April 29, 2013

The Great Gatsby as chick flick for SWPL Millennials

I'd heard that they were making another movie of The Great Gatsby awhile ago, but hadn't checked in on it until it showed up on the main page at IMDb. Jesus Christ, what a corruption of a classic!

Now, some adaptations are mere failures -- they don't try hard, don't achieve a distinctive look or feel, and generally have no personality or identity.

Then there are others that are memorable, but whose identity is the opposite of what they were meant to adapt. Titanic, a boring chick flick from the '90s, is a good example of one adapted from real events, whose evil rich and honest poor are more from the Gilded Age / Robber Baron era than from the Edwardian / Jazz Age period of the actual Titanic story. I can't remember too much since I couldn't make it all the way through, but that's my distinct impression.

Romeo + Juliet, another boring chick flick from the '90s, is an example adapted from an existing work of fiction. The 1968 Zeffirelli version was full of young people whose hormone-crazed choices bring about their tragic downfall, both in the domains of dating-and-mating and competition among same-sex peers. I can't say I remember too much of the later adaptation from the bits and pieces I caught when it was aired on cable.

But the romance plot had too much of a feel-good tone, where Juliet was basically living a juvenile "fairy tale" swept-off-her-feet romance, and so where her mostly passive role does not implicate her in her own downfall later on. Shakespeare's original, and the Zeffirelli adaptation, portray a Juliet who's much more active in chasing Romeo, even if it's in her own behind-the-scenes scheming feminine kind of way. Her boy-crazy designs on Romeo thus involve both her and her lover in their ultimate demise.

As for the male-male competition plot, there was too much of an Us vs. Them tone, emphasizing the never-ending state of the feuding between rival factions. It makes it seem like the individual murderers and their victims are just passively assuming their role in some hokey script. In Shakespeare's original, the group vs. group dynamics are minimized, and only serve to set up who has a natural beef with who else. But all of the characters are fleshed out as individuals, some more hot-headed and some more level-headed, and it is those personality differences that cause one to get involved in murder or not. That characterization makes it into the Zeffirelli adaptation as well.

Why spend so much time going over an adaptation that I don't remember too well? Because the same director, Baz Luhrmann, is back for the new Great Gatsby adaptation. He also did that boring historical chick flick from the early 2000s, Moulin Rouge (another one I gave a chance but couldn't watch for more than 10 or 15 minutes).

Although the movie is not out yet, we know roughly what to expect based on his earlier popular adaptations. First, the look of the movie will be overly stylized, perhaps based on Art Deco, but probably laying it on too thick and attempting more to beef up its street cred with the vintage-loving SWPL girl demographic. I'm imagining a new Pre-Raphaelite spirit for our neo-Victorian times today.

Second, they're going to give the story a huge chick flick orientation, perhaps even making it the dominant tone. There's nothing chick-littish at all about the novel, where the sub-plot about chasing after Daisy is just one example of an entire pattern of Gatsby's over-reaching ambition that brings about his own downfall.

Third, the female lead will be passive, freeing her of responsibility later on. A key point of characterization in a chick flick, since escapist female audiences don't want to see movies where they're told that their on-screen avatars are partly responsible for their own troubles. In the novel, Daisy Buchanan is not quite manipulative or deliberately controlling of men -- more like, effortlessly hypnotizes them with her speech and gaze, and she's aware of her power. She plays her own part in entangling her suitors into aggressive male confrontation, just as they do themselves with their competitiveness and jealousy.

And fourth, in general the tone will be fatalistic and bleak rather than tragic and stirring, appealing to -- well, I was going to say dumb teenagers, but they're probably college-aged through their mid-20s, only with stunted minds that make them resemble middle schoolers. I imagine one of the main audience reactions to be "Gosh, it's just so not fair!"

Moving beyond speculation, let's have a quick look at some of the knowns about the movie.

The soundtrack is full of indie dorks like Lana Del Rey and SWPL-approved hip-hop acts like Andre 3000. No covers of Jazz Age songs, although there are a couple of neo-Jazz Age, i.e. New Wave-y songs by Bryan Ferry to save the day. The other covers are from the '90s and 2000s, including one of an Amy Winehouse song. Sorry, but some bombastic crackho is not what springs to mind when I think of sweet, danceable melodies and delightful instrumental solos. Why no use of "Promises, Promises" by Naked Eyes, for example? "Edgy" white acts semi-allied with "edgy" black acts is obviously a neo-Beatnik ensemble, and so would be better suited to an adaptation of "Howl" or something equally Fifties in tone. The hot jazz style of the '20s was exciting and engaging, not dull, monotone, and off-putting.

The director, locations, and a good number of the cast are Australian, which is odd for an adaptation of such a specifically American novel. If they were all really into '20s America, maybe they'd be able to pull it off. But they don't, so it seems like too much will get lost in translation.

