Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Borne ceaselessly into the present”

Posted on May 31, 2013


Some thoughts on Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby.’ That’s right – not F. Scott Fitzgerald’s but Baz Luhrmann’s.

Baz Luhrmann likes dramatic, scene-setting openings. At the beginning of Moulin Rouge!, over darkness, there’s the gentle roar of audience members settling into their seats. Then there’s applause as the screen brightens and a conductor is seen on a stage. There’s no orchestra. Instead, the bright red curtains behind him draw apart to reveal the 20th Century Fox logo, and over the conductor’s hyper-energetic baton-twirling we hear the studio’s famous fanfare. At once, we’re clued in to the theatrical artifice that awaits us. In Romeo + Juliet, the Fox logo appears on a small television screen in the centre of the screen, and a newscaster begins to speak with Shakespearean locutions and the sombre and self-important rise-and-fall cadences of a TV anchor. The legendary play, we realise, is being brought to the media age. In The Great Gatsby, though, the opening is more discreet, the initial credits appearing on a background in the art deco style, with ‘JG’ embossed everywhere, as if on monogrammed towels or cufflinks. This is the Jazz Age. This is about the upper class. This is about Jay Gatsby.

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Sweeping aside a million scholarly pronouncements as to what F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is really about – has there been another literary metaphor to rival, in sheer theory-generating capability, the green light at the edge of the Buchanans’s dock? – Luhrmann treats it as a love story. A tragic love story with star-crossed lovers  – like Moulin Rouge!, like Romeo + Juliet. Luhrmann has made a bare handful of films, so it’s too soon to single out auteur-like obsessions – but for what it’s worth, this film too is saturated with anachronistic music, its framing device (as in Moulin Rouge!) involves a depressed man and a typewriter, and the images make the eyes pop. Luhrmann’s strength is his unembarrassed embrace of what a more “tasteful” filmmaker would label as vulgarity. When the narrator tells us about an afternoon buoyed by a sort of chemical madness, the word “afternoon” appears on screen in psychedelic colours, as if under the influence. There’s method to this madness.

Luhrmann captures the spirit of the novel in both look and feel, but he never forgets to make it his own. Setting up the scene where we first see Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby’s great lost love, Fitzgerald writes, “A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.” This is exactly how it happens on screen – unlike the scene where Daisy visits Gatsby and takes a tour of his mansion. Fitzgerald writes, “He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray.” As Luhrmann sees it, the bedroom has two levels, and Gatsby, on top, throws the shirts down at Daisy. At least in that instant, she’s no longer above him. He’s risen too, and he’s raining his riches on her.

Luhrmann’s choices, throughout, infuse emotion into a novel that’s a little aloof. In a way, Robert Redford, in the 1970s film version, was closer to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, always withdrawn, never allowing himself to be read easily. As Fitzgerald writes,  (“It was testimony to the romantic speculation he inspired that there were whispers about him from those who found little that it was necessary to whisper about in this world.” Even Daisy’s first glimpse of him, after all those years, was in a mirror. But Leonardo DiCaprio is the perfect Gatsby for Luhrmann. Unlike Redford, he externalises the character, playing up both his desperate need for Daisy and his paranoia about losing her. In the scene where he begs Daisy to choose him over her husband, Daisy says, “I did love him once–but I loved you too.” Gatsby’s incredulous response is, “You loved me TOO?” DiCaprio emphasises “loved” as well: “You LOVED me TOO?” In these moments the 3-D extends to the emotions at play. They burst out from the screen, befitting the love story in Luhrmann’s mind.

How important is it to preserve the spirit of a literary work while making a filmic adaptation? I subscribe to the “based on” theory. A film is just based on events and characters in the novel – or, put differently, a film is how a director sees the events and characters in the novel. Oftentimes, when we see or read something, we say, “Oh, I’d have done it differently.” The filmmaker just goes ahead and realises this different vision, which is why it makes no sense to carp that “it was like that in the novel, but it is like this in the film.” Because we’re not seeing The Great Gatsby according to F. Scott Fitzgerald. We’re seeing The Great Gatsby as seen by Baz Luhrmann, with his odd focus on Gatsby’s ring, with the chiming of telephones everywhere, with his use of slow motion both times a character gets hit (first by a lover’s hand, then by a fast car), and with his casting of Amitabh Bachchan as a Jewish gangster named Meyer Wolfsheim. If Luhrmann sees Wolfsheim as dramatic and charismatic as a famous Bollywood star, who are we to argue?

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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