Monday, July 1, 2013

'The Great Gatsby,' Movie and Book: Taste, Movies, and Adaptation

Gatsby re-read accomplished: that was quick. I actually read it on my phone, in order to compare it to the 3D movie version: hi guys, it's the 21st century, stranger and sillier than we ever imagined it, but I won't say I'm not having fun. 

And I still don't know what the critics are so upset about. The movie enhanced my appreciation for the novel, and the novel, in turn, has enhanced my appreciation for the movie. Although I'm not going to put Luhrmann on the same level as Sirk, Sternberg, Minnelli, or Selznick (mainly for fear that someone will start ticking off the well-concealed subtleties of these auteurs that save them from being vulgar melodramatists – give me strength), I don't see how anyone who claims to appreciate them can object to the visual excess, over-the-top performances, or garish showmanship of Luhrmann's Gatsby. If you want to object to the fast editing, swooping and lurching camera, and digital cartoonishness, on the other hand, that is your privilege, but I was so engrossed by the story I barely noticed; and even in Moulin Rouge, a movie I really disliked, Luhrmann's famed directorial "ADD" didn't bother me. There is much to be said for stillness in movies (I love Dreyer as much as the next film buff); there is also much to be said for speed, which Hollywood movies have always been chasing, from the Hawks of the screwball comedies to the Sirk of Written on the Wind, whose screeching car scenes I inevitably thought about frequently during Luhrmann's Gatsby

On the re-read, perhaps because of all the foofaraw (really, Google? That's really how you spell it?) surrounding it currently, Fitzgerald's novel no longer seemed like an intimidating Great Work or Cultural Icon but a fragile construction of words by a mere talented human being. As such it certainly isn't flawless. At what point in the 20th century was it decided that novelistic greatness was a matter of beautiful prose? Like all early Anglo-American prose stylists, Fitzgerald is, whether he likes it or not, ultimately indebted to Paterian aestheticism; this means a certain attitude to life as well as to prose, as exemplified by his use of “intensity” or variants at least a dozen times. He also likes to make a whole lot of references to “ghosts” and “breath,” building up a romantic atmosphere out of conscious vagueness, and can sometimes be caught using the same word twice in close proximity – such as “dilatory” (the first time incorrectly, it seems, upon the principle of the more syllables the better) or “alert,” as a compliment for women (who, one presumes, must be drowsy by default). Purple prose is its own kind of tastelessness, and whether or not you respond to a particular example of it a matter of personal taste – I liked Fitzgerald's but still prefer Waugh's in Brideshead.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (Turn and Face the Strange)

It's true that Luhrmann isn't the least bit interested in Fitzgerald's social portraits – in the extended dialogue scenes where the low-lifes, hedonistic riff-raff, or upper-class characters hang themselves by their speech, each and every one of them revealing themselves as empty in their various ways. Brideshead also seems a lot more humane to me than Gatsby: Waugh's eccentrics, however grotesque, have a certain wisdom to impart and often have more insight into the narrator's motives than he does. Is the middle-class, Midwestern Nick held up as the novel's human ideal, or is it Gatsby, transcending class by the size and romanticism of his imagination? I didn't study the book in school so I can't tell you.

Luhrmann still uses a lot of Fitzgerald's dialogue, but pares away whatever does not advance the plot. I think his instincts are correct here: Fitzgerald's dialogue is great but his plot is too. It's juicy, it's pulpy; it works brilliantly as a movie. It's also ludicrous. Coming out of the theatre, still shaken by that plot and by the actors' performances, I falsely observed that Daisy must have made a horrible but understandable split-second decision when she saw Myrtle coming towards her. Of course she didn't: she has no idea who her husband's mistress is. The tragedy is all coincidence, no psychology – except for the pathetic touch of Myrtle appealing to “Tom.” But Fitzgerald had the courage of his coincidences, and the contrivances of the ending can't be beat for stakes, suspense, sadness, or squalor.

