Monday, May 13, 2013

On Missing the Point: Gatsby, Zero Dark Thirty and Obsession

The Great Gatsby, movie, Leonardo DiCaprio, F. Scott Fitzgerald, opulenceby Ben Howard

Last week I read an article titled, "Did Anyone Actually Read 'The Great Gatsby'?" which discussed the way that Fitzgerald's classic work has been misunderstood throughout the years. It discussed the trend of "Gatsby" parties at Ivy League schools that mistook the lavish excess described in the novel as an endorsement and not a condemnation. It mentions high school writing prompts about ambition that begin "My green light is..." without understanding that the green light at the end of Daisy's dock is the ghost of the past which beckons Gatsby to his own doom.

This misunderstanding was my fundamental fear when I first heard about a Gatsby movie more than a year ago and it's a fear that still has not abated. Is it possible for a blockbuster movie to see beyond the glitz and the glamour of wealth, extravagance, and seedy love triangles to see this story for what it really is? A scathing critique of reckless wealth and a warning to those who lose themselves obsessing over a dream.

It's easy to miss the message embedded in Gatsby because it hits so close to many of the things that motivate the upwardly mobile American ideal. It humbles the pretensions of wealth and excess and an obsessive drive for more. Fitzgerald is the anti-Rand.

As I re-read the book recently, with many of these thoughts bouncing through my mind, I realized that this mistaken response was familiar. It's the same response that many had to Zero Dark Thirty.

Maya, Zero Dark Thirty, alone, helicopter, obsessionThere have been varying interpretations of Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-nominated film. Many have viewed it as a story celebrating the hard work and determination that went into finding and killing Osama Bin Laden. Others have viewed it as a critique on the slowness or ineptitude of government in the war on terror. Many have viewed it as an endorsement of torture, since the film implies "No torture, no Bin Laden."

I don't think the movie is about any of those things. In fact, I don't think it's about Bin Laden at all. It's about the main character, Maya. More specifically, it's about the way that Maya's obsession with catching Bin Laden consumes her and shapes her and leaves her feeling empty when she finally accomplishes her task.

The most important scene in the movie is not the assassination of Bin Laden, it's the scene in the airplane at the end of the film. Maya sits alone and is told that she can go anywhere, but there is nowhere for her to go. She has no friends, no family, no life. She had her search, her manhunt, her obsession and her revenge, but it has ultimately left her empty. So she sits alone in the cavernous emptiness of the plane and cries.

Like Gatsby, Zero Dark Thirty is a story about the way obsession and determination and single-minded pursuit blinds us to the wider world and ultimately leads to our disillusioned and empty destruction.

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Great Gatsby, movie, obsession, tragedyThese are not stories with heroes, they are stories of broken people who can't see the forest for the trees, people who can't pull back and see where they are, who they are, and what their ambition is doing to them. 

We miss some of the most important critiques because they are too close to us, they hit on things that are too vital about the way we see ourselves. We misinterpret Gatsby because we can't stand to think that the dreams we have of wealth and love can possibly be dangerous. We misinterpret Zero Dark Thirty because we, as a society, can't admit to the truth of what our obsession with revenge has done to us.

These lessons, the ones that are most difficult to hear, the ones that rock us to our core, are the most important. How can we train ourselves to be more open and receptive to criticism that cuts at our foundations? How can we learn to listen and respond accordingly?

What critiques do Christians need to hear? What criticisms are we already hearing that are too close for comfort? How do we learn to hear truth and avoid misinterpretation?


Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87. 
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