HESO Magazine

Photography, Music, Film, Hitchhiking, Craft Beer – Cultural Pugilist

Author: Sean Lotman (Page 1 of 4)

Interesting TImes

Interesting Times

There are fleeting moments when the public scene recalls the Weimar republic of 1932-33. In this American phantasmagoria, an empty-faced girl in a scarlet cloak and a clown’s hat points a gun… the unemployed mill about.. the largest city is about to go bankrupt… a feckless President, another wooden titan, drones stolidly… exorcists, astrologers, and strange oriental gurus wander through… the screens, large and small, pulsate with violence and pornography…. the godfathers last tango with clockwork orange in deep throat… women in pants bawl lustily while anguished youths try to be gay… a motherly woman raises her gun and fires…screams… Underlying all this is a new spirit of nihilism, a radical disbelief in any rational, objective basis for ethical norms or for orderly political change.

— New York Times columnist William Shannon

Interesting Times

Patty Hearst posing with the SLA insignia

If there is a more descriptive caricature of America in the middle 1970s I have not yet read it. The “Weimar” summer the writer referring to was 1975 and up to that point it had been a pretty bad year: runaway inflation; a stagnant economy; New York City fiscally bankrupt; Cambodia and Vietnam falling into Communist rule in dramatic fashion; two assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford’s life; terrorist bombings (89 over the course of the year); heiress Patty Hearst on the lamb with the radical outfit Symbionese Liberation Army; textbook wars in West Virginia; antibusing riots in Boston; and a congressional commission investigating systematic abuse and murder by the CIA. This in the aftermath of the OPEC embargo and energy crisis in 1973 and the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon in 1974. There was, in politics, economics, and in all walks of social life, a “crisis in confidence.”

The writer’s reference to Weimar Germany in 1933 signals the author’s dire pessimism of what might come to pass. On the other hand, one would have thought that all this turbulence would be a catalyst for reflection, for significant change, for “growing up,” which entailed abandoning the myth of American exceptionalism and the harsh reality we might be as flawed as the banana republics where our CIA was fomenting agitation and death. Yet the following summer in our Bicentennial year, Ronald Reagan, a former B-list actor that not a single pundit took seriously, nearly won the GOP nomination for President. He did this on a radically conservative agenda that almost entirely ignored the reality of a culturally diverse and economically complex superpower. Four years later he would take this movement mainstream winning a landslide election and once and for all twisting the knife in 1960s idealism. Rick Perlstein’s wonderful history of the middle 1970s, The Invisible Bridge, is about how the fall of Nixon led to the rise of Reagan and the modern conservative movement that took hold in America.

there might not have ever been a Reagan Revolution, and all of its attendant disastrous consequences. It would have been a different world, almost certainly a better one. Click To Tweet

Interesting Times

Interesting TImes

Operation Frequent Wind (better known as the Fall of Saigon)

In 1974, a retiring congressman said, “Politics has gone from an age of ‘Camelot’ when all things were possible to the age of ‘Watergate’ when all things are suspect.” Perlstein often references the “small and suspicious circles” who go from a Greek chorus chattering in the margins to the mainstream, their voices expanding into a din. The suspicious ones are vindicated time and again for their paranoia, most especially for Watergate. The revelations therein: Nixon’s “enemies list,” suitcases of cash, burglaries, break-ins, forgeries, plans to kidnap activists during the Republican convention. Meanwhile, the Moonies, EST, and all kinds of cults are thriving, as the hippies moved back from the communes but couldn’t quite readapt to the system. “Once upon a time ‘the occult’ had been the redoubt of rubes. Now, in a world where the usual sources of authority no longer had answers for anything, the weird stuff was getting more serious consideration.” In a bestselling paperback written by psychics, Predictions for 1974, a stock market crash, swarms of locusts and floods “like the plagues of Egypt” were augured. Many feared Nixon wouldn’t leave the White House without calling in the army and maybe staging a coup, or even going nuclear in an alcoholic delirium. Unfounded fears, as Watergate finally did bring down Nixon but when his replacement, the mild-mannered Midwesterner, Gerald Ford pardoned him “absolutely,” he too marked himself as an “insider,” one of them.

Around the time of Watergate, an exposé by journalist Seymour Hersh revealed CIA drug running in Laos, assassination attempts, pivotal roles in coups setting up right wing dictatorships, and more. Led by Senator Frank Church and New York congressman Otis Pike, an investigation uncovered numerous illegalities, but at a certain point the public suffered scandal-fatigue. The New York Times and The Washington Post, both instrumental in bringing down Nixon, buried the stories. And while many worried about the State of the Union for America’s 200th birthday, the collective mood of the country ended up feeling good and proud. Americans were frankly tired of feeling guilty about Vietnam and Watergate. They were ready to move on.

Interesting Times

The Invisible Bridge by Rick Perlstein

The Invisible Bridge is long– 800 pages long– and while it is comprehensive of the era, covering economic and social issues, as well as pop culture (The Godfather infecting Watergate criminality, The Exorcist touching on cults brainwashing daughters, Jaws as the invisible, uncontrollable menace lurking just out of our sight), Perlstein is a politics geek. Much of his research is devoted to the rise of Ronald Reagan. The historian covers his impoverished childhood with an alcoholic father, his unwavering belief in self, his lifeguard stint, his nearsightedness (and refusal to wear glasses), his leftism in college, a radio career, movie stardom, his marriages to Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis, spokesperson for GE, his move to the right and strong anti-communist stance, Governor of California and his vilification of student activists, and finally a rich man on the speakers’ circuit commanding $5000 for an hour’s talk. Always aware of being watched, of presenting an image. Here was a man capable of making all the cruelties of conservatism tolerable, even likable. The momentum for him to be elected reminded him the nature of his work as a lifeguard: “Then along came Ronald Reagan, encouraging citizens to think like children, waiting for a man on horseback to rescue them.” Whatever complexity encountered could be reduced by him to a matter of good and evil.

After the midterms elections of 1974– so-called “Watergate Baby” Democrats sweeping many Republicans out of office– the race to be the presidential nominee in 1976 should have been wide open but Jimmy Carter, a heretofore unknown former governor of Georgia, won outright by conveying the strongest anti-Washington “outsider” stance. Normally, incumbent presidents don’t expect much of a challenge from their party, but Ford, who had Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in his cabinet, was not conservative enough for the reactionaries who wanted a Reagan candidacy. Beyond the culture war– abortion, busing, history textbooks, the Equal Rights Amendment– the power brokers wanted deregulation, smaller government, and lower taxes, basically deconstructing the New Deal. As former speechwriter Pat Buchanan put it in his column: “Ford is a conservative… a conservatism marked by wariness of status quo… It is a don’t-rock-the-boat conservatism exemplified by what Mr. Ford calls the politics of cooperation, conciliation, compromise, and consensus… But Reagan was there to lead Republicans who believe that conflict, not compromise, is the essence of politics.”

