Wednesday, June 26, 2013

3D Gatsby for an Emo Era: Baz Luhrmann's Beautiful, Lurid Male Melodrama

And from an adaptation that took no stance on its material we move to one that takes such a definite stance, at least stylistically, that it has caused a profusion of apoplexy. 

In one respect I was the ideal viewer of Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby: maybe it's a Canadian thing, but Fitzgerald's novel is by no means a fetish for me; there is no special mythos attached to it; and even as a commentary on the pathology of the American Dream I'm sure it reads differently to non-Americans. It's just another great book, and one that did not make much of an impression on me when I dutifully read it about 10 years ago. In fact I hardly remembered anything about the plot (other than the central love triangle and its famed thematic meaning), which made me the ideal viewer in another respect: I was actually surprised by the melodrama twist that allows Tom and Daisy to make Gatsby the outsider/Other into the scapegoat for their entitled irresponsibility. As an experiment, I'm going to re-read the novel after commenting on the movie, and return (if I learn anything interesting) with a report on how Luhrmann's movie looks then. For now, however, I want to record my immediate reactions – unhampered by any duty of comparison.

At The Action Movie They Can't Hear You Yawn

Even while watching it I thought that much of what I was responding to was not the movie per se but rather Fitzgerald's story, characters, and language in the context of the wasteland of contemporary filmmaking. Or as Richard Brody puts it in The New Yorker: “It wouldn't make the resulting movie any better [if one could forget the source], but it would at least make for a source of wonder that an early-twenty-first-century screenwriter could offer up such a rich lode of material, regardless of the use made of it.” And many times throughout I found myself sort of sagging into my seat with relief just to see characters in a contemporary movie having powerful, comprehensible emotional reactions to complex, dramatic situations. Maybe even bastardized Fitzgerald makes a better movie than 99% of what's out there – the plotless action movies and the plotless art movies alike.

Still, some of the negative critical reaction to Luhrmann's provocation is all-too-obvious: David Denby (also in The New Yorker), for one, humourlessly takes the bait and witheringly remarks of the framing device, “He types, right on the manuscript, 'by Nick Carraway.' (No doubt a manuscript of 'Lolita by Humbert Humbert' will show up in future adaptations.)” Denby got too subtle for me here: for a moment I thought that in the heat of his defense of literary values he forgot that “Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male" turns up in the first sentence of that novel. And why not incorporate John Ray, Jr., Ph.D. into an adaptation? Of course Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce are not being playful but rather hilariously literal-minded and on-the-nose: when Nick writes in pen, as a rakish afterthought, “The Great” over his typed original title, “Gatsby," my companion and I burst out laughing. 

One of the charms of Luhrmann's movie, however, is precisely that one feels free to laugh at it - it may be gauche, but it's also so irreverent that laughing at it seems as appropriate a response as any. (In contrast, if we'd laughed our way through Lincoln – as we did through the trailer – the audience probably would have been disturbed.) And so for that matter does clapping, which the audience we saw it with nearly did – the first time I've ever known a movie audience to do so, unless it's a film festival and the director is present. But then we didn't – either because we are chilly Torontonians (these people don't even dance at rock concerts in intimate venues!) or because the movie was full of so much good and bad we hardly knew what to do. Mostly, however, I think the almost-applause was a half-startled response to the actors' accomplishments, almost as though we had watched an exhausting theatrical performance: there's no doubt that all four of the principals took their emotions balls-to-the-wall in a way seldom seen in movies these days – because they have no characters to play – because they have no writers to write them.

Nevertheless, the final telling audience reaction of the evening was the yawn that sounded out during the movie's quiet second half. After assaulting our senses during Nick's initiation into life in New York, climaxing with his attendance of Gatsby's gaudy parties, Luhrmann allows the movie to rely on the drama of the love triangle for an astonishingly long time, with dialogue and emotional suspense as the only diversions. Did it prove too taxing for the audience, or it is just that most contemporary movies are so loud throughout that to be able to hear the audience's yawns is a novelty? Because I'm sure I wasn't the only one drifting off during the mind-numbingly samey action sequences of Star Trek Into Darkness.

