The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby (2013), directed by Baz Luhrmann

I did read The Great Gatsby. 

It was the summer (or winter?) of 2003 (2004? 2002?). Those were heady days. Okay, so I don’t really know when it was but it was probably 10 years ago now, and I remember very little of it other than I thought it was fantastic and something about a green light. (Listen, I read a lot for my degree, there isn’t room for everything up there. That and, you know, drinking.)

Baz Luhrmann’s new adaptation of the famed novel gave me enough of a sense of what I loved about the book to make me want to go back and read it again. It reminded me what I dug about  the beautiful tragedy of Jay Gatsby’s downfall. But I doubt I’ll have any desire to ever see the movie again.

It’s not that Luhrmann’s film is terrible, it’s just not very good. It has moments of greatness, particularly in the visuals and performances. I admired its gall, its ambition, the sheer scope of the whole thing. But in its bombastic excess it losses the humanity of the story. For all its splendor it leaves you wondering what all the fuss was about.

I realize some of my problems with Luhrmann are personal. Not as in he slept with my sister and never called her personal or anything like that, I just mean I don’t really get his whole…thing.

If Baz invited me to a party, I don’t think I would have a very good time. I wouldn’t like the music, the décor would seem gaudy to me and his friends would all strike me as silly and intolerable. They would probably all try to convince me to “loosen up” and I might for a time, enjoying his quality booze and quietly observing the madness, but I would leave early and likely not attend another.

Watching his movies is a similar experience. Normally I love the frenetic energy of a frantic, swirling movie like The Great Gatsby, but there’s something about Luhrmann’s style which prevents me from getting caught up in it. His insistence on using modern music annoyed me (especially when I realized Jay-Z [Yup!] is an executive producer, hence his prevalence on the soundtrack). I wanted to throttle most of his over-the-top theatrical types in the party scene. I felt more in common with Tom Buchanan than Gatsby when it came to the extravagance of it all.

Maybe that says more about me than Luhrmann, I’m willing to accept that. But I still believe the man is all style  And his style is akin to some foppish cabaret that might be appeal to some but likely wouldn’t see my business.

And it especially doesn’t work for a piece like Gatsby, where the whole point is how vacuous and empty all this partying like it’s pre-1929 is. Gatsby is a hero, because of his hope. He may be naive and pitiable, but his innocent hope for meaning is the core of the story. It is the meaningless excess of the times he lives in which is his downfall, even as he attempts to harness it for his noble, misguided pursuits. It is the enemy.

But it’s hardly the enemy in this film. While it may not be to my taste, it’s certainly Luhrmann’s, especially as he’s declared this summer to be the summer of Gatsby. I suppose the point is to have the audience understand the draw, but like so many films about excess and degradation, the form of the movie does far more to celebrate it than it ever does to denounce or question.

In the end I don’t believe you can have both when it comes to The Great Gatsby. To have a film celebrating the theatricality and excess of the times, while at the same time trying to get across the tragic downfall of Jay Gatsby, is to have a film divided against itself.

The Great Gatsby is in cinemas now.

Django Unchained

Django Unchained (2012), directed by Quentin Tarantino

When a friend asked me for my most anticipated film of 2012, way back in January or so of that same year, I said it was tie between Cogan’s Trade (which turned into Killing Them Softly) and Django Unchained.

No real point to the story other than to establish that this was the film of all films for me this year.

But, just like Killing Them Softly, I didn’t get the experience I had anticipated.

Django Unchained is a lot of things. It’s a hell of a film to watch. It’s violent and exciting. It’s full of wonderful, exuberant performances. It’s gritty and running high on cinematic love. The music is perfect. It’s exploitation candy and appropriately sweet. It’s wonderfully crafted and brimming with Tarantino’s nerdy appreciation of trashy movies.

On one level it’s really quite fantastic.

But I feel 2012 was the year of slight, nagging disappointment for me and I’m afraid Django did not break the trend.

While I enjoyed watching it, I couldn’t help but feel it lacked something and that it falls short of what the wonderful Inglorious Basterds accomplished. I also worried that maybe I’m getting a little tired of this phase of Tarantino’s career and that the cinematic chameleon needs to mix it up again. It had a slight odour of “been here, done that.”

People (who, you ask? You know, just people) are calling this Tarantino’s second “revenge” film of a possible trilogy. Well, I don’t know about that. For one thing what’s he going to tackle next? Chinese railroad workers killing railroad tycoons? Indians rising up to kill British colonists? He’s talked about  making a film called Killer Crows about a group of African-American WW2 soldiers that rise up and kill a bunch of white soldiers, but can you see that happening?

In my opinion (not at all humble), Django completes a “revenge” trilogy that started with Death Proof. Stylistically it’s quite different, but it’s about women rising up and kicking ass against violence against women. People dismiss Death Proof as a rare failure from Tarantino, but I think it’s one of his best (due partly to my obsession with carsploitation films) and thematically fits here.

So, basically I’m saying trilogy over, let’s do something different Quentin.

It’s not that it’s a bad movie, at all. It isn’t, it’s a hell of a lot of fun, it’s what cinema needs once in a while. I already want to see it again because it thrilled the heck out of me. But I guess with Django, as opposed to Basterds, that’s all it was to me. I didn’t think it shattered expectations, it didn’t fly in the face of modern film. It didn’t strike me as “important” (groan). I’m not sorry I didn’t see it before I wrote my “best of the year” list.

Mainly it didn’t achieve those heights because Tarantino already did it, which is sort of a compliment. And there is an argument to be made that Django tackles slavery in a more honest, brutal, realistic way than a film like Lincoln, my pick for best of the year, ever could. And that’s fair. I do believe in the power of exploitation cinema to reveal the dark corners of human existence. Django did accomplish that, and rather well too. And I enjoyed watching how Tarantino walked the line of exploiting slavery for a revenge film, but only letting the audience enjoy the revenge, not the violence and sex associated with slavery. That would have been terrible.

Maybe it’s a case of having to high of expectations. I’m not sure. But for whatever reason Django Unchained was not the masterpiece I had prepared myself for. Full disclosure: I may end up loving it someday.

Django Unchained is in cinemas now.