A list of four things about Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther that stuck with me in the months following my first viewing (I am not good at listicles).
A list of four things about Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther that stuck with me in the months following my first viewing (I am not good at listicles).
On an unseasonably warm Saturday morning in early February, my wife suggested that I take a break to go see the new Black Panther movie on our way back from a local Chinese New Year parade. We were having a very good day after an exhausting, impossible week. At the time, I did not know that this pattern would repeat itself over the following four months. We had a great breakfast at one of our favorite local spots (Zoi’s, which makes terrific breakfast sandwiches) and I successfully convinced my son that the colorful dragons marching in the parade were fun and not frightening (“See? They’re not real dragons, they’re just costumes!” <man under dragon costume gives a friendly wave to skeptical son>).
We discussed the Black Panther phenomenon while we munched hash browns and sipped coffee – it had premiered a few days earlier and was already a giant success at the box office and in the culture. I was curious and she was ambivalent – while the concept and creative folk involved piqued her interest, she mostly checked out on Marvel movies after the underwhelming Avengers film in 2010. When she made her offer later that morning, I thought about declining until I realized that if I didn’t accept, I probably wouldn’t see Black Panther until it arrived on Netflix (or whatever over the top digital service Disney comes up with). So I accepted her offer and was surprised by how excited I felt.
I found an amazing seat at our local theater (a spot that made up for its lack of modern features with decent screens and pleasant staff). I was surrounded by a representative sample of New Haven – earnest college students from a wide variety of backgrounds, excited African Americans from the local community and pleasant Yale/Yale New Haven Hospital retirees. There was a lot of conversation in the room that died down when the trailers and commercials and PSAs ended. Everyone focused their attention on a dark screen and heard a boy ask his father to tell him a story.
A few hours later, another curious boy asked a man who he was, and the screen faded to black. There were two more scenes tucked in a seemingly endless scroll of credits, but they felt like post-film trailers for future Marvel movies, a reminder that Black Panther takes place in a larger (and quite lucrative) narrative and a suggestion that the cinematic Wakanda will play a much more prominent role in the Marvel movie universe than its comic book counterpart. Some stayed for the scenes, and others did not, but it was clear that the boy’s question was the end of the story that Ryan Coogler spent 200 million dollars to tell. Some people were energized, others were talking about their favorite scene or which one of the many attractive actors in the film was the most stunning. I saw a few people with tears in their eyes, a few repeating Michael B. Jordan’s last line in the film.
Black Panther is an excellent film, possibly the first Marvel movie that feels completely engaged with our world. Coogler sustains an emotional resonance throughout the entire film that can only be found in isolated sequences in other Marvel films – a glance from Jeff Daniels, a provocative question asked by Cate Blanchett, a moment of intimacy between Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan. These genuine, emotionally honest moments are as important to the Marvel Studios storytelling formula as all of the third acts filled with expensive digital effect sequences and schematic plots. Black Panther departs from this formula by grounding these moments in a personal story with meaningful stakes. The stakes of the story matter because all of the artists involved in the movie – from the director, writers and cast to the costume designer, the makeup and hair people and the experts who helped with dialects – worked to make all the characters feel fully realized, with hopes, dreams and flaws independent from our hero and his journey. We care about the fate of Wakanda because we care about the characters who inhabit it – and T’Challa’s family turmoil matters because the love, joy and resentment expressed by the family members feels real.
Coogler reminds us that the desire for representation in the African American community isn’t just about seeing black faces on a screen. We want to be taken seriously, to feel like our gaze is as valid and important as the white gaze that we are accustomed to seeing in Hollywood films. We want to see a dramatization of the kinds of debates and tensions that exist within the black community without an explainer for everyone else. We want movies where dark skinned people are properly lit and stories that aren’t mediated by the perspective of outsiders (even the very well meaning ones).
Coogler uses a familiar hero’s journey framework to tell a story about community, societal boundaries and black liberation. Black Panther dramatizes the discourse within the black community about identity and freedom in mythic, larger than life terms without sacrificing the black perspective. He invites the audience to view in-group conversations without translating anything for them. It’s a mainstream movie about black lives that cheerfully ignores the urge to reassure or defy the “little white man deep inside all of us” who wants to limit our freedom to imagine and create fictional worlds.
Coogler trusts his audience. He trusts them to tease out the distinctions between and within the liberal and radical visions for black liberation presented in the scenes and layers the narrative with allusions to events and ideas relevant to the African American experience.