It's as if Luhrmann, in an effort to court the youth audience that responded to Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet, front-loaded the movie with sex, fast cars, and outrageous visuals to reassure us that it's not another stuffy adaptation of a “classic,” only to settle into what is a fairly respectful interpretation, with what by Luhrmann's standards are restrained characterizations and performances. We wait and we wait for Daisy, under Gatsby's pressure, to “tell Tom,” while their hysteria builds; we begin to realize that their pure love is his illusion, that unlike him she is stuck in the mire of everyday life, where pure love does not exist; where there are constraints of shared values, background, experiences, and of money and scandal; we understand at last that she's frail and flawed and lacks the courage to break with her husband, but at the same time that emotions and loyalties aren't as monolithic as Gatsby demands.

Yes, that's quite a lot for a contemporary movie. It would be quite a lot for a contemporary novel.

The Platonic Idea of Leonardo DiCaprio

This is certainly the early-21st-century metrosexual/emo Gatsby, with two floppy-haired, ageing boy-men – or (to paraphrase Camille Paglia) – lesboy-men in the roles of Nick and Gatsby. And although, or because, the movie is all about the men, it's a movie directed at women. I'm perfectly serious that I think DiCaprio must have been CGI-ed into the dashingly handsome, blond-locked leading man that his teen idol youth promised, into the Platonic Idea of himself instead of the bloated former pretty-boy he actually became; and the odd-looking Maguire is a surprisingly compelling camera object. Nor is Luhrmann afraid to exploit the male leads' feminine beauty, his vibrant palette bringing out tints in hair and eyes.

I don't know how good a Jay Gatsby DiCaprio makes (I'll have an opinion after I've re-read the book), but his Gatsby may be the best Mr. Darcy put on the screen to date. The movie is all about the men, but they, and we, wait for Daisy's decision, and DiCaprio's nervous, unswerving, unrequited devotion to her is the Prince Charming plot of Pride and Prejudice writ even larger; Luhrmann even lets him appear comical because it will make him more endearing. That this Prince Charming plot is going to take a tragic turn doesn't matter to the Twilight-loving demographic Luhrmann's aiming at (hence the “comic book Darkness” of which a Fitzgerald-loving friend who hates the movie complained); in fact it makes it better; he's going to die for her – again. The casting of DiCaprio is not entirely a matter of his leading man charisma and once-upon-a-time (and still fondly remembered, to the point of blotting out the present) blond good looks; even more, it draws on his “great lover” roles in Titanic and, to a lesser extent, Luhrmann's own Romeo + Juliet. But the Titanic role, his most iconic, was true love as self-sacrifice as suicidal masochism.

Luhrmann's Male Melodrama

In Gatsby, the nearly 40-year-old DiCaprio is called upon to be even more masochistic, and more vulnerable, than he was as a sensitive teen idol. Frequently in tears, an insecure wreck, comically self-serious (the way he says “chiefly rubies” in his first long speech to Nick is a comic wonder up there with the best moments of inadvertent brilliance in Robert Stack's performance in Written on the Wind), terrifyingly needy – I don't know whether DiCaprio can act in any conventional sense, and probably the accent he adopts for Gatsby is as “simply and patently absurd” as Brody says, but this is a beautiful and brave movie performance. The comparisons I want to make are all to performances by actresses – Leigh's Blanche DuBois, Taylor's Martha, Hepburn's Mary Tyrone – and DiCaprio's feminine glamour and vulnerability highlight the strange fact that most of the parallels to Gatsby are found among female characters: he's Blanche DuBois, Holly Golightly, and Keats's Lamia rolled into one (with a pinch of Heathcliff and a dash of Darcy).

Definitely absurd is the weird old-man voice that Maguire adopts for the framing device (lesboymen can't do gravitas); but Maguire is equally good as Nick Carraway. He may not be Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway (again, I have to re-read), but he draws on a history of rather tedious portrayals of decent and honest boyish men that finally pay off in this role, which calls for him to spend the movie empathizing with Gatsby, and to a certain extent with Daisy as well. Were it not for this background of decency, his persistent voyeurism would be a lot creepier – and still it made me think of one of my best reading experiences of recent years, Brideshead Revisited. If Gatsby weren't such a fetish object in America, perhaps it would occupy a place in American literature comparable to Brideshead in British literature and be recognized as “only” a great novel of the 20th century. (Is it – ironically – American cultural insecurity that's given the novel its untouchable status?) Both novels are lavishly romantic, centrally featuring a yearning for the irrecoverable past; both portray a repressed young man's coming-of-age as an initiation into a hedonistic lifestyle; both feature a first-person narrator who's adopted by the rich and strange. Gatsby is slightly less homoerotic – but not by much, especially in Luhrmann's metrosexual/emo version, in which the love between Nick and Gatsby is portrayed so unselfconsciously that you can't even snigger at it (because if you could, I'd find a way).

