The Media Swirl, Carol Vernallis

‘The Media Swirl’ and the Glitter in Your Eyes

In this excerpt from The Media Swirl, Carol Vernallis peers through the glitter of the stunning party scene in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and exams its sparkling layers of meaning.

The Media Swirl: Politics, Audiovisuality, and Aesthetics
Carol Vernallis
Duke University Press
March 2023

Partying in The Great Gatsby:
Baz Luhrmann’s Audiovisual Sublime

THE GREAT GATSBY’S (2013) “arcadian” party sequence counts as one of the most opulent, densely articulated, and extravagant in film history. On its release critics noted its “frenetic beauty,” “orgasmic pitch,” and “Vincente Minnelli–style suavity with controlled vertigo.” […] This scene is much more than a first-or even a twentieth-time viewer can absorb. Its difficulties offer readers a challenge—if we can analyze The Great Gatsby’s party scene, we can grasp many other texts. […]

On the Surface: Spectacular Overload

Gatsby’s first party sequence showcases a dazzling variety of ornamentation: snowflake-speckled orbs, enormous white balloons, pastel-colored confetti, metallic streamers and drizzling glitter, paper birds, girls on swings and girls pouring wine, fans of water and fans of feathers, ostentatiously dressed faux-sailors and navigators, lovers and revelers peering out of windows and archways ornamented with ivy, fully dressed partiers diving into pools with inflatable zebras, a few older women, virtually no Black males, and, one notes, too many white, elderly, privileged men—with young ladies to assist them. In the moments when these amass, viewers-experiencers may perceive a blurring of vision. […]

A Prismatic Landscape

The depiction of Gatsby’s chateau contributes to a sensation of kaleidoscopic overload. “It’s like an amusement park,” says Nick, “wow.” The mansion’s long rectangular ballroom abuts an impossibly long entrance hallway; one of the ballroom’s lengthy sides connects to this main entrance and the other provides an exit to the bay. Once inside, it seems we are led straight back—past the winged and pedestalled woman—to the organist. […]

The four flights of Gatsby’s chateau appear veiled behind lace and nets comprised of various-sized butterflies, spangles, miniature lights, larger orbs, and spider web–like tree branches—a fairy–tale–like Amazonian jungle with its own produce, plants and birds, densely entwined. And how many revelers are in attendance? A “jelly beans in a jar” approximation might suffice, but the jar’s size cannot be determined. Still, by the scene’s end, formal divisions based on stylistic approach and location might be determined. These work in contradictory ways based on a viewer’s attention.

Reading 1: Starting from the clip’s end and reading backward, Gatsby’s bay is a site of drowning, desire, and loss. The poolside provides possibilities for decadence and sexuality. The performance patio and great hall are a space for community and engagement. The high library stands for social climbing, knowledge, and patriarchy.

Reading 2: An audience-member might notice the ways sections have themes and their abutments generate a frisson. The drive to the mansion and the revelers tumbling out of cars could be said to be like a Warner Brothers cartoon; the name-checking of revelers in the grand hall has a nineteenth-century feel, with small-town folk viewed through stereoscopes; the first patio is more modern (the Cab Calloway ensemble), and the instant when Jordan and Nick first meet is more urban still (note the Noel Coward references); the patio below suggests old money and East Coast primness (a kind of display that might steal Jordan away). The pool is kaleidoscopic and decadent.

This sequence resembles director George Cukor’s famous parties, when, after the industry brass had headed home, the gay and socially progressive guests would get drunk in his pool. The scene’s closing brings lead actors and crowds into more ordered formations.


A Postmodern Soundtrack

The soundtrack contributes additional layers of phrasing, the strongest pulling toward four orgasmic explosions: 1) “Bang!” and the whiteout of the chandelier; 2) “Shot my baby, bang!” and the camera’s rocketing over East Egg’s peninsula; 3) Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Hurt Nobody,” and bursting streamers over at the pool; and 4) Gatsby’s, “I’m Gatsby” and the trumpeter’s split note. Complicating the image, Gatsby’s soundtrack suggests a celebration of the potential power of the masses, the hope for democracy and community.

