humiliation of my towels

p. 95:

Daisy went upstairs to wash her face – too late I thought with humiliation of my towels – while Gatsby and I waited on the lawn.

This is a beautiful bit of technique, I just want to deconstruct it very carefully. We’ve just come out of one of the most emotionally intense moments in the book, the reunion of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, the goal of Gatbsy’s years-long quest finally realized. This scene has taken place off-stage, from narrator Nick’s perspective, as he departed his own house in order to give the couple privacy. So Nick has been standing in the rain on his modest little lawn for half an hour, the lawn that Nick had allowed to grow shaggy and unkempt until that morning, when Gatsby had sent his landscaper around for a proper mowing.

Now Nick re-enters his house to see Daisy’s face shining with happy tears, Gatsby relaxed and composed where before the meeting he’d been a nervous wreck. Whatever happened in that half hour had been full of painful joy. Daisy goes to clean up, the men wait. Such a simple action, it could have passed by without any further flourish. But Fitzgerald takes this opportunity to show us the reflexive thought that enters Nick’s head, a simple and true statement that he’s embarrassed that he forgot to do something about his dingy towels in the upstairs bath. It reveals the kind of person Nick is, his class concerns, the ever-present impulse of self-judgment that resides within him as surely as his heartbeat.

The narrative of this novel is about Gatsby and Daisy, but the genius of it is that the story is about Nick. We learn nearly nothing about the interior lives of the purported main couple. But we learn everything about Nick in these stealthily delivered injections of perspective.

the good gatsby

I had fervently hoped that Baz Luhrmann’s signature brand of loopy romanticism was exactly the antidote for staid, sullen efforts to bring literary classics to the screen like the plodding 1974 Redford version. He delivered enough to make a movie good enough to be worth watching, at least for completist Gatsby fans, but far from Great enough to be worthy of the title.

Surprisingly, Luhrmann makes the most fundamental error of all page-to-screen translation: overuse of narration. Words make a novel great, so it’s understandable that directors want to capture those words onscreen. But each artistic medium can only be great in its own form – narration and words flashed across a screen are unnecessary concessions to the inability of the visual medium to fire the imagination as great writing can. Pounding the screen with Courier font only screams, “this movie doesn’t know how to convey the depth of immortal prose!”

It’s really too bad, because the movie does deliver great visuals when the director didn’t feel overwhelmed by the classic novel. The filmmakers clearly did their homework and were in love with the gorgeous writing of the book. The irony is that Fitzgerald’s cinematic descriptions translate perfectly to the screen, in scene after scene after scene. The expansive Buchanan lawn “jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens,” the breeze in a room that “blew curtains in one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling,” the limousine “driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes” – these are not famous passages, and the film brings the unspoken words to life beautifully. But when burdened by great prose, we hear Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway intoning about boats and currents and the past, with that silly Courier font and no memorable visuals at all.

The two scenes that worked the best were critical ones in the novel, where the film did manage to let go of the crutch of narration. The reunion of Daisy and Gatsby in Nick’s cottage was wonderful from the cutting of the lawn, through the overstuffed house of flowers and pathetic tea cakes, leading to a rain-drenched Gatsby and frightened Daisy finally reconnecting in wonder. Every moment of that was pitch perfect down to the clock that didn’t break though everyone acted as if it did. And the scene where Myrtle runs into the street, thinking that Tom is driving the yellow car, was perfect in its operatic brutality. Although purists might hate it, I loved the use of modern music in the film – a good example of Luhrmann trusting his own emotional tuning fork rather that giving stultifying respect to the source material.

Leonardo DiCaprio was an excellent Gatsby, never perfectly comfortable in his sheen of refinement, his insecurity and obsession poking out through the surface in increasingly desperate displays. I thought Daisy Buchanan was an unplayable role, but Carey Mulligan has the talent to make the most of it, her voice freighted with emotion and eyes conveying the love, fear and weakness of the classic Fitzgerald girl. Isla Fisher brought the sensuous vitality of Myrtle Wilson to life in her few scenes. Joel Edgerton was a passable but unexceptional Tom Buchanan. Elizabeth Debicki was disappointing as Jordan Baker, without the athletic bearing and liar’s charm that should define the famous sportswoman. I’m never fully convinced by Tobey Maguire, and he didn’t break that streak here as Nick Carraway. Nevertheless, I wish the film had tried to develop the relationship between Jordan and Nick more fully – it’s a small but important sideline in the book that reminds us that Nick is more than a literary device.

