Lives of the Rich and Careless
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby may not be the best movie on the planet, but it’s also far from the worst. It is an excessive, indulgent, melodramatic romantic tragedy based on a book that is revered as much as the Bible, so there is no way it will escape criticism from those who are ready to shoot down anyone who attempts to touch this sacred text of American literature. Cinematic adaptations of “great literary works” are almost always met with hostility. Throw Baz Luhrmann into the picture – with his extravagant extravagance – and the film is bound to draw criticism from literary purists. Many are shocked that the flamboyantly unrestrained excessive Luhrmann dared to take on Fitzgerald’s carefully carved restrained prose. But it is important to remember that as controlled as Fitzgerald’s prose bay be, Gatsby is a story about excess, and Baz Luhrmann is a director who prides himself in creating excess out of excess. (Note the title of the musical within the musical in Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge is “Spectacular Spectacular” because one spectacular is simply not enough for Luhrmann or the culture of excess which he depicts in his films.)
Because of Luhrmann’s tendency towards ludicrous flamboyance and excessive materiality, in a way he is the perfect director for Fitzgerald’s tragic story of excess and class in America. He excavates the excess underlying Fitzgerald’s prose, blasts it onto the surface of his film and takes a story about early 20th century class, money and materialism and translates it into a contemporary vision that reflects 21st century Waste Culture. He has created a Post-Depression 21st century film about the 20th century Pre-Depression Era.
Baz Luhrmann is like coconut. People either love him or hate him. The chances of converting a Luhrmann hater are as likely as the chances of shoving a coconut down the throat of someone who hates coconut. But just because Luhrmann is often reviled does not mean that his films are not interesting to think about or reflective of our culture. So much of The Great Gatsby is based on the tragedy and hollowness of artifice. Luhrmann takes that artifice, puts it on the surface of his film, and then allows his characters to develop through the claustrophobic, frenetic, and excessive wasteland that they occupy. It’s a pretty picture about a not pretty culture, and the tension between excess and hollowness, flamboyance and emptiness are what ultimately make Luhrmann’s movie effective.
The Great Gatsby is a story of class and waste, of the tragedy of chasing the wrong things for the wrong reasons, of self-delusion, greed, and power. It pits the Haves, the Have-nots and the Wannabes against each other in an environment where material desire is confused with love, where the power of old money tramples over everyone and everything that doesn’t have the bloodline credentials to survive in the dog-eat-dog world of wealth, power, and social position. Both the book and film are situated in the pre-depression rise of the stock market, the era of prohibition, old money, and exploits of the leisure class. Though the story focuses on the figure of Gatsby (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film), the other characters in the film (Tom and Daisy Buchanan as well as George and Myrtle Wilson) are what facilitate Gatsby’s rise into a “great” tragic figure.
In both the book and the movie, Gatsby is a self-created man who chases the wrong things for the wrong reasons. We first meet him in the film through a classic Luhrmann vision of excessive excessiveness. Gatsby is throwing a party at his ludicrously enormous West Egg mansion. The party embodies Luhrmann to the Nth degree. Extravagant costumes color the screen with the glitter and glitz of the rich. Inflatable zebras float in a swimming pool while sparkling butterflies dangle from the ceiling. Strains of hip-hop pour through the scene in a frenetic pulsing beat of madness. In the middle of all this insanity, Gatsby rises in his suit and smiles. He has created this mad world out of love and obsession. It is an insanely excessive externalization of one man’s obsessive desire to possess the thing he thinks he loves – Daisy.
Daisy (Carey Mulligan) is the cousin of the narrator Nick Carraway (Toby McGuire). We are introduced to Gatsby by Nick who writes the “story” of this Great man. Gatsby is a man who has made a fiction out of himself, but he is also a figure who is crafted out of Nick Carraway’s vision. In both the film and the book, Gatsby is a kind of tabula rasa, an empty vessel onto which everyone, including himself, Nick and the audience, writes his story. The fact that Gatsby is a blank slate reflects the emptiness of the dream he chases. The irony of his character is that while he is encased in excess – the mansion, the clothes, the fancy cars, the parties – at his core he is an insecure and empty man who tragically chases the wrong things for the wrong reasons.
