Still Gatsby

Yesterday, at an ice cream social, a woman I had never met turned to me and asked “Did you see the movie?”  Not understanding her point of reference, I asked what movie?  She indicated my T shirt and said “The Gatsby movie.”  OH.  Oh, yes, I did.  Another woman sitting at the table joined the conversation; one of them had seen it, the other had not.  The sixteen year old standing nearby announced, loudly and confidently, that he had REALLY disliked it.  The lady who began our chat turned to me and asked if I had liked the film.

“I think I will withhold my opinion in front of the young man with so strong an opinion of his own.”

It was the only answer I could give.  I have learned to at least try to not get into debates with people regarding anything for which I have a positive passion.  I am at a point in my life where I am simply too tired, or perhaps too content in a state of non upheaval, to put myself into a situation where my peace might be upset:  I simply have no desire to spend time defending something that I love.  Sometimes I am quite successful at governing my tongue; others.. well, you know how that goes.

I did ask the young man if he had read the book, which he had; this earned him points in my book.  The lady sitting beside him announced that she had, also.  I queried as to whether or not he GOT it.  He told me yes.  Without performing an impromptu pop quiz, I could not know whether or not this were true.  The lady beside him (by the way, both women were definitely over the age of thirty, though I would not hazard an accurate guess at their precise ages) told me she had read the book in school and, while she appreciated the literary merit, she did not care a bit for the story or the characters.  I agreed that, yes, it was an unhappy story with characters of little or no redemptive quality.  I did not add that that is precisely why I like it: the unhappiness of the story and the self-involved nature of these people make it extremely truthful to life itself.  Only Nick Carraway has any kind of absolution by the end of the novel.  He is fraught with struggles of a moral nature and an intent to do what is right and to be what is good.  He, alone, is the character after which a reader should wish to model their intentions in life.

Our conversation continued for awhile, as they asked me if I liked the book.  I told them it is my favourite novel.  I hate to be so cliché, for there are many who make the same claim; so I will point out that my other favourite novels are The Grass Harp by Truman Capote, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane by Laird Koenig, Bloodline by Sidney Sheldon, Maurice by E.M. Forster, Howard’s End by E.M. Forster, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.  That being said, The Great Gatsby is the book I have read over and over and made notes in the margins until my personal copy is falling apart.  The conversation lead us to discuss the five different film versions, the opera, plays and the ballet of the story.  One of the ladies proclaimed me to be a Gatsby expert.

I am no expert on The Great Gatsby.

I am only an expert on my emotions; and The Great Gatsby affords, in me, numerous opportunities to emote.

When the recent film version of The Great Gatsby was released, I should have gone that very day but my work schedule is extremely demanding and I am tired most of the time.  When I sit down for more than four minutes, I fall asleep; in the theater, on the sofa, on the subway, in the cinema.  I would not go to the picture show to see The Great Gatsby and go to sleep.  It would need to be a morning showing, after a good night’s rest.  Two weeks into the run of the film, I took my husband and my best friend (for whom I had purchased a copy of the novel last year) and sat in the dark with them, weeping.  It was, for me, the perfect expression of the novel, to date.  It is, in fact, NOT perfect – but for me it is as good as there has been.  When I proclaimed it on Facebook, there were arguments and passionate outcries in favour of the 1974 version, which I have never liked.  Since I have never made a movie, it is not for me to criticize someone else’s efforts, while making their own film.  I, therefore, opted to keep my big mouth shut regarding the F.F. Coppola penned picture.  I can say that I love the cinematography, the musical score, the costuming, the realistic art direction and Robert Redford, who throws off an “old sport” better than anyone I’ve ever seen.  I also worship Karen Black and her performance of Myrtle Wilson, the best there has ever been of that character.  I also find Sam Waterston to be a lovely and lyrical tender hearted Nick.  What I miss from the novel, in that film version (which I have recently watched again) is the sense of urgency from absolutely anyone, any desperation at all and the actual roar of the roaring twenties.  Perhaps that is why I love the Baz Luhrman version.  It is, absolutely, urgent, everyone needs something so desperately that they are all sweating and the film does, quite entirely, roar – even if the roar is an anachronistic musical score filled with music created for today’s audiences.  It is a fantasy, filled with much too vibrant colours and much too vivid imagery.

Which is exactly what the film needed to make it relevant to today’s audiences.

I have read many criticisms of this latest film version of my favourite novel.  I don’t agree with any of them.  In as much as a director for the stage and actors for the stage deserve to revive yet another production of Macbeth or A Streetcar Named Desire so that THEIR artistic representation of a classical work of art can be exposed to audiences, so do film directors and film actors deserve a shot at having their own artistry wrapped around a classic.  Do I want to see Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music and Casablanca remade?  No.  Would I take a chance and look at them, if they were?  Yes.  I quite liked the remakes of Sabrina and Born Yesterday; but I have an open mind.  I actually loved the television versions of Streetcar that starred Ann-Margret and Jessica Lange, respectively.  It’s all about having an open mind.  

