Thinking about snobs, with Baz Luhrmann and Jay Gatsby

I’m thinking about two competing narratives lately, as I alluded at the beginning of my review of Singing the Earth.  Is transcendent activism possible? Nelson Mandela seems to say yes.  Rob Ford would agree, although he sees himself as an activist fighting overspending at city hall. Claude Debussy –one of my heroes—was a snob, an elitist, but I forgive him.  I love his music and understand his insecurities, a home-schooled child of a pardoned war criminal, nursing his secret shame.

We all have our secrets, right?    The hero of The Great Gatsby, like his antagonist, has secrets.

Rob Ford, Tom Buchanan, Jay Gatsby, Claude Debussy, it’s much the same.  Whether we’re speaking of the style or the content, snobs live and die by disparities & distance, keeping secrets and preserving illusions. Creatures of sophistication cannot reconcile their sense of privilege and entitlement with inclusiveness.  Our upward mobility may depend upon our ability to keep certain things locked inside a closet.  Our credibility may depend on how well we can make people believe that we are higher than others, an ascent that may require us to climb on top of others.  A genuine snob? one who –like Tom–sees the others trying to climb, and resists.  But sometimes it’s very hard to tell who belongs and who is just a pretender.

In the opera world things flip back and forth between two contrary impulses.  Some want textual fidelity, both in the accurate reproduction of the music, and  in the staging.  Others see the work as a departure point, for the director’s theatre, for the exploration of the possible high notes in the s core.

I haven’t seen anyone attempt to compare the politics of opera production to what we see in cinematic adaptation, but Luhrmann is in his way against the current grain.  Like Ken Russell, a director notorious for his adventurous departures from the original story a generation ago (and who died almost exactly two years ago), Luhrmann’s brand is associated with outrageousness.  Hm, thinking of the radical subtext of this film, a fictional study of disparities of wealth and the injustice of the rich, is it a coincidence that in the critical world it appears that minds are closed & hearts hardened?

I can’t help but think that criticism is often a test of snobbery. You show your own sophistication by what you exclude, what you put down and criticize yourself.  That word itself, suddenly strikes me as madness.  If we make something modern, by modernizing, what do we do when we criticize?  Do we make it better? Clearer?  Critics show their sophistication by lining up good and bad works, because of course, criticism is as much about the critic as it is about the word being criticised.  I talked about this a bit last year during one of the inevitable controversies (the COC Clemenza di Tito…deja vu. Nobody but me seemed to like it).

I am ready to love this film, but sad that so many are terrorized, denying their feelings with rationalizations.  I am reminded of what was said about Ken Russell, as though Luhrmann or Russell were the filmic equivalent to tiramisu or bacon, an indulgence to be resisted or avoided.  In some respects we are like the puritanical teetotallers afraid of taking a drink, which is particularly funny considering how bootlegged alcohol runs through Luhrmann’s film like a boozy leit-motiv. When you’re breaking the rules you can get a little– uh oh– drunk with power.  Give me another drink, Baz.  On balance I’d rather have Luhrmann’s drunken spree anyday.

Has there ever been a time of such disparities of wealth?  The gap between rich & poor is currently huge, reminiscent of other times of impossible gaps between rich & poor.  No wonder Baz Luhrmann comes to his adaptation of The Great Gatsby aiming to show us that –hey—it’s just like our own time.  The music is sometimes clearly jazzy, but often more like a hip-hop version of an old tune, making the party scenes very fresh, and yes, sexy.  The art direction brazenly breaks all the rules, unapologetically colourful.  While the puritans will cover their eyes, it’s beautiful to see.  Now of course you shouldn’t let a critic tell you what to like.  But wait, i believe everyone did just that. You didn’t see the film, did you..!? I know i didn’t (until tonight, on the small screen alas).

I didn’t see a single review liking the film.  Honestly I didn’t read much of any of those reviews, stopping once I saw another negative headline.  I regret that i didn’t see it on a big screen because it’s seriously gorgeous.   Why did i let the reviews dissuade me? Sigh…

Click for more of F Scott Fitzgerald

Luhrmann’s Gatsby is far better than the 1974 attempt with Robert Redford & Mia Farrow, an adaptation so respectful for F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel that you can hear the pages turning, and possibly the sound of the author rolling in his grave.  There’s accuracy, sure, but no life, no sense of what’s really informing the novel.  Gatsby is a romantic dreamer, a lot like Luhrmann himself.  There’s something curiously apt about the failure of this film, the critics putting a bullet in the film as if they were like Tom, seeking to stop any upward mobility.

But Luhrmann knows he’s making a film.  The opening boldly gives us a pretense for Nick Carraway’s narration and the frame of a novel, to set up the stunning last few minutes of the film.  If you know the book you know it’s violent and messy and heart-rending, but Luhrmann manages it rather well, with far more sensitivity than one would have expected after the silliness of Moulin Rouge.  Did any of those critics stick around until the end? Had they read the book? But then again, it’s very common to resist adaptations of books.

Tobey Maguire is perfect in roles such as Nick Carraway, awkwardly distant.  Leonardo di Caprio? I wonder how he manages to find projects that will always have people simultaneously complimenting him on his work while shaking their heads.  He has the Midas Touch in reverse, it seems.  No this isn’t the break-through to win the Oscar, but I admire his performance. Isla Fisher as Myrtle? Yes she has a solid shot at an Academy Award.  And Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan is a complete surprise, making the role much more likeable than I ever expected; no wonder Daisy goes off with him at the end.

Don’t let the critics stop you from seeing what Luhrmann did with Gatsby.

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3 Responses to Thinking about snobs, with Baz Luhrmann and Jay Gatsby

  1. I liked Alden’s Clemenza

  2. [“Luhrmann’s Gatsby is far better than the 1974 attempt with Robert Redford & Mia Farrow, an adaptation so respectful for F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel that you can hear the pages turning, and possibly the sound of the author rolling in his grave. There’s accuracy, sure, but no life, no sense of what’s really informing the novel. “]

    The 1974 version is not that accurate. In fact, it is no more accurate than any other version. But I do prefer the 2013 version more than the others. I thought Luhrmann did a great job in making me understand Fitzgerald’s tale without boring me and with a lot of originality and style.

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