All that glitters is gigabytes

Reviewed: The Great Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby (12A)
dir: Baz Luhrmann

When the Australian director Baz Luhrmann shot his first movie, Strictly Ballroom, there was a gulf between his budget (around $3m) and his ambition that had to be bridged by enthusiasm and sequins alone. This sort of gap can result in kitsch, and the film was certainly that, but it was also sincere; as an “ugly duckling” love story, it felt right that the movie itself was sprucing up its own raggedy feathers and exaggerating its bill.

Luhrmann left financial restraints behind long ago; if he can imagine it, he can get it made. As The Great Gatsby is also about a humble man muscling his way to a position where he need only conceive of, say, dancing girls turning cartwheels through cascades of champagne for it to become a reality, perhaps Luhrmann is the perfect candidate to make a razzle-dazzle film version. Admirers of F Scott Fitzgerald may feel differently.

Some have expressed scepticism about the contribution of the rapper Jay-Z to the movie’s soundtrack. In fact, the pulse of hiphop in The Great Gatsby, or a speakeasy scene featuring Amy Winehouse’s song “Back to Black”, is only following in the fine tradition of A Knight’s Tale, which used Queen’s “We Will Rock You” at a medieval jousting tournament.

One uncontroversial area of the film must be its cast. The performers are so shrill to begin with that there is a worry they have taken the acting style of Grease as their model. Half an hour in, everyone calms down. Tobey Maguire, with his gawping, froggy face, is an ideal Nick Carraway – the naif who arrives in 1920s New York and lives, literally and figuratively, in the shadow of the millionaire Jay Gatsby. Carey Mulligan is hauntingly good as Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby’s long-lost love, a light blancmange of a woman who turns out to have a centre you could break a tooth on. Leonardo DiCaprio captures the twitchy fragility beneath Gatsby’s manufactured swagger.

It’s certainly not DiCaprio’s fault that he makes a terrible entrance. Nick’s narration, which is gauche on the page but hyperbolic to the ear, sets up hoops, flaming hoops at that, for his co-stars to dive through. It hardly seems fair that the sight of Gatsby smiling after introducing himself has to compete not only with the background fanfare of fireworks and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, but with the sound of Nick’s description of that smile: “It seemed to understand and believe in you just as you wanted to be understood and believed in.” To which the only sane response can be: no, it doesn’t. It just looks like a faintly smug smile.

In a novel, we accept a voice that tells us what we are seeing. In a film, we have eyes to receive that information and actors to transmit it. The use of Nick’s voiceover is only the mildest of the intensifiers to which Luhrmann resorts – intensifiers that have the paradoxical effect of destabilising what we are watching, in the same way that it makes our confidence wobble when someone adds the word “honestly” to the end of the sentence “I love you” or “I’ll pay you back.” The most misbegotten of the intensifiers in The Great Gatsby is surely the use of 3D. It’s staggering to think that the film industry is selling imperfect technology that has yet to equal the sophistication of the View-Master device popular with children of the 1970s; for all the whooshing, computerised zooms, the predominant visual impression is that we are watching a staging of Fitzgerald’s novel in a Victorian toy theatre.

Audiences will be accustomed to Luhrmann’s “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach but it’s disconcerting that the “everything” in The Great Gatsby is comprised of pixels; all that glitters is gigabytes. The sets, including Gatsby’s Disneyland-meets-Sagrada Família home, were built by the brilliant designer Catherine Martin, although their splendour is often undermined by the optical fuzziness of computerised manipulation.

If the most recent Star Wars films taught us anything (apart from not to see any more Star Wars films) it is that actors inserted into locations where they have never actually stood will invariably look like cardboard standees. There should be an artificiality to the opulence on display but it probably shouldn’t feel as though Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s mansion is nestling in the grounds of Teletubbyland.

None of this would matter if Luhrmann were making a point about profligacy, but his film is too dependent for its energy on Gatsby’s ostentatious parties to achieve any satirical strikes. This is a clear case of a film’s subtext (money can’t buy you everything) being undermined by the message of its own style (yes it can). What makes The Great Gatsbya failure is Luhrmann’s fear of the delicate moment, the ungilded lily. His camera whizzes across Manhattan, hurtling down the sides of skyscrapers, until overkill seeps into every quiet corner. The bespectacled eyes of Dr T J Eckleburg survey New York from his billboard, but any sense of omniscient morality present in the book is absent. I just kept thinking: “Why isn’t he wearing 3D glasses?”

Carey Mulligan in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit