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Keith Meatto: Seven Ways of Looking at The Great Gatsby

May 15, 2013

Meditations on Jay G, Jay-Z, the art of plagiarism, and America’s love affair with money, guns, and decadence.

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Image from Flickr via jasonjkong

By Keith Meatto

I. Alone Together

Last Friday, I found myself alone in a Manhattan movie theater at 11:00 AM, half an hour before the first screening of The Great Gatsby on opening day. It was a rare occasion—I seldom go to the movies alone, and the last three films I saw in the theater were documentaries about Dutch fisherman, Tibetan Buddhists, and a Latvian hermit. Yet I knew I was in the right place. My presence was a pilgrimage, a way to commune and reconnect with a novel I have read a dozen times, taught to hundreds of students, and know practically by heart. I was so excited to see the film that when the commercials before the trailers looked dim, out of focus, and tinted so that the actors’ lips glowed orange, I considered marching up the stairs to confront the projectionist. Rather than feeling ashamed or embarrassed to be alone in the theater, I felt proud—in fact, when half a dozen people trickled into the theater during the previews, I was disappointed. At the risk of hyperbole, I feel the way about Gatsby that Nick Carraway feels about Gatsby’s smile: “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.” Despite the fact that millions of people have read Gatsby, that millions more will see the new film, I wanted to maintain the illusion, if only for two hours and twenty minutes, that Gatsby was mine.

II. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

The new film begins with the green light, the novel’s most central visual symbol. That beacon brought me back to 2003, when I was hired to teach English at a private high school in Manhattan. Still a graduate student and unsure of what (or how) to teach, I followed a colleague’s advice and put Gatsby on my syllabus. I had my doubts about this choice; it seemed clichéd, and had left me cold as a teenager. But these turned out to be unwarranted. My students immediately identified with the world of Gatsby, perhaps because many of their families were wealthy, with Gatsby-esque summer houses in the Hamptons or “country houses” in the Berkshires. To a lesser extent, I identified with the world, too. My students saw parallels between Gatsby and some of their favorite TV shows: Gossip Girl, Desperate Housewives, and related the novel to the heirs and heiresses depicted in Born Rich, a documentary that fortuitously aired on HBO while they were reading Gatsby. They were shrewd to connect Gatsby to Americans’ longstanding and ongoing desire to observe rich people in their natural habitat, from low-culture reality shows to the ostensibly high-culture drama Downton Abbey. As Robin Leach, says in Maxed Out, a 2006 documentary about the perils of consumer debt: “Nobody wants to watch Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown.” Fitzgerald knew that, and so does Baz Luhrmann.

Gatsby’s and Jay-Z’s stories both speak to the same enduring American myth: the notion that through talent, drive, and ambition, a marginalized “nobody from nowhere” can become somebody.

III. American Gangsters: Jay-Z and Jay G

In the new movie’s theme song, Jay-Z raps about hundred dollar bills, stock market crashes, and the “decade of decadence/ill reverence.” Ten years ago, during my first year as a teacher, Jay-Z released The Black Album. Perhaps overestimating my hipness and hilarity, I wrote quizzes that mixed lyrics from the album and quotations from Gatsby and chuckled when students could not distinguish the two. And nearly ten years after I first combined Jay Z and Jay G, it felt like a vindication to hear Jay-Z sing H to the I.Z.Z.O while Toby McGuire’s Nick Carraway drives over the Queensboro bridge and passes a car filled with African-Americans, or “negroes,” as Fitzgerald calls them. The scene not only rescues the original passage from its racist undertones, but reminded me that, really, the union of Jay G and Jay-Z is obvious. The former is a poor farm boy who runs away from home, changes his name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby, becomes a bootlegger (the 1920’s equivalent of a drug dealer), and reinvents himself as a mysterious, magnanimous socialite whose decadent parties are a who’s who of high society. The latter was born Shawn Carter, grew up in the projects of Brooklyn, became a drug dealer, got out of the game and renamed himself Jay-Z, made millions writing songs about his former life on the streets, married one of the country’s most beautiful and talented women, bought a stake in a basketball team and their palatial new stadium, palled around with the president, opened a sports agency, and at the age of forty-three, landed on the cover of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. Both stories speak to the same enduring American myth: the notion that through talent, drive, and ambition, a marginalized “nobody from nowhere” can become somebody from somewhere.

