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The Great Gatsby

by Kavish Chetty / 17.05.2013

Baz Luhrmann, it appears, is waging war against the nightmarish memory of his high-school syllabus. He’s transmuting the materials of these dead texts – Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby and Hamlet (rumoured) – into flamboyant spectacles, the kind which might have kept his adolescent self amused/enthralled; rather than, like most of us, in a cryogenic sleep of suspended arousal, urging to get home and masturbate in glorious catharsis to Jenna J and her dirigible-tits which could eclipse the day’s accumulated Shakespeare and differential calculus.


Luhrmann has now proved beyond suspicion that he is a “process”, a thing which happens to texts: their colours are pushed into a kaleidoscope of garish sublimity, their plots are compressed and accelerated into a high-burst circus of event, all that is subtle is declared and made explicit; and this phantasmagoria of sumptuous imagery is strung together with the neurotic agitations of his editing style. En route, of course, he flattens all the elegance of their original composition, and makes a cabaret of everything available to it. His Gatsby – and I cannot resist the allusion to Athlone – ain’t no Golden Dish (if you don’t get the joke, you are cordially requested to quaff greasy VCPs at the historic Athlone eatery. Listen close and you may hear the dim, satanic murmur of impromptu car-guards chanting, “Hosh, hosh, hosh!”)


Luhrmann stays close to the contour of his source material, while fashioning a wedding-cake from its aesthetics. Firstly, the film, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald, is perplexingly 3D – perhaps Ratanga Junction will take cue from this absurdity and introduce a Herman Charles Bosman-themed rollercoaster. Then, you have to mark that lurching camerawork which pulls back dramatically to reveal glittering fairy-tale cityscapes; or Gatsby’s pad which simulates the Magic Kingdom of Disney World, Jay-Z and Lana Del Ray on the soundtrack, and everywhere else the intrusions of Luhrmann’s auteurist narcissism.

To a film principally about the hollow core of the “American Dream”, Luhrmann re-imagines the jazz-age excess with the new glutted sensibility of the present: parties are inexhaustibly choreographed with fireworks and debauchery, the swollen chords of “Rhapsody in Blue”, thousands of rich plutocrats and partiers submersing themselves in liquor and drugs, their old coupes become lightning-fast and burst over highways in lunatic acceleration. I am suggesting by all of this, that Fitzgerald’s slow and mournful tale of ashen love, and the hollow culture of the wealthy, becomes prey to a Ritalin-bereft directorial style: producing, predictably, a cinema for the ADD generation.


The saga of James Gatz is probably available to everyone who’s been through Matric and I won’t rehearse the particulars of the story here. A new framing-narrative has been introduced by Luhrmann, wherein Nick Caraway (Tobey Maguire) is recounting his affairs with the New York upper-crust as part of a therapeutic process with his psychotherapist. The story he tells is of his enigmatic neighbour, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) – the suspicious millionaire with his booze-drenched saturnalias – and Gatsby’s romance with Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). DiCaprio has the only durable performance of the cast, commanding Gatsby with a nouveau riche mystery, even if his affectation for saying “old sport” comes out long and irritating. But, unsurprisingly, even DiCaprio cannot manage to disentangle himself from the schizophrenia of the film: Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge instincts for melodrama and high theatrically colliding disastrously with Fitzgerald’s restrained exposition. As a result, the characters aren’t fully sensible within this world. Even Mulligan succumbs to the violent mismatch of this adaptation and her Daisy is incomplete, losing some of the recklessness of her original incarnation.

It seems, really, a squandering of source material that one would imagine would have transmuted regally under the aegis of say, Sam Mendes. Some of the more intriguing atmospheric conversations of the novel – Tom Buchanan’s anxieties about the Rise of The Coloured Empires, for example – are made elliptical and flat, and the only time when the film seems to come into its organic own is in the untameable scenes of party-excess… which really goes to show that this film excels precisely at the points at which it departs from being The Great Gatsby and reveals its inner spirit: a repressed musical.


This latest adaptation is, finally, quite a failure of realisation. And it’s not out of some nostalgic allegiance to the novel that I bemoan this tangential adaptation. Rather it seems that Luhrmann is decidedly more adept at making an altogether different kind of film, and he should focus his energies on that rather than producing unrecognisably hammed-up retellings of other people’s work.

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