Gatsby on Screen

May 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Baz Luhrmann’s treatment of The Great Gatsby requires a bit more letting go than we tend to grant most screen adaptations. This is not just due to Luhrmann’s reputation as a hyper-electrifier, prone to deploying all the effects tools he’s given to play with. Gatsby is a richly polished novel, delicately written in so many places that it is easy to damage, and already worked over so ritually that we feel more urgent to protect our angles to it.

Luhrmann can’t be accused of deviating too much from the text, because so much of the film is the text. We literally hear Tobey Maguire, as Nick Carraway, recite lines from the novel to us, and key words are scrolled over the picture in cursive to punctuate the important parts. The one big conceit we’re asked to forgive is that Nick, not F. Scott Fitzgerald, is writing these words—on the advice of the psychiatrist to whom his testimony comprises the narration we hear. Nick Carraway, our bewildered observer, has apparently been driven to drink, and being the wingman and sole defender of his wealthy monomaniac neighbor has made him that way.

Luhrmann has tried to make a movie that is as elegant and opulent as the story it tries to tell, but rarely lets the camera hold still enough for us to bask in that opulence. There are pearls swinging around dancing necks; delicate fingers pinching martini glasses. From our helicopter vantage point the party floor at Gatsby’s mansion looks a little like a mosh pit. Part of this is the 3-D angle (why that was deemed necessary is anyone’s guess; when Gatsby’s shirts are tossed around they are meant to land on top of us); the rest smacks of a threatened boredom with the inner narrative. But while the effects are showoffy, it is hard to call them contrived when the movie is about a man doing all he can to show off.

And there are the symbols. We are already hypersensitive to them, so having them weighed on us is embarrassing. Gatsby reaches his arm out for the green light across the bay, nearly plucking it like an unripe apple off a tree. We practically choke on the ash rising up from the heaps whenever we pass them coming to or from West Egg. T. J. Eckleburg’s blue eyes pierce through his lenses and the rotted wood so intently we expect them to blink. It is as though Luhrmann is trying very hard to prove to us that he read the assignment and checked off all the avenues of comprehension on which he might be tested before presenting his diorama to the class.

We are asked to overlook a few of the slicker details. The character of Klipspringer, in the novel a boarder occasionally roused out of slumber to entertain guests on the piano, here is for some reason chained to a built-in, two-story pipe organ that seems to be giving him an electric shock. At The Atlantic, Esther Zuckerman notes that the scene in which Gatsby and Nick cross the Queensboro Bridge didn’t include the funeral procession that passed them:

The friends looked out at us with the tragic eyes and short upper lips of south-eastern Europe and I was glad that the sight of Gatsby’s splendid car was included in their somber holiday.

While the Jay-Z soundtrack pumps along, African-American servants stare like gargoyles out of the woodwork, or play serenading trumpets on window ledges over the steaming streets.

Then there are the actors, against whom I came in with a bias. Tobey Maguire will always look and sound like a fourteen-year-old to me; Leonardo DiCaprio, his face compressed and rubberized over the years since he was that homeless kid in Growing Pains, just doesn’t pull off millionaire polish well; and this Carey Mulligan, with her big, frightened eyes, eliminates any chance of complexity in the character of Daisy. At times, this Great Gatsby feels like a very expensive school play.

And yet, there are so many worse things one could do to a story. No morals were upstaged, no fates rerouted. (I could never understand why Gatsby let Tom take his car for the ride to the city—or for that matter, why Tom let Gatsby take Daisy.) Seeing the film made me want to pull out my beat-up Scriber paperback—with Matthew Bruccoli’s annotations, purchased for a summer reading assignment in high school—and read the novel again, take a fresh inventory of its lyrics and images. We have been presented the excuse as a gift.

What I Read in April

May 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

Slow reading month, because I’ve had the workshop (mentioned below, more about which later) and other things going on.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark. A used bookstore pickup from back whenever. There haven’t been nearly enough women authors on my reading list (and picking a dead one doesn’t do much to improve my score, I realize). But Spark seems to be coming up in conversations a lot recently, particularly in my writer circles, regarding her reputation for clean, icy prose.

Spark was born Muriel Camberg and retained the name of her first husband, with whom she had a brief and miserable marriage, because it had “some ingredient of life and fun.” There is a good deal of mischief in Miss Jean Brodie. The title character is a teacher at an all-girls private school who has tossed aside the assigned curriculum (even training the students to have textbooks open in front of them, should the headmistress walk in) in favor of a coordinated effort to groom the “crème de la crème” of her class on more important matters of sex, politics, art, manners, and independence.

The girls graduate to Senior School but keep in close touch with their teacher. As Brodie acquires two suitors—one-armed married art teacher Mr. Lloyd and bachelor music instructor Mr. Lowther—the obsession of the girls with Miss Brodie’s sex life turns the focus around to her. Her former lover, Hugh, had been killed in the Great War, a week before the Armistice. Through a narrative method that intersperses future scenes with the present, we learn that one of her pupils will betray her somehow.

The story is of an era (published in 1962, set in 1930s Edinburgh), finding part of its energy in the mock-theatrical pronouncements of its characters:

“I should like you girls to come to supper tomorrow night,” Miss Brodie said. “Make sure you are free.”

“The Dramatic Society…” murmured Jenny.