After more than six months of primaries and caucuses, Ford had only a slightly larger lead than Reagan and the nomination process had to go all the way to the GOP convention in Kansas City. Ford clinched it when he swayed the Mississippi delegation to his side after some raucous politicking and backroom dealing. Ford might have won the battle but Reagan won the war for the soul of the Republican party. The delegates at the convention ratified a pro-life, anti-detente, pro-gun, antibusing, pro-school-prayer platform.

This was not yet a popular view in 1976. When Gallup polled voters on a Reagan vs. Carter match, Carter consistently topped Reagan by three times as many votes. Had they gone against each other in 1976, Reagan might have been defeated, soundly even, his reactionary platform discredited as unwinnable, a failure. Perhaps then not every single president in the last few generations would have taken his cue, dividing citizens and nations into good guys and bad guys to fit Manichean world views. Moreover, there might not have ever been a Reagan Revolution, and all of its attendant disastrous consequences. It would have been a different world, almost certainly a better one. That said, there is something about Reagan and his flamboyant charm that seemed inevitable. It’s poor taste to ever use that adjective with history, but with someone like Reagan, it seems appropriate. Germany got Hitler in its Weimar moment, we got Reagan, which isn’t to say we didn’t lose too. Losing can be complicated and difficult to define, notwithstanding some presidential philosophies.

Head-On Collision with Desensitized Narcissism

Head-On Collision with Desensitized Narcissism

The intimate time and space of a single human being had been fossilized forever in this web of chromium knives and frosted glass.

                                                                                          –Crash, J.G. Ballard

I should, I mean, I really, really should like British writer, J.G. Ballard. His stories are based on fascinating premises, narrative hypotheses that tackle the underlying savagery of modern society, particularly, the bourgeois everyman. Nevertheless, I find the dramatization of his dystopian ideas farfetched and silly, wholly unbelievable, and generally perverse without the cold satisfaction of having engaged with something genuinely cathartic. Moreover, his signature prose, celebrated by so many, is clinically detached to a fault, a pallid language bled pale of color or dazzle (all his sentences are competent, occasionally good, but none of them are wonderful). Then there is the trouble with his narrators: careless, diffident, self-absorbed professionals who bed down with numerous attractive women, more than they deserve, considering their absence of beguiling qualities. His most famous novel, Crash, regarding the sexual fetishism of car crash victims, is the ne plus ultra of stylized unpleasant Ballardian narcissism, not very enjoyable but readable as a psychopathic, amateur armchair Freudian excursion.

The main problem with fetishism (besides its inscrutable provenance) is it's very much a one-note tune Click To Tweet

Head-On Collision with Desensitized Narcissism

Crash by J.G. Ballard

Crash by J.G. Ballard

Crash concerns a certain James Ballard (I’ll leave it to the Freudians to handle the author using his real name for his narrator), a successful TV commercial producer living near London’s airport in Shepperton (yet another real life connection to Ballard) who suffers a head-on collision, injuring a woman, Helen Remington, and killing her husband. Recovering in the hospital he meets Vaughan, an uber-creepy pathological psycho in a white lab coat and dark sunglasses with a sinewy body and bad complexion. Vaughan introduces Ballard to the underground world of car accident fetishism. Together they steal decent model makes, go joyriding, hire hookers for backseat fellatio, smash fenders while dropping on acid, and fantasize about some ultimate car accident in which Vaughan collides his Lincoln Towncar with Elizabeth Taylor, marrying their flesh with the catastrophic debris of the crash, to wit, “a mysterious eroticism of wounds: the perverse logic of blood-soaked instrument panels, seat-belts smeared with excrement, sun-visors lined with brain tissue.” It might sound a bit much, but hey don’t you know these are “the keys to a new sexuality born from a perverse technology.”

The somewhat unholy trifecta of sex, violence, and technology is hardly a frontier; rather it is an arrangement long explored by artists, philosophers, and sophists, either intuitively or intellectually, for a long time. Ballard’s vision is just an extraordinarily extreme and narrow echo of others’ and he can be quite literal about it: “Television newsreels of wars and student riots, natural disasters and police brutality which we vaguely watched on the color TV set in our bedroom as we masturbated each other.” Since Ballard has no heart to wear on his sleeve, the outcome of his explorations is a technocratic orifice to be twaddled by numbed phallic instruments. In other words, there is no meaning, no satori, in all this masturbating over the steering column, or in his words: “a marriage of my penis with all the possibilities of a benevolent technology.”

Head-On Collision with Desensitized Narcissism

James Spader as Ballard– about to be rear-ended and turned on

Our narrator, not a very decent human being, is absolutely prolific in describing his titillations. A peripheral character, Gabrielle, car crash victim-turned-pervert “held the chromium treadles in her strong fingers as if they were extensions of her clitoris.” (have I mentioned that Ballard never met a metaphor he didn’t like?) Ballard, our reliable fiend, discovered that “her crippled things and wasted calf muscles were models for fascinating perversities.” But why, Ballard, why? And all right, you might get a hard-on from her crippled thighs, but why should she get off on her mutilated body, a body that can never run, swim, or dance again? Not all your readers are freudian know-it-alls. Is she making lemonade out of lemons or does paraphilia (intense excitement or affection for atypical objects) not need an explanation, existing inexplicably in a vacuum all its own? But it doesn’t seem so since for all the actors in this pitiful drama it is the trauma of the automobile accident that activates their bizarre peccadilloes.

