Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Gatsby, Baz, and the Society of the Spectacle

I'm not sure whether this is going to be a popular opinion, because haters gonna hate, but: I really enjoyed seeing Gatsby given the Baz treatment.

For starters, the soundtrack is a stroke of genius. Especially the jazz/hip hop fusion but all of it. Just the right mixture of modern and nostalgic. And in true Baz fashion, the film is a visual spectacular par excellence. The party scenes will blow your hair back. The attention to detail is exquisite.

If it's a triumph of style over substance then it's perfectly poised to deliver the book's central message. The fall from grace and the emptiness behind the opulence is well rendered on the big screen. The melodrama serves the narrative well, particularly in the hot and highly charged hotel room scene with the showdown between Tom and Gatsby.

Daisy is vapid, selfish and distractable. Tom is boorish, arrogant and racist. Gatsby is obsessive, possessive and somewhat delusional. Nick is annoying in that wide-eyed, "who me?" way of his. All true to form.

As for the casting: I have issues. Mulligan at 28, and Fisher at 37  are closest in age to their characters. Di Caprio is 38. He doesn't pass for 32. Do you think they would have recycled Claire Danes or Kate Winslet from ten years ago to play the female lead? No. Also, I  know it's part of the look but Di Caprio's make up artist went too far with the bronzer. The permatan went George Hamilton ways. And he would have had that frown botox'd to hell if he was a woman.

Joel Edgerton was too old to play 30 year old Tom. He was meant to be a young arrogant buffoon not a middle aged one. Of course my main issue with these male leads is the age discrepancy with the females. Fisher's character is supposed to be mid-thirties and therefore older. The two male leads are supposed to be around the same age as Daisy, whom they are  both ten years older than. And Daisy, pale-faced Daisy, looks even younger than that. Not a line or blemish on her face.

Fisher's character Myrtle is described in the book as being "stout, thickish, no facet or gleam of beauty." This description does not hold true whatsoever. I did read that Fisher "ate lots of cupcakes" to prepare for the role. It didn't work. Film is open to interpretation of course, but it's more than slightly suspicious that every other details is rendered with painstaking accuracy except the one character who is not conventionally attractive. We can't have stout, thickish, non-beautiful women playing some one's mistress now can we?

I read Baz's explanation for making Nick narrate the whole thing from a sanitarium. He researched it. He felt the film audience needed more context. And it fit with Fitzgerald's other stories. But still: NO BAZ NO. Bad idea.

Similarly the extra dialogue. Well-researched to fit Fitzgerald's lexicon and at times even lifted straight from his other work. But still, no. It was clunky. And why do American movies always have to over explain everything? The beauty and simplicity of the novel was as much in what was left out of it.

Gatsby is a romance in the same way that Every Breath You Take by the Police is a love song. Or in the way Romeo & Juliet is a romance. It's not about love. It's about obsession, possession and the surface of things. The desire for loyalty above all else. And how meaningless it is when it's attached to arbitrary principles.

Humans get caught up in the simulacra of love: romance. They think romance is proof of love. Sometimes the distinction between love and romance can feel infinitesimally small. Other times gapingly large. It's easy, even human, to believe the hype. It's also foolish, and dangerous, if you mistake one for the other, and you perpetuate it. It's a zero sum game. It certainly was for Gatsby. Gatsby the film takes us on this ride just as well as the book did.

Guy Debord wrote a book called Society of the Spectacle in 1967. Gatsby describes the same thing. It's been going on for a hundred years. Debord describes the history of social life as "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing." He says "all that was once directly lived has become mere representation." (this was 40 years before social media btw).

Debord posits that the spectacle came into being in the late 1920s. So just after Gatsby.

Gatsby started it! Gatsby caused the decline of modern civilisation!

And Baz, you have carried the torch.


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