There's a nice moment during the scene in the hotel room where Gatsby and Tom try to force Daisy to choose when Daisy touches Nick's hand, calling upon his Ralph Touchett-like asexual cousin duty to provide a refuge from these men who are battling for her body and soul. This is also Nick's role in the movie: he supports by empathizing by watching, and by wanting nothing. Or – this is what the Maguire persona brings to the role. Whether it matches up with the novel's Carraway remains for me to see.

The Greatest Love Story Ever Told

And who's to say that the Twilight fans (if indeed the movie did reach that audience) understand Fitzgerald's intention and the novel's appeal less well than the literary critics focused on the delusional nature of Gatsby's love and Daisy's unworthiness as an object? The belief in “true love” in Luhrmann's oeuvre has always been so sincere that one can't help but imagine – if one is me – that it's deeply cynical. In his Gatsby this is not the true love of Gatsby and Daisy, but the true love of Gatsby for Daisy; the morbid kind of true love, that you die for. (If the viewer ever doubted that his love was sincere, ever thought it was “just” a delusion or projection, by dying for it he's surely proved its truth after all.) When the butler has Nick on the phone, pleading to speak to Daisy so he can persuade her to go to Gatsby's funeral (even in death he's stalking her!), she hesitates, she'd like to go to the phone – even now she's on the verge of giving it all up for love, of the kind of foolishness that would turn her into, say, Madame de... of Ophuls's movie. But American men have better control of their wives, and he ushers her away before she can weaken and finally succumb not to her love for Gatsby but to Gatsby's idea of love.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Joss Whedon's 'Much Ado About Nothing': Of Misogyny and Maids

My recent viewing of Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing reminded me of just how strange this Shakespeare comedy is. Primarily remembered for featuring the ur example of the squabbling “get a room” couple, tonally it runs the gamut from rom com to film noir, the shift occurring when the callow Claudio is tricked into thinking that his demure bride-to-be, Hero, has been inviting every man in Messina into her bed. At this point the battle of the sexes that's been lightheartedly represented in the bickering of Beatrice and Benedick explodes and turns vicious. The innocent and defenseless Hero is publicly shamed and reviled at the altar, even by her father, who can barely be persuaded to believe in her honesty and swears to her that his hands will “tear her” if the accusation proves to be true, and the plotline of the burgeoning romance between Beatrice and Benedick is derailed when Beatrice, the only character to take offence at the treatment of Hero, her cousin, exhorts Benedick to prove his love for her by killing Claudio on her behalf.

But then romantic comedy is a stranger genre than we normally think. The faked death of Hero, which removes her from the play while her innocence is slowly but surely established by the dim-witted local Watch (compare the deus ex machina role of the childlike Pettibone in Hawks's His Girl Friday), is an instance of the “death of the hero/heroine” trope that Northrop Frye identified as a feature of the comedy genre. In the case of the hero, imprisonment often substitutes for death – a trope that can be traced in American film comedy from Sturges's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (whose plot concerns the proving of the technical “innocence” of a seemingly unwed mother) to the first Ghostbusters movie. The death and rebirth of the heroine, on the other hand, are often treated more literally – and never more literally than by Shakespeare in this play and the late romance (in the Frygian sense of the term) that sees the full development of the Hero-Claudio plot, The Winter's Tale.

