Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Baz Luhrmann's New "The Great Gatsby" and the Modernist Creed: Make It New

By now English teachers, students, and scholars have either seen or heard about Australian movie director Baz Luhrmann's interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic modernist novel The Great Gatsby. For many Gatsby represents the Holy Grail of early American literature. When the first movie trailers popped up on social media, many questioned Luhrmann's vision. Indeed, the reviews have been mixed among movie critics, while the public has embraced the new The Great Gatsby. As I wrote in an earlier post, Modernists lived by a creed: Make It New. Luhrmann's take on Fitgerald's work honors that creed while remaining true to the lyrical story Nick Carraway narrates. Simply, Baz Luhrmann has filmed a great The Great Gatsby. Here's why:
  • Luhrmann privileges Fitzgerald's language in a way not typical of movie adaptations.  Some critics have labeled the juxtaposing of lines from the novel onto the images "cheesy." Bookish claims to have seen better Power Point presentations. What those who criticize the technique fail to realize is the power of the written word Luhrmann honors through this trope. The periodic superimposing of the novel's text onto the screen remind movie-goers to read the book. Indeed, watching letters pour down like rain toward the end of the movie and waves of words wash across the screen in the final, iconic scene serves as an eery reminder that we're all "born back ceaselessly into the past," whether that past is a high school reading of The Great Gatsby or a memory of the 1974 Robert Redford and Mia Farrow film or our own memories of lost dreams and love.
  • Musical montages borrowing from multiple decades give the novel a timeless yet contemporary aura. In the real world I could do with less of the overexposed Beyonce and Jay-Z, but Luhrmann's employment of hip-hop infused with jazz is a stroke of genius. I loved the image of a jazz trumpeter in Nick's line of sight during the apartment party scene. This muscician reminds viewers that while the novel is very much an artifact of the 1920s, it's also relevant in the 21st Century. Given the modernist creed to "make it new," I think Fitzgerald would appreciate both the risk Luhrmann took and the originality of keeping the 1920s setting and infusing it with todays music despite the anachronism. The hip-hop songs reflect the pulse of the 1920s and the themes of the novel, while other songs have a haunting, nostalgic quality about them, including Lana Del Ray's "Young and Beautiful." This song really captures Gatsby's naive attempt to recreate the past. 


  • Revelers gone wild reflect the over-the-top lifestyle of our times and Fitzgerald's artistic intent. Some critics have likened the partyscenes to athletes on steroids. However, the ostentatious nature of the scenes serve the  excesses of the 1920s as well as those of our decade. At one point in the novel, Nick tells Gatsby "Your place looks like the world's fair" (86).Indeed, as a 20th Century work of Modernism and as a novel with a carnivalesque aura, the garrishness of the apartment scene makes sense. In part because it's such a contrast to the classic Buchanan home with is Greco-Roman architecture. The setting has a brothel quality fitting to Tom's relationship with Myrtle and in keeping with the irony of her questionable tastes. Similarly, the debauchery depicted in the two party scenes at Gatsby's remind readers of Nick's comment that those who attended Gatsby's parties behaved with all the decorum of amusement park attendees. Consequently, the erratic images and chaotic atmosphere serve to depict him as "a tragicomic figure in a social commentary," as Richard Chase describes Gatsby in The American Novel and Its Tradition. Fitzgerald wanted readers to see Gatsby as both romantically heroic and ridiculous in his pink suit and golden car. In contrast to the 1974 The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann literally interprets Fitzgerald's party descriptions. Thus, we get a real sense of the crowded anonymity of these gatherings. Later, Nick says, "For a moment I was sorry I'd ever step foot upon his overpopulated lawn" (72).
  • Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby is simultaneously careless, vulnerable, and mysterious. I didn't expect to like DiCaprio as Gatsby as I have romanticized Robert Redford's depiction of Jay Gatz for many years. However, DiCaprio's Gatsby captures the complexity of Gatsby and really made me wander whether or not "he killed a man." DiCaprio perfectly captured Gatsby's restlessness and hopefulness, particularly in the scene at Nick's house. Writing in The Huff Post, Gina Hall takes issue with DiCaprio's vulnerable characterization of Gatsby: "DiCaprio's Gatsby...is far more insecure than reader's might expect." Yet Fitzgerald makes clear to discernable readers that Gatsby appeared nervous and ill-at-ease to Nick, almost from the moment the two met: "He was never quite still; there was always a tapping foot or the impatient opening and closing of a hand" (68). DiCaprio's Gatsby possesses an internal tension that seemingly corresponds to the rising temperatures, both of which reach a boiling point in the Plaza Hotel scene when Daisy refuses to say she never loved Tom. At that point we see the dream shatter when Gatsby rushes Tom and Daisy's words echo the idea that "you can't repeat the past." For at that moment, we realize that to repeat the past involves more than just Gatsby's and Daisy's past since Daisy also has a past with Tom, and it's a past that can't be erased. 
  • The bad driver motif parallels Fitzgerald's theme that people live careless lives. Perhaps there is an over-the-top comedic, Keystone Cop quality to the driving scenes, but the English teacher in me knows that students will grasp the motif when they watch Gatsby and Daisy racing and careening down the street. I only wish Luhrmann had connect all the dots and drawn Jordan into this motif. Luhrmann's Jordan is just too sympathetic for my reading of her. As my students say, she's a compulsive liar and a detestable, careless, dishonest woman. They come to that conclusion with no prompting from me. 
  • The decision to film in 3D makes sense. When I heard that The Great Gatsby would be in 3D, I was depressed. I don't like 3Da and can't see in 3D, so I saw the movie in the traditional form. Yet I could still see the outline of 3D, and now I get it. From Gatsby's garish mansion with it's Belasco-like library complete with fake books to the Valley of Ashes, Luhrmann captures the essence of The Great Gatsby's settings. Using 3D must make viewers feel surround by the facades and actually a part of the action. If so, then the Valley of Ashes as well as both Gatsby's and Tom's excessive wealth must remind the audience of the widening rich-poor gap in our country. I thought about this in the opening scenes when Nick describes his occupation. In Luhrman's Gatsby, the audience must increasingly feel like the immobile George Wilson. Both he and Myrtle are marginalized and destroyed by the self-serving Tom Buchanan, just as the middle class is being destroyed by classism and economic disparity. 
Of course, there is much more to say about The Great Gatsby in its many incarnations. Among the most controversial decisions Luhrmann made is the framing device that put Nick in an institution and uses writing as therapy. The Huffington Post as an excellent article deconstructing some of the more controversial and criticized choices Luhrmann made and why. 

As a reading purist, I prefer my literature interpreted literally in movies; however, I'm a bit ornery and will chuckle a little when some students in subsequent years choose to watch the movie and not read the book and suffer the inevitable consequences. So having studied Luhrmann's explanations, I'm more comfortable with them knowing that he's a real student of Fitzgerald. 

Ultimately, I'm a fan and know that more students will love The Great Gatsby as a result of Luhrmann's  contribution. Indeed, many of my students asked to read the book as they did not get a chance to do so during their junior year. Even without having seen the movie, they love Fitzgerald's masterpiece. Because of Luhrmann and his new and great The Great Gatsby, I see in my students "some heightened sensitivity to the promises of [literature]" (6).