Interpreting Gatsby

by Jim Fletcher The Baz Luhrmann film The Great Gatsby comes on like a celebrity, because the book is a celebrity. Some books want to be celebrities in their own right and this one did it, up from humble beginnings which it will never completely transcend, apparently. In that sense it's the Jay Gatsby of books. The Jay-Z. Celebrities are not ponderous. I was moved early on in the film simply because I was seeing Daisy. Daisy from The Great Gatsby. The Great Daisy. The book is a star. People admit that it's absolutely gorgeous, even if they contend that it's not great writing. The same way they say about a screen idol, for example Liz Taylor—not always great acting but always gorgeous. When something is gorgeous, it doesn't matter whether it's great in the other way... A great novelist complained that Gatsby is written in blank verse rather than in a real music of prose. It wears a pink suit. The going opinion on Baz Luhrmann's movie is similar—gorgeous, if not a great film.

Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction — Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. 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. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament.”— it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.

I am curious why this novel still gets commented on condescendingly by discerning readers, as it always has. I feel sure there's a reason for it. Is it because it stays resolutely in the language of the magazine, the social language, what is for sale, colloquial, artificial? People are careful to distance themselves from it, while admiring it. My personal feeling is that I know of no better book. It is extravagantly musical prose, but that music is easy, flawless, varied, and comes from an apparently unending source. The fact that it gets in beneath the radar of high literature, if compared to the work of Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, Hemingway, Richard Wright—some of Fitzgerald's contemporaries—only lends this book more speed and flash and efficiency, wit, a kind of escape velocity that keeps it young and slightly out of our hands.

It's a story about a straight-minded, open-minded upper-middle-class Midwestern guy who gets stained a bright pink, by love, in spite of himself. It's about Nick getting a retroactive hardon for Gatsby's hardon, which, yes, is focused on Daisy but includes everything around her—that is, everything—in its sweep. When Gatsby says to Nick of Tom Buchanan, “ I don't trust him, old sport,” one feels this is a momentous interdiction, reserved for very few in this world. When he allows, near the end, that Daisy may have loved Tom at some point, he has to add that it was “just for a minute,” and further, that “it was just personal.” Gatsby is ecstatic about flowers, hydroplanes, yellow cars, telephones, motorboats, electric citrus presses, his fellow soldiers, people who crucially helped him when he needed it, and above all about Daisy, his north star, who didn't really need him, but who needed something that was wonderful to him. It's a Platonic book, if one remembers that Plato's hero was also an erotic ecstatic, named Socrates, who, like Gatsby, grew up the son of poor farmers, then too served with distinction in the military, and as well was later killed basically for declining the option of leaving town. In both cases this background doesn’t go very far in explaining who or what they are. But again, the hero of this book is not Gatsby, nor Nick, but maybe the immense love between them that rises up unnoticed, another guest at this surge of unprecedented life forms and energies hatching at West Egg and other eggs laid by that Great Speckled Bird, the Great War. Think about the Harlem Renaissance, Marcus Garvey, the music, unapologetic sensuality, and the political rising up that simply would not take no for an answer. This is where Luhrmann's decision to feature Jay-Z, and the Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, and other global pop forces, is exta-cinematic and exhilarating, and a good substitute for the written wit that can be found in every line of the novel, even in its most tragic, sentimental, or its stillest passages.

Unfortunately for the movie, this wit, or the cinematic equivalent of it—the comic book style of delivery, the use of narrated voice-over as a kind of literal and perverse generator of imagery in movie-time, the incredible choreography of spectacle whenever more than four people are present—goes extinct, like an ice-age hit it, at around the point where the novel reads,

It was when curiosity about Gatsby was at its highest that the lights in his house failed to go on one Saturday night--and, as obscurely as it had begun, his career as Trimalchio was over.

At which point, in the movie, we are stuck with the working out of the story from a revealed Gatsby's point of view. Gatsby is treated like a character among characters, and the story becomes a playing out of his and Daisy's backstory and the inexorable confrontation with material reality.

But the novel does not stop being funny or splendid here, just because the parties have ceased. There will still be the policeman at the scene of the wreck, which is also a kind of party—Tom is happy when he first sees it—said policeman trying impossibly to spell an eyewitness's impossible name (this is on p.146); there will be Klipspringer calling to retrieve his tennis shoes after Gatsby's murder, saying he’s “sort of helpless without them”; and Gatsby's father arriving unexpectedly at the mansion and reading, aloud to Nick, the young Gatz's old scribbled daily resolves, basically over Gatsby's dead body. There will be the letter from Wolfsheim after he heard Gatsby was killed, and the face-to-face meeting later where Wolfsheim tells Nick: “When I was a young man it was different—if a friend of mine died, no matter how, I stuck with them to the end. You may think that's sentimental but I mean it—to the bitter end.” The book is always aware of itself as a book, and is able to bear its burden lightly. Gatsby is shot while floating in his swimming pool. The shot doesn't knock him off his air mattress, nor cause it to sink.

