Thursday, May 30, 2013

Just back from watching the new Great Gatsby film by Baz Luhrman. It's difficult to convey just how banal it is from start to finish - and I say this as someone who admires his Romeo & Juliet.

At about the hour and half mark it suddenly struck me: it is Power Point cinema. And bad Power Point at that. The type of moronic presentation you sit through where someone mentions France and a Google image of the Eiffel Tower is displayed with PARIS written in over large type to then tumble down the screen as the photo warps and spins out of frame.

It is quite suffocating to watch. Everything is signalled, underscored, confirmed, rammed in front of your face. There is no hint of Fitzgerald's subtlety of plotting, suggestion and mystery. The ambiguity as to who was driving is lost amid images of Myrtle's body turning in the air after impact (slo-mo, of course) and her ravaged chest. (Fitzgerald never presents the accident head on, we piece it together via the newspaper account, Tom's tearful reaction and Gatsby's inadvertent betrayal of confidence).

Did Luhrman even attempt to do justice to the novel? You wonder whether - like a lazy student - he went by someone else's notes cribbed off the Internet. But hey! who says the film has to be faithful to the book? Coppola took liberties with Heart of Darkness and delivered Apocalypse Now.

Sadly, Luhrman's Gatsby doesn't even deliver a good film. I started counting shot duration - in places barely a second. And this isn't to deliver suspense but to present a conversation. Why such manic cross cutting? To what end? Other than in the belief that cinema audiences cannot be expected to dwell on a shot for more than a split second? Cinema for the ADHD generation? I tried to establish the logic for camera angles but gave up - from above, below, side on, close up, pan ... each used seemingly indiscriminately. Or simply to keep us amused.

And that's what's so ghastly - especially in a film at least tenuously connected to a novel such as The Great Gatsby. Doesn't Luhrman realise that Fitzgerald is depicting a society that is amusing itself to death partly to obliterate the horrors of a war that has passed and partly to avert its eyes to what is to come? Where's any sense of underlying horror?

So ... maybe that's the point? Luhrman has delivered a deliberately hollow film? We're to read it ironically? Yet at no point do you sense any distaste for the garish society and its vulgarity. Rather, the film seems entirely complicit with such a world. Luhrman's lighting creates a morbid hyper-reality plastifying human beings and natural settings. The actors are toy-like (di Caprio is truly awful - as if auditioning after having mugged up on a few Redford scenes). In the hands of Tim Burton this could be interesting, here it just seems embarrassing. The scene in the hotel shows how poorly Luhrman can handle any subtlety of emotion - not surprisingly he distorts the original text and has Gatsby explode with anger. Shouting, screaming, banging, bashing - this kind of toddler emotional range Luhrman can handle well. Could anyone on set say with any conviction that the scene was 'in the can'? Really?

What Luhrman can't even begin to do is to convey the sadness, the longing, the ache, that fills the novel. That although Gatsby is an amalgam of other people's stories there is that driving desire, that yearning that is impossible to fulfil (and always will be) and a grand - if absurdly unrealistic - dream. Cue shot of a night sky plus a comet blazing across - just in case you couldn't grasp the idea.

More disturbing still - but also why this might be an important film despite itself - is the way Luhrman employs cliches. However - as Baudrillard observed back in the 1980s - we have entered the age of the simulacrum. Pointless to ask where a particular image is from or to what it alludes - as such we're dealing with the cliche of the cliche. And this is the aesthetic (if it can be called such) of the pop video and the advertising promo. Thus 'jazz' is now signalled by a black guy tipping backwards while lifting his saxophone skywards. Wasn't that in ... ? Yes and no. For it was perhaps that advert that was borrowing from ... but who cares? Daisy and Gatsby practice golf swings on a jetty but you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a sequence from a Building Society commercial or a family planning promo. The sequence of Gatsby as a soldier is laughable, the scenes of working class Americans patronising in their cinematically hygienic grubbiness. (Does Luhrman grasp the whole point of the ash grey landscape and the Wilson's? Doubtful, for the music that accompanies the discovery that Daisy was in fact Myrtle's killer is a 'cue sad feeling' track implying we should feel sorry for ... yes, Daisy. Crass directing indeed). It's mildly amusing spotting the number of self-references Luhrman includes (eg lifts from Romeo and Juliet) until you think what's the point? Just another gimmick and typical of such a self-regarding film. (That's something else you feel: the constant presence of the director - how the film-maker obtrudes upon his film).

The verdict? As an interpretation of the novel it brings nothing to light and, worse still, mangles and distorts the original. As an independent work of cinema it is crude and overblown. As a cultural object of this, the second decade of the 21st Century, it is perhaps uncomfortably revealing: the extent to which we have been dulled visually and emotionally; the way in which our sense of time and space and duration have been horribly contracted (notice a Luhrman signature device: the Google earth-style vertiginous zoom in or out); the way we seem pleased with so little, that cinema has come to this, relinquishing any social, aesthetic, or critical role and solely concerned with box-office returns. I suppose it will fill a good two hours on a transatlantic flight - isn't that the point, after all? Go on, say it: it helps to pass the time - what Gatsby, of course, never wanted to accept.

What are Daisy's first words in the novel? "I'm p-p-paralysed with happiness". How horrible is that?


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It seems my crystal ball was not so grubby ... ... resisting the temptation to say "told you so".