"Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us better people."
-- Roger Ebert, The Great Movies

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Great Gatsby

Warning this review includes spoilers.  If you have not seen The Great Gatsby and don't want to know the end, there are spoilers below.  You have been warned. 
  • Title:  The Great Gatsby
  • Director:  Baz Luhrmann
  • Date:  2013
  • Studio:  Warner Brothers
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Cast:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey MaGuire, Carey Mulligan,  Elizabeth DeBicki, Isla Fisher, Joel Edgerton
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC
"By which I mean no one except me ever received an actual invitation to Gatsby's.  You see, the rest of  New York simply came uninvited.  The whole city packed into automobiles, and all weekend, every weekend, ended-up at Gatsby's."  - Nick, narrating

"He gives large parties and I like large parties.  They're so intimate.  Small parties, there isn't any privacy."  - Jordan

"It was also the night that I became aware of Gatsby's extraordinary gift for hope.   A gift that I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again."  - Nick

Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is a stunning visual masterpiece.  The party scenes especially are reminiscent of Luhrmann's hyper-real style used to great effect in Moulin Rouge.  But where Moulin Rouge is a story about love.  The Great Gatsby really is a story of obsession.  Visually, it's an incredible film, and a must-see.  The crisp images, sweeping camera moves, editing, and color bring the viewer into the story. Again, Luhrmann uses modern music to make scenes, especially parties, feel the way they would have then. For example, Gatsby's parties are wild affairs, with a mixture of modern rap music and more traditional 1920s jazz.  At his parties, the (illegal) alcohol flows freely, and there's confetti, streamers, dancing girls, live music, drunk guests, and fireworks.  People dance, drink too much, and jump into the reflecting pool in their clothes.  It short, it's wild.  But even the smaller party at a brothel that Tom invites Nick to, in order to show off his mistress and his power and influence, is a wild party where Nick gets extremely drunk.

But not only does Luhrmann uniquely re-create the feeling of a time and place, but he tells the story of six people, all of whom become victims of obsession.  Nick Carraway narrates the story as a story he tells his therapist in a sanitarium.  Nick's from Chicago, and puts aside his dreams of being a writer to make his fortune on Wall Street.  It's his doctor who suggests he work out his issues by writing.  Nick does, and at the end of the film, he pulls the cover sheet out of his typewriter, and places it on the top of the stack of paper that will be his novel.  The typewritten title is, "Gatsby", but he adds two words by hand in pen and it becomes, The Great Gatsby.

Structurally the film actually starts and ends with the same image, a green light blinking in the distance across the water, in the darkness and mist.  This green light will represent Jay Gatsby's dream and obsession.  He met Daisy when he was a young, penniless, officer in the army at a party.  They fell in love and had an affair, but then he went off to war.  Daisy swore to wait, but Gatsby disappears.  She marries instead the very rich, very old money, and very prejudiced and sexist, George Buchanan.

Gatsby, meanwhile, has decided that in order to pursue Daisy properly, he needs to make his fortune, so he can keep her in style.  He fights in the war (World War I), attends Oxford, rescues a millionaire who's yacht nearly sinks on Lake Superior, learns to be a gentlemen, and finally ends up in New York, where he buys the mansion directly across the bay from Daisy's house.  He gives his wild parties, hoping one day she will simply show up.  Everything he's become and everything he does - Gatsby's done to impress Daisy.

Meanwhile, Tom Buchanan, Daisy's husband is a philanderer.  Even on their honeymoon, he had his way with a hotel parlour maid.  He has a mistress on the side, Myrtle, and he flaunts it.  His dinner conversation consists of putting down the new rich (like Gatsby), insisting there's an order to the world, and insulting "negros" as he calls him.  Tom is basically a bully, and he thinks his money gives him the right to treat everyone else terribly.  He wants to own Daisy, and keep her from anyone else, but it's doubtful he really loves her or Myrtle.

George is Myrtle's husband - he owns a garage in The Valley of the Ashes, a dump and coal loading station half way between West Egg and New York.  It's where New York's garbage goes.  He loves his wife, but freaks when he realizes she's been having an affair.  He's rough, and lower class and we know little about him.

Jordan is a female golfer who seems to live at the Buchanan's residence.  Daisy tries to push her together with Nick.  Their story isn't central to the film.

