Monday, February 24, 2014

The Dreariness of Sanctity

How does one film The Great Gatsby?

With a great deal of care and reverence, I suppose.

Certainly, the Jack Clayton 1974 version – Hollywood’s third attempt to depict arguably the greatest American novel ever written – is filmmaking with the sort of attention to detail and seriousness usually reserved for a religious ritual.

And yes, like most actual religious functions, this effort is far too somber and particular to ever really entertain or convey anything like sentiment. Adaptation is never an easy art to pull off, of course, and the old adage that great books make lousy movies and lousy books make great movies is never truer than it is here. Standout performances from Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, both of whom seemed born to play Gatsby and Daisy, cannot save what one critic quipped is a film “as lifeless as a body that’s been too long at the bottom of a swimming pool.”

The strangeness of the failure is even more acute when one realizes that both Francis Ford Coppola and Vladimir Nabakov – the latter no slouch at writing novels – worked on the screenplay, a screenplay which on the page, probably sang with passion. The scenes themselves, especially that first grandiose party at Gatsby’s waterfront abode, also look spectacular enough to get the heart pounding and the head hoping that what we are about to see will equal the power and the pitfalls of the novel. But sadly the aesthetics and the integrity of the plot are all that is on offer here. The movie just does not hum along the way the book does and scenes that are meant to be emotional, especially the tragic ones, play out flat and boring, as if conveyed by the robotics of rote memorization.

That the book is far more complicated and less clean than filmmakers and high school English teachers think no doubt also plays havoc on this adaptation. For what is Fitzgerald after in the novel? Many would say it is about money not being everything, an oblique reference to Fitzgerald’s “the rich are not like you and me” quote, which is so often taken out of context as to entirely lose its meaning. Certainly, Redford, with his shirts from Turbell & Asher and his French champagne and fake Oxford degree is not like his contemporaries, something both the novel and the film make clear once he is dead and there is almost no one at his funeral, save Nick Carraway. But is the book – and therefore, the film adaptation here – really so simple? 

Certainly, I did not think so the second time I read the novel, nor the third.

Rather than bore my handful of readers with literary analysis, I will simply offer the following. Gatsby and Nick’s intertwined searches for the self are entirely that: Searches for the self. Gatsby attempted to remake himself because he never knew who he was in the first place and was not sure what he wanted to become. This is the glory and the rootlessness of egalitarian America, where you are not what your parents were and are not confined by where you came from (unlike Europe, for example). You must then invent yourself – and this can take a lifetime, and even longer still, and the worst part of it is, you may never reach a satisfactory result. Certainly, Gatsby did not.

Gatsby chooses Tom and Daisy’s crude and boorish model of success as his lamppost because he wanted Daisy to be his and not Tom’s. What he really wants is a past that he could not recapture and a future based on an alternate past that never unfolded. He does not learn that you are not entirely what others think of you. Worse, if you do not know yourself, truly know yourself, then no party can ever be big enough, no lie convincing enough.

Gatsby is a muddled, shook-up man who likely knows less about himself at the end than he did at the beginning.  Only Nick grows, but even he is paralyzed by his own uncertainty about his own identity to do or say much throughout the plot’s events, which is precisely why he is a great narrator, but near-awful protagonist. He cannot break away from Tom and Daisy until it is too late and he cannot help save Gatsby from himself. The plot itself is about a great many things, wealth, discovery, the American dream, the hollowness of that dream, relationships, love, nostalgia, maturation, lost innocence. I could go on, because it is all there, and what we are dealing with is decisively deadly in the way a tight Shakespearean tragedy is.

Funny thing about the old Bard, he does not film well, either.

My suspicion is these texts matter too much to the people who found some or all of the richness in them and that this affinity prevents these adaptors from the level of interpretation and confinement necessary for two and half hours of film. In that sense, The Great Gatsby, is a beautiful but mediocre film, one that becomes interesting only when we watch it for what it is not. In other words, no matter how earnest the acolyte, he or she cannot conjure up the same magic as the prophet who inspired them, and in the case of this film, what we have is a rather unintentional examination of failing to achieve the sort of legitimate greatness the title character himself vainly sought in the pages of a century-old novel.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

“We’re Not Little Men”

Sean Connery and Michael Caine could do just about anything on film and it would be interesting to watch. Titans of a very different sort, both infuse any picture they are in with the intense gravity that accompanies their commanding presence. In 1975’s The Man Who Would be King, both romp through the exoticism of the East in a film based on a Rudyard Kipling short story about two swindlers intent on conning an entire nation into letting them take over as rulers.

