Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Neon Gatsby

This post contains spoilers for the film, The Neon Demon.

Hollywood excels at masking the shallow as profound. It is fitting, then, that a film offering a profound critique of Hollywood is widely seen as shallow. The film is Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, and its surface is so stunning that some critics assume that’s all there is. Yet,
 there is a familiar alienation and darkness beneath its skin, just as the grotesque lurks beneath the seductive glitz and glamour of one of Jay Gatsby's decadent parties. In fact, The Neon Demon's stylized portrait of Hollywood is nothing less than a contemporary version of The Great Gatsby's New York. F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel and Refn's film each use metaphor, imagery and symbolism, as well as an unreliable narrative point of view, to explore the romanticization of a corrupt narcissist while exposing the depraved society that consumes him--or her, as the case may be.

Though many view The Great Gatsby as a tragic love story between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan,  Fitzgerald’s novel is primarily about Nick Carraway, the narrator and purveyor of Gatsby's image. We see Gatsby through Nick’s desperate, judgmental eyes. Nick values Gatsby's reckless naivete above the irresponsible manipulations of the haves (Tom and Daisy Buchanan, in particular), and seduces us into making a moral distinction between them. It is as if Nick's American Dream depends on the moral worth of Jay Gatsby. Nick dreams of success and redemption—running away from the war and his Midwestern past, reinventing himself as a New York City bondsman, but unable to commit to any level of intimacy and too easily tempted by the mire of prohibition-era crime and decadence. Nick is a hypocrite, shamelessly participating in everything that he condemns. He helps Gatsby and Daisy pursue adultery in secret. He risks moral condemnation and criminal prosecution by joining illegal parties and indulging in homosexual behavior. The novel is framed around Nick's struggles to maintain his dignity. Gatsby only makes sense as a fetish or scar in Nick’s imagination: a tragic image of purity and beauty destined for failure in modern America. The real Gatsby, if there is one, is something of a phantom, a phony and a crook who will stop at nothing to fulfill his own dark yet naïve fantasies. 

At the beginning of Fitzgerald's novel, Nick says of Gatsby: 

If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the "creative temperament"--it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No--Gatsby turned out alright at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men. (Chapter 1) 
The same lines (with minor alterations) could be about The Neon Demon's ostensible heroine, Jesse (Elle Fanning), and they would be spoken by Jesse's friend and aspiring photographer, Dean (Karl Glusman). If the film had a narrator, it would have to be Dean. Though he is discarded before the final act of the film, Dean's point of view is central to how we understand the story. Dean frames the film at the outset with his foreboding photographic vision of Jesse, defining her as an innocent face and nubile body to be consumed, a dreamer destined to perish under the gazing moon.

Dean (Karl Glusman) creates a tragically romantic portrait of Jesse.

Introducing Jesse (Elle Fanning). Are these the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg?
Just as Nick (temporarily?) gives up his dream of becoming a bondsman, Dean (temporarily?) walks away from the world of fashion when his dignity is challenged. And just as Nick stands up for Gatsby and condemns the New York haves, Dean alone stands up for Jesse's inner value and condemns the Hollywood elites for their superficiality. Yet, like Nick, Dean is a hypocrite. Dean balks at Jesse for wanting to be like the elites, but their friendship grew out of a mutual desire to succeed in that world. His photography facilitated Jesse's career, and he hoped it would open doors for him, as well. On top of that, he knowingly risks moral condemnation and criminal prosecution by dating an underage girl. His indignation at the fashionistas is most likely a temporary upheaval. Dean might leave Hollywood, but he has not found a better path.

