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Cherchez la Femme

1   Gatsby Gatsby Gatsby

My friend Max called me up a few months ago and said he had had to read The Great Gatsby (he is a junior in high school) and . . . he hated it!

Here is what Max said. A thoughtless person reading Gatsby would conclude that people with money are fake and live superficial lives, doing whatever they want because they are rich, that they are careless and insensitive and egotistical—whether they be old money or nouveau riche. Fitzgerald gives us a stereotype and it is awful. Gatsby himself is a giant joke and a liar. Max hated Nick Carraway: he is a well-educated but unreliable narrator, who—despite the opening lines with his father’s advice not to judge people—judges everyone. And anyway this is not a profound idea. The last line—“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”—is a cheap ending. Fitzgerald is a scoundrel. He takes cheap shots at the American Dream saying oh well sure you are rich but are you really living? To which Max replies: of course they are living! The idea that if you are rich you can’t be happy is something that comes from envious people who want to be rich but can’t and this upsets them so they say nasty things about the upper class. The book is a joke. Awful propaganda. Just plain wrong.

Max is capable of taking on the entire literary establishment . . . and winning!

Since I had always thought the novel was just high-gloss melodrama, I was delighted with Max’s take-no-prisoners assault.

The novel does have one truly great line. Jordan Baker says: “Anyhow, he gives large parties. And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.” This remark is worthy of (the often underestimated) Oscar Wilde: while appearing to be just a clever bon mot, it is a deep and useful insight.

But aside from that one line, the novel is forgettable.

Nick says Gatsby “represented everything for which I have unaffected scorn.”

But immediately after that he says: “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.”

The next line is: “No Gatsby turned out all right at the end . . . .”

Much later he says to Gatsby: “They’re a rotten crowd. . . You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

Are any of these (sometimes contradictory) statements true? There is no evidence to support them.

Since Nick (and Fitzgerald) is not being ironic, there can be only one explanation: Nick is gay, finds Gatsby gorgeous and irresistible, and has fallen madly in love with him. He knows down deep that Gatsby is a shallow poseur—thus the “unaffected scorn”—but he is so in love with him that he throws all caution to the wind.

In Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954), Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson), like Tom and Daisy, is a careless rich person. But after he causes a tragedy, he feels remorse for the harm he has done to Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman)—with whom he falls in love—and devotes his life to curing her blindness. His obsession is indeed magnificent.

Gatsby is obsessed with Daisy. But his obsession is not magnificent. It is pathetic.

Fitzgerald did write at least one great novel: The Last Tycoon. And it was made into a truly great film by director Elia Kazan—aided by great acting (particularly by Robert De Niro and Theresa Russell), a first-rate script by Harold Pinter, and a beautiful score by Maurice Jarre.

But The Great Gatsby does not measure up. Of course sometimes a so-so novel can be transformed into a great film. François Truffaut made Shoot the Piano Player from Down There by David Goodis. Hitchcock’s The Birds was based on a thin short story by Daphne Du Maurier. There have been quite a number of films made of The Great Gatsby. Let’s look at three of them and see how they stack up.

Jack Clayton directed the 1974 version with Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, and Sam Waterston. Farrow’s Daisy is just right: glittery with nervous energy but not quite there for anyone. You can see how Gatsby as an inexperienced young man could have become foolishly enchanted with her. Karen Black steals the show with her perfect Myrtle Wilson: so vulnerable and intense and sexy you want to jump into the screen and kiss her all over.

In the 2000 version, director Robert Markowitz is uninspired and so Daisy (Mira Sorvino), Gatsby (Toby Stephens), and Nick (Paul Rudd) never come to life. They seem to be sleepwalking.

But neither version succeeds. They make two fundamental mistakes. They believe the novel is un objet sacré that must be faithfully recreated. And they both present Gatsby as a tragic and heroic figure.

I went to the Baz Luhrmann version (2013) expecting much the same . . . but was pleasantly surprised.

Luhrmann uses the novel as raw material and gives us a Gatsby liberated from itself.

The first half is an exhilarating roller-coaster ride of supersaturated intensity. New York as an explosion of wildness: wild parties at Gatsby’s, wild car rides, and a camera that wildly zooms in and wildly zooms out.

And the music! Luhrmann—freed from any belief that he must use only music from the 20s—makes inspired choices that include songs from today. Here are some of them:

Sia: Kill and Run

Lana del Rey: Young and Beautiful

Coco O. of Quadron: Where the Wind Blows

The Bryan Ferry Orchestra: Love Is the Drug

The xx: Together

Gotye: Hearts a Mess

Jelly Roll Morton: Monrovia

Florence + the Machine: Over the Love

Emeli Sandé and the Bryan Ferry Orchestra: Crazy in Love

All of these are in minor mode, which adds depth and a tinge of loneliness—even at the frenzied parties.

Gatsby shuts down these parties and we move into a quieter moodier second half. This is when we realize that the tragedy is not that Gatsby doesn’t get the girl but that he has spent his whole life trying to win back someone who is empty and mercurial.

The very thing that makes Luhrmann “wrong” is what makes him right: he doesn’t sanctify the love story. He gives us the right interpretation of The Great Gatsby: as a cautionary tale. And doubly so:

1    Nick, in love with Gatsby, writes a story for himself that Gatsby is a sensitive poetic soul when in fact Gatsby is shallow and selfish.

