Still the pendulum. Note the hour and minute where we quite those dizzy spades. It was the last time we thought there was a time, the precise moment we could never be sure ever existed in the first place. It’s the last fact. Jot it down, grab a friend and firebrand it onto that cognizant lump of your partner’s brain that we’re said to actually use. Because I’m calling it. We’re done. No, really, leave a crowbar in the coals while you alert your next of kin to do the same, then weasel that red hot iron up an ear canal, wait for the hiss and pop, and when a creamy grey matter comes boiling out each socket in a molten flow, eyeballs carried thin skinned like over-easy yolk, you’ll finally be at peace in our inconsequent world where every statement stands a priori, unique to a planet, yet somehow pregnant with it’s own redaction, having its cake and eating it too…
I’m sorry, of course none of this follows, that’s my whole point. Take the most morally compromised among us – an Enron exec, or whatever the new devil is, a high ranking investment manager, an oil magnate – put him in his Rolls Royce purchased with funds laundered through an offshore account, laterally deposited out of a real estate tax shelter, or from a corporate write off for the figurative size of his cock, it doesn’t matter. He’s in a car. He’s coming back from a Tijuana bender that saw new heights of vile excess: he jack hammered peyote into his bones, he caked each cortex with an icing of angel dust and populated his secluded bungalow with captive woman the world over, Noah in an ark of breasts, and had them undress into a rainbow of flesh that he trafficked and called to by color – “You! Indigo, falate me!,” he cried, not entirely sure of either the color or the act – all the while, for piquancy, his wife was being stood up in a New Jersey Italian restaurant the night of their anniversary, watching the ice melt in her perfectly tasteless artesian water, sweating the glass, soiling the doily; as in New Hampshire his own mother is forgotten in a “home,” is being embalmed by the dusty air off her davenport, is fading like its fleur de lis in a beam of afternoon sunshine, whistling off into naps of Jeopardy, pickled and quietly perturbed by memories, by the notions, shapes and should-be-there’s of forgetting… forgetting what? Ahh yes… my son Pete, now she remembers. And Pete, as memories are made, is meanwhile being pleased not only by the mouth of Indigo, by the extrasensory sensuality of his two fold intake of blow, but by his delectable truancy, his forgetting… forgetting he knows exactly what! exactly whom! Yes, what a release! And all of it paid for with a known carcinogen in the Home Front line’s plastic molding which allowed for the same strength and shape but at half the cost, which, estimated over the 18 months of production – before reports linked the product to the chemical to the antibiotic resistant super rash Androphozene – comes to a 26.9 million dollar boon in gross margin. Punitive damages were assumed to range from 10 to 15 mil, as high as 20 if they were stuck with a judge in an election year, unthinkable that Domestico would get off with a wrist slap of just 5 and be able to expunge the PR fallout with a week of spring firings that coincidentally dropped the most tenured of middle managers, most having nothing at all to do with the Home Front line. That a hundred families would fall into trying times without its breadwinner is just a statistic and a necessity of business; that by the beautiful bureaucracy of the latter only Peter Stansthorpe III and the remainder of the foursome that tee off ritualistically each Friday under the shady oaks at Legends Country Club, with their pristine pastel polos and chubby practice swings sashaying greedily in the crisp morning air, knew beyond a doubt how the dots connected, well that’s all a coincidence, and they abhor the insinuation.
And this very bastard now, half driving, half riding his two ton, million dollar carriage, gliding over the slow arching 3 am road veneered in a drizzle and the yellow sheen of the street lamp’s evenly spaced reflections, the whole world in a shared and wet repose, the road like the glittering flesh of Midnight, Ebony, and his toy favorite, Coca-Cola, whom he nicknamed after her small perky breasts that rose like carbonation, saying they were caffeinated and swearing he could taste it in in her skin – he nearly asphyxiated her in the third of the night’s many conquests, tightening his hands around her throat as he thrust toward his lone goal, staring into the contorting whites of her eyes, their absence of power, their purity drowning in a grimace – it’s this consummate ass that now, after shitting in the shared well of the most common decencies, seeing a hazy stoplight go from green to yellow to red, double takes, gasses, remits, and slams on the breaks, fights off the the narcoleptic shudder and residual dizzy of the quaaludes still crazing his blood stream, and even though there isn’t a cop or camera, idiot pigeon or even the faintest rustle of a fast food wrapper for forty miles over, waits out two solid minutes in that vacuum, in that playground of outer space, of darkest night; waits like a boyscout for the legal green to send him merrily on his indiscriminate way. That’s the cake I’m talking about. That’s the inconsequence. And you know that it’s true.
