National Commentary

‘The Great Gatsby’ As Cultural Tonic

It is always a positive when a work of great literature gets made into a blockbuster movie, and so we have it with the release of the latest of numerous film incarnations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby this week.

The fact that the movie is filled with over-the-top glitz and spectacle, the hallmark of Australian director Baz Luhrmann, gave it a shot at the top of the charts a week after “Iron Man 3” opened.

But the two films head in fundamentally different directions, culturally speaking, and from that standpoint it is “The Great Gatsby” that is the far more interesting.

There is a craving, if I am not mistaken, developing in our society, especially among the young, for matters of substance and meaning, and it is taking the form in our popular culture of a gradual but steadily rising interest in the art and works from that bygone era when grace, virtue, optimism, hope and old fashioned romance fought through the chaos of world wars and tyrannies to hold their own.

We’ve come through a terrible, terrible time the last half-century when our culture became absorbed with greed, selfish self-interest, decadence, stupidity and misery through its dominant entertainment media, the regrettable era known as “postmodern,” when valor and romance were considered childish fictions and raw, cynical selfishness was taught to be the underlying reality of everything. It is still a powerful force in our society.

“Postmodernism” brought us Gordon Gecco’s “Greed is good” speech in the first “Wall Street” movie, and a lot of the despairing we’ve seen in plotless films that are hailed for the gritty “slices of life” they portray. Anything else is shunted off to the side and labeled things like “chick flicks” that are, in fact, caricatures of anything important.

For an entire generation of young Americans growing up in the context of two of the longest and most pointless wars in American history, the greatest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, chronic underemployment, crushing debt slavery beginning with the obligations of student loans, they are encouraged to let off their steam at brain-muddling football games and a steady diet of sophomoric (as in high school sophomore) deliberately self-debasing “jackass-style” so-called comedies where the humor is derived from being drunk or high, noisily emitting bodily fluids or saying really naughty things.

I am drawn to the contrast between two classic movies set in the arid West, the film version of Edna Ferber’s “Giant” (1956), nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and that of Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” (2008), which won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Both compromise little in their portrayal of the human condition, but they could not be more different in their underlying message. One saw the struggle for virtue and redemption beneath the conflict, the other was completely nihilist, pointless, and hailed for just that reason.

Some nowadays, however, are beginning to prefer it be something more like “no country for old cynics.”

So we see the unexpected national interest in the “Downton Abbey” series, and even the success of “Mad Men” recalls the end times of the nation’s most hopeful period, when the feminist, civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements called young women and men to higher purposes, causing them to become “greater than themselves.”

“The Great Gatsby” evokes an earlier moment, in that era between the Great Wars, when easy prosperity in America belied the horrific impact of World War I in Europe, when for everyone, the “Roaring ’20s” were lived as a brief respite before the clouds of depression, war and tyranny regrouped for a second convulsion even worse than the first.

In the midst of this, of the manic pursuit of hedonistic delights in Manhattan as in Weimar Germany’s Berlin, the author F. Scott Fitzgerald penned a timeless classic about a burning and eternal love, an unyielding optimism and relentless pursuit of a very personal dream.

This latest “The Great Gatsby” is a tonic, albeit hardly a saccharine one, that can help flush the putrid poison of “postmodernism” from our hearts.