NRH’s Weekly Analysis: “Gatsby? What Gatsby?”, Part 2


[Many apologies for the delays. Personal business. Hospital visit. That sort of thing. Many sorries. We’re on Wednesdays now too!]

Leonardo Dicaprio’s entrance in The Great Gatsby is as perfect of an ‘adapted’ moment as I’ve ever seen. The way the came sways, bobs and weaves its way through the electrically charged atmosphere, as if you could almost taste the pop music blarring ions in the air. We slice through this thick wad of cool atmosphere to arrive at a man in slow-motion at the very foreground of this carnival of capitalism, extravagance and fancy fireworks. It’s as if there’s an explosion within the mesh of the narrative; as if the very physical film suddenly breaks away into a bloom of color under the weight of its titular character’s arrival.

Forgive me for getting poetic but The Great Gatsby means a lot to me and to put it completely bluntly I think Baz Luhrmann made an incredible an admirable effort. It is a superior film to the Redford version but it isn’t a superior ‘version’. Adaptation is a wishy-washy concept that’s filled with a battleground of media theory and all sorts of balderdash that we shouldn’t get into. This Weekly Analysis is focused on The Great Gatsby, the 2013 version, and why it really does get a lot of things right.

There’s a few things that I’d like to get out of the way first. The use of 3D is cheap, yeah, but the lavish sets and general ‘color’ of the film isn’t exactly something to criticize. Fitzgerald’s work is filled with lovely, beautiful imagery that seems fished right out of an oil painting. There’s just a constant torrent of excitement with the right amount of detail so that you feel like your brain could just chew right into it. The film captures the palette, the feel and the real drive behind the images of the film whilst also, simultaneously, “within and without”, using it as social setpiece.

All the 3D, set dressings and costume designs are all piled on with beauty and detail to the point that you might begin to realize the superficial qualities behind each thread of fabric. I’m not a fan of a lot of literary analysis, and how it boxes things into contexts, symbols and themes, but if one thing’s apparent from the novel it’s just how everyone soaks themselves into themselves. As if transfixed by their own reflection, there’s a modern retelling of Narcissus orbiting the main allegory of the American dream and romantic retreat. Luhrmann knows how to pull these strings and it’s somewhat made explicit through all the noise, pop music blare and the entire ‘feel’ of the film that this is a world that is all thin with nothing underneath. Only Gatsby and a handful of emotions seem to show the piecemeal bits of humanity.

Redford’s version seems more punctuated with innocence and attempts to create a very human look at Gatsby, which isn’t necessarily the more honest portrayal. Baz’s Gatsby knows that it’s a story filled with awful people and attempts to full throttle in showing the dirty skin behind these blackened hearts. By the end of it you can see yourself cursing and hating Tom Buchanan, whereas by the end of Redford’s you’re just kind of left with an empty sense of direction. Again, it’s not a superior ‘version’. Redford’s picture shows that all of the characters are more or less hollow but because of their lack of humanity, Baz’s show is one that lacks all human decency altogether.

See for all of its charm and layering of 3D nonsense, Baz’s film does have a heart. It’s a bit hard to get a fix on but it is there somewhere in-between the nooks and crannies of the pop music and million-dollar fanfare. The flashbacks, Dicaprio’s performance, the weather effects and the script all anchor this film, and its very heart, all down to some brutal truths behind the novel. There’s a sense of purpose and progression. We burrow deeper in Gatsby’s past and things seem to just correlate. Consequences, the meeting of narratives and so much more seem to have more depth in the Baz’s film; which is ironic given it is a film presented without any depth whatsoever. 

The general wishy-washy mixed reception to Baz’s Gatsby doesn’t puzzle me then. It’s kind of hard and takes a specific ‘devotion’ to understand the film. Not saying that my view of the film is superior, just as Baz’s ‘version’ of the narrative isn’t ‘superior’, but it’s different. Subjectivity is a theme constantly thrown at Gatsby and it’s true of real life. Things mean different things to different people, that’s a given. Baz’s version has a fantastic soundtrack, great visual dressings, some stellar performances and a script that feels very serviceable. It’s a comfortable film and, well, I have to see that there’s something missing. That little spark, something holding it back.

I suppose it’s because it’s never literary enough. Pieces like Gatsby’s entrance, certain conversations and even the opening all feel lifted out of the book and from Fitzgerald’s handwriting. The structure of the film and the framing device of Carraway’s depression does however leave a lot to be desired. I’m a bit of a big fan seeing bearded Nick tremble his way through the dilapidated mansion of Gatsby’s, but the film’s deification of a figure that, quite frankly, deserves a lot more ambiguity and tasteful treatment is also a bit too out there. Redford’s version, whilst not always excellent in translation the text, was at the very least grounded in its realities. 

Gatsby? What Gatsby. Some of my personal friends ask me how I’d do the film if given the chance and there’s not much to say. I just wouldn’t. I think I’d rather stretch it out over a play but even then you’re still losing the same qualities. Gatsby is different for everyone, it’s why it’s such an immortal story. It’s always giving me a new impact every time I read it too. Baz’s Gatsby and the Redford version can’t really be ‘compared’ but they can be analyzed, they can be shown to be different but not really ‘better’. Baz’s film is superior in technicalities but it cannot be superior in interpretation. That’s all subjective.

Every generation gets the Gatsby it deserves. That’s what Bret Easton Ellis thinks and, quite frankly, he’s right. In that case I can’t wait to see what the future holds for this silly tale about a man trying to get over his own memories that, to many people, means a whole lot more than that.