Apprenticing with the Dead: When history passes into ‘once upon a time’

A few weeks ago, I went to see the new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby with friends. Reviews had already forewarned me about the extensive use of anachronism, from the music to the costuming to the manners. Fitzgerald’s novel has been adapted for film multiple times, beginning in 1926, a scant few years after its publication.  The first adaptation, now lost, remains only in sketches and hints: a vignette of the hero in top hat, a supporting cast who will later be famous in very different roles. The only one that I have seen is the 1974 version with Robert Redford, who (in his heyday as film icon) was handsome and golden enough to play Gatsby most satisfactorily.

What struck me in this year’s adaptation was its nightmarish, phantasmagorical character. Nick’s story, in the original text, concludes with dream sequences, some reported as nightmare and some as history. The new adaptation takes them for keynote: the visual design of Daisy’s house, and Gatsby’s, has the quality of dream. Those sets of memory and imagination are far too large to be real; the casual contemporary use of computer generated imagery, now part of the cinematic palette, invokes dream and fairy-tale even in the midst of what is ostensibly a realist narrative. No longer attempting to imagine something real, this imagery stretches far beyond the traditional matte-painter’s or modeler’s art, to physically implausible palaces of dream and nightmare, to text floating across the screen. Nick Carraway, in a snowbound sanatorium, is re-imagined not only as the teller but as the author of the narrative.

This bravura technique is nothing unusual for the creator of graphic novels or artist’s books, and more than artistically appropriate for a tale which is aware of its own telling. It’s inspiring to see it brought to the screen, as a movie remembers its deep roots in literary and oral storytelling.

The narrator, Nick Carraway, is himself a personage at the edge of the story. One of the great technical allures of the original text is just how far the reader is left to figure out the unseen; the reader is herself a detective. The novel is multi-layered, and so infinitely susceptible of adaptation. It’s a mirror not of its own times, but of the times of the artist adapting it.

Every adaptation is in and of its time, and this one is no different. The summer of 1922 is remembered by very few who were alive then, and next to none who were adults. Nick Carraway turns 30 that year, which means he would have been born in 1892. If he were alive now, he would be 111 years old. We stand now at a generational changing of the guard; World War I has already passed into legend, with the death of its last veterans.

This version takes The Great Gatsby out of the realm of ‘contemporary novel’ or ‘period piece’ into fairytale and nightmare. The visual and sound design is grating and garish, by intention; the fast cars of 1922, rendered literally, would putt-putt quaintly. The film translates them for us so that we have a nearly contemporary experience: powerful machines crank up the noise of the city yet another notch, and shatter the quiet of the countryside. The valley of ashes is realized as a nightmare landscape that goes on forever, and the parties at Gatsby’s house are scaled up many times from their likely size. (From Fitzgerald’s descriptions and the internal hints, they would be exceeded in scale by many a present-day upscale wedding party.)

This is no more an historically correct realization of Fitzgerald’s 1920s New York than Disney’s Cinderella attempts to capture Perrault’s France. Gatsby is a Euro-American fairy tale, and the film adaptation emphasizes its nightmare face. DiCaprio’s creation of the title role reads as ‘not quite right’ and then ‘thug with a veneer.’

There are as many ways to play Gatsby as Hamlet.

I have seen multiple stage adaptations of the novel, including the Guthrie Theater’s relatively straightforward version and the six-hour marathon Gatz, which plays every single word in the novel as a play-within-a-play set in a run-down 1970s-vintage office suite. When Robert Redford played the role in the 1974 adaptation, he and the rest of the ensemble firmly placed themselves in the realistic theatrical and film tradition. Special effects, that announced themselves as such, would have seemed completely out of place in that film; but in this fairy-tale version, the CGI plays an important esthetic role, twisting and distorting the scale of reality.

