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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The Sellout makes us question how far equality has come – and still has to go

American author Paul Beatty’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel shows how “equal justice under law” remains an abstract concept for much of black America.

At the start of The Sellout, one of two American novels shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, a man is called before the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, charged with “abject violation” of “the Civil Rights Acts . . . the Equal Rights Act of 1963, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, and at least six of the goddamn Ten Commandments”. The defendant, the son of “the esteemed African-American psychologist F K Me”, shows his contempt for the highest court in the land by stuffing a pipe full of home-grown weed and getting thoroughly, brazenly, blazed. The police officer beside him offers up her lighter as the man tells us that he has “been charged with a crime so heinous that busting [him] for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering and a multinational oil company like British Petroleum with littering”.

“N****r, are you crazy?” blurts out the lone black judge on the bench, unsure how to interject formally, never having done it before. The fulminating justice wants to know “how it is that in this day and age a black man can violate the hallowed principles of the Thirteenth Amendment by owning a slave” and how that same man could “wilfully ignore the Fourteenth Amendment and argue that sometimes segregation brings people together”.

Over the course of his fourth novel, Beatty – who teaches creative writing at Columbia University in New York – deconstructs this surreal tableau to show the many ways in which “equal justice under law” remains an abstract concept for much of black America, making a return to the bad old ways seem somehow pragmatic, perhaps even humane. “It’s illegal to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, right?” the defendant notes, on his first appearance in court. “Well, I’ve whispered ‘racism’ in a post-racial world.”

This takes us to the book’s central dilemma: schooled in “liberation psychology” and “the plight of the black race” by his eccentric father in Dickens, a ghetto community on the outskirts of southern LA, our narrator is deemed a “sellout” by his girlfriend, Marpessa, and by Foy Cheshire, the leader of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, the “local think tank” and the “closest thing the city had to a representative government”. He is a sellout because despite “countless California cruelties and slights against the blacks . . .
like Propositions 8 and 187, the disappearance of social welfare, David Cronenberg’s Crash, and Dave Eggers’s do-gooder condescension”, he hasn’t uttered “a single word” in opposition. In an age when “social activists have television shows and millions of dollars”, and to argue that “it isn’t race that’s the problem but class” is to acquiesce – this is just not acceptable.

The removal of the “Welcome to Dickens” sign from the roadside is apparently all that is required for the city to be forgotten altogether. After the Sellout’s father is gunned down while fleeing two LAPD officers – “Just because racism is dead don’t mean they still don’t shoot n****rs on sight,” the son imagines him saying, half expecting his father to stand up, dust himself off and offer up his death as a lesson to “inspire” him – our narrator is forced to ask some difficult questions. Specifically: “Who am I? And how can I become myself?”

This is the emotional core of Beatty’s powerful, poignant book. While the courtroom drama may boil down to the question of “whether a violation of civil rights law . . . results in the very same achievement these heretofore statutes were meant to promote” (as one smart justice finally seems to twig), the Sellout’s journey is better understood as a personal journey, a welcome reminder that identity is forged amid overlapping private and communal experiences and cannot be uniformly enforced.

How else to explain the view espoused by Hominy Jenkins, a Sancho Panza to the Sellout’s Don Quixote, that “true freedom is having the right to be a slave”? (Hominy is a former child actor-turned-“race reactionary”, who hopes to repay his “massa” for saving his life by literally owing him his life through indentured servitude.) How else to explain the counterintuitive pride taken when the duo tour Dickens handing out “No whites allowed” signs to local restaurants and beauty shops, in part attracting the attention that finally gets the city reinstated on the map? “The customers love it,” the proprietors explain. “It’s like they belong to a private club that’s public!”

The Sellout is a compelling act of demonstrative rhetoric, a masterful show of verbal energy that questions just how far equality has come and where it hopes to go. 

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood