The Cinema of Limitless Excess and Bottomless Bad Taste

by DAVID YEARSLEY

Like an obnoxiously drunk, loudmouthed, long-winded, overly-pleased-with-himself, vacuously ostentatious guest who refuses to leave the party even though it’s long been over, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby lingers at the local multiplex, Scotch in one hand, cigar in the other, rapping away at the top of his lungs. The critics were the first to flee the loathsome fete, lambasting the film’s grandiosity and self-indulgence. But in spite of such huffy dismissals, this cinematic blowhard has raked in more than twice its estimated hundred million dollar price tag, with more revenues to come from long-term revenue stream soon to be trickling down its gilded urinal.

Yet if one can endure an assault on the senses of D-Day-like proportions, the movie offers a weirdly illuminating, if scarily overblown, demonstration of form and content in perfect harmony. Never before has the extreme profligacy of contemporary times, whose hedge fund and social network Gatsbies dwarf the budgets and pretensions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary prototype, been more bombastically mapped onto the excesses of the early twentieth century. The film is as wasteful and out of control as the America of today.

I was dragged—not exactly kicking and screaming, but dragged nonetheless—to a screening yesterday because of the appearance of an organ in the movie, as my kidnapper enthusiastically informed me. Even as I weakly resisted my abduction in the direction of the mall, I rationalized my contribution to the producers’ profits with the thought that I could at least deduct the price of the ticket as a research expense.

The organ served as the musical embodiment of pathological overabundance long before the advent of motion pictures, but the cinema consummated this tendency.  In Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby we hear the strains of an organ near the beginning of movie blaring through a scrim of digital effects as revelers pour into the Gatsby mansion, a computer-generated pile that looks so fake it’s almost laughable—a Robber Baron castle pumped up on steroid-laced saccharine. The pitches we hear are the first three notes of Bach’s Toccata in D. These are probably the most universally recognized three notes in all of music, not just classical. Play them anywhere on anything—from Notre Dame’s mighty organ to your three-year-old’s kazoo—and millions, if not billions, of people will recognize the reference. After conjuring the infamous Toccata, Luhrmann and the manager of the soundtrack, composer Craig Armstrong, pause there and don’t give us the descending minor run that follows.  It’s a rare moment of delayed gratification in a film that’s all about immediate surfeit and sensual over-stimulation—not to mention over-simulation.

The opening three notes of the Toccata hang in the computer-generated air for several coy seconds as we are ushered into the festive hall in the Gatsby Mansion in whose gallery the Art Deco organ looms in exaggerated geometric patterns, raining its Dionysian blessing down on the partiers. It’s a given that this instrument should look unrealistic: Luhrmann’s film is pure fantasy. As for the sound, if it’s a real organ, it’s a bad one. Once inside we get a fleeting continuation of the Toccata with mod-con digital updates, as Luhrmann unleashes exotic dancers and hip-hop odes to partying hard.

The filmmakers have invested much of their public relations capital congratulating themselves on the chronological disjunction between the music of Fitzgerald’s Roaring Twenties and what the soundtrack offers: hip-hop they claim gives modern audience a truer sense of “Jazz Age Sensibility.” In reality the result is a revue of entertainment elites cranking things up and dumbing things down, from the immortal lines of executive producer Jay Z’s “one hundred million, bitch” to Beyoncé singing “I love blow.”  When these and other invitees to Luhrmann’s sonic orgy aren’t pumping away, we are treated to palpitating ballads about love like Del Rey’s maudlin Young and Beautiful, songs whose enfeebled emotions wheeze breathily through the stranglehold of pitch-correction software.

In an attempt to lend his creation not only street-cred but also a touch of Golden Age class, Luhrmann allows his composer Armstrong a few grandiose orchestral stretches, as in the main theme that accompanies the emblematic green light at the end of Daisy’ dock across the bay from Gatsby’s mansion. This marquee moment elicits from Armstrong synth strings comforting a weepy solo violin in what amounts to an automated version of Samuel Barber’s Adagio—the superficial masquerading as the sumptuous. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is also impressed into service, a clichéd attempt to establish the catholic musical tastes of the filmmakers as they stagger between then and the now.

