Talk by UEA lecturer in American literature, Sarah Churcwell, about her book Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gstsby – followed by Baz Luhrmann’s film.
Also published in January/February 2014 “Folkestone Creative” magazine.
Fitzgerald fans packing this Gatsby screening had their appetites whetted by Sarah Churchwell’s prior talk on her study of Fitzgerald’s classic novel.
Churchwell put Gatsby in context, explaining that in 1924 New York when the book was written, many believed the Great War had indeed ended all wars, that democracy was safe, and that a boom fuelled by easy credit and cheap booze would not end in the inevitable bust.
She brought some fascinating insights on the novel, including a news story from 1924 that she claims heavily influenced Gatbsy’s genesis – and explains the “Murder” in her book’s title.
At the exact time Fitzgerald began writing Gatsby, the New York newspapers were full of a bizarre double killing. The so-called Hall-Mills murders involved a woman and her lover, a married priest, found shot through the head in a field.
“Careless People” refers to characters Tom and Daisy Buchanan, typical Fitzgerald composites and prime creators of mayhem, with Daisy containing elements of Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda. “Careless” changed its meaning during the 1920s, explained Churchwell, from carefree to reckless – paralleling the decade’s path, and the life of Fitzgerald and his creation, Jay Gatsby.
The Fitzgeralds were no strangers to 20s New York hedonism. Gatsby is in part an attempt to come to terms with conflict between “what the heart feels and the mind knows”, said Churchwell, as the Fitzgeralds kept pushing down unease about their self-destructive lifestyles with yet more alcohol and partying.
The 1974 Gatsby flick saw Robert Redford playing Jay Gatsby – “too perfect” according to Churchwell, who feels Baz Luhrmann’s 2012 film featuring Leonardo Di Caprio portrays the flawed Gatsby more truly.
“My life has got to be like this”, says Di Caprio in the film, pointing skyward. “It’s got to keep going up.”
But Luhrmann captures the darkening trajectory of the decade, the colour and scale of Gatsby’s parties giving way to a greyer tone, culminating in Gatsby’s violent end.
The juxtaposed “flappers to rappers” soundtrack adds an unsettling, contemporary edge, including Beyonce’s cover of modern-day drink and drugs victim Amy Winehouse, as Luhrmann quotes Fitzgerald’s celebrated final lines on screen: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”.
The Great Gatsby, set at the very birth of conspicuous mass-consumption, celebrity culture and style over substance, before a terrible crash, fascinates because it is also about us.
Then is now.