May 16, 2013
Gatsby & the great green light: MobyLives goes to the movies
by Alex Shephard and Dustin Kurtz
Alex: Hello again, old sport.
Dustin: Is that how we’re doing this, Alex? Because no amount of jokes can salve the wounds this movie inflicted on me. Chiefly on my eyeballs.
Alex: I liked it!! Well, I didn’t like it that much. And I have a lot of problems with it. But, having come in with admittedly very low expectations I was one, surprised by how much I enjoyed it and two, surprised by how closely Baz Luhrmann (most Australian name ever) followed the text. He seemed to have a deep and genuine reverence for the source material (though only up to a point: the novel’s themes seem to have largely escaped him, aside from DOOMED ROMANCEEEEEEE). But I had fun! I am doing the foxtrot right now, in fact.
Dustin: Whoa whoa, let’s establish two facts here first. One, I can see you and you are a crappy dancer, did you learn nothing last night? Watch this sexy rockette kick I picked up. Two, this was a bad movie. If we are going to engage with how it treated the text, it’ll be useful if we can set aside niggling distractions like quality. It was a bad movie. But one worth talking about.
Alex: Well let’s start at the beginning, then. Because I probably should have put a big ol’ asterisk next to the whole “Baz Luhrman really stuck to the text” thing, because holy moly, that framing device. I guess if you’re going to have text flying over the screen all the damn time you should establish some sort of reality for the text that is flying all over the screen, but geeeeeesh.
Dustin: Well, there is a larger framing device, which is also made apparent from the very first moments: this movie is going to look and sound terrible, so forget about that, give up, stop thinking. Bazz Luhrrmannn, by way of oppressively bad voiceover, will handle that for you henceforth.
Alex: For those who have not seen the film, we are introduced to Nick Carraway, played by doofus extraordinaire/former Spiderman Tobey Maguire, as he undergoes treatment for MORBID ALCOHOLISM and DEPRESSION and WHISKERS in an insane asylum that is somewhere on Long Island, but oh so far from the green lights and fancy dancing of his youth. Though the main action takes place in 1922, the movie starts in 1929 (stock market crash!) and Tobey is depressed (and morbidly alcoholic!) because the rich people he once looked up to and adored turned out to be, well, just ordinary lousy rich people. Also, his therapist looks and sounds a bit like Wilford Brimley?
Dustin: I thought that was Brimley. Huh.
Alex: But, while Luhrman’s general inability to remain focused on anything for very long (dude is like a coked-up squirrel) usually hampers his filmmaking, in this case it’s a benefit, as the whole “Nick has gone crazy and needs to write” thing doesn’t last that long (though it does last way too long/is ridiculous). Because Doctor Brimley, psychotherapist or whatever, gives Nick a pen and then we are off to the races. As soon as Nick gets that pen, a song from Watch The Throne starts playing, which is how we know that it is 1922. Oh, those heady, wild days!
And you know what, Dustin, I genuinely really liked the first hour of the film, which was characterized by the mix of wide-eyed wonder and perceptiveness one would expect from Nick.
Dustin: I’ll agree that the first hour was the best. Let’s jump ahead to the party scene. Pretty early on Nick heads next door to m’man Gatz’s place for a big party. This scene, the party scene, is the only reason people go to Bahzzz Luhrrrrmannnnn films, right? The color and the grandeur and the frenetic pacing. And he pulls that off here: it is bright and flashy. And in spite of this and every scene in the film being an extended commercial for Moet (why you would want to position your brand as the go-to drink for happy fools is beyond me) it is even, to its credit, a bit sad. But I think it may be sad in spite of itself. That is, it makes me sad because parties are inherently tragic because life is inherently tragic because death. That’s the book, right? But not so this film. Maybe we can get to that later.
Alex: I think the parties bring out the element of the film that both made it so fun for me to watch and made it fail as an adaptation of Gatsby for me: Luhrmann is absolutely intoxicated by the aesthetics of wealth and poverty, but completely uninterested in looking at class in anything resembling a critical light.