Many musical styles coexist—baroque, classical, edm, rap, pop, honky-tonk, Dixieland, modern jazz. Though cuts between musical segments are often sharpened and jarring (an “extra” 2/4 measure appears unpredictably), added sonic details and heightened audiovisual relations grant the segments equal play. The descending melodic line into Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” suggests a search for a habitus, where everyone might participate; the split note before Rhapsody in Blue takes away some of its overblown grandiosity; the lowered volume of the Dixieland music ameliorates the showy displays of wealth on the patio; “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody”s hard four-on-the-floor beat might overwhelm listeners, but the arrangement breaks down in the library scene.

Musical segments also share material, creating a sense of conviviality. The organ cheerily takes up a countermelody against Nicole Scherzinger’s tune “Bang, Shot My Baby,” and the Dixieland clarinet and trumpet continue to riff on it. The soundtrack’s musical samples foreground odd, misplaced details that create an additional charge; when one abuts another,the lack of clear genre boundaries adds an edge. Alongside the famous Bach toccata in D minor that heralds our entrance to Gatsby’s chateau, ululations appear uncharacteristically in the mix. Scherzinger’s “Bang” sample devolves into a nervous, reiterating “ang,” as if both the singer and the sample had become infected. Several musical cues accompanying the grand hall’s notorious guests belong to the carnival, and one becomes so parodic it sounds like a hurdy-gurdy.

The soundtrack is haunted by the specter of automation. Especially at section endings, a sample speeds up and repeats, as if jammed in a mechanical device (Scherzinger’s “bang, bang, bang” vocal fragments before the camera takes flight over East Egg; or the sudden “whir-whir- whir” as flapper Gloria Gray takes center stage). We are not watching a party scene, but rather a mechanical phantasmagoria.

Musical cues can also reassure the viewer: in the grand hall, generic associations with musical cues inform relations between notorious guests.

With music, Klipspringer becomes more clearly ridiculous; boss Walter Chase seems more comical; the heiresses comparing inheritances are cunning and modern; the high school dropouts and morality protectors become more quaint and absurd.

Viewers experience a kind of hide-and-seek with the mysterious soundtrack as they 1) see and hear performers, 2) hear music without seeing performers, and 3) see performers playing instruments not on the soundtrack. Music often leapfrogs the performers, reaching us from distant locations. Musical cues also collide in midair, as if Gatsby’s sonic space might need a sonic air-traffic controller: the poolside performing group soars over Cab Calloway’s music to reach the organist in the grand hall, for example, while we remain on the patio.

The visible and audible trumpeters on the patio provide the clearest sense of stability (their music connects with the scene’s opening blare, as we swoop up to Gatsby’s chateau, and later to Gatsby’s self-introduction and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue). The organist Klipspringer might seem like our guide, but his uncanny goofiness discredits him. (Music arrives from outside his aural peripheries—the patios—and his riffing feels beyond the performerly virtuosic; he thereby seems cartoonish. Nondiegetic drums pound underneath him.)

The images of musicians who perform but lack sound are disorienting: a flutist, banjoist, and harpist, and the small ensemble with a handsome singer, who appear in the pool’s center, to then quickly vanish. Also ghostly are the musicians we do not see—apianist on an out-of- tune bar piano and a ukuleleist—but especially the female divas. (Where might Scherzinger and Fergie perform? Large mics in front of the Cab Calloway figure and small ensemble’s bandleader suggest that sounds carry, but we never discover where they go.) Though we might assume that Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” is a live event, like the edm music playing by the driveway and the upstairs library, it has no verifiable source.

The mash-up of musical materials may contribute to the viewer’s sense of being under barrage; the indeterminate sourcings of sound can also elicit a viewer’s anxiety that she’s attending to the wrong events. […]

Daubed Color

The scene’s color arc, described schematically, includes a background of teal blue and blueish green, an early instance of a very large blot of bright, yellowy orange, dabs of magenta purple with pink, crossing into the scene’s end with a darker, congealed blood-red (also featured a bit in the beginning).

