Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and the tragedy of life

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past
(Francis Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)

I’ve caught a glimpse of the Christmas lights on Regent Street yesterday afternoon. I’ve been walking along the south bank in the frosty wind thinking about how much I love the sea in winter, and the Thames is the closest thing to the sea you have in the big city. There’s something romantic about it in a way that is not the cheesy romantic people think of when you say romantic. The contrast between the view of the buildings that have been the backbone of the city for hundreds of years and the bustle of Covent Garden and Piccadilly on a late Saturday afternoon once we left the Transport Museum made me feel like I had travelled to another dimension. I felt like the outsider looking in, guarding someone else’s secret, something I was somehow part of, but not a part of.

It inspired me to get around to watch Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby last night. There is a literary quality to the story on its own, regardless of the nearly poetic writing that makes up the book. It’s its symbolism. You could say that Jay Gatsby is a character that lies comfortably in the tragic tradition that started with the Greeks. Over time, we moved on from the tragic hero being a victim of the caprice of the gods of Olympus, now we are victims of the caprice of all other sorts of gods. Ironically, I was discussing Shakespeare and Aristotle’s theory of tragedy over a fry-up this morning, complaining with my teacher friend about how literature is taught in this country. If I’m ever a mother I want to be able to make my children love literature the way it should be loved before they are taken down with the system in their schools.

The visuals in the film are stunning, if a bit over the top as you would expect, but the modern music didn’t work this time. Though it was not a perfect film, it did stay true to the sense of desperation of the times. And it feels like not much has changed between the time of the story and the time of our music. This is no longer a time of boy meets girl and happily ever after, though Love has always been the most capricious of all gods, as it wasn’t in 1922. None of us will escape the tragedy of life, whatever we’re running after.

There’s a quality to the way Leonardo Di Caprio took the character and made it his own that reminded me of why I never really identified with many female characters in literature. Some would say that we need more great female characters etc, but this would miss the point. What makes a classic is this quality that goes beyond these details, and one should universally be able to relate to them, or aspire to be them, or react to them in a way that is higher and deeper than who the character is. Only characters that embody a sense of impersonality and timelessness stand the test of time. Art has been seen for a long time as what elevates us to the superior condition of a God creator, something that transcends the immediate reality. Sometimes, even in the poorest executions, you can find Art.

I just love that quote at the beginning of this post. If a quote from literature ever spoke of the truth of the human condition, this is probably it. We are always striving and fighting against the odds, falling back over and over into what has come before. We cannot save ourselves, only something that stops the current can. 

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