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Baz Luhrmann's Glitzy "Great Gatsby": Out of Step with America's 99%

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by Anthony Kaufman
May 6, 2013 11:30 AM
14 Comments
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Still struggling with the Great 2008 Depression, enduring economic inequality and Congressional intransigence, Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" looks as if it will become a major miscalculation--not only a box office disappointment, I expect, but a significance misjudgment of where the country is at.


As the reviews roll in from the first press screenings, it's apparent that Luhrmann's penchant for stylistic excess has drained any ounce of substantive blood from F. Scott Fitzgerald's original American tragedy. In the age of Occupy and America's enduring and rightful anger at the 1%, are American audiences even remotely in a place to sympathize with the plight of the corruptible upper-class, or relish in the fanfare of their exotic jazz-age opulence. We are not in the same place as we were in the 1930s, when Hollywood churned out glossy backstage musicals and audiences sought escape in these rich fantasy lives. We are far more cynical than that. (Though we will gladly see billionaire superheroes blow shit up.)

What would be more interesting to viewers these days, I suspect, is a subversive retelling of "Gatsby," once that doesn't “get seduced by the seductions that the book itself is warning about,” as Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, told the NY Times' Maureen Dowd.
 

"What most people don’t understand is that the adjective ‘Great’ in the title was meant laconically,” he said. “There’s nothing genuinely great about Gatsby. He’s a poignant phony. Owing to the money-addled society we live in, people have lost the irony of Fitzgerald’s title. So the movies become complicit in the excessively materialistic culture that the novel set out to criticize.”

A really great movie of the novel, he argues, would “show a dissenting streak of austerity.” He thinks it’s time for a black Gatsby, noting that Jay-Z might be an inspirational starting point — “a young man of talents with an unsavory past consumed by status anxiety and ascending unstoppably through tireless self-promotion and increasingly conspicuous wealth.”

The problem with the “Gatsby” movies, he said, “is that they look like they were made by Gatsby. The trick is to make a Gatsby movie that couldn’t have been made by Gatsby — an unglossy portrait of gloss.”

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14 Comments

  • Nathan | June 14, 2013 8:45 PMReply

    Of course, because don't we want all our movies to be politically correct and focus-group tested? And if the Honeymooners and I am Legend movie has taught us anything it's that recasting a role conceived as a white person into a black person will automatically give it 'street cred' and make it so much more profound.

  • Emily | June 4, 2013 1:02 PMReply

    I haven't seen the movie yet, but I did see Moulin Rouge. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but not attempting to take a piece of great literature and translatw it into film. It doesn't sound like that's what the current offering is about either.

    And if it was, who would go to see it? I don't know, but I wonder if anyone CAN make a TV mini-series or movie which would do it justice? Are there any version which are considered to be good?

    I thought that the version with I believe it was Sam Waterson caught that sense of sadness and despair, the emptiness pretty well.

    Looks like this would be fun to watch and maybe a big hit, but it is true that movies don't deal with real people and what it truly looks like to live in a society in which the corrupt powerful few exploit everyone else.

    Well I will have to wait and see it for an opinion about it. Escapist fare is always pretty popular...

  • Shawn | May 24, 2013 3:04 AMReply

    I'm sorry, Domizianoa, your comment does not work in English, at all. You cannot use machine translation and expect to get a usable result. Better to post in your native language, and those who can read it, will read it. I did read your long comment. It said something about The Great Gatsby; I am not sure what, or whether or not you agreed or disagreed with others' comments.
    I enjoyed reading the novel, The Great Gatsby, 30 years ago, and when we saw the movie trailers in 2012, my wife and I read the book again. We just watched the film Tuesday, 5/20/13, and we enjoyed the movie, as well. I felt it closely followed the book, even with all of the issues the comments reflect. The theatre was packed full.

  • ArtistDirector | May 23, 2013 6:05 PMReply

    When I read the book, I felt so out of touch with that world, being from a hard-working middle class African American family, whose parents were first-generation college grads from poor families (I won't even begin to wax poetic on AA's standing in society during the Gatsby era). That being said, I really enjoyed the book! And with respect to the film, how could they translate this tale to the screen and NOT show off the decadence therein? I can side with or against sticking true to the period with wardrobe, sets, etc. But ultimately this wasn't Spielberg's "Lincoln," nor was it meant to be. It was a hybrid blockbuster action/romance/novel-turned-screenplay that was scrutinized to be grossly entertaining and make a lot of dollars. Maybe it wasn't what most expected, but it is certainly ringing the cash register.

  • DomizianoA | May 22, 2013 9:17 PMReply

    To Claire, and, almost all other comments:
    Your answer to this exceptional, clever, and truly educated, provocative use of words and greatly honest use of power by reviewing the movie "The Great Gatsby) (2013) from Mr. Kaufman, whom by the way, he is simply reviewing a movie and a book, with his very distinguished information and like anything else at all, it is just showing instead a not so latent, but frightening detachment from "opinions", from a real thought, or even from a feeling! I am sorry, i never comment on other comments since i believe in freedom, but, your claiming "the essence of the book", and, "enjoying whatever you were already expecting" is at the very roots of a dangerous decadence dooming the citizens of a corrupted Empire: like people going through its despair with some sort of exciting agony, over.. a flat line. And, by denying the obvious, by trying to make the best of a show, in order to keep positive, isn't here appropriate nor positive to or for any intelligent attitude. It is like an abnegation of will, a general yet radical condemn of ideals, in name of the power of money and its flaunts.
    There's no "nature of the beast", here, again i am afraid there's only a deep failure. And, lovely, but vulgar, not necessary costumes (they do not even stay near close to the period) or sets, looking exactly as entertaining as those out of those (set's) you may easily see in an average Super Hero movie -that someone else even describes as literature, uhm.. no those are comic's!), or worse, the fact that millions of dollars were spent over trying to "masquerade" an even more troubling evidence, that is for me, just clearly standing for "make believe", it is very much nothing else, but a real manifestation of the apathy and sin, we live so well acquainted with today, considering always "just what we were/ are expecting", and, not even from a mere cultural level, at least. You may feel this comment as excessive and redundant, I hope never offensive, as it is never personal, but, i can assure you, that if you were only to "hear" (without passive/aggressive mode) what's not right today in the World, or even what's the real lie they keep telling us, or, if you were just to understand it as, if you would, an agree/disagree between just you and I, or even between us and "The Great Gatsby" novel and film by Mr. Luhrmann, I bet you'd be surprised finally, because, this is essentially about the defiance, or better..let me just come down to a simple concept here, it is about the absence of a real resolution against the obvious, but, also against the abuse -again- of obvious, unconstitutional failure, and, when expressing, with way too costly media's, just all the abuse of power given to a director, manipulated by Corporations who are not here to serve progress or the virtue of real culture and historical morals, but, actually to confuse, through the lack of freedom that's been brought to us exactly by real cover-up's, such as this Gatsby truly is, that aims only to simply camouflage one of the best novels ever written, into a huge show without morals, showing how even existential despair, if wealthy, can be greatly entertaining!
    Bad taste? Well, not only that!
    In fact, i am afraid that by loosing, missing exactly what lies so profoundly at the core of the wonderful novel written by a genius, as Scott-Fitzgerald was in 1925, it is reaching out to you and many others, as exactly, it should have not to, and, in any way at all, whatsoever!
    "The Great Gatsby" is considered probably the best American novel even written, for its elegant portrait of exactly all the wrong expectations, defining once, and for all, the corrosive power of money, when operated in one of the worst way, as it is here "operated" by criminals, or corrupted individuals, just trying to re affirm or find a new meaning for "vanity", a sin, that is not used for a more social , or even, just for a more morally pertinent singular ideal (and those, believe me, are very simple, i am sure your grandmother was able to see them, way better, than you are now, at a default, of course!), but, used instead to deceive, and, to make of its betrayal, a powerful crime, by using, again, that same inner strength to confuse what's great with what is not! And to imply that nothing was real or great, maybe!
    Why? Well, so that everyone would agree to anything they'd be expecting, or not, without even thinking about the possibility of a surprise, or of a true revelation, since their power of recognition or, if you would, of judging has been virtually (and not!) impaired by superstitions and make belief's!
    Art, and its greater fountain of resources, it is here humiliated, and, presented as a presumptuous abnegation of itself!
    And, this is simply a crime! It is like aggressively going against individuality, insight, and, creation with the scope of burying, blowing out, and finally, eclipsing real, vital greatness, we should always instead remember, and, use as a referral, as an example, in our existences, without ever having to arrange anything, we truly believe in or don't believe, just in order to comply with modern and vacuous over views that take us away from classic sources, already reached and admired by many, and, confirmed as essential, almost 100 years ago, in this very case.
    Confusion is only an act of desperation, and desperation is a crisis.

