The Great Gatsby and the Despair of Decadence

Review of The Great Gatsby, Directed by Baz Luhrmann

“There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them…” -Ecclesiastes 6:1-2a

The Great Gatsby is a grotesque movie. Its characters are too vicious, the costumes too flamboyant, the decadence too lavish, and the tragedy too deep.  In short, it captures the excesses of the Jazz Age that Fitzgerald so damningly critiqued in The Great Gatsby (and many of his other literary works) in exquisite fashion.

The music of the film is well-executed and quite memorable. A jazz rendition of Beyonce’s Crazy in Love accompanies a subdued scene; Lana Del Rey is heard importunately inquiring “will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” almost every time Daisy’s blonde head appears upon screen; and most central is Jay-Z’s brilliant rap as the movie includes both old hits like Izzo and original pieces like Jay-Z’s Hundred Dollar Bills.  Jay-Z’s inclusion as one of the film’s executive producers continues to strike me as ironic; he was chosen because (a) he is an unmitigated genius, and (b) because his story is similar to Gatsby’s. But that Jay-Z was able to assist in producing this tragic depiction of the emptiness of excess suggests to me that perhaps he himself has first-hand experience with such emptiness.  To delve more deeply into that question would be pure speculation, but one can still muse over whether Jay-Z, the modern day Gatsby, was telling a bit of his own story through this movie.

I do quibble with certain cinematic choices. There are a number of scenes that can only be described as cheesy, many of them revolving around Gatsby and the Green Light.  At one point he is seen physically reaching out for it though it is several miles away from him, in a move so overwrought as to cause one to roll his eyes. Indeed, the biggest cinematic mistake is the obsessive emphasis on the Green Light itself. In Fitzgerald’s book, the Green Light is an iconic and important highpoint of the book’s symbolism, but it appears only infrequently. But in the movie, one is never more than five minutes away from another image of it, which eviscerates most of the subtlety about the metaphor. This is not to say that it is an inscrutable choice; Fitzgerald’s subtle deployment of the Green Light in the novel itself would likely be lost on most modern audiences with a deficient appreciation for metaphor and only a fleeting memory of the book itself if it were handled more subtly in the movie as well, as it is often missed in the high school literature classes when it is first assigned. But those with a deft appreciation for subtlty and a keen memory of the book will find themselves muttering “oh, come on” more than once.  I did not see the film in 3D, though I suspect if I had, the whimsicality of these overwrought scenes would have sent my eyes rolling like a centrifuge.

Yet while Baz Luhrmann’s film, like any reproduction, is necessarily an interpretation, it is so very often faithful to the central fact of the book: Gatsby is a tragic hero. He exists not as an exemplar to be imitated, but as a warning to be heeded, but which few actually do heed. That the release of this movie was accompanied by Jazz Era parties that sought to replicate the extravagance that the entire movie is written to excoriate is evidence that we still to want to emulate, rather than shun, Gatsby’s example and times. That the cautionary tale of Gatsby will so often go on unheeded was not lost on Fitzgerald.  After all, by the end of the book Gatsby is dead, and it is we who “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Thus we hit upon an inscrutable mystery of mankind. Mankind is the only known animal who hoards up more resources and pleasures than are possible to reasonably enjoy in one lifetime, and he is the only animal who can be miserable amidst his affluence. What kind of strange creature is this ‘man,’ whose capabilities for productivity and despair outstrip all others? What kind of strange being is this who, beast-like, amasses resources to ensure his safe and comfortable survival, and then despairs and keels over precisely because his survival is safe and comfortable? Chesterton captures this best when he observed that “meaninglessness does not come from becoming tired of pain; meaningless comes from being tired of pleasure.”  And as the meaninglessness of the Roaring 20s plays out before our eyes in vibrant color across movie screens, and as we see the bacchanalia and hedonism leaves its Dionysian revelers unsatiated and miserable, the more poetically minded of us may be tempted to utter with the Preacher, “vanity of vanity. All is vanity…He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 5:10). And so The Great Gatsby ends in a mansion stripped bare of its fineries and its revelries; in full view of the Green Light that shines forth perpetually; and with a narrator with full knowledge that siren-like, the Green Light will continue to entice men to chase it whose determination to acquire it is not mitigated in the slightest by the wreckage of their fellow men in the shoals around that Light.  Yet Fitzgerald and Gatsby did not seem to see a better way than the eating, drinking, and merry-making. The wise among us will reflect long on that fact, and as he does, he will consider Gatsby not blessed, but cursed. Cursed that he was created for more than his life could offer. Cursed that he had all that he laid his eyes upon. Cursed that he, unlike another rich young man so many years ago, had nobody to say to him “go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor…then come, follow me.”

Schaeffer’s Ghost has another review of The Great Gatsby by Paul Miller.

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