Baz Luhrmann’s aesthetic is the opposite of slow cinema. Rather than a contemplative experience, the audience gets a demonstrative display of vertiginous camera movement, fast editing and busy visual design that makes it hard to keep up. Even intimate scenes are loaded with distracting detail, so that the eye can’t rest for long. This is Luhrmann’s vision of modernity – it moves so fast you’re in danger of being left behind. The technique is assaultive and didactic, exhibitionism taken to extremes. ‘I want to show you something’, Gatsby says to Daisy before he reveals his scrapbook dedicated to her. This could be Luhrmann’s credo.
But the razzmatazz is not simply about dazzling with technique. There are technical set-pieces, but they’re thematically integrated and tied to character, which differentiates Luhrmann’s work from special effects extravaganzas in which the visual effects stand alone. Luhrmann’s films put technology at the service of story-telling and emotional affect – The Great Gatsby is no different: it uses 3D technology as a dramatic device. One of the virtuoso 3D set-pieces is the car ride in which Gatsby drives Nick in his flashy yellow vehicle across the bridge into the city, careering madly at hair-raising speed with the camera in impossible positions – in the middle of the road, on the bonnet, below the bumper, in the passenger seat, travelling on the running board or in mid-air. Fast editing contributes to the sense of speed and excitement as well as evoking the social turmoil of the period.
In this sequence the death-defying driving alternates with personal exchanges in which Gatsby tries to impress Nick with his fabricated life story. If the 3D aspires to put the viewer in the scene during the driving, provoking a visceral response, in the conversations between the two men the windscreen acts as a barrier that creates a distance. The viewer is aligned with eternal watcher Nick, oscillating between inside and outside. Nick describes himself as ‘Within and without … enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life’.
Barriers are created in other scenes too, denying the illusion given by 3D that viewers can touch actors and objects. Characters are positioned behind windows, the scene behind them obscure. In some cases the effect is like a pop-up book, lining up planes of vision, recalling the beginning of Moulin Rouge! (2001).
The strategy of denying the viewer the illusion of touching is central to the story and Gatsby’s doomed desire to touch the green light and realise his dream of possessing Daisy. It transmits a powerful sense of loss: like Gatsby, we reach out to grasp something unattainable. And it intensifies the contradiction at the heart of cinema: the sense viewers have of being there yet being absent.
Characteristically, Luhrmann and co’s innovative use of 3D reflects on the way viewers are implicated in the viewing experience as well as encapsulating Fitzgerald’s devastating critique of the American Dream. Delve beneath the show-stopping effects and you find cinematic gold.
© Pam Cook