Man of Steel: The Hero We Deserve

I had lowered expectations of a new Superman film, particularly from Zach Snyder, who is definitely a skilled technical director but has zero capacity for compelling emotional drama. Specifically in a story about an essentially invulnerable super human hero with no discernible weaknesses and an unerring moral compass, I was not expecting much from the least sympathetic character in the comic book universe. The one saving grace I was looking for came from the influence of Christopher Nolan in the executive producer role, someone I consider to be one of the most talented and original storytellers in film today. I was looking for his fingerprints, for his capacity to find the most engrossing elements of a story and make them fascinating and relatable, even in the strangest setting. What I found was the expected parallels to Christ treated with equal parts predictability and conscience. I found, in spite of some excessively mind-addling special effects, a good story and an honorable treatment of a superhero that has been too often overrated and too eagerly dismissed. Something we have forgotten while mired in the hubris of Tony Stark, the Messiah Complex of Bruce Wayne, and the fallibility of Peter Parker, is that although it is acceptable for our heroes to have flaws, they are also something we can idealize. They can be someone we can look up to for being better than who we are, without resentment. As both his fathers try to impress, he is an alien to us but he can show us, if he chooses, how good we can be.

Superman has a fear of being rejected and further alienated by humankind if he reveals his true nature and, without the intervention of General Zod, he would have continued in his isolation indefinitely. The choice he makes to surrender himself is both fitting given his nature and the logical way for him to enter our world, it makes perfect sense, particularly in the chosen setting. Hovering over the arid desert, he presents himself in true biblical fashion, returned from isolation at the convenient age of 33, like Christ. And like Christ, he has his moment in the garden of Gethsemane, visiting a Catholic priest for guidance. In the bible, this was the place of Jesus’ betrayal and, like the Son of God, he knows his decision will pave the way to his own end if only to save the people of Earth. The allusion is treated bluntly but there is a depth of feeling here I wasn’t expecting. Like Jesus, Kal-El’s mind is already made up but he needed the words to find his real conviction. Even though the decision was already made for him, he still needed the counsel of an ordinary man to steel his resolve. Because, although we know he is invulnerable and incredibly powerful, he doesn’t, not yet. This is that heroism that exists in those rare individuals, the firefighters, the police officers, the soldiers that run towards danger instead of away from it, unlike the rest of us. The difference here is that he is doing it alone, without a brotherhood or a family, for no other purpose than that it is the right thing to do.

A big question surrounding a Superman film is this: why do we care about this perfect indestructible being? When will we ever believe that he is in danger or worry at all? The answer, as has been addressed in previous films, is in the lives of the people around him. Will he or won’t he show up in time and, in previous films, he always does. Previous films still carried the stigma of camp, the violence portrayed had no real significance or effect. If people died off-screen it was barely supplemental. The only lives that mattered were the principal characters and Man of Steel capably confronts this in its depiction of our military forces failing miserably against superior technology. Casting easily recognizable faces in secondary roles had a powerful effect. And while saving Metropolis and Smallville (heretofore known as Product Placement-ville, Sears, 7 Eleven, IHOP) Superman effectively pulverizes both. The falling skyscrapers and ensuing chaos were pretty horrifying in context, they had a Cloverfield vibe that I really enjoyed. Showing how the ordinary citizen deals with these super beings beating the living hell out of each other in the middle of a major metropolitan city is shown with vivid deference to actual disasters. With the falling ash, the concrete and steel rebar, all the awe and wonder of seeing this other-worldly spectacle evaporates in the ensuing melee. Superman is not there for everyone. Many people die. To quote a more cleverly written film, the definition of a hero is someone who gets other people killed. The reality that if war of an advanced alien culture took place in the middle of a metropolitan city is perfectly realized, we wouldn’t stand a chance.

It is a good thing that we embrace our heroes along with their failures, it says a lot about us as a people and where we are as a civilized culture. Where Batman, Iron Man, and Spider Man are real human beings trying to be accepted and assume responsibility for their demons it is important to realize that there are still higher ideals that we can aspire to. It has become cliche to ask What Would Jesus Do as it has evolved into the world of bumper sticker philosophy and coffee table wisdom but dismissing this ideology because of its trite and possibly pedantic nature is to also deny a truly humane and powerfully positive edict towards living an honorable and good life that has endured for two thousand years. However misdirected organized religion can be, the fundamental message is a personal one, to be interpreted as such. This does not come from a practicing Christian or a particularly idealistic perspective but what I will say that is there is nothing wrong with having someone to look up to, someone who always makes the right choice. These ideas are epitomized in Jonathan Kent and Jor-El; how lucky is Superman’s Universe that these two men were the ones guiding him. Instead of dictating his behavior or badgering him, they gave Kal-El the opportunity to choose for himself, only informing him of what consequence is. Further, what responsibility he has.