But what specifically caused this bitter masturbatory rambling? President what? POTUS SCHMOTUS*! No, it was The Great Gatsby. Or maybe it’s Days of Thunder… You see, I just got done watching Days of Thunder, and it is the Great Gatsby of movies, but does anyone call Days of Thunder a masterpiece of its form? No. Does it go through waves of popular resurgence every other generation? No. Are kids forced to watch it in high school? Well maybe there’s a school or two somewhere down south… but that’s the exception. The answer is once again, Mississippi excluded, No. No one outside Netflix’s shotgun roulette technique is even suggesting you should watch it.
Now I understand there are differences – subtle, subtle differences – but they mostly come down to one being a relatively recent movie and the other a book written a hundred years ago. And maybe that’s everything. Fitzgerald died thinking himself a failure, and only decades after its release did this “magnum opus” come into praise. Is Days of Thunder due a similar ascension? I hope not, though, just as I wouldn’t have my amoral dandy firing through every red light in the country either, it would certainly make more sense. For if every time Gatsby says old sport you imagine instead that a handful of stock cars went vrooming across the page, or if every time Tom Cruise got ash on his face you convinced yourself it stood for something far dumber, then the two become indistinguishable.
Don’t buy it? Well, come along, and here’s a handy checklist to use while we wend our way.
|The Great Gatsby||Days of Thunder|
|Shallow romance we don’t care about||x||x|
|A chalupa in a rock tumbler||x||x|
|Can be construed as social commentary||x||x|
|I’m happy it ended||x|
|7 layer salad of symbolism||x|
|The color green||x||x|
|Bad guys confused with good guys||x||x|
|A man of mystery||x||x|
Nick Carraway is the patently unremarkable and total Tobey Maguire that narrates us through the Great Gatsby. “It was a matter of chance,” as he himself describes it, that plants him next to the titular character, sandwiched between his mansion and another: lots which he tells would rent for 15 grand while his overgrown lakefront cabin, which while much smaller still rubs shoulders in three directions with the highest class, magically goes for just 80 dollars. The coincidences continue as we find him related to or gaining the confidences of nearly every person of interest in the northern hemisphere, marching us down the wide lawns of flapper mayhem strung out on gin and sleeplessness.
Days of Thunder does one better than coincidence and disembodies Carraway for a first person omnipotence free from pretense or need of excuse. The camera simply is. It goes wherever it wants. No need for it to find work in bonds, go to college with one, war with the other; no need for it to be embroiled in the vapid flirtations of a tennis star, whose existence, by the way, robs its world of space that could be filled with something far more valuable, say hospital races, or murdering birds with stock cars, jockstraps, or even just a bowl of soggy Grape Nuts. We get to zip around at will and everyone stops to chip in with the narration: radio/track announcers giving us the directions of handy gas station attendants, as after a spin out they chime, “Richard Petty is out of the race, speaking of people who are out of the race, Legendary crew chief Harry Hogge…” and we cut to Robert Duvall’s character who is living a hermetic life after a trope that sadly shares nothing with Gatsby. Why a retired crew chief would be mentioned after a spin out is obvious: because it’s an overly edited and lazy narration. The same reason Carraway is present for all action of note. The same reason why everyone in Days describes their actions mid-race over the radio in a way that no one could be dumb enough not to follow: “Wheeler knocked me into Gant, Gant spun out!” – “He’s goin high!” – “And on the high side of the track, Trickle takes the lead!” – “I’m gonna draft Wheeler, make him pull me around the track” – “Son of a bitch is on my ass!” – “But if I get first I win the race!” – “I’m breathing through my mouth and nose!” – “Air is light and cars are heavy!” It’s a level of candor Fitzgerald didn’t have the balls for lest we realize what substance lies beneath the sharp prose and symbolism. So with equal serendipity we are led through two exotic worlds. At least these two tales try to be exotic.