What is central, is the story of Gatsby and his obsession with Daisy.  Nick moves in next to Gatsby at the beginning of the summer.  Before long, he's acting as a go between for Gatsby and Daisy.  Gatsby is, at first, extremely nervous around Daisy.  But soon the two are having an affair.  Gatsby, however, insists that Daisy tell Tom she never loved him.  Daisy tries to do this but can't.  She does tell Gatsby that she loves him now, and she no longer loves Tom -- she does this in front of  Tom.

Tom doesn't take it well, and begins to repeat all the gossip and stories told about Gatsby.  There's a fight and Gatsby and Daisy leave the hotel in Gatsby's custom yellow car.  Meanwhile, George confronts Myrtle about her affair - having found a string of pearls that George gave her.  (Pearls had also been George's wedding gift to Daisy).  The two fight, and a distraught Myrtle runs into the road -- to get hit by Gatsby's yellow car.  Later, Nick learns that Daisy was driving it, rather than Gatsby.  But it's Gatsby who takes the fall.  Tom, Nick, and Jordan arrive moments later at the accident site.  Tom pretends he doesn't even know Myrtle, and hints to George that it was Gatsby having the affair with her.  He tells the police that Gatsby drives the custom yellow car that witnesses saw.

Needless to say, it doesn't end happily.  George kills Gatsby, then commits suicide.  Daisy, who had picked up the phone to call Gatsby that morning, ends up trapped in her loveless marriage to Tom.  Nick ends up in a sanitarium hopelessly addicted to alcohol.

The Great Gatsby is a terrific, stunning, gorgeous, achingly beautiful film.  The images... from the blinking green light in the mist, to the blue sign for Dr. TJ Ecklesburg looking over the Valley of Ashes, to the incredible filming of Gatsby's parties are memorable and really must be seen.  Luhrmann as a director has an excellent gift of mastery of the visual sense - and of incorporating the modern with the historic to make modern audience's truly understand what a time was like.  I originally saw this film last May on opening night, and the theater was packed.  It was a sold-out show in the largest theater at my local multiplex.  The audience was filled with people of all ages, and many of them even dressed-up in 1920s fashions.  It was more than a movie premiere -- it was an event.

However, the theme of the film isn't love.  This isn't a impossible romance.  And it's not a tragic romance either.  It's a film about obsession.  Jay Gatsby is obsessed with Daisy.  He wants to make her his wife.  He has a perfect life planned out for them in his head, and he's obsessed with doing everything he needs to do to get what he wants.  Thinking she wouldn't marry him if  he was penniless or struggling, he leaves her to marry Tom, and goes off to make his fortune.  Everything, literally everything in his huge mansion - he put together for Daisy.  His wild parties were only given in the hopes that Daisy would come.  Everything is for her and to create this image in Gatsby's head.

Tom is also obsessed - he wants to own people, like he owns things and his station in life.  He owns Daisy.  He owns Myrtle.  He owns his servants.  They may not technically be slaves, but in the way he treats people, Tom sees people as possessions, to be tossed away when they are no good.  He condemns the New Rich, and exalts his own old money class.

The Great Gatsby is similar in many ways to Moulin Rouge.  Both have a sense of hyper-reality and mix modern music and film techniques with the clothes and set dressing pieces of the past.  Both films have a writer narrating the story.  Both films have tragic endings. The Great Gatsby has a crispness and cleanness of both image and line.  There's no fantastical elements here.  There is sweeping, nearly impossible camera movements, and a use of the Art Deco colors of  black, gold, and silver.

I also found similarities between The Great Gatsby and one of my personal favorite films of all time, Sunset Blvd, directed by the Film Noir great, Billy Wilder.  Both Gatsby and Sunset Blvd are narrated by a writer.  Both are tragic stories, in Sunset Blvd a writer becomes a kept man of an aging silent film star and cannot escape her clutches, before finally being killed by her.  Though Nick Carraway escapes the excesses of Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, and Jordan, it isn't without cost.  But the most direct link between the two films, is they both end with the same image, a dead man, who's been shot, floating in a swimming pool.  If you haven't seen Sunset Blvd, watch it, it's a great film, but there's a visual symmetry between the shot looking upwards at a dead Joe Gillis (William Holden) in the pool, and looking up at a dead Jay Gatsby (Leonardo Dicaprio) in The Great Gatsby.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  5 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Goldfinger

1 comment:

  1. I have not seen this yet. I assume the closet crying sequence from the novel is included. I can unreservedly recomend TONY TAKITANI if you can handle the subtitles there is a great homage to F. Scot's inigmatic closet clothing crying. Please please please dont check out any reviews if its new. Too many reviewers give away something you should realize for yourself while watching or not till your second viewing.