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Flappers and Philosophers | The Nation

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Flappers and Philosophers

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Come for the party, stay for the hangover: that’s been the pattern for Baz Luhrmann in Moulin Rouge!, where riotous song-and-dance numbers gave way to pathos, death and regret, and in his obvious model for that film, La Bohème, which he’s directed thrillingly on the stage.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, party-to-hangover is not really the story, despite the movement from spring revels to late-summer mayhem and mourning. Although Fitzgerald’s narration, or rather Nick Carraway’s, varies in tone from satirical to elegiac, a consistent moral and psychological shrewdness keeps the book feeling all of a piece, even when Nick describes the vulgar frenzies in which he claims not to have lost himself. The novel unfolds in the consciousness of a man who is steady enough to have made it through Yale and the Great War without getting drunk more than once; and yet Luhrmann has found enough highs and lows in the story to make a movie in his own manner—an inspired hodgepodge, a sweeping rise and swooping fall of action, which cleverly diverges from Fitzgerald even while it sticks close to his plot and theme and earns a share of the book’s title.

The hodgepodge-enabling divergence leaps at you (literally, in 3-D) with the first image of Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, his hair slicked back and his fine, sharp features made wan and enervated, and lighted so as to play up his resemblance to Fitzgerald. If the face is familiar, so too is the diagnosis given this character. Luhrmann and his screenwriting partner Craig Pearce have introduced their Nick as a depressed, alcoholic writer, confined for a wintery season to a gated Midwestern mansion that looks as if it could have come out of The Magnificent Ambersons and is called, with a wink at the audience, the Perkins Sanitarium. Right away, as Nick begins his voiceover, the movie resolves the question that must be asked of any first-person narrative: Why are you telling me all this? The answer in this case is that Nick is trying to write his way to a cure.

Leave aside for a moment the next obvious question, which is whether the story will also be therapeutic for the audience. The matter of immediate concern is that the movie deliberately flattens Nick into a cardboard cutout of Fitzgerald. Luhrmann and Pearce eliminate the subplot of Nick’s cold, dubious relationships with women and his almost erotic attraction to liars; they rid him of the curiosity, aloofness and politely unvoiced sense of superiority that enable him to function in the novel as a peeping Tom, and suggest that the sins of the characters are being committed not before the billboard eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, or God, but of Nick Carraway. “Always try to see the best in people,” the movie’s Nick recalls his father having told him; but this, of course, is not at all what Nick remembers at the start of the novel. There, his father had advised him to refrain from criticizing people because others may not have had his “advantages”—meaning his family’s supposed innate decency.

The book’s Nick begins by confessing to a mindset that’s almost guaranteed to make a young man judgmental, in a hypocritically reserved way that allows the verdicts to keep coming. But the movie’s Nick has no intriguing complications and does not judge. As the flashback begins, he bobs into the Manhattan of 1922 wearing a straw boater and an ingenuous, scrub-faced grin that reveal him to be a mere cork, bobbing on the era’s tides of Wall Street money and bathtub gin. He’s so lightweight that when Luhrmann hurries him out to dine at the vast estate of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Nick stutter-steps helplessly down Tom’s endless corridor of athletic trophies and then staggers, with sheer amazement on his face, into the wonderland of billowing white curtains that is Daisy’s drawing room.

So far, everything has conformed to the keyed-up, game-playing style for which Luhrmann is known. The images of doughboys, stock traders and speakeasies are cut together so quickly they’re like cards being shuffled; the CGI fly-overs across the bay between West Egg and East Egg zoom back and forth like a tennis ball; the first glimpse of Daisy as just a hand, lifted into view above the back of a sofa, turns the scene into a round of charades, in which she’s both the clue-giver and the answer. It’s all ravishing, vertiginous and hyperbolic, to be taken precisely at face value and not very seriously at all: from Tom’s hypermasculinity (he seems so thick, as Joel Edgerton plays him, that he’s scarcely managed to grow eyes in his slab of a head) to Daisy’s hyperfemininity (embodied by Carey Mulligan with glowing pastel insincerity) to the “frightening” androgyny of the golf champion Jordan Baker, who looms half a head above Nick in the languorous, slinky, elongated person of Elizabeth Debicki, an actress with a Nefertiti face that grabs the camera and won’t let go.

And still, at this point, the action is rising, because Luhrmann has not yet reached his big come-on in Gatsby: the kaleidoscopic party scenes, where the entire crowd is choreographed, the music is a mash-up of Gershwin and Jay-Z, and every part of the set is at any time ready to explode into confetti, water jets, fireworks or all three.

You could resist these scenes, I suppose, though I don’t see why you’d want to. They jolt you in a way that a responsible period reconstruction would not. The exultation of the crowd blasts off the screen in an analogy to what I imagine people felt at the time, as they excitedly flouted the law and demolished social norms—not least through the eruption into white America of the people Tom Buchanan despises as the “colored” races.

To provide the climax, Luhrmann brings on the instigator of all this flash and empty noise. Jay Gatsby turns to introduce himself, just as everything around him seems to leap toward the sky; and as soon as you and Nick come face to face with him, as phony as he is, The Great Gatsby feels as if it could become a serious movie.

It’s not just that Leonardo DiCaprio, who was born to play Gatsby, gleams as brightly as you’d expect. Of course his surface is impeccable. What’s amazing is the mixture of willpower and uncertainty, mendacity and credulity, gracefulness and self-conscious posing that he conveys, even before you see him speak. He just has to smile; and a large part of the effect, for me, comes from the way he furrows his forehead and looks up toward you with a slightly too-knowing, your-obedient-servant expression that seems to have come from the face of the young Orson Welles.

