Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302


Media Watch
Lavish art direction might miss the point in Baz Luhrmann’s film of ‘Gatsby’

(From the June 20, 2013 edition of the Inland Register)

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

Movie Reviews

Both F. Scott Fitzgerald and his publisher were disappointed in the mid-1920s that Fitzgerald’s new novel, The Great Gatsby, had sold only 20,000 copies. Last year alone the novel sold 500,000 copies. It is often taught in schools as the great American classic.

Baz Luhrmann gives us the most recent movie adaptation of the book in his new film. Sadly, from my point of view, it was filmed in Australia with heavy computer-generated images, rather than being done in the United States. The film is lavish, as is Luhrmann’s style. Everything is pushed over-the-top. The quiet tea party of the principals in a small cottage is so filled with flowers it is hard to see anything else.

Nick Caraway (Toby Maguire) narrates the story in a sanitarium where his doctor has asked him to write the story of Gatsby in hopes of improving Nick’s health. Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) lives in a gigantic mansion in West Egg, Long Island. He gives incredible parties where you don’t need an invitation and what looks like thousands of revelers who don’t even know who Gatsby is.

The chateau-like building is across the bay from the mansion of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). Gatsby had fallen in love with Daisy back in 1917 when he was poor. She went on to marry the wealthy Tom while Jay was fighting in World War I. So now Gatsby hopes to attract her to him by throwing the huge flapper parties.

After a tea party introduction by Nick who lives in the cottage next door to Gatsby, Daisy is given a tour of Gatsby’s home. There among other extravaganzas Gatsby throws down from the balcony above what looks like hundreds of Brooks Brothers shirts to impress Daisy with his wealth.

The story takes tragic turns as it continues. Tom Buchanan’s mistress Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) lives with her service station worker husband George (Jason Clarke) in the “valley of the ashes,” an industrial dumping ground half-way to New York City from Long Island. There is a large billboard there for an optometrist with huge glasses that seems to say, “Look at this poverty in the midst of the garish wealth of the Buchanans and Jay Gatsby.”

Leonardo DiCaprio does a fine job. He even makes saying “Old Sport” over and over again seem natural. Toby Maguire fulfills his necessary roll of narrator and reporter with competence. Carey Mulligan plays Daisy with a certain mystery. The romantic illusion seems more in Gatsby’s mind than in hers.

The story is often seen as a critique of American materialism. Is this version in that ballpark or has it missed the point with all of its exuberant emphasis on the material?

The Great Gatsby is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America and A-III – for adults, by Catholic News Service.

*****

Only two years after his film The Tree of Life, famed director Terrence Malick has a new film out titled To The Wonder. Malick presents beautiful pictures in a film with few words spoken by the actors. The story is told in a meditative way by voice-overs. The result is stunning scenes of beauty that might just as well have been in a silent movie.

The story is elusive and evidently was composed while the film was being made. The result is no Casablanca. As others have said, it reminds one of a fashion magazine or those perfume ads on television before Christmas. To me, the film feels like a chessboard, with the characters being moved around at random so that they appear in the best photographic shot against the background building or grassland.

Neil (Ben Affleck), an American in France, meets Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a Ukrainian with a 10-year-old daughter. They fall in love with many shots of sand and sea at the famed Abbey of Mont St. Michel in Normandy. Neil invites mother and child to Oklahoma, where he is an environmental inspector. The child is eventually lonely in the new world and Neil and Marina fall out of love. Marina and daughter return to France.

While seeking some answers before she returns to Europe, Marina seeks out Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). The priest is extraordinary in his ministry to the poor, the aged, and those imprisoned. But he is going through a crisis of faith, finally seeking meaning in the prayer of St. Patrick, the most powerful part of the film.

There is more to the basic plot, but the director, who is also the writer, seems to be saying that God and the spiritual do play a part in the search for meaning in man and woman’s lives. Lots of credit should be given here for this to be in a contemporary film.

I do have to admit, I have had it in reference to seeing any more couples dancing in the windblown wheat or grass in Middle America. Enough is enough.