As far as devices go, the framing of the narration by Nick in a sanatorium was well designed. Although it’s not in the book, it’s a clever connection to the Fitzgeralds – both Scott and Zelda spent time in them – and is used well to turn Nick into the author and not just the narrator of the story. It’s just too bad that the filmmakers thought the device was necessary, that they held the words so holy that they couldn’t rely solely on their own bountiful skills in cinema.

gusts of emotion

p. 94:

While the rain continued it had seemed like the murmur of their voices, rising and swelling a little, now and then, with gusts of emotion.

After those first awkward moments before Gatsby regains his composure, Nick tactfully leaves his own home and stands outside in the inclement weather, taking shelter under ‘a huge black knotted tree whose massed leaves made a fabric against the rain,‘ while Daisy and Gatsby negotiate their sudden reacquaintance. Fitzgerald makes the clever choice to leave the most emotionally charged moments unobserved, and so undescribed by our unreliable narrator – which makes these moments more elemental and enduring, mysterious events like the weather itself. The storm is more powerful for having been unseen, its aftermath the best evidence of its power. Gatsby relays Nick’s obvious news that the rain has ended, and her response has nothing to do with the weather.

‘I’m glad, Jay.’ Her throat, full of aching, grieving beauty, told only of her unexpected joy.

unforgettable reproach

p. 93:

He raised his hand to stop my words, looked at me with unforgettable reproach and opening the door cautiously went back into the other room.

In just this moment, Gatsby ends the only few minutes of the entire story where he is not composed and fully in control of himself. All he needed was for Nick to remind him that Daisy was embarrassed too, and a gentleman wouldn’t leave a lady alone and embarrassed in any situation.

The feelings of other people are always more real to them than any feelings you can have for them – remembering this is the key to maintaining emotional composure; this is both a pillar of support and a tool of manipulation, depending on how it’s used.

physical decency

p.92:

Amid the welcome confusion of cups and cakes a certain physical decency established itself.

Overwhelming events can cause a mental freeze in the participants. The mind races to absorb the inflow of sights, sounds and emotions, but the cascade of signals piles up into a mass of unintelligible phenomena, the mind freezes and loses fine-grained control of the body. In this situation, the most important thing to do is: anything. Take any action to break the freeze, preferably one that is productive to the moment or at least not wholly inappropriate.

Gatsby, Nick and Daisy are locked in an excruciatingly awkward social moment, but all it takes is some cups and cakes to break the freeze.

glaring tragically

p. 91:

Gatsby, pale as death, with his hands plunged like weights in his coat pockets, was standing in a puddle of water glaring tragically into my eyes.

This sounds like a description of a man at a funeral, rather than a man on the doorstep to a reunion with his lost love. Fitzgerald never describes what Gatsby is thinking or feeling, but instead describes his trembling hands, distraught eyes, the tense bearing of his ‘strained counterfeit of perfect ease.’ The economy of writing here paints a lush landscape of emotion with spare strokes of perfect detail. The thoughts that are not described imbue the scene with their heavy absence.

wild tonic

p. 90:

The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain.

Daisy’s voice is her defining feature. Is there another character in all of literature whose physical beauty is conveyed so much by sound rather than sight? With subtle mastery, Fitzgerald elevates his prose anytime he describes her voice – he brings tonality and life into his writing to simulate the intoxicating effect of Daisy’s voice on the listener. Fitzgerald’s writing is cinematic, and this technique of surrounding a detail with vibrant prose is like dramatic lighting on a closeup of a beautiful face.

I had to follow the sound of it for a moment, up and down, with my ear alone before any words came through. A damp streak of hair lay like a dash of blue paint across her cheek and her hand was wet with glistening drops as I took it to help her from the car.

To hear her voice is to love her, as long as her warm breath vibrates in the air. Like the sound of her voice, this love is temporary and fragile, but rich and real and irresistible in the moment.