Some have criticized DiCaprio’s role as Gatsby. They refer to him as flimsy and flawed. They say he is too shifty for the role. But the point of the character is that he is flimsy, flawed, and shifty. He has created a false identity and bolstered himself up with money and things to mask the class, economic and identity insecurities that reside at the core of his character. It is hard to allow Gatsby to be the empty vessel when he is attached to such a big name star as Leonardo DiCaprio, but DiCaprio does an excellent job of subtly showing the insecurities out of which Gatsby has built himself. DiCaprio both bulges out of his body with his compulsive obsession while wincing with quiet insecurity. Gatsby in a way is alike a house of cards. He has built this elaborate structure out of himself and his new money – which Luhrmann shows through extravagant set designs, lighting and sound – but the structure is vulnerable, susceptible, and cannot withstand the solidity of the old money which Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan represent.
Gatsby thinks he is in love with Daisy when really he is in love with what she represents – money and social status, a means of legitimacy. In the book, when Gatsby reflects on his love for Daisy, he says that she “sounds like money.” When he talks about having sex with her for the first time, he says he “takes her” as if she is a thing he desires to possess. In both the book and the movie, Gatsby has built up the illusion that he is in love with Daisy, when really he wants what she stands for – money, position, power, prestige. Daisy is just something physical onto which he can attach his infatuation with economic and social status. He attempts to buy his way into Daisy’s life, but in the end he turns out to be self-deluded as well as self-created.
Luhrmann encases Gatsby in the artifice he has acquired in his attempt to buy love. Luhrmann amplifies everything that represents the artificial construct of Gatsby turning artifice into super artifice. Gatsby’s house — which is filled with “important and beautiful people” who he doesn’t know and who don’t know him — is referred to as an “amusement park.” It is full of things that look real and magical on the outside, but are hollow on the inside. He stares out of his mansion like he is looking through the window of a Disney castle built from Styrofoam and paste. DiCaprio’s Gatsby lurks through the film squeezed into suits that always look ill fit and too tight. The suits are too small because Gatsby does not fit the role he has created for himself no matter how hard he tries. Gatsby walks, sits, sulks and preens awkwardly surrounded by the objects of his “bought love” – paintings, flowers, gardens, silk shirts – but it’s all a sham. It isn’t love at all but an economic ideal placed onto a woman. Luhrmann’s sets and costumes coupled with DiCaprio’s acting amplify how ill fit Gatsby is in the world he is trying to occupy.
Gatsby may have made a fortune off of illegal alcohol, but his fortune is “false” next to the old money privilege of Tom and Daisy. Both the book and the movie include this critical passage from the book:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made . . .
This sentiment resides at the core of the book, and Luhrmann brings it to the surface in beautiful and often subtle ways even amidst the raucous excess. While Gatsby is obsessed with possessing Daisy, Tom has his affair on the side with Myrtle who lives with her husband George Wilson in the Ash Heaps outside of New York. The Ash Heaps depicted through Luhrmann’s vision are a hellish expanse where all the waste of the rich (the coal that fuels their parties and their luxury lifestyles) smolder with sweat, smoke and dirt. When Tom visits Myrtle in the Ash Heaps during his forays into recreational slumming – it literalizes the “waste culture” that he represents. He literally uses the occupants of the wasteland for his own sexual pleasure and then tosses them aside. Tom and Daisy Buchanan savagely chew up Myrtle and George, use them like so much disposable junk, and leave them dead in the “ash heaps” of their tragic lives. Then, the Buchanans retreat into their money and come out unscathed by the human wreckage they leave in their leisurely wake. Myrtle and Wilson are used like so much junk for entertainment of the wealthy only to have their lives ripped apart and left in the ash heaps.
The movie does not give the character Myrtle the justice she deserves. She is glanced over and portrayed as a trapped mindless bimbo. However, the movie does effectively make the connection between Gatsby and the Wilsons, showing that they are all characters who are chewed up and spat out at the whim of the leisure class. Through all Baz Luhrmann’s pomp and circumstance, the human elements of the film rise and build to a tension that is profoundly human and tragic even as it is being choked by the excessive material culture in which the tragedy plays out.