White sets off sections and establishes phrasing. At the scene’s end, the color palette reduces to white and gold with a spot of blue. As such, the scene moves from energy to quietude. Dabs of color create flow and visual interest. The oomph of the tracking shot with its corresponding line of millionaire trust-fund women with their orange martini glasses and fans projects because suddenly, at the previous shot’s end, a woman with a fantastical, ornate Egyptian headdress in bright orange momentarily steps into view. The late-evening varied reds around the pool are also striking.

Suddenly an obese woman in a deep red bathing suit and cap, a more brilliant and brighter red-dressed couple on a raft, and the performers’ dark red masonic hats appear. Often color patches seem out of reach, perhaps encouraging the viewer to strain past where she is (while the green silk wallet a woman presses to her breast as she gazes at Gatsby seems close, the iridescent green dancing on the bay’s surface is much further away—Gatsby’s green light). It takes a lot of blue, white, silver, and gold to close the scene and the color arc’s trajectory. Overall, color helps tell time (from a night that is young to one that is past). Color dabs also create a sense of futurity; the viewer’s eye reaches out to grasp them.

Cinematographic Rhythm

The multiangled shots are rapidly edited. As the seemingly weightless camera drifts while it subtly reframes, it seems slightly dazed. But when striking musical material comes forward (the bass line against the appearance of heiresses, or the horns filling in the arrangement of Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Hurt Nobody”), the camera suddenly snaps to, tugging a bit harder and showboating with a tracking or moving crane shot. This is what I’ve called mixing board aesthetics, a stylistic approach common in music video and much postclassical film. Here audiovisual elements unpredictably come to the fore and recede, suddenly claiming a viewer’s attention, much as a record producer brings elements forward and back by raising and lowering faders at the audio mixing board. The uncertainty of unfolding events can itself elicit a viewer’s engagement with both the image and the soundtrack.

Emergent Tableaux

One of the party sequence’s most striking features, the deployment of crowds, can be understood more deeply through two overlapping, nonsimultaneous perspectives: as collections grouped into larger crowds, smaller groups of people, pairs, and individuals; and as tableaux and the people around them. Here I define a tableau as an allegorical and/or picturesque disposition of people and objects. These tableaux momentarily crystallize and then disappear.

Let me discuss tableaux first.

Fairy-tale tableaux are staged, with musicians playing instruments appearing on the soundtrack or not. Other employees, dressed in bird or marine-themed costumes, pose or perform brief routines. A giant, female firebird at the scene’s beginning beckons guests. Near stairs, a magenta and pink peacock-dressed ballerina spills glitter from a giant champagne bottle.

Two women with headdresses ride blown-up balloons of white geese and wear darting silver fish around their necks. In the far distance, blue-green mermaids—or sirens—perch on rocky outcrops. But then the party guests engage with tableaux in ways that lend them a fairy-tale ambience too. A tanned blonde androgyne of Gatsby who says “I heard he killed a man once” steps back with two upper-crust boys into a tableau. These guests suddenly look like they’re posed on a parade float.

Tableaux contribute to a sense of charm, romance, and magic. In the grand hall, female twins encircle and then pass an elderly gentleman, while another man looks on enviously. Behind this scene of unrequited desire, a giant sculpture of a woman’s head underscores the women’s allure.

When two frat-boys in pinstripe suits run past a waiter, another two wield an overhanging garland-frame behind them; next to them, three ing.nues dance in formation, as if echoing Botticelli’s Spring (or a Victorian restaging thereof).

The boundaries between tableaux and the crowds are porous. Tableau elements disperse and mingle among the crowd. Next to the bird-woman who pours glitter are two more revelers with hats resembling whole birds nesting on their heads. A woman’s fantastic orange-bird headdress also appears, suddenly suggesting a miniature aviary. One of Nick’s name-checked guests, the movie star, wears a spiked headdress so enormous that she seems to become one of the ornamental displays. Behind her, in the recesses of a smaller room, are her Black ladies-in-waiting.

