Baz Luhrmann is probably one of the great directors of our time, especially because he is so selective with his projects. He brings a rare thing to cinema – spectacle. The kind rivaled only by Julie Taymor on Broadway and which, it should be clear, has become increasingly more rare in an era of entertainment rewarded for grimness and sophomore humor. Luhrmann excels at wrapping the intensity of a project in candy-pop sounds, blurring the obvious winks and nods to source material with set design, and making the monochrome color of background tell a compelling story together with the actors in front of it. Of course, I will also be the first to suggest that Luhrmann is not original. His directing portfolio consists of four covers – an astounding 80% of his work – based on material already done well previously.
Which is precisely why his career was destined to collide with The Great Gatsby.
While in college, I was a freelance writer and photographer for a few news outlets and was dubbed “F.Scott” as shorthand. I’m not convinced, looking back, that anyone knew who I was. A girlfriend of mine during junior year gushed over dinner one night about a piece by “F.Scott” that she had read, never knowing we were the same person. Even though the moniker sometimes annoyed me, I also found it insulating. I could be two different people, even contribute to the legend, without anyone suspecting. I related to the duplicitous creation of Gatsby. In the story, he appears out of nowhere with a too-casual, “Your face is familiar” and proceeds to contribute to his own legend. Everyone who meets the nameless figure is immediately impressed, convinced that they are his very best and truest friend, even if they didn’t catch his name. This is the way that Gatsby insulates himself from the world of West Egg. With strangers – presumably to blend in better, to hide, from what we are not sure. Contributing to the aura of apart-yet-separate, when we meet Gatsby he is not participating in the revelry around him. His “friends” stumble over themselves in drunkenness, yet he has not had a sip of the libation flowing from the prohibited bottles and barrels. He stands above the party, observes from afar, and is curiously aloof for someone we thought we knew so well. Every attempt to pin Gatsby down, to mark him or figure him out is gently shrugged off. No one there yet knows the truth from fiction and so his legend grows exponentially. Indeed, as the night winds down and Gatsby is about to identify himself to provide some bit of insight for his new friend Nick, the narrator of the story, a butler hurries towards them and whisks Gatsby away. As he leaves, Gatsby calls over his shoulder to Nick, “If you want anything, just ask for it, old sport!” almost as an apology.
In subsequent exchanges, Nick comes to see that behind the mystique, “to my disappointment, [Gatsby] had little to say. So my first impression, that he was a person of some undefined consequence, had gradually faded and he had become simply the proprietor of an elaborate road-house next door.” What proceeds from there is a relatively simple story: privileged twenty-somethings lament their lost youth and linger over memories of the summer romance of yesteryear. Now adults, they are unsure of how to grow up. They don’t want to be their parents, nor do they want to live the rest of their days in quiet desperation. Yet Fitzgerald, like Luhrmann, has an uncanny ability of constructing second and third stories into the background. Though the story is told in first-person by Nick, it seems the story is not about him at all. And yet it’s not really about Gatsby, either. It is unsettling to the reader – as unsettling as the eyes of the faded mural staring down upon West Egg.
The novel is an over-the-top spectacle and again, nothing about it is original. Not even the story itself, based on an earlier work of Fitzgerald’s, Winter Dreams. Luhrmann’s choice to direct a new film version of the story is perfect for me though because he provides the necessary sleight of hand to mask the familiar and make it feel new and alive. I mean, let’s face it. Most of us grew up with a high school production of Shakespeare. We know the pattern of King James English, and yet his production of Romeo+Juliet was a bolt of lightening that reopened the canon of classics. An updated version of Great Expectations came out shortly thereafter, as did a version of Hamlet set in Manhattan with Bill Murray. Shakespeare became a posthumous celebrity to teens and tweens. And though musicals had been box-office bombs since the mid-seventies, Moulin Rouge awakened something dormant. Spectacle and tangible set pieces, not graphic design, become art nouveau whenever Luhrmann has a new project. Even Reese Witherspoon’s version of Vanity Fair was a clear homage to Luhrmann’s work. But his success is not found only in the ability to do the outlandish. His work somehow plays upon the American subconscious.
Shall We Dance? brought a renewed interest in ballroom dancing on the weekends and I would argue opened the door for some of the reality television we regularly watch in that same vein. Australia, though panned by critics, was the second highest grossing film of all time in the country it is named after and expanded his ability to tell multiple stories in a single film. The works feel fresh and immediate even if they are garish because Luhrmann knows the way art works: It is never about the image itself. It is about leaving hints and empowering the viewer to make their own projections. In the same way, Gatsby is subtle but never overplays his hand. At all times, he is himself and honest while also letting you draw your own conclusions.
Luhrmann’s films are based on relatively simple material. They are the same stories we see played out in front of us every day and are perhaps too familiar with. Naturally, with The Great Gatsby, he could be overhanded and focus the story on what we see all around us. Affluent heirs, financial moguls, and a bevy of celebrities party the nights away while an exploited middle class simmers toward a violent boil. A financial crisis is always around the next corner as secondary characters cash in their bonds and check the daily reports with beaded brows. A general malaise loom over everything, protected by the security of fashion and friends picking up the dinner tab on borrowed dimes. Yes, the story is about all of these things. Yet under the neon eyes of superficiality there is a desperate cry for something clear and timeless to make something meaningful. To live into our dreams instead of allowing their realization to asphyxiate us – much as they do with Gatsby. This desire to break through the quotidian is not uniquely Gatsby’s. All of the characters, even minor ones, are stroked with the same brush. In one telling scene, Gatsby’s love interest Daisy cries over a shirt.
“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the dark folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such – such beautiful shirts before.”
That dash tells more you more about the inner turmoil of Daisy than you would suspect. It speaks volumes about the disappointments in life and the child that could have been as much as about her newly renewed affections. It also speaks to us and for us, the audience, about second chances and to what lengths we might go in pursuit of a long-held desire. In some sense, we find ourselves, our lives, being projected into the story and if the trailer for this film is any indication, what Luhrmann has done collects the mania of a quarterlife crisis accurately for the first time on film and coated the experience in a cornucopia of neon so that we might feel safe enough to find ourselves. It is much like Woody Allen once said of his own work, “I lead the audience to believe something, but the movie is really going to be about something else.” The misdirection allows us, as the audience, to feel comfortable digesting Luhrmann’s work even as it unsettles something inside of us. When Gatsby reaches toward a green light at midnight, we are haunted by the hope it evokes inside of us. When the beloved Daisy cries about a shirt, we somehow share that moment of mixed confusion and hope with her. And when Nick bungles at flirting, well, we’ve been in that moment also. It’s entirely safe to relive those times because, hey, it’s just a film, right? The soundtrack proves it.
What the story gets at, and which Luhrmann will perfectly frame, is how to determine what kind of person we are at the first of summer, and who we are becoming by the end of it. Given the right props and conditions, are we prone to use our wealth to achieve a desire by whatever means necessary? Or are we more likely to use brute force to keep the little bit that we already own just to make sure no one else enjoys it? For some, love is indeed blindness and we don’t want to see the answer to these questions. But in the event that you do, Luhrmann is guaranteed to give you whatever you want if you “just ask for it, old sport!”