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Fables of acquisition

The celebration of wealth in ‘The Great Gatsby’ may be vulgar,but it is an honest reflection of contemporary values

Published: May 21, 2013 12:06:41 am

The celebration of wealth in ‘The Great Gatsby’ may be vulgar,but it is an honest reflection of contemporary values

The pages of The Great Gatsby are suffused with romance and dusted with sexual implication,but perhaps the most intensely and disturbingly erotic scene — the one that distils the novel’s seductive blend of desire and sorrow — involves clothes. Showing off his mansion to Daisy Buchanan,the great love of his life,and Nick Carraway,his diffident,dazzled neighbour,Jay Gatsby opens a cabinet in which his shirts are “piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high.”

He throws them into a pile,and as Nick notes the wondrous textures and colors — “stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange,with monograms of Indian blue” — Daisy bursts into tears: “‘They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed,her voice muffled in the thick folds. ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.’”

A reader might speculate about other causes of her weeping,but there is no reason not to take Daisy at her word. One of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s points is that beautiful things in abundance can produce a powerful aesthetic response,akin to the sublime. And the sublimity of stuff,of shirts and cars and champagne flutes and everything else that money can buy,is surely what drives Baz Luhrmann’s wildly extravagant adaptation of Gatsby.

The movie has been faulted,not entirely without justice,for its headlong embrace of the materialism that the novel views with ambivalence. Luhrmann,though following the book’s plot more or less faithfully,does not offer a stable moral perspective from which the world of its characters can be judged. Rather,he immerses the viewer in a sensual swirl of almost tactile opulence.

But if you have gone to the movies recently you have witnessed similar moments of commodity fetishism. Jay Gatsby is hardly the only character revelling in the palpable,wearable tokens of his good fortune. Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers offers an almost uncanny echo of Gatsby,when Alien,the South Florida drug dealer played by James Franco,brags about how many pairs of shorts he owns. He also adds a profane twist to a phrase that appears in just about every term paper ever written about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third novel: “It’s the American Dream!”

Term-paper authors are eager to read irony into such invocations,but this writer is not so sure. Yes,Alien is something of a cretin,and Gatsby was a prisoner of his own fantasies. Both acquired their fortunes illegally,and both meet violent ends. But like Luhrmann’s dizzy rendering of The Great Gatsby,Korine’s fever dream of sun-

baked collegiate hedonism does not attach moralistic warning labels or flags of satire to its images

of excess.

Fitzgerald’s Gatsby may be subject to analogous confusion,but Luhrmann’s Gatsby is something else altogether. The movie’s view (literally,its visual presentation) of American materialism is not moralistic,but pornographic. It traffics in the sheer libidinal pleasure of money and what it can buy. One of the great paradoxes of modern consumerism is that these goods are mass-market signifiers of exclusivity,tokens of aristocratic populism. We may not be able to afford them,but we are invited to believe that we still deserve them,and that their acquisition will be the fulfilment of a dream. If we can’t touch what Gatsby has,at least we can look. These movies are fables of acquisition. In some of the films,the protagonists get caught,but none of them really repent,and their punishments seem more like legal technicalities than victories of moral order. An occasional Robin Hood pose is struck,and the names Bonnie and Clyde are dropped,but the rough redistributive justice that those outlaws represented — fighting landowners and robbing banks — is nowhere to be seen.

Intentionally or not,Luhrmann stripped The Great Gatsby of the sentimentality that has always been part of its appeal,and in doing so updated it in a radical and troubling way. The result may be vulgar,but it is also an honest reflection of contemporary values — the same ones captured,with an equally shocking (and thrilling) refusal of moralism,by Spring Breakers,Pain & Gain and The Bling Ring. This is how we live: greedily,enviously,superficially,in a state of endless,self-justifying desire. This is the pursuit of happiness,mirrored in the pleasure these movies provide. But go ahead and cry.

The New York Times

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