Psychologically, the violence that descends on Hero on her wedding day metaphorically represents the violence of defloration; Shakespearean comedy is still close to initiation ritual here. The pure maiden must disappear and be reborn to prove that her purity can survive the carnality of marriage – and compare the weird romance (Frygian sense again) Love Letters, directed by William Dieterle, with a screenplay by Ayn Rand, which may supply the missing link between Shakespearean comedy and Hitchcock's Vertigo. But then so does Sturges's The Lady Eve, which also features a heroine with a dual identity. And The Lady Eve is as tonally troubling as Much Ado, with Barbara Stanwyck's declaration of her affection for Henry Fonda, “I need him like the axe needs the turkey,” almost as naked an expression of the battle of the sexes as Beatrice's “Kill Claudio.” Three-and-a-half centuries after Much Ado, The Lady Eve is still generating dark comedy from patriarchal expectations of female purity, and Stanwyck finally achieves Beatrice's revenge on Claudio – not by murder, but by an even better means, babbling an endless fictive list of her premarital indiscretions to Fonda on their wedding night.

Besides the romantic comedies and romances of classical Hollywood cinema, another notable heir of the plot and concerns of Much Ado is Austen's Pride and Prejudice, which also features a complex principle couple who are perfectly matched but at odds with each other and a simpler secondary couple whose romance is nevertheless interrupted by outside interference – at which point the tone of the novel darkens. Here Darcy – rather than the villain, Wickham – interferes with the Jane-Bigley romance, confirming the ire of Elizabeth, who reproves with him and uncivilly rejects his marriage proposal in an anguished scene that I was reminded of during the scene where Beatrice persuades Benedick to challenge Claudio. Elizabeth has not only Beatrice's wit (although Austen reproduces Shakespeare in a less bawdy register) but also her loyalty to her milder female relative, the “conventional” young woman contrasted with the “modern” heroine. Equipped with not only a sister but also a best friend whom she loves, Elizabeth has more ties to her own sex than most famous heroines of fiction. Darcy not only loses her affection by ruining her sister's happiness, but regains it by assisting another sister who has disgraced herself.

One of the few carryovers I noticed from leads Alexis Denisof's and Amy Acker's former incarnation as a couple in a Whedon project, as Wesley and Fred on Angel, was the sense conveyed that Benedick loves Beatrice more than Beatrice loves Benedick, which is how she can manipulate him. A supreme sense of the traditional stakes for each sex in marriage undergirds the romantic comedy plot of Much Ado: for men it means the risk of being sexually betrayed, for women the risk of becoming the victim of the misogyny underlying such male fears. Shakespeare proves the men delusional and the women justified; consequently, Beatrice has much more to fear from marriage than Benedick. His misogyny is nothing more than a pose, whereas her misandry is deep-seated – in this play, with good reason.

By agreeing to kill Claudio, Benedick joins the women's side in the play's brutal battle of the sexes, out of love for Beatrice. How the audience is meant to feel or will feel in response to Beatrice's demand and Benedick's concession is another question, and remains one of the disquieting ambiguities of the play. Does Claudio deserve to be murdered – personally or as a representative of the male attitudes he displays so spectacularly? If we answer yes, or at least entertain the question, for a modern audience Claudio's crime is not defaming an innocent maiden's chastity but regarding his wife as a possession in the first place. The demand that a wife be a virgin is of course the direct result of men regarding women as their personal property under patriarchy; as Simone de Beauvoir puts it in The Second Sex, “The surest way of asserting something is mine is to prevent others from using it.” And as Stanley Cavell has argued, in Shakespeare lack of certainty about a woman's fidelity (or in de Beauvoir's terms, of one's ownership of another human being) has the effect of turning into a universal skepticism for the male protagonist that results in madness and is itself a kind of madness.

Whedon's quickie modern-dress adaptation doesn't really grapple with or try to find contemporary equivalents for any of these problems, with the result that it's hard to care about anything that goes on in the second, dramatic half of the movie. Hero's declaration at her second wedding, “I am a maid,” should have the majesty and mystery of magic (the fearful magic of the virgin that is the primitive reaction to virginity, as de Beauvoir describes); instead of which, despite Whedon's procession-with-candles nod to ritual, it just seems kind of weird and awkward. Luckily it's also during the second half that the wonderful Nathan Fillion (doing an even dumberer version of his lunkhead performance in Dr. Horrible) and his comedic equal, Tom Lenk (Buffy's Andrew), show up to deliver the play's low – and therefore universal and timeless – comedy. Sexual mores may change, technology and fashions may march on, but jokes about the incompetence of law enforcement are forever.