IV. We Are All Plagiarists

Purists might see any film version of Gatsby as blasphemy. Satirizing both the sudden trendiness of Gatsby and likely audience critiques, Stephen Colbert started a Gatsby reading group so that people could see the movie, then say to their friends: “Eh, the book was better.” Nevertheless, the best stories are the ones that get retold, re-imagined, and passed from generation to generation, whether it’s a jazz rendition of Homer’s Odyssey, Colm Toibin’s Biblical sequel of sorts The Testament of Mary or this summer’s forthcoming musical theater rendition of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor Lost. Luhrmann’s Gatsby follows a path cut by Fitzgerald and followed by five previous film adaptations, including G, the 2002 film with an African-American cast and the title character as a lovesick hip-hop mogul. The novel has also inspired an opera, a video game, plays, novels, comic books, television shows, and the punk band “Gatsby’s American Dream.” In each case, imitation seems to be the sincerest form of flattery.

Reflecting on these cultural appropriations reminds me of when one of my former students submitted an essay on Gatsby with many passages copied from an online source without attribution. When I reported the incident, I expected the principal to congratulate me for my vigilance and suspend or even expel the student. Instead, she said that while the student had been wrong, I had made the larger error by assigning an essay topic so generic that it begged to be plagiarized. In fact, she suspected that many students had plagiarized in more subtle ways that I had failed to detect—and that plagiarism was not a black and white an issue, especially when you’re teaching a book like Gatsby that has been dissected to death and especially with the availability of information online. At the time, I felt betrayed and unsupported, but have since taken her advice to heart in the classroom. The point of teaching literature is not for students to regurgitate codified interpretations, but to interpret books in the context of their lives and the world at large. Besides, wasn’t Gatsby—with his fake name and phony pedigree and stolen catch phrase (“Old Sport”)—the ultimate plagiarist? And since every person’s identity is an amalgam of genetic and culture inheritance—aren’t we all plagiarists?

In a more liberal sense of the word, Luhrmann is a plagiarist, though unlike my former student, he cites his source material—and presumably paid the appropriate royalties. Whether you find his version of Gatsby great, awful, or adequate, the film is unlikely to be the last word. Perhaps someone has already written a contemporary version where, instead of collecting letters and newspaper articles and photos of Daisy in a scrapbook, Gatsby (who walks a fine line between romantic and stalker) might read Daisy’s Facebook status updates, follow her on Twitter, and download her photos on Instagram. Regardless, given the human compulsion to retell stories, another version seems inevitable.

Compared to today’s high-capacity magazine clips that can fire 100 rounds in seconds, the single handgun bullet that killed Gatsby seems almost quaint.

V. Check Your Baggage

Reviewing the film in The New York Times, A.O. Scott advises the viewer to “put aside whatever literary agenda you are tempted to bring with you,” then concedes that “this is not so easily done. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s slender, charming third novel has accumulated a heavier burden of cultural significance than it can easily bear.” With or without literary baggage, the Gatsby movie succeeds on many levels. While all literary adaptations condense and omit, Gatsby gets all of the novel’s key scenes and moments and most of the key lines and replicates its swift pace. It takes about as long to watch the 160-minute movie as it takes to read the 188-page novel. As in Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, the sets, costumes, and choreography are majestic. With its lush depictions of mansions, speakeasies, and hotels filled with beautiful people in beautiful clothes getting beautifully wasted, the film invites voyeurism: whether or not you can afford or even desire this excess, it’s fun to watch. DiCaprio ably fills the shoes of Gatsby, with his slick blonde hair, gaudy suits, and the stilted cadences and awkward diction of an imposter. As Nick Carraway, Toby McGuire is convincingly clean-cut, neurotic, and nerdy—Peter Parker for the Jazz Age. As the boorish brutish Tom Buchanan, with his bulky frame and pencil moustache, Joel Edgerton looks like cross between Hitler and Hemingway. And as Daisy Buchanan, British actress Cary Mulligan is a fine-featured blonde pixie whose warmth and chilliness, innocence and haughtiness, might move any man to madness.

