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.
Droopy eyes under the hat. An old, creepy looking man leaning on the bar, crouching like a frail spider among a few smarmy-dressed women. The 50-ish ladies sneered at me when I wandered in off Bleecker and Houston streets on a Tuesday afternoon, but the spider just squiggled his mouth in a thoughtful glance toward me. He then screeched something inaudible to my ears, and his ladies cackled in response like obscene muppets.
I was hungry. That's what I remember most about that day. I had just started a new job in furniture sales and was sending every penny I made back home (which was still nowhere near enough). I had lost weight, but I felt good and desperate. A stranger.
The Bowery Poetry Club was one of my stops, along with Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village, the Nuyorican Cafe and the Yippie Museum. By the end of the night I would be in front of a bunch of veteran NYC poets at Big Mike Logan's demand (he pushed me to the stage at the Yippie Museum) reciting my own complaints/poetry after seven drinks on an empty stomach, but I hadn't gotten there just yet. It was only 3 pm as I sifted through all the flyers in the dark, beer-musked Bowery with the screeching spider and his smarmy muppets.
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.
I don't have much of a Philosophy Weekend post for you this weekend. I'm working on some technical improvements to the website, and I'm also pondering some big themes for the next few weekends. But all I've got to show you today is a clip from a 1993 movie about Ludwig Wittgenstein that I only discovered myself recently.
The always fascinating Derek Jarman lays out the philosopher's story in fairly straight fashion, with Chancy Classay playing the role of the groundbreaking philosopher. I particularly like the part of this clip in which Wittgenstein explains to an impudent student that he really can't absolutely know for sure whether or not he just slapped his own face. If he could know for sure, then the word "know" would not need to exist. I'm not as completely convinced by Wittgenstein's famous statement, also played out in this scene, that "if a lion could speak, we could not understand him". (But then, I've always had an affinity for cats, and I sometimes think I understand them better than I understand humans. Maybe Wittgenstein was a dog person.)
Recently, I’ve been thinking about drunks. Specifically, I've been thinking about literature written by drunks and/or about drinking. The positive reaction to a piece on this topic called Ten Best Books by Drunks that I posted on Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me website tells me it’s a subject that occupies many others besides myself.
Self-destruction with booze seems to go hand in glove with pen and paper.
Two recent biographies have helped catalyze my thinking on this, boiling it down to one large question, with many residual ripple-like queries. The two biographies are Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson by Blake Bailey and Charles Bukowski by David Stephen Calonne, a part of Reaktion's "Critical Lives" series of biographies. The large question these books -- and the ten books cited at the link above -- raise is this: Why does literature about self-destruction in general (booze, drugs, sex, madness, etc.) captivate us so? The residual ripples: Are we captivated by the “there but for fortune go I” aspect of the finished work? Do we admire the sheer madness of such lives—the breaking of every taboo in sight—and are self-protective enough not to “follow them down”? Are we secretly jealous? And then, what about the biological matter of alcohol’s effect on inspiration: Does alcohol fuel inspiration or does it merely cool the engine down after the creative spark is spent?
I've just learned that Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park/Book of Mormon fame have been animating some passages from seminal Western Buddhist author Alan Watts. The videos are excellent! Here's Music and Life, with a message well worth hearing:
Caryn and I watched an old movie on cable TV recently that left us traumatized for days. Ironically, the movie was trying to be a light-hearted and whimsical children's musical. It was written by Dr. Seuss in 1953. The movie left us traumatized because it was so very, very bad.
I'm talking about the legendary but little-watched 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, a live action film about a boy who hates his piano teacher. This was the only movie Dr. Seuss ever tried to make, and it went over so badly with audiences in 1953 that he never tried again, and the movie nearly disappeared from view. It was almost crazy and psychedelic enough to gain a second life as a midnight cult flick, but it's too excruciatingly boring for the midnight circuit. It's hard to watch without wincing ... often.
5000 Fingers doesn't start out too badly: a sweet kid is suffering through a piano lesson in an antique parlor (this setting must recall Theodor Seuss Geisel's own childhood in Springfield, Massachusetts). The boy falls asleep and has a bad dream in which he's persecuted by his nasty piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker, who is also scheming to marry the kid's widowed mother. In this dream, the kid wears a glove on the top of his beanie, is chased by weird chubby thugs in brightly colored suits who resemble proto-Oompa-Loompas, dodges a pair of roller-skating old men sharing a common beard, and is forced to participate in a 500-kid piano performance on a swirling 5000 key piano.
I assure you that I just made the movie sound better than it is.
Dave Van Ronk, a quintessential 1960s Greenwich Village folksinger, never became a superstar. But he was always a part of the folk-rock fabric, and the superstars listened to him. Bob Dylan swiped his interpretation of the traditional "House of the Rising Sun" from Van Ronk, and later the Allman Brothers picked up Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" from one of his records. The gravelly-voiced strummer/shouter died in 2002. I was lucky enough to hear him perform once, at a beatnik poetry tribute at St. Marks Church, in the late 1990s.
I've just heard some great news: the Coen Brothers' new movie Inside Llewyn David is loosely based on Van Ronk's posthumously published memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street. If the Coen Brother handle the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene as beautifully as they handled the 1930 Delta blues scene in O Brother Where Art Thou, then we're all in for something very special. Here's an early glance at the movie's trailer.
I've never heard of the poet Kenneth Sherman before, but a freewheeling interview with Laura Albert at the Jewish Daily Forward has called my attention to his newly republished book, Words for Elephant's Man, which was first published in 1983.
Elephant Man was a movie by David Lynch about a real-life man named Joseph Merrick who suffered from a horrible skin-and-bone growth disease (before the David Lynch movie, Elephant Man was also a Broadway play that starred David Bowie, though strangely the two works with the same title and the same subject were written separately). This movie's sense of deep physical and psychic alienation is a big theme in the mind of Kenneth Sherman. Laura Albert, who contributed (in the guise of her past doppelganger J. T. Leroy) to the screenplay of the haunting Gus Van Sant movie Elephant can clearly relate:
This isn't really Kafka for Kwanzaa. It's just Kafka ... a good animated 21-minute interpretation of the short story A Country Doctor by Koji Yamamura (and, well, it's Kwanzaa, and I like the way "Kafka for Kwanzaa" sounds).
I'll never presume to know what motivated Franz Kafka to write any of his great works, but if I were to imagine an answer, I'd guess that A Country Doctor was his attempt at capturing the slippery logic of an unsettling dream state in all its richness and moral complexity. There's plenty of guilt, self-hatred, rage and sexual jealousy to go around, and it's damn cold out, and the kid isn't really even sick ... or is he? Well, there it is ... Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy Kafka.