Wednesday, 5 June 2013

“Can’t Repeat the Past?” No Baz, You Can’t

The Average Gatsby would have been a more appropriate title. Not a terrible movie, but littered with a few too many flaws for me to even say it’s good. I’d re-read the book recently in anticipation and actually think Baz Luhrmann’s version is a pretty good adaptation in terms of plot and character, I just don’t think it’s the kind of book that works on screen to begin with, despite this being the 5th film version of the story. What’s changed from the novel to this version of the film is tone and style, which I think is almost inevitable given this era’s relationship with the 1920s.

The 1920s in the present-day consciousness have been exceedingly romanticised, and the film fails to break from this mould. It’s seen as a time of hedonism and sophistication, and while F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel certainly explores these things, the novel itself was written in the ‘20s and is thus understandably completely void of the nostalgia for that period that the film soaks itself in. For me Fitzgerald’s novel is highly cynical, a study of how the times shaped the flawed, self-absorbed characters in the story. Though featuring the same depressing plot, Luhrmann’s film is hopelessly romantic. The blind nostalgia for the era, combined with the day-glo, glitter-packed art direction, obnoxious in-your-face 3D, and temporally out-of-sync Jay-Z soundtrack makes the film feel, for me, far much more like a fantasy film than a period feature. (A note on the music here: I actually think the blend of contemporary pop and hip hop, ‘20s jazz and traditional film score worked amazingly with the vision of the film. It’s the vision itself that bothers me a little). The fantastic aesthetic makes the stylised party sequences throughout the film work far better, but it is to the detriment of the dramatic scenes.

The film's philosophy on wealth too differs from the novel and is the worse for it. The book features a struggle between new and old money, but ultimately is cynical about wealth generally. The film however, itself an exercise in excess, struggles to criticise wealth at all. It loses a dimension from this key theme in the story.

What the novel has in abundance, and what the film severely lacks is subtlety (not surprising given the director in question is Baz Luhrmann). In the book it is Nick’s descriptions of people and his musings about their motives that take up the bulk of the pages, while the major plot points are usually stated simply and stoically. This is in stark contrast to the film where every plot turn is choking with melodrama. While I understand that these scenes would require a heightened level of dramatic tension to make for an engaging film, it just feels like Luhrmann takes it too far. There are a couple of scenes toward the end that border on ludicrous.

Towards the end of the film (a scene closely mirroring the book) Gatsby discusses his future plans with Nick, telling him “Can’t repeat the past? Of course you can!” But what we see from Luhrmann’s adaptation here is that unfortunately you definitely can’t. While Luhrmann is no doubt committed to his source text, the film makes it obvious that he too viewed it with nostalgia for the era. What is up on screen is not the 1920s of Fitzgerald’s novel, but a very 21st century interpretation of the 1920s. In itself, that isn’t a bad thing, but the high degree of romanticism and nostalgia for the era serves to obliterate some of the story’s cynicism, making it feel flatter and without purpose.

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