“Reserving judgements is a matter of infinite hope.”
I finally saw Baz Luhrmann’s production of The Great Gatsby today. Not a new film anymore, I realize, but as is the nature of my life, I tend to get caught up on my celluloid fix during the summers, and a grey San Francisco June day is the perfect time to take in a matinée. For better or for worse, when it takes so long to get around to seeing movies it is impossible to not hear the critiques, and for an American classic of this stature, you can be sure there was an abundance. First, there were the “I haven’t seen the thing and I never will” critiques. These derived from a mix of folks ranging from those who stand on principle that, in fact, you not only cannot repeat the past you should be goddamned barred from trying. Also in this group are the people who categorically find something wrong with Baz Luhrmann, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Jay Z. Another element of this group would be the lit crit snobs, who I think are basing their critique on someone else’s review, which makes them too derivative to really even consider here. Next there were the literary aficionados. This group saw the film, and is largely comprised of teachers (heavily weighted towards English), readers of the New Yorker (or NYT Book Review), Fitzgerald experts, and “Americanists” (yes, that is a thing.) The criticism from this group was heavy on nostalgia and loyalty to the book. Many of them talked about how it was insulting to have the symbolism so directly explained [Um, yes. Americans don’t really read anymore and so I would say that in fact they DO need this explanation.] Some of them talked about how it was too literal, other said it took to many figurative liberties. I also heard complaints about the Luhrmann’s general misunderstanding of Fitzgerald’s primary theme in the novel (arguably the corrosion/degeneration/decay/ruination/failure of the “American Dream”). Associated with the latter was the notion that the irony of the novel would be lost in a Luhrmann-like celebration of the visual and aesthetic grandeur of the time period. How can he make a pretty movie about a fucked up thing like this?
Ummm… I think you might have missed the irony there, professor.
“I wasn’t actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity.”
Anyhow, I went in with my own biases. I have read the novel probably ten times. I read it as a high school student (mostly), and then as a more responsible university student trying to actually e as well read as I said I was, and then as a high school teacher – yes, I too “taught” the novel. In addition to my self-professed familiarity with the book, I also believe that Leo DiCaprio may be one of the most underrated actors of my generation. I mean, forgive the guy Titanic, already, will you? What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Aviator, Catch Me If You Can, The Departed, Blood Diamond, Basketball Diaries, and D’Jango Unchained? Please, that is a list of fantastic films, roles, and work. Anyhow, I suppose I am either preaching to the choir here or wasting time on deaf ears. Beyond that, I also love Baz Luhrmann. Visually, his work is amazing, even if you don’t like the movies, and I would suggest even if you don’t like his aesthetic, it should still be categorized as amazing work. Strictly Ballroom will forever be a favorite, and judge me how you like, but I liked Moulin Rouge. So, there you have my biases. Oh, and Prada dresses & accessories for the parties? Yeah, I’m in.
“For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
We have a deep-seated fascination with the “Roaring Twenties” in America. I know this as a U.S. History teacher, as well as a relatively observant human. There is something eternally compelling about a decade of such transition, tumultuous as it was. America came out of WWI looking as dapper as ever, and with the booming markets, new access to popular culture via radio, and huge cultural transitions like women’s rights (women’s suffrage, the Flapper movement, co-ed colleges) and the influence of black culture made more accessible, if not wholly acceptable, through the Harlem Renaissance, and then there was the emerging marriage of music, movies, fashion through the first generation of real American celebrities. People hold on to all these glamorous images tightly, going so far as to stylize even the worst elements of our culture, crime (organized or otherwise), racism, witch hunts (political and economic), in a way that offers pretty and sterile memories; always so much more fun to recollect. The resulting (yes, it was consequential) economic collapse even seems to be romanticized as some sort of retrospective Faustian morality tale – from which we all learned such valuable lessons. Oh. Wait….