Another highlight is the soundtrack. Early in the film, four on the floor beats and the grizzly timbre of Jay-Z’s voice on “$100 bills” foreshadow both festivity and menace. More pensive scenes are extra bittersweet thanks to the xx’s reverb-soaked guitars and whispery vocals. And in the film’s dramatic turning point, Jack White’s tortured bluesy cover of a song from U2’s Achtung Baby ratchets up the tension—and literally screams one of the novel’s central themes: “Love is Blindness”

For all its entertainment value and cultural relevance, the film has its missteps. The decision to frame the story with Nick Carraway literally writing the story of Gatsby on a typewriter feels contrived, cheesy, and gratuitous, as does the decision to flash key lines from the novel on the screen, like a stylized slide presentation. And while any film adaptation of a novel will differ from the source, the decision to put a glass of whiskey in Gatsby’s hand is mystifying. Gatsby does not drink in the novel, which is ironic not only because he makes his fortune from bootlegging and hosts parties where the booze flows like water, but because Fitzgerald drank himself to death. But perhaps such quibbles suggest someone who has checked most, but not all, of his baggage.

VI. Occupy West Egg: Gatsby, Guns, and Money

Perhaps unwittingly, the film speaks to the American culture of violence when Gatsby, shot through the heart, topples into a swimming pool and sinks in slow motion, as glamorous in death as in life. Tragic heroes must die; just ask the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare. But what makes his death seems so American is the weapon of choice. Nearly ninety years after Gatsby’s publication, Americans are still killing each other with guns—in Tucson, in Aurora, in Newtown—and still debating about what, if anything, to do to curb the violence. Compared to today’s high-capacity magazine clips that can fire 100 rounds in seconds, the single handgun bullet that killed Gatsby seems almost quaint.

More obviously, Gatsby speaks to the gap between the richest and poorest Americans. In ways both subtle and unsubtle, the film visually contrasts the decadence of the rich and the despair of the poor and compares the excesses of the 1920s to today’s. As in the novel, the only characters who emerge relatively unscathed are the uber-wealthy power couple the Buchanans. As Fitzgerald writes: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” In 2013, the line seems like an apt summary of “the one percent,” the banks deemed “too big to fail,” and the economic despair that has engulfed millions of Americans and people around the globe.

VII. You Can(’t) Repeat the Past

Near the end of the film, Nick tries to convince Gatsby that his dream of stealing his former sweetheart from her rich husband is impossible. “You can’t repeat the past,” he says, to which Gatsby replies: “Why of course you can.” In the moment, Nick is correct. But he seems to absorb Gatsby’s point in the novel’s famous final sentence, recapitulated in the film: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Now thirty-seven, I watch the Gatsby on screen and see myself at seventeen, when I first read the book, at twenty-seven, when I first taught it, and all the years in between. That’s not to say that remembering the past is the same as repeating it. And who knows what, if anything, Gatsby might mean to me this afternoon or the day after that or over the next thirty years.

Keith Meatto is a writer, editor, and teacher in New York. He recently interviewed poet Gina Myers for Guernica. His fiction publications include Artifice, Harpur Palate, and Opium. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Forward, The Millions, and elsewhere.

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One comment for Keith Meatto: Seven Ways of Looking at The Great Gatsby

  1. Comment by Lee Bob Black on May 19, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    Great article. My fave line is: “The point of teaching literature is not for students to regurgitate codified interpretations, but to interpret books in the context of their lives and the world at large.”

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