The Great Gatsby Baz Luhrmann (USA 2013) Leonado Di Caprio; Carry Mulligan; Tobey Maguire
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 20 May 13; ticket price £10.25 (£1:75 3D supplement)
Drowning in the shallows
Before going to see Baz Luhrman's current Hollywood offering, The Great Gatsby, I did something a little naughty, I reread the book. I wanted check it out again, this after all, is one of the great American novels.
Of course few films actually deliver the impact of their literary credentials (excepted in my view are the David Lean adaptations of Dickens); most book / film transpositions end up either as insubstantial homage or mis-shapen unhappy compromises characterised by inept direction .
The Great Gatsby is a wonderfully observed novel written, from the first person perspective by the persona of Nick Carraway (a literary stand-in for Fitzgerald himself). It is a tragedy that tells of the fall of House of Gatsby. Essentially it's a chamber piece for four players: Gatsby, Nick himself and Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Its setting against the broad canvas of the Jazz Age, gives relevance and poignancy to the human relations. It has an almost Chekhovian level of intensity, as the narrator strives to understand the forces of desire that are channeled in and lived out through his characters,
So how would the Great Gatsby as film stack up? Baz Luhrmann as director / script writer of Gatsby was not a good omen. From the little I had seen of his work, Moulin Rouge, he looked like a man best at home at the circus, filming the wonders of the carnival: scantily dressed girls, trapeze artists and clowns. And to boot, Gatsby was shot for 3D and I was going to see the 3D version.
The answer is that in the best American/Hollywood tradition, technology replaces ideas. Luhrmann's Gatsby a tech fix. He opts to film a roaring 20's mega party, goes for the wow factor; never mind human relations- sex up the image - it's a 3D fest.
This is a Gatsby defined by and dedicated to spectacle and delivered in 3D if you want to wear the glasses. It's difficult to see how to justify delivering a chamber piece like Gatsby in 3D unless you want it to look like an endless parade of competing images. The problem is that Gatsby is so wrapped up in the spectacle of itself that it struggles to unwrap its own story. Instead of depth of character, personal motivation and the vigour of relations, this Gatsby is filmed using shots that comprise multi plane depth of field. My feelings were that 3D gives a spurious depth to the Great Gatsby that not only fails to engage with the theme but actually works against Fitzgerald's ideas.
In the traditional method of filming interaction between two characters, directors take the shot using a shallow depth of field, so that backgrounds are blurred and offer nothing to distract the eye's attention from the characters. In 3D the shots comprise a number of discrete visual planes, all in focus, each of which makes a demand for our attention. Our eyes are enchanted by multiple distractions, and the intensity of our involvement with dialogue and interaction is thereby diluted and diminished. And Gatsby suffers consequently in this respect from a lack of engagement and involvement with its characters.
In the large set piece party sequences, which dominate the first half of the film, Gatsby's displays of ostentation and conspicuous consumption exist simply for their own sake. Seen in 3 D this emphasis on spectacle undermines and works against the narrative, because the main characters are not part of the spectacle. Gatsby is written in the first person; from the point of view of Nick, the outsider. The point is that he observes. He isn't a full participant, he witnesses. But the way Gatsby's week-end parties are shot is intended to provide an immersive experience for the audience, undercutting Nick's point of view rather than supporting it, alienating the audience from the tidal ebb of his narrative. It looks sexy; its a riotous pop promo; but it doesn't work.
Even Baz Luhrman's film structure is tired: he uses the old hackneyed formulaic stand by of the psychiatric interview to frame Nick's telling of the story. And the manner in which he introduces the flashbacks to Gatsby's youth are clumsy and crudely worked into the flow of the movie, with the effect that they slow the film down making it feel overlong and tedious. The actors, doomed to compete with technology, struggle to maintain the tensions implicit in the plots psychic and social interweaving. In the end poor souls, their fate is to become coat hangers; walking talking wire frames draped with a pleasing succession of period costumes.
The one element in this Gatsby that had value was Luhrman's development of Fitzgerald's idea
that Gatsby was not just a victim of a failed obsessional illusion but that he was running out of road. The pursuit of Gatsby by the forces that are the source of his wealth is suggested by Fitzgerald. There is deep inner corruption of Gatsby. And this feeling of the encroachment of evil into the core of the plot's relations is something film can accomplish economically and powerfully; but whilst Baz Luhrman develops this theme a little, he left me with the feeling that more was possible, but mostly left undone.
I left the cinema wondering why Hollywood makes films like this. What did Baz Luhrman imagine he was doing? Are such films a symptom of a film culture where there is nothing really left to say, where the only goal is to attract a new generation of audiences into the cinema with 3D and keep the industry and its workers ticking over on borrowed time? Was it Godard who said “Cinema has nothing left to do other than to reproduce itself…”?
Anyway I was glad to have had a reason to re-read the book.