The Gatsby Smile

THE GREAT GATSBY

He smiled understandingly–much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as 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.

You may recall that, back in late-summer 2012, we got ourselves fired up for the Baz Luhrmann-Leo DiCaprio Gatsby. Also: we wondered last spring if Leo could successfully enact the smile.

Well, the DVD landed (in the Franklin County library). And it turns out we wondered about the wrong things.

IMHO: Leo crushes it. Absolutely tramples all over it, like the flag of an enemy nation. Makes Robert Redford (his only rival as a movie Gatsby)–Leo makes Robert Redford look like a piker, a glib flounderer, a shell.

Great Gatsby 2012 posterI don’t weep at movies. That’s documented. I wept for Leo. Wept for his false and misdirected hope that deserved to be true.

It was actually the Luhrmann flourishes (which we thought, after Romeo + Juliet, that we could take to the bank)–it was Luhrmann’s gussying up the movie that came off as stupid. Waste of time and energy, the dancing girls and party sequences, the castle, the stylized Eckleburg ashpits, the car chases, and the cartoon cityscapes. Mere distractions from Leo’s and Carey Mulligan’s incandescently mesmerizing acting. The two of them could perform the script on an unadorned stage with no props, and it would be every bit as interesting as the movie.

Tobey Maguire sporting beard growth to communicate ‘depressed’ made me laugh. He should leave his ‘deep, soulful’ voice out. The whole sanitorium bit–what was the point? On-screen supertitles of the famous lines of the book? Please. Dumb.

But: We thank you, everyone associated with making this movie–we, the entire staff and crew of this little weblog, we thank you for giving us a movie version of The Great Gatsby (the most movie-make-able novel ever written)–we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for giving us a movie that not only does not suck, but is actually, really, truly good.

Gatsby Sentences

Great Gatsby 2012 posterIn honor of this new Baz-Luhrmann music video coming out tonight, I present my four favorite sentences of The Great Gatsby:*

1. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.

This refers to Gatsby on the afternoon he spent with Daisy, after Nick’s luncheon.

2. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.

(When Nick and Gatsby drive into town together.)

This sentence—to my mind—rings as true now as it did in the twenties. The West Side, for good or ill, still stews in a kind of shtetl boredom compared to the East Side.

3. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year.

The night Gatsby and Daisy first kissed, five years ago.

4. We possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.

All the main characters in the novel hail from west of the Appalachians. I never understood the withering aptness of this sentence until I first spent some serious time in the region that Fitzgerald had in his blood: summer of 1999, Omaha, Nebraska. One of my confreres that summer referred to Chicago as “one of those big eastern cities.” An incisive student of character, a dear friend I met that summer, and an Iowan, referred to me as “a brooding Easterner.”

Nick Carraway hit the nail on the head with this sentence. The Eastern Seaboard and the Mid-West produce two different species of human being.

…Probably the most famous passage of the book (other than the last sentence, which I, for one, think is a little stupid) is:

He smiled understandingly–much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as 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.

This is Nick meeting Gatsby for the first time. (A good third of the way through the novel, one should note!)

Now, I love Leo DiCaprio as much as the next guy loves him. I love him quite a bit. He had me at Romeo + Juliet. Loathe as I am to admit it publicly, I adore absolutely everything about Titanic; I could watch it over and over and over.

Alas, poor KirkBut I am afraid that Leo will not be able to pull this passage off. I will see the movie, one of these eons—maybe when the DVD lands in my local library. But I have no expectation that Leo will have it in him to bring this particular Gatsby smile to life.

Let me say this, and I do so with tears in my eyes:

There is, in fact, one man I have known who truly brought these sentences to life. A man who had the capacity to grasp a situation in full, exactly as it was, to accept it exactly as it was, and to take infinite delight in it. And his delight was because of you.

My father.

At his best, my dad brought this majestic Fitzgerald description of Gatsby to life. May the Lord reward him for it.

__________________
* I learned a decade or so ago that a person must re-read The Great Gatsby once every five years in order to remind himself what the English language can accomplish even now.