The movie begins with the sun fighting off a tawny blue overcast, reaching its first rays down to the trailers parked on the infield of Daytona, and the soundtrack is already tickling a promise of something epic. Shirtless men emerge from their vehicles and loiter the alley maze between them. Gulls cross shitwise in everywhich direction overhead, as direct a reflection as the aluminum seats of the grandstand kicking back the early sunbeams. And the volume rises, and the beat etches deeper. The red white and blue flags, from Confederate to American to Pepsi, pick up and snap in the wind. The music reaches for melody and affect. More and more people crawl out from and on top of their vehicles. Scaffolding erected at random is draped with people. A full glow now, hot sun. The grandstand fills and the music swells. The roar of the crowd, the growl of the engines. A collage of rainbows, a propaganda of colors and sponsors, and guitar chords are struck out to reverberate in the heat as teams scurry around their cars with industry. Drums gallop, keyboards soar, and the announcer rides it all with his own slick hype, introducing us to the Days of Thunder.
Good job Hans Zimmer, you got me excited for the pregame to redneck Woodstock. We basically just rolled over a rock and watched ants scurry with farmer tans and fistfulls of mayo to O Fortuna, but darn it, that song gets me everytime.
Now when I said Gatsby’s world was strung out on gin and sleeplessness, I’m filtering my daydreams through historical blurbs, through the New York Times remark on the back cover that “gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession.” It’s what I think the story is about, not what is actually there. There are more sandwiches than gin; three late nights; and the faintest, stork like insinuation of sex. Tapioca Maguire admits he’s only been drunk twice in his life [Scribner pg 29], so perhaps that accounts for his taking the PG-13 so to heart. Well then, for once, bless his heart. I don’t need anything raw, I simply doubt this represents the Jazz Age, or any other age. It’s watered down to the generic, which is a meaningful shade different than the universal. If you exchange chiffon for camouflage, finger bowls of bubbly for funnels of Miller Lite, and country pop for jazz, then big Jay’s party scenes take place three nights a week at any successful college bar in Wisconsin, simply without the romanticism. But we can’t subtract the glamour; without Hans Zimmer we’re just sweating on bleachers with the warm, closeted breath of the inebriated panting inbred commentary onto the back of our neck; we’re left with events that register somewhere between uncouth and typical on the scale of drunken debauchery; clearly not as palatable. Without the glitz it’s the same repetitive left hand turns of stupidity and excess, just funded differently, on a different scale. But we are not left to contemplate wholly these two worlds; mysterious men are emerging from the shadows.
…there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament” – it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness… [Scribner pg 2]
This is our introduction to Gatsby, delivered by Tobey McCarriedaway somewhere in the aggrandizing pity capital of the Midwestern world as he thinks back on what’s transpired. And it’d be a perfectly fine little bread crumb were we ever to take another step. The thing about introductions is that something must follow, but Gatsby is forever a look, a feeling. And after hearing rumors, murmurs, and insinuations about this fabled Gatsby, after opening up a book with his name and purported greatness front and center in thick yellow font… he smiles. That’s it. He’s a smile.
He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole external world of an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. [Scribner pg 48]
Now that’s a hell of a smile, I’ll give him that, but it would be nice to form a more material opinion – be able to think about his words and actions beyond summary and come to my own conclusions – but that never happens. All Gatsby does is say old sport 45 times, spend the whole book trying to take a swim, and then finally, fatally, does. And we all say, old sport… I mean Amen. We all say Amen.
Days of Thunder has its own hot young man of mystery, Cole Trickle. An East Egg, Eagle Rock yankee come from open wheel sprints to rub shoulders with the old money of stock car racing, a world none too pleased by this upstart fresh from nowhere. And just how exactly have Trickle’s fortune changed? A man and a yacht of course. But I’m tempted to knight our screenplay writer Towne for offhandedly giving us the underwhelming denouement of its Gatsby in the first half hour and getting back to all things Funyon that Days of Thunder is really focused on: strippers stroking johnsons; things going vroom or crash; sugar packets drafting up Nicole Kidman’s thigh. It’s the right amount of tantalizing for learning what little we learn.
Of course neither tale is putting too much stock in the backstory of its leading man. It’s not where they came from that defines them, it’s what compels them that matters.
For Gatsby it’s Daisy. Unfortunately, if Gatsby is just a look – and Spiderman’s interpretations of said looks – then Daisy meanwhile is nothing but a voice and similar handful of conjecture. She doesn’t say or do a thing of substance either, but her voice has an excitement “that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered ‘Listen,’ a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.” [Scribner pg 9-10] The fact that Gatsby pined for and redirected every effort of his life for a half decade in the name of Daisy – changed the way he spoke; engaged in illegal activities with dangerous people; raised himself into wealth and then spent the untold millions on a lavishness whose entire purpose was to attract her, a fling, a relationship that lasted months*** – well it sure would be nice to get a little insight as to what exactly caused such combustion. Instead we sit under a tree in the rain with Spiderpants, staring off into space as the lovers reunite a hundred feet away. And it’s just as you’d expect when, after our ass has completely fallen asleep on its lumpy perch, the sun comes out and we amble back to glimpse of this wild joy.
