Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something — an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago.
–F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
History don’t repeat itself, it rhymes, 1929 still.
–Jay-Z, “100$ Bill”
“I’ve got to get out of here.” Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) means to leave the Morningside Heights apartment where a few too many people are commingling. But as he tries to slip out the door, his host, the bully Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), bars his way, turning him back inside, where the décor is pink and red and tapestried, where booze and ignorance are pervasive, where Tom keeps his low-class, gaudy mistress Myrtle (Isla Fisher). The guests loll and titter, and level a challenge. “Do you want to play ball?” Nick sighs, slurps his drink, and declares his newfound affection for New York. And with that, the scene cuts to a fire escape, outside, where an unnamed black musician wails with his trumpet.
This cut, from an interior filled with debauched white folks to the lone black figure hard at work is at once vaguely startling and utterly unsurprising. Whether or not the juxtaposition is a sign of how Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby reads race, it is most definitely a means to translate sex and sensuality, ecstatic loss of self and heady self-expression — in a word, the debauched white folks’ desires — in a visual as odious as it is tedious.
You get it. The film is remembering a US past when racism was overt, a time when, according to the high-school-English-class reading of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, rich-white Americans were excessive and careless. It might also be critiquing that intemperance with something like hindsight, measuring Jazz Age shortsightedness onto current profligacies and also, to a point, prejudices. That it does all this with visible emblems of blackness rather than efforts to characterize — the musician here, a couple of workers there, the band at an illegal saloon, the singers at Gatsby’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) parties — is obvious, and so, yes, you get it.
But that same idea is more convoluted in the movie’s soundtrack choices, plainly pitched at consumers who don’t care much about Fitzgerald. Along with Gershwin and Fats Waller, it offers Jay-Z, Lana Del Ray, and Beyoncé, hiphoppish tracks, variously popularized, jazzed up, screwed and remixed, that more plainly link the excesses to gangster behavior, to moral malaises, to violence. That these gangsters can now, in Jay-Z’s inflection, be black men, may or may not be a sign of social or political progress. It is not, however a transformation that can be made visual in the film. And this Gatsby is caught up, selling (and perhaps critiquing) excess in 3D-swooping-camera images that are simultaneously thrilling and distressing, gorgeous and galling.
Viewers’ discomforts can surely be good, they might provoke thought or self-reflection, they might pose problems that linger after the movie is done. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, as the film take awfully literally (if sensationally) Nick’s narration, his love of the romantic gangster Gatsby and his condemnation of the old-money bully Tom, as well as Tom’s self-absorbed, slow-witted wife Daisy (Carey Mulligan). The film provides an extra frame for that narration, as Nick is writing it from inside the Perkins Sanatorium (recalling Fitzgerald’s extraordinary editor Max Perkins), where he’s encouraged to write, to express himself by a doctor (Jack Thompson), who walks through the “present-day” scenes in Nick’s room, picking up crumpled papers or asking entirely banal, non-probing questions.
Nick, for his part, takes up the writing project eagerly, typing, writing by hand, and gazing into space as his words float over the screen. While this device reminds you that the movie has a written source, a very well known and much admired source, it doesn’t do much to make this Nick — an alcoholic and former stockbroker — any more reliable than he is in the novel. His Gatsby is always as much a figment as Gatsby’s Daisy, which is to say, it’s hard to say whether Nick’s moral or other assessments might be taken as literally as he offers them. When he tells you that Gatsby tells him, “I’ll tell you God’s truth” about his parentage, Gatsby is lying. When Gatsby tells him another story later, it sounds more like truth, but really, the meaning of Gatsby has less to do with truth than it does with how fictions work, how myths and ambitions and dreams sustain life.
This Jazz Age life is presented in the film as so many brightly colored, manic fantasies, in frantic, crowded dance scenes, in speedy, deliriously unconvincing driving scenes, and even conventionally awkward, filtered-light sex scenes. Gatsby’s life is augmented by a few flashbacks, suggesting his Depression-style childhood, his youthful infatuation with Daisy-the-idea, his traumatic wartime experience. These past moments — apparently proved by a military medal with his name on it that he might have bought anywhere, or by a photo that shows him on a ship with his mentor — help to make Gatsby grand, troubled and flawed, but grand all the same.
That grand image is set specifically against small, ugly pictures of Tom and Daisy. While Tom hides his mistress in a déclassé black area — an area reached only by driving through the Valley of Ashes, in this film denoted by shots of anonymous, grimy-undershirted laborers hacking away at dirt at all hours — Daisy maintains her semblance of purity as she’s attended by black servants. On seeing Nick, her cousin, for the first time in the film, she goes on about Tom’s current reading material, a book goading fears of The Rise of the Colored Empire (Fitzgerald’s made-up title that spoke to anxieties of the day).
On one level, these details, in Fitzgerald and in the film, are just that, details. But the novel is all about details, telling, disturbing, and profound. In the movie, details become so much décor. It makes for a lively, extravagant show, a surface as impressive as you might see this summer. But that in turn makes other levels, the more elusive, critical levels, less visible.