Before I get into the meat of this column, I need you to know a few things: I love the written or spoken word, I adore jumping into fantasy at movies, TV or the theatre, and I am usually very receptive to most creative endeavors. I walked out of a movie only once, when Roman Polanski’s searing and ghastly “Repulsion,” starring Catherine Deneuve, nauseated me. Since then, I have watched hundreds of films, some much more graphic and frightening than that one, and managed to stay seated.
You should also know that I understand the different tastes of moviegoers, the freedom a director has to “take liberties” with the original work on which the movie is based; I sanction some exaggeration for a visual impact. I also know that I have seen many movies based on literature that don’t or can’t re-create the experience of reading and the individual imagination exercised in creating one’s own vision from the description and clues on the page. I am aware that most movies have trouble capturing the breadth and depth and scope of a work of literature: different media have different time constraints.
All these caveats aside, I must say I despised the latest film version of “The Great Gatsby.” I went in with an open mind, knowing from reviews of its bigness and some of the additions Baz Luhrmann, the director, made to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s concepts. I had even heard that Jay-Z’s music was to supplement or replace the magnificent jazz of that period; as it turns out, I hardly noticed that aspect of the production. What I did notice, even though I had liked Luhrmann’s “Australia” and “Moulin Rouge,” was what I finally felt as a horrible distortion of all that Fitzgerald’s book had conveyed.
There is a problem here, which I’m sure didn’t deter Mr. Luhrmann: “The Great Gatsby” (book) is one of my all-time favorites. I have lovingly taught it for years and each time been impressed by its subtlety, its poetry, and the portrayal of characters who represented much more than their surface depictions. I have since read in a current magazine some letters by people who have never found the book to be all we Fitzgerald lovers have found. Nonetheless, here are my quarrels with the most recent motion picture degradation of a fine work of art.
Every single thing was exaggerated beyond even our abilities to suspend disbelief. The streets of New York were more crowded than they would be, except on New Year’s Eve. The night-club dancers were more provocative than necessary. The ash heap became a grotesque ash pile a half-mile wide, peopled by drones shoveling 24 hours a day, and the Gatsby mansion was so over-the-wall with its exquisite and grand décor, along with the parties peopled by more flashy attendees than seems even slightly feasible.
Many of the images were overblown, the worst being the delicate poetry of the book’s last page, with its green lights forever beckoning to the world and Gatsby’s dreams. Why the director chose to put the image behind the titles and then hammer it to us through the whole rest of the film is beyond me. Perhaps Baz doesn’t credit contemporary audiences with intuiting magic in a few phrases; maybe he thinks that paying moviegoers are so used to exaggerated car chases and violence and over-statement that they would not be able to grasp subtlety. By the way, car chases popped up in this film. The yellow Duesenberg would be sufficient to make the point about the confusion over the drivers without the balloon treatment it was given.
Finally, I felt that the relationships between the mixed package of lovers was thin, unreal, phony and not affecting at all. The only things I can accept as legit are the lavish costumes, the cinematography and, yes, much of the music.
The book examines how the “great American dream” of home, wealth and perhaps social acceptance can be as hollow as Jay Gatsby (the ever-optimist) found it to be. I know Fitzgerald grappled with that, and his alcoholism and Hollywood rejection didn’t help him achieve his dream. In spite of that, he created some everlasting pieces of writing, not to be diminished by dissection and post-psychoanalyzing. The work stands on its own. Baz apparently missed the meaning of the book. He has thrown massive amounts of money to create a distortion of Fitzgerald’s examination of materialism. Now there’s an irony Fitzgerald, the “old sport,” might appreciate.