In Gatsby the whole enterprise—old money, new money, no money; drug store money, illegal liquor money, whatever—is tainted, but for Luhrmann it’s positively orgasmic (not the accumulation, or lack thereof, but just its presence or, again, lack thereof.) To put it another way, both wealth and poverty are treated purely aesthetically. It’s like Old Owl Eyes yapping about Gatsby’s mansion: there’s no there there, just an empty shell to fill with loud noises and so much color.
Dustin: I agree. And this is something of what I mean when I said to you there’s an experience of freedom in how bad the directing is in this film. In any given scene you can trust Luhrmannnnnnnnnnnn to make the single most melodramatic choice possible. That’s not untrue to the book, I suppose. So you are free not to worry about whether it is silly for the camera to shoot this dance from above or for typewritten words to come at viewers in three dimensions because every scene is equally silly. But it also frees us from consideration of class and particularly race if everything is treated in exactly the same technicolor fashion.
Can we talk about the music for a moment? I’ve come to think it was pretty appropriate.
Alex: Yeah, I loved the music choices, which were almost entirely anachronistic and all over the place—Watch the Throne and Lana Del Rey (actually, didn’t like that one so much) and an organ version of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” and a spot of Gerschwin for good measure. No Bix Spiderbecke in sight, thank god—I think that period jazz would have been dull, because this is not a Woody Allen movie, this is BAZ LUHRMAN’S THE GREAT GATSBY (loud noises).
The rap choices were, I think, particularly inspired in that Watch the Throne is, to paraphrase Tom Scharpling, a rap album for the 1%; like the film, it’s a document that is all about celebrating lavish spectacles and not so into investigating them. And, like the film, it’s a ton of fun.
There has been one funny side effect of the music, though, which is people comparing Jay Gatsby to a “21st century rapper.” Here’s Dana Stevens: “With his new wealth, loud pink suit, and impossibly sweet crib, Gatsby is a rap star before his time.” Hahahaha, OK. I think I may have missed Gatsby’s manor on “MTV’s Impossibly Sweet Cribs For Rappers.”
Dustin: Ugh. Well, I hated every second of the music (and I like Jay-Z and the XX) but I think it, alongside the 3D effects, functioned on a larger mimetic level. The music was more or less what you might hear if you had been dragged along to a bleak bar or club. It was wearying. It made me want to shut it down and run away, like Daisy in her best moments.
The movie did work very hard to include some of the best lines and moments from the book, even if it also sort of winked at the audience as it did so, and then repeated them in flashback afterward.
And why those flashbacks? In case I forgot the thing I saw and heard half an hour before? Is this movie for goldfish?
Alex: Only if those goldfish are beautiful little fools. You don’t like floating smoke houses? And going over Gatsby’s backstory TWICE? I don’t know, maybe that was some kind of sly, knowing reference to the whole “Can’t repeat the past—why of course you can!” thing, but it sure came across as lazy filmmaking to me.
Dustin: Some of the real value of the book is in Fitzgerald’s own conflict between his penchant for absurd story-telling choices (oh she’s a golfer?) and his real ability to make us feel something against the grain of the story itself. And that’s what is lost here. So, we get key dialogue about shirts, we even get the last sentence, but the film plays it straight and because all nuance is choked out in a cloud of car exhaust, and we have no basis for aesthetic judgement, there are no handholds for us to read it slant, if you will. This is a movie that is fundamentally against interpretation, against being read.
Alex: Crucially, the green breast of the novel’s last lines is lopped off in the film—we beat on ceaselessly but there’s no real land (or larger context) in sight. So I suppose the new world doesn’t fit, really, as this isn’t a film about the American Dream so much as it is a movie about a DOOMED ROMANCE, which we haven’t really talked about. What’d you think of the novel’s titular Old Sport and the woman he dreams of making Mrs. Old Sport, darling Daisy?
