I Review the Trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s Adaptation of The Great Gatsby

There’s a part in William Gaddis’s big novel The Recognitions where Basil Valentine talks about how forged paintings are always outed as fakes over time because they ultimately illustrate not the original genius of the artist, but instead show how the current zeitgeist interprets the artist. Film adaptations of books aren’t painted forgeries, but they are highly susceptible to the same critical limitations that Valentine discusses. We can see this plainly in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, a messy, vibrant, flaky film thoroughly shot-through with the aesthetic spirit of the nineties. I like Luhrmann’s R&J, despite its many, many faults. One of its great saving graces is that it seems aware of its own spectacle—it unselfconciously acknowledges itself as a product of its time, as just one of many, many adaptations of Shakespeare’s deathless work.

Lurhmann has taken a stab at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. He’s not the first. Others attempted to turn Fitzgerald’s classic novel of the jazz age into a movie in 1926 (the film is lost), 1949 (there’s a reason you never saw it in high school), and 1974 (I’ll come back to the Redford Gatsby in a moment). Most recently, a 2000 anemic TV production featured Mira Sorvino as Daisy and Paul Rudd as a terribly miscast Nick Carraway. Up until now, high school teachers across the country who wanted to foist an adaptation on their students (and maybe free up a day or two of lesson planning) have had to choose between the 2000 A&E production or Jack Clayton’s 1974 Francis Ford Coppola-penned debacle—this is the one I was subjected to in high school. It features Robert Redford as Gatsby, Sam Waterston as Nick, and Mia Farrow as Daisy, and none of them are terrible, but the movie is dull, overly-reverential of its source material, and heavy-handed. It also looks incredibly dated now, its evocations of the 1920’s jazz age petrified in gauzy ’70s soft-focus shots. It just looks and feels very 1970s.

Judging by its trailer, Lurhmann’s Gatsby is making absolutely no play at all for timelessness. Just as his earlier mashup, 2001’s Moulin Rouge!, essentially uses the Belle Époque as a sounding board for transgenerational spectacle, Lurhmann’s Gatsby looks like another thoroughly interpretative gesture, a hyperkinetic, hyperstylized film that makes no bid at realism. This is what 2012 thinks 1922 should look like (or at least this is 2012’s ideal, shimmering, sexy version of 1922.) Here’s the trailer:

Overwrought, frenetic spectacle is exactly what I would expect from Luhrmann. There’s a transposition of meaning here, where Gatsby’s famous party turns into a rave of sorts, where Daisy’s phrasing of “You always look so cool” takes on anachronistic dimensions. But the trailer seems faithful (if hyperbolic) to images described in the book. By way of comparison, let’s look at the first shot in the trailer, the car full of young black people treating said car as a party scene. Here’s the text:

As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.

“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all. . . .”

Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.

The energy of the scene is expressed—and magnified—in Luhrmann’s shot, but it’s impossible to say yet whether or not the invocation to change expressed in this citation will transfer to film.

It’s also obviously too early to make any pronouncements on the casting, although I’ll submit that you could find a worse Jay Gatsby than Leonardo DiCaprio (who I think, for the record, was great as petulant, whiny Romeo in Luhrmann’s breakthrough film). I’m not sure about Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, but there’s a certain, I don’t know, emptiness to him that may work well in our unreliable narrator. My big concern is Carey Mulligan, who I think is very sweet and I will admit to having a mild crush on—is she right for Daisy Buchanan, one of the meanest, most selfish creatures in literature? The other Buchanan, husband Tom, is portrayed by Joel Edgerton with a kind of seething rage here in the clip. Dude looks positively evil—cartoonishly so (which is really saying something, because Luhrmann seems to turn everything into a cartoon). Edgerton’s Tom presents as the glowering obstacle to the pure, positive love between Daisy and Gatsby. And here might be the biggest trip up with the film: The trailer seems to be advertising a love story.

Now, of course reading is an act of interpretation, a highly subjective experience dependent on any number of factors (see also: the opening paragraph to this riff). But good reading and good interpretation is generally supported by textual evidence, and the textual evidence in Gatsby reveals not so much a love story, but a bunch of nefarious creeps and awful liars who ruin the lives of the people around them with little thought or introspection. I mean, really, the principal characters are basically vile people (hence the reason your high school English teacher loved to point out Nick Carraway’s signature unreliability as a narrator—he glosses over so much evil). But again, it’s just a trailer, and trailers are made to make people buy tickets to movies, and people will pay to see a love story. We’ll have to wait for the film to assess Lurhmann’s interpretation. For now, it’s enough to suggest that the trailer achieved what it needed to—as of now, The Great Gatsby is still trending on Twitter. This is buzz; this is what a trailer is supposed to create. And if a byproduct of that buzz is to get more people reading or rereading, that can’t be a bad thing.

