I am not a Baz Luhrmann fan. I didn’t appreciate his efforts adapting Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, disliked Moulin Rouge’s frenzy, thinking the buzz about it over-hyped. As for Australia? The middling production needed editing and the muddied plot revealed wasted use of Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman. However, I did like his Strictly Ballroom. Nevertheless, after Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby premiered, I avoided rushing to the theater, though I was desperately curious to see this new iteration of the iconic novel, one of my favorites of 20th Century American Literature.
To say I know the novel intimately is an understatement. I adore it, having studied it in college as a literature major and having taught it to Advanced Placement American Literature classes for many years. I was one of the die-hards who sat through 6 1/2 hours of Elevator Repair Service’s enactment of Gatz (The Great Gatsby) last year at The Public Theatre. I understand the nuances of Nick Carraway’s unreliable narration and the thorny problems one can get into figuring out the character of Gatsby because the reader only knows him through Nick’s potentially wobbly perceptions. Furthermore, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is brilliantly written, sardonic in its clever word dissection of America’s economic classes. and bluntly critical of the hypocrisy and malevolence of blue blood wealth. Prior films of Gatsby like the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow 1974 version had been unsatisfying and incomplete in translating all this to the screen. I imagined this latest fiasco of Gatsby would be one more build up and let down for me, especially considering I didn’t like this director’s previous work except for one production.
So I waited, read some online reviews then broke down and saw it in the theater. I was gobsmacked. I couldn’t believe that it exceeded my wildest dreams. When I experienced it on Blu-ray, then viewed each of the special features, I understood why I adored the film and how It brought the novel to life in a breathtaking iteration that probably would please Fitzgerald himself. Seeing it on Blu-ray, I was able to appreciate the extent to which Luhrmann’s Gatsby captures the ethos of the novel and is true to its form, the characters and the poetry on its pages.
Luhrmann’s discussions reveal how he sought to both modernize yet replicate Fitzgerald’s conceptualization and symbolism of place and time: the giddy, excessive Jazz Age, glittering New York City in the 1920s, the Gold Coast of Long Island and Corona, Queens, the garbage heap of New York. These segments (“The Swinging Sounds of Gatsby,” “Razzle Dazzle: The Fashion of the 20s, “The Jazz Age”) cover how Luhrmann makes the music, costumes and settings significant characters in themselves to enhance the novel’s themes and subtly send out Fitzgerald’s timeless message about what has become known as The American Dream.
For example Luhrmann’s depiction of the Valley of Ashes (Corona Queens, now Flushing Meadow Park home of Billie Jean King National Tennis Stadium) is true to Fitzgerald’s poetic representation of the vapid, hopeless desolation of the lower classes where Myrtle (Tom’s mistress who desperately wants more) and Wilson (her husband beaten by life) barely exist. The sets (Gatsby’s house and the parties, its interior, his trappings of wealth-his shirts, Nick’s cottage, the New York speakeasy) are created and manifested with such attention to detail that coupled with the original music are spot on with the novel, intricately woven down to the last threads of Daisy’s (Carey Mulligan) beautiful crystal dress and the Skull and Bones print fabric used to line Tom’s suit. (played by Joel Edgerton). This was one of the many telling details revealed in the special features section. I found Luhrmann’s discussion of his overall vision and how he was able to put it together invaluable in my appreciation of him as a director. It is one thing to like a film viscerally on its own and quite another to recognize the great craft behind the vision and manifested creation. The Blu-ray version helps you understand how this film is a work of sheer genius, using as a springboard a timeless American classic.
