The odds didn't look good for the new film version of The Great Gatsby this weekend, I thought, as I donned my plastic 3-D glasses and entered the dark theater. I wasn't expecting to like the movie much at all.
I don't love glitzy Hollywood spectacle, though I was willing to give the much-hyped new version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's great novel a chance because it was directed by Baz Lurhmann, a commanding figure in popular experimental cinema with an almost Warholian taste for edgy spectacle. I'd loved his Moulin Rouge, a wicked send-up of chic Paris in the era of Toulouse-Lautrec and absinthe.
If any big director was going to ruin Great Gatsby, I thought, it might as well be Luhrmann, who had apparently hired Jay-Z, Beyonce, Q-Tip, Lana Del Rey and Will.i.am for an anachronistic soundtrack (Moulin Rouge, similarly, gave us Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in 19th Century France, and made it work.)
But my hopes weren't very high as I entered the theater and put my Gatsby Glasses on. The idea of a 3-D version of a literary love story seemed ridiculous. I was also unhappy with the casting of the histrionic Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. I'd watched this overrated actor bluster through several promising literary movies already: Basketball Diaries, Total Eclipse, Gangs of New York, Revolutionary Road. I knew he only had six facial expressions, and I was sick of them all. I was ready to start hating the movie, as the lights in the theater went out.
If you're trying to analyze F. Scott Fitzgerald's jazz age novel The Great Gatsby and you're not thinking about Dante's Inferno, you're missing an obvious connection.
The connection is easy to spot and hard to dispute, though it rarely comes up in discussion of the book. I haven't heard it mentioned at all during the big media buildup to the bombastic new Baz Luhrmann/Leonardo DiCaprio Great Gatsby movie that's opening this weekend, though I have read a few clueless movie-tie-in articles that strain to explain the enduring cultural significance of Fitzgerald's novel. These articles usually miss the point by describing The Great Gatsby as a novel about the American dream of wealth and success, or something pedestrian like that.
Explanations of Gatsby as a Randian epic about a businessman don't illuminate the book very well, and neither do theories that Nick Carraway was gay or that Jay Gatsby was African-American. I tend to stick with the standard approach: The Great Gatsby is a chic and tawdry tale of love and romantic illusion. It's written in lush but light poetic prose in a heated tone that evokes a dramatic sense of spiritual hazard. The spiritual hazard is where Dante comes in.
As a writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald liked to paint modern society in starkly religious or biblical terms. He does not appear to have been very religious, but he was raised Catholic, viewed Christian ideals warmly, and seems to have been especially fascinated with concepts of Satanic guilt and damnation. This is most clear in his titles: his first novel was called This Side of Paradise, his second The Beautiful and Damned. His short stories include: Babylon Revisited, Jacob's Ladder, Absolution.
But The Great Gatsby, the novel he intended as the pinnacle of his mature literary achievement, is also his most ambitious spiritual work, as it apppears to be loosely grounded upon Dante's Inferno, the first and most famous part of the Italian poet's epic The Divine Comedy, in which a traveler is escorted on a colorful guided tour of Hell.
Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck has died. Recordings of his snappy number Take Five have been flying around the Internet in the past two days, but I like this video even better. Brubeck is playing a small concert in Moscow, and obliges when asked to improvise on a Russian theme. But watch what happens -- especially the surprised (and instantly delighted) look on Dave Brubeck's face when he discovers that a member of the audience has begun playing along on violin. A joyful moment.
I'm psyched to be included in an impressive series of interviews about the Beat Generation conducted by Michael Limnios at Blues @ Greece, a Greek web publication devoted to underground music and culture.
While we're watching counterculture moments on television from the 1960s,here's something else I just stumbled across: the joyful jazz composer, performer and beatnik David Amram on the kid's show Wonderama. He demonstrates his favorite instruments, and naturally leads a jam session with the kids, who are way into it.
Amram turns 82 years old this weekend, which means the promising new film David Amram: The First 80 Years must be nearing its second birthday ... and I haven't seen it yet! I hope this documentary film will reach more theaters, and will get a much-deserved spot on public television or some other music channel. One thing's for sure: audiences will love it, because Amram never fails to win an audience over. Here's the trailer for the film:
The new movie called On The Road begins in an outdoor Manhattan parking lot. Sweaty rushed Dean Moriarty is seen in close-up, screeching big blocky cars into tight spots as customers grimace in disapproval. Dean's new friend Sal Paradise stands by, watching with admiration. Like Dean Moriarty himself, Jack Kerouac's On The Road, which Kerouac always wished to see on the silver screen, has finally arrived in New York City.