20 thoughts on “I Review the Trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s Adaptation of The Great Gatsby”

  1. I give up I give in twist my arm just a little bit more and I’ll think that DiCaprio is a serious actor. What I have difficulty understanding is what is to appealing to English majors about ‘Gatsby’.

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  2. Carey Mulligan is far from sweet in Shame (2011). She’ll do just fine.

    Agreed that Gatsby “a but a bunch of nefarious creeps and awful liars who ruin the lives of the people around them with little thought or introspection,” but the tease of the love story is part of what makes the book. You think it might be…until Gatsby reveals that that something in Daisy’s voice is money.

    For me, part of the thrill of the book was discovering that Gatsby’s ‘love’ is juvenile obsession all grown up, and Daisy’s is poisoned with her own love of money, power and youth.

    The exciting part of the book is just how ugly all these beautiful people are, while still seeming familiar. If I’m worried about anything, it’s Luhrmann’s ability to make something ugly.

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  3. I enjoyed reading this, especially what you said about Baz Luhrmann. See I like the fact that there’s absolutely no pretense at being faithful to the time — everything’s anachronistic and very exaggerated, but it serves to bring the themes to the fore. One of the things I liked about his R+J was the way the shots went back and forth so fast, and realizing that it could be pointing to how Romeo and Juliet’s romance was too hasty. Maybe.

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    1. Ah, impetuous youth. I saw the R&J that takes place in Daytona Beach or was it Miami? Very staccato and frenetic. Good use of automobiles. The audience was mostly high school teen age English Lit classes. When the film was finished, they silently left the auditorium without the usual laughter and chatter accompanying groups of teens. Obviously impressed. Was it true to Shakespeare? Who cares? It was an effective piece of theatre.

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      1. Exactly! It was an effective piece of, yes, theatre. I even like the twist at the end. Crazy, I know.

        Who knows, maybe Luhrmann’s Gatsby will also impress our high school students.

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        1. Impress them in what way? To become jaded perverse rich people who need more and more sensation to thrill their dull sensuality? US is already overdone with tasteless bores. And destructive game playing Bourgeoise. All this should be set in Europe, where it belongs. Why Gatsby? Why F. Scott? Ashville was not impressed by his wanton lifestyle. Still want to know what is so appealing about Fitzgerald’s literature. Beats the heck out of being required to read ‘Silas Marner’ or ‘Scarlet Letter’, I have to admit.

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          1. I think Fitzgerald’s Gatsby has been canonized because it seems to trace the ambiguities or gaps in the so-called American Dream. It makes a fairly clear argument that aristocratic-type class structures are not only beholden to the democratic “rules” of the dream, but that they can also thwart the dream. At the same time, it’s worth noting that Gatsby is a criminal and a fake, and this is what helps him become so economically successful.

            I think the problem is that, in its canonization, it sort of becomes this duty, this box to check off. I remember being horrified when another instructor told me he approached it by emphasizing the cars in the book (other teachers dwell on other aspects of the milieu—the music, the styles, etc.). The book’s setting may be intriguing, but it’s kind of like arguing Moby-Dick is a great read because whaling boats are neat.

            Being required to read anything is horrible though. I had to reread The Scarlet Letter on my own—no students, no teacher—to see how wonderful and rich it is.

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            1. Well, thank you. Now I know, having never read any of Fitzgerald. I am more attracted to literature by the writing rather than what the story means. And I wondered if I were missing out on some great word=smithing.

              Wealth accumulators all have to fudge at some point in their careers, as far as I know. Part of the deal with the devil. ‘Steal a little and from a tree you will swing, steal a lot and they’ll make you a king’. The Jazz Age is towards the end of my favorite period in American and European history. And a source of much of the best art the world will ever produce. Between the rigor mortis excess of Victorianism and the anarchy and chaos of the 20th century.

              ‘Cities of the Plain’ appeals to me because in addition to Cormac’s way with words, it is set at the borders between the animal and man age and man and the machine age. The coming to maturity of youth and the putting away of toys and taking up of tools. His juxtaposition of horses and cars, horses and airplanes. I will watch the Luhrmann movie to get a glimpse of this milieu.