Dustin: I got caught up in that, I’ll admit. Part of my enjoyment of them together was that strange dissonance movies always allow us, in that we recognize these faces from other (much, much better) roles. I don’t think either were miscast and they did OK with what they were dealt. I did laugh when that wrinkly orange meat-faced old sport Jay told Nick he was only thirty-two. But the scene of their meeting in Nick’s cottage was played as a rom-com, which made me mumble-under-my-breath angry.
Alex: Haha, that scene was my favorite Jay and Daisy scene! The way he smashed that clock—hilarious. I was a little less taken with Jay and Daisy together, though asking for a better sense of their relationship may be a doomed enterprise—Fitzgerald himself said, “I gave no account (and had no feeling about or knowledge of) the emotional relations between Gatsby and Daisy.”
But I did think that Carey Mulligan was a pretty outstanding Daisy. Although she wasn’t given that much to do—be melancholic, be a bit manic, rinse, repeat—she turned in a fairly subtle performance, all things considered (it is a Luhrmann film, after all.) I thought she did a fantastic job of filling out a character that could otherwise be, to the viewer, what she is to the men in her life: an empty vessel. It was a redemptive, human performance in a film that was, at times, way more invested in shirts than it was in the people wearing them. Though they were some splendiferous shirts. Linen! Flannel! He has a man that buys him shirts, Dustin. All the shirts!
Speaking of shirts, I thought that Leonardo DiCaprio, who played the man who owned the majority of the film’s shirts, gave something that looked like a subtle performance—facial tics, expressions that fade from one shade to another—but wasn’t ultimately as rewarding. Also, his accent was DREADFUL: “Hahlo, old spahwt.” He sounded like a low-rent JFK or a high-rent Mayor Quimby. He did look mighty fine in that pink suit, though.
Dustin: That suit was my favorite actor in the film. No, wait, remember when the grieving husband, the mechanic, poured that whiskey into his own eyeball? That was the best. You’re right that DiCaprio was dreadful, but strangely I think the accent was well done. It was clearly absurd, learned, distractingly weird, as it should be.
Tobey Maguire, we can agree, did the best job he could, poor guy. Do you think he wishes people would just stop employing him so he could take the time to learn a second facial expression?
All in all the acting was not great, but Luhrmann tends to treat faces in much the same fashion he treats CG-animated stars and confetti—there to indicate a Face Feeling Things rather than be bothered to show them as they might actually look. You grow used to it.
Alex: My favorite character was the green light. Baz Luhrmann loved that damn light! It was everywhere! He showed it like 50 times and then was like “Gatsby realized the light had lost its significance.” AND THEN HE SHOWED IT 100 MORE TIMES. Still, a breakout performance. Give that light an Oscar! I’m glad it was cast (high five) in the film.
Dustin: Somebody told Baz it was a SYMBOL and he lost his mind. But his instincts weren’t wrong. The movie would have been improved if it were only just a blinking green light for three hours instead of the two and a half hours of green light footage he ended up using.
Alex: Yeah, and the light loses its significance when there’s really not much behind the whole Gatsby-loves-Daisy-thing except, well, Gatsby loving Daisy. But the melodrama there did get to me and, though I think that the movie started to slow down as soon as the two of them shacked up, I was ultimately affected by the whole spectacle. I just want these two old sports to be happy, you know?
Again, I had a lot of fun and am doing the foxtrot right now, despite the fact that I am also feeling bloated from the empty, 3D calories that ultimately made up Gatsby Loves Daisy, or Baz Luhrmann presents: A Pile of Shirts, ft. Leonardo DiCaprio as The Great Gatsby.
Dustin: I think we’ve been wrong to ask “was it true to the book?” We can skip that here (or, in my case, lift my sexy jazz skirts and kick high over it) because of course it wasn’t. But insofar as the movie left me railing futilely against the past—specifically that portion of the past in which I was watching this movie—then perhaps it was a success after all.
Alex Shephard and Dustin Kurtz work at Melville House and are friends.