The parallels between Jesse and Jay Gatsby are also striking. James Gatz, the youth who would become Jay Gatsby, took his good looks and charm for granted. At the age of 17, Gatz used his innate gifts to redefine himself: He devoted himself to “a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty,” inventing “just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end” (Chapter 6). In The Neon DemonJesse falls in love with her own image at the age of 16, and is faithful to it until the end. Jesse's raw materials are the same as Gatsby’s: good looks and an innocence that captivate everyone in the fashion world. They are all taken in by Jesse, and it is not long before she is confidently using her image to her advantage--or so she thinks. Yet, like Gatsby, her persona is a fabrication. We cannot be sure where she came from or how she got to Hollywood. She could be a runaway, though she is happy to let others assume that her parents are dead. What matters is that her parents are dead to her, and she will forge their signature to get what she wants. And it's not just money and fame. Jesse wants glamour, to be the brightest star in every room she enters, and she is willing to cheat and turn her back on humanity to get there.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) falls in love with her reflection.
Gatsby's dream takes its final shape--"the incarnation is complete" (Chapter 6)--when he kisses Daisy for the first time. Daisy is the outward projection of his narcissistic desire, and his blind devotion to her is what ultimately destroys him. Jesse, in contrast, is her own outward projection. Her dream is wholly centered around her own image. It is therefore when she kisses her reflection that her incarnation is complete. And it is her devotion to the image of her own purity that eventuates her demise.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) feeling a bit self-absorbed.
Neither Gatsby nor Jesse earns our scorn. We see their lack of compassion, their moral bankruptcy, and we feel sorry for them. They are victims of their singular dreams. They each seem to understand this right before they die. Nick describes Gatsby enjoying his swimming pool for the first time at the peak of a fevered summer, but rather than suppose Gatsby hoped for or expected Daisy’s call, Nick says:
I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about (Chapter 8). 
These words could be used to describe Jesse as she, like Gatsby, hovers above a swimming pool moments before her death. In Jesse's case, the pool in which she is murdered is empty. The blue of her dress replaces the reflective blue of the water. She has become no more than her own image.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) hovers above the emptiness.
Jesse and Gatsby accept nothing but their demon, an impossible dream at odds with the material world. Gatsby lives in his own image for a number of excruciatingly lonely years before finally realizing that his dream is false and his life is a lie. In contrast, Jesse’s misery is not prolonged. We could imagine Jesse growing old, never coming to terms with the lie her life has become, always reaching for another star, always trying to shine brighter than before, but always feeling lost and alone. We can imagine her aging in Gatsby’s mansion, throwing parties she cannot bear to attend, full of people who know her but do not care about her. And she would not care about them, either. She would watch them desperately, like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, hoping their presence heralded a new dawn, a final validation of her quest for greatness. Everyone wanted a piece of Gatsby and Jesse when they were alive, but few will miss them once they're dead. Very few show up for Gatsby's funeral. Who besides Dean will care that Jesse is gone?

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), ready for her close-up.
In Gatsby, Nick fetishizes Gatsby's beauty. He worships Gatsby at the same time he sees through the facade, and it leaves him lost and alone in the end. We are tempted to elevate Gatsby, as well--and many do see him as a Romantic hero. In much the same way, The Neon Demon also lets us see through the facade, but invites us to worship Jesse's so-called "natural beauty" all the same. It even tempts us into valuing her beauty above all others, by opposing her beauty to the supposedly inferior, "artificial" beauty of Gigi (Belle Heathcote). Yet, this distinction is a myth. Who is to say Gigi is not more beautiful than Jesse? To the fashionistas, Jesse is an oasis in the desert. She pulls at their thirst, just as she is meant to pull at ours. Gigi, in contrast, looks like a model trying on somebody else's style. Gigi does not look like the product of cosmetic surgery so much as the product of a weak and uptight imagination. Jesse succeeds because she is able to sell the image of authenticity. Once she realizes its value, she manufactures and sells her own innocence. It is her demon.

The opposition between natural and artificial beauty is a red herring. We are never shown that Gigi has had any work done, and, despite what the fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) says, there is nothing in the way she looks that suggests cosmetic surgery or treatments of any kind. We can only take Gigi at her word that she is the “Bionic Woman.” Similarly, we can only take Jesse at her word that she has not had any work done. The conflict between Jesse and Gigi is not who has had work done, but who has the better image. The conflict between Jesse and Gigi is a conflict between two images of beauty. When Jesse challenges Gigi's status, she is challenging Gigi's dream. She is questioning the real behind Gigi's ideal. 

Gigi (Bella Heathcote) does not like to be challenged.

Jesse presents herself as the image of natural beauty. an ideal which nobody questions. Yet, beauty is always both natural and artificial—artifice is part of human nature, after all. The image of Natural Beauty is no more authentic than the image of Artificial Beauty, and Jesse and Gigi each die when they recognize this fact. Jesse dies after she sees the artifice behind her image of natural beauty, and Gigi dies after she sees the humanity beneath her image of cold-hearted artifice.

Jesse's love of artifice is manifest in her relationship to Ruby (Jena Malone). Ruby is the master of artifice, the maker of outward beauty, who longs for purity but lives only through reflections. She craves Jesse, either for sex or food, or both.  Ruby thrives in emptiness, makes love to make-up, be it on living flesh or a corpse. As the scene revealing Ruby's necrophiliac depravity is interlaced with images of Jesse's self-love, we are invited to question the relationship between them. When Jesse touches herself, is she, like Ruby, making love to a corpse? Is Jesse dead beneath her skin? Is Ruby Jesse's alter-ego?  Are they reflections of each other? 