For a moment we sense we’ve peered into a private world. Tableaux also adopt larger forms. In the grand hall, guests line-dance in giant S-shaped patterns, and on the patio, the audience masses and builds up to a circular, centripetal, tiered structure topped by a bird-winged woman.

A multispoked constellation! This image of celebratory community is wide. Additional resonance is gained through the soundtrack’s retro disco swoops. Most densely articulated is Nick’s fantastical climb to see Gatsby, like in Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), with Gatsby resembling the Statue of Liberty. Nick ascends as partiers stream downstairs, but the upward sweep remains prominent. Nick must bypass a cluster of four women, some with silver caps and silver shawls, like minarets. In the distance the bandleader encourages him on with gesticulations of “up, up!” while wielding his baton; musicians pop out of their chairs and a streak of white light cuts a path toward them. A man with an unbuttoned white shirt raises his bottle emphatically toward the sky. Upward and out, the scene moves toward closure as crowds stand in more regularized formation with arms raised skyward. Throughout the scene, tableaux, as they crystallize, create momentary senses of enchantment.

Narrative Emerging Out of Tableaux

A more modern sexuality becomes available to Nick and Jordan as narrative elements cross between them and events in the background. In an alcove, a gentleman surrounded by folds of white fabric jumps up as if he’s had his pants pulled down; next, a woman on a swing comes forward with her legs splayed. Jordan confirms this bequeathed sexuality by languorously lifting her veil before her eyes, while an elderly white businessman tenderly draws a woman of color closer to him.

Later on the patio three incidents in the background bring Jordan and Nick even closer together: 1) an exoticized, seemingly torso-less woman (the camera’s framing reveals hips and legs only) wearing zebra-striped tights, appears on a ledge (though these legs may instead be enormous, artificial leaves); 2) a Black woman, with eyelids painted silver, regally passes next to them, as revelers criss-cross behind her; she also wears the scene’s only other iteration of the silent film star’s dress; 3) head-dressed dancers next to the bandleader cross their legs directly over his lap, creating one three-figured composite. Jordan and Nick now seem like predestined lovers.

The party scene’s merging of tableaux and attendees is facilitated through contagion, repetition, and foreshadowing. Contagion Music video’s aural and visual elements often seem to seep across borders. There might be a band performing followed by an inset narrative featuring a couple’s trials.

Suddenly, the color or a prop next to the band might appear in the inset narrative. It seems as if the music could be responsible for these permeable boundaries.

In music video I call this process contagion.

In the party sequence, champagne bubbles poured on the ground turn to gold. Floating up and morphing into gigantic orbs, they reassert themselves as enormous sky-placed ovaries, fertilized by the fireworks behind Gatsby, to then take leave through the night. Martini glasses tinkle like the piano’s keys. Confetti assists with narration. A gentleman lands a blue piece of glitter when he finds a young miss; similarly Jordan, dabbed with a red blotch of metal, grieves over Barton’s theft of her (why might confetti tell a story?). Revelers and employees also seem to shift racial categories.

The Cab Calloway figure should be Black, but he’s white. There should be some Black musicians playing (they’re on the soundtrack and many perform at Gatsby’s second party, but they remain unseen). One Black male wears a stovetop hat, an accessory typed as European American.

The organist is dubiously descended from Beethoven, but really belongs in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Yet the elements within the evening’s end turns solid—glitter and fireworks shift to gold and silver, and even the tubas’ open bells and the jellyfish-like umbrellas bobbing on the horizon become more shinily metallic. The first half of Rhapsody in Blue is digital rather than performed by live musicians. Miniature beachcombers are digitally composited in. Everything hardens into currency.


The scene’s real stars may be the costumes.

