When I was a baby my family rented and lived in a guest cottage on an estate in East Hampton until one day, the neighbors poisoned our dog. I don’t remember this, but it’s one of several stories I’ve heard about why we came back to the city, my entire life. And I can’t talk about my relationship with any iteration of The Great Gatsby without mentioning both this and my years in private school where things like old vs. new money (assuming you had either) and East or West Hampton mattered pretty desperately.
For what it’s worth, Gatsby has never been a book that I’ve liked. It’s characters are viciously flat, its plot too neat, and its point, as argued in high school literature classes eludes me as clear or clearly good. Money, instead of corrupting good people and true love, seems merely a symptom of internal disease. And the notion of social climbing and its attendant passing as poisonous suggests, unsettlingly in book that’s also filled with racism, that people are better off if they stay with their own kind.
Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of the book (with a script penned by himself and long-time collaborator Craig Pearce), resolves none of these things, but eschews all romance except that of nostalgia in order to showcase Gatsby for what is has always been, a horror narrative plodding inexorably towards its perhaps necessarily obvious end. Daisy is positioned as an object, not only by her suitors, but by herself, too startled or sad to react fully to either the desire (her arms hang limp at her sides, her face freezes in nearly every on screen moment of sexual content) or to the wealth possessed by both Gatsby and her husband, Tom Buchanan.
Gatsby, for his part, is so wound up in his narrative of possession, he doesn’t see her, and aggressively and insistently insists she rewrite her own emotional history simply because he cannot fathom her having existed in any moment in which they are separated. Buchanan, meanwhile, for all the ways in which he is repellent (in a remarkable performance by Joel Edgerton), at least manages to place Daisy as a key accessory in his own self-invention, which is as vivid, if not as creative, as Gatsby’s.
Nick Carraway, however, is of course the central raconteur of both Jay Gatsby’s construction and that of the narrative. But he is no everyman. Rather, he is only poor in contrast to the wealth around him, and his startlement and collusion and and in the drama that unfolds at his doorstep is also presented as an act of passing. In the walk-up Buchanan rents for Myrtle and later at the barber shop, he must pretend to be more worldly and normative than he is in regard to booze, women, and business. He’s no good at it though, and the night he stalks around one of Gatsby’s parties brandishing an invitation in order to prove he belongs proves, in fact, only the exact opposite.
While Carraway is well-handled, if uninteresting, the script misses a major opportunity to address long-standing scholarly speculation on his possible sexual interest in Gatsby, when homosexuality is not present on the list of diagnoses with which we are introduced to the character.
Luhrmann has always excelled particularly in the construction of the onscreen party, and in this film that construction is shot through with a profound menace embodied often, but not exclusively, by Jordan Baker. As an audience member I did not feel the desire to get lost in the night’s out presented, but to cut through them like her naked back, a shark in a sea of lesser and far more uninteresting creatures.
The obsession with personal commerce (prostitution narratives are explicitly and implicitly present in all of Luhrmann’s work) that I expected is certainly present, but disturbingly muted. No one seems to notice what they are buying and selling and nothing and no one is cherished for it, making the commerce present one of several elements that unexpectedly lend this film a surprisingly mature air.
Just as I cannot engage Gatsby without noting my own biography, I cannot engage this film without noting Luhrmann’s. Surely something personal is implied even if it is not actually present in a man who grew up in the middle-of-nowhere Australia and now runs a playground of creation out of a historical mansion in Sydney choosing to take on a story that is about the invention of persona to ends eventually lost sight of.
The music, which much has been made of, felt not nearly as intrusive or surprising as most reviews I have encountered have noted. Frankly, after having listened obsessively to the soundtrack of the last week, there were many songs I couldn’t even find in the course of the film, and I often wished for music to be a more present element, even as silence is employed to great effect in one pivotal scene.
In particular, I remain most puzzled and haunted by Lana del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” because neither youth nor fading looks seem to be remotely present in the fears of the characters. As such, it seems to serve as peculiar and really gutting commentary from some place outside the events of the film in a way that lends to the sort of melancholy maturity of the piece as a whole.
The use of 3D is at times remarkable, especially in the opening of the film, where it leads us literally back into the past as the gold logo border of the film recedes into the the screen and then sets up the deeply haunted feeling of the film through wisps of fog and a lens flare you can practically touch. My own ability to track effectively in 3D remained present, giving the film a flickery quality, which annoys me about the technology, but at least worked for the period setting.
Aside from Catherine Martin’s always exceptional design work, the other visual element that must be noted here is how great a debt this construction of New York owes to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in architecture, in the narrative presence of the financial markets, in the congestion and flow of crowds, in the choreography of work, and in the presence of a biplane, the crash of which seems inevitable, but never arrives.
Like the rest of Lurhmann’s work, The Great Gatsby is a celebration of the idea of the creator — here, again, the writer in particular. This is most clear, perhaps, not in the presence of the words of the novel on the screen as Carraway writes his story, but in Lurhmann’s own cameo in the film, where he plays a waiter who serves Nick and Jordan at their rooftop appointment. Here, the director places himself explicitly in service to the writer character and the author’s avatar, in a coy and delightful wink at, at least, the over-interested members of the audience.
While not unflawed — the film drags in places much as the book does, and grapples somewhat clumsily with the racism of the source material — Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby manages to be a haunting, and at times even shocking film, that makes its audience drunk and then shoves it, as the unbelonging outsider, unceremoniously out the door, leaving the viewer uncertain as to what degree they should feel relief.