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 Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby to the big screen—and 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 novel’s 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. Carraway’s “back-trailer” move from the west to the east “withholds judgment” on character—including Gatsby’s—in 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 Carraway’s experience is an education that requires from the reader recognition that beginnings are more important than ends.
However, Luhrmann’s movie, and not the novel, is under discussion here. Regarding the novel, Luhrmann’s 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 Carraway’s voice—a voice prompted by a psychologist’s 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. There’s also the green light at the end of the Tom Buchanan’s (Joel Edgerton) pier, a place where careless people can smash up things and return to their money. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
But it’s Luhrman cinematic style that he’s 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 taste—and 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 I’m sure SNL is already working on a good parody—Baz Luhrmann does Kafka! I’d go see that!
That said, I’m 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 one’s own individual identity in terms of consumer choice. Perhaps this celebration of the “me” is fitting therapy for today’s largely unemployed movie audience (unemployed in both the narrow and broad senses).
Regardless, the film is big, brash, colorful, excessive, kaleidoscopic, etc. It’s 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 didn’t 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. It’s a fast break movie with another Jay’s (Jay-Z) soundtrack playing a mélange of Gershwin’s “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 Luhrmann’s vision, and it does not distract.
Except that distraction is Luhrmann’s main motif as a filmmaker. To use the current therapeutic lingo, Luhrmann’s style is hyperactive and ADD. As already stated, it’s 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–Luhrmann’s 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 Fitzgerald’s 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 out—compare Gatsby to his other books, even This Side of Paradise. He wouldn’t have been the first. However, despite its excess, Luhrmann’s 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 I’ll get to the fine film Mud tomorrow.
2. Mud (Dir. Jeff Nichols, 2012).