“They’re a rotten crowd’, I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.
In this passage, Nick Carraway, narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, recalls his final exchange with the titular character in the novel.
I’ve found myself thinking a lot about The Great Gatsby recently in conjunction with Martin Scorsese’s recent film The Wolf of Wall Street, which has been generating it’s own plethora of critical responses. Partially, I think the connection I initially made between the two has to do with the fact that within one year, Leonardo DiCaprio has played both Gatsby in Baz Luhrmann’s adaption of the novel and the “wolf of wall street,” Jordan Belfort, in Scorsese’s film. More than that, however, both Gatsby and Belfort share certain intrinsic qualities: they reinvent themselves wholesale, they have a concerted preoccupation with material goods, they are involved with illicit business dealings, they have a penchant for lavish parties that encourage reckless abandon, and they have fervent and dangerous addictions (drugs, for Belfort, Daisy for Gatsby). Indeed, both stories and films portray intoxicating excesses: ones monetary, sartorial, sensual, sexual, and in Scorsese’s case, temporal. Likewise, the “rotten crowd” Carraway describes is equally applicable to the characters in Gatsby’s milieu – Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Jordan Baker, the Wilson et al – and to Belfort and his “band of merry men” (though Belfort, no Robin Hood, has far less noble monetary pursuits). Though set in quite disparate eras, the takeaway from both stories and their film adaptions proves remarkably similar. Perhaps, to recall one my high school English teacher's favorite sayings: “same story, different details.” Additionally, thinking about Gatsby in relation to The Wolf of Wall Street gives us a clearer a way to process and to understand our role as audience and moral arbiter vis-a-vis the world the film presents.
Sticking strictly to the film portrayals, both Luhrmann and Scorsese present their central characters’ worlds as almost literal circuses. In the wild parties scenes of The Great Gatsby there are elaborately costumed acrobats and entertainers; the wild party scenes of The Wolf of Wall Street and one memorable office scene, in particular, feature strippers, a band, and a lion. Gatsby and Belfort preside over these activities as the veritable ringmaster at the helm. Traditionally (and especially if one thinks of literature) the circus/carnival/festival is utilized as a symbol of excess and bedlam. It represents a space apart from ordinary society, a lapse in order, and a violation of normative rules and codes of conduct. What is striking about both films, however, is that their circus atmospheres do not seem to represent a temporary escape from an otherwise “normal” or structured world. As the extreme excesses in both films convey, the circus is not a diversion from a societal sphere of propriety, in other words, it is instead the very essence of Gatsby’s and Belfort’s worlds. And consequently, as circuses, their worlds are ones in which traditional rules seemingly cannot and more importantly should not apply. These films present their audiences with an invitation to chaos. More than that, they seem to invite us to revel in their characters’ transgressions. It is unsurprising that DiCaprio would play both Gatsby and Belfort, for both characters are meant to be charming and DiCaprio certainly oozes charisma. We find ourselves, that is, drawn to both Gatsby and Belfort and drawn, consequently, into the consummately alluring worlds they represent. Effectively, we are meant to discover through these films how easily and viscerally thrilling it is to enter into or, at least, to be compelled by a world where money really can seem to buy happiness and where ethical transgression or ambiguity is customary.
What is fundamentally distinct about our experience as an audience as opposed to those of the characters in the film and those in Gatsby’s and Belfort’s orbit is that at the end of the film (or after reading the novel), we are afforded the ability to leave the space of the circus in which we have voyeuristically and perhaps pleasurably presided for the duration of the films. We are therefore situated in a rather privileged position, like Nick Carraway, both “within and without” the worlds at the film’s center. We have access to this world and we understand its glittering magnetism (and that of its central character) and yet, upon our return from it, I think we are supposed to ultimately, if not immediately, reject it.
Indeed, there has been a lot written about Scorsese’s film in terms of whether or not it celebrates excess. I would argue, contrary to much popular opinion, that by allowing us to “return” from the carnivalesque atmosphere – and taking a cue from Gatsby – the film actually encourages us to pass moral judgment; to act, in other words, as Nick Carraway. Scorsese’s film does not have a narrator with unique access to the world of Belfort; we, the audience, somehow become that narrator. I think we are supposed to or are encouraged to “disapprove of Belfort from beginning to end,” even if we find ourselves increasingly charmed by and drawn to him (as Carraway is with Gatsby). If the real consequences of Belfort’s actions are stunningly limited and, if he more or less gets away with his actions, then we finally must be the ones to condemn him. Belfort is supposed to incur our disapprobation. And perhaps in this way, the film becomes less a critique of Belfort, per se, and a more pointed critique of the circus world (of the rich and heedless, of wall street, of the legal system) that he both orchestrates and shrewdly navigates. This is necessarily a way of interpreting Fitzgerald’s point and, consequently, that of Luhrmann’s adaption: a final repudiation of the “rotten crowd” and ostensible wasteland of the 1920s.
Undoubtedly, there’s a good deal of delusion in both works – and that would certainly make for a further interesting discussion in terms of both films. There are also important and substantial differences between the main characters. For one thing, there may be slightly more moral ambiguity in terms of Gatsby’s character than in terms of Belfort’s. But both Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street seem to want to importantly disavow us of our own delusions and, pointedly, of our own (delusional) unwillingness to pass judgment. After all, as Carraway reminds us, “reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope” – and that is an ultimately untenable reservation.