“The Great Gatsby”–Revisiting an American Classic

Gatsby jacket

The new version of the F. Scott Fitgerald’s celebrated classic (1925) by Baz Luhrmann (of Moulin Rouge fame) has divided critics. Half of professional movie critics praised the movie, the other half panned it.

Gatsby 2There will be endless reinterpretations of a novel that has become burdened as a literary icon, the Great American Classic. Mr. Luhrmann’s reverence for the source material is evident. Occasionally he quotes dialogue directly. But he has also made the narrative his own: a wayward, lavish theatrical celebration of the emotional and material extravagance that Gatsby embodied.  For that reason alone, this film should be celebrated for its eager, calculating mix of refinement and vulgarity, trust and betrayal, freedom and entrapment.  Filmmaker Lurhmann has bravely ventured in with costumes and landscape not entirely authentic for the period, rap music by Jay-Z , with little jazz featured, and the story is of an American Dream and class system some viewers will take issue with, and circus-like showmanship, sometimes excessive. But after all, Gatsby was nothing if not gaudy and glitzy.

Fitzgerald’s novel is not easy to film.   For most young viewers the Gilded Age, Roaring ’20s, and Jazz Age feel about as distant to them as Shakespeare.  Labeled an American classic, a cautionary tale about the decline of American moral values, Fitzgerald’s novel eviscerates the American Dream as the dream for happiness through material wealth.

And this year’s “Great Gatsby” never loses sight of that central message. But Luhrmann also wants to start over in revealing a new Gatsby.  The filmmaker’s astute reinterpretation captures not only the emotional core of the narrative but also its primary intellectual themes. There is a much better rendering of the novel’s symbolism, of loss that cannot be regained:  lost love, self-respect, values–even though the American Dream (myth) is you can start over. This is exactly how Fitzgerald intended Gatsby to be: a man of inconsolable desperation, dreaming an impossible dream.

Great Gatsby 3Leonardo DiCaprio breathes new life into Gatsby’s character and personality.   Unlike Robert Redford’s Gatsby in the 1974 movie version, DiCaprio convincingly plays a stupendously rich entrepreneur with a secret past, too poor to be accepted by upper-class society. Redford was too pretty a patrician face to be believable as a driven businessman who clawed his way to great wealth. In sharp contrast, DiCaprio’s Gatsby subtly evokes sympathy–he has been fooled by the society he wishes so much to enter.  Even his beloved Daisy (well played by Carey Mulligan), is incapable of leaving her social standing to be with him.

The entire movie has been well-cast.  Mulligan’s Daisy Buchanan loves and yet endures not being loved at the same time.  Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, the friend and narrator, has undoubtedly the most challenging role and succeeds as the observer who does not know who is authentic, who is the liar and who is the truth-teller.

Fitzgerald’s prose is stunning and Luhrmann conveys some of the literary quality with floating letters and various fonts superimposed on screen.  Elements of irony and tragedy, observed through the narrator’s voice, require such visual cues. And, some of the screen shots are masterpieces of art.  For those of you who remember your term papers on this book, the green light (a symbol for Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy) is carefully placed without being overdone.  The same can be said of the faded billboard of Dr. Eckleburg’s spectacles, — a puzzling metaphor Fitzgerald uses–that rarely appeared in the 1974 version.  It is adroitly presented here as a visual punch for the growing commercialism in America.


“Shadow Dad”– Flash Fiction in “The Story Shack”


“Shadow Dad” was just published in the online literary journal, The Story Shack.  The inspiration for the work came to me during a creative writers’ group exercise involving writing within a 15-minute time period.  It was fun and revealed how sometimes “over thinking” can detract from the power  of the original thought.

Go to The Story Shack online to read “Shadow Dad”. Let me know your comments!


Wakuriya–A Little Bit of Kyoto Heaven

Sake flight
Sake flight

Last week we experienced kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) at a tiny tucked-away restaurant in a strip mall in San Mateo–Wakuriya.  What a surprise find!

Kaiseki cuisine is as much an art form as a type of gourmet dinner. Not unexpectedly, kaiseki has its origin in Zen monastic cuisine and aesthetic taste. Leaves and fresh flowers, often edible, suggest animals and seasonal variations in the moon and night sky.

