Movie Review: Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

Gatsby_1925_jacketMy literary romance with The Great Gatsby dates back a decade when I was studying literature as an undergraduate.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lyrical prose wooed me.  And his control of language and syntax continues to knock my socks off with each reading.  His articulation of the seductive qualities of the American Experience is unmatched.  The plot is meticulous.  Characters deeply imagined.

No other book calls me back like Gatsby.

I can’t imagine my life as a reader, writer, or American without this condensed masterpiece.

So imagine my thrill and horror when I heard Baz Luhrmann was making my Gatsby into a movie.  I love Luhrmann’s interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, but honestly, I don’t feel a deep connection with what many call one of Shakespeare’s inferior tragedies.

This is Gatsby we’re talking about!

I planned to see the film on opening day.  But that day came and went without a visit to the theater.  I was stalling.  What if it was such a Baz Luhrmann film — so over-the-damn-top, so strange and artificial — that I wouldn’t be able to recognize the story I’ve played in the cinema of my mind for years?  What if somehow, his interpretation spoiled the novel for me?  What then?  The world sometimes feels so devoid of greatness, what if I lost the magic of Gatsby?

Since I refer to the novel ad noseum in my literature and creative writing classes, students began asking me what I thought of the film.  At the behest of my students and my desire to join the larger discussion of the world of East and West Egg, I went to a Sunday matinee.

First, Mr. Luhrmann, may I thank you for leaving much of our beloved Gatsby in tact.

Most reviews of the film have focused on what Luhrmann did wrong, so I’ll focus on what he did right.  And there’s a lot to laud here.

Visually, this movie must be seen on the big screen.  The mansions, the parties, the cars, the juxtaposition between the Eggs, the Valley of Ashes, and Manhattan — they’re all fully realized in this film.  I didn’t find them gratuitously enlarged just for the sake of masturbatory film making like I feared.  Gatsby’s parties are grotesque and hyperbolic in the novel as a way to get the attention of Daisy across the Sound.  For a kid who grew up in a small house in rural Vermont, my imagination welcomed Luhrmann’s representation of Jazz Age, pre-Depression gluttony.

Where the hell did Joel Edgerton come from?  His work as Tom Buchanan was brilliant.  His mustache was sculpted and douchey.  The physicality of Edgerton’s performance was spot on with Fitzgerald’s Buchanan.  Edgerton enters the film riding a polo horse, jumps off the horse, runs upon landing, and jostles Nick Carroway around like a paper doll as he speaks his first lines.  In a letter to Maxwell Perkins dated December 20, 1924, only months before the novel was published, Fitzgerald writes, “I suppose [Tom Buchanan’s] the best character I’ve ever done.”  Fitzgerald even discussed the idea of letting Buchanan dominate the book.  What Fitzgerald saw in the vitality of this character, we see on the screen as Edgerton’s performance nearly allows him to dominate the film.

Nearly.

Gatsby PageIn the same letter mentioned above, Fitzgerald tells Perkins, “But Gatsby sticks in my heart.”  And after watching Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in Baz Luhrmann’s film, Gatsby will stick deeply in our twenty-first century hearts.  DiCaprio was brilliant as Gatsby.  Yeah.  I said it.  Brilliant!  I’ve always ached for Gatsby as he works to obtain his dream of a life with Daisy Buchanan, filled with infinite hope.  But my connection to Gatsby has been mainly intellectual.  DiCaprio made me feel Gatsby at a guttural level.  I teared up as Leo spoke the words I’ve read over and over: “‘Can’t repeat the past,’ he cried incredulously.  ‘Why of course you can!”  Gatsby is the ever-desperate man played out to the fullest degree possible.  He’s an endless well of hope and humanity’s short-sightedness, and DiCaprio breathes life into this paradox.

I’ll leave it at that.  The film is true to the book’s vision.  It does have its faults.  But Fitzgerald’s lyricism can be heard throughout the film, and that’s something I most feared would be marred by Luhrmann’s manic movie-making style.  It wasn’t.  I’m grateful.

The new film blows the anemic Robert Redford Gatsby out of this hemisphere.  If anything, this movie has taken my love affair with Fitzgerald’s story to a new level.

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Is Heady Topper the Best Beer in America, Nay, the World?

Since it came to my attention two weeks ago that Heady Topper has been named the best beer in America and the best IPA in the world by some beer rating outlets, it became my unbridled mission to get my hands on a can during my Vermont trip.  As a Vermont ex-pat living in Maine, it’s been years since I tipped back a Heady Topper.  This Alchemist hiatus has been two part: 1) the growing Maine beer scene has me fully satiated, and 2) buying the stuff outside of the 802 area code is damn near impossible.

But then came the hoopla from the accolades declaring the national and international dominance of this beer.  It was time to revisit an old hoppy friend.

Heady Topper PicQuick flashback (cue smoke machines and Wayne’s World sound effects).  It’s 2003.  I’m 23.  I’m a Bud-swilling post-grad who’s love affair with hops is in its infancy.  At my first Vermont Brewers Festival on the Lake Champlain waterfront, my friend Tyson and I look over the beer list and start mapping out our drinking schedule based solely on alcohol content.  I’m poor and need to get the most bang for my buck.  The beer that stands out?  You guessed it, the 8% Heady Topper, which at this point is just a small new guy on the scene.

I swill it, and the hops grab hold of my palate and still have not let go.

As my hop obsession has become a bibulous raison d’etre, I’ve often thought of my dear Vermont friend, the Heady Topper.

So this week, as I planned my trip to Vermont to visit family and friends, I spent a lot of time on the phone with my brother pleading, “You’re going to be able to get some Heady Topper, right?”  He visited stores and called me saying, “Sorry, they didn’t have it.”  This was our conversation all week.

But my brother, knowing my hop-headedness and my proclivity to pout when I don’t get my fix (not to mention he’s simply a kick ass brother), drove across the state to the teat itself in Waterbury to procure the sixteen-ounce cans.  It turns out that even the Alchemist brewery itself would run out of Heady Topper before the end of the day.  (Thanks, brother!)

Upon my arrival to his house nuzzled in the Green Mountains miles from Vermont’s highest peak, Mount Mansfield, I barely said hello before I opened the fridge and removed a silver can.  I eyed the wily, hand-drawn logo of a man whose head is bursting with beer froth and hop cones.  Along the ridge of the can, there’s an all-caps warning, “DRINK FROM THE CAN!”  Not needing to be told a twice, I cracked the can, smelled the head, and downed a gulp.

Before I let my cerebral tendencies overtake this moment, I took another gulp.  Then another.

Here’s a verbal tour of the Heady Topper experience.  What hits your tongue is a hop wall.  Like the brewer decided to bring in all of the artillery in the first lines.  As the flavor spreads across the tongue the finish is clean.  The hop feel at the back of the tongue lasts long, but isn’t obnoxious like some over-the-hop West Coast IPA’s.  Every moment of this drinking experiencing is world class.  Comparisons with other IPA’s is challenging, because this beer truly deserves the nods it’s getting for originality.

As someone who doesn’t like being told what to do, I poured my second Heady Topper into a glass.  It has a yellowish color and is filled with sediment.  I wonder if they want you to keep it in the can not to maintain the “essential hop aromas that [they] have worked so hard to retain,” as the can suggests, but, rather, to keep the feint of heart from seeing the unruly brew they’re imbibing.

Part of me wishes I hadn’t read the rave reviews before I spent a Friday night tossing Heady Toppers down my grocery hole.  (As you can imagine, Saturday morning wasn’t pretty.)  I kept taking drinks and thinking, The best in America?  The world?!  Here’s the deal, most lists like this are part truth and part BS.

When Ed Bradley asked Bob Dylan in a 60 Minutes interview if he felt any pride that Rolling Stone Magazine had named “Like a Rolling Stone” the number 1 pop song of all time, Dylan smiled his wry smile and said, “Maybe this week.”  Ed Bradley looked puzzled.  “Another list will come out next week, and I probably won’t be on it,” Dylan said.

And maybe that’s a good way to look at all such lists.  Part of the allure of the beer may just be its inaccessibility.  Who knows?  Best-of lists are fickle.  But for now, the Alchemist’s Heady Topper reigns supreme in the fecund world of IPA’s.

Get a can, if you can.

The Anxiety of Smartphones

I avoided the smartphone for as long as I could.  As my friends worked their way from iPhones 1 to 5, I held on to my dumb-phone.  I didn’t take a high road hipster stance about purity or blah, blah, blah.  I just saw the smartphoners crouched in coffee shops engaging with their phones instead of engaging with their surroundings, and I thought, If I own one of those, that’s going to be me. 

I’m an obsessive, addictive person.  If I like something, be it an album or an author or — in my college days — dank hydro, I want to engage in it.  All the time.  I’m an all-or-nothing person.

