The Poetry of Disillusionment in “Gatsby” is Beyond the Movies

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The Poetry of Disillusionment in “Gatsby” is Beyond the Movies

The Great Gatsby is a marvelous novel. F. Scott Fitzgerald was at heart a poet of the 19th Century English Romantic type, for that was the literature that clearly inspired him, as he himself said about his only academic focus during his college education (he being Princeton University’s most accomplished and famous non-graduate).

I was not too impressed with the latest (2013) glitzy movie of the novel, by Baz Luhrmann. Gatsby is so much about the poetic and lyrical use of language to convey emotionally, rather than logically (like my good science reports), the psychological states of the characters of the Gatsby tale.

A plot is always necessary of course, but in literary art it can be a mere skeleton on which to hang the real pulsing flesh of the story. Movies present plot first and foremost. The most artistically refined ones can give a sense of the poetry of experience, but this is not typical. The Baz Luhrmann movie was total Hollywood: big, flashy, loud, bombastic, hyper-realistically unreal, and impatient to blast you with a sensation.

Fitzgerald is just the opposite. Sure, there are big flashy loud extravagant background scenes in the Gatsby story, but they are really like painted backdrop curtains to the stage of the imagination on which the compelling psychologically vibrant interplays and soliloquies that fill the foreground of the tale are spun out by Fitzgerald’s prose. So I think a Hollywood movie, especially one intentionally a “blockbuster,” of the Gatsby story is just far from any art of Fitzgerald’s league, even if it has mass appeal as safe-decadent entertainment.

I suppose it could be possible for someone of the caliber of Jean Renoir to make a Gatsby movie that is much closer to the spirit of what Fitzgerald was striving for with prose, but I don’t think such a film masterpiece would have much appeal to general audiences. So, it would never be made because who in the movie business would put up the money to make a supremely artistic, psychologically subtle, and lyrical sure-fire flop?

Every movie of a novel is always a set of excerpts strung together as the filmmaker’s interpretation, or rip-off, of the novel. Can’t be helped. Douglas Sirk (the German director who made iconic 1950s American melodrama pictures with Rock Hudson) said that it was easier to make a good movie from a defective or second-rate novel, because the moviemakers (director and screen writers) could patch and fill the given story as they thought best to arrive at an integrated product that worked well as a mass-market movie. Really good novels had everything about the characters’s make-up and plot factors all tightly wrapped up “perfectly,” so there was no room to adjust the story to make for a popular movie without also degrading the quality of that story. It’s the old “the movie is not like the book.”

Some novels are too good to make equally good movies of. Catcher In The Rye is one, and its author, J. D. Salinger, refused to sell the film rights to any of his novels because he could only see movie versions degrading what he had produced for readers. The ideal prose-to-movie process (for both good prose and a good movie) would be having a superb writer craft tales specifically intended for being made into movies, where that writer was also a superb moviemaker, and who would make the film.

Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame was such a writer-moviemaker. Serling had many beautiful turns of phrase flowing out of his commentary on his Twilight Zone episodes on TV, and mixed into the dialog of the characters in his stories. But Serling’s stories only spun on for 25 minutes (half hour shows) or 50 minutes (hour shows).

Fitzgerald’s novels have much longer and interwoven thematic arcs, and were meant to be absorbed by a reader over many, many hours, probably over the course of days, weeks. Fitzgerald really wrote for pre-TV even pre-movie 19th century hopeful young American minds (like his), but who had lived through the consciousness-shattering experiences and devastating losses of WWI, and were now making their way through the chaotically fragmenting 1920s, maybe sometimes crazy happy times but with many disappointments for most, since most were not rich and would never get to be.

So, I just don’t see how any movie can capture The Great Gatsby or Fitzgerald’s incredible, incredible second masterpiece Tender Is The Night. In my daydream of being a great screenwriter and movie director, I would do the impossible and make a lush compelling epic of Tender Is The Night, something with the cinematic scope of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, and the psychological clarity and depth of Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion.

Perhaps my lack of enthusiasm for Baz Luhrmann’s movie (which I did watch attentively) is the reaction of a reader (instead of a non-reading movie fan) who was enchanted by the spell of Fitzgerald’s poetic and yet amazingly economical outpouring of prose that transmits the deep feeling of the Gatsby tale. I see little subtlety and glaring falsities in, and feel much bombast from the movie. You just fall so deeply into the story as told by Fitzgerald, especially with Nick Carraway as your guide into the lower psychological depths, but you are pushed back so hard and pocked with shrapnel by Luhrmann’s movie. It’s obvious that the brassy blare is what makes the movie “successful,” but that success is the exact opposite of what Fitzgerald gave us. (Yes, the movie would have to have been made by the Jean Renoir of La Grande Illusion and La Règle de Jeu.)

The Gatsby story is about the losses of optimistic illusions about American life and about romantic ideals, and then about attempted nobility failing at life while rich crass ignorance and bigotry triumph in the way parasites triumph by degrading the totality of the lives hosting them. Tom Buchanan is Trump, and Daisy Buchanan then as now is an airhead (not a shrewd careerist Melania), a simple pretty nonentity that has no intellectual depth but is pleasant to look and talk with, and on whom the love, longings and life ambitions of a driven man can be projected as movie myth is projected onto a silver screen and appear to shimmer with magical promise. That may be the most cinematic aspect of the novel, Daisy as a metaphor of the movies, magic by optical illusion and without any substance at all, which if believed in without reservation draws naïve optimistic romanticism to its actual doom.