Example after example, again and again, the novel is pieced together for us and the Blu-ray indicates how this was achieved. Luhrmann takes what narrator Nick (Toby Maguire) has described and brought it to life, and the symbolism of the economics of America’s social structure is unmistakable: Tom and Daisy’s elite, appropriately conservative Georgian colonial with 1/4 acre of lawn running into the house; the white garden room when Nick first sees Daisy, its white sofa (where Jordan and Daisy recline) white wedding cake of a ceiling, white curtains billowing, ethereal, even to Tom’s shuttering the French doors and what that symbolizes in their relationship and his treatment of her. This is a bulls-eye; Luhrmann has hit his target in every aspect of the film, sets, costumes, music, cinematography. All meld together in a unity of spectacle and purpose to tell the story, as Fitzgerald has indeed written it, and to unfold the best and worst of our culture’s age, past and present.
It is to his credit as an artist that Luhrmann has succinctly revealed the problems he had in being true to the novel, how and when he used digitalization, selected locations and worked painstakingly despite weather conditions when shooting the cottage scenes (when Gatsby and Daisey meet for the first time). He is candid in his discussion of how he effected The Valley of Ashes and Gatsby’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) long drive through Queens (Listen to the sounds of Gatsby’s Duesenberg. Can you guess whose car made them and who was driving it?) and into New York City. From the novel he has visualized scene for scene, phrase for phrase, word for word, even to the white chauffeur driving the black upper class couple and friends over the Queensboro Bridge to Nick’s refrain that in this city, “even Gatsby could happen.” It is astounding art direction integrated visual effects, sound work and cinematography. A bit of each is analyzed in the Blu-ray special features section.
The problem with The Great Gatsby has always been in seeing beyond Nick’s character to his unreliability. We can’t really trust him as a narrator to distinguish himself from Gatsby, to show what the mystery man has achieved. Luhrmann’s apt discussion of the problem in the special features of the Blu-ray version covers this. As I watched the film in the theater, one measure of its craft I judged to be Nick’s conceptualization of Gatsby. Would the film get it right? Would it show that Nick thinks Gatsby stops believing Daisy’s call will ever come, which is not to say it never comes, just that Nick thinks Gatsby thinks it won’t. That thinking is contrary to who Gatsby is: the man has gone to extraordinary lengths of gaining wealth to win over Daisy. Nothing will stop him from getting Daisy; he is convinced he will get her, especially since they have been seeing one another in the afternoons. Gatsby is relentless.
Luhrmann discusses how he solved the problem of Nick as narrator using Nick’s story telling from a sanatorium as part of his recovery process from alcoholism, depression and his mental breakdown. It is brilliant. Nick writes to overcome his depression and alcoholism and expiate his guilt in not doing more to alert Gatsby to danger and warn him about Tom who turns Wilson on Gatsby. As Nick writes the story, Luhrmann shows Nick recovering, his appearance improving. By the end, a healthier Nick adds the adjective, “great” before Gatsby’s name, referring to Gatsby’s extraordinary hope which he will never see in anyone again.
This narrative frame is a stroke of genius. Nick has recovered enough to see his cynical nature is very different from Gatsby’s artistic sensibilities and great hopefulness. Indeed, Nick, like Tom, could never take the required leaps of faith or have their sensibilities fine tuned, to vault from the depths of poverty to the wealth of old money or do something exemplary. Both are crippled by their roots and faults of nature; Tom is too entitled, Nick too cynical. Only Gatsby deserves to be branded “great.” The narrative frame also helped Luhrmann decide what scenes best fit and which ones could be edited out because they were either repetitive or unnecessary to the Nick/Gatsby relationship that Luhrmann had clarified. (It’s also clear in the novel.) For example, when Gatsby is waiting for Daisy’s call, a screen shot is included that elucidates Gatsby’s relationship with Daisy, and yet is true to Nick’s thinking that Gatsby may have given up on Daisy…which is more reflective of Nick Carraway’s cynicism than Gatsby’s hopefulness.
Will this film win any awards? It depends. I think it should. If you didn’t have an adequate initial viewing as I have experienced with this director (I will now go back and look at Moulin Rouge to see all I missed.) the Blu-ray version with its vivid, stark colors, beauty and clarity is a way to be reintroduced to a remarkable work, one that may be remembered as the finest and most superbly realized film version of Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby.