arts / writing

May 24, 2013: Baz Luhrmann’s great “Great Gatsby”


The Great Gatsby is truly great!
In fact, it’s a sensation!


Ignore the critics and the pedants. Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby is truly the Gatsby for our times.

Peter Bradshaw’s piece in The Guardian was as typically shallow and flashy as he made out the movie to be, though he did have some good gags, viz:

  • Baz Luhrmann, Bradshaw describes as “. . . a man who can’t see a nuance without calling security for it to be thrown off his set”.
  • And the film is “. . . bombastic and excessive, like a 144-minute trailer for itself, at once pedantic and yet unreflective, as if Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce had created the film on the basis of a brief, bullet-pointed executive summary of the book prepared by a corporate assistant”.

In fact, Luhrmann’s version is remarkably faithful the book. Much of the dialogue is exactly the way Scott Fitzgerald wrote it. And while the party scenes have the same excitement (or rather more of it) as his hip-hop Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, they are entirely appropriate in conveying the atmosphere described by the author:

“There was dancing now on the canvas in the garden, old men pushing young girls backward in eternal graceless circles, superior couples holding each other tortuously, fashionably and keeping in the corners – and a great number of single girls dancing individualistically or relieving the orchestra for a moment of the burden of the banjo or the traps. By midnight the hilarity had increased. A celebrated tenor had sung in Italian and a notorious contralto had sung in jazz and between the numbers people were doing ‘stunts’ all over the garden, while happy vacuous bursts of laughter rose toward the summer sky. A pair of stage ‘twins’ – who turned out to be the girls in yellow – did a baby act in costume and champagne was served in glasses bigger than finger bowls. The moon had risen higher, and floating in the Sound was a triangle of silver scales, trembling a little to the stiff, tinny drip of the banjoes on the lawn.”

The music pedants complain that the music at these saturnalia is anachronistic, but Jay Z and the rest of the contemporary performers blend in remarkably well. None seem to have noticed the Cab Calloway-style master of ceremonies on the centre dais. Though he doesn’t sing Minnie the Moocher (which would have been another anachronism, since that Calloway hit dates from 1932), it would have been completely appropriate if he had done so:

Hi de hi de hi de hi
Ho de ho de ho de ho
Hee de hee de hee de hee
Ho oo waooo waoooo

is the precursor of Jay Z’s 100 dollar and similar hip-hop lyrics.

Though Scott Fitzgerald declared the book to be unfilmable – and, with his Hollywood experience behind him, presumably he knew what he was talking about. But it is actually very cinematic in its jump-cuts and imagery. Scenes are often described as flickering:

“I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. . .”


“Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. . .”

The movie’s use of 3D is probably the best use of the technology yet – yes, better even  than Avatar, which is saying a great deal. Sitting in the cinema, watching the film in the huge Pictureville Cinerama-sized screen in Bradford’s National Media Museum, I tried shutting first one eye, then the other, to see how it worked in 2D. Well, it was OK, but the 3D made it more of a filmic roller-coaster ride.

3D is a strange technology, since it doesn’t deliver what it says on the tin. Touted as a new realism, the contrast between the image and the surrounding fascia makes the audience more aware of the artificiality of the experience, continually reminding us that what we are seeing is not actually real. The result is akin to Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, an intellectual alienation which shocks us into a critical appreciation of what the tale is telling us.

Gatsby specs

That alienation is reinforced, almost subliminally, by the recurring imagery of the decaying sign of the oculist, Dr T. J. Eckleburg, the significance of which does not really transfer happily from  page to screen:

“. . . above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.”

What mainly does not work in the movie is because it doesn’t really work in the book, namely the stilted voice-over of Nick Carraway, who is actually a more central character than the story’s eponymous anti-hero, suggesting that The Gray Carroway might have been a more appropriate title than The Great Gatsby. Toby Maguire does a good job of encouraging us to believe in him, but he is not helped by the text, which seems to be satirizing his pretensions, making it hard to identify with him.

It is not merely in comparison with the miscast Robert Redford’s wooden performance in the 1974 movie that Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby shines, since most of the time all he needs to do is to be handsome and inscrutable, but within those parameters he demonstrates his continual development as an actor of depth and substance. We are fortunate in having a number of fine actors who continue to surprise – Johnny Depp is another – and it may well be that future generations will look back on this as a golden age of screen idols, worthy of comparison with those of past golden ages of Hollywood.

In comparison with the men, the women don’t have much of a chance to shine – but there again this is how it is in the book. Carey Mulligan is exquisite as Daisy, of course, but her characterization is confused not because Daisy is a confused young woman, torn between an old love, a newer love, and the old love become new again, but because the character is written confusingly. As Nick recalls:

“The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said. It made me uneasy, as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to exact a contributory emotion from me. I waited, and sure enough, in a moment she looked at me with an absolute smirk on her lovely face as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged.”

Her falsity, encompassed by her cry – “Sophisticated – God, I’m sophisticated!” – is something she shares with everyone in the story, including (or even  especially) Nick, the narrator.

There are no heroes in the story – except, perhaps, Herr Henry C. Gatz,

“. . . Gatsby’s father, a solemn old man very helpless and dismayed, bundled up in a long cheap ulster against the warm September day. His eyes leaked continuously with excitement and when I took the bag and umbrella from his hands he began to pull so incessantly at his sparse grey beard that I had difficulty in getting off his coat. He was on the point of collapse so I took him into the music room and made him sit down while I sent for something to eat. But he wouldn’t eat and the glass of milk spilled from his trembling hand.”

And that is what makes this film, and the book on which it is based, a tale for the age. It is not merely the synchronicity of banking frauds then and now, but the fact that we need heroes, and get none, so every soldier back from the war, and even the footballer who scores the winning goal, is elevated to heroic status.

As Brecht wrote:

“Pity the country that needs heroes. Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.”

Leben des Galilei (1938)

The Book

Scott Fitzgerald’s working title for Gatsby was Trimalchio in West Egg, a reference to Gaius Pompeius Trimalchio Maecenatianus, a character in The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, who throws a drunken party at which his forthcoming funeral is anticipated. The reference survives in chapter seven:

“It was when curiosity about Gatsby was at its highest that the lights in his house failed to go on one Saturday night – and, as obscurely as it began, his career as Trimalchio was over.”

He began writing it in 1922, hoping it would be “something new – something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned”. It received mixed reviews. H.L. Mencken wrote that it was “in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that”; the New York Herald Tribune called it a “purely ephemeral phenomenon, but it contains some of the nicest little touches of contemporary observation you could imagine-so light, so delicate, so sharp. . . a literary lemon meringue”.

It sold poorly, and earned its author a mere $2000.

In 1944, however, 150,000 copies were distributed free to members of the US Armed Forces, who were said to be “as popular as pin-up girls” among the troops.

The 2013 film is the latest of six film adaptations, starting with Herbert Brenon’s 1925 silent movie of a stage adaptation, starring Warner Baxter, Lois Wilson, and William Powell. It has even been the subject of an opera and a computer game.

This introduction is included in the 2013 special eBook edition of the novel, available soon in  Barnes & Noble Nook format.

Download the free Nook reader here: WINDOWS, MAC.

Follow this post for news of when the ebook is published.


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