Yesterday, I had a three-hour commission meeting at the State Capitol on reforming Virginia’s Public Procurement Act. Afterwards, I got back home and took my wife Sharon to see Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Great Gatsby.”
Today, I could talk about the relative merits of “competitive sealed bidding” and “competitive negotiation.” Or I could talk about Gatsby.
Let’s talk about Gatsby.
With the possible exception of “Caddyshack,” no other artistic work has wound its way more deeply into the modern American consciousness than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ode to youth, beauty and the Roaring Twenties.
I read “The Great Gatsby” when I was 22, then re-read it again and again. It became my favorite book and Fitzgerald my favorite American author. Watching the movie last night, I knew the words to every scene. (Credit the director for faithfully following the book’s riveting dialogue, especially in scenes between Tom, Daisy, Nick and Gatsby).
The movie added some twists. For example, Tom Buchanan — the overbearing bully from Yale — actually becomes a more nuanced character in the movie. In a way, you do see him as the perfect husband for the narcissistic Daisy.
DiCaprio, as expected, was on-target as Gatsby. His physical presence filled the screen and typified the peculiarly American ambition of the protagonist.
The Australian director also did a fine job of conveying the manic energy and booze-saturated social life of New York in the Twenties. (I had no problem with the Jay-Z scores, which amplified the scenes). Which brings me to my sole but major criticism …
The Great Gatsby was not just about New York and the flapper style. It was about two young men (Carraway and Gatsby) who came to New York, but were outsiders to its life and culture. The movie marks that “outsider” status but doesn’t give any hint of where they came from, i.e. the farm states of the Midwest.
In a lot of ways, the literary “Great Gatsby” was an ode to the simpler “obscure” half of America, where people didn’t swim naked in bathtubs of illegal gin. That Middle America was filled with people like young “James Gatz” who rose early in the morning for farming chores and read great books by candlelight.
That Middle America also spawned Nick Carraway who ultimately rejects the lifestyle of East Egg and tells Gatsby that he’s better “than the whole rotten bunch.” (In the movie, Tobey Maguire has the naivete and earnestness of young Carraway, but lacks the moral distance that the book’s Midwestern narrator maintained to NYC life).
Critically, in its final moments, the director has Nick Carraway write about “the green light on the end of Daisy’s dock” and how Gatsby chased that dream “but it eluded him.” He failed to mention the book’s epitaph on Gatsby’s dream: “He did not know that it lay buried behind him, somewhere in that vast obscurity beyond the City, where the dark fields of the Republic rolled on under the night.”
East Egg was not part of Fitzgerald’s vast obscurity. Never was. Indeed, it was originally “the fresh green breast ” which had been corrupted by the money, greed, and stupidity of modern life in the Twenties.
However, the “vast obscurity” of the Great Republic and its values survived and endured. It was in the DNA of Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway, no matter how much they tried to pretend otherwise. They would always be different.
Fitzgerald (who was from Minnesota) understood that. The movie director did not