The main problem with fetishism (besides its inscrutable provenance) is it’s very much a one-note tune (the same is patently true of David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the book in 1996, set in Toronto and starring James Spader as Ballard). It’s the same carnal obsession, repeated ad infinitium: “The deformed body of the crippled young woman, like the deformed bodies of the crashed automobiles, revealed the possibilities of an entirely new sexuality.” (Does that sentence sound familiar, just slightly reworked and tinkered?) Occasionally, the prose gets out of hand to a level of extreme nuttery (“her swollen breasts spurting liquid feces”) but Crash for all its shocking material and complete lack of morality is actually a boring book, just as fetishism, lacking dynamics, is often just a tool’s way of ejaculating his weird energy. The most fascinating aspect of Crash, in fact, is James Ballard’s decision to name his doppelganger, James Ballard. Is the novel then some sort of confession (not just of fetishism but what of the story’s tremendous homoerotic energy)? It takes tremendous effort to create a novel, even something as one-dimensional as Crash. Why then did Ballard bother to write it? What was he trying to tell us? What exactly did the real-life Mrs. Ballard think of the following sentence, “I visualized my wife injured in a high-impact collision, her mouth and face destroyed, and a new and exciting orifice opened in her perineum by the splintering steering column, neither vagina nor rectum, an orifice we could dress with all our deepest affections.” For that matter, what did Elizabeth Taylor make of being the locus of his vicious starfucking fantasy? What did she ever do to Ballard besides in all probability provoking in him an adolescent hard-on way back when? Ballard’s novel is not morally objectionable so much as it is breathtakingly insensitive. The author’s absence of human empathy is nothing short of astonishing. A good companion piece to the novel (or Cronenberg’s film) is Warner Herzog’s public service short From One Second to the Next, which addresses the dangers of texting while driving by showing very personal stories of both victims and perpetrators of accidents caused by yet another accoutrement of technology. There are no erections or bodily fluid expulsions here, merely heartbreak, tears and regret, and the sadness of what was to what has become.

Hirohito & His Legacy

Hirohito & His Legacy

“He is a little man, about five feet two inches in height, in a badly cut gray striped suit, with trousers a couple of inches too short. He has a pronounced facial tic and his right shoulder twitches constantly. When he walks, he throws his right leg a little sideways as if he has no control over it. He was obviously excited and ill at ease, and uncertain of what to do with his arms and hands.”

  –journalist Mark Gayn describing Emperor Hirohito on one of his postwar goodwill tours, March 26th, 1946.

The American novelist, William Faulkner, famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” His subject matter was black-white race relations and the legacy of slavery in the American South, but his words serve the Japanese experiment in twentieth century imperialism, the scars of its militarism yet unhealed, and the descendants of the rulers and the oppressed nursing respective grievances. World War II ended nearly seventy years ago, the blood spilled long since washed away, but a new nationalism in East Asia is drawing up a stale and divisive rhetoric, taking arrogant postures, and pretending history is malleable and can be recast according to one’s manufactured political persuasions.

Bix argues it was Hirohito's self-centered maneuvers to preserve his throne and avoid just punishment that prolonged the war unnecessarily long after Japan's cause was lost Click To Tweet

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan - Herbert BixThe American historian, Herbert Bix’s biography of Japan’s most notorious emperor, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (Harper Collins, 2000), is an 800-page tome indicting Hirohito in no uncertain terms for the war crimes for which he was never prosecuted. Like an attorney who will leave no doubt in the reader’s mind, Bix carefully assembles a narrative, beginning with Hirohito’s grandfather, Meiji, and how his constitution allocated tremendous authority to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Nearly a hundred pages of the book are citations of evidence reflecting Japanese militarism and a racist philosophy propagated by Japanese intellectuals and historians that led to the colonization of Manchuria, sexual bondage in the Korean peninsula, and an irrational war of conquest that nearly caused Japan’s total obliteration. Every step of the way, Hirohito authorized or failed to punish the inhumane crimes of his military establishment. Moreover, Bix argues it was Hirohito’s self-centered maneuvers to preserve his throne and avoid just punishment that prolonged the war unnecessarily long after Japan’s cause was lost, and that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians is the emperor’s burden, as much as it is that of the Americans who authorized the atomic apocalypses.

Modern Japanese militarism has its origins when policy leaders began debating the kokutai, an archaic rarely-used concept nowadays. Kokutai are the best possible principles of Japanese state and society. Alas, it was inevitable that conservative ideologues would win the interpretation to ensure a status quo of the nearly feudal hierarchy that defined the structure of Japanese society for most of its history. Kokutai was then coupled with kodo, the “imperial way,” a political theology that declared the divine right of the emperor, who embodied moral goodness. The court, the military, and conservative political operatives could then utilize their reactionary agenda via imperial decree, as the emperor could make palatable even the most ruthless policies.

Hirohito & His Legacy

Hirohito was an amateur marine biologist. Small in stature, shy, and awkward, he was not a strongman. His personality was easily overshadowed by his arrogant generals and court advisers. Nevertheless, he was intelligent, detail-oriented and had been inculcated by court tutors to take divine right seriously, and that it was his responsibility to take part in political affairs, legitimizing Japanese militarism to the poor farmer sons who would have to leave their homeland and their families for dubious acts of violence in China, Korea, and Taiwan in service of the Emperor.

Because of WWII’s total destruction, it’s easy to overlook the trauma of the first world war. After Versailles, the US and Britain, via the League of Nations, put together a number of international treaties outlawing wars of aggression, most famously the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928. Japanese leaders interpreted that as an Anglo-American initiative to consolidate their vast colonial holdings (a fair argument– they also called Europe on its hypocrisy, declaring peace overtures while resorting to violence to keep its multitudes in Africa and Asia in line). The Japanese imperialist philosophy, Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, wanted to rid Asia of European colonialists (as well as their pernicious cultural influence). The war in Asia– beginning in China, and spreading to Britain’s and France’s holdings in Southeast Asia, as well as the United States’ colony in the Philippines– was justified as Asia for Asians, though the new hierarchy would indubitably place Japan at the top.

Every step of the way, Hirohito rubber-stamped his generals’ advances. As emperor he could have cautioned or refuted militarism, and initially he sometimes did feel outrage at aggression, but overwhelmed by other, stronger personalities, he admitted “it can’t be helped,” whether it was the political assassinations, repression of radicals, the Nanking Massacre, Pearl Harbor, or allied bombing of Japanese civilians, Hirohito decided to continue an unwinnable war waged with morally dubious values.

There is no question that Hirohito had absolute power. There is also no doubt that by summer of 1944, Japan would lose the war. Their ally, Nazi Germany, had been invaded at Normandy, and it was certain that the Soviets would turn their attention to Japan once Berlin fell. Moreover, after a spectacular blitzkrieg in late 1941, early 1942, Japan lost every single battle against the United States beginning with Midway, sustaining heavy casualties (to surrender to the enemy was seen as an act of ultimate shame– better to die for the emperor). The US had closed Japanese sea lanes, in the process removing access to vital natural resources, as they slowly moved the Pacific war towards the home islands. In fact, the army and navy were in such dire shape, the only major losses the Americans were incurring by 1945 were kamikaze attacks and suicide charges. Thus, thousands of young men were being asked to die needlessly in the emperor’s name. Why did Hirohito permit this? Why didn’t he stop the war after Tokyo was firebombed on the night of March 9th, 1945 (in which 100,000 civilians were killed)? Instead they passed out bamboo spears to women, children, and old men in the event of an amphibious American invasion. They sent thousands of balloons charged with explosive across the Pacific (almost none of them reaching the U.S. and none detonating over population centers) Meanwhile, dozens of Japanese urban industrialized areas would be bombed in the five months between Tokyo’s firestorming and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why did Hirohito persist, causing so much unnecessary death?

