The Great Gatsby (2013)

Fitzgerald’s Words, Luhrmann’s Music, and Asia’s Special Effects

To prepare for tonight’s release of Baz Luhrmann’s new film, a highly promoted adaptation of The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo DiCaprio, I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel for the first time since high school. What I discovered is that teaching great literature is wasted on teenagers. The closing page of the shockingly efficient novel offers one of the most devastating passages about loss in English this 45 year old has ever encountered. Narrator Nick Carraway reflects upon the pathos of the fallen hero’s attachment to a past he could never hope to recover:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him… Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The power of Fitzgerald’s sparkling prose is captured remarkably by Baz Luhrmann’s surprisingly low-key film, in two completely unexpected ways. First, after endlessly watching the trailer, featuring an aggressive rendition of the amped up rock ballad, “Together”—“you… and me!”—I fully expected a musical meditation on early 20th century America, a delimited reprise of Luhrmann’s masterpiece, Moulin Rouge (2000). Instead, at every turn, The Great Gatsby pulls its musical punches. There is a great sequence in the middle of the film which reflects upon the grandiose modernity of New York City via George Gershwin’s synchronous “Rhapsody in Blue”—both Gatsby’s story and the masterwork of classical American white people’s jazz are phenomena of the mid-1920s—but otherwise the film’s music is stunningly conventional, serving not as the entrée, but the side dish to the film’s elegant 3D visuals.

What links The Great Gatsby to Moulin Rouge is not the postmodern use of music, but their interest in the male artist who writes amidst the pain of romantic loss. The two previous major Great Gatsby films—1949’s with Alan Ladd and 1974’s starring the king of lens gauze, Robert Redford, each significant and interesting films in their own right—eschew Fitzgerald’s language in favor of offering the thematic scenes of great significance: Owl Eyes in the library, Gatsby’s orgasmic covering of Daisy in his shirts, the tragic shooting of Gatsby in his swimming pool on the last day of summer, etc. Luhrmann’s film covers these bases well, in beautifully shot sequences as accomplished as the other two films, but in addition the new film adds a Catcher in the Rye frame in which Nick Carraway writes from a sanitarium at the request of his therapist.

While a bit odd for most of the film, the gambit pays off amply at the denouement. After reflecting upon Gatsby’s lonely funeral, Nick sits at his typewriter reproducing the linguistic highlights of Fitzgerald’s last page. Both Nick’s voice over on the soundtrack, and the text floating on the screen over images of the green light reflecting across Long Island Sound foreground the heart-stopping beauty of Fitzgerald’s prose. The end of the film matches other great moments of text on screen, ranging from the experimental film works of Su Friedrich and Michael Snow, to the equally rich films of Jean-Luc Godard. In what is the closest moment in tone to the written appearance of “borne back ceaselessly into the past,” Godard’s Contempt (1963) informs us of the deaths of two major characters in a car crash with a massive “Je t’aime” scribbled across the glorious widescreen image. Less ironic but nonetheless equally powerful, Fitzgerald’s words afloat on the screen as The Great Gatsby comes to an end is a masterstroke of visual artistry.

The second glorious surprise about Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby relates to that which I have heretofore excised from the last page of the novel. Fitzgerald skillfully positions Carraway’s ode to the loss of Gatsby as a metonym for American history. Gazing at Gatsby’s empty mansion on Long Island, Nick considers its place in history:

“And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world.”

The death of the new world, already responsible for papering over a previous European one, pertains not just to Gatsby’s failure, but to that of the United States:

“He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”

The transnational American Studies that is The Great Gatsby is astonishingly thematized by Baz Luhrmann’s 3D film. Shot in Australia, the film reconstructs New York City and Long Island from the opposite side of the globe. The film is a wonderment of abstract imagery, in which the 3D staging in depth makes every image appear as if two or three frames of a comic book are superimposed upon one another. As such, the film allegorizes the project of re-rendering The Great Gatsby in the 21st Century, not as the quintessential story of the failure of the American Dream, but as something much more profound, an extension of that warning to the rest of the world. For if what lay just over the horizon for Fitzgerald and Carraway was the terror of the Great Depression, Luhrmann’s trans-Pacific film seems to query, What similar debacle awaits us?

When Luhrmann farmed out the post-production effects of Moulin Rouge to Asian and Australian visual effects houses in 2000, it seemed a bold experiment, resulting from a desperate desire to make a film look different from the ILM, Hollywood factory style. Now 13 years later, amidst a full-fledged optical effects land rush to Asia for all American films, Luhrmann’s Australian-based The Great Gatsby seems far more significant. Tomorrow, filmmakers will run faster and stretch their arms out across the world to make our images. And one fine morning… what will happen to our culture?