A Perfect and Beautiful Imagination: Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby
by Henry Gorman
Spoilers will follow. But you probably read this book in high school anyway, so you should go right ahead.
First things first: Baz Luhrman’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is really fucking different from that book you read in high school. Fitzgerald’s novel is measured, subtle, and delicately crafted. Its title is ironic. It ends with a revelation of Gatsby’s hollowness. His grandstanding, elaborate public persona is but a paper-thin sham covering pathetic dreams.
Baz Luhrman, glorious grandiose cinematic man-child that he is, has no time for boring things like “subtletly” or “irony” or “ten minutes without any intense images or sound.” His Jay Gatsby is unapologetically great. His film preserves Gatsby’s history, but it reveals his deceptions at its midpoint rather than its end, and changes their presentation. Gatsby’s fabulations cease to be shameful marks of his hidden life, and instead become manifestations of his idealistic and incorruptible dream. As Carey Mulligan’s Daisy Buchanan would say, they emanate from his “perfect and beautiful imagination.” The film shares his excess, replacing the book’s dry sensibility with a sustained explosion of color, costuming, and copulation, all set to a furious soundtrack of thunderous hip-hop beats, bombastic contemporary pop, and roaring automobile engines. Clearly Luhrman, himself a mad dreamer of the first class, could not but celebrate the earnest young man who, in his film, once gazed at the Milky Way shining above his tawdry North Dakota home and decided that he could become more.
Some among you will shout “Baz is bastardizing Gatsby! It’s time to pan this motherfucker!” But I do not make a fetish of any novel, and I have no truck with those who demand that adaptations not transform their source material. The unsanctioned offspring of Fitzgerald’s prose and Luhrman’s lurid mind is a powerful and original work of art which exquisitely captures the atmosphere and feel of its setting.
Again, you will cry out: “But how can this be? Surely, there was not rap music in the 1920s! Girls should be doing the Charleston, not anything this booty-shaking! Also, parties were not that crazy! Colors were not that bright! New York was not that sunny and shining! Motor-cars were not that fast or loud!”
(1920s star Josephine Baker doing the Charleston)
But here, Baz Luhrman’s abandons specific visual and auditory details in service of the “feel” of the city in the 1920s. Skyscrapers had just begun to spring up. Jazz was a new, transgressive, and indubitably black form of music. The “Modern Girl” flirted and smoked and Charlestoned her way into American cities’ streets and American boys’ hearts, aggressively challenging traditional ideas about female sexuality. The speed and energy of motorcars was so fresh and astonishing that an Italian poet could build a new art movement on the experience of a single night out running over dogs and crashing in a ditch (This is in Filipo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto. Go google it and read it. You will not regret it). And life in the modern city, with its constant barrage of information and stimulation, was absolutely overwhelming to people who had just journeyed there. German thinkers like Walter Benjamin and Georg Simnel, seeking to explain the turmoil and unease that gripped their world, treated this overwhelming sensory stimulation, and the sense of both awe and disorientation that it caused, as one of the determining features of life in the modern capitalist world.
(The City as seen by Modernist Painter Fernand Leger)
It’s just impossible for us to experience the reality of 1920s New York as 1920s New Yorkers did. Jazz today is for bourgeois-bohemians and old people. Flapper dresses and the Charleston are the province of quaint theme parties. Cars are just how we get to work. And thanks to TV and the internet, we’ve been stimulated since birth. So Baz Luhrman replaced all the period-accurate things that just wouldn’t evoke right sensations with things that would. Jazz not edgy or black enough? Use hip-hop! Cars not loud and crazy enough? Crank up the speed and volume! World not stimulating enough! Fill it with color! By ignoring the details of the 1920s, he captures their feeling better than a measured, unstylized, accurate representation actually would. And that is a fantastic achievement.
Of course, all this stimulation will leave some viewers exhausted. The film could have used more variation. Its grittier moments in the Valley of Ashes, which reveal the darker side of modernity– pollution, industrial ugliness, a dirty and alienated working class– are striking because of their contrast to the rest of the film. Luhrman should have given us more of this kind of feeling– both to better represent the era and to heighten the most intense moments of debauchery.
But I am willing to forgive this flaw in such an audacious film. One scene, where Nick Carraway gets drunk for only the second time in his life, will remain in my memory forever. Never has a director made the simple act of partying so gloriously Dionysian. The whole film is a Bacchanal, suffused with the same savage, joyous imaginative intensity that fills its male lead’s heart.