Hirohito would reign for another 44 years, in what would be one of the greatest economic booms of any society on earth, creating a middle class, a strong safety net, and progressive values, where once there had been almost none. Click To Tweet
The famous photograph of MacArthur and Hirohito

The famous photograph of MacArthur and Hirohito

Self-preservation, of course. The Americans wanted unconditional surrender, like they’d had with Germany. The atomic bombs and the Soviet declaration of war (happening the same week, a very bad one for Japan) spelled the futility in no uncertain terms. On August 15th, 1945, Hirohito gave his famous radio address announcing Japan’s surrender. But the emperor needn’t have worried. Though he had to give up his divinity status, US leadership (under the guidance of General Douglas MacArthur) was more concerned with total destabilization brought on by his abdication (they were quite concerned about communism and radicalism). During the Tokyo Trials, Hirohito was not brought up as a war criminal and the infamous Hideki Tojo, became the fall guy, the villain, taking the rap for the emperor (supposedly the emperor wept the morning Tojo was executed). Hirohito received all the credit for surrendering and none of the blame for the catastrophe. He kept his throne, collaborated with the Americans for the reconstruction of Japan, and approved of the famous peace constitution written by the Americans “forever” renouncing war. Hirohito would reign for another 44 years, in what would be one of the greatest economic booms of any society on earth, creating a middle class, a strong safety net, and progressive values, where once there had been almost none.

Bix has presented irrefutable evidence from various court sources and testimony regarding Hirohito’s war guilt. American leadership made a calculated choice not to prosecute him for these crimes. Bix’s immense and laboriously composed book is not necessarily a judgment on either the emperor nor Truman and MacArthur. It is not saying that Hirohito was a “bad” man. History is too complex for such trite conclusions. But it is conclusive that the emperor was complicit in giving his imperial seal on some of the worst excesses of Japanese war crimes. And moreover, his failure to act decisively in the certainty of defeat inexorably led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. This is not up for debate or revision. This is what happened. But how to imagine a Japan had Hirohito been tried and punished like his beloved general and prime minister, Tojo, is one of those pathways history turned away from.

So we return to Faulkner and the presence of the past, our contemporary time and a new nationalism ascendant in Japan’s far right government. The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is playing a risky game of brinksmanship with South Korea and especially China, quarreling territorially over a few rocks near Taiwan and revising history, absolving Japan of its criminal past. It is terrifying to consider how clumsy Abe is diplomatically, moreover, how poorly he is mistaking his agenda as that of a populist’s. Japan’s far-right is a vocal community, but they are a distinct minority, and the vast population of Japan does not seem very politically inclined, and would certainly be outraged by any sacrifice induced by (yet another unwinnable) war with China. Perhaps he is thinking his security treaty with the United States means U.S. armed forces would do his dirty work? I don’t think any US president would commit American boys to China for a few uninhabitable rocks and Japan’s reactionary misguided historical viewpoint. And certainly, almost no Japanese today will be willing to die for their emperor. That ideological cult is in the dustbin of history. He is no longer a god, he is just a man, a flawed one, like all of us.

Pool Party Still from The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese 2013

Wall Street – The Crack-Up Edition

There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every fucking time.

Wall Street – The Crack-Up Edition

The most surprising quality of The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s epic about yuppie-broker-asshole apotheosis is not that it might be the best movie of 2013, but that it might be the best movie Scorsese’s made since Taxi Driver. Wolf has earned a bad reputation for glorifying, if not humanizing the bad behavior of stock broker analysts. Those offended might have watched the film too literally, ideological do-goodism getting the best of them. Jordan Belfort (whose memoir is the film’s inspiration) might be an avaricious scumbag with a long trail of victims suckered by his shady investment schemes, but he’s never boring. Arguably, he’s comic book evil but I’ll take a film about a ‘lude-popping cokehead sex maniac antihero over predictable pure-hearted dull-witted Superman any day. And anyways, Wolf, besides being absolutely hilarious, is more subversive than its critics give it credit for. This is a vision of the American Dream taken to the nth dimension, littering consciousness with fuck-you Testarossas, tacky yachts, heaps of cocaine, sex orgies, and suitcases of undeclared millions in cash smuggled into Switzerland. It’s excess, all right, but beyond comprehension and even imagination, a tableau of money-hungry Hieronymus Bosch-type motherfuckers having one last long shindig on earth before roasting in hell for all eternity, amen.

Wall Street - The Crack-Up Edition - Pop Zeitgeist

DiCaprio at his best?

A cinematic bastard love child of Scarface, Good Fellas, and Wall Street, a breakdown of Wolf‘s plot is almost superfluous. Not quite rags to riches, but a dude from the middle class, an offspring of accountants in suburban New York, makes it big on Wall Street, very big, by misrepresenting the earnings potential of penny stocks to gullible marks, eventually moving on to bluechip investors and big money windfalls, culminating in stock manipulation of the trendy shoes manufacturer Steve Madden’s IPO. Belfort gets too big for his own good, and the SEC and FBI begin monitoring his moves. He has an opportunity to retire fabulously wealthy, paying off some fines and staying out of prison, but his brokerage house is like a family, and anyways, it’s not the money he loves so much as the making of it. He stays in the game, the drugs and sex parties negatively affect both his marriage and judgement, mistakes are made in professional and personal spheres, and his fall from the top is precipitous, and comeuppance significant: divorce, humiliation, betrayal, and jailtime. But then it’s only three years in a minimum security facility and though barred from professional trading, Belfort’s comeback is in the speaking circuit, mentoring tomorrow’s generation on the dynamics of swindling, I mean, salesmanship. That’s the gist of the story and I’ve spoiled nothing by telling you how it all ends. The devil is in the details, in magnificent riffs between DiCaprio and his co-stars (particularly Jonah Hill), the reason for seeing the film being not what happens but how it happens.