Maybe what happens is, when they make movies of it, they feel obliged to land, to finish with a healthy dose of significance and substance, with weight. But the audience can provide that on their own, in superabundance, and don’t need more of it on top of what they themselves bring. Sing the song, keep singing until it’s done, and when it’s over, stop singing. Maybe the movie-makers get seduced into thinking that the great thing about this book is the parties, the social energy, opulence, old money versus new money, etc., in which case the book should have ended at its actual halfway point. I don't know. But one good test of a Gatsby adaptation is to ask yourself: was this funny at any point... and did that stop happening at any point, and if it did, why? Maybe there's an idea that once Gatsby is exposed as a penniless guy from Lake Superior whose parents were "shiftless and unsuccessful farm people," and who was allowed into Oxford because he distinguished himself in uniform during World War I, a guy who eventually made his fortune by strictly illegal and unsavory, possibly violent means, it's enough then, since we know everything about him, to focus in on his personal emotions, and his personal need for Nick to help him in his intensely personal quest for Daisy.

In the book however, Gatsby is always connected to something unutterable, appalling, incommunicable, incorruptible, to use some of Fitzgerald’s terms. Something Tom Buchanan would not find in his background checks, because Tom doesn’t believe a word Gatsby says. This ‘something’ predates Gatsby’s meeting Daisy, and it doesn't stop when he stops giving parties, nor after Myrtle Wilson is killed by the speeding yellow car with Daisy driving. He is consistent, constant, an incarnation, more of a force or an entity than a character. If character is defined as a knowable dramatic entity that undergoes definable change in the course of a story, then Gatsby is more of a blank, a vacuum, a cipher of some sort, a nobody, Mr. Nobody from Nowhere as Tom Buchanan correctly calls him, or, as Nick sums him up quite economically, ‘the man who gives his name to this book.’ If you try to make him into a character (which is, understandably, Tom Buchanan’s avowed mission, in order to destroy him) you may do some damage, but you will tend to be always two steps behind, i.e. in Tom’s case, turning garages back into stables.

He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.

… that is, Gatsby's incarnation, not Daisy's… Becoming flesh.

If you as a director or performer are going to interpret him, why not go the extra mile and take what he says at face value and see what that leads to? Take a cue from your unconscious. A hypnotist told me once before attempting to hypnotize me that his intention was to speak to my unconscious. He said the unconscious believes everything it sees and hears. I was impressed that we should have such a thing inside us, and that it could survive, and be centrally involved. Believing things like Gatsby’s “Why of course you can!” in response to Nick’s protest that you can’t repeat the past, or his earnest offer to Nick after making a date to test out the new hydroplane, “If you want anything, just ask for it old sport,” or his cryptic complaint about Daisy that “… she doesn’t understand. She used to be able to understand…,” or his repeatedly assuring Daisy during the argument with Tom “Just tell him the truth—that you never loved him—and it’s all wiped out forever.” How does it add up? Believe it first. Give it truth value. And let the reality adjust to that, or let there be gaps in the reality field because of it. Why wouldn’t you? Because it’s implausible? The other option is to disbelieve Gatsby’s or Fitzgerald’s statements, to conclude that you know what this entity does not know, and to condescend to the character, e.g., to think him at best sympathetic but delusional—poor Gatsby. This is a dreary path… we’ve seen enough people try to take that one all the way. It doesn’t go all the way. If you affirm Gatsby's convictions first, as a premise, and let that inform who he is, as needed, as it comes up, then we're getting somewhere and the book can proceed as if on wings.

Mind you this approach can apply to all the dramatis personae in The Great Gatsby. It doesn’t mean they’ll be agreeing with each other…. See what happens, every go-round. But in Gatsby’s case this approach is particularly spelled out, as a kind of technical model, and is central to what he is and what he is not, in the book.

The great value of narrative is that, like a moon vehicle, it can start from premises, or meanings, known things, and proceed from there. It’s our way to get further. Into what, we don’t know. It doesn’t end with meanings, it starts with them, and goes from there. And what happens, is what it ends with.

In my younger and more vulnerable years I read a book by Isaac Asimov called Please Explain, which consists of selections from his syndicated newspaper column “Isaac Asimov Explains,” in which he would answer science questions put to him by readers. One of them was a physics question: What is the result when an irresistable force meets an immoveable object? I don’t remember what his answer was, but I remember the feeling of it. It was an active answer—it didn’t surrender to the paradox of the proposed situation. In a way, The Great Gatsby is also an active answer to this same question. The result is this book, which has zero mass, which is a nothing, and is able to remain a nothing against increasing odds, and without withdrawing, where to be something would mean destruction. So Luhrmann’s cinematic conceit of Nick as author of a typewritten “patient’s journal” titled Gatsby, which he later emends, by fountain pen, as the last image of the movie, to The Great Gatsby, is great. It is able to say, or at least suggest, The Great Gatsby is a movie about a book.