Passing through a long draped noren curtain, we opened the artisan wooden door, and stepped into a long narrow restaurant dimly lit and minimalist in decor.  The ambience conveys the most elegant of Kyoto restaurants, taking you to another locale far from San Carlos. Seating only 16 diners (either at 6:30 or 7:30),   Wakuriya offers a pre-fixe classical menu of  nine dishes, focused on local seasonal ingredients. (Complete monthly menu is available online.)

Kobe beef, squid with asparagus, snapper sashimi
Kobe beef, squid with asparagus, snapper sashimi

Chef Katsuhiro Yamasaki and his wife prepare and serve the exceptional menu as if you were guests at a private dinner party. Every dish was a photo-op. I was in love at first sight with the very first bite!   Chef Yamasaki prepares every small plate in a precise and impeccable manner, and service is perfectly timed. Each piece of porcelain, lacquerware or glass–even the lotus root coasters–are unique and exquisite.  The play between the plate and the food instantly conveyed a sense of spring and Mrs. Yamasaki patiently explained the meaning of the aesthetics.

Tuna sashimi with fava
Tuna sashimi with fava

The first sake served was a house exclusive– infused with a touch of honey.  A superb sake selection was offered, including flights of unusual citrus-flavored sakes and even one effervescent one!  The starter courses included a maguro tartar of beautiful tuna sashimi over sushi rice with the tiniest dollop of wasabi matched in color by a scattering of small fava beans; a selection of Kobe beef with baby squid, asparagus and pickled cod caviar and snapper sashimi with salmon roe; an astonishing color burst of chawan-mushi (traditional yellow egg custard) overlaid with a green pea-sprout puree and filled with snow crab and shiitake mushrooms.  And that was only the beginning!  Six more courses including a deep fried scallop/sea -urchin croquette, plum-lemon sorbet palate cleanser, grilled black cod, and a choice of either pork donburi or red snapper chazuke made all four of us feel there was no room for dessert.  But the white sesame mousse with strawberry gel actually was the perfect, final flourish to a remarkable meal!

Kaiseki is often very expensive because of the labor and care that goes into each tiny dish.  Yet we found Wakuriya’s price per diner ($95 without tip and sake) to be fair and justified.  Reservations are difficult, so plan to call immediately after midnight exactly 30 days before your desired date and leave a message.  Mrs. Yamasaki will call you back the next day–we felt like we had won the lottery!   Special requests need to be made about four days in advance–for gluten-free, no red meat, etc., but I think Wakuriya is at its best if you can eat the meal as originally designed in classical Japanese taste.


“Orphan Black”–Adopting a New Model

Orphan Black2This new BBC America television series premiered on March 30, 2013.

In the opening scene the camera zooms in on Sarah (played by Tatiana Maslany, a Canadian newcomer to television), a grifter desperate to escape her drug dealer boyfriend.  Seizing an opportunity to escape her past, Sarah watches as her doppelganger jumps in front of a subway to her death.  Stealing the identity of the suicide victim (“Beth”) who looks exactly like her, Sarah assumes that the dead woman’s identity will be an improvement over her own, but she is proved wrong.

Proud of her independence, even with its painful repercussions, Sarah is a former foster child and single mother.  Her one friend–a homosexual “brother” from foster care, is her only companion and confidante.  Together these two outsiders try to survive on the streets of Toronto.

While categorized as  science fiction, “Orphan Black” is not your typical sci-fi model.  No flying space ships.  No extraterrestrial costuming.  The focus is on the characters and their relationships to each other as they assume each other’s identity and problems. (Yes, there are more look-alikes besides Sarah and the dead Beth–this makes following the story confusing sometimes.)  The futuristic science and technology are not really the core of the story but an ingenious overlay to hold the viewer’s attention. The series delves into what happens when you steal the identity of someone else and all that encumbers. Both empathy and judgmentalism struggle within each character as each Sarah clone confronts more mysteries and puzzle pieces.  Living dangerously in a world where no one can trust each other and everyone is a potential spy (“monitor”), the price of living in such a world is haunting and heavily tinted with paranoia.

The private hemispheres of each character make “Orphan Black” so much more than science fiction (although it will appeal to sci-fi fans too).  On May 2, 2013 BBC America announced plans to renew the series for a second season. I’m happy that viewers will get another chance to continue enjoying “Orphan Black” and see how compelling adopting a new model for exploring futuristic worlds can be.