In my days with the band This Way, I spent some time on the road, where smartphones are a necessity.  From finding a venue, a hotel, a restaurant, or updating a Facebook to let people know you’re coming to town, smartphones make everything easier.  So I annoyed bandmates, asking, “Hey, man, can I use your phone.”

The obligatory response was, “Yeah, but why don’t you just get one?”

I’d say, “I’m too cheap to pay for the plan.”  But then I’d look at my dumb-phone and think, I don’t think it would be good for me.  I’m innately cheap, so my bandmates were satisfied with my response, though a little perturbed.

This blog and my writing career in general were the impetus for getting a smartphone  (that’s why I’ve tenuously labeled this ‘Fiction’).  I wanted to be able to snap pictures for the blog and drop them into a post, update Twitter, Facebook, and other social media easily.  An agent told me that that kind of thing matters to publishers.  You need to have an online presence these days, so they say.

So I bought a smartphone.

And true to form, that little mother is addicting.  Before I figured out how to stifle the updates, it updated me about everything.  I swear, if my father sneezed in Florida, I got an update.  And I engaged with every one.  My third cousin’s daughter just ate her first piece of watermellon?  Great!

Nosce te ipsum, right?  Well, I didn’t know myself.  Or, I did, I just let myself fall into the smartphone abyss I feared.

When I was watching a sunset, did I think deep existential thoughts?  Hell no, I took a picture of it, and then worried over whether or not the photo was good enough to post to Facebook.

At dinner with my wife, I checked baseball scores, Googled something I meant to earlier, checked the number of views my blog had that day, or looked at what the weather was going to be like for the next thirty-six hours.

Why?  Was it because I was going to become a better human being if I did these things?  Nope.  I did it because I could.

Anna says, “You’re always on that phone.”

And I look at her like Gollum fondling his precious, and say, “It’s mine!  Mine!”

I’m working on breaking the addiction to my smartphone.  Holding back the temptation to take another picture of my dog.  (It’s tough though.  Anyone who’s met Japhy the Wonder Dog knows this.) Resisting the urge to see if anyone has liked a Facebook post.  Not checking my email just because I can.

I’m fighting the anxiety it’s brought into my life.  But it’s a slow road to freedom.  One day at a time, man.  One.  Day.  At.  A.  Time.

The Maine Beer Company Expands Their Operation and Our Palates

MBC SignI fear I’m becoming the boy who cried beer.  You know, I tell you, You gotta drink this!  It’s the best beer ever!  or You need to visit this pub and drink their IPA!  Only to toss out another tasty brew you must try or an establishment you must visit a week later.  It’s not about beer supremacy here in Patterson-land though.  It’s about the great beer revolution we live in.  It’s about a man who wants you to drink it all.

With my mission established, here’s a brewery you must visit.  I won’t be offended if you stop reading this right now and storm up 295 to Freeport, Maine so you can sample the hop-filled offerings of the Maine Beer Company.

Ok, for whatever reason you’re still reading this, and I’m glad you are.

The Maine Beer Company recently left its facilities in Portland’s Back Bay and built their new brewery on Route 1 in Freeport.  You know what this bigger facility means?  More beer!  More Peeper!  More Lunch!  More Zoe!  Yeah!

MBC Leaning LunchA few years ago when the MBC unleashed their Peeper (a hoppy American Ale) onto the scene, borderline pandemonium ensued.  I remember going to Gnosh just on the vague rumor that they had Peeper on tap.  Momentum built.  The people demanded more, but the guys at MBC could only make so much beer to meet the demand in their small space.

Here’s how crazy it got.  I heard a story about a beer drinker in Massachusetts who drove to Maine once a week to buy bottles of this beer.  Every week!  These guys could have sold their beer for $100 a bottle and people would have drank it.  $100?  Maybe that’s pushing it, but not by much.

Have you had Lunch?  It’s an off-the-charts IPA with a citrus wallop that smacks you in the mouth.  Hard.  And all you want is more.  It’s almost sadistic.  The most impressive thing about Lunch is that it’s not an obnoxiously big IPA.  My guess is that they use less malt to keep it from being one of those ridiculous, undrinkable IPA’s.

Accompanied on my first visit to their Freeport campus by my fellow beer enthusiast Tim, he made a wise statement after our first paddle of beers.  “Tasting rooms,” he said, “are the new bar.”  He brings up a great point.  The laws must have become more lax in the last ten years, because breweries seem to be able to serve a solid amount of beer, and not just the limited samples I recall from even five years ago.

