Starting Friday, masses of Americans will sit with 3-D glasses perched on the ends of their noses, carried away by Baz Luhrmann’s magic carpet ride into the ur-myth of the modern age. The 3-D technology works splendidly to sweep us into the material wonder of the 1920s: Sparkling objects whiz by, seemingly close enough to snatch from the air. The dizzying pace of the era’s change comes alive in the kaleidoscopic rush of party sequences; a hypnotic hip-hop beat propelling us through opulent rooms that display Jay Gatsby’s capitalist triumph in all its eye-popping splendor.
That we’re asked to view the Land of Baz through a pair of mass-produced cardboard spectacles ‑ our heads aching slightly as our eyes struggle to reconcile two separate projections of the same image ‑ makes an uncanny kind of sense.
The Great Gatsby, after all, is a novel of double vision. Gatsby is a man who wishes to be seen, and not seen; an exhibitionist eager to show off every aspect of his magnificent wealth but bent on hiding the hustling it took to acquire. Fitzgerald reveals the power dynamics in who gets to look at whom, and the tension between what’s in front of us and what’s moving just beyond our field of vision. The observant author filled his slim book with references to eyes: floating eyes, tragic eyes, aggressive eyes, impersonal eyes. One character is known simply as “Owl Eyes.” There are eyes that approve and eyes that scorn. The motif is so prominent that artist Francis Cugat chose to feature a pair of hypnotic eyes that hover over the carnival lights of a city for the novel’s iconic cover.
Fitzgerald wants us to be dazzled by Gatsby, but not be so blinded that we can’t see the limitations of his viewpoint. With all his strength of vision, Gatsby is not looking for a better world. He’s just looking for acceptance into a corrupt world that already exists — a world rife with racism, exclusion, women reduced to objects and, above all, fantastically expensive stuff. All the sumptuous parties and social graces cover up habitual lying, criminality and degradation. It’s ugly at the top. That’s Gatsby’s blind spot.
The last major film experience of Gatsby was 1974, in the wake of the Watergate revelations that drew back the curtain on political corruption. Still reeling from the mayhem of a Wall Street-driven financial crash, we turn to Gatsby once again for a sense of perspective on our American experiment.
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Just now, that experiment looks troubling for a great many people. Our widening inequality makes a mockery of our celebrated mobility – a phenomenon economist Paul Krugman calls, naturally, “The Great Gatsby Curve.” Despite growing signs of cracks in our economic foundation, we continue to avert our eyes. “See us! We are hurting! We are angry!” This was the cry of the 99percent in Zuccotti Park, just as the billionaire mayor of New York swept them from sight like the refuse of Gatsby’s parties.
Working people linger just out of sight in Gatsby. In the mansions of the rich, cocktail trays seem to float through the air, guided by invisible hands. Beautiful shirts are tossed in the air, left to be folded by hidden servants. When Luhrmann tries to draw our attention to the flickering ghosts who occupy the stratum where hunger and suffering hold sway, we’re already anticipating the next enchanted object – the next Parisian gown, the next display of party pyrotechnics. We don’t see the seamstresses, the construction workers, the maids who toil in thankless perpetuity. In the intensity of our visual pleasure, we can’t be bothered to consider those who do the dirty work of keeping the whole show going. The comfortable classes of Fitzgerald’s day couldn’t see them, either, until they filled the streets with desperation after the crash of ’29.
In a scene in the novel, Nick Carraway, the narrator, catches a glimpse of one of Gatsby’s servants who thinks no one is watching. She pauses at an open window, then leans forward to spit onto the exquisitely manicured lawn below. This moment in which reality intrudes into the glamour was not reproduced in the film, but it speaks volumes about the fury of those consigned to invisibility. In 3-D, the materiality of Fitzgerald’s novel is rendered marvelously; its spiritual dimension, not so much.
Fitzgerald shows us two sides of what capitalism could produce – the marvelous sleek machines that speed down its glittering throughways, but also the ugliness that lies just around the corner. Much as it was in his day, America’s current vanishing point lies in our unwillingness to look clearly at those who are cheated of prosperity, and in the shortsightedness of economists enthralled by markets moved by invisible gods but impervious to the plight of workers. That blindness is Gatsby’s, too: His adoration of Daisy Buchanan stems from her magical ability to stand “safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.” He longs to join her, forever set apart from the sweat and stink of the masses – and alienated from his own essence.
The new movie, with its voyeuristic appeal and endless shopping tie-ins, is an experience that emphasizes Fitzgerald’s admiration for capitalism but erases his critique. Luhrmann’s is a Gatsbymade to move merchandise, not minds. (Brooks Brothers, the director assures us in one ad, “invented the American gentleman.”). As moviegoers, our transformation from active viewers into passive consumers is all the more complete as we stare through a distancing mechanism made to increase the price of tickets. The 3-D glasses cheat us of the story’s depth, producing an effect that is oddly one-dimensional. United in the collective stirring of our consumer aspirations, our perspective is flattened: We recognize ourselves not in Gatsby’s spiritual struggle but in his spiffy car and stylish suits, a phenomenon Herbert Marcuse described his aptly named book, One-Dimensional Man.
It’s always a strain to see the other clearly in a consumer culture that conspires to blind us. But the limitations of our view can’t be indefinitely sustained. Someday, out of the ash-heap of capitalism, something will spring out and catch us unawares. George Wilson, who owns a garage in the dusty stretch of road where the rich travel from Long Island to New York City in their shiny roadsters, is a pale shadow of a man who is horribly wronged by Daisy’s callous husband, Tom Buchanan. In a tragic twist of fate, Jay Gatsby meets his death at the hands of this frustrated workingman. Needless to say, he didn’t see it coming.