If you care for this kind of warning, then let me say that there are probably SPOILERS throughout the following:
1. The Great Gatsby (Dir. Baz Luhrmann, 2013).
Nietzsche (there I said it!) says, What is most difficult to render from one language to another is the tempo of its style. This is as good a place as any to begin a discussion of the most recent translation of F. Scott Fitzgeralds novel The Great Gatsby to the big screenand this time in 3D.
The novel is notorious for its style, told in the particular voice of Nick Carraway, and consequently there has been great difficulty in successfully rendering it into film. With a sense of distance and irony, the novels personal and retrospective narrative takes the tone of a regretful eulogy and/or apology. Its languorous prose looks up to Gatsby from a below that is somehow higher and also, more importantly, later. Carraways back-trailer move from the west to the east withholds judgment on characterincluding Gatsbysin order that it may focus on the study of bonds. That is, judgment is withheld until the survivor (Carraway) tells us that the view from the top to that of the bottom, just as the view from the east to that of the west, returns to itself in the end. We are told that no matter how tawdry it all may be, high and low and east and west must reckon with a view that is borne ceaselessly into the past. For the sake of understanding (including understanding the promises and dreams of the U.S. of America), it seems that Carraways experience is an education that requires from the reader recognition that beginnings are more important than ends.
However, Luhrmanns movie, and not the novel, is under discussion here. Regarding the novel, Luhrmanns movie gets the basics of plot and symbol right, but then again, it frames its telling as occurring within a mental institution where Carraway (Tobey Maguire), like Fitzgerald, suffers from morose alcoholism, anxiety, and other sundry neurasthenic ailments. At the institute, a good doctor claims that writing might prove therapeutic, and so the story begins in Carraways voicea voice prompted by a psychologists head-shrink gimmick.
Like the novel, the film delves into themes of class, ambition, dreams, love, sex, excess, secret lives, luck, crime, corruption, time, mortality, etc. The figure of Jay Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio) remains ridiculous. After five long years, Gatsby steadfastly holds the torch for Daisy (Carey Mulligan) to this day. Theres also the green light at the end of the Tom Buchanans (Joel Edgerton) pier, a place where careless people can smash up things and return to their money. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
But its Luhrman cinematic style that hes known for, and he once again shows it here. Making Romeo + Juliet into an emo 90s teen flick, this time he takes on a candidate for the Great American Novel, and gives it a makeover to his own tasteand in 3D. For added emphasis, and in case you missed it, at one point in the film Tom Buchanan asks whether Nick is still working on the Great American Novel. In this way, I suppose one could give the Baz Luhrmann treatment to just about anything in literature, and Im sure SNL is already working on a good parodyBaz Luhrmann does Kafka! Id go see that!
That said, Im not sure what the makeover is for this time, though it is remarkable that Brooks Brothers recently had an Art Deco catalogue attuned to the movie. If Fitzgerald was attentive to the ways in which financial capital was based on speculation, perhaps this time Luhrmann is attentive to the free expenditure of capital as the basis for the celebration of ones own individual identity in terms of consumer choice. Perhaps this celebration of the me is fitting therapy for todays largely unemployed movie audience (unemployed in both the narrow and broad senses).
Regardless, the film is big, brash, colorful, excessive, kaleidoscopic, etc. Its definitely a movie made for a non-reading public, as when the when the young party girl asserts that Gatsby is a nephew or cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm, adding, in case you didnt know, that the Kaiser was the ruler of Germany.
There is no need to linger on these points. Great American Novel, historical literacy, or not, this movie does anything but linger. Instead it insistently pushes its frenetic filmic artifice into the forefront, and it cut-cut-cuts through dialogue and action in such a way as to prove that the Great American Novel was a silly idea in the first place. Prudes who worry about the sacred importance of the Gatsby text need to learn to embrace the shiny images that Luhrmann has projected onto the screen. Unfortunately, other than the voiceover narrative as therapy motif, we see no representation of the audience for whom the story is told. Apparently we find ourselves in a doctor/patient relationship understood in terms of the then modern scientific ideas which uncannily resemble the religion of Oprah Winfrey. Despite its shiny artifice, Luhrmann nonetheless seems to lack any deeper reflexivity other than pop psychology and the current tools of human management science.
The movie is all bright colors, glitter, garish costumes, confetti, and CGI cityscapes of Google Map type topographies between Manhattan and West Egg with the Valley of Ashes a short drive in between. It also nods to various filmmakers, with a notable Hitchcockian Rear Window sequence. But to repeat, it is all cut-cut-cut in a kaleidoscopic whoosh, as the erudite contrarian Armond White calls it. Its a fast break movie with another Jays (Jay-Z) soundtrack playing a mélange of Gershwins Rhapsody in Blue and Alicia Keys Empire State of Mind in the background. Of course, we also have Adele and Beyonce thrown in for effect.
In his defense of the music, Luhrmann claims that hip-hop is the music of the street today, just as jazz was in the 1920s, and so this music should not be distracting to the viewer. Indeed he is correct, except that calling hip-hop the music of the streets in 2013 is almost like Fitzgerald calling Stephen Foster the street music of his day. But this only adds to the supreme artificiality of Luhrmanns vision, and it does not distract.
Except that distraction is Luhrmanns main motif as a filmmaker. To use the current therapeutic lingo, Luhrmanns style is hyperactive and ADD. As already stated, its all cut-cut-cut. To avoid the slowness of the 1974 Jack Clayton version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and written by Francis Ford Coppola—what with its long shots and hazy filtered photography—Luhrmanns version overcompensates with nothing but falling confetti. The 74 version emphasized regret and loss. This one emphasizes the frenzy to move ever upward (even if that means the overcoming of neurasthenia while safely ensconced in an institute under watchful and caring eyes).
Still, both versions fail to translate the tempo of Fitzgeralds novel adequately. It may be true that Fitzgerald, as a professor of mine once put it, simply lucked out with Gatsby writing it perhaps even in an alcoholic delirium. Maybe he lucked outcompare Gatsby to his other books, even This Side of Paradise . He wouldnt have been the first. However, despite its excess, Luhrmanns excessive Gatsby is entirely too sober (even calculating) in its 3D grandiosity, and hence it is all the worse for it.
I’m tired so Ill get to the fine film Mud tomorrow.
2. Mud (Dir. Jeff Nichols, 2012).