There are limits to the scope of ideas explored in Black Panther. The film is set in Africa and is filled with images and items that we associate with Africa, but its narrative is driven by the concerns, dreams and dilemmas of the members of the African diaspora who were brought to America hundreds of years ago. In one sense, there aren’t many African American characters in Black Panther, but in another, we are everywhere. We are asked to reflect on the obligations that a privileged black community owes to less privileged black communities and while the characters do reference the struggle against white supremacy (not named, but you know…) in global terms, the visual reminders of oppression and that struggle are all tied to America, and the African American civil rights movement (in the early nineties) serves as the catalyst for the story.
This dynamic is not confined to the film version of Black Panther. In the late winter, I planned to (and may still) write about Black Panther and Wakanda as incomplete afrofuturist projects. Here’s the gist: Black Panther and Wakanda were created by two Jewish American comic book creators in the 1960’s, and while a number of Afro-diasporic writers and artists have helped shape our understanding of the Black Panther’s world over the years, almost all were telling stories from a perspective that was both African and American. They explored African American hopes and fears about empowerment, colonialism and intergroup conflict, but rarely incorporated the viewpoints of other members of the diaspora, particularly those who remained in Africa. I found great value in exploring the dreams and possibilities of the African American experience through a story like Black Panther (and a nation like Wakanda), but wondered if the absence of non-American perspectives (particularly African ones) blunted its potential impact. I also wondered how much sharper – and more transformative – the story would be if we were reading/watching a story that Africans were telling us about their world.
Black Panther is also a Marvel Studios movie, and cannot escape the positive and negative associations of that corporate relationship.
It shares the basic plot structure as many of their films centered around a solo hero, from the role of the two villains in the narrative (and how they are introduced) to the hero’s fall from grace and eventual triumph in a CGI fueled battle.
I wonder if that relationship contributes to the intriguing tension between the radical and conventional elements in Black Panther. The film’s visuals shake mainstream (at least in the world of blockbuster commercial Hollywood filmmaking) assumptions around beauty and power, with a diverse, nearly all-black cast presented as larger than life figures and shot in a manner that highlights the richness of their individual skin tones.
We are shown pieces of culture from all over Africa in a way that makes them feel modern and vital (and not ancient or exotic). But while the story gestures towards quasi-radical politics, it ultimately delivers a full throated defense of traditional monarchy that would’ve seemed downright reactionary in another film. The dialogue that evokes a long history of black nationalism/radicalism is delivered by a character presented as a violent faux populist tyrant. T’Challa’s plan to reengage with the world felt audacious on my first viewing, but upon reflection, it sounded pretty vague. My wife (who watched the movie with me when it was released on Blu Ray) remarked that she expected T’Challa to announce an initiative that would improve the material circumstances of the people of Oakland – a housing or education or employment program.
The Africana spread throughout Black Panther highlights this tension. The visual look of the scenes set in Wakanda is thoughtfully considered and creates a distinctly non-American context for the story. The interviews and profiles surrounding the movie make it clear that the visual aesthetic for the film is intended as a celebration of a wide range of African cultures, a rare thing for mainstream American films. This celebration is complicated by the film’s narrative, which is mostly set in a fictional isolated African nation. In this context, the blend of different African cultures in a single place without any in-text explanation becomes a reminder of our troubling habit of treating Africa as if it were a single location. A cinematic Latveria (the fictional Central European home of Fantastic Four villain Dr. Doom) that just combined elements of Greek, Czech, French and British visual and physical culture wouldn’t seem authentically ‘European’, it would feel artificial, the product of an outsider unfamiliar with the diverse cultures and societies on the continent.
The mix of conventional and radical elements make Black Panther feel less satisfying and more substantial. I would have wholeheartedly welcomed a mainstream Hollywood funded full throated meditation on dismantling white supremacy and the pain caused by colonialism, but I know that Americans – that we – have a limited appetite for blockbuster films that unnerve or threaten. I still want to see a movie that shows the non fictional black community – my community – through a non-tragic lens. Many countries in Africa still face huge challenges, but there have been a number of meaningful improvements of social and economic conditions in nations throughout the continent over the last two decades. African Americans still face a wide range of disadvantages relative to European Americans, but there has been (some) progress (particularly in the areas of education and wages). We are more than nameless youth at an urban basketball court. The scenes set in Wakanda are triumphant and transporting, but I couldn’t shake the thought that there are also happy and prosperous and successful (in the broadest definition of the word) black people who live in actual neighborhoods in real countries.