The soul of this depraved project is Leonardo DiCaprio and his tour de force performance as the titular wolf. Titanic made DiCaprio such a larger-than-life movie star that I’ve always found it difficult to separate his star power from the character. For the first time ever I truly lost myself in DiCaprio’s performance, this decadent, once and for all “fuck you” to his Titanic past. (Forget Baz Luhrman’s adaptation: Jordan Belfort is the Great Gatsby 2.0, rebooted to turn-of-the-century nihilistic fashions and we are all Nick Calloway, participating in the Great American Mess simply by virtue of looking on.) DiCaprio inhabits the manipulative huckster almost too gorgeously, as if, had movie stardom never hit, he might have been just as successful bullshitting market hyperbole on coldcalled investors. But what makes his performance so interesting is that DiCaprio and Scorsese pull off a magic trick convincing us not to just like, but, unbelievably, to sympathize with Belfort. Instead of being another cliche-ridden bio-pic about the rise and fall of a wanna-be Gordon Gekko, Wolf is sensational, not just on a sensory level (who doesn’t enjoy a bit of looky-look at limitless bacchanalia?), but for the very reason we go to the cinema in the first place, that is to feel closer to the human spirit, to be part of something larger and grander than ourselves.

Wall Street - The Crack-Up Edition - Pop Zeitgeist

The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort

This might sound absurd if you haven’t seen the film, but there are two important points to clarify about Wolf‘s ideas. First, Jordan Belfort did not begin his Wall Street career intending to fleece his investors– one of the best scenes in the movie is when DiCaprio’s rookie broker Belfort takes a martini lunch with his boss, Mark Hanna (an amazing turn by Matthew McConaughey). Belfort wants to succeed, but not at the expense of his clients’ welfare. Hana pooh-poohs his naivety: “The name of the game is moving the money from the client’s pocket to your pocket.” Certainly, Wall Street attracts a certain ruthless character, but the film seems to suggest that it is the institution, rather than the individual broker, that is truly rotten. Secondly, Belfort’s success stems from his capacity to manipulate greed in his victims– he fuels his fortune by tapping the longing in others for wealth accumulation. Greed, then, is the universal condition, and Belfort merely a psychological miner pinpointing and extracting it from the darker areas of our collective soul. He sells us that little lie we tell ourselves, that we’re special and deserve our riches too.

Making big money is almost illogical. McConaughey’s Mark Hanna tells Belfort in that same martini lunch, “First rule of Wall Street– Nobody- and I don’t care if you’re Warren Buffet or Jimmy Buffet- nobody knows if a stock is going up, down or f-ing sideways, least of all stockbrokers…It’s fugazi. It’s a wazy. It’s a woozie. It’s fairy dust.” In voiceover Belfort attempts to describe his shady practices, before dissolving the blah-blah into ‘don’t worry about it, I got rich’ pomposity. The stock market is a senseless enterprise run by senseless monsters deceiving senseless chumps. For some it can only go on so long before the absurdity destroys us. But no matter. F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong about second acts, especially for ambitious charmers. Who knows? You might even be sorta kinda vindicated when our nation’s most famous actor gives his best performance in your honor. As Belfort bellows to his whooping broker henchmen, “This right here is the land of opportunity. This is America. This is my home! The show goes on!” We cheer him in little fistpumps despite ourselves. Look in the mirror, Jordan Belfort. Maybe the zeitgeist is looking back.

Great Society for Hundred-Percenters

Great Society for Hundred-Percenters

What is it about storytellers’ imagination that it is inspired by the dystopian rather than the utopian? Dystopian novels are intriguing, for sure, and they reconfigure our social, political, and economic failings in a contextualized environment. They are literary caveats, Cassandra-like parables about what our world could become if we give in to our fears and loathings. But what about the utopian novel? What about wondering the best possible world for mankind? Is this more difficult, if not impossible to fathom– a better, fairer society which functions smoothly and generously? Or is this more of the province of activists than authors?

Great Society for Hundred-Percenters

Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy (Houghton Mifflin, 1888)

Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy (Houghton Mifflin, 1888)

Unfortunately, you’ve probably never heard of Edward Bellamy, nor his utopian novel, Looking Backward, originally published way back in 1888, at the height of the Gilded Age. At the time, however, it was a blockbuster hit, outselling every novel of the 19th century (with the notable exception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and leading to the burgeoning of dozens of progressive organizations. American history books tend to gloss over the 1890s, as the leitmotif of the decade was one of contentiousness, an uprising of labor against management, and for many on the front lines of the picket wars, the dogeared book tucked in their breast pocket was not Marx’s manifesto, but a “time travel” novel.

The story’s premise is simple: the year is 1887 and Julian West, a handsome, wealthy thirty-year-old engaged to a prominent Boston belle, is your 19th century version of the trust-fund loafer, whittling his time in clubs with brandy and cigars, oblivious to the misery of the working class poor and exasperated that the construction on his conjugal chateau has been disturbed by yet another labor strike. West’s troubles are tame in relation to the wage-slave factory hand, but he struggles with insomnia and has a hypnotist put him to sleep in a hermetically sealed underground chamber. This sleep unit survives a house fire in which West is presumed dead. More than a century later, in the year 2000, in the process of renovation, his chamber is discovered by the family now living on the grounds and West is revived, Lazarus-like, in a truly brave new world.

The family are the Leetes, the Dr., his wife, and their lovely daughter, Edith, and they are emblematic of contemporary folk– educated, generous, and incredulous at how people lived in utter desperation in the past. But what of the present? Bellamy’s Great Society is most specific on socio-economic changes rather than physical manifestations. It’s not so much the Jetsons as it is the Castros: a nation in which all industries are connected with the government, in which there is no cash (only debit cards) and where all workers, from the president to the pear-picker make do on the same salary.

Of course, this reads fundamentally like communism, but in this novel life functions more like Scandinavian egalitarianism than Soviet orthodoxy. This is a free society, in which, “every man for himself in accordance with his natural aptitude, the utmost pains being taken to enable him to find out what his natural aptitude really is.” In West’s age (and which continues in our time as well), the failure of the economic system to effectively “ develop and utilize the natural aptitudes of men for industries and intellectual avocations was one of the great wastes and causes of unhappiness.” Moreover, “mercenary considerations, tempting men to pursue money-making occupations for which they were unfit… were responsible for another vast perversion of talent.”

With full equality a reality, men (and women!) can pursue ideal career goals that stimulate their intellect, rather than work a miserable profession to procure bling trophies of first place rat race finish lines. Click To Tweet

With full equality a reality, men (and women!) can pursue ideal career goals that stimulate their intellect, rather than work a miserable profession to procure bling trophies of first place rat race finish lines. Families in Bellamy’s utopia live modestly but comfortably, private life luxuries sacrificed for a more extravagant public good, in which there are great collective dining and music halls, where all are welcome.

The novel is more closely a dialogue between the retired Dr. Leete and Julian West, naturally skeptical at first, but who comes around to understanding socialized paradigms as the natural inevitability of common sense, that, “it is the worst thing about any system which divides men, or allows them to be divided, into classes and castes, that it weakens the sense of a common humanity.”

