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An English Teacher Watches Gatsby

Sunday, 19 May 2013

A English teacher with a decent number of years on him or her is going to have read The Great Gatsby so many times that we can dispense quickly with the obvious: the current Baz Luhrmann version cannot measure up to the Platonic Conception of the book that we have in our collective heads.  It simply cannot happen and won't.  So we can quit worrying about that.

But is it still possible that a film version can do things that are true enough to the book (even if not rendered in the same way), can do things that are different enough to be interesting, and, most of all, can do things that will enhance future discussions of the book?

Just as an entrepreneur or a developer might look at a vacant lot, a retail space for rent, a part of town fallen into disuse and see the possibilities for a successful future business venture, so the English teacher looks at the trappings and renderings of popular culture to see how those might be used fruitfully in a classroom.  The advantage for the teacher is that a cultural failure can be just as valuable as one of its pinnacles.

And so, while I might not look at the current version of Gatsby through the same lense that you might, at least you know now where I'm coming from.  By my criteria, the movie succeeds tremendously even though it isn't a tremendous movie.  I know that a statement like that makes some of you right-answer-seekers recall your own English class experiences and shudder.

Allow me one more crack at this notion before I delve into a few specifics.  Will the movie generate discussion?  Will it lead students to evaluate the decisions it makes?  Will it make them see aspects of the novel that might have been downplayed but that get a larger treatment in the filmmaker's vision?

The most dramatic addition to the novel's vision that Luhrmann undertakes is the much-maligned narrative frame of Nick Carraway telling the story from a sanitarium where he is drying out from alcoholism.  Admittedly, this is half thought out in the film, but it raises some interesting issues.  We know from the novel that Nick returned to Minneapolis with his tail between his legs after the events of the novel and that he tells his story from there.  Why not add the alcohol treatment?  It is an homage both to Catcher In The Rye (where Holden tells his story from a mental hospital) and to F. Scott Fitzgerald's own battles with the bottle.  While most readers may be tempted to see Nick's stance in the novel as strength through rejection, the fact remains that he failed and gave up, that his view of these events is but one possibility.

It is certainly true that Nick is more of a wide-eyed observer in this movie. But even in the book, you'd think that a Yale grad like Carraway would have been a little more aware of what he was getting into.  The choice of Toby Maguire to play Nick can't help but make us confront his frail hypersensitivity.  His relationship with Jordan Baker, for example, barely exists.  There is zero physical interaction or chemistry.  He never connects with the "rotten crowd" in any significant way.  The movie, probably mistakenly, never treats his role in WWI.

The other highly-analyzed aspect of the film involves Luhrmann's inclusion of contemporary rap and hip-hop music as a way of illuminating the time period.  I think this works beautifully.  I'm not sure  that there has been a genre of music that has illuminated the predatory nature of money seekers better than rap.  What the movie achieves brilliantly, I think, is to use the modern music as a connector for a modern viewer while in no way pandering to his or her tastes.  The use of rap is seamless, using snippets to highlight particular moments (like the wealthy blacks with the white chauffeur Nick sees on the bridge) or to blend into a soundtrack flow that uses Jay-Z and Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue" as a perfect juxtaposition.

Whereas the earlier film version of Gatsby seemed to see its purpose as recreating the book as drawing room melodrama, this version aims for greater universality, especially when our age has, arguably, an even greater disparity between rich and poor than existed back then.  Luhrmann's movie does a better job of conveying its story within the context of broad social patterns.

Indeed, this film is at its best when characterizing that income inequality--its Valley of Ashes scenes are brilliant, giving viewers our first full rendering of that wasteland in between the excesses of Long Island and New York City, better than the previous film or the book itself.  That slag heap of despair, fully-rendered with a variety of downtrodden races and ethnicities, sits in direct contrast to a Wall Street on overdrive, another context this movie recreates better than the book.  When Tom Buchanan issues his pronouncements of racial superiority, he does so with mute black servants in the room.  When characters venture into the city, their cars race carelessly, weaving between working class people without regard for their safety, so that Myrtle Wilson's death, when it comes, is an inevitability.  The emphasis on cars reminds us what playtoys of the rich they must have been in the Roaring Twenties, unregulated speed machines on barely-monitored open roads.

I've hardly mentioned the actors.  Perhaps that is because they play their parts so adequately.  These aren't Academy Award winning roles; Fitzgerald's stylized dialogue does not allow for that.  But each part's casting seems so right that you never challenge the choices.  DiCaprio gets Gatsby right, Daisy is more alluring than beautiful, Tom garners a bit of sympathy for his cloddish approach to life.

I liked how this version gave us English teachers a different vision, one that knocks a bit against our collective but idiosyncratic expectations.  We will never agree on its strengths and weaknesses and we will pass that controversy on to our students for them to make their own judgements.  While some will no doubt compare this movie to Gatsby's "incoherent failure of a house," I would argue that enough of the pieces of it work, if not always in tandem. So, yes, this Gatsby is great enough.  At least for our purposes.

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