Coogler’s Black Panther is a piece of entertainment, a commodity owned by a multi billion dollar corporation that has a mixed history with black people and social justice and which is unlikely to green light a blockbuster with radical politics or that challenges viewers. It’s also a thrilling and thought provoking work of art made by a promising young African American director who has successfully infused social commentary and emotional honesty in a series of mainstream films of steadily increasing size and scope. Black Panther’s success is a win for films made by and starring black people, but it’s also a big win for Disney shareholders. It’s a story that excites by centering the perspective of African Americans (even in allegorical terms), but leaves one hungry for more that reflects the experiences of people from other parts of the diaspora.
It’s a movie that entertains and inspires, but as Yasiin Bey might say, it can’t save us. Thankfully, no one promised that it would.
Next Week: Second Take (Four Things).
The best parties are terrifying.
There is a sense of endless anarchic possibility, that things can end with pleasure and joy or pain and regret. There are endless alcohol fueled narratives mixing and colliding against a soundtrack of rhythmic music. The tone shifts from the comic to the tragic based on time and location. There are the friends who are catching up after a long time apart, the people trying to cheer themselves up with liquor and uptempo music, the schemers, and of course, the folk of all genders looking for companionship. You can find the teetotalers high on life and people who are on different parts of the intoxication spectrum – the comic, the tragic, the stoic. There are suggestions of romantic interludes and flashes of harassment.
Blake Edwards and Miriam Nelson (who choreographed the scene) capture the feel and emotion of a party perfectly. The camera moves between stories (that complement and comment on the relationship at the center of the story. They range from a handful of people engaged in some personal or intimate activity to a shifting mass of people trying to dance, move to another location, chat, get their drink on and hook up. As with all good parties, the cops make a surprise guest appearance towards the end. I wasn’t surprised to read that Edwards cast actors in this scene – each one seemed fully invested in playing characters who were fully realized and had complete lives, even though we would never see them.
I think this was the first movie that made me appreciate Audrey Hepburn as an actress. I loved her in Roman Holiday, but I wasn’t sure if she could play someone who was a bit more of a morally complicated character. Audrey’s not playing the Holly Golightly we see in Truman Capote’s novel, but she was still a complex character who retained some traces of the original. She was not a sex worker (or at least she wasn’t a traditional one), but she was a far cry from the kinds of sexually inexperienced characters that Doris Day made famous. In the scene above, Hepburn shows us different facets of the Hepburn character – shifting from coquettish to vulnerable to plotting. We see the undercurrent of cynical cunning underneath her naive facade. Her rough edges are hidden to public view, but they are very real.
We’re supposed to believe that Paul (the male lead portrayed by George Peppard) is the one who gets her, but I’m skeptical. There’s a bland emptiness behind his eyes that betrays his essential ordinariness. All he sees is a kook that needs to be rescued and domesticated. The audience sees more. They see that she doesn’t need to be saved.
Edwards also uses the scene to show us the absurdity beneath the superficial glamor of Holly and her circle. They all seem hip, urbane and worldly when we first meet them, but the party scene shows us that these are performances. In Fifth Avenue, 5A.M., Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the the Dawn of the Modern Woman, Sam Wesson argues that the scene illustrates the obliviousness of the partygoers, a joke at the expense of “nuts who may be glamorous but don’t have a clue”. He suggests that this mirrors Holly’s own cluelessness about the “empty frivolity of the life she leads”. I’m sure that he’s correct about Edwards’ intentions, but I read the scene in a slightly different way.
I see the same hip dinner party scene told through slapstick, but where Wesson (and possibly Edwards) see clueless socialites (or frauds), I see intentional performances from people who know that they are playing roles. We don’t see any discomfort or awkwardness when the illusions are disrupted. The woman talking to the man with the eye patch doesn’t blink an eye when he moves it to cover his other eye. The nuttiness is strategic – used as part of a courting ritual or for fun or to hustle someone. There’s not a naive person in this room. Everyone knows that they’re part of The Game. As my wife likes to say, Holly’s frivolity was her hustle.
There’s nothing empty about something that helps you put food on the table.
