“I think he got it just right”
Fresh from viewing the dazzling, 3D kaleidoscope, that is Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, it is imperative that my disbelief at reviewers, who have castigated or had mixed feelings about the film, is written down. Luhrmann’s Gatsby is quite perfect and a faithful rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters, themes and more importantly, the zeitgeist he helped create, or at least revealed, to several generations of readers.
Seeing a dismal score of 51% at Rotten Tomatoes and 54% at Metacritic simply defies comprehension but one can draw solace, as I am certain Luhrmann does, by reading a little of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s experience on release of his novel in 1925. The Great Gatsby received mixed reviews and only sold 20,000 copies. Even the electronic version of the novel, at this public bookshelf, only receives three and half stars from over a thousand reviewers. That’s tough reviewing by any standards. One major contrast with the reception Fitzgerald received is that there is zero chance Luhrmann, despite the reviews, will have make anything other than a fortune at the box-office.
Luhrmann has taken an 18th century form and made it new. Previously, he adapted a Shakespearean play and, without writing a new line of dialogue, made it fresh for a contemporary audience. He has done so again with Gatsby, his most important film since Romeo and Juliet (and a kind of redemption for the awful, unbelievable box-office success, that was Australia).
Will young audiences go for this movie, with its few good scenes and its discordant messiness? Luhrmann may have miscalculated. The millions of kids who have read the book may not be eager for a flimsy phantasmagoria. They may even think, like many of their elders, that “The Great Gatsby” should be left in peace. The book is too intricate, too subtle, too tender for the movies. Fitzgerald’s illusions were not very different from Gatsby’s, but his illusionless book resists destruction even from the most aggressive and powerful despoilers. David Denby
The above quote from a well-known film reviewer (I’ve read his tome on ‘Great Books’) makes me think about one of the major themes in Gatsby and most oft-quoted lines:
“Can’t repeat the past?… Why of course you can!”
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that‘s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Gatsby is wrong, as are many of the reviewers who yearn for a more faithful rendition of the novel. One cannot repeat the past, and any adaptation is unable to do so too. Shakespeare plundered stories already told and made them new, as does Luhrmann, who has always journeys towards cinematic green lights; the past is not repeated but remembered afresh.
Baz Luhrmann, along with Quentin Tarantino, is able to communicate the highest levels of excitement to cinema audiences, making them truly experience, vicariously, the hedonism of the characters living the scene being viewed. His films provide the viewer with a cinematic high as close to a ‘feely’ as one is likely to experience. In the case of this most recent film one feels Gatsby’s, or is that America’s hope, as the film parades the paradox that is the American Dream on a HDR-like canvas. Lurhmann’s ability to take the viewer along for the ride is what excites audiences. We get drunk, for the second time in our lives, with Nick Carraway, Myrtle and her sister at Tom Buchanan’s place. Not many directors can do this.
Luhrmann’s Gatsby is edited cleverly to communicate many of Fitzgerald’s themes. Often, text from the novel appears at crucial junctures, making clever use of the 3D technology to illuminate an 18th century form. Of course, the parties at Gatsby’s are thrilling and Luhrmann splashes the champagne and stars from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s pages out of the 3D screen into the cinema:
THERE was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains.
The film is quite perfect. The ensemble cast convincingly bringing Fitzgerald’s characters to the screen in a way that many fans of the novel will mentally tick with approval. Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and Gatsby (Leonardo di Caprio) are particularly good. The sets, costumes and cinematography are of the highest quality but the music, one of Luhrmann’s signatures as a director, is just superb. I made the mistake of listening to the soundtrack before watching the film and recommend you have the experience of enjoying without this kind of previewing, which does lessen the impact.
One wonders if Australians share the American love of this story from the 1920s or see the central character in the same way? The dirt poor Gatsby, through ambition and disregard of societal regulations, drags himself from poverty, makes a fortune in a dubious manner, spends it on love, only to be shot. It is a uniquely American story, or maybe one that gangsters, world-wide, can relate too.
Luhrmann’s genius is that we see the paradox that is Gatsby and we like him all the same.
What’s your response to Luhrmann’s adaptation of Gatsby?
Featured image: cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Matthew Allard: http://flickr.com/photos/faceinthecrowd/5022864291/