The Great Gatsby and The Death of Subtlety

The newest Hollywood rendition of The Great Gatsby is more lavish, colorful, loud and crazy than ever before. So why does it feel like something’s missing?

For anyone who has seen the newest Hollywood version of The Great Gatsby, it’s hard to ignore the constant reminder of that green light at the end of the Buchanan dock. As the camera pans across the CGI’d Long Island, we are reminded of that effervescent glow to the point of unease, as though more is encapsulated in that one object than in the entire litany of dialogue, party scenes and wistful soliloquies.

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Perhaps It’s what your Cliffs Notes defines as “symbolism”or, certain objects put in place to remind or suggest something to the audience without actually telling them the answer. Symbolism is one of the reasons people are so enamored by literature and all art for that matter; it’s the classic give-and-take between the creator and the witness, the answer to the riddles hidden beneath the veneer of Romantic or Pleasant scenes. Beyond that, even, it’s a subtle nod from the author telling us that he is in control of these characters we have grown to love. And as Fitzgerald leads us through the hypnotic Gatsby estate, all the way down the rolling knolls of grass all the way to the dock, we too should feel something like catharsisthat fear that our greatest desires may not ever be captured, and that tragedy inexorably drives towards its own realization and we are helpless to stop it.

With such a grandiose maxim embedded within a novella-length text about the Roaring Twenties, it would be a shame if someone spelled that out for me.

Baz Lurhmann has never been one to shy away from bells and whistles.  Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet, for example, are not just period-piece representations of a bygone day. Their respective portrayals of Belle-époque Bohemianism and Elizabethan theatrics seem to pluck cultural artifacts from the past and future, creating worlds built out of pop culture’s echoing preconceptions of those times. Moulin Rouge! uses Bowie and Nirvana as though they had always existed in the cultural imagination, and Romeo + Juliet invokes the melancholic dirges of our era to enliven the forgotten sorrows of tragedy. Similarly, Lurhmann’s Roaring Twenties is a fusion of elements old and new. Fats Waller and Fergie get equal airtime in the movie, and not just one but several Jay-Z songs repeat every time the flappers and suits choose to abandon all things and drink themselves silly.

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It almost feels right that Lana Del Rey croons over slow-motion, Instagram-tinted shots of people swimming. But as the movie neared it’s climactic ending, I couldn’t help but feel a little dissatisfied. It was as though something was missing from the film, and it beckoned to me like some like some green light at  the end of ano, that’s too obvious.

You would think Luhrmann’s unique brand of maximalist film-making would leave no stone unturned, but I couldn’t help but sense this movie was being overshadowed by a great emptiness. Fitzgerald’s novel speaks to that feeling of emptiness by inserting subtle gaps in the narrative. Nick Carraway, for one, is portrayed as a precocious, authorial observer in the film, but in the novel his narration is much more unsettling. Beyond his speeches about Americana and the glory of Gatsby’s fortitude are suggestions that he is the source of all these delusions. Luhrmann, of course, forgoes this and makes Tobey Maguire more of a bumbling, half-drunken fool than an obsessive man driven towards madness.

What the novel gives us that the film simply cannot is what is not said. Fitzgerald has often credited Joseph Conrad as a major influence for his writing style, and although novels about seafaring or domestic terrorism have little to do with the Roaring Twenties, Conrad’s use of dubious narrators should be considered. In his 1899 classic Heart of Darkness, Marlowea self-aggrandizing moralist, supposedly wants to tell the people of England about the Horrors of Imperialism by telling his story, only to wholly contradict himself by vindicating Kurtz, the grotesque representation of the disastrous scramble, to his European widow. 

The irony of The Great Gatsby movie is that we have lost touch with what the title character originally represented. today he is a figurehead for the nouveau riche, a kind of rags-to-riches, get-rich-or-die-trying demi-god that rappers like Jay-Z (who helped produce this movie) model themselves after. Gatsby represents the culmination quick and aesthetic pleasures. It’s no wonder he works so well on the big screen, but all it takes is an attentive read of the novel to notice that Gatsby is a thin mockery of those who misread, of those who choose aesthetic indulgence over serious study. He was the sedative for the necessary death of the 1920’s. Unfortunately, Luhrmann seems to forget this, and makes him the culmination of our fetishistic need for material wealth without really deflating the folly of what he represents. I left the theater with the impression that I had just seen an homage to Pinterest and not literary tragedy.

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With the ever-increasing quality of visual effects and the ever-rising trend of high-budget adaptations, you would think we could finally come full circle, and use the extra dimensions not to sell cream-colored cars and dresses, but rather to approach serious, cerebral themes with some sense of maturity. The biggest casualty of this movie is not Gatsby, but subtlety. The ability to suggest and to hint at is not some sleight authors use for fun, but rather an appeal to the reader to get involved and not to misread. But I guess we all need a green light at the end of the dock.

 

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