I care about complete artistic statements in pop culture – the album, the film, the run on a comic book series by a single creative team, or the complete television series. When I wax nostalgic about a youth
misspent listening to music, I dream of the seemingly endless series of near-perfect hip-hop albums from my high school years.*
I enjoy scenes from films and passages from books, but always felt like their meaning mostly came from their relationship with the larger whole. The scenes and passages that tend to linger over the years are the ones that are informed by (or inform) other scenes in the larger work.
But there are still some moments that I can enjoy as discrete statements of their own. Here are a few from film and television:
Ocean’s Twelve, directed by Steven Soderbergh
Treme, Season 3, Ep. 2, directed by Jim McKay
Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 12, directed by Chris Manley
The Raid: Redemption, directed by Gareth Evans
*Note: I am not being an old fogey, I grant that every generation of high schoolers has an identical experience with the great albums of their time.
There’s a fun game floating around social media in which you select your favorite movie for each year of your life. It’s an exercise that abandons the pretense of objectivity that plagues many ‘best of’, ‘Top Ten’ and ‘GOAT’ lists. These lists mostly feel like a way to arbitrarily assign value to creative work originally designed to evoke a wide range of emotions and responses.
A best of television in 2016 list that compares a smart, conventionally structured sitcom like Blackish with a dark comic experimental show like Fleabag says more about the author’s emotional preferences than the quality of either show. Even the lists that focus on a specific medium and genre feel like an exercise in comparing fundamentally distinct things. A list of great comedies could include a over the top farce and a realistic comedy, and a list of the best gangster rappers can include an MC who tells hard boiled grounded crime stories about life in the inner city and one who spins elaborate fantasies about mafias and drug cartels. It’s not about what makes you laugh most or what kind of story is most evocative, its about what kind of laughter and fantasies you prefer.
These top ten lists are a curious kind of anti-criticism in which the writer focuses on the ‘value’ of art instead of its message and meaning. The best lists ‘celebrate’ an art form by treating it like a reality show competition with the writer as judge. The worst soullessly evaluate creative work in the way that one might assess corporations on a trading market.
I don’t believe in top ten lists, but I love to read and write them. They aren’t a good way of identifying the best in any field, but they are a good tool for exploring one’s prior beliefs and aesthetic preferences. The end of year lists and essays that are released throughout the fall and winter give insight into the sensibilities and values of the critics who create them.
A list of my favorite films by year may not show how my tastes evolved over the years, but it does suggest something about how my life changed. The movies that I was entertained by as a child are very different from the movies that I sought out in high school, or the ones I saw in my twenties with my wife as we were exploring our love of film, or the ones that I watch through half-lidded eyes as I drift off to sleep as a middle aged man.
The process of creating this list forced me to be unfair and honest. I have to choose between movies with different goals and budgets from a wide variety of genres.
I need to reconcile myself with huge blind spots in the years after my son was born. I don’t know much that came out after 2013.
I gave myself three rules:
(1) I would choose my favorite movie of the year based on the way I felt in that particular year.
(2) The only movies that were under consideration were the ones that I saw in the year in question. I love My Own Private Idaho and Barton Fink, but Jamaal in 8th Grade wasn’t ready for a black comedy from the Coen Brothers or anything from Gus van Sant.
(3) Since I don’t actually remember when I saw many of the movies from my childhood (and probably didn’t see many the year that they were released), I evaluate all movies from 1978 – 1988 from the perspective of 10 year old Jamaal. So no Apocalypse Now or Deer Hunter.
The resulting list is a strange mix of classic movies, mainstream hits and nonsense. Some were dramas, others horror movies or comedies. All had some flaws. It was extremely difficult to choose a movie for some years, either because I had too many favorites (1995, 1996 and 2002) or too few (2013-2016).
I was surprised by some of my choices – never would have guessed that I would choose a compilation of old Warner Brothers cartoons over Raiders of the Lost Ark, or a weird (and frankly terrible) Gary Oldman/Lena Olin vehicle over classic movies from Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese (I was greatly moved by the former, but the focus on non-Jews always made me a little uncomfortable and it took me at least a decade to appreciate the latter). They were all movies that resonated with me at some point in my life.