The fine actors in the film are not used to their capabilities, because they are just visual bodies who rarely speak.

Beautiful pictures are not enough.

To the Wonder is rated R (Restricted – under 17 requires parent or adult guardian) by the Motion Picture Association of America. There are sexual themes. Catholic News Service has not yet rated the film.

Book Reviews

Pulitzer Prize-winner Elizabeth Strout has a new novel out that intertwines events in Maine where she lives and in New York City. The novel is The Burgess Boys, published in hardcover by Random House for a list price of $26.

Two brothers, Jim and Bob, with sister Susan, have grown up in Shirley Falls, Maine. The brothers have moved to New York City, while Susan has stayed in their home town.

Jim is the hot-shot, high-powered New York lawyer to the rich and famous. Bob struggles with alcohol and a failed marriage as he works for Legal Aid. Earlier, as children, Bob is said to have accidently shifted the transmission in their folks’ car, causing it to roll over and kill their father. Bob tends to idolize his brother Jim, even though Jim seems to always be putting him down when he speaks to him or about him.

The story begins to really move when, during the feast of Ramadan, Susan’s son, for some unknown reason, throws a pig’s into the mosque of Somalis who are newly arrived in Shirley Falls. The result is a rash of news reporters present at Susan’s home as the story escalates into a major hate crime incident.

Both brothers arrive in Shirley Falls seeking to help their nephew in this difficult time. Throughout these events we explore the rather dysfunctional relationship between the three siblings.

Strout raises questions on how we treat new immigrants and how they see us and our culture. There are themes centered on the death of a parent, the effects of divorce, the loneliness of modern life and senseless rebellion.

Maybe the winning of the earlier Pulitzer caused me to expect more. The novel seems heavily based on a secret revealed toward the end of the story. The solution for Susan’s son’s problems – sending him to Ireland to be with his Dad – seems too simplified. A whole subplot centering on Jim’s wife seems to get lost. Jim’s constant dismissiveness of Bob through much of the novel seems overdone.

I have not read Strout’s earlier Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, Olive Kitteridge, but The Burgess Boys seems less than extraordinary.

*****

A few weeks back I was visiting the office of a south-side Spokane parish. A parishioner had recently brought in some books for the parish library. One of the books was titled When God is Silent, by Barbara Brown Taylor. It was published in softcover by Crowley Publications of Boston in 1998. The present list price is $14.95.

This thoughtful book on the importance of silence for all Christians, but especially for preachers of the Gospel, is based on the 1997 Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching given at Yale Divinity School.

How do we hear God speaking in the silence of our lives which is continually threatened by the noisy 24/7 connections all around us?

Under three titles of “Famine,” “Silence,” and “Restraint” Barbara Brown Taylor gives us beautiful language meant to be read and reread. She speaks of our real world realities as we seek the living God of Adam, Abraham, and the Gospel writers. And in the process she has a lively critique of various preaching styles.

One of the especially revealing sections of the book speaks of the danger of making Christianity an overly talkative religion. Taylor writes: “... the truth is that silence plays a central role in Christian scripture as in Hebrew. In each of the Gospels, the Word comes forth from silence. For John, it is the silence at the beginning of creation. For Luke, it is the silence of poor old Zechariah, struck dumb by the angel Gabriel for doubting that Elizabeth would bear a child. For Matthew, it is the awkward silence between Joseph and Mary when she tells him her prenuptial news, and for Mark, it is the voice of one crying in the wilderness – the long-forgotten voice of prophecy puncturing the silence of the desert and of time.”

When God is Silent is an accessible book for the parishioner in the pew, but it is especially wonderful for the preacher or giver of reflections. It is both challenging and hopeful.

Near the end of the book the author writes: “By addressing the experience of God’s silence in Scripture and in our listeners’ own lives, we may be able to open up the possibility that silence is as much a sign of God’s presence as of God’s absence – that divine silence is not a vacuum to be filled but a mystery to be entered into, unarmed with words and undistracted by noise – a holy of holies in which we too may be struck dumb by the power of the unsayable God.”

(Father Caswell is Inland Register archivist.)


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