Echoes of the Jazz Age

             Woody Allen’s latest film Midnight in Paris is about an aspiring author caught in a time warp where he meets his hero F. Scott Fitzgerald.  These time travel scenes are set in the 1920s (called the Jazz Age by Fitzgerald), however the specific year is never defined, so it is impossible to say precisely which books Fitzgerald has published when Woody Allen’s film drops in.  Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is widely considered to be The Great Gatsby, which was published in 1925.  Interestingly, Midnight in Paris shares not a few similarities with Gatsby.  One wonders if that was Woody’s intention or if it just happened by some design of destiny.

            The Great Gatsby is a satire of America in the 1920s, a time of social confusion and moral ambiguity.  Riding on the wake of the emotionally ravaging World War I, the youthful generation of veterans turned to materialism and earthly riches to rehabilitate their shattered morale.  Skirts grew shorter and jackets grew brighter.  The “lost generation” as it later became known turned to liquor and pleasure to help them forget the horrors they saw in the war.  Wild, Romanesque parties lasting into the wee hours of the morning were far from uncommon in the American upper-class – all the while the strong drink and fast women lifestyle led the “lost generation” closer and closer to its ultimate destruction.  F. Scott Fitzgerald recognized this depravity, and much of his work reflects a certain cynicism and uncertainty about the fate of his contemporaries.  Ironically, Fitzgerald himself was part of this mass exodus from traditional values; however his witty social commentary was no less potent.

            I suppose The Great Gatsby is the epitome of Jazz Age fables.  It concerns the tragic love affair of the eponymous Jay Gatsby with his pre-war sweetheart Daisy Buchanan.  Gatsby himself is an enigmatic fellow of Long Island of questionable means and famous only in name for his late-night parties thrown every Saturday.  Daisy of course is a married woman, unsatisfied with her openly cheating husband and looking for an escape from her husbands supercilious persona.  Midnight in Paris also concerns characters who are hopelessly unsatisfied with their loves and their situations.  The main character in Paris, Gil, longs to live in the past, fantasizing about the Roaring 20s.  He is mentally lingering in a time long past, which cannot be reached except by some twist of continuum.  Similarly Gatsby longs to regain his carefree days before the war by re-romancing his previous love.  Soon, however, Gatsby realizes that that’s just as impossible as time travel.  Fitzgerald seems to recognize humanity’s tendency to pine for the past in the final line of the story.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly in the past.”

            At the beginning of the book, Gatsby can be seen reaching out toward the horizon, trying always to plunge eternally into the future – yet his unhappiness propels him ever backward into days gone by.  Woody Allen’s Gil is also taken from his present by a longing for what lies ahead.  He wants to write the Great American Novel, but his unsuccessful attempts to organize his ideas leave him stuck in nostalgia.

The 1920s was also a time of good economic growth, and perhaps that lent to the materialism embraced by the veteran society.  In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald returns numerous times to the idea of advertisement – most famously in the description of a fading commercial billboard.

“The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg… look out of no face, but instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. …But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.”

The billboard looms eternally over a wasteland of poverty referred to as the valley of ashes.  Notice that the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg have no face to rest on.  They are cold and impersonal, lending themselves to no single entity.  They are lost in a sea of faded blue, perhaps observing that this young, hedonistic society is utterly lost in ambiguous shades of faded moral certainty.  Advertisement itself represents the materialism embraced by the 1920s.  It is the bloating and perversion of the American dream.  Like all the ages before them, the youth of the 1920s sought fame and fortune and prosperity in capitalism, yet to no end.  The entrepreneurs of the Gold rush and the Industrial Age aimed for wealth and riches so as to feed their families and better society.  The gluttonous Jazz youth gorged themselves on pleasure and riches, but on themselves they placed no limit to their selfish consumption.  Fitzgerald revisits the concept of bloated advertisement often in the novel, one time even comparing the eyes to the eye of God.

As Gatsby sought and lost the American dream through his romance with the idealized Daisy Buchanan, Gil of Midnight in Paris seeks happiness in America, yet finds it only in Paris.  Not simply Paris, but Paris of several generations ago.  In the time warp scenes, Gil finds himself travelling through various parties and social gatherings, shrouded in cigarette smoke and steeped in a brass haze of jazz and gin.  While the 20s roar on before his eyes, he stays somewhat removed from the various debaucheries.  Similar colloquies rage on at Gatsby’s Long Island mansion every Saturday.  Yet as his guest eat, drink, and be merry, Gatsby remains detached from his own soirée: an omniscient recluse, observing the dissipation before him not unlike the aforementioned Dr. Eckleburg.  Like the man in the billboard, his eyes are trapped in the spectacles of his unhappiness.  He too looks out over a wasteland, though this one is well disguised and at first inviting.  Gil is also trapped in his life.  He is trapped by his engagement to a woman he doesn’t love, trapped by his failure as a writer.  He too is the conscientious objector, willing to serve but not to take part.

I suppose Fitzgerald and Allen have something in common too.  They are both unusually insightful into the world of men.  They both sit back and poke fun at society in a way that is both cynical and endearing and in some cases, even poetic.  Fitzgerald’s conclusion to The Great Gatsby is melancholy and slightly bitter, yet it offers a glimmer of hope for its destroyed characters.  Midnight in Paris ends on a happier note, yet it’s not without its regrets for what has transpired.  And so time marches on and society keeps changing.  Yet either through F. Scott Fitzgerald who witnessed it first hand, or Woody Allen who finds humor in the sorrowful, the world continues to hear echoes of the Jazz Age.

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2 Responses to Echoes of the Jazz Age

  1. Katie says:

    Hey there, where did you find the photo of the four ladies dancing in your post “Echoes of the Jazz Age
    Posted on 17 July 2011”

    Thanks!

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