By Austin Raywood
“And all the children are insane…” – Jim Morrison
Right now; at this very moment Baz Luhrmann is deeply engrossed in pre-production on his new Great Gatsby film due for release in 2012. Although Luhrmann’s visionary directorial approach should have earned him the benefit of the doubt I must admit that I don’t have high hopes for it. It’s not just the potentially disastrous decision to film in 3D; it’s the poignancy and enormity of the project. It’s the gut-wrenching possibility that it will be a bit of a hash job that has nothing to offer the modern generation; my generation.
When Paramount studio head Robert Evans was developing his 1973 adaptation of America’s most famous novel he fully acknowledged the problematic nature of the task ahead. It wasn’t just that he was adapting a well-loved and respected classic, but that Fitzgerald never wrote truly filmable stories. At the time he claimed, “Fitzgerald doesn’t write sentences, he writes essences.” In order for the film to be a success the script would have to deviate quite heavily from the original novel. This innate difficulty begs the question: why bother to re-attempt making something that has been so many times before without so much as a fleeting whiff of success?
While the studio and production companies involved may believe that the film has a chance to make a serious profit, especially with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead, it’s a story that has been told time and time again by a completely different writer. Bret Easton Ellis is undoubtedly one of America’s great modern writers; in more ways than one a modern Fitzgerald. Having written American Psycho, Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, and Glamorama, Ellis has become the dominant voice on contemporary wealth in the literary world. The films that have been made from his works, at least up until the indie adaptation of The Informers (2008), feature almost all of the themes included in the works of Fitzgerald and, in my opinion, all to much greater effect.
From my, admittedly youth-of-today, perspective Ellis’s works are a lot easier to connect with than those of Fitzgerald. Both of these writers often speak about the same subject, wealth (especially young wealth), however because Fitzgerald’s works are set in the 1920s I can find only brief resemblances to the modern era. Obviously I can appreciate Fitzgerald but due to the unfamiliar setting it is more difficult for me to engage with it. Recognizing this issue the studio has, predictably, cast one of Hollywood’s biggest heartthrobs and Spiderman in the male leads and have opted to shoot, most unnecessarily, in 3D. They are perhaps hoping to create the next Titanic (1997), a period romantic film for the youth of the era. The whole idea of this calls into question whether Luhrmann can actually connect with a modern young audience.
Arguably what a modern audience is looking for from The Great Gatsby is a film that has something to say about contemporary society, not a film solely about an era that ended nearly a century ago. One only needs to look at the success of The Social Network (2010) to see that modern youth are truly and deeply interested in seeing films that refer to and connect with their day-to-day lives. Fitzgerald’s success in his era, though interestingly Gatsby was not one of them, was due largely to the fact that he did just that. Today the closest thing we have to such a writer is Ellis and even he is becoming a bit long in the tooth.
My big question about Gatsby 3D is: how can a period romance appeal to a generation for whom romance is, essentially, a dead concept? At least in the classical sense of the word. Thanks to the internet we are now more connected than ever before. All Kanye has to do is put up a mildly controversial tweet or status update and before you know it CNN is broadcasting the story worldwide. But while connectivity has grown exponentially over the last decade, communication has seemingly imploded. I’ll admit it: we simply don’t understand how to converse anymore. Why else do you think we have iPhones permanently fixed to our hands? The romantic gesture has bitten the dust. Subtlety is, generally, something now only of the past generations. Modern concepts of what is cool have all been mined and redirected from previous generations but all have lost their original meaning, as they should to some degree, and nothing has replaced the old beliefs. Is it too much to suggest that in this sense my generation, in essence, is a lost generation?
Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien explored the decline of communication and love in his 2005 film Three Times. The film was an omnibus of three short romance films, all using the same principal actors, each set in a different era of Taiwan’s history: 1966, 1911, and 2005. The first two eras show the deep connections and interactions of the lovers but in the 2005 segment the only connection the two have is purely sexual. Any sense of romantic love or direction has been lost. As film critic Roger Ebert claimed of the stories, “Three years: 1966, 1911, 2005. Three varieties of love: unfulfilled, mercenary, meaningless.” The sporadic communication in the first two stories allow the characters to view each individual interaction in much more depth and invest themselves emotionally. The second piece is essentially silent, only containing music. The entire story is told through title cards indicating the relationship to be one of separation; the only form of communication being that of love letters. By the time 2005 comes around the characters constantly text one another but tell each other nothing about how they feel or issues in their lives. They keep everything bottled up and it’s never discussed why. The only thing they have going for them is that they like sleeping with each other.
Perhaps it’s time Hollywood put together a film that actually examined modern culture and society in a deep and meaningful way, it’s something that hasn’t been done in quite awhile and young audiences are begging for anything that will actually speak to them. Instead what are we getting? Gatsby 3D! Are film producers so out of touch with “the kids of today” that this is the best they can offer us? David Fincher’s modern classic of last year would suggest otherwise so, you know, more of that please.