Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Reasonably Adequate Gatsby

Robert J. Howe

[Obligatory Spoiler Alert]

The critics are not in love with the latest film incarnation of Gatsby. Lenny Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham and fiction writer himself, believes the curse of Gatsby movies is that the audience has read the book, and has what he, Cassuto, calls "individuality of response;" everyone has their own Gatsby in their heads. It’s an interesting conceit, but I don’t buy it.

If "individuality of response" didn't kill Peter Jackson's execrable Lord of the Rings, a trilogy that much of the audience can quote in large snatches, then it seems an unlikely explanation for the Gatsby Curse. In any case, most books are Rorschach tests. Lichtenberg said, “A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out.” I think that sums up the field of literary criticism fairly neatly.

I sat through Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby today, and mostly found it pretty diverting—even at two hours and twenty minutes. It was visually stunning. I thought DiCaprio was a fine Gatsby, and Tobey Maguire a likeable amanuensis. I take El’s word that the film is reasonably faithful to the book: though I read Fitzgerald’s novel, I recalled none of it as the story unspooled on the screen.

I think the reason The Great Gatsby is impossible to film, or at least why critics think so, is because they’ve already seen the iconic version. It’s called Citizen Kane. Like Gatsby, Citizen Kane is the story, told in flashbacks, of a man who amassed money and objects in the pursuit of love, only to die alone and misunderstood. Both have their sympathetic (if less great) Boswells, both live in ornate mansions, having risen from grinding poverty, and both try relentlessly to claw back a happier past.

About halfway through the film I realized that every close up of DiCaprio reminded me of Orson Welles: the captain of a doomed ship underway at night in a fog, chasing fairy lights with increasing desperation. In neither case do the main characters’ rags-to-riches transformation succeed in bringing them the desired consummation. Authenticity, it seems, is what the universe requires, and what Gatsby and Kane have forgone. 

Though The Great Gatsby was published 16 years before Citizen Kane was filmed, I think every screen version of Gatsby stands in the (considerable) shadow of Orson Welles. Both DiCaprio and Luhrmann would know at least a little of Welles’ untidy personal life. (John Kessel captures a rigid, self-destructive Welles painfully well in the short story “It’s All True.”) As an actor, DiCaprio must have seen “the greatest movie ever made,” and Luhrmann certainly would know Citizen Kane inside and out. 

The considerable gravity exerted by Welles’ film, his portrayal of Kane, and his larger-than life, may well have bent the latest Gatsby and its title performance into familiar planes. If nothing else, Citizen Kane is a staple of film criticism. The critics may not like Gatsby, and especially this Gatsby, because every tight shot of DiCaprio’s anguished face would be moment of uneasy déjà vu in the seats. It is one thing to know where the arrow will land before it leaves the bow—tragedy often possesses a grim inevitability; it’s another thing to follow the same missile over the same course again and again.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby


John Kessel, “It’s All True” from Some Like It Cold