The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Finally, I went to see one of my – and just about everyone else’s – most anticipated films of the year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My fears about its humour being lost went unrealised. Though the antics of the party guests were jettisoned, as most would have to have been in the interests of time economy, the owl-eyed library man remained.

So, too, did one of my favourite passages, when Gatsby almost loses his nerve and flees into the rain before meeting Daisy again, only to turn back at the last moment:

We went in. To my overwhelming surprise the living-room was deserted.

“Well, that’s funny,” I exclaimed.

“What’s funny?”

She turned her head as there was a light dignified knocking at the front door. I went out and opened it. Gatsby, pale as death, with his hands plunged like weights in his coat pockets, was standing in a puddle of water glaring tragically into my eyes.

This is a Baz Luhrmann film, so can almost go without saying that it is visually splendid. The parties, costumes, hair, makeup, jewellery, sets – all are exquisite.

It is remarkably true to the novel, with the exception of the device used for Nick Carraway to narrate. Though a small and understandable liberty to take for the sake of clarity and narrative drive, I smarted a little at this flouting, but it stands alone in terms of artistic licence. Even passages I thought there was no way even Luhrmann could possibly film and preserve the sense of the original were masterfully done.

Perhaps the most memorable moment for me was another of my favourite descriptive passages:

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.

Unfilmable, you say? No, sir.

All of the characters are finely portrayed: Daisy and Tom Buchanan’s “vast carelessness” and Jordan Baker’s cool indifference are just as written, and Nick as utterly nice.

The flesh and blood characters, who stand in stark contrast to Daisy, Tom and Jordan, are the bleary George Wilson and his painted wife (nice to see Isla Fisher, though I wished a little that Luhrmann chose someone less conventionally pretty for coarse, meaty Myrtle and changed up the beautiful lady brigade some).

And of course, Jay Gatsby himself was played stunningly by Leonardo DiCaprio, who seems incapable of doing a crap job at anything. His rage when he finally blows at Tom is an awesome thing to see. He seems to really get Gatsby’s dreadful commitment to hope, and his undeniable likeability. His rendering of Nick’s first impression of him is perfect, as true to the book’s spirit as it was when he stood tragically in the puddle.

He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you just as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

Precisely at that point it vanished – and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.

A challenge, surely, for any actor – and yet, he delivers.

I was heart-glad there was so much of the elegance and loveliness of Fitzgerald’s writing in this script, especially the pristine transfer of the words to the closing scene. Though an example of what to me was a slight overuse of stylised on-screen typeface, a little too much like Moulin Rouge, it certainly showed that those making this movie understood the importance of the moment.

I gripped the Ministry’s hand perhaps too hard, but I had goosebumps, a physical response to this return to the trope of the green light, and the use of words that could not be improved upon, from when Nick walks through “ that huge incoherent failure of a house” one more time, to the last moment on the dock.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic 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 further… And one fine morning –

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

 I always love a novel-to-screen adaptation, even enjoying those that are mediocre, or disappoint on details. There is nothing to replace the feeling of sharing a previously private experience, of meeting people you feel close to for the first time, even if they differ slightly to what you saw in your mind’s eye.

This was not mediocre or disappointing. It was magical, like food, deeply nourishing to the soul, to see The Great Gatsby brought to life.

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The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1926)

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I decided I must re-read this in preparation for the film.

The tatty paperback is covered in pen underlining from my first, compulsory high school reading, and I wondered how much of my love would remain when reading through older and – possibly – more critical eyes.

Nick Carraway moves to Long Island in the 1920s and is drawn into a glamorous, seedy world lit up by his neighbour, Jay Gatsby. No-one knows much about Gatsby and they delight in making up sinister stories; but it turns out Gatsby’s secrets are very close to home.

It’s my habit to take a photo of passages I like, to save writing them all down. I wasn’t halfway through this by the time I had a couple of dozen photographs. The pen marks from the first reading showed I’d felt similarly back then.

