Monday, May 13, 2013

The Greater Gatsby

Carey Mulligan as Daisy in The Great Gatsby
Rather than listen to the critics who think they know what The Great Gatsby is supposed to be about, I saw for myself Baz Luhrman's interpretation and I must say: I was blown away. The opening sequences, and much else, were breathtaking in their use of 3D technology, and the viewer is immediately transported into Fitzgerald's New York of the 1920s (even though, yes, it was filmed in Australia).

Not only is the new adaptation true to the book, it breathes new life into the story and relates it squarely to the excesses of today. Bryan Ferry's version of Roxy Music's "Love is the Drug" with 20's style horns smooths the transition to a modern soundtrack that actually works (and features Fergie and Luna del Rey).

I can't help comparing this Gatsby to the duller-than-dirt 1970s version with Robert Redford sleepwalking through the title role. The golden girl Daisy, released from a tepid Mia Farrow portrayal, is here played with spark and intelligence by a luminous Carey Mulligan. I didn't think I could like her more than I did Alison Pill, who played Zelda (Daisy's inspiration) in Midnight in Paris, but Mulligan was everything she should be, and more. DiCaprio didn't move me much, he's just pathetic–like Redford's portrayal. He's best in scenes when masterfully provoked by Joel Edgerton as Daisy's husband Tom.

Isla Fisher as Myrtle.
Myrtle the Temptress also benefits from better casting: instead of the always-annoying Karen Black, we're treated to Isla Fisher, who played Mary Jane in the Scooby Doo movie. The scene orchestrated by Myrtle wherein Nick learns to party makes splendid use of Fitzgerald's words describing mind alteration:

I was within and without. Simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

This sounds to me a lot more like getting high than being drunk. In fact, it rather sounds like Jack London's description of smoking hashish.

Remember, Gatsby is set in the 20s, when pot was still legal and sold in pharmacies, as cigarettes or tinctures. A musician in Lehrman's Gatsby is unmistakably modeled on Cab Calloway, who's "Are You Hip to the Jive?" was the "Are You Experienced?" of his day. (Calloway recorded "Minnie the Moocher" and "Reefer Man.")

Everyone from Stephen Colbert to the BBC World Service book club missed the core of the novel: Gatsby is an American hero because he makes his money by illegal means, which necessarily involves thuggery. When this was mentioned on the BBC, it merely drew the usual mock astonishment and chuckles from the esteemed panel, which included Jay McInerney.

Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim
So I guess I'll have to be the one to tell you the news: The Great Gatsby is the first modern novel about a drug dealer.

To hammer home the point, one of Gatsby's associates, Meyer Wolfsfheim, is modeled on Arnold Rothstein, the first international drug smuggler and gambler (who famously fixed the 1919 World Series).

Gatsby is said to own a chain of drug stores at which it's said that anything, including bootleg liquor, can be bought. He speaks of "a little business on the side ... a rather confidential sort of thing" and offers the narrator Nick a piece of the action in exchange for setting up a meeting with Daisy.

After Gatsby sends a servant to mow Nick's lawn in anticipation of the meeting, Nick tells him, “The grass is fine.”

“What grass?” asks Gatsby. “Oh, the grass in the yard.”

Where else would grass be?

Grass is again strangely mentioned in Fitzgerald's last novel, The Last Tycoon. In it, movie producer Monroe Stahr takes love interest Kathleen to his house, where he has had a strip of grass brought in from the prop department. Kathleen laughs and asks, “Isn’t that real grass?” Stahr replies, “Oh yes—it’s grass.”

When Stahr goes to Kathleen’s door, she says, “I’m sorry I can’t ask you in. Shall I get my reefer and sit outside?” (A reefer is also the name of a sailor’s coat.) Stahr first sees Kathleen floating on the head of Siva, when a flood dislodges it from a movie set. To this day, worshippers in India drink bhang (a drink made with cannabis) to celebrate Siva’s marriage to the goddess Parvati.

Now that Lurhman has rescued Gatsby from obscurity, it's time for a brilliant remake of The Last Tycoon (also made in the 70s, and also flat, despite Robert DeNiro as Stahr).

Fitzgerald was named for his relative Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics to "The Star Spangled Banner," and his family was considered keepers of American virtue.

The protagonist of his novel The Beautiful and Damned has this exchange with a friend:

"Did they ban cigarettes? I see the hand of my holy grandfather." 
"He's a reformer or something, isn't he?" 
"I blush for him."

Anthony Patch, who stands in for Fitzgerald in the story, is the grandson of Adam J. Patch, a reformer in the mold of Anthony Comstock (for whom Patch is named). In 1873 Comstock created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public. [Wikipedia] Patch speaks disdainfully of the "shocked and alarmful eyes" of "chroniclers of the mad pace of America."

Why does no one ask the obvious question: where does the name "Gatsby" come from? His real name is "Gatz" which is the next down the alphabet from "Fitz" in "Fitzgerald." Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald lost his desired debutante, when Zelda broke their engagement to be married. In reality or fantasy, did Scott win Zelda back by getting rich dealing in grass? Was he critical of reformers because he was himself a rebel? Can you live outside the law and still be a hero? Are moralists missing something in life? (Oh yes, and why is Gatsby's first name "Jay?" Why was the light he sought green in color?)

A final note: the theatre where I'd hoped to see Gatsby in 3D, the Grand Lake in Oakland, isn't showing it in 3D, but rather had Iron Man 3 with Robert Downey Jr in 3D. Downey's now a good little Hollywood boy playing in nice, violent films with big box office and (snore) sequel potential. I'd much rather have seen him as Gatsby.

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