This should be the enduring message of how Superman needs to be interpreted in the following films and in pop culture in general. There will not always be a perfect savior that is going to save the day when we need them, he simply can’t be everywhere all the time. He will fight the big fights, the ones that are above and beyond us, but in the mean time we can aspire to be as good as he always will be. And when hope is lost and there is no one to fly in and save the day, ask what he would do. I think he would say, in your darkest hour, when no one else is there, that means it’s your time to be the hero.


The Office: This Is Water

I discovered the original British version of The Office on Netflix and fell madly in love with it. I knew in my heart that Tim and Dawn would end up together, that David Brent would somehow be redeemed, and that there was no possible way that the American version of this show could possibly be superior. This was narrow minded thinking at its best because although the settings are nearly identical the overall mission of either show is drastically different. I wasn’t prepared for the depth and range of emotion that Greg Daniels intended for the American version. His goal, I realize now at the end, was to create something epic out of the mundane and find beauty in the day to day moments.

Before either version of The Office became familiar the characters of Michael Scott and David Brent were absolutely unbearable. This was particularly true of Steve Carrell’s character before he found his voice. The boorishness, the ignorance was too much at first and his character was nearly unwatchable but as the second season progressed the writers found a way to humanize him in subtle ways. When Carrell finally left the show the audience realized how much of a lynchpin he had been to the overall narrative, his narcissism and insecurities made it difficult to see through to his greatest strength . Michael Scott never gave up on day to day life; he refused to let his job be ‘just a job’ and, to the detriment of his coworker’s patience and productivity, he persevered to squeeze as much joy out of every moment that was humanly possible. This is what redeems him in our hearts without us realizing it in the moment. In spite of how horribly embarrassing this man could be we would laugh and cringe and shake our heads but we’d also keep watching. If Michael Scott was just a punchline, the butt of every joke without having any heart or courage, he would be Toby. Which is probably why Michael hates him so much. But to quote Michael Scott quoting Winston Churchill, never ever ever give up. And he never does which, to me, is about as heroic as anyone can be.

Jim and Pam. Oh, man. To the few of us out there who still consider themselves romantic souls these two are heroin, meth, and crack cocaine all rolled up into one. I use a negative metaphor on purpose because as much as it pains me to admit, they are not real. Don’t get me wrong, I live in hope of finding something with half as much chemistry as they have but living in expectation of it is impractical and immature. These two are soul mates and the show does a brilliant job of letting them fall in love on their own time. This is the addictive quality of the beginning of any relationship. The thrill of discovery, the ecstasy of intimacy, and the warm glow of fulfillment, which makes for great television, however in real life it’s only half the story. Falling is the easy part but maintaining that love is where the real work begins and, ultimately, where the real payoff is. Love, like gravity, is just the thing that pushes you in one direction. It is the other object in space that you are attracted to, that other person that takes up the emptiness that was there before. The trick is to be moving in a similar direction, at the right speed, with the right attitude and holding on without suffocating the other person. This can be, like anything of value is, a lot of hard work but in the end it’s not just about finding the right person. It is about appreciating them when you do and, if you are extremely lucky, having someone with you through the dark times and the good. Jim and Pam, as their relationship matures, are an idealized vision of this possibility. Their courtship is exquisitely drawn out, we get to feel every moment. But when they do finally get together we realize that the job isn’t really over. There are miles to go before the end and because of the faith that they have in each other, they will not be making the journey alone.

It is this optimism for life and love that make The Office so enjoyable. That this wildly disparate group of people that have every reason to loathe each other can become a family, while still mostly loathing each other. By the end of the show even mortal enemies Jim and Dwight have become best friends, embracing their different personalities and joining forces not only because they’ve matured but because it’s just more fun that way. Pam has the final lines of the finale and they are perfectly appropriate but I couldn’t help being reminded of one of my inspirations and favorite writers. “I think an ordinary paper company like Dunder-Mifflin was a great subject for a documentary. There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?”

