Sunday, June 09, 2013

that tempting green light

I am in Puerto Vallarta for the night.  Last night, that is.

Friends from Barra had a flight out of Puerto Vallarta yesterday, so I decided to combine a trip to Costco with a trip to the airport.

When I decided to move to Mexico, Puerto Vallarta topped my list.  Primarily because the shore activities on Mexico cruises were the best; Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas simply could not compare.

But I am glad that the ephemeral experiences of ziplining and mountain biking were not the deciding factors for my new residence.  It all comes back to me every night I spend in Puerto Vallarta.  I suppose there are party spots in town, but that is not my lifestyle these days.

Instead, I usually treat myself to dinner and a movie.  Last night the treats were not that memorable.  Starting with a decidedly mediocre chicken Alfredo at Chili's.  Yeah, I know.  Italian at a Tex-Mex restaurant.  What should I expect other than the mundane?

But I expected more of the movie.  The Great Gatsby is not a great movie.  However, it is a far better movie than the plodding  and meandering 1974 Robert Redford - Mia Farrow version.  Even though that may be praising with faint damns.

I am very fond of the novel.  If Moby Dick is the Great American novel, The Great Gatsby would be my choice for runner-up.  I know no better literary depiction of the American dream -- with its boundless hope and simmering dark shadows. 

Fitzgerald managed to captured it all with his art-deco world where any man could be great and where women could create their own paths.  And every American is free to create a new future.  Americans are a nation of second acts.  Or, we once were.

Because so many readers put the novel on a high pedestal, movie makers always approach the material with trepidation.  They needn't. 

Novels and movies are two different art forms.  Because of the limitation of movies, a movie can be, at best, a short story that bears a resemblance to the novel.  And the result can be powerful.

Unfortunately,  Baz Luhrmann decided to film as much of the novel as he could fit into two and a half hours of butt time in a cinema seat.  The result is a bloated bit of German expressionism that can be simultaneously lavish and spatially disorienting.  There are enough continuity issues in the final print that I found myself wondering if the editor was as baffled as the audience.

What Luhrmann gets right is the story and its trajectory -- and his obvious belief that Fitzgerald was correct.  The American dream is a dream of hope that can survive even the death of the dreamer.

Most of the actors do a superb job.  Tobie Maguire was a perfect choice for the role of Nick Carraway, the shirt tail relative of old money who is close enough to understand the tension between old and new money, and far enough away from it to be the American everyman guide.  His homely mugging contrasts well with the world of the beautiful people.

Watching Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby is a reminder of how wrong Robert Redford was for the part.  DiCaprio is the right age.  And his cat-faced boyishness has been replaced by a solidity that makes you believe Nick when he writes:

It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.  It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.  It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
The problem is that all these good elements keep getting buried under the weight of the production -- such as the silly letters that float around on screen while the narrator writes the story, looking like a distracting bowl of Campbell's soup.  I suspect Luhrmann was attempting to use the visual cues to underline the seemlier side of wealth.  But he did not simply gild the lily, he buried it under enough rhinestones to please a drag queen.

When The Great Gatsby was first published, it was not a success.  And, of course, Fitzgerald himself took the same career glide path that he wrote for Gatsby.

However, what he left on paper is far more memorable than this movie will ever be.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

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