I came at this Gatsby remake a bit more current than many people I know; many of my friends read the book and saw the Redford movie so long ago it’s in the dim and distant past. My Gatsby is just a few years back. About four years ago, while reading Hemingway’s Paris memoir A Moveable Feast (in which he explains why he thought that FSF was the greatest American writer), I realized that I was Fitzgerald-deficient; I had, by whatever fluke, read almost nothing he had written. I dislike angry drunks, and I admit that my prejudice had kept me from the best of not only Fitzgerald but Hemingway (which is also why I was reading A Moveable Feast for the first time).
So, with a bit of the mellowness of middle age, I caught up. I found Fitzgerald to be very deft; his turns of phrase were both eloquent and efficient; he may have used extra words, as Hemingway said, but he used them beautifully. I found his work exquisite.
Last year, when I saw the Redford/Waterston Gatsby film, I went in with no illusions about the characters; all of them were hopeless but the innocent narrator. I knew that they all met bad ends, even the ones who didn’t. The main characters in Gatsby were drawn so harshly that they were in caricature; there was no good end coming, no redemption in store.
Jay Gatsby was an obsessed man, living in the center of a web meant to attract exactly one creature; he didn’t care anything about the music, the scene, or the people; he rarely appeared at his own parties except to see if the one guest he was trying to attract had wandered into his web. As a reviewer in the Phoenix New Times astutely pointed out, this is why the music essentially meant nothing to the original story; the parties were props in a layer of props; the scene was dressed in the edgiest, most enviable fashion possible, and at that moment, the hot ticket was jazz. If times had been different, so would the music; it’s the story that’s the thing.Fitzgerald and Zelda
The Great Gatsby is a story about mistaking beauty for excellence- Jay confuses Daisy with someone worth lying for, Nick confuses Gatsby with a hero; neither of the two adored characters stand up to scrutiny, but they are not scrutinized; they are glimpsed, and then idealized. The other characters don’t really mean anything- bullies, drunks, climbers, socialites, the idle rich… they are everywhere, all of the time and of no real interest… they contribute no more to the story than they do to society. Adultery, black marketeering, strategic marriage… these also have no meaning to the story, they are just there as they are always there, inescapable, meaningless except in the specifics, they are failings of humans and society that we will never overcome and can only opt out of.
I think that the chance is still out there for someone to remake this film and say something new, but it hasn’t been done yet. The Lurhmann film is really just like the 1974 version; the updating of the music is equally meaningless; it’s like casting Dicaprio instead of Redford, or Carey Mulligan instead of Mia Farrow; only the specifics are different. Tobey Maguire was beautiful in the role of Nick, and he looked like FSF, which Sam Waterston did not, and the memory of a spindly Bruce Dern was happily erased by the completely proper casting of Joel Edgerton, a man who can bring a physical threat, a man who can sweat in an oily fashion.
The music as used in the film honestly left me flat, because I was familiar with what they had to work with (including Bryan Ferry’s time, which is in limited quantity) and in edit, they wasted it all- no song is given more than a sample. There is not one piece of music in the entire film that is given enough time or weight to mean anything; it would be impossible to even take a song away from this film unless you listened to it separately, out of the theater. This strikes me as dumb as fuck, considering how excellent the soundtrack is when you can actually listen to it. For the film, it felt like they took everything that they recorded, put it in a shredder, and just used the pieces that came out.
I doubt Ferry minded much; he’s used to seeing people waste opportunities. But as a moviegoer, I felt like I’d done a tasting menu; no more.
The best thing about the movie: THE HATS.