Speaking of the cast, why is the loathsome, beady-eyed Jew in the story being played by an Indo-Aryan with trustably full eyes? To "update" it for contemporary times, where Jews are more assimilated, while South Asians are looked at the way that Jews used to be? Lame. And South Asians don't have a long historical reputation for producing Meyer Wolfsheim types of characters. Is there some South Asian guy in Australia or the UK who played a major part in a conspiracy to fix their national sport's equivalent of the World Series in baseball? Or are they just going to make some shit up for the movie, to make it seem like South Asians are the new Jews, when they aren't?

Wikipedia notes that, "When asked about the movie, Luhrmann stated that he planned the remake to be more timely due to its theme of criticizing the often irresponsible lifestyles of wealthy people." Oh, I get it -- like, The Recession.

The exaggeratedly opulent production design and the hip-hop songs on the soundtrack suggest that it'll be all about excess, decadence, irresponsibility, etc. Those themes are only in the background of the novel, kind of like the urban yuppie excess of the 1980s in novels like Bright Lights, Big City. That atmosphere exists to tempt characters, who then reveal their true selves when put to the test -- some giving in, and some controlling themselves. It's not there in the foreground to serve as a skyscraper-sized target for the facile moralizing of hack writers.

Man, and I was actually planning to see this when I heard about it way back when. I definitely won't be paying to see it, so I may stand corrected in a few weeks about some predictions, though I doubt very much.

I haven't discussed the 1974 adaptation with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow because I haven't seen it. I've read that it overdoes the "boo, evil idle rich people" angle, though at least the look of the movie is more '20s -- stylish, but not all Pre-Raphaelite and emo exaggeration. And based on who's in the cast, the acting must be a million times better -- Sam Waterston is far more believable than Tobey friggin' Maguire as Nick Carraway, without even seeing their performances.

It seems like no one can make The Great Gatsby into a movie, whether as a faithful adaptation or in spirit. Fitzgerald's portrayals of the social lives of young people seem to do better -- Metropolitan is easy to interpret as a neo-Jazz Age movie about the new Flaming Youth of the neo-Twenties. The tragically ambitious individual has been done in film before, e.g. Citizen Kane, but the tone is usually so somber and dark. The world of The Great Gatsby is more heady and topsy-turvy than oppressive. It was the Roaring Twenties, not the noirish Age of Anxiety. Then when movies go for light-hearted or adventurous romantic dramas, they tend not to incorporate the "individual's tragic ambition" plot as well -- too much of a downer.

Maybe I'm just drawing a blank, but the closest thing I can think of where the movie incorporates both a story about a daring, entrepreneurial upstart whose reach exceeds his grasp, as well as a light-hearted sub-plot about winning over a woman who's already with another man, and also featuring lots of footloose fun while out at dance clubs with a '20s look to them -- is Scarface from 1983.

LOL, I know the tone isn't as tender and wistful as The Great Gatsby, and obviously a lot more violent. But that's my point -- Hollywood and indie studios alike seem so incapable of making the film version of Gatsby that something as distant as Scarface is the closest thing in terms of sharing distinctive elements. Please chime in with other suggestions, though.

12 comments:

  1. I only read half of your post so far as I'm pressed for time, but I wanted to add an observation from last week. At my second job I work with a bunch of late-teen through early 20s women. I overheard one saying that all 70s movies suck, so this remake is bound to be better. I kept my mouth quiet but you can imagine my thoughts.

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  2. off-topic, but have you studied interest in the occult in rising-crime vs. falling-crime times, such as dream analysis etc.?

    -Curtis

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  3. Per the topic, I can't think of any 80s examples where overweening ambition was portrayed negatively.

    There were plenty of examples where it was portrayed positively.

    Ferris Bueler comes to mind as a very Gatsby-like figure. But, unlike Gatsby, he breaks all the rules and gets away with it.

    There was the Robert Redford movie, of course, but Redford was wrong to play the part - too compassionate and moral(not that those are bad qualities in real life). The movie is good in its own right, but its essence is different from that of the book.

    80s movies = "Winner Takes All"

    -Curtis



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  4. The Redford movie makes Gatsby into a romantic idealist - "a good guy" rich person - in contrast to the crass rich people.

    -Curtis

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  5. "I overheard one saying that all 70s movies suck, so this remake is bound to be better."

    I mean, like, blatantly...

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  6. "have you studied interest in the occult in rising-crime vs. falling-crime times, such as dream analysis etc.?"

    Mainstream interest in the occult follows the rising-crime trend. Falling-crime times lead people to look down on superstition, far-out supernatural ideas, etc.

    I don't know about dream analysis specifically, though for the 20th century the correlation is there. Big-time fascination during the 1900-1933 period, mostly Freud and the Surrealists. The mid-century turned away from dream analysis, even though that was the heyday of psychoanalysis and psychobabble. It turned more to childhood trauma as the cause of adult neuroses, most famously as the explanation for Norman Bates' serial murders in Psycho.

