First things first. The critics who panned the film weren’t entirely wrong. A masterpiece “The Great Gatsby” is not.
For starters, the narrative device used to frame the story—Nick Carraway writing a book about Gatsby from a mental home—was pedantic, heavy-handed, and way beyond Toby McGuire’s emotional range. “Exposition for idiots” was how I described it afterwards. And even that might not be giving enough credit to the idiots, whom I’m pretty sure didn’t need to be explicitly told that the 1920s were a time when life was fast and loose, given that the next two hours were devoted to demonstrating that fact.
Then, there was the acting. Imagine a Gatsby, Nick, and Daisy as rendered by P.G. Wodehouse and a decent college theatre department. Now say a prayer for poor F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose book deserved a much better cast than it got.
All that being said, I didn’t hate the movie. I actually enjoyed it. It was beautiful to watch, overwhelmingly faithful to the book, and the soundtrack, which fused 1920s Jazz with the stylings of Jay-Z, totally worked. Seriously. I can’t believe I’m saying that either. But it did.
In fact, it did more than work. Jay-Z’s music bridged a century, making audible the connections between the world of 1922 and the world of 2013, connections that so many twenty-somethings, wittingly or unwittingly, seem to see.
A Tale of Two Worlds
The film, like the book, shows a world powered by greed, electrified by sex, and running like hell from grief. That world doesn’t want to remember the trenches of Verdun or the shores of Gallipoli. It doesn’t want to ask why millions of young men had to die or what good came from their deaths. By 1922, all searches for meaning in the madness of World War I had come back empty. So people stopped searching. Instead they started grasping—at pleasure, at excitement, at anything that promised to distract them from the wounds they bore within them.
“The Great Gatsby” makes that world incarnate. It also makes incarnate an age of unprecedented wealth, of clothes and cars and cheap electricity. In 1922, almost everything could be had for a price. The age of the consumer had begun, and along with it, the growing belief among the middle class that luxury could be had without work.
At the center of that world, embodying it all, stands Gatsby, a romantic, a dreamer, a man who thinks himself “the son of God” and who believes his destiny is to climb as high as the stars, always moving upwards, capable of anything, even repeating the past.
How could that not speak to twenty-somethings?
Today’s under-30 crowd has grown up in an age of endless war—wars in deserts abroad and in the culture at home. Those wars have left many of them wounded, in soul if not body. Those same wars also have left Millennials cynical about politics and cynical about love. Irony is the spirit of the age.
With all those wounds and all that cynicism, the Millennials know, far too young, what it is to run from grief, drink away confusion, and settle for sex when real love can’t be found. They’ve been to the parties and danced the dances. Or they’ve watched their friends dance them. They also know, in a way T.S. Eliot couldn’t have fathomed, what it means to be “distracted from distraction by distraction.”
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Likewise, today’s twenty-somethings know excess. Forget the Lost Generation. No generation before the Millennials has had as much or had it so quickly. They have never known a world without Amazon One-Click or iTunes. They have lived the whole of their existence as consumers, swimming in a sea of stuff.
Last but not least, like Gatsby, Millennials want to shine. In fact, as a generation, they believe they were made to shine. No demographic in the world scores as high on the narcissism index (yes, that’s a real thing) as Millennials. What Gatsby came by naturally has been instilled in them through the instant fame promised by Reality TV, and two decades of “I am special” curricula in schools.
In sum, Gatsby’s world is our world … albeit with fewer smart phones and better clothes.
Accordingly, whether they’re wounded or witnesses to wounds, consumers or critics of consumerism, dreamers who believe in love or skeptics grown cynical from disappointed love, there’s something in “The Great Gatsby” to which just about every Millennial can relate. It’s the story of their generation, almost as much as it is the story of their great-great grandparents’ generation, albeit in a more elegant package (which itself is another reason for its appeal—most Millennials only regular encounter with elegance being a MacBook Pro).
The Witness of Gatsby
The connections between the two ages is a connection easily made. No question about that. There is a question, however, about what lesson Millennials are drawing from the movie.