On Baz Luhrmann’s Visual Style
Recently, I watched The Great Gatsby (2013) film directed by Baz Luhrmann, whose credits include some fairly divisive films: Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, and Australia. Given that there are only 5 feature-length films to this notorious director’s name, it seems like I should also mention Strictly Ballroom which was his breakout semi-autobiographical film – this one seems to garner almost unanimous praise.
That being said, I’ve only seen Moulin Rouge! which I enjoyed regardless of the obvious criticisms. If you told me the awfulness of it, I would not disagree, but as I’ve said in the past, the point of a musical (for me) is singing and dancing, everything else in ancillary. So while I won’t defend characters or plot, I will defend its visual style and musical numbers.
And that brings up a good point. Of the aforementioned divisive three films, Moulin Rouge! seems to be the director’s true niche (in my eyes). It has lights, flashy color palettes, and moves at a breakneck pace. To say this director suffers from an attention deficit disorder may be a fair assessment since no shot lasts longer than a few dozen frames. A recurring criticism – if you can call it that – is that Luhrmann focuses on visuals as opposed to character development or story.
I question this as a “criticism” because film is a visual medium and it’s one of the reasons Quentin Tarantino believes in 35mm film as opposed to digital film, “everyone thinks that you’re recording movement, you’re not… you’re just taking a series of still pictures… but when shown at 24 frames a second, through a light bulb, it creates the illusion of movement.”
Given that Tarantino is one of the rare auteur filmmakers out there that (arguably) has never made a bad movie… it lets you gain some insight into what you’re watching and how you should be enjoying the craft. It’s an illusion; a magic trick.
Now, while The Great Gatsby was filmed digitally, the concept of watching an illusion has not changed, but perhaps been reinvented with the advent of the blue screen and CGI effects. While Baz Luhrmann may not be the director Tarantino is, he does understand this fact. Film is visual and an illusion.
Adapting a Book
My Life of Pi review served as a review of both the film and novel – which I saw as complements to each other. And, while I list several other book/film adaptations, it’s clear more needs to be said about the process.
Although sound plays an important role in film, it is still visual, first and foremost and that’s why the two are so open to comparison because a novel is equally visual.
The difference between watching a movie and reading a book is that – oddly enough – when you read a book, you’re creating your own movie. You have your own interpretation for the setting, the characters’ features, the blocking and staging… so if a director does not create your vision, is that their fault? Or the author’s?
Obviously, some directors/screenwriters take creative liberties when adapting a novel, but those who adhere exclusively to the book (as Luhrmann does with The Great Gatsby), if they do not recreate the images in your head, then that’s arguably the writer’s fault for not describing it with enough specificity.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
So, as per fellow screwhead’s (Average Bill’s) challenge, I was to pick a film I did not altogether enjoy, but find the positive.
The positive that I can say with certainty about Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is that he recreates Fitzgerald’s imagery masterfully. The shape of Gatsby’s house, the pool in the back, the green light on the horizon, the little motor shop where Myrtle lives with her husband, the car accident (minus the torn flapping left breast), the library, the party, the way Gatsby is shot, even the actors and actresses chosen to play the various roles… they all fit.
In addition, despite all the fast driving and loud clubs, Jay Gatsby’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) voice is heard with a steady evenness through all the ambiance due to some ADR (audio dubbing). However with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) narrating, the audio dubbing makes sense through the senselessness as he’s the writer/narrator/author surrogate and hangs on Gatsby’s every word.
The fact that Carraway is ousted as a Fitzgerald surrogate is not a misread on Luhrmann’s part, but addressing the obvious. With that, the rapid movement from shot to shot to shot to shot, panning, zooming, reverse panning, and zooming is a bit of a headache, but justified after diagnosing our narrator with severe (read “morbid”) alcoholism – as Fitzgerald was. And is that not a more accurate depiction?
It’s a dizzying stupor that only slows at the climax of the film, when Gatsby and Daisy’s love affair is uncovered at the Plaza Hotel by Tom Buchanan. This scene slows dramatically when compared to the rest of the film. Pans and zooms stop, and shots are stationary, which creates the illusion that they last much longer. After all the fluidity, Luhrmann slows to a halt in an effort to illustrate the gravity of reality… truly a sobering moment.
And while critics respect Luhrmann’s deference to the novel, they disagree with Luhrmann’s belief that his Gatsby is definitive and will stand the test of time.
Will it? Why was this made (now) unless there was something that needed to be said today?
The Great Gatsby Generation
Growing up, The Great Gatsby meant little to me in high school, but you must keep in mind that not everyone had a cell phone in my high school; this was the mid-2000s, when we were familiar with the concept, but apps, touch screens, and social media had only made a small dent in our lives. I was shocked by how acclaimed The Great Gatsby was when This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, and Tender is the Night are such rewarding (and in my opinion, superior) reads.
Truthfully, I thought The Great Gatsby was made into required reading by the public school system for the same reason John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was, because they are short in comparison to their other (read “greater”) works; relatively light reading to encourage our youth to read more.
However, upon a second reading in the late 2000s and now with Facebook as the second-most trafficked website in the world, I find this Gatsby more relevant.
With Luhrmann’s choice to add Kanye West, Beyonce, and Lana Del Ray to tell a 1920’s story about a man who has spawned numerous lies and affectations to lure a woman of his past into his life only to die unfulfilled… seems oddly apropos.
Our social media allows for us to create our own personas in the same way an avatar on Second-Life does. People do not see our lives, but the rapid photo-shopped or filtered images of our lives; the highlights; us at our best. We broadcast attendance at Oxford, even if it is for five months. We stockpile novels and “like” them digitally, even if we have not read them. We create affectations for people to see success… we quantify it with superficiality, closeness to celebrities, and wealth of money.
One needs only look to the Hollywood movies to see our zeitgeist. The general movie-going audience does not sit still for small, intimate films, but bombastic, loud, 3D fairy tales that scream, “Here I am! Watch me!” For anyone who wanted a more intimate telling of The Great Gatsby, you may as well be Amish in our modern era.
We do not document our inner most thoughts without opening it up for others to read, comment and criticize; Anne Frank would not have a diary today, but a series of selfies in an annex, because (today) stories are not told from the intimate confines of our own minds, but with the internet, we’re moving closer to the technological singularity, and all we can do to not feel like small peons on this monolithic world that’s not even a freckle on the face of the universe, is reach as many people as possible to quantify our existence; it’s an exercise in optimism in an eternally hopeless endeavor.
We are not the celebrities we aspire to, but are continually crafting our personal paparazzi.
The fact that critics do not understand why Luhrmann’s Gatsby was made today is all the more evidence that people aspire to be the fictional Jay Gatsby than they do the unsuccessful Fitzgerald surrogates.
We are drunk and forgetful messes that are lost in intimately large parties of privacy. It’s why a torn love letter means more remembered than a film by an outsider who is also within.
Based on the novel, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
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