I don’t want to play a mug’s game and try to guess an artist’s intention, but neither can I imagine that a movie-mad director like Luhrmann would miss this resemblance, or that he would ignore the opportunity, after Gatsby’s spanking new historic mansion has become echoing and deserted, to evoke memories of Kane’s Xanadu. Just as the audience, if halfway alert, can be counted on to think of events that exist outside the novel but are relevant to it—the stock-market crash that ended Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age, for example, or the popping of one of our recent financial bubbles—so too does Luhrmann superimpose passing hints of Welles and Kane onto the story of Jay Gatsby.

This is merely to say the obvious: that Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby is rooted in 1920s America but not limited to it, even in the casting. (Witness the decision to turn the ugly Jewish stereotype of Wolfsheim into a magnificent figure capable of being played by India’s great film star Amitabh Bachchan.) The film diverges from Fitzgerald on its way toward becoming something more general: a new version of the myth of the brilliant young man who comes out of nowhere burning for success, makes a spectacular commotion, and then fades into the twilight of just a few people’s memories.

The story of the rise, when Luhrmann comes to retell it, takes the form of a kind of movie, projected in the night sky over the bay. The story of the fall, scratched out in a sanitarium by an exhausted survivor, takes the form of writing, which materializes in front of the images like a veil, or a barrier. For Luhrmann, it’s not enough that Fitzgerald’s words should tumble off the lips of the characters or murmur in voiceover, as they do with remarkable profusion and accuracy. He wants them to be a physical presence, as if the truth of The Great Gatsby lived somewhere between the verbal artifacts left to us in the present and an immaterial vision that someone dreamed in the past.

The image from the book that Luhrmann seizes on to summarize this longing is of Gatsby standing at night at the water’s edge, holding out his hand as if he could reach across the bay and touch the green light that hangs at the end of the Buchanans’ dock. When you think about this image, Luhrmann’s decision to film in 3-D, which at first seems so frivolous, makes perfect sense. He had no better way to open up for you the distance that can’t be bridged, or to make the glittering fantasy look as if it ought to be attainable.

To be disillusioned, and still to feel drawn to the persistence of someone else’s impossible desire: that is the emotional paradox Luhrmann wants you to share with Nick at the end of The Great Gatsby. He might have brought you to this point with less fuss and bother had he trusted Fitzgerald and the actors a little more—too often, he uses Nick’s voiceover to explain an event or a line of dialogue that simply should have been played—but despite that fault, he gets you to your catharsis. The question, going back to Dr. Perkins’s sanitarium, is: What does it cure?

Only this: the unnecessary illusion that a person’s heart, or a literary text, or a period of the past, is out there waiting for us, as solid and accessible as a taxicab, so that we can enter it at our pleasure. I feel that a skepticism underlies Luhrmann’s lush and strenuous showmanship, a conviction that we have to make a big effort to acknowledge our ignorance, break down our complacency, and imagine a way toward one another’s inner lives—not into them, but toward—and also toward our history, and the artistic achievements that long ago were turned into monuments.

Luhrmann’s idea that the imagined way must be made overwhelmingly eye-catching, sad and silly is of course an unnecessary illusion in itself—but I can live with it.

* * *

It’s hard to think of any series of films, other than Michael Apted’s incomparable Up documentaries, that give you the sense of people’s lives changing over time that you get from Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and now Before Midnight. When Richard Linklater made the first of these films in 1995, the characters that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy played and helped to invent, Jesse and Celine, were in their 20s and footloose. When the characters found one another again in the second film, in 2004, Jess and Celine had been apart for nine years, and had aged into a few achievements and a few disappointments. They had something to give up, and also something to bring along, when they broke with their existing lives in order to be together. Now, in 2013, we find Jesse and Celine in their early 40s, when the weight of nine years of each other’s presence is threatening to break them apart.

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Once again, the film is part character study, part colloquy, part experiment in near real-time filmmaking and part travelogue. On vacation in the south of Greece, along the Messenian Gulf, Jesse and Celine drive across, linger in, and stroll through a setting of sparkling beauty and picturesque architecture, and as they proceed from mid-morning through late evening, talking all the while, the feelings that these two gorgeous people have for one another keep shifting.

As in the earlier films, the sequences are exceptionally fluid. The great majority of Before Midnight comprises only four long, freely developing scenes, two of them shot on the move in very few takes, in which the conversations ramble anywhere and everywhere. But the talk always comes back to the same themes: freedom and responsibility, women’s lives and men’s. Jesse feels a duty to the teenage son he’s unwillingly left behind with his former wife; he misses the boy and resents the way his son sometimes confides in Celine and not him. For her part, Celine feels a duty to her work in environmental policy and to the possibility of being something other than a source of material for Jesse’s books. Why should a woman believe in romantic love, she wonders, or be expected to have maternal instincts? And what makes Jesse flatter himself to think that he’s any kind of a Henry Miller?

With questions like these being thrown about, Before Midnight lacks the sweet impulsiveness of the first film and the suspenseful tingle of the second. But it is as lovely to look at as the previous movies and as changeable in its moods, thanks in part to the wonderfully modulated cinematography of Christos Voudouris, and has some middle-aged satisfactions that are appropriate to Jesse and Celine. These include a willingness to let others into the conversation, an awareness that not every slammed door is final, and a keener sense of what the passage of time can mean. Like the other two, this is a film that breathes. It just holds on a little more before it’s willing to exhale.

Stuart Klawans reviewed Baz Luhrmann’s Australia in “Epic Moments” (Dec. 22, 2008) and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset in “Brief Encounter” (Aug. 2, 2004).

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