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
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
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
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
Anyway I was glad to have had a reason
to re-read the book.