Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Great Gatsby: A Film Review

This review is chock full of spoilers.

I just came back from "The Great Gatsby" as directed by Baz Luhrmann. I have not enjoyed a book-to-movie adaptation this much since "Atonement," which came out in 2007. I know a movie is good when as I walk out of the theater, I want to walk back in again in order to watch it once more.

Luhrmann's production is ingenious for many reasons. First, all of the actors are superbly cast (with the possible exception of George, who seemed a bit melodramatic to me). Second, the opulence and decadence of the New York lifestyle in the 1920s is stunningly displayed. Colors could not be more vivid, costumes could not be more grand, and houses could not be more magnificent. But what I found particularly superb was the way that Luhrmann was able to marry contemporary music and figures to a story set within a certain period.

I believe great literature is timeless, and therefore that its messages should be able to reach us regardless of time or setting. What Luhrmann has done by using music by Jay-Z, Florence and the Machine and others is contemporize a book that would otherwise simply appear dull to the masses. I looked around the movie theater and I saw people of all walks of life and all ages, and it's fantastic that so many people are coming out to partake of a film which is steeped in culture. The messages of decadence, hypocrisy, opulence, obsession and the promise of the great American dream remain, and they are transformed by the music and the rich color into becoming relevant. And that is what great literature should be, at the last: relevant. 

There were some scenes I particularly loved in the movie. First, Nick Carroway is meant to be an unreliable narrator, and I was curious to see how they would portray that in the film. They had the film open in a Sanitarium where Nick's patient file is seen, under which there are the headings 'Morbid alcoholism' and 'instigator of fights' and so forth, so you automatically know he may not be entirely trustworthy. I also loved the contrast between the winter season in which the sanitarium is set and Nick's weary, timeworn face (creased, with a 5 o'clock shadow or actual stubble) and the vivid, energetic parties that Gatsby throws.

The scenes that focus on the lower-class or working-class were also brilliant in that the entire setting was washed out in comparison to the wealthy upper-class. When the car traveled there, you saw a shift between technicolor and dark black-and-white scenes. Everyone is layered in dirt, grime and coal; the clothing looks washed out. Tom's mistress' clothing and attitude is portrayed as raunchier and dirtier than those of her counterparts attending Gatsby's parties. Her lipstick and her makeup is too gauche.

There's a set of eyes painted on a blue canvas that represent the advertisement of an ocular shop (Doctor T. J. Eckleburg), but in the movie symbolize the eyes of God. While some of the symbolism in the film is extremely overt (such as the eyes and the green light that Gatsby sees), some of them are exquisitely subtle. For instance, when Tom marries Daisy, we learn he has purchased pearls for her that cost something in the realm of $300,000 dollars. We see his hand on the pearls, gripped around her neck, and it's a clear symbol of her subservience to him and the fact that she is a trophy wife. It's deliciously ironic, of course, that his mistress is also wearing pearls when she is hit by Daisy and dies.

Gatsby is portrayed in the film as an obsessive romantic. There are moments of humor in his obsession, especially when he asks Nick to invite Daisy over for tea at his cottage. (Incidentally, all of the settings are meant to depict the owner's status. Gatsby's wildly opulent mansion shows that he is new money, Nick's sweet cottage that he is poor but respectable, and Buchanan's orderly, manicured lawns depict his conservative old money wealth/ attitude). The scene where the four of them are in the hotel was fantastic- especially because of Tom's contempt for Gatsby when Gatsby is about to resort to using his fists.

Now let's talk about Daisy. In this film's interpretation of Daisy, she is a victim throughout. She is torn between Gatsby and Tom and cannot choose; she is too frail, too fragile. She loves illusion and cannot surrender it. She is a woman without much will; she does whatever the dominant man in her life tells her to do. Of course, she is also careless, as Nick characterizes her, and smashes things and doesn't fix them. We see she is an irresponsible mother. But in my reading of the book, Daisy is far more manipulative, much more to blame, much more evil. In this film adaptation we see her sweetness; in my reading, she is more subtle, dangerous, easier to hate, much more culpable for everything that befalls her. (For example, in the famous scene in the hotel, some interpret Daisy as having been moved by Tom's 'husky' declaration of ardent love; I always thought that she just didn't want to tie her fortunes to those of a bootlegger and therefore she changed her tune.) While I don't agree with this portrayal of her, I found the acting compelling nonetheless. I loved the scene where we met her with all the billowing white curtains, and also the scene with the shirts. But I don't think the movie did a good enough job of showing her distaste with the new money, as portrayed in the book:

“I like her,” said Daisy, “I think she’s lovely.”
But the rest offended her — and inarguably, because it wasn’t a gesture but an emotion. She was appalled by West Egg, this unprecedented “place” that Broadway had begotten upon a Long Island fishing village — appalled by its raw vigor that chafed under the old euphemisms and by the too obtrusive fate that herded its inhabitants along a short-cut from nothing to nothing. She saw something awful in the very simplicity she failed to understand.

I loved the ending to the movie, because they allowed the typewritten letters that form the last sentences of the book to float over the scenery, and the effect was incredible. They also used this when they showed Gatsby first falling in love with Daisy and realizing his mind would never romp like that of God's again. It was just really beautiful.

1 comment:

Dan O. said...

Everybody here seems to be on the right page with what to do, but the style just overtakes everything they want to do. Nice review Chana.