There are many great scenes in Django Unchained, but one in particular stands out for me. After ordering his dogs to tear apart a runaway slave, Calvin Candie stares up at Django, who is on his horse. The two men look into each others eyes, all the while a man is being viciously killed out of frame. They discuss Django’s friend Schultz for a moment, then head on their way to the plantation.
That moment was a cinematic equivalent of a two man poker game. For not even a minute, we learn more about the danger our protagonists face, just how dastardly our antagonist is and more importantly the presence of a power struggle, all without saying much. I love it when what’s unsaid speaks louder than what’s being said.
Imagine that sequence with voice over narration, perhaps from an older Django; does it make you angry?
Now, I don’t want to suggest that the use of a narrator is always a bad move — Sunset Boulevard did it rather well and Sin City used it verbatim for the source — but I do want to state that it can become your worst nightmare if not used carefully. Have you ever heard the phrase “beats you over the head”? Voice over work can do that to an audience, treating us like we’re undereducated neanderthals. And that’s exactly how I felt when watching Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.
I never read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel. In fact, all I know about it I learned from wikipedia and Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School. From what I gather, the classic tale — about the enigmatic rich man Jay Gatsby, his obsessive love for a married woman from his past and his romantic optimism for a life with her — is, more or less, about the excess, carelessness and emptiness of the 1920’s (which, of course, was followed by The Great Depression). It’s supposed to be a book of rich storytelling and wonderful depth.
If all I knew about this story I learned from the movie it’s based on, I would assume it was about, well, how “Great” Gatsby was. That’s all. Did Tommy Wiseau write up the adaptation?
In Baz Luhrmann’s 3D film, we are presented with what could’ve been the best possible portrayal of the decadent 1920’s ever. Champagne in every hand, glitter and fireworks in the air and jazz playing all the time. Visuals and sounds just bursting off the screen and popping right in your face. There’s even a wonderful scene where rich white people dance awkwardly to Jay Z like music in a small apartment. That alone expressed the discomforting and shallowness I was looking for.
But, I’m afraid that was it. It appears as if Mr. Luhrmann didn’t know how to tell this story without directly using the narration from the book. Was he scared of backlash from fans? If so, he shouldn’t have let that control his direction. There are scenes (dialogue, non 3D ones) that could’ve been told in a more subtle and tense manner. Like the one in the Plaza. Our leads are in a room, sweltering from the heat, trying to have fun with some booze. Gatsby wants Daisy to tell her husband that she’ll be leaving him. What could’ve been an incredibly awkward, uncomfortable and intense moment is undercut by Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway) telling us what’s happening. Something along the lines of “The tension was high. I could see the anger in Gatsby’s eyes. Daisy just wanted to leave.” Yes, thank you. If you hadn’t told us exactly how to feel and think, we just would’ve sat in our seats wondering why the floor is sticky.
I understand that the movie follows the narration of the book pretty closely, but I stress that my problem is not with the author, but with this director. Instead of interpreting the page, and judging how to present it for another medium, he just takes some glue, squeezes it around, and drops glitter on it. There. A book… with glitter. Perhaps he got lost in the spectacle, and forgot what it was all trying to say. Ironically, much like Gatsby’s lavish parties, the 3D and confetti didn’t bring Baz any closer to the green light he so desired.
And the framing device doesn’t help. For the movie, it was decided that it would be told by Nick from a sanitarium, while he’s writing it all in a novel. At the end of the movie, he changes the title of his work from “Gatsby” to “The Great Gatsby”. A movie that punches you with an undercut from a fist made of ham. Wow. Peter Greenway has often said that the cinema has become impoverished because of our value of text over image. Baz Luhrmann can sure make colors pop, can’t he?
It’s almost embarrassing to say, but this movie might just represent where we are as moviegoers, or at least where Hollywood thinks we are. The fact that a recent Michael Bay movie is told in a less insulting way than an adaptation of an American classic is a travesty.
We’ll always have Tarantino, right?
1/5 *s (though, 2/5 wouldn’t feel wrong)
Originally published at billreviewsfilm.blogspot.com on May 15, 2013.