Wednesday, May 29, 2013

An English Teacher Reviews The Great Gatsby

Like many a high school English teacher across the dark fields of the Republic, I've taught F. Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel to hundreds (thousands?) of students, and this is mostly for them.  However, I don't mind taking the rest of you for a ride in this circus wagon.  Nobody needs an invitation; just come with a simplicity of heart that is its own ticket of admission.

As you may be able to tell from the three allusions I dropped in the intro there, I love Fitzgerald's prose and had little hope that noted "Look at ME!" director Baz Luhrmann would do any better job than the myriad other filmmakers who have taken a stab at it, most notably Jack Clayton's dreary, schmaltzy 1974 version starring Robert Redford, which is the one I've shown in class every year so far.  Really, I was just hoping that this new flick would just be marginally better than the Redford version.

Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Baz's take on Gatsby isn't merely slightly superior to the old one but leagues better.  It's not a perfect film by any stretch.  There's plenty to quibble with, and I'll get to that.  But it gets enough right that I feel confident about showing this updated version to my junior classes from now on.

The Good:

-This guy:
He's not going to win any awards for it, but there aren't many actors who could carry the role the way he does.  Hell, Redford's a great actor, but even he seems to slump under the weight of the character.  Leo plays him exactly right.  He's ambitious, duplicitous, charming, and insecure.  Look at that smile.  It's a major facet of the book, and Leo nails it.  Bottom line: It's a role for a movie star, and Leo's one of the biggest and brightest ones we've got.

-Nick as a broken-down alcoholic writer during the stock market crash. It's the film's biggest risk, and the likeliest to ruffle traditionalist feathers, but I liked it.  Basically, the movie turns Nick into Fitzgerald, who died broke and alone, despite the success of Gatsby.  This allows Fitzgerald's transcendent language to appear and be heard, despite the fact that the Nick of the book never mentions being a writer of any sort.  Maguire even looks like the troubled-but-gifted author, especially with the haircut he sports during his scenes at the clinic.  It's no secret that Nick is a version of Fitzgerald himself; both come from the Midwest to New York and are appalled yet drawn to the lifestyles they experience there.  I've always argued that Fitzgerald was trying to warn not only America but also himself of what the ravages of excess would wreak upon each, although the downfall of both was inevitable.

-This scene:
Gatsby and Daisy's reunion is perfect.  It's awkwardly funny, dramatic, and well-staged.  It's a fine example of what Luhrmann can do when he slows down for a moment and stops swooping the damn camera all over the place.  It also reinforces the awkward position of Nick; he narrates the film yet is not present for some of its most central action.  He is both "within and without" as he stands outside in the rain while Gatsby and Daisy get reacquainted in Nick's bungalow. 

 -The best film adaptations stick to the story without being slaves to them.  In addition to the major framing device of Nick writing the book from rehab, Luhrmann changes a few things, and most work well.  For instance, I didn't miss Gatsby's dad ("My name is Gatz") showing up at the end, as he does in the novel.  It's pure falling action, and too much of that sucks a film's ending dry.  I also didn't mind accelerating George Wilson's hunt for Gatsby by having Tom give up his rival's name and address to the grieving husband immediately after the accident, rather than letting Wilson seek Tom out the next day, as he does in the book.

I was more bothered by the film's omission of Nick's final conversation with Daisy and Tom, where it becomes clear that Daisy has never told Tom that she, in fact, is the one driving the car which kills Myrtle Wilson.  This detail helps to get across the notion that Tom isn't the "bad guy" keeping Daisy from true love.  Daisy chooses Tom's pearls over Gatsby's letter early in the story, then she again chooses the stability of Tom's inherent wealth over Gatsby's hard-earned but ill-gotten gains.  Fitzgerald's point is that Daisy is an attractive but false goal, like so much of what what we hold in esteem in America, and lots of readers miss that.  However, I'll cut Baz some slack.  The scene near the end where Daisy won't take Nick's call and doesn't even acknowledge Gatsby's funeral is an adequate substitute. 

Most importantly, lots of Fitzgerald's words make it into the film.  They're the real stars, after all.  Any version of Gatsby absolutely must have those beautiful, poignant final lines ("boats against the current," and all that), but the Redford version doesn't, amazingly enough.  Even when the lines are altered a bit, it's no travesty.  For instance, Nick's line about "reserving judgement is a matter of infinite hope" becomes "I look for the best in people," which is almost exactly the way I translate it in class.  Major demerit for no "Her voice is full of money," though. 

The Baz

Because I'm an English teacher, I've also seen Luhrmann's other notable literary adaptation, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (also starring a much younger DiCaprio) dozens of times, which is the main reason I was skeptical about what he'd do with Gatsby.  The actors literally yell lines at each other, in order to create tension, I suppose.  The tone is all over the place, from silly to surreal to melodramatic.  It's a completely frenetic experience.  Perhaps Baz has matured and mellowed a bit, as he managed to dial it down a bit for Gatsby.  Still, all of his greatest hits are present:

-The anachronistic music.
This has been the most frequent complaint from students who've seen Gatsby.  Ironically, teens are the ones who seem offended that Baz likes to insert today's pop music into historic settings.  I think they feel pandered to.  Anyway, they wanted "The Charleston" and got Kanye and Lana Del Rey instead.  I actually don't mind this trademark of his.  I liked Jay Z's score, and Romeo + Juliet's soundtrack is one of the few redeemable things about that messy film.

-The swooping camera.  Meh.  He uses it a bunch to give a sense of setting, showing where Gatsby's mansion is in relation to the Buchanans' manor.  Yes, it's overdramatic.  But it really didn't bother me like the...

When Gatsby comes to pick Nick up for lunch, he does donuts around Nick's place for awhile first.  Why?  It certainly doesn't fit with his carefully manicured character.  But his fancy yellow car makes a great VROOOOOM, so you gotta have it, I guess.  Then Gatsby proceeds with the exposition of his (fake) early life on their way to New York, but you can't really concentrate on it because he's driving like he's in the Indy 500.  Fast, fast, loud, loud.  That's Baz, to the core.

-Baz apparently also thinks drug-addled fever dreams are an effective storytelling device.  The scene in Myrtle's apartment is like watching when Leo meets Claire Danes in R+J in a cracked mirror.  Substitute the dude playing the sax on the balcony for Mercutio's inexplicable drag show, and you're there.  Just a diaspora of absurd facial expressions, outsized reactions, loud music, and a constantly spinning camera.  Note: I'm pretty sure this description covers the entirety of Luhrmann's other famous film, Moulin Rouge, but I only saw that once, over a decade ago, so I'm no expert. 

Nolanometer Final Grade: B

For perspective,
Redford's Great Gatsby: C-
Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet: D+