So when considering a 2013 film version of The Great Gatsby, one must think about how heady the original story is and compare it to the short attention span of the young people today – and, let’s face it, films are not made for the middle aged or the elderly; they are made for the young.  Young people have the time and energy to go to the picture show, not to mention less stress over spending twenty dollars that could be applied to this week’s groceries or this month’s electric bill.  Films are made for young people and young people (with rare exception) don’t want an intellectual, verbose, slow moving film based on a nearly one hundred year old book set in an era that bores the kids today.  When I was in high school and made to read The Great Gatsby I didn’t get it.  It wasn’t until I was nearly thirty and re read it that I came to appreciate it; and in the years since, I have pulled it down nearly every year to read it again.  Not only is it (generally) too much for the young – it can also be too much for the adults too.  People want X Men and Batman.  People want Magic Mike and 007.  People do NOT want Jay Gatsby.  They will, though, if it is exciting and if it has a musical score provided by Jay-Z and if it stars Jack Dawson and SpiderMan.  They will if it is made by the Moulin Rouge guy.  So a studio executive green lights the project and they make a new version of The Great Gatsby that will appeal to TODAY’S audiences.  That is what we got.  Did Baz Luhrman give us the opportunity to think for ourselves?  No.  He made it as visually addictive as he could – so much so that it gave some people a headache (not me).  He took the roar of the roaring twenties and made us hear it so, that we felt it to the marrow.  He spelled out everything, even giving Nick voiceover to tell us why Daisy was crying into the shirts.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, was left to the imagination, which is what today’s audiences need to keep them from texting during the picture.  At least, though, he gave us all of the final passage in Fitzgerald’s book, which screenwriter Coppola and director Jack Clayton deprived us of in 1974 by ripping, to shreds, the most famous and poetic of F. Scott’s passages in Mr Waterston’s voiceover (followed by a completely inappropriate upbeat bit of film and music, as the credits rolled).  No, Mr Luhrman may have made mistakes with regards to subtlety, while telling the story of The Great Gatsby; but one of them was NOT leaving his audience bored enough to check their voicemail, go to the toilet or fall asleep during the screening.

I never saw the silent film version of this novel (by all accounts it is the most faithful to the novel but it also no longer exists).  In my youth, living in Portugal, the 1949 Alan Ladd version was shown on television but I have not seen it, since.  I have seen the Redford version some four or five times and the deplorable, snorable 2000 television version once.  I saw this new version on the big screen once and twice this week on dvd.  I realize that there is room for every version of The Great Gatsby because each one will be somebody’s favourite and each one will have at least one benefit.  None of them are as good as the one that my mind creates, each time I read the novel.

The scholars all have their epic details of what it is that makes The Great Gatsby one of the greatest American novels ever written.  I’ve read some of their ideas and I can take them or leave them.  I’ve read their thoughts on the symbolism and what every sentence and paragraph and character means and stands for.  I am either not intellectual or overly simple because I don’t think of the novel in those terms.  I read it because it is a fascinating story about love and obsession, about corruption and greed, about growing up and the desire to good while participating in a world that is bad.  I read it because I love words and, especially, love when a person takes words and places, carefully, each word in an order that expresses something so poetic or profound as to make another person sigh.  I relate to it because Jay Gatsby wanted something more and he got it; he wanted to reinvent himself and he did.  These two things are the stumbling blocks of my life.  I relate to both quests to the point of pain – but at the end of the day, I have to admit that I am no Jay Gatsby.  I am a Nick Carraway.  I am a watcher.  I am a teller of tales.  I see others the way he sees Gatsby and Daisy, Tom and Jordan and I look for the perfect opportunities to describe them and to tell their tales.  I crave, I seek out, I write and I hope that any sentence I write will create, in another person, the visceral reaction that any sentence in The Great Gatsby creates in me.  I feel this poetic language in my soul because I have my eyes on the future and, still, cannot seem to shake the past. 

Am I an expert on The Great Gatsby, as the party guest suggested?  No.  I am an expert on what, in life, is important: love, good health, kindness, art and articulation.  Maybe none of the five different film versions, various plays and musicals, readings, one opera and one ballet have represented, perfectly, Fitzgerald’s 1925 work of classic storytelling – but it is 2013, nearly a century later, and I had a conversation yesterday with a sixteen year old about The Great Gatsby.  People are STILL talking about this novel that was so poorly sold that the author died, feeling a failure.  That is no failure, my friends.

THAT is infinity.



   Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning –

   So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Top! Copyright © Stephen Mosher