Sunday, July 07, 2013

hopes and dreams

It's more than a week without posting, I know.

It's just that I've been traveling like crazy beacause of the FIFA Confederations Cup, of which my company is a sponsor. While a little tiresome, it has been a great experience; I've been to three cities to watch four different games and had the privilege of being in the final, in Rio de Janeiro, to watch Brazil defeat Spain in spectacular fashion. So as you can imagine, I didn't have much time to write.

Also adding to that is the fact that I have been working on some side projects, specially my portfolio. I finally decided to put together some of my designs and texts in what I expect to be a simple but pleasing document. When it's done, I'll post it here. Last, but probably most important, is the fact that I really haven't had too many opinions on anything right now. Without opinions, there's not really a lot to write  about.

That being said, there is something I wanted to discuss. A few weeks earlier, my sister was in town and I spent quite some time showing her around. We had planned to see The Lion King, but had to give up that particular plan because of the riots in the city (and all around the country, really) kept us home. So we had settle for a movie the day after, and we chose The Great Gatsby.

I wanted to know what all the buzz was about, but I still haven't figured it out yet. I saw the movie, I downloaded and read the book my tablet, and I don't know what is it about this particular story that has people so amused. The first thing I want to say is that book and movie are remarkably alike; sometimes, the screen showed word for word what I read on the pages (with the notable exception of a storyline involving the narrator being an alcoholic in rehabilitation, which never occurred in the book). So let's talk about the book first and then I'll make some remarks about the movie.

It is a surprisingly simple story, with only a handful of characters and only one plot line: a young man named Nick Carraway moves to New York to work, and meets the city's rich and famous: his cousin, the charming Daisy, her strong and cheating husband Tom, their friend Jordan, a famous golf player, and his next door neighbour, a mysterious man named Gatsby. Gatsby is an eccentric millionaire who throws enormous parties where nobody is invited but everybody comes. Daisy and her gang, on the other hand, are rich people with pedigrees who, careless in their wealth, "smash and break things" and then "retreat", letting other fix it. As the story develops, we discover that Gatsby and Daisy were once lovers, and, with the aid of Nick, they reunite, which causes great turmoil, and eventually leads to Gatsby's death.

The book feels really out of tone with the time it was written in (1952). It is very obvious and straightforward in a time when books took whole chapters to describe one dinner scene. Things are not implied, they are said right away, sometimes even a little crudely. There's little room left for interpretation; as the book is written in a first person perspective, the reader doesn't have to guess at what anything means, rather, we are told what Nick thought, and that's the only point of view we can have (and I don't say this to criticise the book, as I don't think this is a flaw, but just to point it out).

Of course, by the time the book ends, one can't help but feel that Gatsby wasn't so much a person as he was an idea. He was the embodiment of New York in the 20's; someone who didn't see the difference between wanting and having, a toxic mixture of short-termism and crazy dreams. Someone who was so scared that tomorrow wouldn't bring all his hopes and dreams that he saw no other choice but to live today as fully as he could. He dies having achieved everything everyone wanted, but not what he wanted, which is the one thing he couldn't have: to change the past.

Every character in the book is portrayed as being shallow except for Nick, who is simple. He is a person who sees the world in black and white, which is why he never seems to fit in with the shallow people, to whom right or wrong don't matter as much as having fun, being the centre of attention and getting what they want. It's like they are all children: Nick, because he is so innocent, even foolishly so, and Daisy, Tom and Gatsby because they're spoiled, Gatsby most off all. He is determined to get Daisy back and can't figure out why his having a fortune doesn't seem to magically fix that. "This is all for her", he says of the parties and excess, as if that should sway her heart immediately. He can't hear of how she once loved her husband; she has to want him with all her heart at all times, and nothing less will suffice. Spolied people in a spoling world.

All in all, an interesting book, a lively portrait of a time and a place, sharply written and with just the right length so as not to bore the reader. I suppose, as with many classic books or movies, that it can't be fully enjoyed now as it was before, for it has inspired and influenced many of the stories that came after it, rendering what made it new and admirable a little bit obsolete (it is like trying be amazed with the special effects in the original Star Wars after having watched Transformers - a crude example, but you get my point). As I said, the prose struck me as being modern, so probably in the 50's it was considered avant-garde, but it failed to cause much effect on me, reading it 60 years later - I could feel this was once a new way of writing, but today it's just the way to write.

Probably this didn't escape writer and director Baz Luhrmann when he undertook the 2013 movie adaptation. Instead of giving us the same characters living in the 21st century - which would have been a way to modernize the story - he, in a bit of controversial move, gives a 1920 full of impossibly fast cars and parties rocking Jay Z and Fergie. Which is completely understandable - he wants us to experience the 20's the way the characters experienced them. If we had to watch a bunch of people dancing the Charleston, we would detach from the movie, feeling "wow, this is old and boring". He makes us understand what a crazy time it was for those who were living it, and he succeeds.

The movie is a visual triumph and very well acted (but, I need to point this out, I think Leo DeCaprio is starting to play himself. The secret of great actors is to never play themselves - just look at Meryl Streep, I seriously can't guess how she is like in real life. When they start to play themselves, they start being casted as themselves, and then they end up making movies like The Bucket List - and I'm talking about Jack Nicholson, not Morgan Freeman, just so you know). But this movie, as the book that inspired it, doesn't try to make a point, it just tells you what it is. And that's why I can't understand why people are fascinated with it.

The point of the story is: it was a crazy time and people were full of dreams, but they were scared of not achieving them, so they filled their heads with champagne and their bodies with sex and ended too stupid to chase after those dreams. But you don't need to figure it out: the narrator will tell you, so no need for you to think. You could say that the green light in the other side of the river that separated Gatsby and Daisy was the representation of this unattainable dreams, but again, no need, the narrator will explain that to you. Perhaps this story would have worked better without a narrator, or one in the third person. But far be it from me to criticise Fitzgerald. He didn't write a classic just because.

So I'm I saying go see the movie? Yes, go see the movie. But you won't be blown away. At least story-wise (which is, to me, the best way to be blown away). This movie doesn't thwart expectation nor does it invite pondering. Sure it's got a great soundtrack and art direction, but it ends up being as blunt as a punch in the face, when a gentle shove would have cut it.

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