Baz Luhrmann’s new adaptation of The Great Gatsby is not, it is fair to say, great.
It is, however, timely, and if it does no more than convince a generation screwed by a stalled economy to take a deeper look at F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic it will have done a lot of good.
The story of a young bond salesman and his fabulously wealthy neighbour and friends, their affairs and petty snobberies and brutalities seems to resonate today, as the news reminds us all too often that Wall Streeters have recovered from the economic collapse they caused just fine, while the rest of us keep up the struggle.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby and Carey Mulligan’s Daisy Buchanan are a perfect, glimmering Jazz Age couple, loaded and gorgeous and star-crossed, and their story always looks different from the far side of economic collapse. Because much as Luhrmann wants to make it so, Fitzgerald did not set out to write a cautionary tale about crooked bankers. Instead, he was writing a far more subtle critique of Americans’ worship of wealth and the way that wealth always betrays us, and he created the personification of that wealth in Daisy, who marries old money and cheats on him with new money – but returns, of course, to old money in the end.
Mulligan, the best actor of the cast by far, gives us a different Daisy Buchanan than we are used to – in fact she brings to mind nothing so much as Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, another film about a woman trapped in the world of wealth who resorts to spending to make up for living in a world where her husband can get away with anything (including, if not murder, at least incitement to it) and she can do nothing but be decorative. “A beautiful little fool,” Daisy says, is what it is best for a woman to be, and she does her best to live up to it.
A voice ‘full of money’
But between the lines, as great actresses have for at least a hundred years, Mulligan gives Daisy an inner life that Fitzgerald never really granted her. Mulligan makes of her more than just a manic pixie dream girl, more than the manic pixie dream girl that Gatsby of course wants her to be. He has spent five years creating her in his mind and the reality is not so simple even if Fitzgerald’s Daisy is a glitteringly simple creature. Which ironically serves to drive home the point even harder that it is not really her that Gatsby loves. As Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress notes, he is so obsessed with the trappings of doing it right that he does it all wrong, over and over again, that every display of ostentatious wealth that is supposed to be an expression of love for her is not really what she wants.
It is a question of class: no matter how much money Gatsby has, he will never be accepted as truly Daisy’s equal. One of the lines that Luhrmann added – it is not in the book – is Gatsby proclaiming that it is only money that makes Tom Buchanan special, and he is now got just as much money so why isn’t he as special? And the answer is, of course, class (curiously, Luhrmann does not include the best line in the book – about Daisy having a voice “full of money”). Because Gatsby wears pink suits and throws the wrong parties, as Rosenberg notes, and also because he made his money the wrong way, through the wrong kind of shady activity. Because Gatsby, as Rosenberg points out, is the ancestor of one of our more recent pop culture anti-antiheroes, Stringer Bell of HBO’s The Wire, the drug dealer who wants desperately to just be a good capitalist and can never quite get there.
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Avon Barksdale may end up in jail, but Bell ends up dead, because he cannot really escape the streets, and the moral of the story in both Bell’s and Gatsby’s cases is that the system they so deeply believe in will always keep shifting the ground under them so that they cannot really, actually win. That it is not just race in Bell’s case that keeps him down – the politicians and fixers shaking him down for ever-more cash are often black, too – and it is not that his activities are illegal, because everyone pocketing his bribes is also committing a crime. It is that he grew up poor and came up on the streets and he had to hustle to make his money, that he is more honest a capitalist than any of the rest of them, who like to pretend that privilege is a thing that happened to them because they deserved it and keep up that facade as they politely close door after door in his face.
Gatsby, like Bell, makes too obvious the fact that he likes money, needs it, because as anyone who has ever been broke knows, money never looks so good as when you have done without it, and the only people who can drop out of capitalism are the ones already rich.
The art of black performers
It is interesting, too, that Jay-Z (in his Shawn Carter businessman guise) executive produced this film, that besides sprinkling it with hip-hop, he was involved in the production as well. Because Carter managed, as was pointed out in the New York Times‘ piece on the gentrification of hip-hop Brooklyn this weekend, to succeed where Gatsby (and Stringer Bell) failed, to make it from hustler to star to entrepreneur, to get the dream girl and have, as they say, “it all”. But no matter how perfect Jay-Z and Beyonce are, their every move is scrutinised in the media, their travels and clothing choices subject to an all-encompassing surveillance that says, “You don’t belong here”.
Hip-hop and jazz provide the soundtrack and the thematic link between the time periods; America before the financial collapse loved the ostentatious wealth of its newly minted hip-hop stars even if the occasional story of the tension between rappers and their more genteel neighbours did hit the news. The film perhaps aimed to show the way white partiers like Gatsby appreciated the art of black performers and fetishised their bodies, but winds up reproducing problematic dynamics even when it attempts to undermine them (Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s Jewish gangster comrade, is played by Bollywood star – and former politician – Amitabh Bachchan).
But despite the movie’s flaws, the story of Gatsby resonates with so many of us because we all feel, constantly, that we cannot win. We know deep down that the system is rigged and we are often tempted to want to rig it back. To get, just for a little while, that big house and to throw those big parties and to fall in a kind of love that is worth waiting five years and remaking your whole life for. And we know, too, that it will not really happen, because even if we did get there we would be forced back out again. Gatsby could not end any other way than dead in his beautiful swimming pool. Stringer Bell was always going to go out in a hail of bullets. We know the ending before we get to the end.
That is why we feel for Gatsby even though he is pretty awful (everyone in the text is, even more so in Fitzgerald’s original words). That is why this story matters now, once again, as we see the rich throwing lavish parties without us, as we all feel like Gatsby, reaching for the green light across the water, knowing deep down that the green light is something we have made up.
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