There’s a delicious irony in Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby kicking off the star-studded celebrations at the world’s most glamorous film festival, writes Hannah McGill
WHEN Baz Luhrmann’s new film adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby opens the 65th Cannes Film Festival next week, a bunch of socialites, celebrities and needy showbiz hangers-on will gather for a lavish and glitzy shindig in celebration of a story the main point of which is the soul-ruining emptiness of lavish and glitzy shindigs, socialites, celebrities and needy showbiz hangers-on.
Such irony is hardly new to film festivals: in my time attending them I’ve been to costly invite-only soirées for films about the hardships of peasant living, high-spirited knees-ups for films about rape and murder and Diet Coke-sponsored parties for biopics of Marxist revolutionaries. Indeed, the night after The Great Gatsby kicks off Cannes, the party for the starstruck to crash will be for the premiere of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, a film about how tragic it is when ordinary people start to obsess over the shallow lives of celebrities.
But there’s something especially piquant about canapés and fireworks for Gatsby at Cannes, and even more so about canapés and fireworks for Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby at Cannes. Here we have the most celebrated literary study of the misery signalled and caused by excess, tackled by a director who has made excess his middle name.
Pre-publicity from Warner Bros sells the film on its evocation of Gatsby’s parties, much effort having evidently gone into making them look enviable and gorgeous and amazing; as in Luhrmann’s previous films Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, there are frocks, showgirls and post-modern musical mash-ups. We’re clearly meant to want to be there – which is not really the effect Fitzgerald went for when he portrayed Gatsby’s social circus, all of which is staged to secure the attentions of his puddle-deep lost love Daisy, as squalid, scarily drunken escapades peopled by sleazy trash.
According to the trailer, the much-quoted scene in which Gatsby attempts to impress Daisy by showing her his ridiculous stockpile of many-coloured silk shirts, and she’s moved to tears because she’s such a craven worshiper of STUFF, has been played straight: shirts are flung towards an overhead camera (the film is in 3D) so that we, like Daisy, can gasp at their beauty. It’s dangerous, of course, to go on trailers – Luhrmann’s full extravaganza could, for all we yet know, be soaked in profundity – but it may be that irony has not got so hopelessly lost since Jennifer Lopez instructed her fans not to let the glare from the many diamonds they’d bought her blind them to the fact of her raw authenticity.
Luhrmann’s won’t be the first Gatsby adaptation to have been marketed with precisely the same look-at-all-this-money tactics used by its eponymous enigma to woo Daisy. Cartier got considerable publicity for providing millions of dollars’ worth of jewellery for the 1974 version directed by Jack Clayton. (Luhrmann’s version uses Tiffany bling – indeed, if so inclined, you can go to their website right now and purchase a £200,000 platinum, diamond and pearl headpiece which “brings Daisy Buchanan to life”.
The contradiction of despising Fitzgerald’s spoiled characters whilst coveting their creature comforts is appropriate in a sense, since he himself was pretty confused about this stuff. He and his wife Zelda spent a good deal of their time in environments like the Gatsby party scene – they were both lovers of luxury and heavy drinkers, known for their profligacy and bouts of boozy exhibitionism.
The quandary of whether Fitzgerald admired or disdained material wealth ran throughout his life and writing. In his friend Ernest Hemingway’s 1936 story The Snows Of Kilimanjaro, a character based on Fitzgerald has “a romantic awe” of the very rich: “He thought they were a special glamorous race.” Fitzgerald, the child of an upper middle-class family of variable financial fortunes, saw it differently. In 1938 he wrote, “I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has coloured my entire life and works.”
It’s perhaps the open-endedness of The Great Gatsby on this score – the mystery as to whether it’s swooningly romantic or bitterly nihilistic, as to whether Gatsby and Daisy’s dead relationship was a great love or a tawdry illusion, and as to whether narrator Nick Carraway is sincere or ironic in his professed admiration for the vastly misguided Gatsby – that gives it such longevity. First published in 1925, the book was out of print when Fitzgerald died aged only 44 in 1940. His quick-burning star had dimmed, and only 30 people came to his funeral. Interest in his work and in posthumous success is always poignant and alarming. How might this most frail and sensitive of artists react if he knew that the world has more or less come to agree with him about his third book being, as he once esteemed it, “about the best American novel ever written”?
Possibly just by drinking himself into a slightly happier stupor. The desperate desire and hard-wired failure of humans to be happy, and the neat representation of this quandary via the doomed joy of drunkenness, is one of the themes of The Great Gatsby – the very kind of thing that the many students who study it might be asked to draw out. It’s arguably in no small part the simple fact that Gatsby has become such a habitual course text that lends it such overwhelming prominence within the collective imagination of Western readers: people are wont to discover it in adolescence, to which state of romanticism, self-pity and agitated pleasure-seeking its atmosphere particularly appeals. Like Citizen Kane (with which it shares its inconclusive pursuit of an elusive, morally unstable anti-hero) in the world of film, Gatsby has become an unquestioned “great” – ironically, since the use of the word in its title is loaded with ambiguity. Just what does Nick, our narrator, find so great about Gatsby – a wasteful dilettante in love with a materialistic black hole? Is it, in the end, simply the fact that Gatsby has been able to embrace his own shallowness, to confer mythic grandeur on his own pursuit of something pointless, in a way that Nick, beset as he is by self-doubt and guilt, cannot? And is that what people mean when they associate Gatsby with “the American Dream” – that Gatsby’s rise from rags to riches means something, or that his ability to invest fully in a doomed endeavour mirrors the ability to live guiltlessly with the aggressive claiming of a land and the near-extermination of its wildernesses and indigenous peoples?
Nick as a passive narrator – involved in the action, but less charismatic; sidelined; a sort of groupie-cum-Greek chorus to the stars of the story – is another appealing factor of the book. In both his fascination with and his suspicion of Daisy, her husband Tom, her friend Jordan and Gatsby himself, Nick is an avatar for the reader, a mid-point between us and them. Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier – which, ten years earlier, prefigured Gatsby in a few interesting ways – used this technique, as would a clutch of later works such as Brideshead Revisited, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, The Secret History and The Line Of Beauty.
All these works deal with decadence and decline, with the fragility of romantic fantasies and the contrasting tenacity of certain forms of social and economic power. There will be a lot of talk – there already has been – around the release of the Luhrmann Gatsby and its thematic connections with our time of recession. But perhaps what’s more intriguing is how a story so low on hope – so morally muddy, so deliberately questionable in what it posits as “great” – should have become an American icon of such durability. «
The Great Gatsby is in cinemas from 16 May