Appendix: the first several minutes of the film:

Opening: Black-and-white “JG” art-deco metallic-looking logo. Distressed film print look, period jazz sound complete with record scratches, clarinet, slow. Music takes on a contemporary synthesizer tone, the green light theme music, 3D effects begin, “JG” grill turns to color and recedes to the image of the distant green light seen from across water. Voiceover, in the tone of someone reading, as from a comic-book, much-changed version of the novel's opening passage. Water now being snowed upon. Cut to grand palatial mansion behind floating ice: looks like it could be JG's home but is actually: The Perkins Sanitorium. Voiceover: “...all of us drank too much... the more in tune with the time we were, the more we drank... and none of us contributed anything new. When I came back from New York, I was disgusted.” Close-up on printed page of a patient's hospital record: Morbidly alcoholic... insomniac... fits of anger... anxiety. VO: “He was the single most hopeful person I've ever met... and am ever likely to meet again.” Wood-panelled asylum walls. Fire in fireplace. Snow outside. Nick looking out. “I met him...” Transform to: “ a party in New York, Summer of 1922.” Jay-Z beat, Big Apple, aerial view, fast, archival footage of manic Wall Street activity. Bright red bi-plane doing a high spin (3-D), plane's POV plunging down the entire length of the Empire State Building to halt at close-up of Nick on sidewalk formally and exuberantly greeting camera by taking his straw bowler hat off. End of introductory sequence.

Exposition narration: voiceover linked playfully and with high-paced visuals: “At Yale I dreamed of being a writer” = Nick while moving picks up hardback copy of Joyce's Ulysses off a stack of printed matter in his bungalow. “But I gave all that up” = Puts Ulysses back down, still moving. Non-Long Island-looking trees and landscape passing for Long Island (New Zealand? Ivy-covered larches?) “I had planned to spend the summer studying” = Nick sitting on porch with open book. “Were it not for the riotous amusements that beckoned” = two young women in bathing costumes jumping out of an open-air car laughing, one of them actually beckoning before running off behind the other. Peek of Gatsby's ring finger, cuff and hand, from indoors, above, holding his curtain aside, reticently exposing himself. End of West Egg intro.

Sweeping camera flight across the bay, through a set of white sails, to East Egg, Tom's mansion. Airborne grand shot of Tom approaching his mansion on horseback. French horn music, soaring, Disney-type sweep, plus phone ringing, plus Tom makes a last shot with the polo mallet. Black servant catches the mallet while a white servant takes the horse as Tom leaps off. A white and a Black servant attend his talking on the phone, one holds a drink for him, two white servants attending the inner sanctum of sporting trophies. Tom slaps Nick on the back boisterously “Hey! Shakespeare!” Talk talk talk, trophies, trophies. Tom throws a football to Nick (in 3D) “Life is something you dominate, Nick, if you're any good!” Tom charges at Nick with a rough manly laugh as if to tackle him, pushes him through gigantic double doors into an airy, curtained sun room. Many layers of gossamer soft white fabric blowing in large airy motion. White female arm appears up from the back of a luxurious couch. Diamond bracelet glinting colors, 3D, Nick enthralled. Female giggle, laugh, and sigh. Tom shuts the door, the wind dies down. Close-up on Daisy's eyes. She introduces “Jordan Baker: a very famous golfer.” Both ladies stunning, Daisy more plain and fresh, Jordan urbane and long and stylish and brunette, with simple but striking pressed hair style.... “Gatsby? What Gatsby?” says Daisy as the French butler approaches and says “Madame, the dinner is serving.”

Begin dinner scene: Windows open again, curtains alive w breeze. Choreographed appearance of servants in formal tails, in synchronous motion a la Busby Berkely or other great MGM spectacles of choreography. Disjointed collage of dinner dialogue from the book. Tom: “Civilization's going to pieces... The Rise of the Colored Empires... or these other races will get control of things” as he motions toward the Black servants present. Telephone rings. Big phallic cigar. Wilson's call regarding the car. Black servants hovering with towels on arms. Elaborate choreography of servants opening three grand windows/doors simultaneously to expose other servants within, grand, circular sweep of people as Nick and Daisy go out onto the French-style garden with paved walks. Moving camera passes by rosebushes, marble pedestals, and moving servants in the foreground. Lively rhythm of dialogue with motion of camera and cuts. Daisy: “A beautiful little fool... all the precious things fade so fast”... camera sweeps through the green light on her dock, across the water again back to Gatsby's side of the bay, night time, “... and they don't come back...” See the obscured, dark figure of Gatsby on his own dock, from behind, walking forward to regard the green light.

Back to Perkins Sanitorium. Nick at the window with his finger to the cold frosted glass. "The green light." "I don't want to talk about this, doctor." "Then write about it.” Doctor produces a bound book of blank pages titled, “Patient's Journal.” “Write it down. A memory. A thought. A place.” Now begin the cursive writing across the screen that will later become typewriting as the account picks up steam. Lots of written words and sentences onscreen in this movie. First line of Nick's writing: “The Valley of Ashes was a grotesque place...” with imagery of men digging with pick-axes appearing alongside the hand-written words.


Jim Fletcher played in every full-length performance of Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, a five-and-a-half hour stage production whose script consists of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in its entirety.