What Makes a Gatsby Great?

I saw the Great Gatsby in 3D this weekend. It was a movie that was culturally highly anticipated and one that I was approaching near delirium in my own excitement to see.

I knew I needed to see it opening weekend to avoid the inevitable spoiler of an overheard conversation on the train or otherwise. It's happened before with other films. One specifically comes to mind where I was sitting on the Long Island Rail Road and a girl in front of me said to her friends:

"I can't believe he turned out to be the villain."

I immediately bent in half, put my fingers in my ears and my head between my knees and started humming maniacally to avoid hearing anymore. I hate knowing anything about a movie before going into it, and this shows to what lengths I go to avoid that.

That is why even though my girlfriend saw it on Saturday night, I asked her to go back with me to see The Great Gatsby on Sunday. She willingly complied.

And while I don't usually write reviews of movies here, I feel so strongly about many of the things I've been reading that I am compelled to at least explore the critique of others of Gatsby through my own writing.

I will start by saying that I really enjoyed the movie. I'm almost positive that I loved it. So there's that.

The movie is a spectacle no doubt. Any classic American text that gets remade into a 3D movie will of course be subject to that adjective.

I had read The Great Gatsby twice and enjoyed it both times. But it had never really resonated with me the way it had with generation after generation of cultural zeitgeists.

Nonetheless when I heard it was going to be a 3D movie, I too was skeptical.

Because for the most part I don't believe in 3D. I am not the first to say that it is largely unnecessary. I have seen exactly 3 movies in the theater in 3D; Avatar, Gatsby, and The Green Hornet. The last one was only because my dad and I needed something to do and it was the only thing that looked interesting.

Unless 3D is going to be a transformative experience, like Avatar, I think it largely hinders movies. I love being immersed in pitch black theaters watching 50 foot screens. I love it like I love few other things. And for the most part, 3D ruins that for me.

But with Gatsby the trailers looked so interesting, so significant, that I was immediately transfixed. 

I will readily admit that I am easily done in by a flashy trailer.

I don't read reviews before I see movies, only after, since I don't want even a hinderance of a possibility of a spoiler to make it's way through. And for the most part, reviews largely share a tremendous amount more than I care to know before seeing something.

Plus, I like to see something through my own lens before trying to interpret it through somebody else's.

I wouldn't let my girlfriend tell me her thoughts before we saw it. She wasn't allowed to tell me if she even liked it.

I am a lunatic, I know.

So finally, we see the movie and as I have stated. I loved it. And here is why:

It is spectacle, but it is spectacle in such a wonderful form. It is big and brassy and flashy and slick and brings to the forefront a world that never could have existed because it never really did exist.

The Great Gatsby is a film that has been made and remade many times. And the reviews that I have read pretty much say the same thing that not a single film has managed to meet its mark. Which does not bode well for any film being made for a fourth, fifth, or sixth time. At a certain point how much harder can you squeeze the lemon, what piece of relevance can you extract that hasn't been before.

At a certain point when you've tried to hard to drill to the core, there becomes no core left to drill to, or through and so you are left with a void that nothing new can fill.

And that is where I argue this latest Gatsby comes along and expands that void and fills it at the same time.

The text itself looms impossibly large in American History, I don't know that anything, any interpretation, any re-imagining could have possibly pleased the vast majority, never mind doing it without making the original author "Turn over in his grave."

That is a phrase I find so detestable and overused that its appearance in critique makes me feel the writer is striving to be some sort pompous pseudo-scholar whom I would avoid at a cocktail party if I were the type of person to be invited to cocktail parties.

Sure F. Scott Fitzgerald would never have imagined his writing in 3D, he lived in a world that in our memory is 1D.

And that is why this movie was so wonderful for me. I understood who Gatsby was, really was, for the first time.

You could argue that with blunt force, anything becomes readily apparent. But so what? This is not the story of a man who whispered sonnets from afar. This is the story of a man who went through epic lengths to change his life and the world around him... for one woman.

Spectacle gets a bad wrap. I think it is sometimes unwarranted when it is spectacle for the sake of. But sometimes even that can be fun.

I went to a show ten years ago where the audience stands the entire time as the action (acrobatics, vignettes and more) happen above them.

In one scene a man walks on a treadmill, increasing in speed until he is jogging and then running at a flat-out pace. The pace quickens and quickens until a Gun Shot rings out and he (attached to a harness) flies off the treadmill.

It is jarring and strange.

And it becomes stranger when the process repeats itself again and again, walk, jog, run, gunshot, repeat.

You could try and pull apart the meaning for days, but the truth is that I enjoyed it. It was interesting, perhaps not incredibly substantive without applying an undue mantle to the entire show, but I enjoyed it.

And perhaps that is how some people see this latest Gatsby as imagined by Baz Luhrmann, a mere spectacle of escalation that culminates in a gunshot that nobody anticipated nor wanted, a vacant shell of a structure created solely for the purpose of delivering specific kind of punch.

I feel like I might be slipping into some sort of metaphor vortex here, so I'll pull back for a moment.

My point is, I believe the movie works. It is beautiful with a soundtrack both reminiscent and contemporary. I believe people get angry when individuals try to blend the two and the resulting product leans more towards the now than the then. But what choice do we have? If what we do strives for relevance, we must find a way to make those past icons feel present.

Much has been made of the acting in the film as well. I feel like this is the kind that puff piece magazines will rate high and intellectual magazines will rate low. 

I will say that there is something from the actors that gets lost in 3D. The emotion that is so heavy in the forefront of 2D films becomes yet another moving piece in a set of moving pieces.

So even had the acting been perfect it would not have felt that way to a viewer.

Largely though, the actors portray what we need them to.

Still, how can something that has been so over-evaluated, so heavily scrutinized, and so otherwise deconstructed function as a ship to deliver meaning to an audience?

I'm not sure that it can.

In retrospect, the movie actually feels like a memory or a dream of my own, which is how I imagine it felt to live that story.

And so in our age of extreme everything, where there are no higher-highs, and new frightening lows, I believe that The Great Gatsby of today delivers. It gives us a roaring 20s that truly roar, characters that seem like impossible figures, and a surreal world to which we can (continue) to attach our own beliefs, suppositions, and emotions.

And whether it's Gatsby, Baz, or the Press, I'll let you decide for yourself who turns out to be the villain.