Conversation: The Jazzed Up ‘Gatsby’

BY Jeffrey Brown  May 17, 2013 at 2:37 PM EDT

Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan in Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan in “The Great Gatsby.”

It is—again—a Gatsby/Fitzgerald moment. “The Great Gatsby” is on the big screen now in Baz Luhrmann’s new film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel. There are also several new books about the lives of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Earlier Friday, I talked about the phenomenon with Kirk Curnutt, vice president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society. He’s also a professor of English at Troy University in Montgomery, Ala.

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: First I want to ask you, does any of this surprise you? Or what do you say to yourself? You’re in this world all the time; now the rest of the world is with you. What’s going on?

KIRK CURNUTT: Well, I kind of feel like Nick Carraway. I’m both within it and without it, watching it from the outside. So it’s a very neat thing to see. I do think this cycle comes around a little bit. Forty years ago the same sort of hype surrounded the Robert Redford version, and it inspired the same interest in fashion and home decor and stuff. I do think it tends to come around. It just gets bigger and bigger because the media gets bigger and bigger.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m glad you mentioned fashion. Even at home I’m getting mailings for advertising with Gatsby-type clothing. That’s everywhere.

Kirk CurnuttKIRK CURNUTT: Well, I tell you, one of my reactions to seeing the movie was to immediately regret my wardrobe choices in life. It’s something that I wish I had paid more attention to. It’s interesting how we sort of conform to the work environment around us. One of the things I loved seeing in the movie was the character walking right up the borderline of being gaudy or flashy, and that’s very much a Gatsby theme right there.

JEFFREY BROWN: I have not seen the film, but I’ve just read about it. I’m familiar with Baz Luhrmann’s work from other things, which often divides people. “Moulin Rouge,” I loved; my wife hated. That’s kind of normal from what I’ve heard from people. What was your reaction to the film?

KIRK CURNUTT: I think the people that have been negative about it are expressing their resistance to Luhrmann’s techniques. I mean, he is kind of a two Excedrin filmmaker. There is a certain point where you just get overloaded and your eyes start spinning. But I will be honest, I think that’s kind of what Gatsby needed at this moment in time. I think the book has been treated as such a holy relic for so long that it’s nice to see it juiced up and jazzed up and given some energy. It reminded me of something that I often forget, that the 1920s were loud and obnoxious and dangerous. And this is a movie that dramatizes that.

JEFFREY BROWN: The book, as you say, is treated as a holy relic, the very top of the pantheon of great American literature. It wasn’t always the case right?

KIRK CURNUTT: No, in fact for a good 20 years after its publication, it was really — I’m not even sure it was cult hit — there was a circle of writers who admired it. But when Fitzgerald died in 1940, he was famous for his first novel “This Side of Paradise,” and that was mainly famous because it was associated with the flapper movement. He was really in his own time considered a fad writer, and that’s why he fell out of fame so quickly.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mentioned the novels that are out and more coming, I gather. What is it about these two — Scott and Zelda — that seems to resonate to our day, has other writers and artists interested in returning to them.

KIRK CURNUTT: Well, I think there are a lot of cultural myths that get worked out in their biography. In the case of Fitzgerald, there is a fascination with what I call the Icarus figure, the type of artist who rises early and has a great aspirations and comes falling to earth out of hubris. With Zelda, a lot of it is tied up with issues of feminism and concerns about women’s role in society. A lot of the books that are expressly dealing with her are dealing with what it means to be the muse of a man.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m wondering from your view, for the general public, when you watch the interest, what is it that we perhaps don’t understand or get wrong about the Fitzgeralds?

KIRK CURNUTT: I think the thing that we get wrong is the thing that we want the story to be about. We want it to be a love story, we want Gatsby to be a love story. If you read it at a deeper level, it’s really not. We want the Fitzgeralds to be one of the greatest love affairs of all time, and really it’s a train wreck of a marriage. In terms of the Fitzgeralds, I think that the things that people value the most about them as a couple are those wonderful love letters that she wrote him that really capture a kind of responsiveness to joy and to love that is kind of taboo for a lot of us to express.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you say we want “The Great Gatsby” to be a love story, but it’s really not, what is it?

KIRK CURNUTT: It’s really more a meditation on American identity, on the limits of overcoming what Fitzgerald calls the barbed wire of class. It’s really a critique of the idea that we could be anything we want to be in America if we just work hard enough. And Gatsby has done all the right things by doing all the wrong things, and you discover that he’s, in the eyes of the people he’s trying to win over, he’s still mister nobody from nowhere.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. “The Great Gatsby” on the big screen and in books, and I guess in advertisements at home and on billboards everywhere.

KIRK CURNUTT: And everywhere else.

JEFFREY BROWN: Exactly. Kirk Curnutt, nice to talk to you. Thanks so much.

KIRK CURNUTT: Thank you again for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thanks for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.