I created this list in spare moments – when everyone’s gone to sleep and I’ve finished checking e-mails for the day, or when I’m on my way to work (after dropping my son off at daycare) and don’t feel like reading or checking e-mail. It has been a comforting exercise, an opportunity to think about earlier versions of myself. I find that I think more about myself as a child or teenager than as a person in their twenties or thirties. I remember what it was like to be fourteen, but have some trouble remembering what it felt like to be thirty four (as compared to thirty three or thirty five). Thinking about the movie that I enjoyed most in a given year prompted me to think about where I was at that point in my life. It was like being reintroduced to an earlier self. Meet 33 year old Jamaal, he’s a married lawyer and development guy who thought that Life of Pi was a bit too sentimental and manipulative but couldn’t stop thinking about it for months after watching it for the first time.
I also loved how the process of creating this list seemed to reinforce and undermine my efforts to sustain self-continuity. The sense of wonder I felt when I first saw Malick’s The New World evoked the feeling I had when I saw Barry Lyndon in high school and finally understood why it was great, or when my dad took me to see Dances With Wolves for my birthday and I was awed by the buffalo hunt.
I love that sense of continuity between different versions of myself, but there are times when the links between the art and culture I listened to, read and watched as a child and the works I engage with as an adult feel too visible. I’ve been reading books and comics, listening to hip-hop and watching movies for my entire life, and while my tastes may have developed over the years, there is a distinctly nostalgic element to my love of culture. I like to think that my nostalgic tendencies are driven by a desire to savor my memories and that nostalgia enriches my appreciation of art and culture, but sometimes it feels like it might limit my ability to grow and appreciate new things. I love that Kendrick’s Damn reminds me of the Freestyle Fellowship’s Project Blowed compilation album, but I don’t want to be the kind of hip-hop listener who can’t enjoy Rich Homie Quan because he doesn’t remind me of a rapper I listened to when I was a sophomore at Brooklyn Tech twenty five years ago.
I like to imagine that I’m not a traditionalist. The moments of discontinuity in my personal narrative – when the connections between my past and present preferences are unclear or contradictory – keep me honest.
It’s a check on any desire I might have to recreate the past. One of the reasons that I loved Ferris Bueller as a kid was that it was a story of a cool guy who did cool things without consequence. The movie is far more interesting than that, but the cool guy protagonist was the chief appeal when I was ten years old.
It’s easy to recognize the boy who loved the quiet moments in Alien and the teenager who was absorbed by the world Carl Franklin created in his adaptation of Walter Mosley’s Devil in A Blue Dress because the line between their preferences and mine is so clear (and flattering), but I will always feel a lot of affection for the boy who wanted to roll with the winners, even if those sentiments feel foreign to me now. This list was a great opportunity to meet those earlier versions of myself again. You can check it out here.
On August 15, “Straight Outta Compton”, a biopic focused on the rise and fall of N.W.A was released in theaters worldwide. As of September 13, I still haven’t seen the film, but hope to see it when it’s released on VOD.
My priors: I’m skeptical of all biopics, particularly those produced or enthusiastically endorsed by its subject(s). Even if the performances are great and the story is compelling, it’s impossible for me to ignore the giant conflict of interest. I’m always wondering if the filmmakers are avoiding controversial topics to satisfy their subject or creating a commercial for the subject that helps them develop their brand. I suspect that “Straight Outta Compton” has both problems, but I’m still looking forward to watching it, if only because the story overlaps with my memories as a fan of hip-hop music in the early nineties. I started to pay attention to the stories we tell about hip-hop around the time that N.W.A. fell and Death Row rose to prominence, so I’m all in for any story about that era or those artists, no matter how flawed.
Here are five thoughts about the phenomenon that is “Straight Outta Compton”:
Originally published 3/31/14
Ed Note: I have still not seen Get On Up. I hear Chadwick Boseman did a great job.
Sorry for the delay between posts – the last two weeks have been particularly hectic. After almost seven years, I left my job for a promising new gig at Yale as a representative of the University’s Equal Opportunity Office, where I’ll help further their mission to develop and maintain a diverse workforce and investigate claims of harassment/discrimination. I’ve had about four weeks to wrap up everything related to my job while preparing for a whole new adventure. It’s been pretty amazing and frightening. In other news, I’ve met my fundraising goal for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Run for the Wild 5k at the Bronx Zoo (in support of their 96 Elephants initiative). Much thanks to all the friends and family who donated (particularly my brother, who put me over the top)! There’s still time to register and support!
I’ve read some interesting comics (Afterlife with Archie, the Crew, the Dark Horse Catalyst book), but haven’t had the time to write anything about them. So, in the meantime, here’s a brief rant about an annoying film trailer.
