted that the books in Gatsby’s study are real. In the book, this underlines the fact that there is something fundamentally dishonest about Gatsby’s character which even casual guests perceive. 

Because the movies deal in image, they compromise Gatsby’s character almost fatally when he is portrayed on screen. The character Fitzgerald creates is a criminal – a bootlegger living on the proceeds of criminal acts, who probably has killed more than a few men, planning an elaborate adultery and ultimately shielding his mistress from possible charges of manslaughter. Yet, as Nick writes, “there was something gorgeous about him,” and we are carried away, as he is, by the “foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams.” It is Gatsby’s quest and his own self-creation that endear him to us, his personal sense of gallantry, and his obliviousness to the fact that reality inevitably will snuff out his long-held dreams. When the movies render this, they give us the dash of Gatsby’s manners, the cut of his clothes, the polish on his automobiles, but they only hint that all of this is a mirage.

For example, take in Nick’s description of Gatsby after his meeting with Dan Cody, and the first intimations that he might leave the home that has frustrated his self-conceptions:

“He was a son of God — a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that — and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”

The 1974 film desperately wants to render some of that language on the screen, but once again, it must deal in images. To highlight his character’s dilemma, Fitzgerald invokes the image of Christ, and intimates that there is something almost God-like about Gatsby. He is a singular creation, his passions and exploits are divine in nature and worthy of awe, and like Christ, he will ultimately suffer in pursuit of his mission. But Fitzgerald in the same short passage makes it clear that there is something phony, childish, and even morally wrong about Gatsby’s incarnation, and those qualities in and of themselves somehow only add to his greatness.  Here we see the contradictions of life, how our lives and ambitions can conspire to cancel each other out a dozen times, yet we continue on, as Nick concludes, “boats against the current.” 

How would we render such a thing on screen? One might look at another period film, “The Godfather,” the apex of filmed art for the era. (And remember, Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplays for both “Godfather” and “Gatsby,” and both are adapted from novels, though Coppola says his script didn't get made into the final film.) We know that Don Corleone is a bad man, but we see him at his daughter’s wedding, doting on his children and those who depend on him, and we are touched. It is still necessary to see the blood of the horse’s head on the sleeping movie producer to know that if necessary, the Don will kill mercilessly rather than be disrespected. It is necessary for us to “see” the evil in the Corleone crime family to understand the depth of the man, and the scene exists in the book. With Gatsby, it might be necessary for a film to invent such a scene and make Gatsby's morality real to us, but no one wants to add to Fitzgerald’s novel, for any host of reasons. (It also helps that while “The Godfather” is a novel, it is nowhere near an equal to “Gatsby” on the printed page. Coppola’s genius was in knowing what to cut out of a lurid, pulpy thriller, no matter how exalted some portions of it are.) 

In some ways, it is fitting that there is something frustrating and elusive about “The Great Gatsby,” just as the book itself illustrates the way our dreams evade our understanding and our ability to grasp them. Perhaps Luhrmann’s film will somehow give us a Gatsby alive on the screen and allow us to glimpse him as Fitzgerald did. Or maybe such a thing is like the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock – taunting us across the bay - something we stretch out our arms toward, knowing against our better selves that, sooner or later, we will grasp hold of it. Like everyone else, I'll be watching.

Buy my book, "Brilliant Disguises," for .99 cents here. Available in all e-formats.
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