May 24, 2013
The appearance of yet another film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "The Great Gatsby” provides the occasion for reflecting on what many consider the great American novel.
Those who are looking for a thorough review of the movie itself will have to look elsewhere, I’m afraid. I will say only this about the movie: I think that Baz Luhrmann’s version is better than the sleepy 1974 incarnation, and I would say that Leonardo DiCaprio makes a more convincing Gatsby than Robert Redford. But I want to focus, not so much on the techniques of the filmmaker, as on the genius of the writer who gave us the story.
F. Scott Fitzgerald belonged to that famously “lost” generation of artists and writers, which included Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Ford Madox Ford, and others. Having come of age during the First World War, these figures saw, in some cases at close quarters, the worst that human beings can do to one another, and they witnessed as well the complete ineffectuality of the political and religious institutions of the time to deal with the horrific crisis into which the world had stumbled. Consequently, they felt themselves adrift, without a clear moral compass; lost. Hemingway’s novels—and his own personal choices—showed one way to deal with this problem, namely, to place oneself purposely in dangerous situations so as to stir up a sense of being alive. This explains Hemingway’s interests in deep-sea fishing, big game hunting, battling Nazis, and above all, bull-fighting. Scott Fitzgerald explored another way that people coped with the spiritual emptiness of his time, and his deftest act of reportage was The Great Gatsby.
As the novel commences, we meet Tom and Daisy Buchanan, two denizens of East Egg, a town on Long Island where “old money” resides. Ensconced in a glorious mansion, wearing the most fashionable clothes, surrounded by servants, and in the company of the most “beautiful” people, Tom and Daisy are, nevertheless, utterly bored, both with themselves and their relationship. While Daisy languishes and frets, Tom is carrying on a number of illicit love affairs with women from both the upper and lower echelons of the social order. One of the more affecting scenes in the Baz Luhrmann film depicts Tom and a gaggle of his hangers-on whiling away an afternoon and evening in a rented Manhattan apartment. In the aftermath, they are all drunk, sexually sated, and obviously miserable.