It is often the case that we cannot see the forest for the trees, so that whatever present system we live (and loathe) under, it is difficult for most of us to contemplate any other way of life. But Dr. Leete’s (as a proxy for Bellamy) explication of 19th century’s business model’s prepositional “wastes” (of mistaken undertakings, from competition and mutual hostility, by periodical gluts and crises, from idle capital and labor at all times) is as true today as they were in the days of child labor and sharecropper farms. The system was “as absurd economically as it was morally abominable. Selfishness was their only science, and in industrial production selfishness is suicide.”

Through the tweaking of “certain fatal defects and prodigious imbecilities of private enterprise,” America’s economic system became more proficient and productive and, most importantly, less unequal. Higher achievement or excellence in performance is not rewarded remuneratively but with the bestowal of honor and the satisfaction of advancing the cause of humanity. In Bellamy’s imagined America, everyone contributes and no one starves, as “that the right of man to maintenance at the nation’s table depends on the fact that he is a man, and not on the amount of health and strength he may have, so long as he does his best.”

Great Society for Hundred-Percenters

Edward Bellamy – The Man & Moustache Himself

Julian West is eventually won over by the idea of social progress and in a dream-within-a-dream sequence that or may not have happened (no spoilers from me!), he wakes up back in his Boston bed of 1887, still an entitled scion, but no longer immune to the heartbreaking struggles of the majority of his brethren. The precariousness of their cutthroat existence moves him to intolerable emotions and he cannot not live sensibly with his class of men, their gentlemen’s clubs and servants and supercilious privilege. The epoch he was born into, and all he took for granted, had evolved into a living nightmare.

Bellamy is more of a conceptualist than a storyteller, and his writing can be clunky and his narrative guilty of melodrama especial to the time. But Upton Sinclair’s writing shares these same faults, but we remember (and some of us actually read) The Jungle, but not Looking Backward. Is this because Sinclair’s work led to government reform of a specific industry, while on the other hand implementing the ideas of Looking Backward would have involved total restructuring of our economic system as well as evolving from our materialistic habits? Bellamy’s seminal work is not an easy read, but it must be read by activists, artists, and anyone who believes that our society can, should and will be improved. In a short book review, you can just touch tip of the iceberg that might sink this ship of fools we’ve been riding directionless all too many generations.

The world we live in today is a far cry from Edward Bellamy’s epic vision. And it is easy to get down on the future with seemingly contemporary unwinnable crises, those of corporate oligarchies, environmental disaster, nuclear apocalypse, and longterm recession. Yet in Bellamy’s time of the 19th century, two thirds of the world was colonized by another, women were second-class citizens, children worked in factories, and no social safety net existed anywhere. Many fought, and much blood was spilled, to make common sense that much more common. Tens of thousands had martyred themselves to make the world a much more equitable place than it was in the so-called “good old days” of 1887. It is fitting then to finish the review with one of the twentieth century’s greatest martyrs, Martin Luther King Jr., who once put it best, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Farewell Uncle Lou

Farewell Uncle Lou

Lou Reed Signed "Loaded" Album

Brian Peterson’ Lou Reed Signed “Loaded” Album

When I woke up to the news that Lou Reed died yesterday, it hit me hard, like losing a favorite Uncle, the one who skipped town for the big city and never came home again. This is not such a stretch actually– we love our favorite artists so much that they can be like family– they comfort us in our darkest moods and they’re urging us on when the sun is strong and our step is confident. And we love them for that. We even forgive them for growing old and losing that magic touch they had when they were young and the whole world was still ahead of them.

Like most kids I got to know Lou as a part rather than a whole, picking up the Velvet Underground’s legendary box set, Peel Slowly and See, when I was 21 years old, just after finishing college at the beach town of Santa Barbara. I had vague notions of becoming a writer, though at the time it was more of a fantasy than anything. More or less, I was a broke wannabe fabulist hungry for experience, but still considering fallback plans like law school or a graduate degree. The odd jobs weren’t paying much and I didn’t really know what I had to say except that it was important to live and love deeply. Lou Reed and the V.U. were the soundtrack of those early years when I committed myself to a certain lifestyle of risk.

I started to write about Lou Reed and I ended up writing about myself, inevitable when our rock and roll heroes are such personal touchstones. But they are, and we worship them the way we once loved gods and kings. I could never quite love a woman who did not get Lou Reed: failing to apprehend the euphoria of “Sweet Jane” or the despair of “Pale Blue Eyes” would be irrefutable evidence of some deeper irreconcilable disconnect between us. No question that downloading mp3s in the Age of iTunes has cheapened our relationship to music; nevertheless we cling to our heroes. Yesterday I lost one of mine and I can forever put out of my mind the fantasized encounter. The spirit may leave this world but the song remains the same.

Bling, Babes, and the American Way

Bling, Babes, and the American Way

Sometimes the facts of the matter just don’t add up. The sum of human knowledge being what it is, the Internet benefiting us near total access of poetry, literature, philosophy, and music, and yet Kim Kardashian is among the most famous Americans on the planet. Triumphant geeks in apotheosis boast of their roles in the Information Age, and that said product is now our nation’s largest export. What does it say about our society when the most famous people in America are merely famous for being famous? I know politicians are liars and crooks, athletes dopers and cheaters, movie stars knuckleheads and pop stars vain divas but pretty, plastic women lounging on tacky furniture and behaving vacuously are hardly an ideal alternative. The state of heroism in America has never been in such dire shape. Does our fascination with “reality” stars reflect our own base qualities, that of unbridled consumerism, obsession with material wealth, and mediocre humanist ambitions? Will “keeping up” in our hyper-capitalistic society be now and forever making enough chump change to appropriate the latest fashions instead of to understand evolving thoughts and ideas? Accepting this spiritual vacuum while sucking down our venti foam-free nonfat lattes, should we ironically tweet this quiet longterm apocalypse on our iPhone 5 or just Facebook “like” it?

Bling, Babes, and the American Way

The Bling Ring Film Poster
These questions are explored but not answered in Sofia Coppola’s new film, The Bling Ring, which depressingly enough is based on a true story. The narrative, sadly, is pathetic, our characters hapless victims of the glossy sheen of fashion rags and TV gossip riffraff. Set in Calabasas, California (embarrassing disclaimer: this is a five-minute commute from the author’s hometown in Los Angeles’ West Valley), High School transfer student Marc (Israel Broussard), a quiet, sexually ambiguous teen with ruffled handsomeness, abandons new-kid-in-town pariah status for a friendship with Rebecca (Katie Chang), one of the said victims of target-market trash, but also a bit of a bad girl. At a party they steal a car and joy ride, taking the cash and credit cards with them. Later upping the ante, the break into an acquaintance’s residence making off with the house Porsche.

