The Great Gatsby: Exuberant Excess

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The Great Gatsby (2013) Directed by Baz Luhrmann

For fans of the novel, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby was always going to struggle to reach the imaginative heights of its source. In many ways the film indicates that it will produce its own distinctive version in order to pre-empt claims of insufficient fidelity. A framing narrative is added in the form of a psychiatrist encouraging central character Nick Carraway to write about his experience of meeting the lively millionaire next door, Jay Gatsby. Although this is the most obvious change, the development of the narrative between Carraway, Gatsby and the Buchanan couple, is also set out in new terms of visual reference that haven’t previously been applied to the Gatsby iconicity.

The Great Gatsby starts with grainy black and white footage of the Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow logos. Although the film is a digital print, scratches, lines and other artefacts of analogue cinema technology are simulated on the screen surface. The aesthetic for the logos and the surrounding borders is 1920s Art Deco and the stylistic time period for the film is referenced in a somewhat nostalgic manner. As the opening continues, the frame expands from a 4:3 looking ratio to widescreen. It is not dissimilar to the moment in the recent Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) where the visible borders of the screen frame also expanded. Like Oz the Great and Powerful, this moment also introduced a change to colour but unlike Oz the Great and Powerful, the use of stereoscopic effects are held off until this moment occurs. The change to dazzling golden colours and the sense of receding depth in crisp digital signals that the film may be drawing on the style and essence of 1920s Americana but it is an entirely new visual experience with its own rules and recalibrations of the past. This signal in the opening, combined with the directors tendency to rework aesthetic styles, means that seemingly incongruous elements in the early 1920s setting can be easily overlooked– the heavy bass heard coming through the floor at Gatsby’s party, the impossibly small hand-held movie camera that Nick uses later in the film.

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The Great Gatsby not only breaks with historical fidelity but also with some of the tenets of digital 3D that suggest the frame should become a window onto a naturalistic vista. Similar to the recent Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), lens flare is brought into play and it seems significant that this takes place in the first shot following the opening. As the cameras travel across the sea waters, the lens flare reminds us of the cameras in place and that the visual field is entirely a construction made for our benefit. Similarly, the insertion of archival style footage – grainy, stereoscopic colour footage of New York and grainy black and white footage of the Great War – does not build a relationship to documentary truth in the same way that occurs when archival footage is inserted into other films. Instead there is a clear gesture that multiple visual fields can be employed and no one visual style takes precedence over any other.

When snow flutters across the screen space its direct intrusion into the auditorium is just the beginning of The Great Gatsby’s audacious display of the visual trickery it has up its sleeve. Throughout the first half of the film, similar material is thrown towards the audience in negative parallax – snow returns as the cameras slink out of the window to the psychiatrist’s office, voluminous white fabric flows around the Buchanans’ living room as we are introduced to Daisy and Jordan, feathers dart around the auditorium during the pillow fight at Mrs Wilson’s apartment and confetti is thrown around the screen space at Gatsby’s party. At other points in the film, significant lines of dialogue are written out in fanciful letters that float off the screen and towards the viewer. These various moments are often considered gimmicks in stereoscopic filmmaking and a sign of a film that will not let its viewers become absorbed in the narrative. However, their employment seems particularly justified here as The Great Gatsby is from a director that has made a career from placing stylistic concerns first. In this instance, distance from the narrative is what is often needed so that criticism rather than worship of the characters’ exuberant lifestyle can be entertained. While the party scenes at the Gatsby mansion are exciting and enviable, the truth of the era is most clearly seen in the kitsch clashing colours of Mrs Wilson’s apartment and the gross, petty excess of the partying within.

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While I have focused mainly on the visual elements of the film, there is noticeable use of music and sound throughout. In a similar manner to his other films, Luhrmann combines contemporary music with music that resonates with the loose time period of the film. There are also moments of aural assault that are every bit as intrusive as the negative parallax. When the characters travel to Manhattan, the car’s engine noises, and braking squeaks drill through the auditorium. Similarly, when they arrive at a hotel in Manhattan, the splintering sound of a block of ice being broken up is almost unbearable on the ears.

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Although the stylistic premises are well informed, the combination of Luhrmann’s aesthetic tendencies and 3D filmmaking are not as well shared as they could be. Fast camera movements and frequent cuts are used from the beginning of the film, making it hard for the audiences’ eyes to take in the full depth planes unfolding in their visual field. There is also a great deal of strobing at the beginning of the film, even from simple movement such as a character walking across the screen. Although the strobing seems to occur less and less as the film continues, there is an obvious case for why a higher frame rate technology might have been beneficial for the film. I do not want to suggest that 3D artefacts such as strobing cannot be put to stylistic use but in this case it seemed as if they were working against the intention of the director’s visual choices. Although there are some interesting extreme close-ups, on Daisy in particular, the fast editing often makes it feel as if the director didn’t trust his cast to pull off sufficient performances and so never allowed his camera to linger. While this does have the effect of distancing the audience further from the characters and preventing a type of identification that might have undercut the film’s social critique, it does seem a waste of the stereoscopic technology that can highlight details of actors’ performances that are not otherwise seen. As Pam Cook points out, the use of screen barriers throughout the film (windscreens, windows) does a much better job of using stereoscopy to create distance.

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Due to it pure exuberance and dynamic visual fields, The Great Gatsby is likely to leave a greater mark on cinematic history than its critics may wish. It made far more money at the US box office than anyone expected considering mediocre reviews. It is also one of the more playful 3D films to emerge from the recent digital crop. Whether future films are able to combine its visual zeal with effective stereoscopic effects is something I think is worth holding out for.

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  1. Stereoscopic Samurai: 47 Ronin | miriamruthross

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