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Philosophy, The Wonder of the Cinema

#41 The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby


For this review I’m going to break from my usual pattern and deliver this review in two parts. The first part will be a review of the film as, well, a film.  The second part of my review will be more of an explication of a personal epiphany.

Part I

Baz, Loud and Proud

Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is the fifth attempt to put F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel on the silver screen.  Known for his pop culture influenced adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and what Wikipedia called a “romantic pastiche-jukebox musical film,” Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann has made a name for himself with loud, garish, over-the-top productions.  Gatsby delivers in kind.


The sets, both practical and computer generated, are massive, elaborate, and extraordinarily appointed.  Gatsby’s mansion is soaked in opulence: marble and parquet floors, crystal candelabra, luxurious fabrics all in a grandiose mansion in an area of Long Island where grandiose is the norm.  Gatsby’s weekly parties are similarly flamboyant and pretentious.  Gatsby, when he finally does appear, is seen by our narrator, Nick Carraway, who is ably played by Tobey Maguire, cuts a striking figure.  Aloof and regal he is rarely if ever seen by the partygoers.  Yet, Gatsby is like an egg.  His outer shell of mystery and fustian affectation in his use of phrases like “Old boy,” protects several inner secret.  Leonardo DiCaprio portrays this egg shell combination of strength and fragility as he pursues the lovely Daisy.  The question that plagues many viewers about Gatsby is “Is Gatsby in love with Daisy or the dream of Daisy?”  Carey Mulligan, as Daisy, is beautiful enough we believe Gatsby has invented a fantasy around such a woman, yet she carries the sometimes fickle, sometimes flighty flapper character without it becoming a caricature(see Mia Farrow’s birdbath-shallow Daisy).  Fantasy versus reality is a key theme explored in Gatsby.  Throughout the first third of the film characters ask again and again, “Who is Gatsby?”

The-Great-Gatsby-mainUltimately Gatsby will be a polarizing mixed-bag for viewers.  Some will love the exciting use of contemporary hip-hop music in place of the period accurate jazz.  Others will be put off or even horrified at this creative choice.  I tend to try to meet the film where it is… to see the film as the filmmaker intended.  Despite this I found Luhrmann’s exploration of the jazz age–the salaciousness, the decadence–through the use of hip-hop music jarring.  Would the film be the same if no shot were changed, no further editing done, but jazz music were substituted for the hip-hop?  I suggested to a colleague that Gatsby could be re-released with jazz music and make a further $100 million.  Traditionalists expect to hear the music of the era.  Fitzgerald was the one who coined the term “Jazz Age” after all.

Ultimately The Great Gatsby will divide viewers.  However, I found the garish, over-the-top costumes, set design, music… all make the overblown acting (see Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchannan) seem to be naturalistic acting.  The era is suited to “bigger” everything.  Bigger mansions, bigger cars, bigger consumption and bigger personalities…  Go see the film and draw your own conclusions.  But go with an open mind.


Part II

My personal epiphany thanks to Gatsby

When I first read The Great Gatsby, I must admit I hated it.  It was chock full of loathesome people.  There wasn’t one that I identified with, cared about, or even gave a damn about.  They could all drink themselves to death, cheat on each other, and generally be vile humans for all I cared.  Part of being an adult is being able to choose who you associate with, and reading a novel is like associating a group for a few days/weeks.

Amitabh in a still from Hollywood film The Great Gatsby

Gatsby looked at Daisy like she was a doll.  He wanted to turn back time and live with her in his fantasy, and the huge dollhouse that he had built for her.  Nothing should change.  And in Jay’s shallow view he was himself shown as just as shallow and vain as the people in East Egg.  His dream was not about Daisy, but himself.  It was all an act of ego.  I joked with my fellow English teachers, who loved the novel, that long before the end of the narrative I wanted to shoot Gatsby myself just to end the story.

However, after watching Baz Lurhman’s garish adaptation, I had a realization thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the title character.   Jay is holding on tight to his fantasy of his life with Daisy.  Perhaps it is a how he coped with the hell of trench warfare.  Now it has come to dominate his entire worldview.  But through Dicaprio’s performance there is more depth there than in previous adaptations.  Where before Gatsby was a shallow mystery man with a gangster dual life he wanted to hide, now there is that and more.  Gatsby actually loves Daisy.  He’s an idealist, a dreamer at heart.  Escaping from the hardscrabble existence of his early years, James Gatx sees a dream made flesh, a muse of hope in Daisy.  After experiencing love with such a one, how can Jay “move on.”  He’s hooked and always will be.


Then came the epiphany.  I hated Jay Gatsby because I envied him.  He was in love with a woman who was ultimately going to spurn his love.  He would always carry a torch for Daisy no matter where he went, what he did, who he associated with or even married.  There in the deepest recesses of his heart would be Daisy.  So why do I envy this poor bastard whose love of his life, his muse, was leaving him high and dry?  Because thanks to the mechanic Gatsby’s pain was over.

Damnit.  I am Gatsby.

I have as Shakespeare put it “loved and lost” and can’t shake it.  During a discussion about direct and indirect characterization I described how my college girlfriend could crack her back just by tensing certain muscles in her back.  A student asked, “You’re still a little in love with her, aren’t you?”  I am.  Logically I know there is no chance that I will meet, let alone sweep her off her feet, this long lost love of mine, yet there is a part of me–like Gatsby and his Daisy–that still pines for her.  Even when I did “move on” I was living in a dream work(as all lovers are for a time), and never really came back to reality.  Until it was over.  Then the loneliness and solitude returned. Gatsby at least is relieved of the long slow painful years of longing and solitude.

Lucky bastard.


About Rob Sterner

English teacher, Film buff, Filmmaker, Writer, Musician, Photographer, Runner, Taoist, Thinker, List maker...


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