Luhrmann’s irrepressible urge to overdo is symbolized most clearly in the image and sound of the Gatsby organ. It is true that the magnates of the Jazz Age liked to build organs into their mansions, though never as big as the fake one in the movie. The Frick house on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan has a rather discreet instrument on the landing of the main staircase, and it can still be heard drifting down to the inner court in weekly concerts. The effect is refined rather than bombastic. Luhrmann lusts after the latter. He’s both obvious and excessive, hence the Toccata in D minor.

There is no organ in novel, but rather a piano, played by a “boarder” at the Gatsby mansion, a certain Ewing Klipspringer. He repeatedly protests that he’s out of practice, but is bullied into playing by Gatsby,

“Don’t talk so much, sport,” admonishes Gatsby. “Play!” Klipspringer relents and tries to make his way through the Tin Pan Alley tune Ain’t We Got Fun. Fitzgerald’s understated vignette captures brilliantly what many an on-and-off again pianist has had to suffer when forced into performing by a host.

The novel’s intimate music room scene, with Nick, Gatsby and Daisy listening to the piano is relocated in the movie to the organ hall and Klipspringer elevated from hapless keyboard fumbler “to symphonic genius” as DiCaprio’s Gatsby puts it.  This new supercharged Klipspringer let’s loose in the film with an immoderate and unlikely fantasia. The telling awkwardness of the original scene becomes overblown parody in the new screen version. The Gatsbian ethos of bigger is better has birthed in Luhrmann’s Gatsby a chronicle of limitless excess and bottomless bad taste, a frightening Dolby 3D portrait of its own Age.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

 

 

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Suzanne Gordon
How Vets May Suffer From McCain’s Latest Captivity
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
Uri Avnery
The Molten Three: Israel’s Aborted Strike on Iran
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal
Bill Yousman
The Fire This Time: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”
Scott Parkin
Katrina Plus Ten: Climate Justice in Action
Michael Welton
The Conversable World: Finding a Compass in Post-9/11 Times
Brian Cloughley
Don’t be Black in America
Kent Paterson
In Search of the Great New Mexico Chile Pepper in a Post-NAFTA Era
Binoy Kampmark
Live Death on Air: The Killings at WDBJ
Gui Rochat
The Guise of American Democracy
Emma Scully
Vultures Over Puerto Rico: the Financial Implications of Dependency
Chuck Churchill
Is “White Skin Privilege” the Key to Understanding Racism?
Kathleen Wallace
The Id(iots) Emerge
Andrew Stewart
Zionist Hip-Hop: a Critical Look at Matisyahu
Gregg Shotwell
The Fate of the UAW: Study, Aim, Fire
Halyna Mokrushyna
Decentralization Reform in Ukraine
Norman Pollack
World Capitalism, a Basket Case: A Layman’s View
Sarah Lazare
Listening to Iraq
John Laforge
NSP/Xcel Energy Falsified Welding Test Documents on Rad Waste Casks
Wendell G Bradley
Drilling for Wattenberg Oil is Not Profitable
Joy First
Wisconsin Walk for Peace and Justice: Nine Arrested at Volk Field
Mel Gurtov
China’s Insecurity
Mateo Pimentel
An Operator’s Guide to Trump’s Racism
Yves Engler
Harper Conservatives and Abuse of Power
Michael Dickinson
Police Guns of Brixton: Another Unarmed Black Shot by London Cops
Ron Jacobs
Daydream Sunset: a Playlist
Charles R. Larson
The Beginning of the Poppy Wars: Amitav Ghosh’s “Flood of Fire”
David Yearsley
A Rising Star Over a Dark Forest
August 27, 2015
Sam Husseini
Foreign Policy, Sanders-Style: Backing Saudi Intervention
Brad Evans – Henry A. Giroux
Self-Plagiarism and the Politics of Character Assassination: the Case of Zygmunt Bauman