Honey Sees Gatsby in 3-D

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June 1, 2013 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 

By Honey van Blossom

(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste.)

“It’s like an amusement park!”  Cries a visitor to Gatsby’s estate in the fictional town of Little Egg opposite Big Egg where the object of his passion lived on Long Island.   In the recent film, the house is magnificent  — in the book it’s based on a Hôtel de Ville in Normandy — but the visitor’s exclamation describes Great Gatsby in 3-D itself:  the current movie is quite like an amusement park ride, the high point of which is when Myrtle Wilson’s body hurtles against the car windshield.

There are also two on-line video games of the novel.

Fitzgerald based the locations on Cow Neck and Great Neck, two peninsulas of Nassau County that border Manhasset Bay, where he and his wife Zelda lived in 1922.  He wrote by day and partied with Hollywood heroes, Broadway stars, and the “staid nobility” by night.   He only got through three chapters in a year and a half.

Fitzgerald’s writing flows so elegantly it seems the author must have just sat down, gotten drunk, and the words came smoothly through his fingers to his pen.  Actually, he was an alcoholic who worked sober and hard.   Before word processors allowed cutting and pasting, he organized his novels by putting sections of manuscript on chairs and moving the chairs around.  He worked to make money – he went into advertising and then had to publish a novel before Zelda would marry him –but he couldn’t make himself write cheap fast stuff.  At least, not often.  Once in a while.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Life in Letters (edited by Matthew Bruccoli)(1994) reveals an unpretentious American mind and a man weighted by the financial obligations caused by Zelda’s long-term confinement in a mental hospital and their daughter’s boarding school and later college expenses.  He made money mostly by writing short stories and screenplays and, although he believed Gatsby was a fine book, he did not make that much money from it or from the film made of it in 1926.  He lived in an apartment in what he called Encino but which, from the street address, was in lower van Nuys (and now seems to be a bus stop).

In the book and in the film, Jay Gatsby is mysterious.  He has an awful lot of money and really great shirts.  He wants the book’s narrator Nick to invite Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan over for tea so that he can meet with her.

Daisy lives with her husband Tom.   Tom is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson who lives in the “valley of ashes,” an industrial dumping ground between West Egg and New York City.  He drives to New York

City and has an extended bizarre party that ends when Myrtle taunts him about Daisy.  Tom breaks Myrtle’s nose.

“This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-grey men, who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight. … The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and, when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers on waiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour.”

The “valley of ashes” was also a real place between Nassau County and New York City.     It’s possible literary critics and maybe even literature professors have said that the “valley of ashes” represented American moral and social decay and maybe it does, or maybe it’s a cry for the creation of an environmental protection agency but the valley was a dump that became land fill for Flushing Meadows Park, which hosted the World’s Fair in 1939 and again in 1964.  Shea Stadium is built on the site.

The “Eyes of Dr. Eckleburg,” become the eyes of all-seeing God to Myrtle’s husband in the film and in the book:

“… above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg.   The eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high.   They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose … But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.”

Most critics understand Gatsby as an almost entirely symbolic book, and the Dr. Eckleburg symbol is one of the more important of these symbols because it shows that there is an intelligence at least that sees the enormous disparity between the working poor and the fabulously wealthy who live on Long Island’s north shore.

It could be true.  Maybe that’s what Fitzgerald meant.   At least, that’s what the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg mean now.   The giant picture was, however, a billboard for an optometrist in Queens, as Wilson’s neighbor pointed out to him in the book.

The “green light at the end of the dock” represents Gatsby’s hope for getting Daisy to leave her husband and come back to him.   Maybe it means money, which Daisy has, but then Gatsby has it now, too.   Very generally, Gatsby’s aspiration for Daisy represents an ordinary man’s aspiration for the American dream.

On the other hand, boats and planes have a red light on the port side and a green light on the starboard (right as perceived by a person facing the bow) side for navigational purposes.  When two ships are on courses that intersect, the helmsman gives way to the red light.  There may have been an actual green light on the end of a dock that Fitzgerald saw on the Gold Coast of Long Island but I do not know what it would signify.

The movie re-orders the book by making it a story about Nick Carraway’s recovery from his descent into alcoholism caused by his grief over Gatsby’s death.   That was unnecessary but did not harm the story.    The film turned Fitzgerald’s racism during those years into a comment about Tom Buchanan’s racism.   Tom is not an appetizing character anyway.   At one point, when Nick and Jay cross the Queens Borough Bridge into Manhattan, a car with happy and wealthy black people passes them, and the chauffeur is a white man.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby as if Gatsby were Leonardo di Caprio.   Carey Mulligan plays a very ordinary Daisy.  Tobey Maguire plays the narrator Nick Carraway as an innocent drawn into a decadent life   Maguire looks rather like Fitzgerald.  The character wants to and eventually does become a writer.

The ordinariness of the characters makes the film’s meaning different from the 1974 Gatsby with Mia Farrow as Daisy and Robert Redford and Sam Waterson as Nick Carraway, and Karen Black as Myrtle Wilson.  The 1974 film was about very intelligent people imprisoned in social and economic roles.  Truman Capote wrote the original screenplay – perhaps because someone wanted Daisy to be really Zelda and Capote would be good at that kind of Southern Gothic passivity – but Francis Ford Coppola wrote the final screenplay.

Because the characters in 2013 Gatsby are ordinary, not intellectuals, rather two dimensional, and because this Gatsby is like a ride in an expensive amusement park with wonderful computer recreations of Manhattan in the 1920s, the story is simplified.

This story is no longer one about decadence, about immorality, or about corruption.   Those qualities in the book are now sunk into the background.

Rushing to the foreground with the speed of automobiles and speed of trains and the speed of heedless acts is one thing: an ordinary man’s hope.

In one of Fitzgerald’s letters, he cautions that good writing means taking a piece of your soul and using it, not just in reporting on what you see.  Fitzgerald’s hope was to write extraordinary fiction about American life.  Jay Gatsby’s hand – Di Caprio’s ringed hand – raised towards the green light is Fitzgerald’s right hand with a pen in it.

 

 

 

 

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