Friday, April 12, 2013

The Great Gatsby

(Jack Clayton, USA, 1974)

How did Clayton get it so wrong?  In what should have been a slam dunk, with a script by Francis Ford Coppola, based on one of the greatest - and most cinematic - stories in American literature, the British-born director snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.  '74's Gatsby is a prettified slog.  The few felicitous shots and moments that it accomplishes feel accidental, as if Clayton were the proverbial busted clock that's right every 12 hours.  And that may be too generous.  At least Redford is well cast, although he's still Redford; there's only so much wattage he can get out of his Midwestern/patrician good looks and easy charm; the rest must fall to the director, who proves himself, in scene after scene, to be over-matched by the source material.  For that matter, the rest of the cast makes sense as well, but, like Redford, they're all dressed up with nowhere to go.   The movie appears as a sort of blueprint; you can see what it's supposed to do, from a schematic standpoint, but it remains provisional and monochromatic. 

What's frustrating is that Clayton does evince some understanding of the story; he gets some of what Fitzgerald was writing about, and some is certainly better than nothing at all.  But his understanding is just that - the kind of knowledge that can lead one to summarize the plot, make easy judgements about the characters, but remain disinterested, even, God forbid, professional.  As a visual stylist, he's clumsy and uninspired, full of ideas about where to place the camera, but they're all wrong, not least because they're completely impersonal.  It's tempting to think that the book, for all of it's glorious imagery and lapidary, often funny dialogue, is actually an unfilmmable novel in disguise as a "cinematic" one.  And a pretty good case can be made; it's reliance on narration, its exposition-y stretches and fierce interiority, its ethereal hovering between moods, accomplished so deftly with language.  But I don't buy it.  These are technical issues, wholly subordinate to questions of inspiration.  Gatsby the book is great because it does what all great art does: it creates a world effortlessly, organically, that seems both autonomous and absolutely conditional.   What it's conditional on is the consciousness that created it, and the miracle of possessing a consciousness that can experience, so directly, a spark from another soul.  It refreshes the world.  The right path for any director to take would've been to honor their own resonances and emotions regarding those sensations, but Clayton fumbles the whole thing by his fidelity to the Importance of the novel.  Like many other would-be artists before him, he serves the wrong master.  In adapting the book, he treated it as an object, not an experience.

And so we have this starchy, dead thing.  On the one hand, it's a shame, since there's a great film to be made there, and the 70s was the era for this kind of ambitious, high-minded project to work.   Coppola himself might have done it as director, but I'm tickled by the idea that the perfect man for the job would have been Cimino.  There was someone who at his height possessed both the appetite for greatness and the wild, impetuous ambition to make it completely his own. But on the other hand, it works rather well as a cautionary tale.  In the meantime, we'll have to be wary of Baz Luhrman's chintzy jive.  It's very possible that he'll screw it up in an entirely different way.

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