Last week, after having read The Great Gatsby for the first time in at least a decade, I had a dream that I went to see the movie, but in my dream, the movie was a cartoon. Granted, it had that eerily realistic appearance that has come to define animated Pixar (and the like) movies, but it was a cartoon nonetheless. It is often said that Scorpios have a sixth sense, and my dream was certainly a close approximation of what I experienced when I went to see The Great Gatsby on the big screen this weekend.
I’m not going to bother with the whole “here’s how the movie differs from the book” argument because I think something more complex is happening here; I’m just not sure the complexity is situated in the right places. It seems to me that Baz Luhrmann had some real and important intentions with this movie, the cartoonish appearance being one of many. Whether or not his intentions worked is another story.
The clearly CGI-ed cityscapes and beachfront homes made New York and its outlying areas appear as if they existed only in a dream…but not just any dream, the most cliché dream that you can think of, replete with tons of mist and fog and houses separated by ivy and hanging trees, making you feel like the walk from Gatsby’s house to Nick’s was a trip through the hidden passageway in The Secret Garden (published in 1910, so maybe not a bad reference point). While the imagery itself disappointed me, I understand the use of artificiality here. In general, I think the overarching view of the 1920’s is an artificial one. The narrative that we as Americans have made up in our minds about the Jazz Age and all its glitz and glamour is false, erroneous, and unreflective of the true nature of that time in which the rich got very rich very quickly, and the poor, as usual, were left abandoned in bread lines. Well, it might not be false, exactly, but it’s certainly gilded, and in this case, maybe a computer-generated ersatz New York is not such bad choice for a contemporary filmmaker trying to capture this era.
The graphics might also have been a commentary on the way The Great Gatsby itself was both viewed by its author and received by others. When Gatsby was first published, it was met with dismal reviews. The basic criticism, to reduce it entirely, was that it lacked a story. Fitzgerald was convinced that his critics failed to truly understand what the book was trying to do. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, of course; and any person who knows squat about the Modernist era in literature understands that the authors in this time period were completely reinventing story telling altogether. In any case, part of what is great about Gatsby is that there is a story, but it’s secondary to the language with which it’s written. Gatsby at its core, similar to Nabokov’s Lolita, is a novel about language, about storytelling… without the conventional storyline. So, one might (poorly) argue that Fitzgerald used his beautiful, unfussy language to “compensate” for, or even cover up, the lack of a linear narrative (which, personally, is fine by me because I’ll take beautiful writing over a standard plotline any day). But, maybe Lurhmann’s over-the-top, cinematic gymnastics were his way of doing the same thing with a visual medium: since there is no “story” that can truly be adapted to film, the TRICKS ARE THE MOVIE in the same way that the LANGUAGE IS THE BOOK. Again, maybe not such a bad choice…
This movie missed the mark on many fronts, particularly on providing any kind of serious commentary on class or the sheer wasteful extravagance that is the American way. But, for better or worse, this movie is an homage to one of the great books. I think Lurhmann desperately wanted to pay tribute to this book by making it larger than life. In casting the definition of the Hollywood playboy, alongside Spiderman and a few good looking white chicks, he made Gatsby into a Marvel summer blockbuster (Gatsby even gets an inappropriate fight scene!). For me, I’m not sure that pays the book the respect it deserves, but I can at least appreciate that Lurhmann, like many of us, see Gatsby as a flawed American superhero (or antihero), similar to the Ironman with whom he’s currently competing, representing all that is good and (mostly) bad about being an American capitalist.