“They were sitting at either end of the couch, looking at each other as if some question had been asked, or was in the air, and every vestige of embarrassment was gone. Daisy’s face was smeared with tears, and when I came in she jumped up and began wiping at it with her handkerchief before a mirror. But there was a change in Gatsby that was simply confounding. He literally glowed; without a word or a gesture of exultation a new well-being radiated from him and filled the little room.” [Scribner pg 90]
That’s right, not a word or a gesture, Gatsby is still a look, and Daisy – we hear later on the same page,“Her throat, full of aching, grieving beauty, told only of her unexpected joy.” – is still just a voice.
The romance in Days of Thunder is no less shallow. It takes the hottest man on screen and the hottest woman, slams denim up their asses (it was hot in the 90’s to have a wedgie) and calls it a day. We go from being mistaken for a prostitute in a hospital, from a complete lack of respect, from flirting with the finesse of a torpedo, to sex, all through the purchase of flowers. How’s that for getting to the point. The movie even becomes self aware when it’s lovers talk in bed about what an odd couple they make. Their conclusion: blah blah blah, let’s have sex again! It’s such a modest goal I can almost respect the movie for it. While Fitzgerald is wasting good prose on looks and voices that seem to plead, you know what I mean?, Days makes no claims, just winks and nods, “you know what I mean,” sending a bold inseam on its brown journey, rubbing large intestine with every step. But it’s actually Days of Thunder that has the more/only meaningful dialogue between lovers when Nicole Kidman’s Dr. Lowicki delivers her monologue on control. She has something to say, she says it, and it means something. It’s a trinity The Great Gatsby teaches us never to take for granted again.
But I never said Lowicki defined Trickle. No, he lives to race. And it’s this bald desire that creates the major crisis of the movie, as, after a crash with rival turned friend Rowdy Burns, a new found sense of mortality has Trickle struggling with fear behind the wheel. He both wants and doesn’t want to race. It’s a little confusing, but don’t worry, after a series of coincidences that leaves Burns bedside for the Daytona 500 (it’s the Super Bowl of stock car racing if you didn’t know), Trickle without a car, his crew chief hesitant to back him for a race after his last driver died experiencing the self same hesitations, and Nick McSpiderbiscuit himself blushing from the unlikelihood of it all, Trickle steps up center stage to explain himself. “I need this,” he says “I don’t have anything else,” and then smiles… What? You were expecting more? Don’t be disappointed, it’s not just any smile…
“He smiles one of those smiles that make your thighs quake with paternal happiness. It seemed to float through the window like a missive from God, perturbing your heart, welling up and spilling out like an afternoon wind roiling through nursery drapes; a birth in itself. The midwife periodically releases a moan as if to keep from popping in a gore of sheer joy over the babe’s suckling noises; the proud and contented mouthing of time. A smile that said this is all you ever hoped for, a hope for all of you.” [Scribner pg one hundred and go fuck yourself]
Ok, so I’m making that up. It’s not even above average as far as smarmy, shit eating, Cruise grins go. Still, what could be more Gatsby than the exaggeration of a smile? than the mystery of our crew chief Dan Cody revealed to be the least interesting possibility which was repeatedly hinted at for the last hour? Sure, three buckets of sloppy old sport, but old sport aside, nothing.
Whenever anyone critiques this American “classic,” invariably the rejoinder is he or she just doesn’t get it; and with all of the time I’ve spent on the narrator, on the love affair between Gatsby and Daisy, I’d be deserving. The real problem is the meaning is too obvious: money corrupts; materialism taints the so called American Dream; you can’t get back the past. It doesn’t take long to be reminded of these basic aphorisms: our first gathering has Tom Buchanan spouting racist propaganda then running off to take a phone call from his mistress, and Daisy espousing unmotherly and self absorbed sentiments, each dislocated in their materialistic ennui. Wealth plays the villain from the onset but we keep being distracted by all the paper thin masks in this morality play. Carraway is “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” [Scribner pg 20] so we alternate along with him; but these symbols only work as symbols, only work from the outside, and are far from inexhaustible. Gatsby can be the American Dream, but he can never be a person when, after 120 pages of cheesing over Daisy’s voice, Carraway muses and Gatsby answers:
“She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It’s full of-” I hesitated.
