So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. Fitzgerald’s famous last line reverberated around my head after it rolled off Nick Carraway’s typewriter in his affluent sanitarium apartment. I stood up and left the theatre in a daze, contemplating the two hour glitzy rendition of The Great Gatsby that had been shoved at me through 3D glasses.
As I walked along the lonely streets of Cordoba into the Argentine night, the city itself seemed to be digesting the movie along with me. Buses stopped for passengers, taxis prowled for a richer set. No voices rose above the noise, just as Baz Luhrmann’s New York brought his epic to a close. I walked contemplatively back to my hostel, probably feeling the exact ambivalence Fitzgerald hoped he would generate. In realizing Fitzgerald’s purpose, Baz succeeded in bringing the novel to the screen.
The new version of The Great Gatsby has drawn derisive views from critics upset by Luhrmann’s, wait for it, brusqueness. The movie is obviously excessive, but the manner in which the movie delights in its use of CGI and 3D makes watching it a great pleasure.
Dana Stevens at Slate said watching Gatsby “makes for a grandiose, colorful, pleasure-drenched night at the movies.” And for the first twenty minutes, the movie is nothing but a pure joy-inducing cinematic experience like none I’ve ever experienced. As a fan of the book and of Luhrmann, I was hesitatingly optimistic that he would do justice to Fitzgerald’s work. As the book’s memorable beginning opened before me, I couldn’t have been happier.
Luhrman slowly opens the curtain to unveil his 1920s New York. Each of Fitzgerald’s iconic characters is given a Broadway entrance, i.e. enough time to get to know the audience. From Tobey Maguire’s first narrated line to Tom Buchanan’s racist platitude, Luhrman’s cast joyously brings the reader’s literary projections to life. He successfully builds a crescendo to the greatest introduction of all, when Gatsby explodes into the movie, literally stepping on to his magnificent veranda as fireworks light up the sound behind him. Everything is as it should be. To the critics too serious to enjoy the moment, I ask, “Are you not entertained?”
During the accompanying party, the jazz age glitz is at its finest with hybrid classical/contemporary dancing, Jay-Z lyrics, and limitless confetti dropping into the pool. From the moment the curtain drops, the viewer is on a sensory high like a mountain climber catching his first sight of Everest. With the camera zooming across the bay and darting along upstate country roads following Gatsby’s perilous driving, the beginning is an extended delight. Luhrmann, aware that his outsized effects are inserting themselves into the viewer’s consciousness, comes close to addressing it directly.
As Gatsby and Carraway anxiously await Daisy’s arrival for tea, the superfluous flowers in Nick’s living room light up our 3D glasses. Putting aside his nervousness for one second, Gatsby, but really Luhrmann, asks, “Are the flowers too much?”
And that heightened sense of alertness satisfactorily continues until we, like Nick Carraway, are ripped from our chemical high in a New York hotel room. When Tom Buchanan hits his low-class mistress after an alcoholic orgy, the modern effects drop away like a band silenced by a punch at a bar. Luhrmann lets us go from the CGI neverworld, and the movie becomes a standard character drama, where the effects are secondary to Fitzgerald’s prose and Luhrmann’s cast, who demonstrate why they were chosen to enliven such memorable roles.
DiCaprio is phenomenal as Gatsby, successfully playing the role of a high rolling party goer, just as Gatsby the character does. But he’s at his finest trying to woo Daisy, showing his unfettered emotional depth. Watching the courtship play out on screen, though, makes you wonder just what power Zelda had over Scott. Despite DiCaprio’s excellent performance, could a long lost love be that powerful? Perhaps the great American love story is more believable in prose than in pictures.
The movie played out on screen just as I delightedly remembered, with unnecessary details stripped away but the book’s memorable lines honored. Slowly, I grew more ambivalent about the movie. As in the book, the treachery, disgust, and sadness surrounding our leading men and women, leave us perplexed and chastened. Given the weighty emotional drama, Luhrmann rightly turns to Fitzgerald’s prose in the later scenes, letting him explain it on his own.
When Gatsby and Daisy left for Long Island, I wanted to tell them to stay, don’t let the movie end just yet. And don’t let that tragic ending arrive, just yet. But as Fitzgerald so eloquently satirizes, we can’t let ourselves be dragged into the past.
Fitzgerald’s words hit home to me, halfway through my South American adventure. When I look back at the early days of the trip, I’m already distorting my memories and overstating the pleasures of things gone by. Gatsby’s desperate attempts to relive the past, however, make me realize that ahead of me lies the fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.