Thursday, May 5, 2011

Born That Way

There was quite a bit of chatter a couple of months ago when famed Australian director Baz Luhrmann announced he was going to remake F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby. Lurhmann’s supposed 3D (darling, its like we’re actually in East Egg!) take on Gatsby will not be the first time that F. Scott’s sour take on the downside of the American Dream has made it to the that “oh so” classic American entertainment medium of the silver screen; the 1970s saw Mia Farrow and Robert Redford infamously butcher Fitzgerald’s source-material while looking handsome in their jazz-age best. And while in his younger and more vulnerable years Paul Rudd helmed a made-for-TV version of the Great Gatsby featuring Mira Sorvino (remember her?) and Toby Stephens (who?).

A phenomenal book which has made for terrible film, Gatsby’s iconic characters and bittersweet plot have, however, sustained continued fascination since the novel shot to post-war fame. In fact Luhrmann’s announcement was not the only recent Gatsby news to hit the mainstream press of late. Newspapers from the LA Times to the UK Daily Mail sadly reported that the Long Island mansion that supposedly inspired Fitzgerald was bulldozed in April, its plot of land split up and sold into building lots at $10 million a piece. A sad comment about the end of America’s Gilded Age can be seen here.

Few artistic products, with 85 years of vintage, can claim to have such extreme cultural resonance. So what explains our continued fascination with the novel and its titular character of which Fitzgerald once remarked: “the title is only fair, rather bad than good”?

What is it about Gatsby that still means something?

Well to quote Lady Gaga: “He was born that way.” Jay Gatsby reminds us all that for whatever reason we human beings are obsessed with where we come from, and not in the philosophical way, but rather the mundane, “what did your parents do” sort of way.

Take the recent wedding of Kate (now Catherine) Middleton to HRH Prince William of Wales, or whatever his last name is (is it Wales or Windsor?). Throughout their engagement the British press (and presumably the press-reading public) has been fascinated with the Middleton family’s impressive upward social trajectory. In less than three generations the Middleton’s have gone from bricklayers, to air stewards, to entrepreneurs, to machataynus (Yiddish for in-laws) to HRH Prince Charles and Camilla. We know all of this because it was reported breathlessly with a mixture of glee and disdain by London’s press corps. But also note - there was no whitewashing of Kate common past; rather, Kate and her sister Pippa have forever been dubbed the Wisteria Sister’s for being pretty, smelling nice and for their incredible climbing ability. One may argue that Kate’s non aristocratic background is part of what has enamored William, who seems rather taken with the entire Middleton clan, whose bourgeois closeness would seem to bely his own proper up-bringing; regardless of that, our future Queen will forever have a commoner footnote.

But the British Royal Wedding hasn’t just exposed the British public’s fascination of where the Middleton’s come from – they care about where everyone comes from. As this rather amazing article in New York Magazine noted: the current House of Windsor are seen by some members of the landed British aristocracy as nothing more then “middle-class Hanoverians.” The Royal Family as you may or may not know only became the House of Windsor in 1910, changing their name (how common!) from the German sounding House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, was Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha). And as Tina Brown noted in her biography of Diana, upon being threated by Prince Phillip: "If you don't behave, my girl, we'll take your title away." Diana is alleged to have replied: "My title is a lot older than yours, Philip." Diana was only too happy to remind Philip that while he may be married to the Queen, the Spencer family has been titled since the 1500’s. Snap.

Lest us not think that it is just the Brits who seem to have a fetish for pedigree, over in the former colonies where birth isn’t supposed to mean anything to the Horatio Aldeg set, perhaps the greatest circus sideshow since the merger of Ringling Brothers with Barnum and Bailey has transpired over just that – family lineage.

Witness the rise of the Birther movement, exacerbated by that carnival barker of a Presidential candidate Donald Trump, who believes that Barack Obama was not actually born in the United States and therefore is in violation of Article 2 of the US Constitution, which states that only natural born citizens can become President. While you may think that this is a fringe movement, some polls have found that 1/4 of American’s aren’t 100% positive that Obama was actually born in Hawaii as he states and as his birth certificate shows. Certainly there is something more sinister and sort of racist about the Birther movement but the very fact that people are interested in Barack’s heritage would stem from an innate desire to know as much about our leader’s history as we can. Even the NY Times, a bastion of Liberalism, published a great feature piece of Barack’s mother and her time in both Kenya and Hawaii, highlighting the fact that family history, even in the history less United States, sells.

Now as Canadians, before we let our noses get too high up in the air from judging former super-powers, lets not forget that we took time away from the most recent federal election to talk about how rich or poor the Ignatieffs were when they got off the boat. Forget the “I didn’t come back here for you,” attack ad and go straight to Iggy’s own “My Canada” advert where he voiceovers: “my dad was a Russian immigrant who came off a boat in 1928 without anything."

Of course as the Conservatives were quick to note before the Writ dropped in their cutesy website: The Ignatieff immigrant experience is one of significant wealth, first-rate educations and privilege. Very few Canadian families can claim this “immigrant experience.”

The common thread in all of these stories and our fascination with them is that they show humans who are beholden to their pasts. We seemingly just can’t escape who we are. This perhaps underlies the continued fascination with Gatsby. Gatsby is one of the few characters that dared attempt to separate who he was from who he tried to be. And yet he is tragic because his desired future was so caught up proving himself to his past. What’s worse is that for a time Gatsby is successful – he remakes himself into a man of wealth, and yet in the end he fails; he winds up friendless, loveless and dead.

Fitzgerald’s argument is significant: we can never truly escape who we are. This plays true for Catherine Middleton of the Party Pieces Middletons, Barack Obama born in Hawaii and Michael Ignatieff, well to do Russian immigrant.

And so we sing songs, beats against the music, re-investing ourselves ceaselessly into Madonna’s past.

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