2    Gatsby, dazzled by Daisy, becomes obsessed with her and cannot see she is quite ordinary.

The lesson: we can’t help falling in love but we should realize the truth of that old cliché: all that glitters is not gold.

In addition, the film has beautiful quiet moments rich in feeling.

Baz Luhrmann does not have the magic of the truly gifted directors. But do not be blinded by his over-the-top white-hot intensity into thinking his film is superficial. He comes a lot closer than anyone else to giving us a great Gatsby.

And so in summary:

The Great Gatsby (1974)         C
The Great Gatsby (2000)        D
The Great Gatsby (2013)         B

Hey Max: I think you will like the Baz Luhrmann version. But bring your blow torch just in case!

2   The Return of the Feminine

At the center of The Great Gatsby is Daisy and the deep longing she causes in Jay Gatsby.

But who is Daisy?

I was listening to Lana del Rey and I realized that Lana also is a woman who can cause deep longing.

But Daisy and Lana are opposites. Daisy is not feminine. Lana is deeply feminine.

Femininity is not just being pretty and sexy. It is an internal state of mind in which the woman wants to give herself body and soul to one man.

Like Susan (Claire Forlani) in Meet Joe Black (1998):

Susan: Remember that morning in the coffee shop when you said: “What’s wrong with taking care of a woman? She takes care of you.” . . . and I said “You’d have a hard time finding a woman like that these days.” Well you found one, Joe.

Joe (Brad Pitt): The coffee shop.

Susan: That was the place. And you were the guy. And you said that ahh that you didn’t want me to be your doctor because you didn’t want me to examine you. Well I got to examine you after all. I could come with you. You want me to wait? You’ll come back?

This is not Daisy. She falls for Gatsby but then quickly forgets him and marries Tom. Five years later she goes to Gatsby again but then decides not to leave Tom after all. But she is not really there for either man.

Swinging in the backyard
Pull up in your fast car
Whistling my name

Open up a beer
And you take it over here
And play a video game

I’m in his favorite sun dress
Watching me get undressed
Take that body downtown

I say you the bestest
Lean in for a big kiss
Put his favorite perfume on

Go play a video game

It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you
Everything I do
I tell you all the time
Heaven is a place on earth where you
Tell me all the things you want to do
I heard that you like the bad girls
Honey, is that true?
It’s better than I ever even knew
They say that the world was built for two
Only worth living if somebody is loving you
Baby now you do

Singing in the old bars
Swinging with the old stars
Living for the fame

Kissing in the blue dark
Playing pool and wild darts
Video games

He holds me in his big arms
Drunk and I am seeing stars
This is all I think of

Watching all our friends fall
In and out of Old Paul’s
This is my idea of fun
Playing video games

It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you
Everything I do
I tell you all the time
Heaven is a place on earth where you
Tell me all the things you want to do
I heard that you like the bad girls
Honey, is that true?
It’s better than I ever even knew
They say that the world was built for two
Only worth living if somebody is loving you
Baby now you do

Open, sensitive, tender, vulnerable, filled with deep emotion, and loving with all her heart: she is pure femininity.

How real is Lana? Are these sentiments coming from her own soul. I believe they are.

“I felt inspired to write about I don’t know just the same theme I had been writing about for a while which was umm just about this guy I had been seeing and the way our relationship was at the time. You know it was just a time in my life when I had let go of my own personal career ambitions and just enjoyed being with him at home when he’d come home from work and play video games. And I would write while I watched him. So I think when I wrote that song I was just reflecting on like the sweetness of it but also the fact that there was something else I was longing for at the same time.

“It’s a five-minute-and-twenty-second love ballad. There are no drums in it. Umm I mean it’s umm like thematically it feels personal to me so I wouldn’t have thought that that would be the song that people responded to although it’s a gift for someone like me because umm like melodically and thematically it is a perfect representation of me. so it’s nice.”

So Lana del Rey is not faking it. She sings and talks with no irony. She has the magic.

But critics across the country—from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times—have been vicious in their scorn:

What could produce this much venom? I feel sure it is Lana’s femininity. The hipsters hate her for that.

Daisy and Lana are two women who look similar on the surface but are radical opposites inside.

Jodi Arias was tried and convicted of murder when Gatsby was playing in the theaters.

The evidence against her seemed flimsy to me, so on that basis alone I would have acquitted her.

But what struck me was how much hate she engendered in the media.

After watching her testify (it is all on YouTube), she consistently struck me as a woman of—to use what Nick says of Gatsby—heightened sensitivity.

Jodi is like Lana del Rey: she is completely feminine.

I am convinced that had she been a Daisy, Jodi would not have been convicted.

Evidently in these times being feminine makes many people intensely angry. This I believe was the unstated and unforgivable crime for which Jodi had to be punished.

But femininity—like innocence (1)—can never be destroyed. It can be forced underground temporarily, but inevitably it will resurface.

I believe we are witnessing the return of the feminine. Lana del Rey and Jodi Arias are two early expressions of this natural necessity.

(1)    It was Whit Stillman who said this about innocence:

“There was a period when Quiz Show came out and Robert Redford was always being quoted about ‘the loss of innocence’ which is all very journalistic and convenient. But innocence is constantly renewed, it’s quite strong. Innocence and idealism may not be lost. There is not some moment in time when they disappear.”

©    Richard Hobby

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