“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
So utterly solved is Daisy, not as a mystery but as the absence of mystery, that the continued pursuance of her as a person is baffling. Had Daisy simply been the first Hodor and let “money, money, money” spill forth every time she opened her mouth, and had Gatsby returned her Marco-Polo or bird call or siren song with his “dream, dream, dream,” there would be less confused non-confusion; it would be awful, but I wouldn’t be compelled to try and make sense of them as characters. Disbelief is expected to be at triple point in this Animal Farm and I just can’t quite contort it. The light at the other end of the bay may well symbolize the materialism and distance of Gatsby’s dream, but in a world without electricity it can’t be a light.
So let’s blow this narrative chaff away. What’s left. That must be where we’ll find the greatness of the book.
Gatsby, boundless desire, the self made man, the American Dream, is obsessed with Daisy, the frivolous wealthy, the green light at the other end of the bay, which is the separation of east and west, new money and old, by the waves of time. The pursuit of wealth by the American Dream causes all kinds of harm to the working class, the valley of ash, and the inevitable destruction of both. Carraway is Spiderman, Tobey Maguire stands for suck. Gatsby does get rich however, so the American Dream does get Daisy, but he loses her in the end to Tom, so Daisy really stands for old money, the pursuit of that past where had Gatsby been rich they could have sexed endlessly. So the bays are just another representation of the same symbol, redundant of Gatsby and Daisy. But Daisy has an infatuation for Gatsby which would mean old money secretly loves or at least highly tolerates new money, which it doesn’t… So then these characters can’t wholly be symbols either. We are to follow them as characters; if we find them vapid we have to realize what they actually stand for, and when what they stand for doesn’t jive with their actions you have to remember they are real people, alternating back and forth using the eyes of TJ Eckleberg to convince ourselves of whatever it is we can’t answer.
Meanwhile Days of Thunder doesn’t mean a damned thing, or if it does it’s too simple for words. It’s the twitch of neurons that throws an arm out for another Twizzler. Don’t chase money? How about simply, chase?
Part of what makes The Great Gatsby is its structure. Nine rather even length chapters dole the plot out with brisk precision, using all the major literary techniques. But if it’s laser focus you want, then check out the crash scene in Days of Thunder. Upbeat music, weaving through traffic, crowd roaring, then, what? there’s a crash on turn four? BAM! Three cuts later we’re in the hospital and might be paralyzed from the neck down. Woooo! Days and Gatsby are both chalupas from a rock tumbler, polished and loaded with rocket fuel, passing through your body at light speed without leaving much more than a greasy trace on any vital organ.
I know what you’re thinking: surely you can’t be saying there is the same value in this novel, one that you yourself admit is well written, as a brain dead popcorn flick. And I’ll admit, while I respect them both the same amount, my respect for one is the respect it takes to slide a glove off by its fingers and slap someone, and my respect for the other is closer to not respect. But for every time Fitzgerald strikes a tuning fork on a star, like the last four paragraphs of the book, which are simply wonderful, Days of Thunder walks a Quaid out to say, “We look like a monkey fuck’n a football out there!” and tell me that’s not something full of wonder. Just imagine the brainstorming session for that! What lines didn’t they use? I feel like an asshole pass’n a muskmelon! No, that makes too much sense… Not even an millipede could masturbate to that! There we go, gotta get the low-brow sex humor in there.
So no, I don’t think they’re identical, but it takes a tenth the contortions to make that case than it does to Rumpelstiltskin any greatness out of Gatsby. The next time your stalled lonesome at the red light of a midnight intersection, be logical. You can overcome this societal phobia unseen since sodomy. You can do it, you really can. Tell yourself, “you know what? The Great Gatsby just ain’t that good,” and wait for the light to turn green.
*S.hameful C.hildish H.ack M.aligning O.ur T.entatively U.nited S.tates
**Now I’m blaming Fitzgerald for every rendition and knock off, which isn’t fair. I’m sure future high school productions of Days of Thunder will have more than it’s fair share of suspect casting decisions.
***Conservative estimate is about 7 months. He met Daisy just prior to Oct 1917 on page 75, and we know he left for the war sometime before June 1918 because he recognizes Carraway from his time in the 7th infantry, which Carraway corroborates by telling us the month of his departure on page 47.