Home > Culture, Film, Literature > The Short-Winded Elations of Men: Anticipating Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

The Short-Winded Elations of Men: Anticipating Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

The first preview trailer for director Baz Luhrmann’s new film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel The Great Gatsby arrived online a couple of days ago to a divided set of reactions, united only occasionally by their knife’s edge of dismissive snark. Any adaptation of a great and beloved book is bound to attract skeptics and doubters and textual purists of various stripes, and this effect is certainly not lessened by the profile of the filmmaker in question.

Do you think the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg are watching us right now? How about in the shower?

Luhrmann is known as a bold, demonstrative visualist who goes for the showstopping theatrical flourish before the subtle aesthetic touch, and much of the anxiety about his take on the material boils down to the apparent incongruity of his style  to the sophisticated, cuttingly philosophic prose favoured by Fitzgerald. Last seen shepherding a widescreen nationalist myth of his native land in the mostly-ignored Australia, Luhrmann will always be best-known for his Red Curtain Trilogy, in particular the fictional components of it which each have as many detractors as devotees: Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!  These lavish, operatic films each earned every measure of their respective eye-catching titular punctuations. Moulin Rouge! was all giddily anachronistic musical excess, joyous eagerness to entertain and enrapture oozing from its every pore until our eyes beheld naught but a surging waterfall of cinematic love. Romeo + Juliet cleverly rendered the hysteric adolescent grandeur of Shakespeare’s stealth satire of romantic cliches into a sweaty, neon-spangled California beach noir.

This film is of particular interest to this discussion of Gatsby, since it represents the previous instance of collaboration between Luhrmann and a young actor with the soft features of a classic matinee idol and the intensity of young Brando or Pacino: Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio plays the inscrutable Gatsby in Luhrmann’s adaptation, and has taken winding paths back to the comfort of the gaze of Luhrmann’s lens. After James Cameron’s Titanic made him arguably the biggest star in the world for a fleeting moment, DiCaprio used his new prominence to gradually bulk up physically and exclusively choose roles demanding serious thespianic perspiration from him (an occasional breezy sojourn such as Catch Me If You Can aside). Thus, he portrayed legendary, complex American figures like Howard Hughes (The Aviator) and J. Edgar Hoover (J. Edgar) and tortured protagonists haunted by the past (The Departed, Inception, Shutter Island), the latter type of role memorably dubbed his “boiled owl” mode by Salon’s film critic Andrew O’Hehir.

Given Leo’s propensity for these types of roles, Jay Gatsby seems like an obvious next step for him, being both an enigmatic American icon and a man haunted (and hunted) by his past in one convenient literary package. The other major casting is also plausible; Carey Mulligan shouldn’t be too challenged by the role of Daisy Buchanan, and Tobey Maguire’s boyish cipherhood is a strong match for the observant wide eyes of narrator Nick Carraway. Nor is Luhrmann necessarily a poor directorial choice to helm the defining narrative of the Roaring Twenties; his trademark sumptuousness is on full display in the trailer embedded below, and the clownish tone that his films have a tendency to take on might even be a decent match for Fitzgerald’s critique of the irresponsibility of the Jazz Age’s nouveau riche.

But Luhrmann’s coming adaptation seems, from a scant few minutes of rapid-cut imagery pre-selected for our judgemental pleasure at least, much more invested in encapsulating a received popular understanding of what The Great Gatsby signifies than reflecting the implications of Fitzgerald’s text. From the mechanistic Art Deco style of the titles and teaser poster to the elaborate re-creations of Gatsby’s indulgent garden parties at his West Egg mansion, the setting seems more vital than what’s actually going on there. The burning lack of story, character, and symbolism hinted at in the trailer makes the proceedings seem to promise plentiful style but scant substance, and this is precisely the formulation that Fitzgerald intended his most famous work to criticise. That the film will be shot and released in the increasingly faddish 3D that Hollywood continues to believe will salvage their diminished brand does not help alleviate this impression.

Ultimately, only a well-made, strongly-acted, metaphorically robust Gatsby film can alleviate it. It’s a ripe time indeed for a new screen version of Gatsby, a cultural touchstone that Americans often find themselves turning to in times of economic hardship and uncertainty. The last Hollywood take, after all, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, came out in the midst of the milieu of nationwide angst and doubt that was mid-1970s America. But is Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby going to hold up a black mirror to contemporary conditions in the USA? Or will it reduce Fitzgerald’s keen cautionary social chronicle to an glittering exercise in production design and visual bravado? Christmas will tell.

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Categories: Culture, Film, Literature

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