Teenagers, while bored and sulky, can also be enterprising, and googling the address of Paris Hilton (out of town in Vegas), they locate her house in the Hollywood Hills. Paris has no alarm system, and bright as a falling star disintegrating in Earth’s atmosphere, has conveniently left the key under the doormat (remember: based on a true story!). The two then romp through her digs, the dresses, the shoes, the unbelievably awful decor (being Paris Hilton’s real crib this is arguably the film’s major meta moment). Later at a nightclub they boast of their audacity to beautiful loser babes Nicki (Emma Watson), Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and Chloe (Claire Julien). They want in on the bling and further burglaries are undertaken with minimal regard, not only to moral considerations but also humdrum ones like keeping a clean trail so as not to be apprehended by the police.

You know they are going to get caught. But this isn’t a film about thieves’ derring-do or slick detective work. It’s about our present-day culture and the pathetic turn our values have taken. The girls worship celebrated non-entities, but failing to be as famous or glamorous as them, seem to believe the Chanel handbags and Ferragamo heels have some talismanic power. That the luxury goods were pilfered in the celebrities’ homes conspires all the more intimacy onto the acquisitions. But a bag is just a bag, even if these kids are too naive to understand it. There could never be enough designer swag to fill their lives because the emptiness that they’ve glimpsed is too vast for them to begin reckoning.

Corrupted bubbleheads the bling ring ladies might seem, I’d argue they earned their notoriety better than the Kardashians and Hiltons ever did. Click To Tweet

I am not sure how to interpret Sofia Coppola’s handling of the events. She tells the kids’ rise and fall quite straightforwardly, never quite judging the girls even if she makes it okay to laugh at them. There is no arc to the characters– they don’t learn from their mistakes or evolve as human beings. They are without meaning or purpose, and when your heroes fail basic tests of humanity, it means your film fails too. That said, The Bling Ring is not a bad movie. And it is not necessarily forgettable. It exists as a mile marker on our collective road to lamentable insipidness. It’s well-made, a nice little package of popcorn fluff with a hint of salty social commentary. Nevertheless, beautiful banality is still, in the end, banality.

The ill-conceived attempts to have designer label goods is hardly an American phenomenon. Famously, for several decades, teenaged girls in Japan have blemished their reputations with “compensated dating,” entertaining lonely lackluster salarymen in karaoke bars so they might have their own beloved Louis Vuitton purse. Rank materialism is not even an American invention– aristocrats the world over throughout thousands of years have been doing a lot worse to serfs, slaves, and laborers in order to finance their privileged extravagances.

The Real Bling Ring...For Real Son

The Real Bling Ring…For Real Son

American society is more stratified today than it has been for almost a century. With the death of the middle class accelerating, so has one of the pillars of American belief, mainly the one that declares hard work lays the foundation for success and respectability. That concept, though always more a myth than a reality, has never seemed less true when the average citizen considers today’s corporate hegemony and our declining status in the power structure. It’s telling then that the girls being home-schooled in the movie are not being taught the five paragraph essay or complex algorithms. Their main instruction comes from the bestselling self-help blather, The Secret, and its dubious, unprovable argument that positive thinking is the difference in life between success and failure. But believing you deserve success because you’re special is not exactly how Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.

The real life Bling Ring gals are quite famous now, infinitely more so than you or me, no matter how much work we’ve put into our careers. Very few of us can boast of being the subject of a Vanity Fair feature and biopic made by a Hollywood auteur. Many of the girls have their own wikipedia pages. And if they play their cards right the silly creatures might even coast on those fifteen seconds of fame a good twenty years on low-standards cable networks, making enough dough so they won’t ever have to heist their bling again.

The American Dream is a malleable, personal vision, best described by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 as “the pursuit of happiness.” Corrupted bubbleheads the bling ring ladies might seem, I’d argue they earned their notoriety better than the Kardashians and Hiltons ever did. At least they took some chances and did something, as wrongheaded, misguided, and rapacious their actions might have been, it wasn’t nothing.

That’s more than you could say about plenty of American heroes today.

The Great Spaz-Be

The Great Spaz-Be

In America, our cultural institutions tend towards blowing shit up — think Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman and various buff villain-thrashing superheroes. Yet for all our notorious bubblegum philistinism, we read too, and there are certain literary characters that are quite beloved: Sal Paradise, Holden Caulfield, Ignatius Reilly, and Captain Ahab, to name but a few, all of whom are so peculiar to our imaginations, it would be offensive for any filmmaker to appropriate them in some caricatural form. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby is another such character only the most audacious artist would hazard to interpret in cinematic light.

The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel for no small reasons. The story’s titular character makes good on the American Dream, accomplishes the most spectacular romantic gesture in all of literature, and dies tragically, his rise and fall and all too brief happiness narrated in exquisite prose by a fair and compassionate friend. It doesn’t just define the Jazz Age generation, but America itself: our material obsessions, class divisions, brutal selfishness, careless violence, and yet, also our occasional noble impulse towards doing the right thing. Published almost ninety years ago it remains extraordinarily readable, and in fact, every generation is introduced to it in middle or high school. I myself have read it at least a half dozen times, coming back to it every few years as one returns to a refuge well known and thoroughly loved. If Gatsby is not sacred, it is at the very least, a national treasure.

The Great Spaz-Be

GreatGatsby_Bazzed_HESOMagazine

The stars of Gatsby getting Bazzed

Enter Baz Luhrmann, an Australian filmmaker with a boom boom aesthetic. From his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to Moulin Rouge, he tends to lobotomize his audience with bombastic anachronistic dance numbers performed uptempo by shrill ninnies, manically spliced together with attention deficit MTV-style jump cuts that leave many muttering WTF and contemplating four hits of aspirin. His style is so over-the-top, Australians have even adapted his name into their lexicon in the event something is performed with too much intensity, as in, “OMG, he just bazzed the shit out of that.”

Full disclosure: I was horrified when I first saw the film trailer for The Great Gatsby. To put it in contemporary idiomatic terms, I was bazzed out of my mind. Worst of all was the revelation of a 3D version. How dare an Australian, especially one as obnoxious as Luhrmann, treat an American masterpiece as a dumbed down Cliffnotes-condensed soul-free blockbuster, tailored to summer vacation adolescents with rapid-fire mouse-click attention spans? Sure I played with GI Joe and Transformers as a kid, but their adaptations by Hollywood as disposable spectacles never bothered me; on the other hand, messing with Fitzgerald was tantamount to sacrilege, to pissing on a legend’s grave. Not only would I hate Luhrmann’s effort, I was ready to take real pleasure in my loathing.