Nineteen basic techniques pull the viewer affectively and proprioceptive in different directions: 1) the periodic white-outs of confetti and tinsel induce a momentary blindness, even a brief amnesia; 2) tableaux elicit a sense of enchantment but dissolve quickly; 3) the mise-en-scene’s deformations of scale (from the miniature to the monumental) provide excessive demands on the viewer’s attention; 4) spatial layout is indeterminate, and the camera’s exploration of it further obscures vision; 5) the camera’s high angles and sudden drops, and the music’s peaks and dips, induce a state of vertigo; 6) the camera’s gaze often feels distracted and sometimes obsessive, even as edits are rapid and the framing is mobile, moments of tighter sync occur unpredictably; 7) the music refuses to provide a sense of ground; 8) sound effects provide a pulse that roots the viewer in the blizzard-like detail, but their uncertain sources produce disorientation; 9) the flow of crowds and the sudden emergence of shared dance-gestures create the sense of being pulled along; 10) the scene’s color arc encourages the viewer to grasp at spots of color; 11) the zebra stripes provide direction, like a train track, but they quickly fall apart to reappear at different scales and in other domains; 12) miniature people, rendered as if in a dollhouse, invite the viewer’s focus; 13) faux-celebrities and small groups produce shocks of recognition and excitement; 14) narrative trajectories involve foci dispersing a viewer’s attention; 15) dialogue bleeds into music and sound effects as much as it advances story; 16) contagion, foreshadowing, underscoring, and patterning contribute to cross-medial smoothing, but also indistinct boundaries; 17) a viewer’s eye drifts as we sort figures into individuals; 18) likewise, a viewer’s eye drifts while sorting groups and crowds; and 19) costumes fix attention.

How do all of these effects work together? It’s hard to say, because simultaneous unfoldings of processes become so densely layered that few produce particularized sensations. Their importance can only be understood hypothetically and in retrospect. A viewer can sometimes identify techniques combining and pulling together. In the grand hallway, the pinstripes of the zebras become more multicolored before they merge into the phoenix-like, variously hued, pedestalled woman.

A viewer can feel riveted by the complicated deployment of a crowd (suddenly disposed like a painting) while still sensing other processes already underway, soon to become emergent, and to recede before they can be identified (like the corresponding soundtrack’s disco swoops). A viewer’s attention might shift rapidly among various effects—an extra with a striking costume, a crowd formation, a dab of color, a sound effect, a juxtaposition of musical samples, a moment crystallizing into a tableau—though the relative weight of these elements are difficult to ascertain. Postclassical cinematic aesthetics have been described as media intensified across every single parameter.

This sequence feels post-postclassical.

This scene showcases transmedia aesthetics. Luhrmann’s background in music production, music video, commercials, theatre, opera and department- store window design shape this scene. Luhrmann’s signature style seems to project past his own craftsman-like touches to those of his many collaborators. This scene conveys a vision of information and power flowing across social structures; the film takes place in the 1920s, but it feels like 2013. As in today’s media swirl, highly individualized figures in crowds attempt to project themselves. Ideas coalesce around small groups and ripple or shudder across the whole. Each participant stands three degrees from everyone else.

Celebrities and small groups function like magnets. Global capital seems both everywhere and invisible. Ultimately, however, old money seems to run the show, and the billionaire is the face for us all.

Even though this film’s budget is less than half that of most Hollywood tent-pole productions, the resources expended—glitter, champagne, fireworks, an enormous cast of extras—might feel obscene, a wasted bubble of dreams. Further reflection may help us see how much the scene offers a prescient image of new subjects (and consumers) in an era when wealth and global capital have run out of control. I’m haunted by the care with which Luhrmann documents the tear-down of the scene, as if the spectacle’s destruction is integral to its momentary emergence. But for now, we might try to make good on Richard Dyer’s suggestion that the musical can give us what utopia feels like. Now that we can experience a variegated and capacious world more clearly, let’s go out and realize it.

Carol Vernallis is an Affiliated Researcher at Stanford University, author of Unruly Media: YouTube, Music Video, and the New Digital Cinema and Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context, and co-editor of, most recently, Cybermedia: Explorations in Science, Sound, and Vision.

Excerpted from The Media Swirl: Politics, Audiovisuality, and Aesthetics, by Carol Vernallis (footnotes and images omitted). Courtesy of ⒸDuke University Press. All Rights Reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.