Luhrmann’s vulgarity is designed to win over the young audience, and it suggests that he’s less a filmmaker than a music-video director with endless resources and a stunning absence of taste.I saw the film two times, once last May right after the semester had ended, with friends, once with my oldest friend in Northern California a month later. In between, I read the novel on the plane back to America, in one sitting. It was beautiful.
In the case of both screenings, I liked the film a lot more than almost everyone I saw it with. I have not had a special attachment to the novel, although I was very glad to read it again, and admired it very much. Its narrative delicacy in contradistinction to what its narrator witnesses is the source of its great beauty. I loved the vividness of the film, its sense of a life careening out of control, the material greed that was almost an innocence as enacted by the eponymous hero, the way it horrifies and enthralls, how appalling and how tragic. I did not mind that the film took liberties with the book, perhaps egregious liberties. I appreciated, really, that the film was not the book, that as an adaptation it was aggressively its own thing, bad taste or not (Stephanie Zacharek: "The Great Gatsby is both too much and what Luhrmann wants, less a movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel than a movie version of Jay Gatsby himself. It's an expressionist work, a story reinvented to the point of total self-invention, polished to a handsome sheen and possessing no class or taste beyond the kind you can buy. And those are the reasons to love it.")
Because the lead of both films is Leonardo diCaprio--apt, no possible better lead in my opinion--there's an almost eerie connection between TGG and The Wolf of Wall Street, another film that is excessive in so many ways it's almost impossible to enumerate them. (Daughter, to me: Are you going to see TWoWS? Me: Yes, probably. Daughter: I don't know, mom. Do you want to see Leonardo diCaprio snort cocaine from a hooker's ***? Me: [laughs] Daughter: No, literally, mom, that's like the first shot of the movie: Leonardo diCaprio snorting cocaine right out of a hooker's ***.)
(Let me state parenthetically that I occasionally find myself demurring at the prospect of film-as-ordeal: the kind of film that has the overt, explicit design of putting you through the wringer. This includes most war films, action films of all stripes, horror films, and very, very long films. Sometimes I think, yeah! I want that and the fact that there is more of it makes it even better! bring it! And other times, I think, NO. And that is all.
The historian and I had many a brief conversation over a period of weeks about TWoWS:
"What do you think?"
"Well, don't you want to see it?"
"Yes, I do, but what about you?"
"I want to see it if you want to see it."
... "but maybe you should read some reviews, just to be sure."
(I will leave it to you to guess who played which role in this short little documentary film entitled TWoWS: To See or Not to See.))
We did, finallly, see TWoWS. It was approximately 30 minutes too long. If Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker had wanted to take to time to sit down with me, I would have helped them figure out which 30 minutes to cut (suggestions: cut that dumb, so-called "hilarious" Quaalude scene, about 30% less cocaine/hooker scenes, approximately 25% less insane shouting, particularly that which occurs either poolside and/or on boats. Also, and it pains me to say it, maybe 15% less Jonah Hill.).
But that said, the film gets something a little terrifying right about America, about hyper-capitalism, about who we are. Today, I read this in an article in Esquire:
We have been pagans since the sixties at least. We revel in the force of ourselves and the forces of nature. The mysteries we worship are the mysteries of science. We're obsessed with football and UFC--sports in which men undergo pain and encounter the reality of death in order to amuse us. Our feasts are elaborate, undertaken with extreme seriousness and a willingness to scour the globe for the most extreme ingredients, including an exciting powder, taken through the nose, that tens of thousands die to supply. We consider total sexual promiscuity a basic human right. One of the most common mistakes in American intellectual life is the idea that the country is in the middle of a culture war, with Christian traditionalists on one side and atheist socialists on the other. The soul of America is up for grabs! Except the soul of America belongs to neither side of that highfalutin intellectual debate. We live in a world of flesh and numbers, pain and tolerance, a world of might--all of us. (Stephen Marche, "Finally, We Pagans Get a New Pope," Esquire March 2014).Yes, that about sums it up.
These may not be fully great films, or completely finished works of art. But I am thinking that they are both necessary. Or at least completely of our moment. They are both talking to us, right now, and telling something like the truth.
[update: see this essay (by A.O. Scott) on diCaprio in the Sunday Feb. 23, 2014 NYTimes.]