“What Gatsby?” A Discussion

Posted on June 2, 2013

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Editors Matilda Dixon-Smith and Will Kay dive into all the CGI swoop shoots and Lana Del Rey remixes of Baz Luhrmann’s hotly anticipated “The Great Gatsby”. 

Matilda Dixon-Smith: Will! So, we’ve just seen The Great Gatsby, and I think the best question to ask is this: how did you feel about Leonardo DiCaprio as the enigmatic Jay Gatsby?

Will Kay: I was pleasantly surprised. When I first heard that DiCaprio had been cast as Gatsby I was aghast. In my imagination Gatsby had an understated self-consciousness that I knew DiCaprio wasn’t going to be able to portray, as all of his performances have a confidence and assuredness. However, they replaced that self-consciousness with anger and confusion in this adaptation, and it worked quite well. It made Gatsby seem slightly mad and creepy, which makes a lot of sense in the context of the story.

Pretty Insignia

Pretty Insignia

Matilda: Yes, I quite liked him. There were moments where he overplayed (a bit of a motif in the film—we’ll come back to that!), and moments where he tried to affect that self-consciousness you referred to and didn’t pull it off. But his confusion and his anger were sort of beautiful; to me he came off rather like a sad child, someone who couldn’t tell the difference between what was real and what was imagined. It certainly made him more sympathetic to me—and yes, more mad. But, look, he was very orange. 

Will: Yes, like Moonface from Enid Blyton. The confusion between imagination and reality seemed to me like one of the driving forces through the whole film. In my estimation it was the most successful aspect and kind of informed the structure of the film. The first half—with all of the parties, mystery, expectations, the green dock lantern (so much green light) and tales of Gatsby’s providence—forms Gatsby’s imaginary world. After Gatsby reunites with Daisy, his imaginary life with her begins to crumble against expectation and the pragmatics of reality.

Matilda: Oh, the green light. We must discuss the green light, because it epitomises one of my biggest problems with the film: it was so literal. I felt like Luhrmann underestimated us a bit here. Every metaphor was about as subtle as a fog horn—the green light, the eyes of Dr T.J. Eckleburg, the shooting stars, Gatsby’s insignia. We’re a discerning audience, one that can handle a bit of subtext. Apart from the fact that Luhrmann flogged his visual imagery (like the green light) to death, he coupled it with the asinine narration, which spelt everything out to the point where there was no guesswork—no discovery—in the story at all. That moment when Nick’s voice-over said it was “like Gatsby was reaching” across the water, and DiCaprio literally stretched his hand out toward the green light, I died. It was funny! Was it meant to be funny, d’you think?

Reaching, eternally reaching… :/

Will: I don’t think it was meant to be funny? I cackled away through the majority of the film. I just couldn’t cope with the largeness of everything. I know that is Luhrmann’s style and I was prepared for it, yet I was still overwhelmed. It worked exceptionally well in some instances—the scene with the billowing white curtains that introduces Daisy and Jordan Baker, the party in the apartment with Tom Buchanan’s mistress, the orgiastic shirt-throwing party and the parties at Gatsby’s Disney Castle. I think that the instances where the grandiose stylings didn’t work as well were the points where the movie was too faithful to the book and ended up seeming hokey and repetitive.

Matilda: The shirt scene was my favourite scene! It was spectacular, excessive and sexual, then increasingly sad and violent. Luhrmann is at his best when he melds pathos with extravagance. And it was nice to see Leo having a bit of fun! But I agree, hokey and repetitive were two words that swam in my mind as I was watching. Or should I say, floated up from my typewriter like horrendous ribbons of cliché? Let’s talk more about faithfulness and Nick’s narration. I hated it.

THIS. THIS FOREVER.

Will: A lot of the narration didn’t add anything to the story. There was some nice contextualising narration but the majority was either unnecessarily interpolating between dialogue or stripped of any meaning by a lack of context. It was frustrating because you had to sit through sections of garble that added nothing to the story. The only exception was the final bit of narration. Why did you hate it?