When Ruby and Jesse meet for the first time, they are looking in opposing mirrors with their backs to each other. Ruby apologizes to Jesse for staring at her, but it seems as if they were only staring at themselves. It is as if they each exist inside of the other. Of course, we can take their relationship at face value, as one between a model and a predatory make-up artist; however, we can take it as a metaphor for something deeper. We can see Ruby as the demon taking possession of Jesse; conversely, we can see Jesse as the haunting image of purity within a depraved Ruby.

Ruby (Jena Malone) through the looking glass.
Right after the masturbation scene, Jesse changes into the blue dress and stands above the empty pool. Just as a "ghost" named George Wilson comes to haunt and murder Jay Gatsby in his swimming pool, a ghost-like Ruby appears to Jesse in the emptiness of the pool beneath her. When Jesse sees Ruby, she sees the truth about herself: Ruby has already consumed her, because Jesse has consumed herself. It is possible to read the murder sequence as a metaphor for Jesse’s suicide: She was not pushed into the empty pool; she let herself fall in after she saw the falsity of the image with which she had fallen in love. On the other hand, we can take it as a scene of literal murder. It does not matter. Ruby killed her either way, and either way, Jesse was already dead inside.

Like Jesse, Gigi also dies after she sees the falsity of her own image. She (literally or metaphorically?) cannot stomach what happened. Her body violently rejects her actions. She claims to be the Bionic Woman, but she cannot exorcise her conscience. In the end, it is her humanity that kills her.

The true conflict in The Neon Demon is not between natural and artificial beauty. Those are false idols which we only followed, if we ever did, because we were told to. No, the conflict at the heart of the film is between ways of relating to beauty--between compassion and consumption. It is telling that we are never told whether or not Sarah (Abbey Lee), the only model that survives in the end, has ever had any cosmetic surgery. Jesse, Gigi and Sarah are more alike than they may realize. They all relate to beauty in terms on consumption. They long to be shot and consumed. Yet, only Sarah survives, because only Sarah accepts the grotesque for what it is. Jesse and Gigi’s deaths don’t faze Sarah. She consumes Jesse and watches Gigi’s suicide with detached curiosity and understanding. She swallows the eye of conscience whole.  It doesn't matter if Sarah has had cosmetic surgery or not. Sarah survives because she is unhindered by compassion and she knows it. She exemplifies what Hollywood rewards: sociopathic consumption. Yet, in the end, she is wandering alone in a barren desert.

Sarah (Abbey Lee) triumphant.
Gatsby’s and Jesse's stories can be seen as two versions of the same cautionary tale: This is what happens when American individualism runs amok. It is hard to shake the American Dream, the capitalistic conviction that all you need are the raw materials and the drive, and you can become whoever you want to be. Refn and Fitzgerald warn that, if you devote yourself entirely to that dream and follow it to its logical conclusion, you end up living and dying alone, and all for an illusion. Jesse and Gatsby are themselves more illusion than reality, and their deaths are less tragic than their lives. We can balk at their deaths as affronts to human dignity. Alternatively, we can see them as trite, as inevitabilities: standard set pieces in the story of American depravity. The most compelling interpretation might be this: The deaths of Gatsby and Jesse are theatricalities, performances meant to draw the curtain on a depraved illusion. They are not tragic heroes in the Romantic mold. They are the constructions of morally compromised yet tragically romantic imaginations. We are invited to partake in this imagination by witnessing their downfalls through Nick Carraway's and Dean's hypocritical eyes. Dean is a stand-in for the audience and frames our vision of Jesse and the broader conflicts between the Hollywood haves and have-nots, much the way Nick curates the reader's experience of Gatsby and class conflict in the Roaring Twenties. And like Dean and Nick, audiences are likely to balk at what they see without learning from it.

For The Neon Demon, as for The Great Gatsby, there is no path to happiness. There is only hypocrisy, cruelty and isolation. The irony at the heart of the film is that the fashion designer may be right when he says, "Beauty is not everything. It's the only thing.” All creation is the same, he says, be it a line of clothing or a dramatic character. Art is a unity and beauty is an indivisible, all-encompassing whole, the monistic God of Spinoza, the one, supreme substance of which all else is made. Thus, what we see in the film depends on how we define ourselves in relation to beauty. We can laugh at the film, embrace narcissism and celebrate ourselves as beautiful products to be consumed. Yet, can humanity--the lived compassion for other people--survive in the process? What the designer does not understand is that compassion is also beautiful. The fashion designer's Hollywood is a reflection of our world, where consumption is rewarded over compassion and children grow up embracing narcissism, longing to be mass-consumed. This is the profound dilemma at the heart of The Neon Demon. If it is shallow, it is no shallower than the pool in which we see our own reflection.