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Sep. 03, 2020 - What to Stream: An Amateur Filmmaker Takes on “The Great Gatsby” and Its Scholars
F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald posing outdoors
A new documentary develops in poignant detail the story of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s wild summer of 1920.Photograph from Minnesota Historical Society / Getty

It takes a cinematic and academic outsider to leap into the deep waters of scholarly disputes with impetuous verve, as Robert Steven Williams does in the documentary “Gatsby in Connecticut: The Untold Story” (which is streaming on Amazon). The film is rooted in the same theory that Barbara Probst Solomon (who’s the main interview subject in the film; she died in 2019) put forth in a remarkable 1996 piece in The New Yorker: that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prime model for Jay Gatsby’s West Egg estate and the cottage on his property that Nick Carraway rents isn’t Great Neck, Long Island, but, rather, Westport, Connecticut. For Williams, as for Solomon, who was a Westport native, the matter was as much personal as historical. Williams, a music-industry executive, moved to Westport in 1992 and became interested in local history. He heard gleanings of Fitzgerald’s Westport connection and eventually, after Solomon’s article appeared, joined forces with the local historian Richard (Deej) Webb to investigate further. It’s said that the stakes in academic disputes are low, but Williams enthusiastically shows, in the course of the film, that the geographical reference is more than a footnote—it’s a key to an apt appreciation of both Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s literary artistry.

The case presented both by Williams and by Solomon begins with the geography of the Westport property where the newlywed Fitzgeralds lived, for five months, spanning the summer of 1920, soon after the publication and acclaim of Scott’s first novel, “This Side of Paradise.” The young couple (Scott was twenty-three; Zelda, nineteen) lived in a cottage at the edge of a rich man’s estate, similar to the one that Nick inhabited in West Egg; the shore at the edge of that waterfront property provided a view across the bay to a magnificent dock (the one that belonged to the palatial home in which Solomon was raised), akin to the one celebrated in “Gatsby.” What’s more, the secretive and wealthy baron of industry, Frederick E. Lewis, from whom the Fitzgeralds rented and whose mansion was on the seaside part of the estate, gave parties of colossal frolic and frenzy, with circus animals and Broadway stars and Harry Houdini and John Philip Sousa hired to perform. (Lewis’s pool also had a tower akin to the one from which Gatsby’s guests dove.) The Fitzgeralds attended at least one of his parties—and behaved scandalously enough to be barred from any of his future ones, though he still let them have access to his private beach.

The diligent and energetic research leading to the identification of the novel’s prime site is only one of “Gatsby in Connecticut” ’s many virtues, which all arise from Williams’s role as a cinematic newcomer. When he started work on the project, in 2013, having never made a film before, he planned to make a short for local use, but its scope expanded along the way. As an enthusiast who came to scholarship by chance, he approaches the details of the Fitzgeralds’ life and work with a fresh eye and an unjaded sense of wonder. He develops in rapt and poignant detail the story of the Fitzgeralds’ wild summer of 1920, emphasizing the rush of wealth and fame that went to their heads when “This Side of Paradise” became a widely acclaimed critical success and an instant best-seller. Interview subjects and archival citations (including one from Dorothy Parker) detail their glamour, their fame, their allure; Williams calls them “America’s first rock stars.” In particular, Solomon’s insights pinpoint the very year 1920 as a critical moment of transition from tradition to modernity—and the very celebrity of the Fitzgeralds, their youth, and their uninhibited freedom along with their artistic cachet, as both an emblem and an engine of that change.

The film quotes from Zelda’s novel “Save Me the Waltz,” from 1932, which includes details of that wild summer from a decade’s remove—and also devotes extended consideration to Scott’s second novel, “The Beautiful and Damned,” from 1922, which he wrote in the heat of the spectacular romantic flameout that is itself the story of the novel. Williams matches the action of “The Beautiful and Damned” to a map of the town and photographs of the period and quotes a letter in which Scott wishes that the novel had been more “mature” because it has the distinctive virtue of being “all true.” This, too, is among the virtues of “Gatsby in Connecticut”: its rehabilitation of “The Beautiful and Damned,” which I consider Fitzgerald’s most moving, thrilling, and emotionally flaying novel. It’s not a cut gem like “Gatsby,” it’s not an epic tragedy like “Tender Is the Night,” but it’s Fitzgerald’s most convincing and least inhibited elaboration of scenes from a marriage, an unsparing and agonized portrait of a couple, as he wrote, “wrecked on the shoals of dissipation”; as Fitzgerald himself asserts, they didn’t do it to each other: they did it to themselves. (In saying so, Scott may have been going easy on himself: Williams also unfolds Scott’s dependence on—and appropriation of—Zelda’s inspiration and artistry, and traces out the twisted strands of anguish that resulted from his use of her diaries and letters in the novel, and the brazen control that he exerted over her life and her art alike.)

Williams evokes the Fitzgeralds and their era with voice-over narration (performed by the actor Keir Dullea) joined to illustrative film clips and stills, archival publications and illustrations, maps and current-day footage, all bound together by recordings of music from roughly (sometimes very roughly) the same period. It’s a familiar, even conventional, format, but Williams goes at it as enthusiastically as if he’d discovered it himself, energetically reanimating the Fitzgeralds and their times. His sense of astonishment and joy in discovery carries over to his way with scholarly research, too, as when he does some remarkable detective work to locate the diaries of Alexander McKaig, Fitzgerald’s college friend, who was on hand to observe with detailed dismay the couple’s riotous behavior. The research is integrated into the film with a spontaneous cinematic inventiveness and a cheerful reflexivity, as Williams films himself and Webb in the company of a variety of scholars, in classrooms and also in the Fitzgeralds’ onetime house in Westport—along with Charles Scribner III (the grandson of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s publisher) and Sam Waterston, who portrayed Nick Carraway in the 1974 film of “The Great Gatsby.” They also film a moving interview with Bobbie Lanahan, the Fitzgeralds’ granddaughter and a biographer in her own right, who shares the findings of her own research, and do some revealing local research among neighbors in Westport.

The academic controversy that Williams unfolds was sparked by the publication of Solomon’s article. After it appeared, Matthew Bruccoli, the longtime leading Fitzgerald scholar (who died in 2008), rejected her findings high-handedly. In “Gatsby in Connecticut,” several participants take him to task for his proprietary approach to Fitzgerald’s life story and even to his texts. Apart from the specific ideas it details, the movie considers the very notion of literary scholarship and what it’s for. Though “Gatsby in Connecticut” illuminates mysterious corners of “The Great Gatsby,” it does far more—in wrenching scholarship into life and rendering the process of research personal and passionate, it shows that the stakes of such disputes are surprisingly and enduringly high. In the process, the film both exposes and corrects the peculiar processes by which canons and hierarchies are established and perpetuated. In its hearty and individualistic vigor, “Gatsby in Connecticut” is a valuable work of literary criticism in cinematic form.

Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999. He writes about movies in his blog, The Front Row. He is the author of “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.”
 

 

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