Friday, May 10, 2013

A "Gatsby" worthy of greatness

"Can't repeat the past? Why, of course you can. Of course you can."

In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway wanders into his neighbor's opulent mansion to find a veritable orgy of color and sensation: bursts of champagne, streamers of all colors, gowns and suits crammed into every inch of space. The camera stages it perfectly--compositions arrange these figures with stunning symmetry, careening and swooping around the space to capture fleeting moments of dance, drink, and other assorted pleasures. Fueling it all is the music: a foxtrot mixed with a Beyonce song? A Top 40-esque club beat?

Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Great American Novel" has drawn immense criticisms that he's trying to talk down to "tween" audiences by needlessly having producer Jay-Z bring in a whole bunch of rap and pop music for this Gatsby. Sure, that's one way to look at it. But that's also incredibly dismissive. What's going on here is, I think, much deeper and more interesting, regardless of whether or not it appeals to you.

In his hyper-hyper irreverent sort of way, Luhrmann positions his film explicitly as a reflection: We open with Nick Carraway in 1929 after the stock market crash, trying to rehabilitate himself after hitting bottom. In this way, the book's preoccupation with repeating the past, of yearning for something that doesn't exist anymore (if it ever did), takes on a different kind of meaning. And Luhrmann, not content just to frame it this way, is using the music to consciously bridge the Roaring Twenties with the Great Recession. The question must be asked, as it should be asked with any adaptation: Why make this movie? How do the circumstances of its adaptation, the "moment of production," alter the work? In a world that is still economically precarious, this Gatsby seems to implicitly suggest that decadence has and will continue to infiltrate society. The elite will continue to assert themselves as the heirs to the kingdom, and their lack of foresight will continue to be widen society's gaps. This makes the spectacle Luhrmann summons all the more haunting, all the sadder. The music may be different, but the beat, as it were, stays the same.

The Great Gatsby earns its adjectival title, and not ironically -- it is deeply faithful to the spirit and words of its source material, attempting to visually communicate the complexity of the book's many ideas about American ideology and the empty fabricated lives of the elite class. Fitzgerald's book is one of the most treasured in twentieth-century American literature, so it's no surprise to me that many critics have attacked Luhrmann's film for not embodying it in accordance with their lifelong vision. And let's just state it up front -- the film is not as complex as the book. It's not as good. Obviously. And to ask it to be "as good as" the book is silly. It doesn't try to be, and it makes its intertextual links with the novel known repeatedly: entire lines of text are superimposed atop the action, letters and penstrokes clutter the frame and show a marriage of cinema and literature. But it's also a daring, honest evocation of the era that meets the requisites of a high-profile literary adaptation while still finding plenty of room to be deeply expressive and expressionistic.

Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby from inside the 1920s, and that's part of why it's masterful. Hindsight has only sharpened it, and changing economic and historical circumstances have continued to make it a viable and essential text. The film is not so presumptuous; the framing device distances us from the event: we know the results of these parties, and so it's not necessarily up to Luhrmann to condemn them even as his style seems to celebrate them. If we know our history, we know this party ends badly. Chances are, however, you already know how you'll feel about Gatsby: Did you love the novel? Did you love Moulin Rouge? If you checked yes to both -- great! You'll enjoy it! If Luhrmann just turns you off, you've probably already made up your mind. And this won't win you over. I recognize, of course, that Gatsby is a very special book to a number of people. I'm one of them. It's my favorite novel. But where many are calling the film boring, I'm left wondering: might this just be because you know the story so well? It's hard for me to imagine a more energetic, a more rousing, and a more contemplative adaptation of this source material. For me, this movie nails it.

The film is full of pleasures, not least of which are the colors and the designs. See it on the biggest screen you can, as the frames are stuffed to their edges with costumes, props, paintings. It's dizzying. It's meant to be. Luhrmann also uses a digitally-enhanced camera to weave through space, launching us across the bay between Daisy and Gatsby's homes, along the roads between Long Island and Manhattan, and even down the Empire State Building. This is a vertiginous world that we're simultaneously asked to be swallowed up in and see from the start as teetering on the edge. And those colors make all of Fitzgerald's symbols pop: Gatsby's yellow car, that lumbering hunk of gold, is spectacular to behold (and the roar of its engine is something else); the green light across the way serves as the major visual refrain of the movie, alternately hopeful and haunting; the swarms of flowers Gatsby uses as decoration for his reunion with Daisy are enough to make anyone believe in the guy.

And speaking of Gatsby himself, Leonardo DiCaprio has decided to get rid of the various facial hairs and weird accents that he's been trying to various degrees of success and go back to playing his handsome qualities. His not-quite-there accent work is actually an advantage with Gatsby, as the momentary cracks in his faux-New York voice remind us of the cracks in the entire facade. His smile, his hair, his haunted eyes: his is an easy face to fall for, and it is easily be find him both "worth more than the whole damn lot" and horridly empty and pathetic. It's a tough role, especially since we're looking at him both from Nick's perspective and from the "factual" objective, but his introduction alone makes anything else not quite matter: DiCaprio and Luhrmann make that first close-up count for everything.

But if you've heard The Great Gatsby is "all Baz, all the time," meaning it's nothing but a crazy music-video-esque party -- not so fast! As Nick is drawn into New York's amorality and Gatsby's luster starts to fade, there's an increasing amount of control and emptiness in the aesthetic. The second act has many beautiful romantic moments and shots of Gatsby and Daisy drawn back into each other (and Nick watching from afar). By the tragic final 24 hours of the main plot, shadows grow longer, compositions become emptier, and we're put at more and more of a distance. All the while, the film feels constantly inventive, finding appropriate ways to shoot the most important moments -- Gatsby throwing his shirts into a pile on Daisy is particularly poignant -- and also packing surprisingly apt moments for a movement, an angle, a shift in lighting. There is diversity and thoughtfulness on display; this is not a frivolously-made film, and it feels lovingly labored over.

I don't think this is what one might call a "definitive adaptation" of the novel. But it's an honest rendering that tries to capture the complexity of the piece. Carey Mulligan might not pull off all of Daisy's intricacies--she is, after all, playing an idea more than a person--but she works as a face worth devoting a life to, a person worth constructing a whole imaginary world for. Likewise, Tobey Maguire is wonderfully passive as Carraway: if we're left in frustration that he refuses to do anything, isn't that largely the point? Nick is a pervasive watcher, but it seems beyond him to intervene. His awe defeats him, and correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that a bit of the idea here? We have to do something about our lives beyond being pulled back ceaselessly into the past.

Like that green light, there is something almost abstractly beautiful about Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby. It's not just the colors, it's not just the style. He gets at something else here too. He tries to capture the soul of the thing, and show to us that it still matters. His construction of the Roaring Twenties isn't just locked in a snow globe; he wants this epic, sweeping vision to mean something to us today. It's not just romantic, it packs the critical punch as well. For me, that's the mark of a great adaptation. This Gatsby earns its stature.

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