Saturday, August 05, 2006

Ethan H. and Jay G.

I watched Before Sunrise on a tiny television with a sad eyed, petite, very pretty blonde woman with a nose piercing and a weakness for snuggling in front of movies on cold winter nights. I was a bit too old to relate to it (and had not gone the European tour route after university, believing that I would come back to Canada still unemployed and directionless but with additional debt), but respected Linklater's direction and his clear affection for the characters. I loved the idea of finding a perfect connection with a stranger in a strange city, but that's between you and I.

9 years later, I watched Before Sunset on a larger television sitting on a comfy couch with a fat orange cat and my very pretty wife (a friend of the blonde with sad eyes, but that's another story), observing Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy stagger their way through a past infatuation a long time gone. It's a good film. It manages to sum up the 'what if's' of a moment without falling into any kind of narrative trap (sentimentality, overt cynicism, the deus ex machina of your choice). The film stops, rather than ends, which is probably the point. Or at least makes one, elegantly.

It all reminded me of The Great Gatsby,
both the novel and a particular version of the film. Damned if I know why. It's probably a circular, reptile-brain thought pattern: I was a Fitzgerald fan when I was Hawke's age in Sunrise, if I had ever been on a train en route to Prague I might have been reading Gatsby or Fitzgerald's short stories.

Or maybe it's something much simpler: Hawke's character wrote a novel about l'escapade Delpy in Sunset to get her attention nine years after their meeting. Gatsby built a mansion and an entire life simply to garner Daisy's attention 8 years after he was just another doughboy sent to the front after being left at the docks by a pretty girl. Any similarities between the two stories (let alone the two films) ends there. Linklater's Sunrise/Sunset films are extended conversations (the term 'talkfest' will not be used in this journal) which are difficult to pull off at the best of times, especially if you're an American filmmaker.

The Great Gatsby has been filmed at least four times; a lost 1926 silent, a pretty much lost 1949 version with Alan Ladd (where Gatsby's played as a Jimmy Cagney styled gangster; it does not work for a second), and an A&E version which was literal and bland. I have a fondness for the 1974 version with Robert Redford (directed by jouneyman Jack Clayton), despite the fact it is an undeniable misfire. Vincent Canby summed it up in 1974 by saying that the film:

…moves spaniel-like through F. Scott Fitzgerald's text, sniffing and staring at events and objects very close up with wide, mopey eyes, seeing almost everything and comprehending practically nothing…It completely mistakes the essence of Fitzgerald's novel, which is not in its story but in its headlong, elliptical literary style that dazzles us by the manner in which it evokes character and event, rather than with the characters and events themselves.

Amen. That said, I still have a fondness for it, maybe because it makes me want to re-read the book. It manages to be evocative of its source material, even though the best aspects of Gatsby are either unfilmable or are incredibly difficult to impose a tone upon.

On the plus side, there is:

Mia Farrow as Daisy- If you go into the film assuming that she's an alcoholic who is still pulling the coquette schtick that surrounded her with cute society boys when she was 17, everything will make perfect sense. If you assume that it's just Farrow overacting (rather than playing Daisy as slightly nuts and the type to be consciously overacting), you'll have far less patience for it.

Sam Waterson as Nick- He's pretty much pitch-perfect, if perhaps 10 years too old for the part. Everyone else is as well, so let's let it slide. He's also got a great speaking voice for the narration...Clayton and screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola must have at least have agreed on the importance of letting Fitzgerald's prose frame the action from time to time.

Bruce Dern as Tom- Manages to be a brute and sociopath with the ability to appear genuinely sympathetic when he gets mopey after hitting you. The novel's Tom was too well bred for such things (or believed hiself to be), while Dern makes himself interesting by being a snob who's decided to be a brute to amuse himself, rather than the brutality being the side-effect of snobbery.

Coppola's Screenplay- Let me crib from Salon's Michael Sragow, he's already written the point I want to make:

After hearing about the virtues of Coppola's script for a quarter-century, I finally got my hands on it -- and it's wonderful...Coppola gets everything there is to get out of Fitzgerald's book while supplying, in a long and brilliantly concocted romantic centerpiece, the dramatic ballast a film adaptation needs. Lines that the finished film glided over -- like Daisy's statement, "That's the best thing a girl can be in this world ... a beautiful little fool" -- are in the script positioned just right, both to take on emotional weight and to arouse intrigue.

What else? Oh yeah...

Robert Redford as Gatsby- Deserving of being damnned with faint praise. As long as he doesn't have to speak any of the dialogue written for him, he's very good. You have to wait until around the halfway point to see that Redford actually can act, he just can't wrap Fitzgerald's dialogue into a believable human being. The fact that he can actually get a palpable reaction when facing Daisy (where he's tongue tied), and during the scenes where he's waiting for his happy ending that he obviously doesn't feel...you can see him not-feeling.

Okay. So that wasn't poetic. Or well explained.

To be fair, few actors could say "What do you think of me, old sport?" with any conviction and he just can't get away with it. For the first third of the film, Clayton keeps him in meaningful mid-shots against the setting or rising sun, and he does look like a Gatsby ideal, enigmatic and untouchable.

And then the music comes up, and it's...Batman. Not even the Tim Burton Batman, which would be a bad enough idea, filled with cheap portent. Its the 60's version of Batman, pretty much. Gatsby's soundtrack intro sounds a lot like the orchestral 'sting' from all those Batman episodes that composer Nelson Riddle was responsible for, and the impact of Gatsby's character goes downhill from there.

Riddle's not entirely to blame. His arrangements can be glorious (he orchestrated Nat King Cole's Stardust for Pete's sake) and his version (s) of the old chestnut What'll I do fits the overall melancholy. But somebody (Clayton, or one of the producers) decided that the audience Needed! A! Big! Show! At! Redford's! First! Shot! and...you get the idea.

When the film is quiet, it's rather haunting. There is something poetic in the way that Redford acts with his eyes. The scenes with Daisy where they're not talking are far more effective than the muted fireworks that bring them to that part of the action. This applies to the rest of the cast as well- the film is cohesive enough that you begin to see what the characters are lacking, and how they are keenly aware of what they want and what they simply do not have.

However, it all falls into itself because Dern, Redford, and Farrow are all acting in different films. Only Waterson is actually in Gatsby itself, and Clayton can't get away from early 70's fetishes (zooms and fogged lenses) so the final product is far less than the sum of its parts. After awhile, the Charelstoning partygoers who leap into Gatsby's fountain (and one can only hear the Charelston so many times before it begins to wear on one's nerves) all look the same.

It's a failure. An interesting failure. It would have been one of the best films of 1966. But 1974 was in the wake of The Godfather films, Chinatown, Cabaret, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and more, making it appear impossibly old fashioned. I still keep a copy and pull it out when feeling wistful. It feels like Fitzgerald, even when it doesn't get away with it. Gatsby has a good pedigree, fine performances (more or less) and striking moments. They just don't all belong in the same film.

Clayton kept the potential melodrama from careening out of control, at the expense of some passion. Which is a shame. Charelstoning like there’s no tomorrow is no substitute for getting one’s freak on, even in the 20’s. We need an update, not a remake. Let the id out. Give it to Kevin Smith. I think it needs Jason Mewes. "Jay M. is Jay G." The rest writes itself.

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