This is when I noticed the similarity to the words of David Foster Wallace and I thought, I wonder if that was on purpose. Then I realized that there is a character on the show named David Wallace and that I am half as clever as I thought I was. In fact, when Greg Daniels returned to the show in the final season, that character is once again in charge of the company and I decided that these are probably not coincidences. To anyone not familiar with the writer and essayist David Foster Wallace do yourself a favor and change that as soon as possible. I can recommend the perfect introduction in the form of an essay he wrote for Harper’s magazine called ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again‘. This man was hilarious and brilliant, a true inspiration and a compelling mind who was instrumental to me finding my own voice and confidence. I say ‘was’ because I discovered this man and his writing while reading his obituary in Rolling Stone magazine. It was a lovely and sorrowful article, I remember being immediately struck by its sincerity. Like many people gifted with genius, Wallace had struggled with severe depression for decades. In 2008, at the age of 46, he lost this struggle and took his own life.

What makes Wallace’s writing and The Office comparable is the idea that our environment is ours to interpret and affect. Even at the most stale, boring, dead end job all these characters have more fun than I’ve ever come close to experiencing in the workplace but that is not the fault of my workplace or the people in it. Because the truth is I have had fun at work, even on the worst days, when I was willing to relax and stop focusing on what I was missing and, instead, appreciated what was there. Given, Wallace lost the battle but he did leave me and the showrunners of The Office with the vocabulary to see things a little more clearly; to understand the value of perspective.

I love this show. I almost look forward the day I’m feeling low and need a few episodes to cheer me up but I probably won’t wait that long. I am so grateful that I took the time to watch it, I am grateful for the laughter and the tears. Every character now feels like a friend and I want to hang out and buy a beer for all of them. Except Ryan. Here is the piece by David Foster Wallace, his commencement speech at Kenyon College, that reminded me of Pam’s observation at the end of the series finale. If you take the time to listen it might improve your day. But that is entirely up to you.

This Is Water

Hemlock Grove: I Don’t Know What We’re Yelling About

After a series of serious and thoughtful posts, I thought I’d lighten up and poke some fun at a show I just finished watching on Netflix. Spoilers are kept to a minimum where possible. Not a big challenge considering I’m still not exactly sure what was going on half the time. For the record this show gets one thumb in approximately the 10 o’ clock position.

So I broke a rule of mine before writing this post. Usually, I avoid other reviews of a subject in order to present my opinion from an unbiased perspective and to avoid plagiarizing some other more talented writer. But the first (and only?) season of Hemlock Grove left me in a difficult position. On one hand, I really enjoyed some aspects of it and on the other I’ve no real idea what the hell was going on a lot of the time. I still don’t understand a lot of things, having gotten through to the end and finally reached the big plot twists and reveals. I found myself a combination of satisfied but somewhat nauseous, like reheating the leftovers of an excellent meal a day or two later than I should have.

So I had to cast about and find some kind of consensus, some barometer that could gauge whether or not I simply wasn’t picking up on the storytelling methods being used or if there just weren’t any there to begin with. It seems like the word mediocre is most commonly used, leaning towards the negative and I haven’t found anyone who outright loved the show, at least not yet. I think that I was fortunate that when I started it I knew Eli Roth was involved and I despise this man, I truly do. Not just because I can’t stand his brand of Torture Porn, but his fake trailer for ‘Thanksgiving’ that appeared in between Planet Terror and Death Proof was like a papercut in my brain that nearly ruined the great experience of seeing Grindhouse in the theater. This resulted in my expectations of the show being the lowest of the low, so by the third or fourth episode I was pleasantly surprised that I was enjoying the experience. It was a refreshing, if derivative, break from all the vampire worship that’s been going on for far too long. Werewolves can be pretty cool too, I think. And I’ll go on record here, one of the coolest moments in the entire series is how this show interprets the transformation. Up until this point American Werewolf in London has been the benchmark but Hemlock Grove takes a slightly different approach and it is totally frickin’ sweet. It showed real potential, in my mind, for actual imaginative horror. When it comes to my opinion, however, it should be known that when I was a kid I totally loved the Lost in Space movie when it came out. Yes. The one with Matt LeBlanc.

About four or five episodes into the series I thought I saw something that I found really compelling: The characters had the appearance of depth and multiple dimensions. Like any pilot should, all the characters are introduced for what is most obvious about their personalities and motivations. HG is pretty on the nose with everyone, I thought I hated every single person from minute one. But characters that seemed paper thin and predictable suddenly started to display completely opposing character traits. The cold manipulative Famke Jansenn displays genuine maternal instinct and concern, the cruel sleazy rich boy becomes a lonely outsider in need of a real friend, and Lily Taylor remains just as obnoxious and cloying as she has in everything I have ever seen her in (sorry, I never forgave her for her role on Six Feet Under). She’s one exception, but other than that I got really excited, and I thought, these writers might have something going.