The removal of one line, and the insertion of one moment, are the changes with the greatest repercussions. DiCaprio's Gatsby (which seems like an even more miraculous performance after my re-read) could never possibly utter the line, “Her voice is full of money.” Its excision removes a layer of cynicism from the story, though not much of its complexity; even without it, it's not difficult to grasp that Daisy's social standing is part of the reason for Gatsby's obsession. The insertion is more curious, though it also serves to make Gatsby more sympathetic. One of the most powerful moments in the movie, it has DiCaprio explode hysterically in response to Tom's snobbish taunts, releasing the tension that has built up between the characters on the sweltering day. That decision is less curious than the re-purposing of Nick's observation that Gatsby looked “like he'd killed a man” that comes immediately afterwards; in the novel this appears to refer to the hinted depths of Gatsby's guilt, the crimes upon which he's built his fortune, whereas in the movie (by design or accident) it seems to refer to Gatsby's sorrow at his breach of decorum.

The decision to make Daisy more sympathetic – which is to say, more in love with Gatsby – was doubtless, like the decision to make Gatsby more sympathetic, guided by the objective of turning Fitzgerald's ambiguous love story into a straightforward one for the Twilight era. Some of these touches are kind of dumb: Gatsby's death just as the phone rings, with Daisy's name on his lips, looking across to the green light, was overegging the pudding so much that I felt nothing at all, although at least I didn't laugh incredulously, as at the ending of Luhrmann's (also fine) Romeo + Juliet, when the director, deciding that the ending of Shakespeare's tragedy isn't enough, decided to put the Liebestod on the soundtrack. But there are subtle character touches, too, like Daisy touching Nick's hand for support in the hotel room, which does not appear in the novel; as well as the wordless scene at the foot of the stairs with Nick on the phone, as she and Tom are about to leave. The movie, without being aggressively or didactically feminist-revisionist about it, through touches like these and especially through Mulligan's emotionally charged performance, makes Daisy into more than the novel's childish psychopath. Which is the novel's overall view of women – note that Jordan Baker is a pathological liar, which, sturdy Everyman Nick informs us, is forgivable in a woman ("Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply"). Women of course, being sub-adult and questionably human, have no moral lives and accordingly can't be expected to know right from wrong.

It's easy to list the dumb things in Luhrmann's adaptation, and the critics have done it; harder to list the smart things, for one thing because the list is longer. So besides the moments I've already referred to I'll just mention the handling of the sequence of Nick's introduction to New York. Sweeping the viewer up along with him, Luhrmann decides to make Nick not detached and implicitly critical (though withholding judgement) but full of wonder, if a little discombobulated, his senses – like ours through the music, movement, and visuals – besieged and overwhelmed. Luhrmann and Catherine Martin's Myrtle has all of the vitality that Nick ascribes to her, but which doesn't come across at all in her characterization; and this vitality also belongs to Luhrmann's New York, which has built up even more resonances since 1925 – including through Fitzgerald's novel.

Taking suggestions from Nick's narration, Luhrmann transforms them into visuals – such as the line about the “yellow windows” contributing “their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets,” which is illustrated by Nick standing at the window and (in obvious homage to Rear Window) watching the people in the apartment across from Myrtle's, itself another opportunity for Luhrmann to re-introduce African-Americans into the all-white Great American Novel. Here and throughout, Fitzgerald's heightened prose and Luhrmann's heightened visuals complement each other and form a new poetry together; in fact the beauties of Fitzgerald's prose seem ideally suited to Luhrmann's operatic setting. 

The visual conceit of the windows then gives Luhrmann the opportunity for a sensitive staging of the lurid climax of the party at Myrtle's, when Tom drunkenly breaks her nose for daring to speak Daisy's name. In the novel this act of violence is as banal as the rest of the evening, with an unpitied Myrtle trying to protect her tasteless upholstery (whose images of French rococo paintings are faithfully reproduced in the movie, even though they seem like one more whimsy of Martin's) from her tasteless blood with her tasteless reading matter. Luhrmann, instead, shows the scene from a distance, through the window, and skips over these cruel details. Which is a huge advance in discretion over my least favourite moment in Moulin Rouge, the gratuitous rape scene, with Nicole Kidman crawling around on her hands and knees.

Thoughts on Adaptation

It would make sense that, in general, the more precious a work of literature is to you, the less likely you are to be satisfied with any adaptation of it. I've been appalled by the recent Jane Austen adaptations, especially Pride + Prejudice and Rozema's Mansfield Park, although I was fond of Clueless; and while I had no expectation that any of the Henry James adaptations would be able to reproduce the experience of reading him, I still recoiled from the default vulgarity of Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, which is quite a different thing from Luhrmann's deliberate vulgarity. The 1940 Pride and Prejudice is watchable: the creators were at least aware that the novel is a comedy, not (primarily) a melodrama, and – like the low comedy in Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing – Melville Cooper's Mr. Collins, at least, is a complete success.

