Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Recent reading: Plutocrats/The Great Gatsby

I didn't consciously plan to follow up reading "Plutocrats" by Chrystia Freeland with "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- but I finished "Plutocrats" not long before the new movie version of "The Great Gatsby" was released -- and I wanted to read Gatsby The Book before I saw Gatsby The Movie.  And the two books turned out to be remarkably complementary.

I enjoy Freeland's regular columns for The Globe & Mail, and her appearance late last year on Bill Moyers' PBS show, so I thought I would tackle "Plutocrats," an award-winning and critically lauded look at not just the 1% but the top 0.1% of the 1% -- the richest of the rich, how they got that way, and what their growing power means for the rest of us.

It's a much more readable book than you might think, full of entertaining anecdotes, and fairly well balanced. Freeland says most of the plutocrats she studied & spoke to for this book genuinely believe they are the authors of their own good fortune, through their smarts, hard work and willingness to take risks (with the corollory belief that we too could be rich if we were willing to put in the same sort of effort).  However, she details the confluence of other factors responsible for their collective rise, including globalization, deregulation, the rise of technology -- and the sheer good luck of being in the right place with the right qualifications at the right time.  She also points to similar eras in history -- 14th century Venice, for example, and what happened when the wealthy gained too much power -- as a warning. 

Says the National Post: "This is the book that 100% of the 99% should read, if they want to better know the forces battering them into eternal penury."

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"The rich are very different from you and me," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in one of his short stories, and wealth and its corrosive power is one of the themes of "The Great Gatsby."  I had never read "Gatsby," or any of Fitzgerald's novels, for that matter -- although I certainly knew about both (and had seen the 1974 version of the movie). It's a slim book, didn't take very long to read, but beautifully written, although in a style that we don't often see any more. (Sample memorable line: “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”)

And I found the themes and specific subject matter are still amazingly relevant to our times -- conspicuous consumption, self-reinvention, the corrupting influence of money, a culture of entitlement -- not to mention the relentless pursuit of a dream (something that many ALI-ers will relate to).  The book was written and is set in the New York City/Long Island area in the 1920s, pre-Crash & Great Depression.   

Dh (until his recent termination) & I have both worked on Bay Street -- the Wall Street of Canada -- for more than 25 years. (Dh spent about 10 years of that time on the floor of the Toronto Stock Exchange, before it closed and trading was almost completely automated -- including Black Monday, October 19, 1987, when markets crashed around the world.)  And while the vast majority of people who work on Bay Street (and I imagine Wall Street too) are like us and make a good but not spectacular living, we've both had plenty of opportunities to observe the movers & shakers who make the big bucks, who drive expensive sportscars and live in big houses and spend weekends at their "cottages" in Muskoka (with boathouses that could easily and comfortably accommodate an entire family), or their ski chalets or Florida condos in the winter, and send their kids to expensive private schools. They make the decisions and give the orders -- and then move on to the next thing on their agenda, leaving the rest of us to scurry around in their wake and produce results as best we can. When I read Fitzgerald's description of Tom and Daisy as "careless people [who] smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” -- I knew in my bones what he meant.

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So I managed to finish Gatsby The Book just before Gatsby The Movie was released, just before Voldemort Day... and since I had nothing better to do that day and was looking for a place to hide out from all the hoopla, it was my movie of choice for the afternoon.

I dimly remember seeing the 1974 version of "The Great Gatsby," which starred Mia Farrow as Daisy & Robert Redford -- the hottest thing in movies at the time -- as Gatsby. I don't remember a whole lot about it, except that I saw it at the drive in with my mom & sister (I was 13 at the time). To be honest, the thing I remember most was not so much Redford (even though I was -- & still am -- a big fan) but a young Sam Waterston's quiet, dark charisma as Nick Carraway. (We saw "The Way We Were" around the same time, and THAT made much more of an impression.) 

Leonard DiCaprio is no Robert Redford... I am not a particularly big fan of his overall -- but he has turned in some impressive performances (my favourite probably being the immortal Jack "I'm king of the world!" Dawson in "Titanic") -- and, overall, he was a pretty good Gatsby. It was a little jarring to hear the words "old sport" coming out of his mouth (although I'm not sure there are very many actors these days who could mouth those words & make them sound natural), but his obsession with Daisy and his teenage-like angst over meeting her again was believable.

Tobey Maguire was a wide-eyed Nick, and I liked Carey Mulligan as Daisy -- but the one I really had my eyes riveted on was an Australian actress, Elizabeth Debicki, as pro golfer Jordan Baker, in only her second film. I thought she stole every scene she was in, and I hope we see more of her in the future.

Coincidentally, I read Mel's post about disliking 3-D movies just as we were heading out see the movie in regular format, we would have had to drive two towns down the road and gone to either a 10:45 a.m. showing (popcorn at 10:45 a.m.??) or 3 p.m., which was a little later than we like to go to the movies on Sunday afternoon. On the other hand, the cineplex at the local mall was showing the 3-D version much earlier in the afternoon, so we decided to cough up the extra $3 each (!) & go there.

This was my very first 3-D movie.  Several of the commenters on Mel's post warned of headaches, & I did have a slight headache afterward. :p  There were a few cool things I noticed, like how the words that Nick wrote floated onto the screen, and how the credits hung midair. But I wasn't totally blown away, and I'm not really sure that 3-D added that much to the overall experience. I'd actually like to see the "flat" regular version for comparison. I think that some of the overall "look" of the movie probably had more to do with Baz Luhrmann's over the top style and it would probably look pretty flashy & colourful no matter how you viewed it.  Maybe 3-D is better suited to action or fantasy movies like "Avatar" or "Life of Pi." Whether it's worth the extra $3 a ticket is another matter. I'd say movies at the theatre are probably expensive enough these days without adding another $6 per couple to the expense. I suppose some parents feel obligated/nagged to take their kids to the 3-D versions of some movies, but being free to choose a regular 2-D movie is one of those perks of non-parenthood I am happy to claim.  :)


  1. "Life of Pi" is the best 3-D movie I've seen, truly the movie would not have been the same without the 3-D elements. Everything else I've seen in 3-D? Meh.

    Love your points about Great Gatsby and the Plutocrats book. Like you, I've moved among some of the 1% and agree that they really do tend to think they are the complete authors of their success and luck and movements in regulations or technology have nothing to do with it. It seems to be worse among those who have inherited their wealth and or positions of power. I'm sorry to hear your husband was terminated from his position. Was that a recent development?

    I always feel bad for poor Gatsby when I reread the book. I also think the book kind of wants it both ways: it's infatuated with the trappings of wealth (pink shirts! Estates! Cars! Green!) so the moralizing at the end seems a bit off. But, I guess that's pretty American to love the American Dream but moralize about the wealthiest....

  2. I can't watch IMAX movies. It made me want to (sorry) throw up in just a few minutes. I mean I really get VERY VERY bad sea-sickness when watching IMAX movies (I also can't watch sea waves 'coz of the same reason and I get sea-sickness easily).

    However, I can watch passive 3D movies at home (with a passive 3D screen). I don't think I can handle active 3D screen and movies, though (which they say are better than passive 3D screen/movies) 'coz they probably cause me the same kind of sea-sickness like IMAX movies.

    I think 3D movies are great for certain movies, but not for all movies. :-)

  3. Oh yeah, forgot to say that I think Leo's best acting is in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape". Considering his young age at that time, it was really a marvelous job for him!