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Baz Gatsby

As an admirer of F. Scott
Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age novel
The Great
Gatsby,
I can’t say I’m looking forward to the latest film version.

For a start, I’m told that the
director is Baz Luhrmann.  Baz is an
Australian-born, Hollywood-based reincarnation of Cecil B. DeMille, but without
the bible, and far bigger budgets.  Baz
is a director who can’t shoot a scene that doesn’t have at least two of the
following three ingredients: extras stretching to the far horizon; frantic movement
in every pixel of the screen; ear-splitting music. 

Luhrmann’s last two offerings,
you may recall, were Moulin Rouge and Australia.  The first, I seem to remember – it’s actually
difficult – sent me reeling from the cinema in bewilderment, my brain scrambled
into a cerebral omelette after the infliction of two hours of visual and
auditory punishment.  My snapshots of
recollection include Nicole Kidman swinging to and fro on a trapeze above a
Hogarthian bacchanal and that little Scottish actor, lovesick, braying at the
moon.  The second film, apparently meant
to be Baz’s tribute to the country of his birth, was more pain than paean. I
remember laughing a lot, in all the wrong places – not that there were any
right places.

In neither film could Luhrmann
contrive even a fleeting brush with coherence. 
Baz doesn’t do coherence.  Baz
does noise and movement, both of the in-your-face variety.       

The Gatsby publicity machine, for the past month, has been cranking out
stuff daily in Britain.
America
has already survived this assault, the film having been previewed there.  I understand the reviews were mixed.  The critics must have been divided between
those who don’t like having their brains scrambled and don’t mind having them
lightly poached.   Still, mixed reviews
are a distinct improvement on the last two Luhrmann jobs.

I’m waiting to read the review in
the New Yorker (which will be written
by one of the only two working critics who matter, Anthony Lane and David Denby), before
passing judgement. 

Will I go to see it anyway?  I doubt it, especially after reading that
Luhrmann was given $104 million to spend. 
In the book, Gatsby’s parties astonished Long
Island society in the 1920s. 
On film, Baz will doubtless be intent on depicting nothing less than the
fall of Babylon.  And, ladies and gentlemen, Babylon is going to fall in wide-screen and 3D.    

Baz has had every incentive – not
that he needs it – to do a better job than his two predecessors.  British-born Jack Clayton was the last to
try, in 1974, with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow as the two star-crossed – one of
them double-crossed – lovers.  Back in
1949, Elliott Nugent had to deal with Alan Ladd and Betty Field in the leading
roles.    

I haven’t seen the Ladd version,
though presumably Alan played Gatsby as Shane, just as he would later play
Shane as Gatsby.  Ladd played everyone as
Gatsby or Shane.  I bet you didn’t know
that they are one and the same.

Clayton’s film was at least an
honest try, or so the critics said.  That
probably means they were bored. I was. The film would have been boring even if Clayton
hadn’t faced the impossible task of animating Redford and Farrow, possibly the two
most vapid actors ever to achieve stardom (which, given Gregory Peck’s claim to
the title, is saying something). 

Of course, I’ll be the first to
admit that one shouldn’t criticise a film one hasn’t yet seen.  It’s only fair to give Baz the benefit of the
doubt – innocent until proven guilty, and all that.

But the first time I read that the
final party scene has a manned spaceship commanded by Jay Z (who, Ye Gods, has
written the music) I’m going to petition that Baz be shipped back to Botany Bay
in chains, without a trial, and with no prospect of parole. 

As a postscript, I should mention that I once lived on Manhasset Bay, in Fitzgerald’s story the ‘courtesy
bay’ that separates West Egg (actually Great Neck) from East Egg (Sands
Point).  Hence my affinity with the book,
though I also happen to think it’s one of the most beautifully written of America’s
‘classic’ novels. 

Do read it, if you haven’t already – and to hell with Luhrmann.

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