These writers did not have something going. Because the thing about presenting multiple layers of a character is that their arc has to make some kind of sense to the audience, and this is where the show failed me. These characters don’t have so much of an arc as a roadmap of a town designed by a very drunk and vindictive city planner. Without getting into specifics, here is my train of thought describing one of the main characters from the beginning of the show to the very end of the show:

  • Is this guy the villain? I don’t know but I don’t like him.
  • I hate him.
  • I really hate him.
  • Holy crap, I think I like this character. Maybe he is just misunderstood.
  • I want this guy to succeed, he’s trying to do the right thing. He just doesn’t know how to…
  • ….I want someone to punch his face through the back of his stupid head.
  • Why are they still trying to make me sympathize with this guy.
  • Why are they still trying to make me sympathize with this guy.
  • Why are they still trying to make me sympathize with this guy.
  • Good, he got exactly what he deserved, the son of a…….oh, goddamnit, how did I not see that coming.

How to describe the plot. I’ll be honest, I don’t want my criticisms to be interpreted as outright hate. I liked this show overall. I enjoyed the ending revelations, they seemed plausible (when I say plausible, I mean in the context of the story and setting, not…..*falls over laughing*….not in any other way that the word could be used….*wipes tears away*…sigh). I think that this would have made a better mini-series than full 13 episode season. Sometimes things happen that really have no meaning or purpose towards moving the plot forward. There is some semblance of an investigation taking place but, like anything involving a werewolf should, it feels like a full month goes by without anything of significance happening. Like the show Lost, there seems to be the idea that adding more mysteries to the show instead of addressing the outstanding ones as they go is anything other than a distraction from the developing story. I mean, once they opened the hatch at the beginning of the second season and that just turned out to be another cornucopia of ‘WTF?’ I knew it was time to check out and move on with my life. What was I talking about?

I want to be clear that although I am picking on the show a little bit I do recommend throwing it on with a bottle of wine (or tequila) and a loved one and seeing if a few episodes have any appeal. There is an underlying pulpy sense of soap opera to HG that I enjoy. Two parts Twin Peaks, one part Twilight, a dash of Dark Shadows and a healthy dollop of The X-Files makes for some enjoyable guilty pleasure television. If gore is not something you find palatable in your trashy TV, it’s still worth a shot. I was able soldier through without too many grimaces. On a serious note, however, at one point one of the main characters crosses a line that I do not tolerate in my main characters (see inner monologue above) and the act is treated with next to no gravity or consequence. If it is meant to firmly establish the monstrous nature of this character, the job is done. But the scene itself is unpleasant and horrifying.

What Hemlock Grove shows is that Netflix is not AMC, with an unstoppable stable of excellent television; at least not yet. Where House of Cards was brilliant and Arrested Development was delightful, Hemlock Grove is….a really good try. And Lilyhammer is something I don’t know anything about because the show is called Lilyhammer. But check it out if you want, it’s a pleasant distraction from all the PTSD invoked by the Red Wedding.

Brokeback Mountain: I’m Glad I Didn’t Die Before I Met You

The first paragraph of my article is intended to be the ignorant and reactionary argument, please don’t stop there, I have a purpose. I thought I’d start with one perspective and try to inform it, without judgment or spite. Ultimately, we are all trying to be happy in our own way and I present one of my favorite pieces in the hopes that it can encourage conversation rather than argument. Thank you for being whoever you are.

Brokeback Mountain is about two gay cowboys who just want to bang out in the mountains and offend every masculine stereotype of the idealized Old West, to say nothing of the fact that it’s directed by a goddamn Communist Chinese man named Ang Lee. It undermines the values of the Christian faith at every opportunity; the marriages of the two main characters to women become hollow, meaningless shambles of the traditional family unit because of their irresponsible and immoral infatuation with each other. They are doomed to fail because of the perverse behavior that they succumb to, initiated in a moment of drunken compulsion.

The Godfather is about a war hero who turns to a life of petty crime. Fight Club is an endorsement of anarchy and socialism, subscribing violence as the only answer to society’s ills. Also, American Beauty is about pedophilia and the destruction of the modern American family. That being said, the rest of this review is going to be heavily influenced by a really scary thing called Reality. All reductionist arguments can forthwith jump off a bridge.