Originally published on 6/26/13.
Man of Steel. Directed by Zack Snyder, from a script by David Goyer.* I’m not one of those people who thinks they own Superman. He’s an idea created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and stolen by DC Comics. I don’t have any right to him, and neither do any of the many fans of the comic books, movies and live action/animated series featuring the character. It’s hard not to feel like he belongs to us. Superman’s an iconic character that’s been portrayed in thousands of stories by dozens of creators, so it’s understandable that we all have specific ideas about the character that sometimes make adaptations difficult.
Superman is an American/global symbol of justice; a populist strongman; a defender of the establishment; the ultimate immigrant who is a symbol of assimilation and/or cultural pluralism. He’s a science fiction hero and a mystery man. His brand of heroism encompasses the firefighter and law enforcement models of heroism. Some people like him best when he inspires others to do good, while others enjoy the more cosmic dream logic filled stories that emphasize his near-infinite power. It’s hard to do a Superman movie that pleases everyone, especially in an environment in which most superhero movies fit a predictable origin/existential crisis/reboot cycle. We want a movie that blends the accessibility of Superman For All Seasons with the imagination of All-Star Superman and the iconic quality of Birthright. We ask ourselves why a film can’t capture the magic of the original while forgetting that it was a charming but imperfect film.
I was looking forward to seeing Zack Snyder and David Goyer’s vision of Superman. Snyder’s Watchmen was not a good movie, but I enjoyed the elements that complicated my appreciation of the recent run of Marvel Studios movies. His heartfelt, sometimes clumsy effort to convey the politics and stakes of the original reminded me of what I was missing from movies like Captain America or the Avengers. The biggest problems with Watchmen was Snyder’s almost obsessive fealty to the original book by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore and the horrifyingly bad performances from all involved (many of whom have been quite good in other things). In contrast, Man of Steel was an original project with performances from really good actors (Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane), a promising actor as Superman (Henry Cavill), and actors who are delightfully hammy in the right roles (Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe). It also had this trailer:
I knew it wouldn’t be great, but hoped that it would be good. I was wrong.
Originally published on 7/4/13.
Great Gatsby, 2013.
His films are loud, unsubtle and tasteless. They take place in garish, beautifully designed worlds that bear no resemblance to reality and feature theatrical performances and almost comically unsubtle directing.
Luhrmann’s films are the kind of films that I imagine someone might have made during the Middle Ages. They also do a better job of capturing the emotional truth of the source material than most adaptations. Luhrmann’s adaptation of the Great Gatsby is not good – a number of the techniques that felt innovative in earlier movies felt like hoary cliches and he was far too reliant on digital special effects – but he still did a better job of giving the audience insight into the fears, beliefs and desires of the characters than previous adaptations.
Some of this success can be attributed to the performances. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby is a perfect blend of Jack Kennedy and Frank Abagnale and Carey Mulligan turns Daisy Buchanan from an elegant cipher into a tragic reminder of the limited choices faced by upper class women in the Jazz Age.
Joel Edgerton effectively captures the pitiful, callous cruelty of Tom Buchannan. I was pleasantly surprised by Maguire’s performance. This was the first time I’ve liked him since Wonder Boys. He managed to convey Nick Carraway’s passivity without becoming entirely inert (which was a real problem with Sam Waterston’s depiction in Jack Clayton’s 1974 adaptation).
But Luhrmann also deserves some credit for using music, light, costumes, set design and movement to convey emotion.
It’s the way that Gatsby’s perfectly tailored suits look like elegant couture at the first party and like a costume when he meets Daisy for a rendezvous at Nick’s house or how Luhrmann uses music, light and sound to evoke the feeling of going too far at your first party and realizing that what you think is a wild time is actually pretty lame.
In some ways, Luhrmann was a perfect choice as a director to adapt Gatsby. The sketchy, archetypal quality to the characters in Fitzgerald’s novel complement Luhrmann’s ongoing effort to use seemingly superficial things – style, music, movement – to suggest deeper truths in his films. Unfortunately, this message is undermined by all of the directorial tics and indulgent tendencies that he’s developed over the years.
In Luhrmann’s earlier movies, the fanciful sets helped create the sense that the viewer was in a heightened fantasy world, but in Gatsby, his computer generated New York was a distraction that robbed meaning from almost every emotionally honest moment, with the notable exception of the last confrontation between Gatsby and Tom Buchannan. It felt like the actors were performing in a Roaring Twenties video game.