Luhrmann builds the romance between Gatsby and Daisy, just to tear it down and allow us to feel the tragedy of Gatsby’s self-delusion as well as the material selfishness of Daisy. The scene when Nick reunites Gatsby and Daisy is deliciously (the characters literally surrounded by cakes and flowers) sweet and romantic. Luhrmann shows a tenderness, intimacy and closeness through whispers and the touch of hands. But then he leads us back to Gatsby’s mansion, and in a pivotal scene Gatsby tosses his shirts onto Daisy as she lies frolicking on a bed. Shirt after shirt flutters down onto Daisy as Gatsby announces the material, the country of origin, and the make of the shirt as if this pile of fabric can prove the substance and worth of his love. All that Daisy can say in response is, “I’ve never seen so many beautiful shirts.” The scene embodies everything that is problematic with Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship – that the false premise of their love is as substantial as a pile of pretty shirts.
It is clear when Daisy steps onto the grounds of Gatsby’s great estate that it is the material of his life that makes him solid for her and not his love. The shirts woo her more than the man who wears them. Daisy is made of money as well as sounding like money, and money is what wins out in the end – not just any money, but old money and position. The more Gatsby realizes this, the more his self-delusion surfaces, the more tenuous his hold on Daisy and his identity becomes, and the more desperately he attempts to hang on.
In the pivotal scene when the movie turns towards its tragic descent, Daisy shows up at one of Gatsby’s parties wearing a dress that is literally made out of crystals as if she is a chandelier, an object to be hung from the ceiling of Gatsby’s house. Gatsby takes her aside and presses her to leave Tom and come live with him. He holds onto her and kisses her, but there is no intimacy. Any closeness is compromised by the awkwardness of that heavy dress coming between them and turning daisy into a clumsy glittering “thing.” Gatsby wants Daisy to go back in time, to go back to her home in Louisville with him and let him be part of her world of respectable money. When Daisy replies, “Can’t we just have fun?” Gatsby releases her, and leaves her with Nick to escort back to his house. That single moment shows Daisy for what she is – a shallow debutante of the leisure class who just wants to have fun and maintain her position. She will use Gatsby for momentary escape from the trap of her life; she will let Gatsby use her; but she will never allow Gatsby into her world of money and privilege because he will never really fit in it just like he doesn’t fit in his suits.
This isn’t to say that Daisy’s character in the film is entirely unsympathetic. Carey Mulligan’s Daisy is actually much more sympathetic than the character in the book. Her body language and facial expressions show a woman trapped between multiple worlds – the privilege into which she was born; the world of love that she desires; and the constraints of her gender. The movie shows that she is an object who both Gatsby and Tom want to possess. Their battle for her is more about entitlement and power than love. When Daisy says that she once loved Tom but loved Gatsby too, Gatsby is outraged. His face bulges with fury as he shouts, “You loved me TOO?” Daisy is not an object to be shared but to be entirely possessed. Ultimately Tom thinks he’s more entitled to Daisy because he comes from legitimate money, and Daisy buys his line.
When Daisy announces that the best thing she can hope for her daughter is that she become “a pretty fool,” the statement is both a condemnation of the culture in which Daisy lives and of the character herself. Ultimately, Daisy chooses the position of the pretty fool and object of Tom’s possession because it offers her more security. She is trapped by her class and position as a woman within it, but she is also unwilling to relinquish the security it allows her. In the end, Daisy leaves Gatsby in the ash heaps of his false life just like she leaves Myrtle dead on the road. Mulligan performance delivers a complex Daisy through that captures the tension of her gender and class and her ultimate shallowness through minimal dialogue. She stares out of her body as if she is embodying an object trapped by its own state of objectification. She shows that Daisy has consciously carved out a life for herself as a “willful fool” and that she is not willing to give it up, no matter how many pretty shirts Gatsby tosses at her and no matter how miserable she is in her heart. Luhrmann shows us a Gatsby who has built the lie of his life out of material acquisition while Daisy has built her lie out of self-erasure.
All the over-the-top Baz glitz and glamour that punctuate the opening party scene in the movie come back to haunt the film after Gatsby leaves Daisy in the garden with her chandelier dress. Gatsby goes back to his mansion and talks to Nick. His voice is resigned while also being obsessive. The glitter and shimmer of the party decorations dangle in ragged threads from the walls and are heaped in piles of trash on the floor. The party is over. Gatsby stands amidst the tattered and shabby remains of his self-delusion. All he can do is attempt to cling to his illusion of love even though it is nothing more than a bunch of meaningless bought junk. The excess from the beginning of the film becomes quiet hollowness by the end of the film when Gatsby dies alone in the empty swimming pool of his empty dreams.
