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Movie Review: “The Great Gatsby”

Generations of readers have either loved or loathed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s parable of the Jazz Age. At once both a character study and cultural critique, “The Great Gatsby” explores the seamy underbelly of the American utopian vision. When I first saw the initial previews for Baz Luhrmann’s big-budget adaptation, I was optimistic…and happily, my faith was rewarded. Luhrmann’s bombastic vision captures the essence of Fitzgerald’s novel while infusing it with contemporary energy.

Narrated by alcohol-rehab patient Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), “The Great Gatsby” tells the story of enigmatic multimillionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his pursuit of former sweetheart Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan)…who, believing Gatsby long lost, married a wealthy boor. In a high-society world characterized by vapid hedonism and carnal sensuality, Nick finds himself irresistibly drawn to the romantic idealist Gatsby – even as Gatsby’s unfolding dream of “turning back the past” proves to be deeply destructive.

I’ve read Fitzgerald’s novel multiple times, and for the most part Luhrmann stays faithful to the text. There are a number of additions and expansions throughout (and the fate of one major character is substantially altered), but these are fairly minor complaints.

Luhrmann is not a director known for subtlety, and “The Great Gatsby” is no exception here. Much of the time, this tendency towards excess serves the story quite well: garish party scenes are drenched with kinetic energy, and most of the cast members turn in dynamic performances (Gatsby’s first reunion with Daisy positively sizzles). Sweeping cinematography and a creative use of CGI effects create a gorgeous tableau; I found myself thinking the movie would be pretty solid without any sound at all. That said, the music selections Luhrmann employs (both the instrumental score and the original soundtrack) are phenomenal: who would’ve thought Jack White and will.i.am would work so well in the 1920s?

A better cast couldn’t have been selected for this film. Maguire (as seen in his turn as Peter Parker) makes a very convincing Everyman, especially against the backdrop of Gatsby’s glittering lifestyle. DiCaprio actually transcends the limitations of his character as written by Fitzgerald; Gatsby becomes a human, sympathetic figure with which the audience can connect, despite deep-rooted flaws. Mulligan, in a role similar to the one she played in “Drive,” exudes an innocent charm that meshes perfectly with Fitzgerald’s original character. It’s worth mentioning that Elizabeth Debicki is woefully miscast as Nick’s erstwhile love interest Jordan Baker, but she doesn’t have much screen time.

Sometimes Luhrmann’s tendency towards the baroque, however, becomes overwrought. The editing is sometimes a bit too chaotic: especially as the movie opens, the camera bounces from spectacle to spectacle without letting much sink in. (The narrative does finds its footing in the second half, though). More problematically, some elements left implicit in Fitzgerald’s relatively understated novel (the reasons behind Nick’s admiration of Gatsby, the precise nature of Gatsby’s past, the role played by the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg) are spoon-fed to the viewer through Nick’s ongoing narration. At times, this feels a shade patronizing: it’s almost as if neon text flashes onscreen to proclaim “HERE IS AN IMPORTANT SYMBOL AND EXACTLY WHAT IT MEANS. TAKE NOTE.”

That said, it’s nice that the underlying themes didn’t get lost in the shuffle. “The Great Gatsby” is in many ways a cautionary tale of ego and excess, and no one will be walking out of this film wanting to emulate Daisy or Gatsby. Though the party scenes are grand and opulent, the vacuity at their core is never truly concealed…nor is the suggestion that, perhaps, they are transgressing age-old moral values. This film, much like its literary inspiration, leaves its viewers with sobering food for thought.

Is it worth seeing?

As a fan of the book, I was completely satisfied: it’s a compelling, faithful retelling that (hopefully) will serve as a catalyst for more high-quality classic-to-film adaptations.Not everyone will enjoy Luhrmann’s vision, but those with a love for the novel and an appreciation for grand spectacle will find much to like here.

VERDICT: 9/10
A lush, atmospheric adaptation of an American classic. Well worth seeing.

Normalized Score: 7.9

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Posted by on May 15, 2013 in Classic

 

Literature Commentary: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Long, long ago, I recall reading the story of Gilgamesh in an anthology of myths entitled “The Great Deeds of Superheroes.” Shortly thereafter, I had nightmares about being stalked by the evil ogre Humbaba. Little did I know that fourteen years later, I’d find myself writing a much more comprehensive analysis of one of the West’s earliest literary works.