Well, so much for my babble about Gatsby and movie attempts at Gatsby. As Peter Byrne has told me: “Never judge a book by its movie.”

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See “Official Secrets”

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See “Official Secrets”

The movie Official Secrets, which is just out, is about Katharine Teresa Gun, the British translator in the U.K. government’s equivalent to the U.S.’s NSA, who leaked a top secret memo in an effort to prevent the Iraq War (in which up to 1 million Iraqis and over 35 thousand U.S. and U.K soldiers died, and many hundreds of thousands of others were injured).

That war was entirely illegal because: 1, Saddam Hussein (Iraq’s dictator in 2003) did not have weapons of mass destruction — as G.W.Bush and Tony Blair lyingly claimed, so there was no “necessity” of preemptive war as an act of self defense by the U.S. and U.K; and 2, because the U.S. and U.K. did not get a U.N. Security Council resolution to go to war against Iraq, because the world body did not see Iraq as a threat to the rest of the world. The failure to get that U.N. resolution was a result of the publication of Katharine Gun’s leaked information.

The memo Katharine Gun exposed was from a “Frank Koza” at the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to the U.K. Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ, the U.K.’s NSA equivalent) asking the Brits to help bug the communications of other members of the U.N. Security Council (the non-permanent members at the time) to dig up dirt to be used to blackmail them into voting for war as Bush and Blair wanted — despite the lack of evidence (no WMDs) that war was justified.

Gun’s information eventually made it to the public, and caused such embarrassment to the British Government that after a year of terrifying harassment of Gun (including almost deporting her Turkish Kurdish husband), and taking her to trial (with a long sentence if found guilty of “treason,” and she had confessed), they dropped the case rather than reveal the government documents requested as evidence by the defense, because those documents (findings on the question of the legality of the proposed war, by Lord Goldstone, the U.K. attorney general) in fact explicitly stated that the war was illegal and Bush and Blair were fabricating fake intelligence to try and pull the wool over the eyes of the U.N. and the American and British public.

Katharine Gun (and the reporters and attorneys who worked to expose the government lies and defend Katharine) were exonerated, and she is a real-life heroine of historical significance — Daniel Ellsberg stated that her actions were more significant than his! Bush, Blair and their government associates, who perpetrated the massive Iraq War Crime (20 March 2003) — whose massively bloody and tragic consequences continue to this very moment — remain free, wealthy, untroubled by even a hint of Nuremberg style prosecutions, and are now even nostalgically “rehabilitated” (in the media stories aimed at the gum-chewing ADHD public, as by a sweet-smiling Michelle Obama cozying up to “oh gosh” Georgie Porgie) by comparisons to Trump today.

Once again, America managed to destroy a country, Iraq, and consume monumental amounts of American national treasure, and sacrifice thousands of American lives (as well as thousands of British lives, and hundreds of thousands to perhaps a million Iraqi lives) to lose a war — “lose” since it had no value to the public from the get-go — a war of choice, and an illegal war of aggression (just like Hitler’s war in Poland on 1 September 1939) which our highly privileged war criminals perpetrated. But, they got away with it.

America as a nation failed again (remember Vietnam?). The United Kingdom as a nation failed. To the extent that the American people and the UKanian people do not remember all this, and apply the tragic lesson of the Iraq War — and the Vietnam War — today to prevent the new called-for wars: on Iran, or in Yemen (to help the war criminal Saudis? to help the war criminal Israelis?, really?) and elsewhere that our highly privileged war criminals think they can make a buck and puff up their Wall Street portfolios; to the extent that these publics are so out of touch that they have no flaming anti-war consciousness, they and their nations are failing miserably. Failure is paid for in oceans of blood shed by innocent, naïve, common people, both foreign and domestic.

So I urge you to see the movie Official Secrets. It is well-made, well-played, literate, intelligent, riveting, honest. By doing so you can thank and honor an incredibly brave woman of inspiringly solid moral principle — Katharine Teresa Gun — as well as the journalists and lawyers who made their best efforts to prevent an illegal and unnecessary war; and you can use that viewing experience to help invigorate you own convictions to become aware of truth and not be lulled by indolent comfort or stupid bigotry into acquiescing to the war crime schemes (and the theft from the public commons schemes) of our all-too immune highly privileged war criminals, past and present.

By the way, a kid in my high school class (1968) was called “Frank Koza.” Don’t know if he’s the same one.

Here is the trailer to “Official Secrets”
https://youtu.be/V3vIYy38Fys

Here are the two parts of a round table interview of Katharine Gun, conducted by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!; as well as of the movie’s director, and the two key journalists who broke the story using Katharine’s information.

PART 1:
This U.K. Whistleblower Almost Stopped the Iraq Invasion. A New Film Tells Her Story
July 19, 2019
https://youtu.be/u6n1VFDJ3CY

PART 2:
15 Years Later: How U.K. Whistleblower Katharine Gun Risked Everything to Leak Damning Iraq War Memo
July 19, 2019
https://youtu.be/CWtIu7mbnbM

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For more about my photo taken at the Iraq War protest in San Francisco, in 2003, see:

https://manuelgarciajr.com/2016/04/10/iraq-war-protest-sf-2003/

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