    The psychedelic movement brought dreams back, and the neo-Surrealists like David Lynch did a bit later (and better) as well. A Nightmare on Elm Street -- believable in the '80s, but would have stretched the credulity of audiences in the materialist/rationalist mid-century (when horrors were caused by radiated bugs that grew big). I'm guessing, but not sure, that the huge New Age movement was into the study of dreams.

    And of course all those '80s songs with "dream" in the title --

    "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)"
    "Sweet Dreams" by Air Supply
    "Together in Electric Dreams"
    "You Make My Dreams"
    "I Can Dream About You"
    "These Dreams"
    "Your Wildest Dreams"
    Dream Academy, the group that did "Life in a Northern Town"
    "Dreamtime"
    "Don't Dream It's Over"
    "Only in My Dreams"
    "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car" (...get into my car)
    "Shattered Dreams"
    "Dreamin' "

    Only some of those were about dreams per se, rather than as a figure of speech. But the Eurhythmics and Heart songs both have Surrealist music videos.

    I don't think most people these days ever share what their dreams were with others. Too awkwardly revealing for the speaker, and too awkwardly unsure how to resonate for the listener.

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  7. "I mean, like, blatantly..."

    Haha yeah, pretty much. I have no desire to see this remake either. It's almost as if no one in Hollywood has an original idea anymore. I don't even care to see those Transformers movies, even though I loved the series growing up. I know I'll just be disappointed, and it will pale in comparison to the original cartoon movie (which I could recite by heart when I was 6!).

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  8. I don't think South Asians have that reputation in the U.S, but per Thomas Sowell subgroups of them do elsewhere. Surprised to hear there'll be an Indian actor, sounds jarring for the setting.

    What do you think of the original Scarface?

    I forget if I've mentioned Randall Collins on ritual here before, but it sounds right up your alley.

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  9. Titanic, a boring chick flick from the '90s, is a good example of one adapted from real events, whose evil rich and honest poor are more from the Gilded Age / Robber Baron era than from the Edwardian / Jazz Age period of the actual Titanic story.

    Turchin found that inequality increased from

    http://www.aeonmagazine.com/living-together/peter-turchin-wealth-poverty/

    "From 1800 to the 1920s, inequality increased more than a hundredfold. Then came the reversal: from the 1920s to 1980, it shrank back to levels not seen since the mid-19th century."

    Then

    "From 1980 to the present, the wealth gap has been on another steep, if erratic, rise. Commentators have called the period from 1920s to 1970s the ‘great compression’."

    When he describes the 1920s he states:

    it is fear of revolution that restores equality. And my analysis of US history in a forthcoming book suggests that this is precisely what happened in the US around 1920.

    ....

    Quantitative data indicate that this period was the most violent in US history, second only to the Civil War. It was much, much worse than the 1960s.

    ...

    The US, in short, was in a revolutionary situation, and many among the political and business elites realised it. They began to push through a remarkable series of reforms.


    So in a sense, the idea that the 1910s were a period of class conflict, where a storyline about a young man fighting back and taking the woman of an established and arrogant member of the elite, only to fail and die (melo)dramatically, actually seems basically accurate from a film set in the 1910s.

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  10. Indo-Aryan with trustably full eyes? To "update" it for contemporary times, where Jews are more assimilated, while South Asians are looked at the way that Jews used to be? Lame. And South Asians don't have a long historical reputation for producing Meyer Wolfsheim types of characters. Is there some South Asian guy in Australia or the UK who played a major part in a conspiracy to fix their national sport's equivalent of the World Series in baseball? Or are they just going to make some shit up for the movie, to make it seem like South Asians are the new Jews, when they aren't?

    South Asians are known in the UK for corruption and paedophile rings to a pretty great extent if it helps any.

    They've been pretty implicated in many of the financial scandals in the US since becoming a large enough minority to be visible.

    When it comes to South Asians (and really most West Asians), especially those from the Northwest, violence tends to be relatively low, while corruption (moral in terms of abuse of children, nepotism, tax fraud, etc.) all tend to be relatively high. India is the most corrupt nation on earth. It's odd that this blog sometimes seems to regard the opposite thesis as true (i.e. South Asians are violent in an honorable kind of way, but are morally scrupulous).

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  11. clearancepost3/9/17, 11:08 AM

    Though the Jazz Age continued it became less and less an affair of youth. The sequel was like a children's party taken over by the elders. F. Scott Fitzgerald https://pdcrodas.webs.ull.es/anglo/ScottFitzgeraldEchoesOfTheJazzAge.pdf

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  12. Pretty interesting. Agnostic has made a similar point, for instance how Halloween was hijacked by the older, wilder Gen Xers and boomers

    "There's some interesting data in this USA Today article about a topic I've covered for awhile now (just search the blog for Halloween). The clearest sign of the holiday's "adultification" is that at Halloweenexpress.com, over 60% of costumes sold now are for adults, vs. under 30% a decade ago. If they had sales data two decades ago, they would've found more like 3% of costumes going to full-grown adults."

    http://akinokure.blogspot.com/2012/10/grown-up-hijackers-of-halloween-are.html

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