The Epic begins by introducing Gilgamesh, king of the Sumerian city of Uruk. Gilgamesh is a tyrant and a womanizer, and his people beseech the gods for relief. Enter Enkidu, a beast-man of unparalleled strength – created for the sole purpose of defeating and humiliating Gilgamesh. After a wrestling match in which Gilgamesh proves himself the stronger, the two become best friends. They proceed to defeat not only the aforementioned Humbaba, but also the rampaging Bull of Heaven. The latter act incurs the ire of the goddess Ishtar, who smites Enkidu with a fatal illness. Upon his friend’s death, Gilgamesh is overcome by a terrible, all-consuming fear of the grave. He proceeds to seek out the wise man Utnapishtim (the Sumerian equivalent of the biblical Noah) who has been blessed by the gods with eternal life. Braving lions, scorpion-men, and stone-giants, he finds Utnapishtim’s island and learns the secret of immortality: a thorny plant growing at the bottom of the sea. Unfortunately, the plant is stolen by a serpent while Gilgamesh sleeps, rendering his search futile.

The “Epic of Gilgamesh” is both a religious treatise and a seminal work of ancient literature. Exploring issues of friendship, mortality, heroism, and humanity’s relationship to the divine, it lacks the expected “happy ending.” Rather, the Epic is a cautionary tale identifying man’s failings without providing much hope for the future.

Gilgamesh’s fundamental flaws are clearly pride and indecision. At the beginning of the book, his arrogant hedonism leads the gods to punish him by sending Enkidu. Later, his killing of the Bull of Heaven offends the gods yet again – resulting in the death of his best friend. Gilgamesh also is a passive figure, reluctant to act without external stimuli. He only chooses to face Humbaba after Enkidu’s arrival, and is only motivated to pursue immortality after Enkidu’s death. Most damningly of all, he timidly refuses to test the “plant of immortality” himself, deciding instead to observe its effect on someone else. This provides the necessary opportunity for the snake to steal away his chance at everlasting life.

The vision of the afterlife offered by the Epic of Gilgamesh is hopelessly bleak. As he dies, Enkidu warns Gilgamesh that he is not going to a pleasant destination. According to Enkidu, souls (represented as humans covered in mangy bird feathers) cower in a bleak city of dust, eating clay to survive. This sharply contrasts with the views of other ancient religions (such as the Egyptians and the Greeks), which promised their adherents some form of eternal bliss. Interestingly, it is unclear from the Epic what role the gods themselves serve in the Sumerian afterlife.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a classic work of myth, and a must-read for all who desire a fuller understanding of ancient Sumerian culture. It does contain mild sexual implications (Enkidu is “tamed” by a prostitute), but such content is not included to titillate. While the story is dark, brooding, and ultimately remains unresolved, it offers a glimpse into the hopelessness of Sumerian religion. Having read the Epic, I could better appreciate the eternal promise offered to Abraham in Genesis 12. This was the great benefit of reading the Epic – its despairing philosophy dramatically contrasts with the hope and freedom offered to the great Old Testament saints.

The Epic is definitely an important piece of Western culture, and a fascinating window into ancient Mesopotamian civilization. And, if you like books like the “Odyssey,” it makes for a good read.

VERDICT: 8/10
A unique perspective on both Sumerian culture and timeless human weakness.

Addendum: Changes coming to Literary Analysis!

As many of you are aware, I’m currently enrolled in college and don’t have much time for outside reading or moviegoing. (My local library and movie theater have been replaced by an Amazon Kindle and a Netflix-equipped laptop.) In light of this, I’m planning on making a few changes to Literary Analysis. While I’ll still write detailed commentaries on classic literature and current theatrical releases, I’m also setting up a Twitter feed for Literary Analysis (http://twitter.com/litanalysis) to provide “mini-reviews” of popular DVDs, CDs, and books. It may take a couple of weeks for this to get established, but I’m looking forward to exploring new venues for discussion.

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2010 in Classic

 
 
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