Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Beyond the Green Light

Last week I went to see Baz Luhrmann's version of The Great Gatsby. Some of the criticisms I've heard of the movie are about things that didn't bother me. I didn't think the hip-hop music in the soundtrack was out of place considering the theme and emotional tone of the movie. Likewise, the over-the-top spectacles of Gatsby's parties: wasn't that what he did, throw lavish, out-sized affairs in an attempt to draw Daisy to him? (And wasn't the Jazz Age about excess, to begin with?)

What I noticed was the way I felt at the end of the movie -- kind of stirred up and let-down and empty. Some reviewers might say this was the fault of the movie, a result of its emphasis on style over substance, but I don't think so. I think that's what the movie is about, being let down.

It must be hard to play characters like Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. They are beloved characters, star-crossed lovers, and literary icons, but there is such a haze of romance around them that the tragedy at the bottom of their story is almost lost in a glow of champagne and pearls. I don't know if the story is as much about the failure of the American Dream as it is about a failure of vision on the part of Jay Gatsby.

To be inspired by love to great accomplishments is wonderful, but that is not what drives Gatsby. He has built a staggering fortune based on bootlegging and shady dealings in an attempt to become the important man he always wanted to be. This does not make him inferior to those who happen to have had money longer than he has, even if they (and he, secretly) think so. His motivations, though, seem hollow. It's himself and his humble origins that he's unhappy with, and no mansion of any size can change that.

Oh, but wasn't it Daisy who inspired him? Yes, but that's just the problem. Reviewers unhappy with Carey Mulligan's luminous but vacuous Daisy (and Mia Farrow's, before her) seem to think there is something finer about Daisy than the actresses are able to convey. There must be, or Gatsby wouldn't have fallen for her, right? I think Gatsby's idealism is wasted on Daisy: he has hitched his wagon to the wrong star. He perceives, correctly, that Daisy could never be happy with anyone outside her own social class. She didn't wait for him and married someone else. Maybe that should have been a sign? Yet he won't let go of his vision of her and in the end loses everything because of it.

Mr. Luhrmann's extravagant party scenes and glittering sets convey the emptiness of not only Gatsby's but also the Buchanans' wealth. One of the saddest scenes in the movie is the aftermath of the party in which Gatsby confides to Nick that he'll never be happy until Daisy leaves Tom for him. With servants picking up debris left by heedless guests in a house that seems not just empty but deserted, Nick tries to tell Gatsby that he can't relive the past, but Gatsby doesn't agree. If Gatsby were wise enough to give up his own illusions, he would be a better man. But then, of course, it would be a different story.

Mythically, the story is about Titans -- in this case, Titans of wealth who maneuver and brawl to establish precedence. It shows the dangers of hubris, although Gatsby is unfortunately the main one who seems to pay the price. You have to infer what might happen to the others. (I like to imagine Tom Buchanan losing his smugness in the stock market crash a few years later.)

I think this film captured the evanescent beauty of Gatsby's dreams quite well; there was something magical about Luhrmann's depiction of the bay and the green light on the other side. If Gatsby's imagination and yearnings had been directed toward a more worthy goal, who knows what he would have accomplished. But that would have to be a different movie.