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Minnesotans and the past: 'Gatsby' and the Coen brothers' 'True Grit'

It has been 70 years and three days since Scott died, having eaten a candy bar and then leaped to his feet, gasping and then collapsing. F. Scott Fitzgerald was all of 44, and it was either alcoholism or tuberculosis that killed him. Heck, it was probably both.
 
He had a good run in his short life. He was popular when alive, and at the end of his days made a good living in Hollywood, which he hated, but making a living in Hollywood and hating it was very en vogue in those days. That was Scott, always at the bleeding edge of being fashionable. He published a book about it called "The Pat Hobby Stores," an early example of Hollywood screenwriters using their considerably literary talents to give their adopted homes and despised professions a good, ironic thumping over. Scott's stories rise to the apocalyptic heights of, say, "The Day of the Locust" by Nathaniel West, but, as goes self-portraiture by a writer who fears he is in decline, it's cracking. You can read it online at Project Gutenberg.

 
But writers, if they are to be remembered forever, usually get just one novel that everybody feels they must read, and is pushed on them in high schools and pushed on them in college literary survey courses until they simply dread it. With Fitzgerald, it is "The Great Gatsby," which was not awfully popular when he was alive and was mostly forgotten when he died. Who knows how these things happen? The Armed Forces gave away about 150,000 copies to servicemen during World War II, and, at the end of the war, the book was a classic.

There was something of a Roaring '20s revival in the '50s and '60s, a nostalgia-driven re-visitation of an era that produced the first really modern youth subculture in the flapper, and "Gatsby" was seen as the definitive books of the Jazz Age. I don't think so. I think Scott's "The Beautiful and The Damned" is better. It charts both the rise of the jazz-loving subculture and also offers a fictional portrait of his dazzling, mad wife Zelda, who was one of the first and finest flappers. Scott wrote about the Jazz Age; Zelda was the Jazz Age. But Gatz, Fitzgerald's lovelorn and party-mad nouveau riche hero of "Gatsby," obviously struck a chord with post-War America, and that chord continues to resonate almost 90 years after the story was set.
 
Case in point: A printing group called Head of State has gone through chapter four of "Gatsby" and inventoried every single guest at one of Jay Gastby's famous parties, and then created business cards for every single one of them. They've put all these together in a rather remarkable poster — the whole of it is made with a typographic precision in recreating the logotypes of the era. These cards feel terrifically Jazz Age — they're creations of pure deco whimsy, as though even the bankers and medical doctors of the era had decided the text that represents them should embody the same chic modernist aesthetic as the Chrysler Building. It's a great reminder of an era with an obvious appeal. After all, it was a time we remember as being one of late-night parties, constant social drinking, explosive dance music, and sexually adventurous young women. These things will always be popular. It is always the summer of 1922 somewhere in America.

"Great Gatsby" business cards
The Heads of State
"Great Gatsby" business cards

We are a country that doesn't have much past, but we like to remember, and mythologize, what we do have. American filmmakers were making westerns back when the actual American West was still a recent memory. Starting in 1894, a film producer named William K.L. Dickson started making one-reel films starring the performers in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, itself a sort of proto-western stage show that combined trick riding and shooting with a mostly fabricated narrative of the winning of the America West. I suppose when you only have a few years of history to draw from, you create your historical mythology out of current events.
 
The western in very much in decline now, at least as popular genres go. Hollywood used to churn out dozens of oaters per week. Now they're made very rarely. But it's become a prestigious genre, with old genre exercises like "3:10 to Yuma" being remade so that Christian Bale and Russell Crowe can show off their acting chops while wearing spurs. I am not convinced we are any better for this — with a few notable exceptions, "Unforgiven" and the "Lonesome Dove" television series among them — modern westerns have tended to be overlong, overserious period dramas. We want our cowboys to bear the weight of history, and we seem to want our cowboys to be unhappy and tormented, and so even when we have them fall in love with each other, they must agonize over the fact. But it may be too much — it's hard enough punching doggies on the trail without tossing psychic distress into the mess.
 
Fortunately, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen seem to have successfully exorcised themselves of psychic distress in their last film, "A Serious Man," when they heaped misery on a hapless Jewish academic from St. Louis Park. Additionally, the Coens have already shown themselves to be cautious adapters of the works of others — their finest film to date, "No Country for Old Men," hews to the original book by Cormac McCarthy with laudatory fidelity. They obviously have the same sort of respect for author Charles Portis, who, back in 1968 wrote a western called "True Grit." The Coens' adaptation of Portis' book has been repeatedly identified as a remake of the 1969 film that netted John Wayne an Oscar, but it isn't, not really. There are echoes of the Wayne film, but the Coens' version should primarily be understood as a new film made from the same source material. It is, of course, a showcase for talent, and I need not enumerate this, as other critics have already detailed the fine performances of Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld. I will say that after decades of being unrewarded by Hollywood laurels, Bridges may be looking at winning his second Academy Award in two years.
 
