It’s probably not good that I am proud of myself for having ONLY a week and a half between this post and the last one. Mental Note: Aim HIGHER, Rach!
Since I started at the end of the last movie, this time I am going to start at the …TITLE! (I’m going to cheat a little because Luhrman closes the movie with a shot about the title.) The Great Gatsby. The operative word here is “great” and it poses the central question of the book and movie: Is Gatsby actually “Great”?
Luhrman seems to be convinced that he is. So, my favorite starting point: after Nick finished typing the last iconic line of the book on his proto-hipster typewriter, he flips all his papers back to the title page which says only
Above this he writes in painfully sincere handwritten script: “The Great”.
Again, Luhrman gives us his moral judgement on the movie and the characters: GATSBY IS GREAT, GUYS!
The problem is that he’s not. Not that I’m saying any of the other characters are either:
Daisy is a beautiful and weak-willed fool, who becomes a beautiful and weak-willed adulteress, and finally a beautiful and weak-willed murderess. Tom is a “cruel bodied” philandering, racist misogynist. Jordan is a bored liar. Myrtle is a tramp. Wilson is a dupe then a murderer. Wolfsheim is a gangster. The party goers are users attempting to anesthetize themselves to life. Nick is the guy who prides himself on reserving judgment on people, yet narrates one of the most snidely judgmental books of all time. BUT their frailties do not make Gatsby great by comparison! This is the point that Luhrman seems to miss in his rush to help us sympathize with the DiCaprio character (just like in R and J!)
The funny difference here is that DiCaprio has become a better and a smarter actor – he plays Gatsby exactly as Fitzgerald wrote him: Charismatic. Attractive. False, and in that falseness- subtly, but profoundly unsettling. I should give Luhrman some credit. The screen play he uses is rigidly accurate to the characters’ dialogue from the novel. Even the scenes are picture perfect.The problems come in his additions to narration of Nick Carraway. Henceforth I will distinguish Luhrman’s narrator as Narrator Nick!
Narrator Nick!, after seeing Gatsby hide the truth of Daisy’s crime, casts Gastby’s life in the following light: He loved Daisy so much that he imagined and hoped the perfect world into existence for her. “Gatsby was a Son of God and as such must be about his father’s business.” Narrator Nick seems to view this business of world-making by imagination and power of will. Gatsby, coming from from nothing, through his colossal HOPE creates the perfect world. The fact that Gatsby (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER!) dies alone is mostly because Daisy and Tom suck a whole bunch. Gatsby is Great because he is the Patron Saint of and Martyr to HOPE!
If that were true, then we could really take the title “The Great Gatsby” un-ironically. He never let the world, or reality, or Daisy’s rejection get him down. He hoped eternally. Isn’t that great?
The problem is that hope is not real hope which denies reality.
I offer this alternate interpretation of Gatsby’s life: He is a man who creates the Platonic ideal of who he should be at the age of 17 and never allows it to change. He manipulates, lies, and steals in order to bring it all to pass. He does not participate in or take over God’s work in world making. Rather, (here I finish the Fitzgerald fragment that I think Luhrman based his interpretation of the novel on) “Gatsby is a son of God and as such must be about his Father’s business – the service of a vast and meretricious beauty.”
Put bluntly: Gatsby creates a falsely perfect world – an attractive whore of a world, which he props up and protects by never allowing the invasion of anything real. He cannot bear the threat posed by any part of the world that does not fall into his delusion because reality and its attendants – Alteration, Change, and Growth – all must stand as enemies of Gatsby’s world. Gatsby is not a patron saint of Hope because there is no need for hope in a complete world. It is done. Finished. Perfect. Not for one moment does Gatsby allow himself to truly dwell in the dirty, changing, imperfect, beautiful world of reality.
This brings us to Daisy.
(AGAIN, I must congratulate DiCaprio again on the scene I am about to describe because it is beautiful … and frightening.) After Daisy and Gatsby’s whirlwind rekindled romance, Gatsby begins to pressure Daisy to leave Tom, her husband, but not just to leave Tom: to leave him, saying that she loves Gatsby, has always loved only Gatsby, and has never loved Tom. When she is unable to do so, he flies at her – wide-eyed, shaking her, shouting – and tries to force the words from her.
He cannot, and she abandons him and his world. Even then, he does not see this or her. He is utterly convinced that she is his and only his.
This is not hope. This is delusion. This is closing his eyes to the real woman in front of him in favor of the Imaginary Daisy who would never have married Tom. Real love is seeing another person rightly and willing and hoping for the best for them. Gatsby does not love Daisy because he cannot see her.
Somewhere along the line, his service to and protection of “the vast and meretricious beauty” he has imagined has superseded any love he has for the real, weak, frail, fallible, beautiful woman he avowedly seeks. As such, he cannot hope for her. He cannot will the best for her because that would be to admit that his creation is not the best.
I would argue that Fitzgerald understood this. He leaves Nick’s trustworthiness as a judge of character and sincerity as a narrator enough in question that we must watch Gatsby’s actions. In DiCaprio’s performance, we are still afforded that opportunity to see through Gatsby’s charm to the 17-year-old boy who refused to grow up. Gatsby is “Great” only in his own imagination, which he refuses to leave.
The problem with Luhrman’s interpretation, built on the additions he has made to Narrator Nick! proclaiming Gatsby’s greatness as rooted in love and hope, is that he once again undervalues the heroism of real love and real hope by using those words to describe paltry imitations.
So, to counter balance him, I will leave you with a man who understood the true nature of Love as seeing rightly (flaws and dignity, frailties and beauties) and Hope as ceaselessly working to carry the beloved to the BEST world and love’s completion.
By William Shakespeare.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.