Supersizing 'The Great Gatsby'




As I've said before, I think filming The Great Gatsby in 3-D is a pretty bad idea, though this is interesting: 


It might also supply what has been missing in the Oscar season -- the heat of a film that decisively breaks a barrier, like "Gone With the Wind," the first all-color best picture, or "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," perhaps the first Oscar winner to be anchored in its make-up and fantasy effects. 

"The 'special effect' in this movie is seeing fine actors in the prime of their acting careers tearing each other apart," Mr. Luhrmann explained in a telephone interview this week. He spoke of using 3-D not to create thrilling vistas or coming-at-you threats, but rather to find a new intimacy in film. 

He referred particularly to a climactic scene in which Daisy's husband, Tom Buchanan (played by Joel Edgerton), confronts Mr. DiCaprio's Gatsby in a suite at the Plaza hotel, all in three dimensions. "How do you make it feel like you're inside the room?" he asked.

I think this starts in the right place. Whereas much of Hollywood's big-budget work is plot-centric, Gatsby's plot is thin, its love story banal (that's the point,) and its magic rather subtle. It works marvelously on the level of character, and acting would have to be key. So I think Luhrmann has it right when he says the special effect is the actors.

What scares me is the sense that I get from a lot of Hollywood directors that more is necessarily "more." There are all kinds of ways to make us "feel" that we're in the room--and more detail and verisimilitude doesn't always equal greater "feeling." I think Fitzgerald very much makes us feel like we're in the room:

There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. 

On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city, between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants including an extra gardener toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before. 

Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York--every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour, if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler's thumb. 


At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby's enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d'oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another. 

By seven o'clock the orchestra has arrived--no thin five-piece affair but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos and low and high drums. The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing upstairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive, and already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors and hair shorn in strange new ways and shawls beyond the dreams of Castile. 

The bar is in full swing and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside until the air is alive with chatter and laughter and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other's names. The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier, minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. 

The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath--already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the center of a group and then excited with triumph glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light. 

 Suddenly one of these gypsies in trembling opal, seizes a cocktail out of the air, dumps it down for courage and moving her hands like Frisco dances out alone on the canvas platform. A momentary hush; the orchestra leader varies his rhythm obligingly for her and there is a burst of chatter as the erroneous news goes around that she is Gilda Gray's understudy from the "Follies." 

The party has begun.

I have never seen this party, but I am there. I don't need need a naked literalism to make me feel it. The point here is not that The Great Gatsby couldn't be adapted into a great film, but I'm skeptical that 3-D, that "more," is an essential tool in making that happen.

My sense is that that Gatsby would do much better as an art-house flick, than as a major studio star vehicle. It seems to lend itself more to the style of Copie Conformie, which I absolutely adore. Gatsby isn't an epic. It's a small story. It's glory is its ruthless efficiency, its economy, its unsentimentality. You just don't tend to see those qualities in big Hollywood films.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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