In telling their tale of a young girl in west central Arkansas who hires a one-eyed, alcoholic deputy Marshall to kill the man who shot her pa, the Coens mine much of the humor of the original novel, which is unsurprising, as the Coens have always been a bit daffy, and also Portis' strange language, which is also unsurprising. The Coens have never heard an eccentric turn of phrase they didn't appreciate, and their films have delighted in odd regionalisms, outdated slang, and pure Gadzookery.

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in "True Grit."
Paramount Pictures
Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in "True Grit."

Portis wrote his novel as though the only text anybody in the American west had been exposed to was the King James Bible, and they had modeled their own speech after it — a choice probably informed by the fact that the narrator was the little girl, a stern churchgoer turned into a sterner spinster. The results are that even the ignorant and the malicious get to talk like Jeremiah railing against the sins of Manasseh. And this is a story with a decidedly Old Testament quality to it. Sinners earn retribution, but so do those who yearn for revenge, and the film's climactic image is not of gunfire but of an old, bearded man racing across a barren and hostile wilderness carrying a poisoned child.

The trailers for the film used a song by Johnny Cash, and it seemed to sum up the film's sense of living in a universe in which morality is enforced by violence. "Sooner or later," Cash sang, "God's going to cut you down."

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Comments (11)

Thank you for a thoroughly delightful and informative article.

I am one of the fortunate few who never was required to read "Gatsby". (I grew up in Colorado, that may be why.) So your recommendation of "The Beautiful and the Damned" provides me with an excuse to read something by Fitzgerald.

Your description of the Coens' new movie and the language choices they have made in their various movies gave me a good laugh. I think it's one of the reasons their movies seem not only quirky but also real. I can't wait to see the movie and may even read the book.

Mr. Sparber, I'm looking forward to seeing "True Grit" so am unable to respond to your comments about the Coens' movie. So I'm confining myself to your interesting comments about Fitzgerald. A couple of nitpicky things: Fitzgerald died of a heart attack, and there's no second "The" in the name of his novel "The Beautiful and Damned." More significantly, I'd have to say that Fitzgerald does address the subject of the past in America dead on in the final paragraphs of "The Great Gatsby," and that there are phrases in the narrative and dialogue of his novel that have entered the idiom" My favorites? "Can't repeat the past? Why, of course you can!" and "Her voice is full of money." Thanks for your opinions and the way you expressed them; I really appreciate having the opportunity to bend my mind around the man and the novel once again.

Sorry to bust you Max but one of my enumerable pet peeves is that Fitzgerald never wrote a book titled "The Beautiful and the Damned"! It is titled "The Beautiful and Damned" which has an entirely different meaning. Thanks for letting me vent. Happy Holidays.

There is no typo I have not committed, will not commit, or am not, at this moment, in the commission of committing.

Max- i appreciate your suggestions and i believe i will be able to find Fitzgeralds book whether i use both "The's" or not.

am also looking forward to seeing "True Grit" in the Coen brothers form. i like their quirk's!
happy holidays!

Typos or not, this is a fine piece, Max. I used to teach "Gatsby" in a high school American Studies course in suburban St. Louis. Many students found it puzzling, but there were always some who truly "got it." Loved the earlier "True Grit" film, and am genuinely looking forward to the Coen Bros. latest version – especially after enjoying an edited version of "Fargo" just the other night on local TV. I like their quirks.

I was never forced to read Gatsby. I loved it when I did read it. It's impossible to travel up and down the New England coast without thinking about it.

It is interesting to me that the production of "Gatz" by Elevator Repair Service, a New York theater company, has gotten very little play in Fitzgerald's home town. It played at the Walker two years ago, but neither critic for the local papers saw fit to stay for the full seven hours, during which the whole novel is read and performed to the audience. After it finally got permission to play in New York, Ben Brantley of the Times called it the best theater production of the decade.

I saw it and thought it superlative. Was not writing fir the arts then, alas. Have since gotten to know some company members, and they're all fine and great fun people.

As a sidenote, there is a play about F Scott and Zelda called "Clothes for a Summer Hotel" by Tennessee Williams that I had the opportunity to see Off-Broadway last February. It premiered in 1980, and was called by Williams a "ghost play" moving backwards and forwards in time. A very interesting look at the relationship between the two.

I've now seen the Coen Bros. version of "True Grit." It's superb, and a big part of what makes it work is the language. I've read quite a few diaries of pioneers trekking west on the Oregon and California trails, and the Biblically-inspired phraseology so prominent in the film was not all that uncommon at the time, especially on the frontier. I've read elsewhere that Jeff Bridges referred to the language in Portis' novel as "Western Shakespeare," and that seems pretty close to the mark.