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Girls and Gatz

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I spent the last few days in Europe and, of course, that was the time I was able to catch up on my Girls viewing as well as take in two dramatized incarnations of the American classic, The Great Gatsby: the theatrical reading/ performance of the book by the Elevator Repair Service group and the 1974 Robert Redford/ Mia Farrow film, adapted by a young Francis Ford Coppola.

I know I am very late to be talking about the second half of the first season of Girls, and that the second season has already been shot, but I need to follow up my initial post about the show. Initially I tried to say two things: that Lena Dunham, the smart, creative, and responsible person behind the irresponsible, selfish, lazy, character of Hannah, is what makes the show work.

It's easier to watch a show about people whose lives are a mess and don't have a clue if it's put together by people who are intelligent and do have some insight into how to "make it" creatively -- they frame the bumbling characters with intelligence. This was not a criticism so much as an observation about the dynamic of how the show was working. The other thing I said was that the guys are all losers. This was not a comment about their occupations, or about whom they dated, or what clubs they went to; really, it was an observation about how they were either cowed and wishy-washy or overbearing, harsh and callous -- two extremes that were not very flattering. There are enough critics out there who say, "I like this, watch it" or "I didn't like this, don't watch it." If that's how people read what I write, then I'll just say, "watch it, it's a great show" but it's not really why I write. Just because the guys are losers doesn't mean they aren't fun to watch. I've played plenty of characters that were bigger losers than the guys on the show; my character in Pineapple Express is far from a role model. But we shouldn't watch shows or movies for role models; we should watch them for entertainment and to give us fodder for discussion.

After watching the last three or four episodes of the season, I saw some new patterns emerge. First, Adam became less of a loser; early on he was a guy that didn't seem to work or leave his apartment, he didn't seem to have any understanding about the feelings of others, and the way he had sex was purposefully portrayed as silly and embarrassing. But in the later episodes he starts to come around, he's fun, he is revealed to be a writer, actor and carpenter, and his intense approach to life turns out to be based on uncompromising artistic integrity. When he drops out of a play he wrote, he says that he would rather do nothing than have his name on something mediocre. This is interesting because later Hannah is asked by her former professor to read some of her work at an organized reading and instead of reading a humorous piece about sex with a hoarder on used Chinese food boxes, she reads something more serious because she is afraid of being frivolous. I think this fear of irrelevance or of shallowness is at the core of the show itself. This is a show that everyone I know talks about, most people seem to like it, and despite criticism about its misrepresentation of New Yorkers in their 20s, it does have a lot to say about some people in their 20s. So, to go against Adam's approach to art -- I think even he realizes his hard line will probably lead nowhere because very little creative work is ever "perfect" -- and to embrace Hannah's approach, before she axed her hoarder reading, I think the show and Lena Dunham have done something right by writing about what they know and not worrying about it being perfect.

In London I was able to catch three-quarters of the 8-hour event, Gatz, which is a word-for-word staged reading of Fitzgerald's, The Great Gatsby. I was unable to see the show when it was in New York, but the show at the Noel Coward Theater was fantastic. The challenge of adapting Gatsby is capturing the language in a visual and dramatic medium like film and theater. Why do we love the book? Because we want a glimpse of the upper class? Or because the vehicle that delivers this glimpse is so eloquent? The latter, I think. On the way back to New York, the plane offered the Jack Clayton/Robert Redford film, probably because the Baz Luhrmann/DiCaprio film is coming out later this year. It seems that the way Clayton tried to translate the fluid and florid prose to the screen was to match Fitzgerald's beautiful descriptions with rich set design and endless delectations for the eye, which I think he succeeded in doing. But the other challenge when adapting this novel is capturing the characters, which has something to do with structuring their place in the presentation of the narrative and something to do with the actors. Nick Carraway is a narrator, he is an ambassador for the audience, he is not a very active character. When he is presented in a book, describing Gatsby and Gatsby's world is his activity. But in a film the describing is done by the camera, so this character is put in a difficult position. He becomes less of an active describer and simply the go between for Gatsby and Daisy, and then, once they're together, he isn't really needed.

The great things about the approach in Gatz is that the descriptions in the book are used! The production gets to have Fitzgerald's prose and perform. But the thing that is so smart about this production is that the characters are not playing Nick and Gatsby and Tom and Daisy and Jordan; they are playing office workers who start reading/listening to/ and performing the text from the book. This allows for an additional level of mediation so that Gatsby can be played by a middle-aged balding man who bears more resemblance to Craig T. Nelson than Robert Redford, and it allows the characters to have a vacillating ironic distance from the text. What this means is that the office workers can at times identify closely while playing at the Gatsby characters and at other times they can be far away from their interpretations, which often creates comedy where there was none in the text. This allows some of the sections that are beautiful on the page and overwrought when dramatized -- for example, Daisy crying into Gatsby's shirts because she has missed him so much and is grateful that he now has money, the lack of which made her leave him when they were younger -- to be palatable. The trailer for Luhrmann's 3D interpretation looks as if the movie is going to translate the pizzazz of the prose into dynamic visuals, but as for honoring the source, Gatz makes art out of being extremely loyal and ironically rebellious at the very same time.