Particularly in the handling of the repeating motif of the green light at the end of the dock, the post-processing turns realistic film into a moving tapestry that edges into the surreal. The blowing drapes in Tom and Daisy’s front room, the sweeping camera that takes us from West Egg to East Egg in one heart-stopping bird’s-eye swoop, the eternal twilight of the valley of ashes under the watchful glance of the disembodied eyes on the weathered billboard for a long-gone optician, all refigure Fitzgerald’s novel as a fable of a world dancing over the abyss.

Adaptation is translation, and Fitzgerald’s (white) America is now a culture so distant in time as to be a foreign country. In conversation with my friends afterward, I made a list of allusions in the text that don’t fully translate for the assumed ‘contemporary general audience.’

  • The mere mention that Tom Buchanan’s people made their money from railroads. In the 1920s it went without saying that his roots were as thoroughly thuggish as Gatsby’s, though in a more comprehensively successful way and several generations back.
  • Tom’s mention of a fictitious racist tract called The Rise of the Colored Empires, which sets the period tone and establishes a characterization: the conqueror with a bad conscience who fears being overthrown by those he has trampled.
  • In 1922, World War I had changed the face of Europe and set off in its wake a wave of revolution, from the two Russian Revolutions of 1917 to uprisings in Germany and Hungary, and general strikes in U.S. cities. The armories that sit in American city centers date from the 1920s-1930s, when elites were panicking at the thought of revolution in their own back yard.
  • The adaptation glosses over the racial realities of the 1920s in showing us a far more integrated New York than actually existed at the time. What’s not remembered here is that Harlem in the 1920s was a tourist destination for white curiosity-seekers. The Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the cities of the North was well underway, given an extra impetus by lynchings and other reprisals against returning black veterans of the Great War.
  • Fitzgerald’s narrative touches on this in the Russian emigre musician who presents a Jazz History of the World. In 1922, it’s only in avant-garde circles that African-American music is being assimilated to ‘mainstream.
  • The 1920s are also nicknamed the Jazz Age, when that uniquely African-American music was taking its first steps into the mainstream, and the likes of Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker were taking European capitals by storm. Contemporary commentary, not all of it on the right, was comparing their success to barbarian invasion.

What echoes for me in the novel is but faintly touched upon in the adaption. THe 1920s cultural panic of the elites finds echoes in the present day as birth rates for non-whites overtake those for whites. In the 1920s,  terror for the supposed “decline of the west” expressed itself in a wave of nativist insistence on “100% Americanism.” During this period, my German-immigrant grandfather had a cross burned on his family’s lawn by the Klan, in rural New Jersey. That American demographic  panic played out in compulsory sterilization laws and yet further curbs on immigration, which decades later barred Jewish and other victims of Hitler’s genocides from seeking asylum on these shores.

All of which has deep contemporary resonance, as certain nativist commentators go so far as to recommend repeal of the 14th Amendment.

Reading novels from the 1920s and 1930s, one becomes quite aware that the American admirers of Hitler and Mussolini (then just beginning their political careers) were quite mainstream, just like modern apologists for torture and surveillance. More than once, I’ve shivered wondering what horrors await us in the coming decades.

When history passes out of memory into ‘once upon a time’, some critical lessons are lost. I wonder sometimes if the legendary 70-year cycle upon which human foolishness is claimed to repeat itself is a function of living memory. Though in its transmogrification into fairytale and fantasy, this most recent version of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby throws a livid light on the nightmare of 1920s excess, with more than a hint of the abyss over which it danced.

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One Response to Apprenticing with the Dead: When history passes into ‘once upon a time’

  1. Jean Lamb says:

    I remember reading a throwaway comment in LA CONFIDENTIAL by James Ellroy from a the point of view of a woman who remembered hearing Aimee Semple MacPherson urge white women to have more babies to keep them from being swallowed up. I haven’t done the research on MacPherson to back this up, but it does sound believable.

    (another note on LA CONFIDENTIAL–there was mention of a woman named Glenda who was the mistress of a mobster *and* a prominent police official. I wonder how she scheduled her time? And even more off the wall, one wonders if this Glenda was like really, REALLY fond of pink cashmere sweaters, cf. ED WOOD).

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