Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Great Gatsby: How Baz Luhrman Ruined The Great Book's Car Metaphors

"When I was a boy, I dreamed that I always sat at the wheel of a magnificent Stutz, a Stutz as low as a snake and as red as an Indiana barn."
  -from The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald

1918 Stutz Bearcat

The significance of cars in the Fitzgerald oeuvre is rarely examined, yet they pervade his writings. Nearly every desired female is mentioned at the wheel of a car, with an evocative description that makes you wonder if it was the car or the girl the author was really lusting after. 
In the halcyon days of Fitzgerald's youth, the car was the wonder of the ages. Men were unyoked from animals, and  horsepower now represented flight, and speed, and a chariot to sweep up your new love with.
It was symbolic of both freedom and danger.

Cover Art, Motor Magazine, March 5th, 1914

And in The Great Gatsby, the theme continues, from the mention of Daisy's white roadster (white; purity, innocence) to Gatsby's gold Rolls Royce (gold is an obvious symbol, combined with the money-green colored interior) and Tom's simple "blue coupe". These are easy gimmes for a film director. Fitzgerald has lain out for the reader exactly what cars, with what colors, equated to what symbolism. The other female lead is even named Jordan Baker, for Pete's sake, her name an obvious combination of two of the most popular car brands of the time.

But Baz Luhrman knows better than the guy who wrote the story. And he spies with his little directorial eyes, cars that are flashier, newer, and "cooler" (to him, at least).

In the previous 1974 Gatsby film they tried, in this regard, to be true to the book. Redford drove a canary-color 1928 Rolls Royce Phaeton, a car with a build-provenance of a few years later, but still it's the right model. 

The blue coupe in the film is a coupe convertible, I believe, nice, but staid, with the "risky" choice of blue instead of the standard black giving off just the right amount of Brooks Brothers-inspired sheen.

Baz Luhrman is a director known for his cross-pollination of genres. He bounces Jay-Z and Jack White off the soundtrack of his 1920's movie, and integrates 2013 manners with the Jazz age. But in The Great Gatsby, the strains of the dominant art-deco stye of the time run visually throughout the film, and the costumes are stunning and period evocative. In a general sense, he respects the time-frame. He doesn't show Nick Carraway popping a Hot-Pockets into a microwave, or Gatsby swimming in clam-diggers. 
But he does take some of the most potent symbols of the book, the automobiles, and update them with cars from a different era and different body, simply because they are more awesome.

Gatsby roars by Tom's rented house in a canary-yellow car, but it's not an opulent Rolls Royce; it's a supercharged Duesenberg, an automobile not available in 1922 when the novel takes place, or 1925 when the book was published, but years later in 1929.

 And because Baz wanted Duesies, but couldn't afford them (they run in the millions) he had two replicars shipped from Chicago and re-painted. But he still left in the tacky interiors with the cheap 1980's gauges in the dashboard. When Tom looks at the gas gauge of Gatsby's car, we're "treated" to the sight of a $25, off-the-shelf aftermarket instrument. It's as if Daisy slips into her beaded flapper outfit, and then pulls on a pair of Sketchers sneakers. 

This is a real Duesenberg dashboard, with real Duesenberg instruments...

And here's one from the type of company that made the movie car...

Complete with Stereo Shack AM Radio tuner!

Beautiful and elegant, versus The Autozone down on the corner.

Mr. Luhrman plans on keeping one of the Duesenbergs from the film. Imagine that. 

And Tom rips around in a blue car, alright. A blue 1933 Auburn Speedster. 

Not the moneyed, stately 1922 coupe of the book, but a racing machine with the top down. It should have been a top-quality Packard, like this...

1921 -1922 Packard
Can you see what contrast that would have provided contextually, with Daisy being driven in the upper-class Packard, while Jay wheels around in his bright-yellow Rolls Royce convertible?
Sure, in this movie Gatsby has a bright-yellow convertible, but Tom has a 1933 Speedster (which he maddeningly refers to as a coupe throughout the film), so he has a roadster, too, and it's from even farther in the future!

Had the director went whole hog, and brought in iPhones and dashboard GPS screens, I could have understood. Not enjoyed, but understood. 

But by dropping in two (and more in the crowd scenes) future cars, Baz Luhrman made it very clear that the 1920's were cool. But not as cool as he would have made it. All it took was cherry-picking the sweet parts of other eras and shoehorning them in to this one. The seepage of attitude over substance is why Baz will always be a journeyman, because his personal taste overrides the truth of the story.

No comments:

Post a Comment