              I am not very good at voyeurism and stories about the rich and powerful leave me stiff (no pun intended). I liked ‘The Day of the Locust’ much better than ‘Reds’ because it was more real and less ideal, and find it ironic that Hollywood took years to come to grips with its own dubiously begotten gains before its autobiographical movie could be produced.

              It seems that a remake of ‘Gatsby’ is well timed since our culture is once again victimized by the results of excess and is poised, however reluctantly, on the threshold of a sea change in the civilization. What can be said about the historical context of ‘Gatsby’ in comparison is that the culture then seems so much better and articulate than what we have to behold now. Donald Trump? Need I add any more? Europe had WWII to ‘clear the palate’ (no cruelty meant), and we have to contend with old people and deluded idealistic youth who want to return to an imaginary past by deviating from the great liberal experiment, which is what the American Dream in reality is. Same as in the Jazz Age. And as soon as the Fasten Your Seatbelt signs go off, we can go back to getting on with the joy of social discovery. Meanwhile, we may be in for a bumpy ride.

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          2. Impress them, quite simply, as any good movie would, and not only because it’s a movie they’re seeing to escape having to read the long damn book. ;) When I read it for college I saw it both as a piece of literature and as a historical document of sorts. That time I never heard of the Prohibition or the Jazz Age, and neither did I fully understand what the American Dream was outside what we here in the Philippines experienced/are experiencing. So that’s what fascinated me about Gatsby.

            We were put through Silas Marner in high school, too. Now that one I totally wasn’t fascinated with. :|

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            1. I’ve start writing and I can’t shut up. I never heard of the American Dream until I was in Denmark in the ’70’s and the Danes would ask me if I thought that the American Dream had come to an end. Part of the nightmare ended, because while I was there Nixon made his wave goodby.

              I think the American Dream is moving Eastward in overdrive. Europe has cleared out their verbottens and seem to have, from over here, a reasonably equitable culture. While the students there were protesting educational changes, the students here barely whimpered and mostly whined.

              My high school class was much more interested in ‘Canterbury Tales’ and ‘Beowulf’ than they were in ‘Silas’. I saw R&J at a U (of Ga) student production and couldn’t understand a word because the director decided that the actors should affect theatrical accents.

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              1. Oh, yes, and Canterbury Tales especially.

                As for the American Dream moving eastward, it’s been here in my country for decades now, if we go by what we understand of it: attaining relative material comfort and wealth specifically in the US. Quite sad, really. And I’m so sorry for veering off topic. :)

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  4. I hated that adaptation of R&J. Turned me off to Leonardo DiCaprio for years. Only started appreciating his work recently after seeing Shutter Island and… the one about Dream-theft, whatever it’s called. I remember reading Gatsby in high school and I was bored with it. Certainly don’t remember any of the intensity hinted at in the trailer.

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    1. Being an old …. it is hard for me to see Leonardo as anything but a teenager. I snickered when he said that the thought ‘The Beach’ was an insightful and meaningful movie, but then most great actors are air heads somewhere in there. He really impressed me in ‘The Departed’. I would like to watch the J Edgar movie to see if he got that little bitch twitch that the old drag queen had when he wasn’t looking at himself carefully enough. I’ll stop now before I get a knock on the door.

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  5. I’ve always been fascinated how technology (particularly film technology) evolves so much more quickly than language (which is at a much later stage of its evolution). If you look at a film from the 1920s, the technology (b&w, silent) comes off as so ancient, and even the settings, actors, and styles seem so frozen in their era that it’s hard to relate to them. When it comes to Fitzgerald’s novel, on the other hand, you have much less clutter and it’s so much more accessible and relevant.

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  6. Why say Nick is unreliable? Nay, he is clear eyed at all the right points: assessing Daisy as she nods at Tom’s getaway plan, realizing Jordan’s and his own limitations (it wouldn’t have worked), and seeing Gatsby, who, for all his nefarious doings (evil?, really?), as the one clear-eyed soul of the bunch. He dared to dream the dream and went after it — any means necessary — and paid, bigtime. Don’t forget Nick’s a mid-westerner, which, even in this day of homogenized sensibility, persists with a measure of the un-ironic, and well, reliable.

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    1. Way cool. Compared to today’s ‘thrills’ shows you how far along the jaded path our culture has progressed.

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  7. I don’t think Daisy is mean, but I do agree that she is selfish. She chose money and status over love – and a part of me feels sorry for people who are shallow like her. They leave empty lives.

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