When I went to university in the mid-1950s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” had a tremendous impact upon me. For an avid reader and an aspiring young writer the book was extraordinary; poetic prose at times, languid at times, with a directness that in another’s hands would be brutal. His tender writing, shaped as it was by both sensitivity and an acute sensibility, is simply beautiful.
Now it ranks as one of the great novels of the 20th century to be found on thousands of English Literature university reading lists – these days half a million copies of the paperback edition are sold each year - but when “The Great Gatsby” was published in 1925 it was a relative failure in contrast to his two earlier novels. Poor reviews and mediocre sales are an indication of the initial sense of disappointment.
When Fitzgerald died in 1940 “half forgotten at the age of forty-four,” according to The New Yorker critic David Denby, “the book was hard to find.”
Bringing Gatsby back from the dead
The rehabilitation of “The Great Gatsby” as a major work, both for its literary merits and as an early description of what could be called modernism, occurred in the mid to late forties when it was revealed that the literary icons of my time at university – T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and Edmund Wilson – had recognized its importance back in the nineteen twenties.
But “The Great Gatsby” had been published at the height of that very era which could be characterized as a moral as well as financial bubble , an era that Fitzgerald was attempting to describe. America, and in particular its East Coast elites were in an almost ecstatic as well as frivolous rebellion that would have little time or patience for a book that was critical of irresponsible wealth and ostentatious hedonism, however tentative or ambivalent that critique may have been. During the “roaring twenties” occurred rebellion against the cautious restraints demanded of society’s elite by the more pietistic Protestant denominations.
That puritanical strain in a diverse American religious culture had succeeded in enacting a constitutional amendment ushering in Prohibition – making the sale and transport of alcohol illegal in 1919, at the very cusp of this prosperous post World War One rebellion that would be known as “the roaring twenties.”
During this rebellion sexual restraint as well as sobriety were suddenly to be flamboyantly defied. Women’s dress, the new form of social dancing and the music that drove that dancing were the products of radical change. Fitzgerald and his mouthpiece, Nick, the cautious narrator and friend of the mysterious wealthy Jay Gatsby, is put off by the gross materialism of it all yet also fascinated by the spectacle.
‘A stunning absence of taste’
This column is not intended as a movie review so let me quickly note that the director Buz Luhrman’s cinematic approach undermines his relative faithfulness to the book. His use of large portions of the written narrative acts as misplaced loyalty since film, at its best, has its own cannons of cinematic art that differ from the literary – which is why badly written books can be transformed into excellent cinema and great books can be transformed into movies that are frequently disappointments. “The Great Gatsby” as a film dips deeply into cinematic vulgarity that strives for technical rather than intrinsic or artistic effect, wild camera moves and rash editing of images, all exaggerated by 3-D cinematography, the most disconcerting of all technical effects. Luhrman is “less a filmmaker” to quote Denby again, “than a music-video director with endless resources and a stunning absence of taste.”
What is fascinating about this film is that it is faithful enough to the book to at least sketch the outline of an America and its elite that is so different to contemporary America and its elite. They are like two different countries and I wonder to what degree the Egyptian audience in the upscale Cairo movie theatres that have been screening this film are aware of that. The director, despite his admirable passion to reproduce the 1920s American dress-both male and female-and dance style ,seems compelled to undermine our legitimate sense of distance between then and now, perhaps out of some sort of political correctness.
In with the new
Indeed it was still possible for mid -1950s Ivy League students to imagine we were reliving the nineteen twenties – our dress code was closer to the 20s than to 2013 (at my university the student dining hall –cafeteria style but with separate tables as if it were a club- required that students wear a jacket and tie and inevitably a button-down collared shirt) and the prevailing cultural style was upper-class WASP (white Anglo-Saxon protestant)– even if one was neither Anglo-Saxon in origin nor Protestant. Nor, for that matter, upper-class. But a 1920s revival would be incongruous at any Ivy League campus today, where the prevailing dress is a T-shirt and jeans and the prevailing ethnic and religious-identity (which is different than religious practice) is no longer predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
So Luhrmann introduces hip hop music into the party sequences, which is ludicrous. The lyrics of “roaring twenties” music were either frivolous or Dixieland jazz renditions of the more exuberant Black American gospel music, at a time when most Black Americans lived in the south; a very racist time when segregation reigned either as the rule of law in the south, or as a social reality in the north. There was little time in the twenties for the “Blues,” with its haunting music and lyrics ranging from the melancholic to the tragic.
Hip hop, to the contrary, owes much of its original drive from the semi-criminal subculture within northern based Black Americans, expressing hostility to whites, to the police and to women. Most significantly it has achieved an extraordinary following among young Americans, perhaps engaged by the music’s penchant for obscenity.
The most politically sensitive issue in both the novel and in this latest film adaptation is the social-cultural (not intrinsically racial) anti-Semitism which was quite prevalent in the nineteen twenties. The problem is quite brilliantly defused by Luhrmann. In the 1920s most American Jews were perceived as culturally alien, with certain exceptions that proved the rule. Most American Jews at that time were either immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia, who moved to America en masse in the preceding three decades, or the American born children of these immigrants. It is worth noting that Jews of western European origin, who had immigrated many decades before and in much smaller numbers, were - by virtue of their integration into western European culture in dress and manner - more rapidly integrated into American culture.
But if Jay Gatsby’s slick but unsavoury partner - the Jewish gangster , Meyer Wofsheim - in his vast criminal money making enterprise, was cast today as some sort of prototypical American Jew. Luhrmann would be open to charges of anti-Semitism; particularly since the incredibly successful, highly educated and social mobile American Jewish community is now an intrinsic and admired part of the American elite, not alien, vulgar, outsiders, as they were perceived in the early nineteen twenties.
A Bollywood star plays an American gangster
So Luhrmann cast Amitabh Bachchan, the great Indian Bollywood film star, to play the part of Meyer Wolfsheim. This re-invented Meyer Wolfsheim, with his Indian features, is still visibly alien to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite of the 1920s, and has a Jewish name, without “looking Jewish,” whatever that might mean today. Indeed it is quite conceivable that most, if not nearly all, of the Egyptian audience for this film would not even realize that Bachchan’s Meyer Wolfsheim is a Jew.
I am fascinated by the context in which an Egyptian audience –and a highly educated, westernized Egyptian audience patroning English language films projected in chic movie theatres at that, would identify with this film. The pre- revolutionary (Nasser, not Tahrir) Egyptian film industry produced films portraying a vaguely similar milieu – nightclub scenes with Egyptian upper class heroes and heroines as well as villains drinking alcohol and dancing, if not the Charleston and the Shimmy of the American 1920s, at least the body contact dancing (the Fox Trot) of the American thirties and forties. But like so many films of that time, much of the imagery was not derived from Egyptian life but lifted from Western movies and transplanted into a Cairo setting. And the particular strata of Egyptian society that was portrayed was so thin in number and so disconnected from the prevailing Egyptian culture, be it urban or rural, as to be socially irrelevant.
So, ironically it is not the now elderly Egyptian audience of those older Egyptian films, which can identify with the characters and social setting – the huge dancing and drinking parties that Gatsby threw in his bid to enter the elite, but rather today’s far more numerous upper class and upper middle class westernized youth, who go clubbing – to dance and drink away the weekends. It is this demographic which might find some sort of distant reference in “The Great Gatsby” cinematic recreation of the American 1920s, to their own contemporary lives.
Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya's Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary "Control Room" and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem.”