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EDITORIAL – 6/6/2013: A GREAT DISSERVICE TO THE GREAT GATSBY

By Andrew L. Urban

On rottentomatoes.com, The Great Gatsby was 50 – 50 fresh/rotten (on May 30), with the 220 reviews counted; but 87% of the 57,054 audience who voted ‘liked it’; on imdb.com, the 47,330 users who voted delivered an average score of 7.5 out of 10. This is a capsule of responses that is as simplistic as the ubiquitous stars appended to movie reviews everywhere (except Urban Cinefile). But it demonstrates a significant disconnect between critical and audience reactions to Baz Luhrmann’s latest film. Neither is right or wrong, of course: indeed, as Luhrmann has pointed out, F. Scott Fitzgerald was dismissed as a clown when his novel first came out, only to become one of America’s most revered authors.

Much of the media coverage (including some reviews) that I have seen have been a lot to do with the critical response and Luhrmann’s response to the divided response. And then there were those questions about how could it be Australian*, even in the industry weekly, Encore, where the 7 minute video interview with Luhrmann by Managing Editor Brooke Hemphill is less about filmmaking than the sort of things a hapless morning show might explore. 

(To make things worse, Hemphill’s separate 3.28 min interview titled The Making of Gatsby, starts with the embarrassingly uninformed question to Luhrmann whether he ever imagined when he started out that he’d have an opportunity like that, opening the Cannes film festival. Luhrmann politely pointed out this was not his first Cannes opportunity; there was a midnight screening for Strictly Ballroom and the opening night slot for Moulin Rouge. The only question about ‘the making of’, re working in 3D, elicited the only insight about the making of the film, namely his interest in making something immersive for audiences.)

"shallow trenches of the mass media"

With respect, Encore and other film industry publications could provide a more insightful, informed and interesting coverage for their practicing professional readership, rather than say in the often shallow trenches of the mass media. This is a significant movie that took four years to make and carries the Australia brand, from one of the world’s highest profile Australian filmmaking team. It deserves sincere and robust critical scrutiny and the taxpayers who helped to finance it deserve a more nuanced and intelligent discussion about it, on every level.

The nature of the actual criticism, ranging from bitchy (The Guardian) to silly (Easily Distracted) most often focuses on the ‘opulance’ of the production, as if this were a major cinematic error. Rather overlooked within that criticism is the extraordinary filmmaking achievement of creating that opulence on screen by a team around Luhrmann whose labours are not just a matter of hard work but of smart work, creative, intelligent and bravura work. And really, opulence – especially at the Gatsby level - cannot be half opulent; that’s the whole point.

The other point of the opulent, decadent partying – to attract high society, including Gatsby hoped, the Buchanans across the water – is that it is very much part of the story. 

Not that you’d know it from some reviews, where the perceived lack of nuance is a pivotal comment, there is much more to the film than the parties and the visual grandeur. There’s the tragic character of George Wilson, for example, wonderfully, heartbreakingly performed by Jason Clarke, the equally tragic Myrtle Wilson, also superbly delivered by Isla Fisher – two characters absolutely pivotal to the story as well as the moral landscape, and presented with guts, cinematic flair – and yes, nuance. But this is a matter of opinion and I won’t pursue it, but I make the point that there is often a negative blanket thrown over the film by many reviewers, seemingly antipathetic to Luhrmann and his daring to take on The Great Gatsby.

"effectiveness of the characterisations"

I was forcefully reminded of the power of the drama and the effectiveness of the characterisations that the Wilsons generate in the film when I went to see The Great Gatsby for a second time, in the suitably art deco ambiance of Sydney’s Orpheum Theatre, last Friday afternoon (31/5/2013) after its Thursday cinema release (when the 700 seater main auditorium had been almost completely sold out). I wanted to immerse myself again, this time as a member of an audience, without the responsibilities of a reviewer.

Not only did I find the film enormously satisfying the second time, my admiration for the craftsmanship, the creativity and the dramatic storytelling grew considerably. The richly detailed film is a treasure trove of cinematic expression; every tool available is used to enhance the story, probe the characters and lay out the moral complexities that Fitzgerald explored in prose. Nick’s ambivalence toward Jay Gatsby, Gatsby’s complex morality – his pursuit of his incorruptible dream contrasting his corrupt money making – the bigoted hulk of Tom by an impressive Joel Edgerton and the ditzy emotional world of Daisy ... and more.

There are two big party scenes, each lasting about 5 minutes out of the film’s 142 minute running time; there are many intimate, dramatic moments, the introspection and the hurricane of conflict between old money Tom Buchanan and new money Jay Gatsby. The conflicted Jay preparing to meet Daisy for the first time after 5 years, in Nick’s cottage for afternoon tea, the tender moments between Jay and Daisy once their romance is reignited ...

"adding visceral power"

The production and costume design generate exceptional screen pleasures, not least the fabulously created Ash Valley, that is both a real place and a metaphor, between big city New York and the Long Island playground of the rich, where coal-smeared workers toil in a grey, industrial landscape, as the bright yellow supercharged convertible custom made for Gatsby roars through, back and forth like a golden angel of high living and sudden death.

Camera, editing, music ... each contributing, the latter sometimes risky flourishes, all adding visceral power to the words, words which sometimes materialise as a floating, ghostly presence, not only reminding us of the origin of the work but of the power within the words as written.

The many achievements of the film’s execution deserve far more attention than the gossipy chatter of shallow media. Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin and their entire team have created a compelling drama that is as relevant today as the day Fitzgerald wrote it, and have done so with soaring cinematic values. 

"what makes an Australian film"

* There seems to be widespread confusion about what makes an Australian film, even within the industry, but certainly in the media - and consequently in the wider community. Internationally (at festivals etc), a film’s official status is determined by the nationality of the producer/production company. In Australia, for funding purposes, a film is deemed to be Australian if developed and produced by an Australian company, with several other criteria required including key department heads. 

Creatively driven by the Bazmark team, The Great Gatsby is an Australian adaptation of a great American novel. The most recent Anna Karenina was an English adaptation (written by Tom Stoppard, directed by Joe Wright) of a great Russian novel (by Leo Tolstoy), produced by successful UK producer Tim Bevan. 

The Last Emperor (1987) was another English adaptation of a great Chinese autobiography, produced by Jeremy Thomas and directed by Bernardo Bertelucci. And eminent UK producer David Puttnam produced The Killing Fields, a Cambodian story.

It’s neither the location of the shoot nor the subject matter nor the source of financing (eg The Piano was French money) that determines the ‘nationality’ of a film; the source of that is derived from the national culture of the filmmaker/s. Bruce Beresford didn’t make a Chinese film when he made Mao’s Last Dancer, did he?

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Andrew L. Urban

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