Monday, October 14, 2013

The Great Gatsby

I love F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby. Despite my primary grad school focus in African American literature, The Great Gatsby is a novel I return to time and again. My husband and I don't necessarily share the same love of literature, but he is equally transfixed by the novel and we both reread and discuss it frequently. One of the things I love about the novel is that it is so accessible but at the same time it is a work in which you can always discover something new and interesting.

Not too long ago we watched the two earlier interpretations done on film and last night we rented the most recent Baz Luhrmann interpretation. This adaptation has been quite disparaged -- one of the most oft cited criticisms is the anachronistic soundtrack. I beg to differ and I will begin my list there with the 5 things the film does well.

1. Music. Before I saw the film, the soundtrack made me want to watch it. I was interested in how contemporary music would be used. I was sucked in immediately. In one of the opening scenes, Nick Carraway describes New York City as he recalls it upon his arrival. There is a montage of old images of the Wall Street and the economic boom times of the 1920s juxtaposed with Jay-Z's 100$ Bills. Brilliant. I could wax poetic about why it worked, but just watch it. Jay-Z is also a producer of the film. Mull that over!

2. Daisy. I am not overly familiar with Carey Mulligan as an actress but her portrayal of Daisy coupled with Luhrman's vision of her as a projection of male fantasy is brilliant. While I don't agree with David Denby's full review, the paragraph he writes on the character of Daisy is very succinct and worth a read.

3. Visual effects. My caveat here is that I absolutely hated the heavy handed use of Nick Carraway as author and narrator with the words floating across the screen. The vibrant colors, however, and the choreography in nearly every scene was breathtaking. My favorite use was early in the film when Nick first visits the Buchanans and he walks into the room with Daisy and Jordan and the room is overwhelmingly white and bright with the tulle curtains blowing all over. The wind created an optical illusion that was carefully choreographed with the open and shutting of the doors. The other, less metaphorical but still stark use of choreography, includes Gatsby's preparations for tea with Daisy. He arrives at Nick's with his entourage of servants and subsequently stuffs Nick's house full or orchids. Throughout the reuniting of Daisy and Gatsby, you can't help but focus on the exotic flowers. They are often in the foreground of the camera, with Daisy and Gatsby in the background. The opulence is reinforced for the viewer, as they are not a native West Egg flower, and very expensive. Physical, expensive objects play such a large role in Daisy and Gatsby's relationship, it is no coincidence they often are as much of a focus as is the relationship.

And of course, Gatsby's parties are so very over-the-top and perfect images.

4. Myth. Because the novel is so well read, it often is summarized and re-told as if it is a myth (similar to the City on a Hill) instead of a critique of American myths and archetypes. Luhrmann's use of vivid colors and film techniques make you feel as if you are in a myth or fantasy world. As a viewer, this allowed me to ask new questions - especially about the Buchanan household, Tom's American Dream and which couple was more caught up in a fantasy, Daisy and Gatsby, or Daisy and Tom. Which character lived out reality? Who was the most hopeful or cynical? Who in the film would see the world as fantastical, as Luhrmann portrayed it?

5. IT WASN'T BORING. As much as I love Robert Redford and Paul Rudd, the film's they starred in were boring. (Full disclosure: I don't really like Tobey Maguire or Leonardo Di Caprio). Forgive my stereotyping, but those screenplays must have been written by an old man in a tweed sport coat and a pipe imagining a careful Gatsby world. It could be opulent, but only as opulent as his imagination could allow. This recent movie is BIGGER and more INVENTIVE and INTERESTING. Why would anyone want to see another Gatsby movie that is just like the previous films?

Needless to say, this film didn't do everything well. I can't decide if I liked how the ash heaps were brought to life or if I liked Carraway viewed as a recovering alcoholic. Luhrmann and associates did entertain me and allow me to return to a narrative I love and see it with fresh eyes.

And now I am off to listen to the soundtrack, again. Please forgive my old habits of not explaining my thoughts fully and throwing them down - however, I am no longer graded on my thoughts and executing their logic.