In Between…

1. Mourning for the demise of Dalhauser (all-time #1 beast, IMHO),
2. Jazzing for the Mexican-soccer Olympic run,
3. Acknowledging that Lithuania has always given Team USA a run for its money, and
4. Doing some deep-background research for an upcoming essay regarding a film genre that I have dubbed “sampled Shakespeare,”

I discovered—to my delight, to my astonishment, to my toe-curling, lets-get-fired-up bemusement—that:

1. Robert Redford may soon be dethroned (from an august throne, a throne originally designed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, held aloft by Mia Farrow and Sam Waterston, and that turned tragic during a dip in a perfectly stylish pool).

2. Baz Luhrmann and Leo DiCaprio have GOTTEN BACK TOGETHER for another run at turning a literary masterpiece into a consummate, two-hour rock-and-roll video, and it just might be something genuinely interesting, because…

1. Their first crack at it made my year in 1996, made my decade in the 1990’s, never ceases to enchant me, and

2. They’ve got an interesting-looking Indian dude to play Meyer Wolfsheim and Tobey Maguire will play Nick Carraway.

“Days go by…It’s all we’ve been given”

–Keith Urban. Nice song. (Click on the play button on the right of the linked screen to listen. I would have linked to the video, but it is beyond tedious. I almost lost all enthusiasm for the song when I watched 15 seconds of the video. Better just to listen.)

If it were my song, which of course it is not, I would add a phrase to the words “you better start livin’.”

In Christ would fit nicely. “You better start living in Christ.”

Here’s another good DVD to watch. It’s Shakespeare. It’s an extremely clever “modernization.” It is a Leonardo-DiCaprio movie without too much nasty violence. It’s from back when Leo was young and skinny and absolutely to-die-for. It is PG-13, so if you are a child, don’t even think about pressing the play button below.


The preview makes the movie look more violent and racier than it actually is. There is one scene worthy of a serious wince. (Which isn’t even listed on the IMDd.com parents’ advisory page–as if a man dressed as a woman is not something we would want to be advised about.) On the whole, though, it is a refreshingly clean movie, and splendidly done.

Etan Thomas of the Washington Wizards, back from heart surgery
Etan Thomas, a.k.a. the Poet, of the Washington Wizards, back from heart surgery
Also…

The NBA season begins, and the Moses beards are proliferating.

…And, getting back to the subject of “Deus ex machina”…

A good plot should contain all the elements necessary to resolve itself. Introducing characters late in the game, or unknown facts that change the whole situation–this is dramatically unsatisfying. Hence the perjorative phrase, “Deus ex machina,” God coming out of a machine to fix everything. Lame.

But, of course, Deus Himself has the prerogative to come out of the machina. It is not “Deus ex machina” for God Himself to intervene in history. He actually is Deus. He is allowed.

Is this what He has done? Is the salvation of the human race by Jesus Christ a case of “Deus ex machina”?

We had fallen from grace. We were condemned to death. We were living pretty miserable lives, punctuated by occasional glimpses of goodness and beauty. Very occasional.

People seasoned their dried fish with ashes. Other people threw babies into volcanoes or spilled out birds’ innards to foretell the future. There were not many virtues being practiced. And there was no hope for eternal life.

Then the perfect man came, lived the perfect life, offered the perfect sacrifice, and promised the perfect gifts to those who believe in Him.

Seems like a bolt out of the blue. Seems impossible to anticipate. Deus ex machina?

Well…there WERE prophesies. Many of the Jews hoped for the Messiah. Even non-Jews looked for Him. The coming of the Messiah was not completely unexpected.

Keith Urban
Keith Urban
But we have to try to go deeper, back to God’s original Creation of the world.

It is certainly true that the coming of Christ was by no means inevitable. His coming was a free gift, a total surprise, never earned, never merited–purely gracious. No one could have anticipated that God Himself would become a man.

But the following is also certainly true: His coming is the fulfillment of Creation. Christ did not enter the world as a foreigner. He came to “what was His own.” All of creation is “for Him.” (quoting Sts. John and Paul) He came not to destroy, but to fulfill. This (in my humble opinion) is the great insight that makes St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching so profound and so true.

The coming of God as a man is NOT Deus ex machina. It is the exact opposite: The coming of Christ makes everything else make sense. The plot was jumbled and confused BEFORE. Now it unfolds cleanly; now it fits; now it is beautiful.

…In other news: The Wizards just managed to lose their opener at home to the lowly New Jersey Nets. Good grief!

On the other hand: The Phillies just won the World Series!