In the case of novels that are unadaptable, an intelligent adaptation can sometimes serve as a worthwhile independent entity. Without Humbert's seductive narration to disorient us, with Lolita as a – prepubescent – physical presence before us, Nabokov's novel can't work; but the Kubrick movie still works as a black comedy, with great performances by James Mason and Peter Sellers. The ambiguities of “The Turn of the Screw” can never be fully plundered by any given adaptation, but The Innocents, capturing some of the Freudian themes of the story and much of its eccentricity, and beautiful to look at as well, with a great performance by Deborah Kerr, is a wonderful movie.

Meanwhile Jean-Pierre Melville's Les Enfants Terrible just is the novel, and maybe an improvement on it because of the marvelous visuals; but then the French did not make wild claims for the cultural significance of Cocteau's slight, fun, mischievous work. Stephen Frears's Dangerous Liaisons is stagy, but it boasts John Malkovich in a vivid performance that's maybe the only time he was (inexplicably) sexy, with an equally powerful (and inexplicably sexy) Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman looking ravishing. Visconti's Death in Venice altogether replaces Mann's language with ravishing visuals – but it's considered a classic. Whether it's tasteful or not is another question, although it's certainly not a version for audiences with short attention spans. 

There are many ways to make good adaptations without those adaptations necessarily being definitive versions of the novel. Luhrmann's strategy of trying to make an ambiguous love story more of a straightforward one is hardly unknown to the movies: in George Stevens's A Place in the Sun, the young Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift are so beautiful it's hard to have any idea what the movie's supposed to be about, except for their justified erotic love; and William Wyler's Carrie invents a love between Carrie and Hurstwood out of thin air. I'm a fan of both of the Dreiser novels and I also like both of the movies while recognizing that they have almost nothing to do with the novels. I particularly like Wyler's Carrie, due to the performances by Olivier (the only time I've ever liked him in a movie, with the questionably tasteful exception of his more outrageous Shakespeare performances, as Richard III and Othello) and Jennifer Jones – a sensitive and sensual actress no more capable of playing Wyler's cool pragmatist than DiCaprio's Gatsby is of consciously viewing Daisy as the Platonic form of a dollar sign.

While possibly having as little to do with Fitzgerald's novel as Wyler's does with Dreiser's, in my opinion Luhrmann's Great Gatsby is a far better film than Wyler's Carrie, because – without neglecting the actors' performances (whatever one thinks of their pitch), it creates its own distinct aesthetic universe. The aesthetic in question is arguably aligned with Gatsby's, not Fitzgerald's, the musical equivalent of Fitzgerald's prose being Debussy rather than Jay-Z. But doing a version of Gatsby in Gatsby's aesthetic is a legitimate choice: Gatsby's adolescent vision of a grand and spectacular life (and Nick specifies that he doesn't swerve from the vision he had as a 17-year-old) includes all of the sweep and glamour and silliness of old-fashioned Hollywood moviemaking, justifying a fun night out at the movies – and why not in 3D as well? Would Gatsby have settled for less?

What dismays me about the general critical reaction to the movie more than its absolute expectedness (“What? Baz Luhrmann made a loud and vulgar and hectic anachronistic version of a timeless classic?”) was that these were movie critics seemingly defending literary values against the movieness of the movies. As though at the end of the day, when we're done fooling around, the essence of literature must be defended against the essence of movies. David Denby says it outright: “The book is too intricate, too subtle, too tender for the movies.” Whose side are you on, Denby? And why do there have to be sides? There are moments when the critical reaction to the movie reminds me of nothing so much as the clerical reaction to Monty Python's Life of Brian.

Pauline Kael, the greatest defender of the movieness of movies, also thought that books were more important, but she expressed those thoughts in the context of a milieu where intellectuals were in danger of taking movies too seriously, which also meant denying their movieness. Nowadays nobody is in danger of taking movies too seriously except for the comic book and fantasy and YA novel fans for whom they're being made (all of whom still prefer the original media); intellectuals are only in danger of taking premium cable TV drama too seriously, and there is no voice of skepticism calling for more balance, so thorough is pop culture's embrace.  

By the way, here, from the BFI site, is my take on the movie (complete with a Josef von Sternberg reference – thank you, finally, somebody) in better prose, by Nick Pinkerton.

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