Fitzgerald’s writing makes every line seems enchanted. When Carraway finds something lovely, you feel his wonder, and when he describes the dreadful you feel his surges of disgust.

There was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life … No – Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and shortwinded elations of men.

There is plenty of Fitzgerald’s dignified and deft humour in this tale – shown to best effect in his renderings of Gatsby’s drunken party guests and hangers-on.

To the Ministry, shooting zombies a few feet away, it must have seemed as though I weren’t reading at all, but just sitting there, alternately giggling at and taking photos of a stationary object.

A small, flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril. After a moment I discovered his tiny eyes in the half-darkness.

I don’t doubt that the beauty and ugliness of it all, not to mention Gatsby’s tortured soul, will be rendered exquisitely on film, but I wonder how the fun poked at peripheral characters, his “pale, dangling individuals” will fare.

A pause. Then, taking a long breath and straightening his shoulders, he remarked in a determined voice:  ‘Wonder’ff tell me where there’s a gas’line station?

At least a dozen men, some of them a little better off than he was, explained to him that car and wheel were no longer joined by any physical bond.

‘Back out,’ he suggested after a moment. ‘Put her in reverse.’

‘But the wheel’s off!’

He hesitated.

‘No harm in trying,’ he said.

My mate Sturdy dislikes this book. She says there’s no-one to love here, and she’s right.

Oddly enough, soon after this conversation, another friend asked me whether she was supposed to find Daisy loveable, because she couldn’t. I replied that she’d hit the nail on the head: Daisy doesn’t “gleam like silver” and that’s the lightbulb moment.

Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything.

For those also interested in the “likeability” problem, I direct you to something showed to me recently: the take of writers including Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Franzen on the subject.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/05/would-you-want-to-be-friends-with-humbert-humbert-a-forum-on-likeability.html

Likeable or not, The Great Gatsby is spine-tingling. I hang on the words, they give me goosebumps. I am breaking my neck to get into that cinema.

The Beautiful and Damned (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1922)

I suggested this book for my new book club. Actually, in all fairness, my new book club essentially chose this book for themselves, after I offered them a choice between something modern or something classic. I can’t quite remember what the alternatives were, but the point is, it’s their fault I chose this book.

And I was the only one masochistic enough to end up reading it.

It’s not that I don’t love haunting, moody, elegant writing with a touch of dry humour. I do, I swear I do and that’s why I loved The Great Gatsby.

Hell, we all loved The Great Gatsby — those of us with souls, anyway but though this is unquestionably Fitzgerald’s excellent writing, with all the qualities listed above, there was something about Gatsby’s story that made it immortal, and that didn’t happen here.

I have the closing lines of The Great Gatsby written down in a notebook somewhere, and they still make me shiver a little inside, and I thought The Beautiful and the Damned was a sure bet.

I knew it wouldn’t be a barrel of laughs, but I thought like Gatsby it would have that lift, that loveliness that turns sadness into something beautiful.

It turns out sometimes the sad and sordid is just… well, sad and sordid and ugly. Unclean, as Gloria herself would say.

I’m half disappointed just because the book sounds so cool. I mean, The Beautiful and the Damned is sexy as all get-out as far as titles go, and it definitely fits. I have never met characters quite so beautiful or quite so damned.

But try as I might to read something more into it, it really does seem to eulogise, as the back cover so nicely puts it, “the vortex of that decade-long jazz party which ended in the cold dawn of the Depression,” that the Fitzgeralds were a part of.

I’m willing to be proven wrong, if there are any nerds out there who can muster up a meaning out of all the stuff about how Beauty is only allowed to remain in that society for 15 years.

And it’s fine for a book to be autobiographical, and it’s fine for it to have a nasty ending.

It’s just that it should have some redeeming awesomeness, and honestly, this book just made me feel like crap whenever I picked it up.

It wasn’t a boring or slow read. It was still a decent read. But I wouldn’t really recommend it… unless you’re a glutton for punishment, like me.