“I was within and without. Simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
Now, off of my teacher soap box and into the theater. The costumes did not disappoint, the work in that area was divine. And the party scenes were just as I would hope from a Luhrmann vehicle: palpable texture. However, the scene that got me from the start was the moment Nick walks into the Buchanan’s home. From the first time I read the book I have loved that scene; the billowing curtains veiling Daisy and Jordan, the whiteness of the space… all of it, and I loved how it was done in this film. Nick’s first party is also fabulous. The way that Gatsby was a man of mystery at once so obvious and so invisible (as Jordan said, “…I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy…”) was, if not totally original, very well done. And anyhow, it is hard to imagine that anyone who was seeing this movie would be without an idea who Gatsby was being played by, so the element of surprise was based more in style than purpose.
Beyond the little things – including wildly overdone settings – which worked by the way (the Valley of Ashes was a crazy zone of transition) I found the movie to be an effective reminder of what I remember being most compelling about the book in the first place: the simultaneous enchantment and repulsion of humanity. The amazing wealth (which was actually available to so many people during the decade Fitzgerald aimed to unveil) is tantalizing, and the way Luhrmann capitalized on Fitzgerald’s descriptions of decadence made the veneer of this wealth viscerally clear. The commodification of everything has become a way of life for modern America, but maybe at one point in time that was not the case.
The scene when Gatsby finally gets to show his home to Daisy, to demonstrate his worth to her, is also exceptionally well done in the film. Daisy’s clear intoxication by the context rather than the characters of the home is obvious, and her consideration of Gatsby is sad. But the part that got me was when they all went swimming. For some reason the way that Lurhmann brought this scene to life made me so hugely and immediately grateful to be with someone because of the someone they are rather than the somethings they may or may not have. I am unsure why this scene made me think that, but it was immediate and in spite of luxury I could well imagine loving, I was so glad to not be those people. It was weird.
“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.”
It reminded me of all the people I see working so hard to be Someone or Something, worried evermore that they will never be enough if they don’t go to all the right places, eat all the right food, like all the right things. You know this guy; the guy who measures his worth by Twitter followers or something, who talks about how much he likes the things that Robin Leach told us we should like back in the day because that will make him higher quality, who talks about how amazing s/he is and how much they love their life telling everyone how they “live the dream”… while they are so totally alone… at the restaurant, at the concert, at the bar… “table for 1”. That irony, being totally alone in the proverbial crowded room was the fate of Gatsby, who believed that Daisy would solve his loneliness.
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
Ultimately, it is hard to say if the good guys win this one. I never liked Nick in the book, I found his odd humility and warped self-image far too distracting as a narrator, and clearly the rest of the characters were loathsome, and he is pretty meh in this version as well. All my gay male friends really hate Tobey McGuire for some reason and they blame him for Nick being so lame, but I think Tobey was pretty spot on in terms of suckage, I mean, Nick is the biggest drag in the book – at least the really awful people are not conflicted by their hideous natures. Being self-conscious about it is even more annoying.
“They’re a rotten crowd’, I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
But there was always Gatsby, perhaps the last bastion of the failing American Dream – the eternal optimist in the face of certain defeat, and someone who was honest enough to understand that the measure of a man would never again be made from his character in this modern world, but only in the correctly constructed facade, regardless of the means of acquisition. Pretty things are more important I guess.
That Gatsby remained hopeful was lovely, and I like to think that he dies believing Daisy did call. I like to think this is because I too am an eternal optimist. And I left this newest version of The Great Gatsby feeling like they got it. It is different from the other versions, but the reminder that we continue to live in a world that increasingly rewards people not for the people they are, or how they have contributed to humanity, but for the spectacle they can make of themselves irrespective of the attendant costs to others or society, is both timely and important.
And maybe we should just call this movie a reminder, not a remake, and then everyone could be less of a critic and take a look at how prophetic the story actually is.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Oh – and ps: Jay Z killed it on the soundtrack. Real talk.