MBC TimOh, added benefit to Maine Beer Company — as if you needed another benefit to tasting their delicious beers in a cool environment — they have Jenga.  You got it.  Jenga.  Tim’s pictured here making a surgical move in a heated mano a mano match.  (Click on the picture to take in how heated this match really is.)  In about two moves I make that tower crash down.

But did I care?  No way.  ‘Cause I’m drinking Lunch!

Cheers!

Concert Review: Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band Reach New Heights

Ritter LiveIf you’ve found yourself on my blog before, then you most likely read the post where I gush over Josh Ritter.  Gush might be too minor a word.  Lyrically, the guy can ne’er do wrong in my ears.  I’m even willing to let slide the occasional musical shortcoming because atop that shortcoming is usually a clever or poignant lyric.

What I wrote in my I’ll-follow-Josh-Ritter-to-the-gates-of-hell album review of The Beast In Its Tracks didn’t say much about the Royal City Band, Ritter’s long-time backing group.  For one, bassist Zack Hickman didn’t play on the record, and musically, the album didn’t really push sonic boundaries as much as it did emotional boundaries.  The band on the album sounds good.  Not transcendent.

The band I saw on stage at the State Theater in Portland (5.8.13), however, was a sonic beast.  Trans-friggin-scendent.

My first tip o’ the hat goes to lead guitarist Austin Nevins.  The Danelectro wielding guitarist was a standout.  I’ve seen him three times now as part of the Royal City Band, and this was the first time he grabbed my attention.  His lines were melodic.  Simple without being bland.  The guy has killer tone and great instincts as to when to hang back and let Ritter’s lyrics shine, and when to rip and take the band to the next sonic level.

HickmanAnd countless times did the band take Ritter’s folk songs to the next level.  Each member played with severe intensity.  So badass was this band, so full in command of the songs and the collective sound, that they pushed the songs out of the folk category and into rock (not folk-rock, mind you) or at least the indie-rock sound.  Thank God they do.  It’s an absolute treat to be able to hear both brilliant lyrics and a brilliant band in one sitting.  Name me one other act offering that package on the contemporary music scene.  (No, seriously, please do.  I want to hear it.)

What is most beautiful about Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band is that they all believe deeply in the songs.  The band members could be seen singing Ritter’s lyrics even when they weren’t on a mic.  And Ritter believes in his band.  In the pockets of the songs when he’s not singing, he’s smiling at his bandmates.  Nuzzling up to Nevins during a guitar solo.  On his knees bowing to Sam Kassir during a keys solo.  There is mutual respect between songwriter and band.

I should note that Ritter did rip a solo on his maroon Gretsch during one of the tunes — flexing his own musical muscles.

The State Theater performance was the best I’ve seen from the Royal City Band to date.  Maybe Ritter’s recent divorce, made very public in his writing on The Beast In Its Tracks, is the catalyst for the forceful performance of the entire band.  An hour into the show, Ritter addressed his divorce in a five-minute monologue.  He talked candidly with the audience about the difficulties of marriage — any marriage.  He was raw, honest, and human with his audience, just as he is in his songwriting.  It was a beautiful moment.

Maybe the fire the Royal City Band is exuding during this tour is their way of showing support for their frontman as he picks up the pieces and tries to move forward with his life and his music.  For the final number the band donned construction helmets, perhaps as a symbol for the falling debris in Ritter’s life and their steadfast desire to deliver their music amidst the wreckage.

Whatever the reason for their forceful performance, these guys are a full-burning inferno right now.

The Felice Brothers Destroy the Boundaries of Americana Music

Now in the throes of the Americana music revolution, there are a glut of bands making the same stripped-down, down-home sound.  With any musical movement that is generating revenue, the market gets flooded with opportunistic bands trying to ride the high cresting wave and make a living as artists.  (For the record, I begrudge no one for going that route.  Making a livable wage through music is harder than Obama trying to pass a bill through Congress.  Do what you gotta do.)

With that stated, however, the current Americana music-scape is a bit bland.  Everything sounds the same.  No one really sticks out.  Maybe without the bubble of folk-driven music, bands like The Lumineers would have more of an impact on my ears.  But they just don’t.  Here’s why: I don’t hear a lot of chances being taken on their records or in live performances.

