Revered works of art are the ripest for reimagining. Not only because, as Walter Benjamin argued, “recreating the value” of any original is preferable to dogmatic fealty to it, but because a classic text’s very timelessness renders it most invincible to the slings and arrows of outrageous reinterpretation.
Not so the translations themselves, as the calamitous critical (though not popular) response to Baz Luhrmann’s 3D film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has shown. Taking hyperbolic liberties with a canonical work has not been the prime grievance, nor could it be. Infusing the Roaring ‘20s with Beyonce, rap, and EDM, as Luhrmann does in Gatsby, is child’s play compared to Orson Welles’s staging of a fascist-era Julius Caesar and a voodoo Macbeth set in Haiti. What has called for Luhrmann’s head on a plate, rather, is that while Welles purportedly teased out topical relevance in Shakespeare’s grandiose vision, Luhrmann allegedly has buried the “great American novel” in a dung heap of stylistic pretension.
I too have been put off previously by Luhrmann’s bent for sensual bombardment, and found myself “gasping for air,” as critic Kenneth Turan complained, through much of Gatsby’s early going. Once the Gatsby-Daisy relationship kicks in, however, the film’s formal excess, paradoxically, becomes its saving grace. Unlike in his anachronistic foray into fin-de-siècle Paris (Moulin Rouge, 2003) or postmodern update of 14th-century Verona (Romeo + Juliet, 1996), Luhrmann, in Jazz Age New York City and love-sick Jake Gatsby, has found the perfect match in time, place, and personality disorder not only with hyper-hedonist America, but with his own overstuffed aesthetic and über-romantic sensibility.
“Is it too much?” Gatsby asks Nick, his neighborly go-between and the film’s (and book’s) narrator, about the funeral parlor–like flower display he has fashioned for his long-awaited tryst with true love Daisy—to which Nick responds like a dutiful set decorator, “It’s what you want.” Similarly assignable to Gatsby as to Luhrmann is Daisy’s assessment that the garishly extravagant parties Gatsby throws in his castle-like mansion exist “all in your irresistible imagination,” and the Proustian exchange between Gatsby and Nick before film’s end:
Nick: “You can’t repeat the past.”
Gatsby: “You can’t repeat the past? Of course you can, of course you can.”
Or at least you can try—as Luhrmann does again in Gatsby, only this time (if only unconsciously) with the help of Citizen Kane. Artistic quality is not the issue, as Welles’s masterpiece clearly towers over Luhrmann’s wanna-be in originality and scope. Nor would Gatsby (whose 1925 source novel itself likely influenced Kane) be the first film to rework Welles’s faux biopic of William Randolph Hearst, as films as varied as Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless (1948) and P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) indicate. Nevertheless, the formal and narrative bond between Luhrmann’s and Welles’s films, their main characters, and the two filmmakers is uncanny.
Welles, if to more sophisticated ends, also was notorious for stylistic self-indulgence, and for commenting self-reflexively on it. He said he felt “like a kid in a candy store” upon directing Kane, his first Hollywood film, and has the eponymous Kane (played by Welles) admit, upon taking the reins of his first New York daily, “I don’t know how to run a newspaper. I just try everything I can think of.” Both Kane and Gatsby rise from hardscrabble poverty to impossible riches, suffer traumatic losses that ground their doomed obsession with the past, and cram palatial mansions with material objects and elaborate spectacle in ill-fated attempts to fill an emotional chasm. In their overcompensatory striving they also clearly stand in for an ultra-acquisitive, hopelessly optimistic American prototype, if not for the capitalist United States writ large. Nick implies as much in his concluding narration, and Welles and his coscreenwriter on Kane, Herman Mankiewicz, made the connection explicit in originally titling the film The American. If only coincidental, the uncanniest connection is the two flower symbols, “Rosebud” and Daisy, that drive the two films’ protagonists’ unrequited passions.
Thus while Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby is not likely to join Citizen Kane in Sight and Sound’s Top Ten list any time soon (Hitchcock’s Vertigo knocked Kane off the top spot last year), it has allowed the filmmaker, for the first and hopefully not the last time, to both indulge and critique his own and society’s proclivities in the Age of Mass Distraction.
Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA, USC, Cal State LA, and Pierce College. He is the author, most recently, of Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir (Rutgers Press, 2006). His newest book, on Los Angeles, was published in early 2013.