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Film Review: The Great Gatsby - the eyes have it

The thing about The Great Gatsby is, everything about it has been said, and exhausted.  Only solemn slight Tobey Maguire hadn't read the novel by the time it was being remade by Baz Luhrmann, which is so dumb it is almost okay.  I saw it last night in 3D, and I loved it.  Parts of it are as grand, silly, wild, and vivid as anything in American cinema, with the panache of Citizen Kane, the colour scheme of Dick Tracy.  Most film critics have been very tedious about this movie, because it does not do justice to their idea of the esteem in which the novel should be held.  The novel is the greatest prose poem in the American canon, and Fitzgerald was a Keats who lived too long - ruined by critical indifference and his own dipsomania and vulnerability.  I love him too.  You don't make poems into movies, and if you want to, you have to adapt them to the screen.  This movie is an adaptation, and more to the point, an interpretation, of a mind set, a story, a sense of greatness, a sense of America at its height and about to fall.  And the director has the perfect right to express his own vision.

What I enjoyed about this version is how literary it actually is - the framing device of Nick/F. Scott as a broken alcoholic writing the novel with the help of a kindly doctor works well, and the appearance of text on the screen - in homage to a PBS series on great American poets from the 1980s - always reminds us of the artifice of the film - this is a great text, being revisited.  The 3D heightens the spectacle, and spectacles - and the CGI zooming across the Eggs, the ashen Waste Land, into the big city - is both preposterous and useful.  The party scenes are absurd, dizzying and utterly, daftly, excessive.  The fashion and sets are fun to look at, and the soundtrack is anachronistic and well chosen, including Lana del Rey and The xx.

What is revealed by the film is how flimsy the plot always was.  A poor young man falls in love with a woman above his station, and, like a knight errant, sets out on a hopeless grail quest to win her hand, only to return too late to find she is married to another.  He seeks to turn back time, and to make her recant all that she has done and been in the meantime, including having become a mother; his obsessive madness grows, and he becomes increasingly embroiled in gangsterism and financial crime, while appearing on the surface to be a charismatic bon vivant.  This leads to vehicular homicide, and a revenge suicide-murder manipulated by his beloved's racist blue blood philandering plutocrat.  All this is observed by a would-be writer turned stock broker, who lives next door, and conveniently is related to, or knows, everyone in the novel, more or less.  The themes - the American dream gone sour - are illusion, delusion, collusion - and the corruptions of Mammon. As in Kane, greatly influenced by the novel, what the millionaire really wants is homely love; but money and power are used to buy it.  And you can't buy it.

The plot, cobbled together from T.S. Eliot, and Arthurian Legend, and Hart Crane's poetry, and Scott's own life, is not the point.  Indeed, the point is not the point - the book is an essay in style and manners, over content.  The madness and murder at the heart of the story are smoothed out, like a butler ironing a newspaper, by the writerly modishness.  What is forgotten is the terrible irony of the story - Daisy is an unworthy lady, and Gatsby is not great - he is a tarnished simulacrum of greatness; Daisy is a fickle hit and run driver, who abandons her man, often, and for bad reasons; and Gatsby has all the wrong values, and all the right moves - he is personality, but he is not a person.  Like America itself, he is divided, misguided, and, ever-optimistic, hellbent on wanting an Arcadia that never was.

In short, Leonardo (tanned and beautiful) is ideally pink-suited to play him, and all the garish, vulgar, commercial vim of this version is exactly the point - the directorial version of the narrator as unreliable.  We are not meant to get an authentic, admirable Gatsby.  There isn't one.  There are only versions, perceptions, possibilities. Notably, Baz grew up poor, his father a garage mechanic; and it is a garage mechanic who murders Gatsby, getting it wrong.  Baz is speaking here to his father, and to us, in choosing this film.  He is saying, you make of it as you will, and Gatsby is not the man you thought he was.  He is more, and less.  All that matters, in the end, is that you get drunk - on life, on poetry, on sex, on drink - which this film, these characters, do. - TS


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