There isn’t much difference between Luhrmann’s approach in Gatsby and in Moulin Rouge or Romeo + Juliet. He’s always embraced artifice and smothered performances with bombast and spectacle. So why does Gatsby feel so unsatisfying? I think the answer lies in the difference between practical effects used in the earlier films and computer generated effects in Gatsby. There was a charm to the ornate handcrafted sets and practical effects that was lacking in Gatsby. It helped root the spectacle in a recognizable world.
Although the computer generated effects in Gatsby were an amazing technical achievement, they were also a bit mundane. Luhrmann’s impossibly perfect fantasy version of New York is the one that exists in the mind’s eye of anyone vaguely familiar with the Jazz Age. It lacks a personal touch, the idiosyncratic flair that we’ve come to associate with Baz Luhrmann movies. I also can’t help but feel like a story that’s essentially a critique of fantasy and deluded love is undermined by an idealized Jazz Age New York.
All of the familiar elements of Baz Luhrmann films are here – the migraine inducing quick cuts, the ornate sets, the inappropriate music choices – but where they once felt provocative and daring in earlier films, in Gatsby they were dull and predictable. Even the more interesting Luhrmann touches were underwhelming. The dance sequences were well orchestrated, but lacked the thrill of Moulin Rouge.
The hip-hop tinged modern soundtrack was a cute idea, but the execution was lacking – every time I heard Jay-Z, I was pulled right out of the narrative.
Is hip-hop in the 21st century the equivalent of jazz in the 1920’s? I think one can argue that it was a visceral and culturally exciting music in the eighties and nineties, but I’m not sure that it plays that role in our culture anymore. Jay-Z is an institution. He’s the status quo. Jay might’ve been a daring choice for a 1998 version of this film, but this is 2013. Jay’s the guy who represents ball players and used to own a piece of the Not-New Jersey Nets. Am I the only one who suspects that a real teenager would scoff at the idea that hip-hop is the cutting edge, hip young music of the future?
It’s a shame that Gatsby doesn’t work, because it’s clear that Luhrmann gets the class conflict at the core of the original novel. He never lets the viewer forget about the ocean of privilege between Nick and Gatsby or between Gatsby and the Buchanans. Luhrmann evokes the racial tension hinted at in the novel by including African American faces at key moments in the narrative. When Tom rambles about the primacy of western civilization, or parties with his mistress in a Manhattan hotel room, or when Gatsby is driving Nick to the city and spinning a desperate web of lies, Luhrmann makes sure that we see a black face (or several) at some point in the scene. He reminds me of the untold side of most narratives set in this era, of the people who were only heard when they were singing or playing music on a stage. The only problem is that Luhrmann shows too much of the joy and none of the pain. There was something a little bit too joyous and celebratory about the tenants at the tenement across the street from Tom’s illicit meeting place or the passengers in the car that passes Nick and Gatsby on the bridge has too many bottles of Moët. The latter scene is directly from the book, where Fitzgerald writes:
“As we crossed Blackwell’s Island, a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.
‘Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,’ I thought; ‘anything at all…Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.”
Luhrmann does a nice job with the visuals. Three people of color, two male, one female, all of whom are stylishly dressed and chaffeured by a white man (imagine the scandal!). He misses Nick’s ambivalence about class mobility (which is made more vivid when it intersects with race), the familiar discomfort that established classes have with the consumption patterns of the nouveau riche (or the nouveau middle class). Without the mocking laughter and class conflict, the moment becomes ahistorical and meaningless.
I didn’t think that Luhrmann would capture the nuance or lyricism of Fitzgerald’s novel, but I assumed that he would find a way to use his uniquely bombastic brand of melodrama to evoke the central themes of the book. Luhrmann fulfilled those expectations, but was undermined by his failure to evolve as a filmmaker. The interesting moments were drowned out by the stale ones. But I still have a soft spot for Luhrmann films. The bombast, spectacle and visual candy with a touch of camp. I hope that he finds a way to combine that zaniness with more forward thinking ideas in his future projects.
We need more explorations of intimacy on television. Sometimes it feels like almost all of the prestige dramas in the so-called second golden age of television – shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad – were extended meditations on aggressive masculinity and physical and emotional violence that relegated other experiences to the margins.