A film Mike was doing his damndest to avoid seeing but eventually agreed to, Babylon is an epic period comedy-drama about the excess and industrialisation of Hollywood in the ’20s and ’30s, and an epic bomb at the box office. Its aesthetics, characterisations, use of race and class, vulgarity, set pieces, bizarre ending and more are up for discussion. Did Mike have as terrible a time as he anticipated?
Gatsby’s lush to look at: a multitrack film with pretty images of old things shown in a new way; beautiful words that a lot of people remember from school; and syncopated sounds that evoke jazz and the twenties but also the current bling-bling life. The film is pastichy, multi-layered, textured. I love the digitized prettyness of it all; the way the pastel-y romantic images meld into one another in a syncopated flow — it’s the way one imagines a Harper Bazaar or Vanity Fair layout from the twenties would look ‘brought to life’.
If the film has any depth, it lies in its surfaces; and what surfaces! – a trail of delicate art nouveau flourishes edging into but giving way to gorgeous art deco geometry. The film is set right on the cusp where one style gives way to another: everything is a treat to the eye — the advertisements for Arrow shirts in Times Square, the digitally constructed Long Island Sound, the parquet flooring, the yellow Duisenberg, the clothes, the jewelry and the most beautiful silver tea-service I’ve ever seen.
It’s a dream setting for that moment in American culture where the Edith Wharton-esque East Coast aristocracy, not too far removed from working grime themselves, are trying to keep at bay the too-fresh flash types bootlegging was bringing into their neighbourhood, the kind wearing raked fedoras and arriving in the shiniest of fast cars — picture James Cagney smashing a grapefruit into the world of The Age of Innocence. Gatsby evokes this clash between the newly acquired and still chaffing refinement of American ‘old money’ brutes and the natural gallantry and elegance of rich moist-eyed gangsters. The filmenwraps Gatsby’s optimism, his sadness and his longing in a glamorous criminality that the film renders as sensational.
Gatsby is full of delights: the best star entrance any contemporary director has ever staged for a male star as of yet; the dishy first look at Daisy (Carey Mulligan); the dizzying fall of the camera from a skyscraper and right into the smiling face of Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire) — a tour de force of joyful filmmaking; the wondrous staging of the first meeting of Gatsby and Daisy; the car accident; the shooting at the pool; our last look at Gatsby; our first sight of Amitabh Bachan; and, not least, the way the film incorporates words and writing into striking images so that it can then romance the viewer with phrases as well as sights and sounds.
At the heart of the film, however, is Leonardo DiCaprio, the greatest star of his generation at his most, romantic, glamorous and best. No other male movie star has done masculine yearning as well as he does here; and no other director has pictured DiCaprio more beautifully or glamorously than Luhrmann (remember Romeo and Juliette?). This is a great pleasure but it may be part of the problem with the film as well — the way Luhrmann gets Gatsby to look at Daisy is the way the film invites us to gaze at DiCaprio; and shouldn’t the film’s gaze be with Gatsby’s on Daisy? But let’s not quibble, it’s a swoony film. I can’t wait to see it again in 3-D.
Note on 3-D
I did go see The Great Gatsby again in 3-D and it’s the best use of it I’ve seen so far. The way it’s deployed at the very beginning, so as to make us feel as if we’re floating into the centre of the screen and through that golden Art Deco symbol and into the world of the film, is brilliant in terms of concept and in terms of showmanship. The party scenes where all rooms opposite seem to come alive not only with music but also seem to move forward, the equivalent in theatre of breaking the ‘fourth wall, and making us feel that yes, they too can see what’s happening at the party. The way words are used so as to float or hover over the heads of the audience.
This film springs from, is surrounded by, draws inspiration from those words but, importantly, is also NOT those words, they’re just an element here. And of course the 3-D permits a staging in a kind of depth that would have made Bazin feel that movies had come a bit closer to his idea ot Total Cinema. 3-D is normally used as a stunt to offer a cheap thrill (and almost never succeeds) here the thrill aimed for is more complex and more satisfying. Luhrmann stages operatically, all those rustling leaves and billowing curtains to indicate states of mind could have come straight from Sirk. But the aim here is to evoke male yearning and the dream world he makes reality as a setting for a love that ends up never being returned. To help show us how, as Fitzgerald writes ,‘Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further. And one fine morning –’
And how we all ‘beat on, boats against the current, borne back carelessly into the past’.
The 3-D here makes a gorgeous film even more beautiful, a really good one almost great because it embodies, gives metaphorical shape to that green light, that girl that is almost within reach but never within grasp, always and forever tragically unobtainable.. The 3-D is absolutely integral to the aesthetics of this film, it’s in 3-D that this really good film becomes truly great.