Once again (I was) within and without

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Directed by Baz Luhrmann

The decade saw the first pilot to cross the Atlantic in a solo flight and declare in France, “I am Charles Lindbergh.” It saw the spread of mass production, mass marketing, and mass consumption. It brought us flappers, short skirts, the Harlem Renaissance, a woman’s right to vote, the martini, celebrity scandals, the cult of youth, talkies, mobsters, the great Babe Ruth, speakeasies, 104 words for “intoxicated”, Dorothea Parker’s Round Table, the fast-step, and lots of cigarettes and sex…and movement, always movement…

(oh crap I forgot who wrote Higher, a book about the race between the Chrysler building and the Empire State)

First, a short run-down of the things we can thank modernity for in assessing our direct environments, and yet take for granted every day:
• indoor plumbing
• switches
• electric light

Especially electric light. I’ve had a friend say he couldn’t make it out to the neighborhood where I was staying because the roads weren’t lit. It took a while for that to sink in, light being something I take for granted until its absence reminds me that visibility goes with it. At the root of a highly Westernized modernity comes an increasing reliance on the visible and with it, the privileging of the eye.

A turn into the postmodern takes that privilege even further, with the visual asserting its primacy over the material. Beyond making it possible to find one’s way around at night (without which the entire concept of a night life, so central to city living, wouldn’t be possible), electric light now comes to us in the form of a flash from a camera, a face on a screen, or the erratic blinks and flickers of a video game. Light, in The Great Gatsby, was the glow at the tip of a dock, the signal of a border or a (city) limit.

More than being a morality play about what money can and can’t buy, Baz Luhrmann’s rendition of Gatsby speaks to a generation for whom the visible functions as currency in so many ways. Luhrmann proves that even if it was and is already wonderful on paper, The Great Gatsby is a story that needs light to speak for it. As a narrative of the zeitgeist, it became necessary for him to go beyond light and into spectacle in maximizing the potential of Fitzgerald’s words in their translation from page to screen. 3-D? Yup. Lana del Rey on the soundtrack? Fuck yeah.

Gatsby was written at a time when wealth went from being functional to observable, giving birth to the homoerotic sport of comparing wealth, and thus taking capitalism from a game not only of accumulation, but to one of emulation. (Think Bateman. Think Ripley [as in the Talented Mister]) This confirmed the idea that while wealth cannot be available to all, it’s representation could be: a convenience that postmodernity affords us all, much to the chagrin (or pride) of those who bother with the so-called real thing – that which light touches rather than merely projects.

I read somewhere that there is no honest way to make a million, and I still believe that. In the shift from industrial to financial capitalism came a neoliberal worldview that we have come to regard as normal. The contradiction in the equal parts discomfort and delight that is reaped from this worldview is captured so well by Luhrmann, in a two-hour caricature of the 20s, a costume-drama performing what this very generation lives with day by day. This confluence of sensation, celebrity, and spectacle could make The Great Gatsby a movie of our age, written during the period that set it in motion – in which swaths of humanity would be rendered irrelevant not only by the senseless violence of war, but the ongoing dehumanization efforts of vampire capitalism and the accompanying cultures of commodification and spectacle.

This is what makes Luhrmann and co.’s use of contemporary effects – from cinematography to soundtrack– the most clever element in this film. By shooting in 3-D, with momentary lapses to the grain, light leaks, and shakes of a home movie, The Great Gatsby is framed using the same overlapping tools we use to curate and narrate our own experiences. These also highlight the way this generation has mastered and exploited the speed of innovation and the obsolescence that shadows it: in which better communication lines create better ways to make the self visible—and also create better ways to edit or fictionalize that self, thus blurring the boundaries between a personal and an imagined truth.

Yet, the assumption that Gatsby was made to speak to and for the generation of the #selfie (i.e. the cult of the image) remains debatable, considering how slippery the definition of substance has become at a time in which the dominance of financial capital is slowly giving way to cognitive capital. What Gatsby so accurately captures is not only the capacity of financial capital, and the ensuing greed, to corrupt an otherwise good man, but the speed of its movement. Not only was it pointed out that Jay Gatsby was in his early thirties when he made his fortune in his attempts to win Daisy’s heart, the numerous shady phone calls Gatsby receives throughout the day are the equivalent of today’s stock market tickers and the movement from a market of goods to the market of derivatives that manifests both financially and visually.

Gatsby’s life’s work was not the palatial house or the pursuit of Daisy but the persistence of the personality cults surrounding the myth of American success; of which, his own was made doctrine through Carraway’s writings. In writing about Gatsby to exorcise his own demons, Nick Carraway simultaneously immortalizes him while relegating him to the past. As both the subject of this story and its narrator, Carraway enacts the conflict central to the dread of being forgotten–a dread that is echoed and embodied by this generation. As the subject of a story, Jay Gatsby becomes a medium for a morality tale, yet also risks becoming an artifact. Whether he is cast to the pedestal or to the page, in being immortalized, he loses the privilege to speak for himself.

When your life doesn’t seem wholly believable, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the times you’re living it and the times you’re watching yourself having lived it. No one develops film anymore. There are no pauses and no distinctions made between reacting and reflecting. On portable screens, we watch moments we created just seconds ago. Facebook, tumblr, instagram, etc. all provide that technologically mediated pinch allowing us to check if any of it actually happened. For today’s digital natives, the social network is analogous to Carraway’s Queensboro bridge – a boundary between scene and seen, which in this day normalizes the irony of living to be watched.

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