Over the next few days reviews for The Great Gatsby will begin to flood the blogosphere. Many of these blogs will lament the fact that the film has been unfaithful to the novel by the same title (accusations of unfaithfulness abound…especially within the storyline.) I’m tempted to join the bandwagon and decry The Great Gatsby as a being a big budget film that defiled the American classic all for the sake of profit. I’m even tempted to call the film the abomination that causes desolation among literary circles (by the way that’s a Biblical Studies joke), but I won’t.
Instead of critiquing the rendition of this novel onto film, I want to consider the film on its own merits, and draw your attention to what I thought was the film’s greatest flaw and its greatest strength. It just so happens to be that its flaw and its strength is one and the same.
The Great Gatsby’s greatest flaw and strength is its cinematography.
As I was watching the film I couldn’t help but think to myself… “wow the film is visually stunning, but it lacks substance.” As I continued to watch I couldn’t help but feel nauseated (metaphorically and literally) because of what I was seeing. Yes the lack of morality among the characters is sickening but that isn’t what I am referring to. The film feels clunky. The visuals are excessive. And Jay-Z ruins the score. It almost seemed as though this was an 11th grade English class project. I remember doing on of those; I had to visually represent the novel The Great Gatsby. I made a diorama…and I got an A. When receiving the assignment, there was a list of things we had to do. Make sure it meets these standards, use these techniques, use these materials, blah blah blah. The list of requirements went on and on. It almost felt like busy work. It was excessive. Watching this film reminded me of that English project. Its almost as though someone said to the director, Baz Luhrmann, “Hey here is a list of cinematic techniques. I want you to incorporate all of them into the film.” The result was that all these potentially impressive and rhetorically powerful, techniques lost their gravitas. They say “more is less” and when it comes to story telling “more is really less.” All this to say that Gatsby’s biggest flaw is its cinematography.
But on the flipside, Gatsby’s biggest strength is also its cinematography. Am I simply contradicting myself? No.
The Great Gastby made great use of lighting, filters, and CGI to create a surreal dreamlike feel which is appropriate because every character is out of touch with reality living out their own deluded dreams.
Tom Buchanan lives out his in his own little hedonistic irresponsible dreamworld, where he doesn’t have to conduct himself according to social mores and ends up hurting Daisy and Nick. Daisy lives in a dreamworld that places romance and passion at the center, she ends up destroying her husband, Gatsby, Nick, and Tom’s mistress (literally). Jay Gatsby also lives in a dreamworld. He believes that life centers around him and his own desires, his love for Daisy isn’t real love. His love for daisy is actually his love for himself. Daisy is a part of his dreamlife and he doesn’t care who he hurts in order to get her. And Nick is the worst of all. Nick holds on to the hope that Jay Gatsby is really a good guy, he holds on to the hope of romance, and he holds on to the hope of living a pleasure filled life. Jay lives in a dreamworld and his moral compass gets reversed. He no longer is able to see the fact that he is complicit in bringing these dreamworlds into reality. So all of the characters live in a sick twisted dreamworld where all sense of goodness and morality have gone out the window and have been replaced with self-centered egotistical dreams. The audience gets a taste of this dream world when they see the character’s excessively colorful world through a hazy but crisp filter that almost looks “too real to be real.”
I have said that The Great Gatsby’s greatest flaw and strength is its cinematography. I said that I was nauseated by the excess in color, actions, details, and sounds. Perhaps this is a flaw but perhaps it is actually what Luhrman intended. If he indeed intend the audience to feel nauseated because of the excessiveness of the film then he has accomplished his task. But why would Luhrman want to nauseate his audience? What’s the point? I think the point is that: The excessive, clunky, and rushed feel of the film helps the audience feel what they should be feeling when seeing the characters live their twisted lives.
The nauseating nature of the film reflects what the audience should feel about the characters: revulsion.
Yes, that is pretty “meta.” But think about it. Excess in sounds, colors, and visual effects. This is a film of excess. The era is an era of excess. The characters live excessive lives. The cinematography helps create within the audience a feeling of revulsion about the excess the runs throughout the film. If this really is what Luhrman intended to do the Luhrman has pulled it off.