The Great Gatsby
Arguably one of the defining traits of humanity is story telling. So far we seem to be the only inhabitant of this planet to regal each other with tales of fact and fiction, romance and adventure. While a story can be disseminated in a myriad of formats the written work is likely to remain at the apex of for the foreseeable future. In literature certain works are deemed classics, persisting through the years handed down to each successive generation, each one charged with reinterpreting the themes through the prism of their own sensibilities. In 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald published a novel that would be universally accepted in this category; ‘The Great Gatsby’. Over the years there have been several cinematic incarnations of this book with the latest directed by the flamboyant filmmaker, Baz Luhrmann. While not the pinnacle of movie interpretations Mr. Luhrmann’s opus is certainly among the most innovative and interesting.
While many aspects of any literary classic are subject to reinterpretation some must be preserved to retain the integrity of the story. In this instance the time and place are crucial; post World War One on the shores of the Long Island Sound. This was a time of excess and redefining the moral climate of the nation. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) was a man born of reasonable means with his bright future stretched out before him. A graduate of Yale University and a veteran of the Great War he was infatuated with a dynamic man, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). At the onset Nick is in a sanatorium under treatment for alcoholism. It must be kept in mind that at this point in our history Prohibition was in effect making alcoholism the legal and moral equivalent to illegal drug abuse today. Overseeing Nick’s treatment is Dr. Walter Perkins (Jack Thompson) encourages Nick to articulate his thoughts about this figure through his passion, writing. It is the summer 1922 and Nick made the move from the calm of the great American Midwest to the center of the financial universe, New York City. There he found himself in the middle of the stock market as a bond trader. Although he had to abandon his hopes of becoming an author he now had the financial means to rent a home on the Long Island Sound, albeit on the shore opposite the one used by the ultra-rich of the bay.
His cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) move in a social circle as of yet foreign to Nick. They invite him to dinner in hopes of setting him up with an attractive young woman, Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) under the thin ruse of rounding out a golfing foursome. Soon Nick finds himself invited to party by the popular and somewhat enigmatic Gatsby. This is a defining moment for Nick and signifies his ascent to a new level of high society. Rumors abound about Gatsby running the gamut from covet espionage agent to killer for hire. Must to his surprise Nick is summoned to a private tête–à–tête with his host. Nothing can be anticipated with Gatsby but Nick’s uncertainty dissipates as Gatsby takes an immediate liking to Nick, something inconsistent with his usual aloof persona. The situations become s more complicated when Nock discovers that Gatsby and Daisy were intimately involved during war time. He also finds out that Tom is having an affair with a young woman, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) from the wrong part of the region referred as the Valley of Ashes due to its heavy industrialization. One of the peculiar individuals Nock encounters through Gatsby is a professional gambler, Meyer Wolfshiem (Amitabh Bachchan), whose claim to infamy was instigating the ‘Black Sox Scandal’ by rigging the 1919 World Series. Nick realizes he is out of his usual debt but is enraptured by the world of wealth and privilege he has become exposed to.
Instigating the emotional momentum of the movie is the re-ignition of passion between Gatsby and Daisy. The emotional entanglements of these members of the upper crust of society; people who consider themselves untouched by the rules and moral constraints of the common throng was a perfect representation of the ‘Roaring Twenties’. This this sliver of the population excess was de rigueur and moderation was an alien concept. For the regular person reading the novel it was a much desired affirmation that the lives of the rich were as tumultuous as anyone us. It is only natural to want to see the cracks in the façade of the powerful. It was prohibition and these elaborate parties were illegal activities with drinking that would provide a criminal record openly flaunted. Frequently the highest civil authorities were participants in the alcoholic indulgence.
Once again we are in an era where the stock market is exerting an inordinate influence on the economic wellbeing of millions of regular people. There is a marked discrepancy between the rich and poor with a middle class caught in between. The fascination of the regular people with the unattainable rich is once again at a peak fueled now by the invasive nature of modern media. This story possesses a certain timeless quality which is a hallmark of a true classic. For the current generation the similarities between the driving forces in 1922 resonate now in 2013. Illegal is a matter of interpretation. Alcohol was the pot or coke of the Twenties used by the privileged few without fear of consequences. Throughout history one point remains a constant; money buys exception from the laws and morality enforced upon the rest of us.
The most intriguing aspect of this rendition is imparted by the visionary style of the filmmaker, Baz Luhrmann. Besides assuming the director’s chair he also took on the task of reinterpreting the iconic novel as a script. There is one thing about the trademark style exhibited by Luhrmann, much like this juncture of time and place he has little understanding of the concept of restrictions. In 2001 he revitalized the nearly defunct Hollywood Musical with his movie, ‘Moulin Rouge!’ He instills the same enthusiastic flamboyance to this Great American story. It is an ideal fit. Some have held the film in derision siting the vulgar excess as detracting from the story. If you have thoughtfully examined the novel, that is if you didn’t cut freshman English Lit, you might come to the conclusion that this fits the tone of pervading mood of the time and is crucial to the development of the character. What I found diluted the film was Luhrmann’s perchance for inserting musical numbers into the production. While he did show judgment in organically introducing them they just appeared contrived at times. There is no dispute that Luhrmann has distinguished himself a master of sound and color as a means of artistic expression but this movie represents his first foray into the brave new world of 3D. Although the idea of the illusion of depth has been around for a long time but now thanks to incredible advances it is now possible to achieve a level of realism previously unimaginable. At this stage most directors still use this technique as a gimmick, something to give the audience a ‘wow moment’. Luhrmann is one of the new wave of filmmakers that has an understanding of depth as part of the pallet to relate a story. While many 3D movies are action this one endeavors to retell an emotionally based story. It should come as no surprise that Luhrmann’s use of the technique in the elaborate party scenes gives it an amazing sense of realism but he managed to impart this feeling to the gentler moments of the story. After only a few minutes as you sit there watching you forget about the special glasses as you are inexorably pulled into this world of exceptional wealth, the living room fading away around you. This version is flawed but it does represent a new look at a seasoned classic.
The Greatness Of Gatsby