Now I’ll get to why the Felice Brothers are one of the most important bands on the Americana scene.  They take chances.  On their new record, Celebration, Florida, they are willing to be strange.  They get messy and in making their mess, the listener hears something new every time they spin the record.  And that goes for all their records.

Felice BrothersLive they’re just as dangerous.  I caught their set at Portland’s State Theater last week, and they performed like men on fire.  It’s not that they eschew catchy hooks or that they purposefully make their music discordant.  What their doing is making artistic, thoughtful choices to push the boundaries of the music they’re playing.  They do it in a this-is-what-we-do-and-we-hope-you-like-it-but-if-you-don’t-that’s-fine manner.  And thank God they do.

They’ve been at this long enough and earned enough cred, that if they wanted to go Mumford and Sons big, I imagine someone would give them the chance.  They could make a safe radio-friendly album, and they’d most likely blow up.  But that doesn’t seem to interest them.  And in my book, that’s what makes them artists.  They are doing this their way.  It’s inspiring.

Artists push the boundaries of the medium they exist in.  Real innovators try to blow up conventions.  Decimate expectations.  If that’s something you’re interested in, listen to The Felice Brothers.

What the…Marc Maron Deserves His Moment in the Spotlight

I learned about the WTF podcast the way most people did.  Word of mouth.  A talented musician friend of mine told me about this comedian out in L.A. who interviews celebrities in his garage.  “He has this great interview with Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad.  Everyone seems to go to his garage for an interview,” my friend said.  “Just listen.”

Not one to take suggestions from talented people lightly, I started listening.  In the first couple episodes, I got it.  A year and a half later, I’ve listened to every podcast he’s put out since I started listening.

The Marc Maron formula is thus: open up with a five to ten minute monologue where he tells you about his struggles with anger and anxiety, his girlfriend wanting to have a baby, his addiction to nicotine lozenges, his missing cat Boomer, and his upcoming road schedule.  It’s a manic opening, and I love it.

Following the monologue, he cuts to his interview.  Unbeknownst to his own self for forty something years, Maron is a brilliant interviewer.  You know why?  He listens.  Also, he doesn’t allow guests to gloss over an interesting part of their story.  When Tom Green mentions Drew Barrymore, then tries to talk about his new web-show, Maron stops him and says, “Tell me more about that.”  He knows where the goods are.

He conducts a biographical, Howard Stern-esque interview, pushing his guests to dig deep in their pasts.  He starts a lot of interviews by asking, “What was your old man’s racket” and works out from there, stopping at the goods.  It’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “I’ve never told anyone this before.”  It’s like listening to famous people go through therapy.  By that, I mean it’s riveting.

What I’m most drawn to is the artist’s struggle Maron urges his guests to share.  After covering the early life of a guest, he’ll often say, “Tell us about the struggle.”  It’s not the success that is most interesting about these people, it’s the failures they worked through to get where they are that is of intrigue.  And these people have struggled.  Even the ones you think were just handed a sweet gig with great pay.  As an artist struggling to find my voice and an audience, Maron’s podcast is an absolute godsend.  All artists should listen to this podcast.

There’s a commonality to the stories of all his guests.  A message they seem to be conveying: respect your craft and work your ass off, and when (not if) you fail, keep working your ass off.

If you’re on the fence, listen to the Louis CK two-part episode.  That guy went through the artist’s struggle.  This episode made me want to work harder at my craft and even convinced me that I should have a child soon.

(But know it’s not the interviews of the famous people that have kept me listening.  Often it’s the conversation with a mid-level comic that moves me most.)

Right now, Maron is having a big moment.  Attempting Normal, his new book, is receiving great acclaim, and a show based on his life debuted last Friday on IFC.  He was on Fresh Air with Terry Gross.  Jimmy Fallon had him as a guest.  I heard a commercial for his show on NPR’s Morning Edition.  He seems to be everywhere.  And you know what?  The guy deserves it.  To date, he’s done 384 podcasts.  That’s serious content.  He’s been doing comedy since the 80’s, working his ass off.  The guy has real-deal content to share with the world, and all of it’s great.

That’s my biggest argument for Marc Maron deserving the success he’s in the midst of right now.  We live in a world where you can go on a reality television show, sing a few songs proficiently, and become a millionare, even if you have no bonafide gravitas.  Marc Maron’s story is of a smart, talented guy who’s gone through the artist’s struggle, kept at it, and landed fame by conducting raw, hilarious, human interviews in his garage.

Marc, if you’re reading this, I hope you too feel that you deserve what you’re experiencing.

Boomer lives!