The Great Gatsby (2013)

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I’ve not read the book (although I have been told to repeatedly by someone who I trust), but I know it’s very much part of the overall group of works that makes up my consciousness and imagination. How could it not be? It is about New York after all, and it is about ‘doomed love’, and hyperbolic excesses. Judging from the film, it seems like the book is also about character spines, individual philosophies, and subjectivity you can fall in love with, all things that appeal to me.

I’m inspired by Richard Brody’s review of the film whose second part I understand most and agree with the best. He writes:

The movie conveys the sense of waste but not of what was wasted, of the superfluous but not of excess, and of the phony but not of the gloriously theater of life. In its reductive way, it not only doesn’t display two opposed ideas; it offers no ideas at all.

I think that he’s suggesting that the director’s interpretation of the book is missing an important aspect that would have given the film and its story much needed depth and meaning. As it is right now, the film leaves you with a feeling of being underachieved, even rushed, towards its not very believable melodramatic denouement. But that’s where it stands as a film. However, as far as openings, and set-ups go, this one inspired so much promise that I was literally euphoric for the first 45 minutes. The metaphors flattened afterwards, and we were left with a rather unimaginative and emotionally immature tug of war game of small petty urges. Not much in comparison to the larger than life, multi-layered opening.

It was even sad to see the visual aspects get simpler as the movie progressed. The beginning was full of cinematic effects with filmed textures in closeup, and dancing cameras, introducing us to a specific location, or a character. Multiple perspectives being shuffled around, a construction site overlooked by an ad for an optometrist (old trick, but engaging nonetheless), and I can’t not mention the presence of Isla Fisher who might have been referencing Mae West.

I even excused the old framing device of having the writer be in the story as he tells it to a psychologist. This is so old and evident and overdone but the addition of a ‘cosmic fate’ forcing Nick Carraway to tell Gatsby’s story as if that was his sole purpose in life, to share the extraordinary character of another human being, inflicted a noir ambiance to the story that converged every character’s fate (Gatsby’s as much as Carroway’s) and put it on the same level. But even that thread dwindled away as the narrator receded and let the schmaltzy story take over.

To be clearer, let me explain how I viewed the story before it degenerated:

1) Nick Carroway as a talented writer, looking for the “right story”, cosmically predetermined. This is the added ‘mystical dimension’ that appealed to me. It seemed like Gatsby attracted him (and not the other way around) because as a man of extraordinary character he was in need of a scribe and Carroway was the man for the job (unbeknownst to him). I like the idea of someone else knowing you better than you know yourself, and being a sort of puppetmaster/friend.

2) Gatsby as an Orson Welles, with a metaphysical duty in which he lured people through display of material excesses (as in “Champagne is meant to be spilt!!”). This promise worked great and some of the best parts of the film are those of Gatsby telling his life story to Carroway (subject/scribe collaboration). Unfortunately his myth dies down when he reveals his love for Daisy Buchanan, and we find out he is nothing but a childish temperamental bore, in love with a face only, and not attuned to the invisible and hidden depths of beauty (the shadow world of Plato).

3) Isla Fisher. She plays Tom Buchanan’s mistress, a minor character to say the least, but with the most memorable entrance. She is married to a mental defective, and is literally considered a “prostitute”. But she has something all of the other characters seem to lack …personality! Maybe it’s the inherent drama in her life, or maybe it’s just something about Australian actresses and how they play into Hollywood in a coolly removed way (aloof).

4) Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, and Carroway’s guide into the ‘underworld’ of New York, which is mostly one crazy party inside a Manhattan apartment. This party which is viewed from Carroway’s perspective, in which he is simultaneously “within and without” or rather participating & observing, as testified by his view from the balcony of jazz players on the fire escape of the opposite building performing the background music to his monologue on detachment. This was very film noirish, and full of titillating seduction into what could have been more insights about the act of writing, and being in the presence of extraordinary characters, and realizing one’s cosmic duty. Unfortunately Carroway’s involvement in the story is reduced as it progresses to the point where he no longer matters nearing the end, and whatever lesson he learned, doesn’t extend to anyone else.

I liked the fact there was a narrator in the film, being privy to secret knowledge, and who seemed to enjoy being playful in how much he revealed, but also compensating for his own weaknesses by depicting strong-willed characters with moral ambiguities and strong physical presence. That’s why it was unfortunate that the core love story of the film was between two personalities that didn’t seem to have as much depth. But I don’t think the problem is an overall structural problem. I’m sure the book is good, I think that somewhere along the line, something happened that the story could not encompass the narrator anymore, and the personalities took over. This is problematic because:

1) Why is Gatsby in love with Daisy? She has a pretty face, but lacks personality.

2) Why is Tom Buchanan so bent on keeping Daisy? Pride?

3) To make the second part of the film strictly about the melodramatic love triangle flattens the noir narrator promise of multiple viewpoints that we see in the beginning.

4) The interesting bits: the illegal gambling bars, the wild and lavish parties, the mistress married to the gas station attendant in the heart of a construction site, the fast cars — all of that, left unexplored. The most interesting spaces, not mined, for the sake of the “emotional core” which is more characteristic of a soap opera than anything cinematic.

Read Richard Brody’s review

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Categories: Notes

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