Matilda: Narration is usually a crutch for filmmakers who aren’t quite confident in their stories (though there are particular exceptions—American Beauty springs to mind). In the case of Gatsby, I think it’s clear that Luhrmann was afraid that removing Nick’s steady narration from the book would read as ‘unfaithful’, that the only way to show Nick’s central voice was to have him literally speaking the entire time! This baffles me, Luhrmann has always been a filmmaker who understands the power of a visual image (albeit usually a bombastic one). The strongest translations of Nick’s narration were those unencumbered by voice-over: the striking billowing curtains scene you mentioned earlier, for example. There’s a self-consciousness to the narration, and the insidious sanatorium framing device; it’s disappointing to see that Luhrmann couldn’t let his bold interpretation speak for itself. I wanted him to go further towards capturing the spirit of the novel, not just slavishly recreating the words on the screen. Speaking of Nick, how did you feel about Tobey Maguire and the other leads?

Will: I thought Tobey Maguire was quite good at representing the passive vector through which all other characters connect—suitably dull. I think the biggest triumph of the film is Joel Edgerton’s portrayal of the brutish Tom Buchanan. I was finally able to understand the perspective of Buchanan through Edgerton’s empathetic performance. Carey Mulligan was great as Daisy, who is a pretty boring character; Mulligan demonstrated the appeal of Daisy, while being the paradoxically impressionable object at the centre of male attention. Elizabeth Debicki was self-possessed and feline as Jordan Baker. What was your assessment?

Matilda: Debicki was a stand out for me; she was wry and lithe, but with a little kick of authority that is surprising in a newcomer. I also enjoyed Edgerton’s detached, hyper-masculine performance as Tom, though I think he suffered the most from the film’s lazy sound editors. His gravelly, animal utterances were so obviously produced! Mulligan was fine, but I can’t care enough about Daisy to care about her performance. I’ll give her props, though, for the sheer number of fake tears she can shed. I actually really liked Tobey Maguire as Nick! I felt for this confused, weak man—unable to say no to anyone, without a proper place in the world. And his features lent themselves surprisingly well to the period aesthetics. It’s the first time I’ve found him even remotely palatable. Plus, all the homo-eroticism between him and Gatsby, it was heart-breaking. Didn’t you have issues with the pacing?

The Green Light

Will: I did. The beginning of the film had a frenetic pace, I suppose it reflects the speed and confusion of the consumerism of the twenties. However, the pace stopped dead at the point where Gatsby and Daisy meet in Carraway’s house. I, for one, had whiplash. From that point on the pacing was jerky; consequently it was difficult to concentrate and it was very uncomfortable to watch. It could have been deliberately unsettling, but I still wouldn’t agree with that choice. Did the roller-coaster make you sick or do you have an iron stomach?

Matilda: My issues with the pace had a lot to do with poor editing. Scenes dragged on past their logical end point, or were lengthened by this near-pathological need to over-explain everything. For me, the scene in the Plaza Hotel was perfectly paced—it was awkward and tense and built to that divine, wonderfully theatrical moment of machismo where Joel Edgerton rests his forehead against Leo’s. Not to mention the buckets of ice! Everything that came after that, perhaps because that scene was so uniquely well-balanced, was just a touch out of step. I think Luhrmann’s overblown style works incredibly well for the spectacle and glitz of the Gatsby aesthetic, but perhaps not so much for the story. Do you have any stray thoughts to finish up? 

Will: The ice block chipping was some serious crossed-sword phallic imagery to go with car racing scenes and the glitter-ejaculating Moet bottle. I really enjoyed the costumes, especially those worn by Jordan Baker and Tom Buchanan. They were modern and faithful to the period at the same time; mixing new and old is a hallmark of costume designer Miuccia Prada’s designs. My favourite piece was Jordan Baker’s first party dress, the black jewelled halter neck, it suited her long body. Overall, the visuals were as exceptional as you would expect from Luhrmann. It all seem very expensive, so expensive!

Matilda: The scored music left me cold, but I absolutely adored the kicky, absurd collation of pop artists! Luhrmann and Jay-Z make a great team—”No Church in the Wild”, remixed “Crazy in Love”, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, the xx and that spectacular, ethereal Lana Del Rey song? Everything was so deliberate: theatrical and comedic. I certainly enjoyed the spectacle. And, you know, long live the green light!

Matilda Dixon-Smith and Will Kay are the founding editors of You’re Dripping Egg. For more of their collaborative pieces, click here or here

Will and Matilda were intoxicated by Luhrmann’s O-T-T “Gatsby”, but what did you think? Sing out in the comments!

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