Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Jay Gatsby's Shirts

I think it was the shirt scene when my experience of watching Baz Luhrmann's film The Great Gatsby shifted. Daisy is on Gatsby's bed. He races up the stairs to a bedroom mezzanine where his innumerable shirts are stored and begins pulling them off the shelves, shouting out the names of the fine fabrics from which they're constructed (cotton! silk! muslin! linen!) while tossing them, in flutters and waves, down to her on the bed below. Daisy is showered by, wrapped up in, a pool of imported English shirts, turning and laughing and finally crying amidst these "beautiful shirts." The scene is an echo of several other shots in the film that feature impossibly long ceiling-to-floor drapes that subtract space from a room until someone finally shuts the door.

But the shirt scene was distracting because I suddenly felt like I was watching an Abercrombie and Fitch ad instead of a film: a clean-cut male model who visually embodies leisured success pitches overpriced clothing at a customer base carefully wittled down to other attractive elites. From that point forward, the film felt increasingly constructed: words and sentences even began to appear periodically across the screen to make sure viewers got the point, that they recognized the really important lines. The film began to feel like a high school book report on the novel, delivered in amped-up PowerPoint. Indeed, the drapery scenes might just as well have been sponsored by Pottery Barn while, as Joe Pinsker points out in his Jacobin piece, the party scenes resemble nothing so much as a gin commercial.

In its way, the shirt scene is a more private, and somehow also more obscene, version of Gatsby's parties, an overstimulating display of wealth, privilege, and conspicuous consumption. It was at the end of the long opening party scene that my 12-year-old daughter, who has a knack for getting to the heart of things, turned to me and asked "How are they going to get all the glitter out of that pool?" I laughed at the time, but later I realized her question was exactly right: massive excess produces really messy waste, and someone has to clean it up. If Gatsby's shelves of shirts feel like an Abercrombie and Fitch store, then the Valley of Ashes--that colorless landscape of poverty and grime through which wealthy Long Islanders must drive to reach Manhattan--might just as well be Bangladesh, where neglected factory buildings crush the bodies of garment workers who sew those shirts for pennies a day.

Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests that the problem with the film is its addiction to the visual extravaganza of big-budget Hollywood glamour. But I think the real problem--both with the film, and with the way that most Americans read the novel--is its portrayal of Nick Carraway. And it isn't just that the film eliminates the references to Nick's homosexuality that are in the book. It's that the film's Nick is the film's only voice and gaze, that the film repeats and endorses Nick's naive fantasy of who Gatsby is and what he represents.

Adam Kotsko observed this week about AMC's Mad Men that viewers understand the show's point (Don is a prick, white men rule, etc.), but they nonetheless watch in perpetual hope of seeing a different, more triumphalist and heartwarming story, one in which Peggy might prevail or Sal will return. Viewers "resent being deprived of that fantasy--even though the entire work of the show has always, from day one, been to deprive us of that fantasy." The Great Gatsby has achieved its status as iconic American novel through a similar dynamic, one that its voyeuristic narrator plays out for us. The English major-turned-Wall Street bond trader is entranced by the inflated self-indulgent story spun out by Gatsby because it helps him not have to look more closely, say, at the crushed body of Myrtle or the suffering of George, left behind on the road (yes, beneath the billboard with spectacles) in the Valley of Ashes. Nick can't see the waste created by the glitter because he's so enamored of the excess, of the spectacle itself.

High school students across America are overwhelmingly taught to read The Great Gatsby the same way Nick reads Gatsby himself, and Luhrmann obligingly reproduces for us a story about a poor rural boy's heroic but ultimately tragic effort to reach the American dream, a dream sadly corrupted by materialistic vice. But another reading of the novel might recognize that the corruption actually is the dream, however much we might cloak it in a cascade of glitter, fireworks, and high thread-count cotton. The green light doesn't symbolize hope; it symbolizes greed.

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