So imagine my pleasant surprise when I didn’t hate The Great Gatsby. I didn’t love it either, the operative word being “pleasant.” It’s no masterpiece but it’s not exactly profane either. It’s mostly a loyal rendering of the novel, much of Fitzgerald’s wonderful prose intact, well acted, and rating relatively low on the Baz scale of migraine-inducement (perhaps though I wouldn’t be so generous had I not watched it in 2D). On the most important scenes, Luhrmann hits some right notes, so that loyal Fitzgeraldians (such as this writer) are entertained by his riff. It’s definitely not great, but it’s good enough.

But if you can maneuver through all the manufactured ebullience, you realize the Baz is getting some things right: the brotherly love between Nick and Jay is nicely rendered, and Tom Buchanan is a likable baddie. Click To Tweet

The Great Spaz-Be

The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald

It is never easy adapting any book into a film, especially one as beautifully written as The Great Gatsby, so Luhrmann and his screenwriter, Craig Pearce, establish a narrative conceit in which Nick Carroway, the story’s narrator (Tobey Maguire), is reflecting on his friendship with Gatsby from a sanitarium in in the Midwest. It’s a rather bold liberty taken by the director, but a competent, perhaps necessary trick to not only frame the story but incorporate its most lucid prose (though it was a leap to have the character Nick Carroway compose his thoughts into a novel so that we have suddenly a cheap little happy ending– the struggling writer’s redemption, one more American Dream coming true?).

Maguire makes a good Nick Carroway, a greenhorn New Yorker working in bonds, an above average everyman with a trusting face that invites the divulgence of rather personal confidences. He lives in a little cottage next to a grand (albeit digitalized) fairy tale castle inhabited by a mysterious man who throws lavish parties, as it turns out, with the singular hope that a woman he once loved and now married in her own palatial residence across the bay, might attend and perhaps recover the past with him. The story then, roughly described, is a ménage à trois involving Jay Gatsby and the Buchanans, Tom and Daisy.

Australian actor Joel Edgerton nails millionaire simpleton Tom Buchanan’s rough self-centered posturing. His Tom is Old Money petulance, threatened equally by new money parvenus like Gatsby and “the colored races.” Tom, seemingly incapable of love and trust, lives in a very small, disenchanted world. I didn’t think British actress Carey Mulligan — best known for playing ingenues — could pull off Daisy Buchanan, a bitter scion’s wife, but Mulligan musters just enough vapidity to conjure Daisy, whose bubbly, banal non-sequiturs are so telling of the pampered, vacuous life she has accepted with her philandering husband. Her Daisy is pretty, not beautiful, and exhausted before her time.

Daisy only really snaps to life once she rekindles her love affair with Jay Gatsby. Now I’m not sure Leonardo DiCaprio was the right choice for Gatsby. I don’t dislike DiCaprio, but I’ve never understood his continuing fame. He’s definitely an intelligent actor, but I’ve always found his intensity somewhat forced or overdone. There also remains the aura of the child actor about him — he never seemed to grow up, or at least I cannot seem to separate the adolescent DiCaprio from the adult one. Moreover, he is Leonardo DiCaprio, one of those actors so famous it is difficult for the audience member to ignore his celebrity, suspending belief. Thus I had a problem with his casting as Gatsby, a by-his-bootstraps success story in the black market economy. It goes contrary to Hollywood’s economic logic, of course, but the film might have been better with a talented theatrical unknown. (Watching The Great Gatsby, I couldn’t help feeling that DiCaprio was reprising his role in Titanic. It’s a similar character in remarkably similar circumstances, a charming riffraff in love with a wealthy debutante, romance thwarted by a wealthy rival suitor, culminating in a tragic death.)

DiCaprio as Gatsby is a metaphor for the film’s overall artifice, in which everything is just plain unreal. Gatsby’s famous parties are indescribably hyperactive productions emceed by a Cab Calloway ripoff, the dancers choreographed to Jay Z tunes sung by Beyonce and Andre 3000 (even Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is anachronistic, having been written two years after the story takes place in 1922). Luhrmann’s song and dance scenes are always very camp, as if he is doing a feverish homage to the most egregious cliches of Broadway musicals. His interpretation of the Roaring Twenties is that of squawking peacocks prancing on Ritalin-laced champagne. It’s a fun party, sure, if you played hooky from school only to spend all that freedom watching MTV’s Total Request Live.

But if you can maneuver through all the manufactured ebullience, you realize the Baz is getting some things right: the brotherly love between Nick and Jay is nicely rendered, and Tom Buchanan is a likable baddie. And though it tries too hard to filter a historical New York for a modern and easily distracted audience, its fantastical environment has some magical elements. The film, like the novel, is rife with awkward moments shared between people who don’t really like or respect one another. Luhrmann, while probably the last person you’d want to share a double cappuccino with, does seem to have a deft touch with his actors. Their heartfelt aspirations and disappointments (even DiCaprio’s Gatsby) manage to transcend the green screen effect. There is just enough pathos in the performances to balance the enthusiasm of CGI effects artists.

The Great Spaz-Be

The Great Gatsby Baz Luhrmann

So what you have in our generation’s Gatsby is not a work of art, but competent entertainment. Fitzgerald was a thoroughly successful writer — the voice of his generation — because he was very au courant. I couldn’t help wondering whether he would condone or condemn this very modern take on his novel. Would he have been embarrassed by the spectacle? Or proud of its terrific box office success and its marquee stature? It’s impossible to say, of course, because F. Scott was a very complicated artist, infinitely more so than the Hollywood philistines attempting to profit off his name recognition.

Of course, directors don’t spend a year or two of their lives just making anything. What was the allure for the Baz? Does he see something of himself in Gatsby, a misunderstood self-made genius who brings people together (actors and audience) to celebrate what he envisions a beautiful bacchanalian vision of existence? It seems like all of Baz Luhrmann’s movies, in their very peculiar noise levels, are more or less about Baz Luhrmann. I am obviously not a fan, but I’ll go so far to say this for him: at least he has a personal vision, so much so that his name has become part of our vernacular. He doesn’t fail altogether. His adaptation is low grade irreverence — it could have been a hell of a lot worse.

Nevertheless, I would like to finish this review with an appeal to Mr. Luhrmann: we’ll give you a free pass now, but word to the wise, attempting to baz Holden Caulfield with your lurid hyperkinesia and faux musical numbers denouncing “phonies” will not be forgiven as clever irony. Any more tampering with our beloved classics is done so with considerable bodily risk.

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