Tuesday, 21 May 2013

On Repeating the Past and The Great Gatsby

I watched the Great Gatsby last night. I approached the viewing with massive trepidation having read the reviews online, and having heard the disappointed comments from reputable sources. Before I give my honest opinion however, I want to say a few things. I think the trouble with making a book like F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby into a feature film is that you really cannot please everyone. A novel with such timeless metaphorical authority is almost an impossible feat to accomplish, never mind getting people to like it on top of it all. Regardless, after reading the reviews, I was a little confused. I had hopes that the reception would be generally positive taking into account the director and the cast. To soothe my discomfort, I went back to the Internet archives to view old reviews of other adaptations of the novel, curious as to whether or not they fared better. They did not. In fact, the cumulative verdicts of the reviews more or less spoke to the same criticisms. Naturally, I could only come to two conclusions:

  1. All four adaptations did a job that the majority of critics believed to have not deserved more than 50% positive accolades. (I am not including the 1926 version since it is not a feature film in the typical sense). Or…
  2. F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby should not have been made into a film.

Similar to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye or for me personally, Douglas Adam’s the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the Great Gatsby is in the rank of novels that are simply too cherished, too character-driven and robust, and too resonant on too many individual levels to be made into a film. If the brave director approaching this colossal project were to take his own creative course free from the restraints of the writing, then you would have overwhelming cries that great literature was changed and the film was not faithful to its muse. If on the other hand, the director stays true to the novel, quoting it word for word, then you would have cries that the film was too rigid and did not allow for deviation and thus originality to blossom. It is a lose-lose situation if there ever was one.

Ever since reading the Great Gatsby in high-school (and hating it by the way), I have since read it two more times and I have been absolutely taken aback by the complexity and aching beauty of it. Chalk it up to being older and wiser, or simply to the fact that I was not forced to read it, but for me everything was perfect during those last two readings. I loved it all from the imaginative characters, the unfathomable love story, and to arguably the greatest metaphor in the history of literature (I am referring of course to that ever distant and ever enchanted green light). 

You would think that considering all of this, I would be terrified about it being made into a film (I should mention I had never seen any of the prior adaptations so this would be my first time seeing it come to life on screen), but I was optimistic once I knew Baz Luhrmann was taking the reigns of direction. Luhrmann’s style of direction is not appealing to many people, but I have always been fond of it. I knew what was in store for me from the minute I saw his name next to the title: a feast for the eyes, sexy costumes, dramatic exaggerations in acting and quick shifts in focal scenes. Nevertheless, I was still hurt and fearful upon reading all the negative reviews. My optimism dwindled, but my curiosity bubbled.

Finally having said all this, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It was a masterpiece visually, but I had already anticipated this fact. I found that I disagreed with most of the criticisms such as “It was too flashy,” or “It did not do the novel justice,” or “A novel like this cannot be modernized.” In direction, Luhrmann has a modus operandi where he gravitates towards keeping the muse (In this case Fitzgerald’s unforgettable words) authentic and unchanged, but at the same time playfully adding a whole bushel of sparks, dance numbers, glitter, extraordinarily over-the-top performances, and a kick ass soundtrack (seriously this soundtrack is amazing!!). Lurhman did this successfully with Romeo and Juliet’s adaptation in 1996, and he does it again with the Great Gatsby in 2013. I thought it was fun, visually spectacular, comedic in appropriate areas, and excellently incorporated the necessary metaphors and characters it needed to without taking away from the flow of the film or disrespecting Fitzgerald’s work. I’m clearly not a critic, but if I were I would tell you to go see it. I will probably watch it again myself just to see that beautiful little fool Daisy make me fall in love and out of love with her so quickly and with such devastation.

While I was driving home after the film, I felt the peculiar need to keep driving. I didn’t want to stop. My house zoomed by and pretty soon I was driving on Mavis toward my old school before I could realize where I was going. After over 4 years of being driven or driving to UTM, my legs and hands did the work of driving while my mind took a break and just enjoyed the wind and the music. Muscle memory you could call it I suppose. Before long, I was parked at one of the buildings on campus, called the CCT building. I got out of my car, and began walking aimlessly indoors. At this point, it was almost 10PM on a Tuesday, and as such the halls were vacant and quiet (not in an eerie way but in a peaceful kind of way). After so much time of getting to know these halls, studying for hours in their crevices, breathing in the air billowing from the concrete walls and the tiled floors, I thought I would feel at home. Instead I felt like an intruder, an outsider. I did not belong here.

Then something one of my best friends said evoked within me sadness because it illuminated truth I had long been desperately trying to deny. He had said, “You can’t go back” in reference to my need to revisit my time spent within these walls. He was right of course, and so was Nick Carraway when he told Gatsby that he couldn't repeat the past. No matter how much I want to, and no matter how much things stay physically the same, people change and like it or not, I have changed. As much as I wish it would, my new self does not fit into my old home. I wish I could believe so genuinely and passionately in my ability to relive the past as Jay Gatsby had, maybe then I would not have felt so much like an outsider.

But I have come to learn that my hopeful imagining of a perfect time when I could revisit this place is merely a nostalgia I have for the past and all the emotions and experiences it encompasses. Emotions and experiences that I can no longer re-live for the first time ever again. Because no matter how far we stretch out our arms, or how hard we paddle against the current, we can only move forward. The past does its job, and then fades away, leaving behind nothing but slowly crumbling memories. Although I wish I could re-live those memories, I know logically I cannot. And so I simply march forward finding occasional solace in my recollection of the past, my little home inside my head where I can always return.