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Posted May 19, 2013 by William Dunmyer in Best of 2013
 
 

Great Gatsby: One of the Best of 2013

Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” has flaws. For starters, it’s visually and sonically bloated and about a half-hour too long. (Total running time is almost two-and-a-half hours.) But it is also complex, intelligent, and a true work of art — one of the best films of 2013.

The film has triggered in me a great desire to read the novel (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925), which I now see is a layered, poetic meditation on the meaning and quality of modern life. When the book was first published, it must have felt like an embodiment of the young 20th century: young writer, young era, young characters. (Fitzgerald wasn’t even 30 when he wrote it.)

What is great about this adaptation is that Luhrmann has found a way to make the story speak in the same way to the young 21st century. By incorporating Jay Z and other contemporary music and giving the film an overall feel that is highly current, Luhrmann has given the tragic story of Gatsby and Daisy the opportunity to speak to young people today as it did to the young of 1925. All of us moderns. There’s something about the reckless frenzy of the 1920s that feels recognizable — like we’re in the later phases of an epoch that began in Fitzgerald’s time.

Yes, the soundtrack is often too loud and overpowering, but that very musical intensity is essential to Luhrmann’s artistic aim. The music in the film was surely meant to offend middle-aged ears, as jazz and Gershwin offended older folks’ ears in the 1920s. One of the most distinctive aspects of the modern era is the explosion of pop music, which young people always yearn to play at high volumes — be it jazz, big band, rock, or rap. Luhrmann has a masterful eye for noticing similarities across the different decades of the modern era. He connects the dots across time periods in ways that no other filmmaker can.

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For those who don’t know the novel, the basic parameters of the story are as follows. The narrator, Nick Carraway (here played adequately by Tobey Maguire), is an upper-middle-class Midwestern boy just out of college who moves to New York a few years after the war (WWI) and gets a job on Wall Street.

He rents a small house on the north shore of Long Island, right on the water. Next door is a gigantic, baroque palace owned by a mysterious Oz-like bachelor named Gatsby (played well by Leonardo DiCaprio). Nearby is an estate owned by a young, unhappy couple, Tom and Daisy Buchanan, who both come from old money.

Nick becomes friends with all of them and quickly realizes that Daisy and Gatsby have a romantic history. The central drama of the story concerns whether Daisy (played very well by Carey Mulligan) is going to leave her unfaithful husband, break the taboos of her class, and marry the up-from-the-gutter Gatsby. Class hierarchy is a central theme of the novel.

These days the theme of class stratification causes eyes to roll because in the the past 100 years class hierarchies have decreased in importance. American society is much less caste-based than it used to be. Self-made men travel among old money with greater ease today than ever before. But just because class lines are more permeable today doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Every American today has had some experience with class stratification. Anyone who denies that is lying — to himself.

Luhrmann succeeds in depicting the power of social hierarchy as it must have felt for people like Gatsby and Daisy. One can feel how significant class distinctions were for them. Luhrmann also triumphs in depicting the power of Gatsby and Daisy’s love. I will never forget the intensity of the scene when Gatsby and Daisy see each other for the first time since their break-up five years earlier. DiCaprio and Mulligan capture the terror and bliss of this moment exceptionally well, especially DiCaprio. Rarely have I seen a male actor depict romantic turmoil so well. Gatsby quite literally comes apart in this sequence.

Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom form a romantic triangle. But the two men are actually involved in another intimate entanglement. Gatsby and Tom are both having an affair with a lower-class woman from Queens (played beautifully by Isla Fisher). “Affair” might be too strong a word; she’s not much more than a prostitute to the men. But because of Fisher’s resonant performance, the character takes on real depth of feeling. Yes, she’s a floozy, but what’s underneath the manic partying is a desperate yearning to escape the gutter to which she knows she is doomed.

Her husband also takes on emotional weight in what could have been a throw-away role. Played superbly by Jason Clarke, this character’s black hole of a life becomes part and parcel of what Luhrmann and Fitzgerald are trying to explore. His rage leads to a violent crescendo and the death of a major character. (I won’t tell you who.)

Sometimes one feels during the film that there are too many characters. But that very multiplicity is also a strength. Every nook and cranny of the film is teeming with life, each character with a unique vantage point through which one may contemplate America.

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Luhrmann four or five times draws attention to the fact that his source material is a beloved novel. Several of the book’s most elegiac, unique and profound sentences appear on the screen — the actual words appear, as Maguire reads them in voice-over narration. They appear for a moment and then float away, as if Luhrmann were blowing them out like a candle.

I found these moments sublime. A filmmaker as much in love with books as movies. Almost all true artists are passionate about several art forms, not just their own, but rarely do they share this with us. Luhrmann of course is interested in the book because of its extraordinary contents. But a part of his appreciation lies in the form in which that artistry is delivered. Its book-ness, if you will. The look of the words on the page, the feel of the paper in your hand, the smell of it. (Have you ever flipped through a book, looking at all the words, and felt a surge of ecstasy, just over its wonderful book-ness?)

Because this words-on-the-screen technique is used mostly at the end of the film, one walks out of the theater with it fresh in the mind. I walked out picturing Luhrmann as a young man reading “Gatsby” for the first time. There he is, college student with a difficult novel in his hands, drinking in its best sentences, overwhelmed at the moments when, in one sentence, the 25-year-old Fitzgerald simultaneously captures the warm, gushing power of love and the cold, merciless power of death.

It’s moments like these, when reading a great novel, that turn a boy into an artist.

All these decades later, the middle-aged Luhrmann still remembers those sentences, what they meant to him and how they changed his life. That’s a small part of his landmark adaptation of this novel that everyone said would be un-adaptable. I’m fairly confident that a good number of boys who see this film will feel themselves turning into artists as a result. Thank you, Baz Luhrmann, for passing it on to the next generation.


William Dunmyer

 
William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.