I attended a preview screening of the long-awaited film (it won't open in general release until just before Christmas) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend, and sat there nearly wrenched with anticipation, because On The Road is one of my very favorite books in the world. I also had high hopes for the team behind the film: the monumental Francis Ford Coppola, who knows a bit about both epic cinema and transgressive literature, the screenwriter/director pair Jose Rivera and Walter Salles, who'd done solid work on a serious film about Che Guevara called Motorcycle Diaries. But I found it hard to imagine how any film based on Kerouac's wide, rambling, intentionally shapeless stream of consciousness novel could work.
In order to give my inevitably overflowing critical reaction to the film some structure, I decided in advance that I would review the film by posing and answering three questions. Do I love the film? Do I think people who haven't read On The Road will love the film? Finally, do I think Jack Kerouac would love the film? Here are my answers to these questions.
"Is reading social?" The question has been going around the litsphere, though many who have answered have reached for a middle ground between the disconcerting idea of social (and Internet-connected) literature and the more traditional notion of reading as an intensely private and solitary activity. I don't see much need for middle ground here -- I think the question is an open-and-shut case.
Reading is intensely social, and it's barely anything but social, and it has always been so. I know this because I know what reading feels like: when I read another person's book, I am engaging in a sharing of thoughts with this person. It doesn't make much difference, when I read Moby Dick, that Herman Melville has been dead for a long time. It's not his dead voice I find in the book; to the extent that I am reading him, I am encountering him in full. To read another person's words is to conduct a meeting of the minds. Is reading an intensely private activity? Well, sure, your reading life is private, just like your sex life is private. But it's not the least bit solitary (if it were, it wouldn't be reading, and it wouldn't be sex).
Reading is also social for another reason: almost all books are about people. Specifically, they're about people being social. If you read a chapter or a story that takes place at a dinner party, you are experiencing that dinner party vicariously. You laugh when a character is funny, wince when someone gets hurt, miss them all when they're gone. If the writer you are reading has mediocre talent, you may not experience their dinner party vividly, but if the writer is a master, it may be one of the best parties of your life. It's possible to quibble that this type of imaginary engagement is only social by proxy. But every reader knows it doesn't feel like proxy when we're in the middle of it.
A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post titled In Gatsby's Tracks: Locating the Valley of Ashes in a 1924 Photo, detailing my search for some exact locales described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. Using the novel's text and a zoomable historical map of Queens, New York, I was able to conclude that some vivid scenes described in the book took place at the triangle where a railroad and a street converge just east of the Van Wyck Expressway and south of the town of Flushing, Queens. George and Myrtle Wilson's auto garage would have stood at this spot, and the haunting sign for eye doctor T. J. Eckleberg would have been visible at this spot too.
This blog post has become one of the most popular pages on Literary Kicks, and since I now realize that many people share my fascination with Fitzgerald's "valley of ashes" I'd like to show you the photos I took while I was researching this locale, which I'd never bothered to put up before.
Surprise! I have wished my entire literate life to see the 1949 film version of The Great Gatsby, which starred Alan Ladd as Jay Gatsby and Betty Field as Daisy Buchanan. This was the second attempt to film F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, and like the 1926 version starring Warner Baxter and Lois Wilson, the film has been nearly impossible to see.
Neither movie was a hit with moviegoers or critics, which may explain why they both disappeared from public view. The 1926 version appears to be truly lost (only a trailer remains as evidence of its existence), and while I'd never heard that the 1949 version was completely lost, it has always been so unavailable that it may as well have been. The only Great Gatsby movie in circulation has been the 1974 film starring Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan. This version was also neither a big hit nor a critical success, though it was the first Great Gatsby movie to treat the material with the exquisite and expensive attention it deserves. I've seen it a couple of times, but have always imagined that interesting perspectives on Fitzgerald's work could be gained by also seeing the 1949 version, if only a copy would surface.
Well, what do you know? I just discovered that the entire movie is on YouTube. A clean, legal print, complete, uninterrupted, free.
I learned about drinking whiskey, specifically bourbon whiskey, from Raymond Chandler. Actually, I recently read in his letters that Chandler was more of a gin man. So I really learned about drinking whiskey from Chandler’s alter ego, Philip Marlowe.
Actually, "drinking" is not the best description of how Marlowe imbibed his Four Roses or Old Forester. He was more of a self-medicator, administering a slug of booze from the office bottle before going downtown to talk to the cops, or after a rough night on a case, or just because. No mixing or pouring it over ice. Just powering it down neat and strong as God intended.
Needless to say, this is not a good way to learn how to drink, at least not in a socially acceptable way. When I first read the Philip Marlowe stories, I was enamored of his hard-boiled lifestyle, and I tried having a slug of bourbon a la Marlowe from time to time, but I soon realized that it was better to have bourbon on ice, or in a Manhattan. It is much easier on the liver that way.
But Chandler knew what he was talking about, because he was an alcoholic, and probably no stranger to bottles in the deep drawer of his office desk, and slugs of drink to keep him going when blocked on a writing project, or maybe just down in the dumps.