“Send an excuse,” said Miss Brodie. “I have to consult you about a new plot which is afoot to force me to resign. Needless to say, I shall not resign.” She spoke calmly as she always did in spite of her forceful words.

Miss Brodie never discussed her affairs with the other members of the staff, but only with those former pupils who she had trained up in her confidence. There had been previous plots to remove her from Blaine, which had been foiled.

“It has been suggested again that I apply for a post at one of the progressive schools, where my methods would be more suited to the system than they are at Blaine. But I shall not apply to a post at a crank school. I shall remain at this education factory. There needs must be a leaven in the lump. Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.”

Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Brody. A dense critical biography of the pioneering, enigmatic French New Wave director. Brody is a New Yorker film critic whose specialty is mid-century auteur cinema, so you are more likely to find his writings online or in the retrospective capsules at the front of the magazine than the Critics section, where Lane and Denby reign. Everything Is Cinema took Brody ten years to write; the painstaking research put into the book (Godard himself granted Brody one interview, over the course of two days, from his castle home in Switzerland) is supplemented by thoughtful critiques of the work on the screen.

Each chapter is devoted to one or more films, telling us of the inspiration for each, the financing, the recruiting of cast and crew (increasingly tricky as more and more bridges are burned), the difficulties in shooting. Godard often didn’t write scripts until the last minute—this is why whole scenes of Bande a Part consist of Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur reading the newspaper—and seemed bent on making his actors as uncomfortable in front of the camera as possible for the sake of not appearing rehearsed. Brody doesn’t play favorites with the material, nor the films, and as a result the second half of the book is an uphill climb. This isn’t so much Brody’s fault as it is Godard’s. By the time the director completes Weekend, in 1967, the majority of his best (and best-known) work is behind us and we still have some 300 pages to go. Fortunately, a thick chapter on Malraux, Henri Langlois, the ’68 student revolution and the closing of the Cinemateque Francaise helps to orient things somewhat on a social and political level.

Godard is a misogynist, and, in a challenge for someone whose art requires him to direct our attention to other people on a screen, a narcissist. All three of his wives (Anna Karina, Anne Wiazemsky, Anne-Marie Miéville) have been centrally featured in his work, and the times he has turned the camera on himself, either directly or indirectly, it is not with any of the coyness or amusement of Woody Allen or Alfred Hitchcock. Brody is polite about all of this while making it easy for us to draw our own conclusions.

I can watch À bout de souffle and Bande à part and Masculin féminin over and over again and find new things to be enthralled about. But nothing in this book made me want to see any more of the films than the ones I have already seen, perhaps with the exception of Detective. As a work of biographical and critical journalism, I suppose this should not matter, but I suspect it would be a disappointment to Brody.

See also: “Behind the Scenes of an Iconic Godard Scene,” from Brody’s The Front Row blog, 5 April 2013.

Barrelhouse #11. A thickly loaded issue, with ten short stories, four essays, an eclectic collection of poetry, and a comic by Jordan Jeffries that illustrates another story, “Me & Gin” by Lindsay Hunter, that appears on the magazine’s web site. I read this issue with particular interest as I am currently enrolled in the Barrelhouse Online Fiction Workshop, and as discussion there has touched upon what kinds of stories are likely to get picked up for publication over others, it has been tempting to try to identify the giveaway areas, which parts clearly sold the editors on these choices.

There is a lot of rambunctious narration here, fiction as well as non, and on more than one occasion I had to flip back to confirm if a piece was essay or fiction because the authority of the writing blurred the line. A nonfiction piece by Casey Wiley, “You Are All Welcome Here (Unless, Of Course, You Take Photos),” documents the far-out tattooed and obsessedly remaining-in-character individuals who frequent the Stoogeum, the world’s only museum devoted entirely to the Three Stooges, located in a nondescript office park in Ambler, Pennsylvania. I also enjoyed Edward Porter’s second-person-narrated “The White Guy’s Guide to Marrying a Black Woman” and Ethan Chatagnier’s “Oyster Shell,” with the first line: “I drive the retards to the library is what I do.”

The voice in Chatagnier’s line here, with that wraparound “is what I do” at the end, reminds me of that of Jack Keefe, the letter-writing busher pitcher in Ring Lardner’s You Know Me, Al, for some reason. Its weight is not an accident. Barrelhouse bolds the first line of each of its stories, as though to emphasize the importance of plunging the reader into a situation immediately. Other examples:

The first rule is, never mention she’s black to your white friends, or your family. (“The White Guy’s Guide to Marrying a Black Woman”)

As a kid I had a perpetual cowlick and a meager collection of autographs I kept in an envelope in the back of my underwear drawer. (“Smear the Queer,” Dave Madden)

The man says he doesn’t even know the stripper’s name. (“Let’s See What Happens,” Amy Butcher)

You’ll never hear me claim to be exceptionally smart, and I’m nowhere near good-looking, and my moral compass, so I’ve been told, points roughly in the same direction as that of Idi Amin’s. (“Young Arsonists in Love,” Andrew Brimstool; not sure if the redundant possessive is deliberate here, but it sounds true.)

The first guy has “Why Scointly!” tattooed to the back of his neck.  (“You Are All Welcome Here (Unless, Of Course, You Take Photos)”).

I picked up Issue 8 along with the collection Bring the Noise at AWP, but at some point I will need to come back to this one.

Where Am I?

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