Often labeled, erroneously I think, as rip-roaring piece of criticism about empire, this is a film in which a pair of larger-than-life stars explore the notions of ego and ultimately end up celebrating it. How is that for British irony? Along the way, honor (amongst thieves and otherwise), greed and the corrupting influence of power are also explored, but in the film’s final few frames, Caine, haunted and clearly mad, remains both proud and passionate about what he and Connery achieved through self-motivation and their own guile.

That the two men who perhaps more than any other actors who symbolize British masculinity are cast back to the 19th century to play rakes and conmen is a genius bit of casting that reveals precisely where the film plans to take the audience:  Away from safe and academic topics and toward the dark recesses of what can drive men to questionable acts. Early on in the film, for example, Caine unleashes a powerful invective against the British bureaucracy in India. It is an impassioned speech, but not a word of it is accurate. What Caine and his companion are suffering from is far more generalized, in that it is not red tape they bristle at, but the very law and order that is inherent in civilization. The pair are, in other words, two of Sigmund Freud’s bored “discontents,” chafing from the proscription of the boundless desires their rather large egos have created.

In other sense, these men are also adventurers, and as such, their sense of scale dwarfs the ordinary man’s. They want to leave India and head beyond Afghanistan and Hindu Kush because men of their ambition need “space.” Or as Connery puts it “We’re not little men.” To ease their abrasions, the two devise a wild scheme, wherein they will help a feudal king in Kafiristan overcome his enemies, then depose the king and assume his authority themselves. To aid in their proposal, the pair acquire 20 British rifles and a cache of ammunition, and off they set.

As I have suggested, these are men of appetite, large appetite. And there is something to admire in the way they go about trying to satiate themselves, but there is also something shallow and sad about it, neither of which was lost on Kipling. Connery and Caine’s ambitions often manifest in incredibly prosaic ways. What Connery wants, for example, more than anything else is to be received by the Queen of England as an equal and then made a member of the Order of the Garter, which contradictorily, would again make him a servant of Her Britannic Majesty. This is a commoner’s, boyish dream – and Kipling meant for us to recognize it as such and chuckle at it.

At about the same time the events in this film take place, Lord Acton famously proclaimed “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There is nothing terribly new in the supposition that power is a corrupting agent, but the power itself is not really the corruptor. It is the ego that sought the power in the first place. The triumph of Caine and Connery that follows is thus a testament not to a cravenness for power, but to their vision and audacity.

Of course such bold ambition place in the service of self-serving needs cannot be allowed to stand as successful in either literature or film. And thus, the fall comes to Caine and Connery as it does to all misguided and ignoble protagonists. Having installed themselves as rulers and begin pilfering the riches of Kafiristan, Connery cannot resist actually ruling, and ruling as a God no less. Caine attempts to bring his friend back to reality, but to no avail. Connery has truly been ultimately corrupted by the grandiosity of their heist.

The even more incredible irony at work here is the fact that if Connery had kept to the contract – an obvious metaphor for Western temperance – he and Caine devised and minded the part about leaving the native women alone, he would have been able to fulfill their plan (IE -- Loot the riches and flee back over the Hindu Kush). Here, man’s inability to live inhumanly as a God is personified in Connery’s inability to forget Roxanne’s beauty, but more than that, he wants a wife, a family and a child – all of which are very unlike deity-like desires, something the priests quickly call attention to. If there is any ultimate conclusion, it is that audacious swindlers who concoct almighty swindles are still swindlers. They just have larger imaginations than their small-time counterparts. In the end, the goal of both is the same, overturn the traditional order by taking something from someone else to satisfy the rather childish parts of the ego. (Another irony is that wanting to marry and begin a family is the most adult ambition Connery displays throughout the film and it is ultimately his undoing.)

This is not to say Connery and Caine are petty. Their oversized appetite saves them from that fate.

When, for example, they are facing what they believe is certain death early in the film, Caine and Connery are buoyantly resigned to ending their time on Earth, knowing full well that they have lived life in a way few other men have for no other reason than they had the guts to do it. “How many men have been where we’ve been and seen what we’ve seen?” Caine asks. “Bloody few,” Connery pipes back.

Indeed, these are not little men, and we should celebrate them for that. Although the tale is ultimately cautionary, it remains something of a paean to ego. The tragedy as I see it is not that Caine and Connery had these personalities, it is that they were not able to discover anything in their Victorian world that they believed their considerable energies should be dedicated toward. They had, in essence, nothing but themselves and their own desires. Which is the same as almost having nothing.