  • Claire | May 21, 2013 5:37 PMReply

    If you tried to tone it down, you'd lose the essence of the book. Yes, the story might not "jive" well in the current climate, because it exposes a world that not many of us are fortunate enough to be privy to. But so do many movies, and rightly so. It's fiction, not a re-enactment of real life. I actually enjoyed it, including the excesses of it. I didn't go in expecting anything else, I guess, and it didn't disappoint. Some will love it, and some will think it missed the point of Fitzgerald's book. That's the nature of the beast, I'm afraid.

  • Ceili | May 17, 2013 1:42 AMReply

    Cinematic wealth is the new cinematic violence. We deride it while still paying to see it and presumably enjoying aspects of it. What does it all mean?
    I doubt anyone could get a modern audience to sit through Gatsby without turning the glitz up 1000 percent and BL knows this better than anyone- gild a bitter pill, sweeten the jaundiced POV intended by the book and get bums on seats, so I can see why he went that way.
    I'd argue for a smaller-scale telling and a more cranially-orientated examination of the text. But what's the audience for that these days?

  • RB | May 13, 2013 3:17 PMReply

    In this instance, your theory runs counter to what the audiences thought. I think in this case, the excess in the film worked very well. As a story device for Gatsby, it was used to hide who he really was, able to hide in plain sight among his party guests, an overcompensation for what he never had. So the excess of wealth worked very well here. Yes the Great Gatsby was like the Wizard of Oz, pull away the excess/curtain, you have a simple man with big dreams. Just my two cents. Cheers!

  • Glass | May 12, 2013 10:50 PMReply

    How's that $51 million opening weekend jive with this '99%' theory?

  • Miles Ellison | May 12, 2013 4:07 PMReply

    There was a movie with a black Gatsby. It was called G.

  • Beezdablock | May 13, 2013 8:33 PM

    Exactly. Thank you. When critics say things like that, displaying a complete lack of awareness of black cinema, they lose all credibility in my opinion. As you said, there was a black Gatsby (G, which came out several years ago and was actually worth watching as well).

  • jepressman | May 11, 2013 6:50 PMReply

    Oh my those negative movie reviews are going to sink the film? Well it appears (Saturday at 3:46P.M.) that the critics are wrong yet again and there is a good turnout for TGG. The moviegoers have made up their own minds. Good for them.

  • Victoria | May 11, 2013 4:56 PMReply

    This is, I'm afraid, quite ridiculous. Should we change the lavishness of Anna Karenina, because the majority of Russians don't live like that? What about Jane Austen's Emma? Maybe Batman and Iron Man should also be made to be 'average citizen's. You cannot change literature simply because times are not like those anymore. It's a peek into the past, and simply that.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | May 9, 2013 11:08 PMReply

    Agreed.

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