Gatsby is shot by Wilson, a man who is also victimized, manipulated, chewed up and spat out by the Buchanans. That Wilson and Gatsby die in the same scene shows that they are equally waste products of the culture that Tom and Daisy represent. When Nick visits Gatsby’s house after his death, the place has been gutted by Gatsby’s partner Wolfsheim. All that is left is a broken chandelier in the middle of a dirty floor, harkening back to that chandelier dress that Daisy was wearing and representative of the broken illusion of Gatsby’s love which was really just desire for the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. He wanted love in the shape of a chandelier, and he lost both.
Some have criticized Baz Luhrmann’s use of hip-hop in the movie, but I think the music makes sense. Hip-hop largely is music that represents the “jazz” of today. It situates the movie within a contemporary economic setting. Much of hip-hop is music of poor people singing against the system while also praising their entitlement to material acquisition which has been denied them by dominant white culture. At the end of the day, Gatsby is all about a poor guy measuring success through material acquisition. The book also comes from a time when the erasure of the racial divide caused a lot of white anxiety. This racial component is reflected in Tom Buchanan’s preposterous theories on the “rise of the colored empire” as well as Luhrmann’s incorporation of both black music (jazz and hip hop) and characters. In a monstrously uncomfortable moment, Buchanan touches one of his black servants in a slight gesture intended to show his racial superiority and strength. In the Ash Heaps, both blacks and poor whites live together in the waste tossed aside by the white leisure class. Black dancers entertain rich whites at Gatsby’s parties. Racial tensions of yesterday and today are brought together in Luhrmann’s use of music and race within the film.
The use of Hip-Hop also serves as an economic bridge in the film. As I mentioned, it’s a Post-Depression movie made about a Pre-Depression time. Much of the book and the film emphasize the divide between Old Money and New Money and how that divide can never be bridged. But today, while Old Money still exists to some degree, New Money is the dominant economic force. The idea of “old money” is largely a thing of the past. Hip-hop is largely music that directly addresses the new money economy. The top 100 richest Americans today are all new money, mostly derived from entertainment, technology and sports. Rockefeller (the ultimate Old Money) is still on the top 400 but pretty far down on the list.
The use of hip hop and the emphasis on material acquisition as a measure of success connects Luhrmann’s version of Gatsby to another recent film by a director who people either love or hate. I’m talking about Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers which shows another side of American excessive material culture. In this film, white college students descend upon a coastal town in a contemporary Hieronymus Bosch vision of Hell not unlike Luhrmann’s visions of Gatsby’s parties. The central male character Alien (James Franco) is a white guy who has adopted black culture through hip-hop and who places all of his self-worth on material acquisition. When a group of college girls come to his “crib,” Alien shows off all of the things he has bought with his money. He jumps up and down on his bed and says, “Look at all my stuff!” as if his stuff makes the man. He may as well be throwing his shirts at the girls. Like Gatsby, Alien ends up shot in the back and dead, all of his stuff amounting to a hill of nothing. Both Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers show excessive material culture that may be appalling on many levels, but it is also representative of a reality that we cannot deny simply because we wish it didn’t exist.
The excessive materiality of Luhrmann’s filmmaking mirrors the materiality of American culture then and now. America is what America always has been – the Epicenter of Excess. Luhrmann excessive filmmaking style reveal how love and money get all mixed up in the culture of excess.
Fitzgerald’s Pre-Depression novel was carved out of carefully controlled prose that condemned the Old Money waste culture of its time. Luhrmann’s uncontrolled flamboyant style reflects the Post-Depression waste culture of the Now in which the economy is as out of control as one of Gatsby’s parties. We live in a time of extreme artifice and excess where people are more interested in keeping up with what the Kardashians than confronting their own tenuous economic hold on their lives.
The story of Gatsby is as timely today as it was when it was originally published in 1925 on the eve of The Great Depression, when all that American money and privilege came down in a big crash. The rich crawled out from under and clung to their rungs at the top. In the meanwhile, the gap between the rich and the poor just keeps getting bigger, and the rich could give a rat’s ass about those who are left smeared on the highways of today’s ash heaps. Some things have and never will change. What make life endurable is that there are writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and filmmakers like Baz Luhrmann (love him or hate him) to turn the tragedy of economics into art and bring new light to old stories that affect human lives as much today as they did nearly a hundred years ago. The economic divide has grown bigger but obsession with material culture has not declined no matter how much we may wish to deny it.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.