Saturday, June 01, 2013

On Seeing "The Great Gatsby"

I had delayed seeing the latest film version of “The Great Gatsby” because I’d seen the film’s trailer, that had put me off, and had read some reviews which weren’t flattering. One review went so far as to call it a dreadful film, that was all glitter and no heart. And I had been enchanted by the 1974 film of Gatsby, and felt any future film treatments of Gatsby couldn’t therefore fail to disappoint.

I had also delayed seeing this latest version of Gatsby because I had got out of the habit of going out to see films. The last one I saw was over a year ago. And I hadn’t been watching films at home, apart from some favourites from decades ago on YouTube. So I’d become as far removed from the current filmic Zeitgeist as it’s possible to be.

The film-theatre where this latest Gatsby was showing is part of a multiplex that has automatic machines through which you can get a ticket, and a long counter at which you can buy fizzy-drinks and popcorn and potato chips and chewing gum. There are also video-game machines for you to play games on if you arrive too early and don’t know what to do before your film starts.

Always at sea with gadgets, I didn’t buy my ticket from one of the automatic ticket machines, but from a real live ticket seller behind a counter. Most film theatres, it seems, still employ live ticket sellers to cater to people like me for whom gadgets are uneasy bedfellows. One day, though, the last live ticket-seller will have been got rid of. What’ll I do then?

Having bought my ticket, I was handed a pair of odd-looking glasses because this latest version of Gatsby is in 3D. I thought about the fact that I last saw a film in 3D close to sixty years ago. I had thought then that you couldn’t get more modern than watch a film in 3D. One of these films was set in Africa somewhere where the natives threw spears in the direction of the viewer. I ducked behind the seat in front as the arrows flew at me. I don’t remember anything else about this film, except that it may have had Errol Flynn or Stewart Granger in it, and also one of the beautiful ladies who were big stars in films then, like Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth.

Having put the glasses on as Gatsby began, I hoped the 3D effect wouldn’t distract from the film. It did at first because I kept taking the glasses off to see how the images on the screen really looked. And when I put the glasses back on I closed one eye every now and again in order to experience the 3D effect vanishing.

As the film began, and I saw the computer-generated effects, and heard the beat of the modern music, I had to struggle not to compare all this unfavourably with the 1974 Gatsby that had enchanted me so. Instead, I abandoned my sixty-something persona and imagined I was again twenty, but instead of being born in the mid-1940s, I had been born in the early 1990s, and so had been shaped by the music and other cultural influences dating only from then.

As soon as I did this, I began to feel better, and got into the spirit of the film I was actually seeing. And I reminded myself that novels and the films of them must necessarily be different because..... well.....films and novels are very different artistic means of arriving at very similar truths. So when I saw the film has Nick Carraway as a recovering alcoholic in a psychiatric home as he narrates and types his memories of Gatsby, I didn’t mind. In fact I thought: what a good idea, given Scott Fitzgerald had himself been an alcoholic, and that Tobey Maguire, who plays Nick Carraway, is made up to look like Fitzgerald.

Because of the music and computer-generated effects, this Gatsby, despite being set in the ‘twenties, doesn’t really convey a feeling of that time, and could just as well have been set today. And if it had been, so what? Think of the various adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, some of which are set in modern times, and people like it. If a story is compelling, it shouldn’t matter when it’s set.

While this Gatsby, aside from its superb camera-work, is over-the-top lavish, I think it comparatively no more over-the-top lavish than Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” was considered to be in 1941. Had Orson Welles lived today, and had filmed Gatsby, his Gatsby may well have been similar to Baz Luhrman’s.

Watching Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, and hearing him speak sometimes slurringly, I wondered if he was channeling Marlon Brando. Whether he was or wasn’t, I thought DiCaprio excellent as Gatsby. The more the film went on the more it pulled me in, so that I forgot where I was. When it ended I thought I might like to see it again, and soon.

For me, these are always the signs of a good, if not great, film. So I give this Gatsby a thumbs-up - maybe even a big thumbs-up. I hadn’t at all expected to feel this way when I’d set out from home earlier. Is there a lesson here?


  1. Your seeing similarities between Leonardo DiCaprio and Marlon Brando is significant, because Brando played in “Apocalypse Now” the character of Kurtz, who was in his way as powerfully mysterious as DiCaprio's Gatsby.

  2. An acute observation, Lancelot.

    Now that I think about it, yes, of course, Kurtz and Gatsby were indeed somewhat similar in character. Perhaps DiCaprio, himself, had seen the similarity and so was inspired by Brando’s portrayal of Kurtz.

    Incidentally, “Apocalyse Now”, based loosely on Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, was a good example of a transposition of a story set in the past, into the present.

  3. Lovely movie review, especially with your personal reminiscences. I can just picture a little guy ducking as the arrows came toward him right to his seat.

    You make an astute point:we should all be more open to new interpretations of old classics. Thank you for the reminder.

  4. By calling my posting a review, you are being too kind.

    I’m in fact hopeless at writing reviews of anything, be it book or film, because I have nothing to say that hasn’t already been said by the established reviewers, and because my approach to films and books isn’t cerebral, but affective ie what is the effect (or is it affect?) of the book or film on the inner me.

  5. I will share with you what a really neat professor at Stanford told me. I was voicing the same concern you had in your comment. What more could be said? The "pros" have said it already.I can't write anything original...blah...blah...blah.

    He told me that each of us says "it" (whatever it is) in our own way and that has to be enough.

    I found that comment reassuring and encouraging.

    So, thanks for your review!

  6. Should you, despite your misgivings, now venture out to see this latest Gatsby, I hope you'll do a review of it as a posting on your blog.