The Place Beyond the Pines

When Ryan Gosling is cast as a heartthrob, I picture him getting out of costume as soon as he’s offscreen. The actor undoes the zipper on his bodybuilder’s physique, and his confidence falls with it onto the floor. I don’t think he’s a fraud, but maybe it says something that the last working-class tough guy standing in Hollywood, with any upwind haze of ambition or prestige, comes off—to me—as archaic. Like Derek Cianfrance’s movies, Gosling’s rogues represent people who’ve fallen off the map, or simply the screen. (It’s not as if their socioeconomic bracket has vanished. But people who glom onto an American Dream unalloyed by the rust of irony seem to have.) I think it’s too rude to say he’s ripping off Brando—especially as his chronic vulnerability wraps him more tightly in the thin skin of James Dean. But I’d never for a minute believe that his attitudinizing was formed by experience.

The Place Beyond the Pines doesn’t intend to create a world soggy with movie myths, but on some level it’s soaked them up. And when Gosling, who functions better in the phony sunshine of Crazy Stupid Love or the industrial moon shadows of Drive—where he’s consciously playing with his persona at the same time that he’s making it—is used as an emblem of authenticity, it gives the lie to the film’s aggressively anti-pomo underpinnings. He’s playing a man without a past, who may have once coexisted in reality with his old-movie counterparts, but appears as a romantic delusion now—a dream for those who want to live “off the grid.” Melodramatic shortcuts hold the plot together, allow the film its premise that the sum of a fate lies in the execution of a single decision. Yet its heavy dose of romanticism gives Pines its integrity. For propulsion, Cianfrance condensed three segments of a story into a single movie that seem like chapters in a book when they should seem like installations in a series of novels. If Pines had been made as a TV miniseries, it may have been worthier of its ultimately complex vision of human interaction; the women might not have been shunted aside (or might have been shunted aside in a thematically richer way, as they were in The Godfather); and the ending—which tries to explain the blank slate of those noirish men without a past—might have been more impactful than a narrow demonstration of mystical symmetry.

The heaviness of the filmmakers’ ambitions invites them to make fools of themselves; and there’s one shot of Gosling, the stunt driver on his motorcycle, in which a traffic light bathes him in crimson as surely as a bucket of blood, that compelled me to think that a real badass wouldn’t just sit literally pretty—he’d gun it. (Drive, he said. Arcane references, anyone?) But allowing vulnerability to foolishness also grants one the porousness to convey better things, and the same impulse toward mythical graphic-making is present, to much greater effect, when the first storyline intersects the second with a bead of Bradley Cooper’s sweat falling into a pool of Gosling’s blood. There’s also a fantastically well-shot and well-played instance of sudden violence, which ends with its perpetrator, Gosling, cradling his baby, and the whole thing dangled in my head like a mobile, with all of the elements of tragic heroism in their own orbits, neither touching nor capable of being touched. There were good, small moments, too. Cianfrance, for whom most comedic scenes are no better than obligatory, has gotten at something in Cooper, who has the gift of showing tires spinning out in his brain. He ages himself 15 years by way of little more than a cocky lope. It’s a fine performance that risks as much likability as his bipolar turn in Silver Linings Playbook did. Like a Tinseltown pro, Gosling’s star-power blinds him from anything that might imperil his image; but his intelligence and instincts shine through: his voice cracks in the heat of bank robbery, exposing the shrimp inside the shark.

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The Great Gatsby

It’s hackneyed to say that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose effervesces like champagne; rather, I think, it’s closer to what champagne tastes like to someone who’s never tried it. His colors become tangible; his nouns liquify like verbs; and his emotions flow like gilded wreckage toward a horizon lit by dreams. It’s tonic as gin. It is also, probably, the first encounter most high school students have with lyrical fiction—if not lyrical anything. The Great Gatsby (1925), which is the shortest of Fitzgerald’s finished novels, seems to have been prescribed by a litterateur that he wrote into The Beautiful and Damned; the dandy pontificates, in an interview, “about the wise writer writing for the youth of his generation, the critic of the next, and the schoolmaster of ever afterward.” And though Fitzgerald treated that advice glibly, his irony was always brittle—with himself as its brunt. If ever a writer was equipped to chronicle his times for the sake of an unknowable posterity, it was him. He always saw the skeleton outlined in the beautiful form, and, to the literal-minded, this talent could be taken as prescience as it was followed by a great depression that was as harrowing to Fitzgerald as it was to anyone else. He may not have seen beauty in ruin, but he was tortured by how finer things, such as himself, went to rot; he saw beauty through the pain of that vision, and a sense of consolation in being able to appreciate it in its bloom. In his final completed novel, Tender is the Night (1934), self-dissolution was his subject. It was also his form. The same can’t be said of Gatsby.

Gatsby‘s reputation as a Great American Novel dawned at the end of the Second World War—a time when high modernist thought was disseminated to a postwar generation less disillusioned than Fitzgerald’s own, and it took the author for a martyr. In a time of organized affluence, the novel must have seemed to presage the flattening of the old money it’s ruefully soaked in; and though its balmy prose grandly evoked an era so recently past—and yet so legendarily lost—its symbols were as clear as the footnotes doted on by the schoolmasters the writer had kept in mind. Without the educational utility of Gatsby, it’s possible that Fitzgerald’s other great works would have dissolved with him; and if its obvious themes weren’t paired with its enchanted style, it would’ve been forgotten. But there’s a catch. When a prep-school boy called his roommate, Holden Caulfield, “old sport” in 1951, Salinger was winking at the irony. Snobs who quote Gatsby’s affectations, like people who watch Mad Men for the couture, are the Daisy Buchanans of the world. Unlike Fitzgerald, they see beauty and glamour as the same thing.

I would’ve pegged Baz Luhrmann as a Daisy; to my surprise, he ends up more like the schoolmasters—faithful and literal-minded. The D and the PhD. intersect, happily, in the scene toward the end when Gatsby tries to persuade Daisy to tell her husband, Tom, that she never loved him. He expresses more sympathy for Daisy here—and more distance from Gatsby—than Fitzgerald did. But Luhrmann does this at the cost of other blunders: He makes Nick a stand-in for the novelist, which is a rather offensive simplification of Fitzgerald’s relationship to his characters, yet deemphasizes Nick’s fling with Jordan Baker—the most modern of the book’s principals—thus nudging him into a bromance with Gatsby that awkwardly parallels Gatsby’s romance with Daisy. Fitzgerald, I’m sure, saw as much of himself in the moralizing outsider Nick as he did in Gatsby’s smile which “understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself”; that life-affirming grin was transferred, nine years later, onto a more obvious Fitzgerald stand-in, Dick Diver (the best gay-porn name in all American literature), in Tender is the Night—where it slowly turned upside down. There’s also inconsistency, not unusual, in Luhrmann’s attempts to bring the material “up to date.” In plot terms, this is at its worst when Gatsby complains that Daisy wants them to run away together, but he can’t do that because he has to keep climbing the social ladder. It’s an obvious indictment of Late Capitalism; but does it have anything to do with the Gatsby of the novel, who built a castle in the air out of that magic manna known as money, with luring the aristocratic Daisy as its sole object? He’s “better than the whole damn lot of them” because money is just a vehicle for him; to imply otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand the character. To “modernize” him this way is to kill him.

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