In Reality this film flies in the face of everything described in my opening statement. More critically, it epitomizes everything that we are afraid of, and not because we are all Christian or homophobic or too masculine to appreciate a story about two men who are in love with each other. It is, in Reality, a haunting and terrible story about the simple fact that life is a lonely thing. Brutally lonely. That the one person in life that you may need to function is the one person you cannot be with and that life expects you to carry on anyway. The people who you spend your life with may be destroyed by that need and they will probably never know why or understand what happened to them, further, why you are who you are. In Reality, this is not a film about homosexuality, but it plays a part.

I could go on at length about the performances, I’d love to go back and be a fly on the wall in order to figure out how this spectacular cast was so well directed by a non-English speaking director in such a specifically American themed setting. I could try and fail at describing how beautiful the cinematography is; words fail. I could also harp about the soundtrack by Gustavo Santaolalla, who is a genius. I could try to explain this story but it wouldn’t be fair to try. And if you’re put off by the premise, I’m not going to talk it into you and if you are interested, I own it and will be glad to loan the DVD. But in Reality, I’d be surprised if anyone asked.

In Reality, this movie is seven years old and lost Best Picture to a flick called Crash, which has no social relevance to speak of. I won’t argue that Crash is not well directed and acted, but I will argue that it’s trite, cliche garbage that rode the tide of White Guilt into its nomination. And that Paul Haggis is a tone-deaf hack who peddles treacle with all the expositional tact of a James Patterson novel. In Reality, if you are reading this you know who I am and my position on homosexuality, and hopefully, you know me pretty well. If not, I hope you do by now. A MacGuffin is a plot device that drives a story forward, its the motivation of the lead characters and doesn’t necessarily need to be identified (see the suitcase full of gold light in Pulp Fiction, or any Indiana Jones film). I bring this up because homosexuality is the MacGuffin in this film but not exclusively. If these two characters, Jack and Enis, were only interested in having gay sex, this is film would be pretty and meaningless. In Reality this is a film about flawed people living in a flawed environment, trying to be happy in spite of it.

If you cannot relate to these characters and this story because, at one point, we encounter two men having sex in a cold tent in the middle of the cold Wyoming wilderness, I don’t blame you. If you are uncomfortable with seeing two men kissing each other with all the ferocity of their pent up and repressed desire, anxiously afraid of being exposed and subsequently beaten to death at worst, ostracized at best, I get that this doesn’t inspire or ring home. If you are unable to sympathize with these two fictional characters, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with you at all.

In Reality, however, I have recommended this film to several of my closest friends and I’m fed up with this answer, “I’m just not interested in it.” I get mad about this response, not because I’m surprised but because I have endorsed the film and I know what I am talking about. It’s as much a period piece as a love story and it is an exceptional love story. Brokeback Mountain is film craft at it’s finest, where cast, direction, cinematography, and soundtrack spin together like a finely tuned machine and I am improved for having experienced it. I am more familiar with the human experience; my soul is tuned finer.

And in Reality, I’m not changing the minds that I want to, which is all right. Life gives everyone a lot to experience, and maybe it’s too much to ask some people to take on another type of sympathy. Being gay is not something that I fully understand or relate to. Being unhappy because the person I love is out of reach, unfortunately, is. That’s life. That is the tragic Reality, with no consideration for sexual preference.

Brokeback Mountain is about two people who just want to be together and have to meet in the mountains for fear of offending every masculine stereotype and accepted norm, to say nothing of the fact that it’s directed by a brilliant Chinese auteur named Ang Lee. It exposes the fact that the organized Christian church fails to comprehend its own basic tenets of acceptance and tolerance without ever having to identify anyone as explicitly Christian; the marriages of the two main characters to women become hollow, meaningless shambles of the traditional family unit because of their inability to accept who they are (I say ‘who’ and not ‘what’ because they are not Gays, they are people not things). They are doomed to fail because…, real love, is goddamn hard. It’s hard enough in the best of circumstances.

In Reality, a middle school mentality took over the American pop culture environment when this film came out. All the easy one-liners and gay jokes spammed the internet and the air-waves and it killed me a little inside, I’d really thought we were a little above it but I was wrong. That’s okay, if you can’t laugh about something, you are taking it too seriously. And in Reality, if you can’t fix something, you have to stand it.

The Great Gatsby: Pay No Attention To the Man Behind the Curtain

I can’t be the only one to find the sensational irony in the idea of Baz Luhrmann directing The Great Gatsby. When it comes to a story about a group of people who experience life as a series opulent, fashion-oriented lifestyles, throwing glitzy, manically irresponsible parties, who inherently have no actual personalities, substance, or authenticity, who better to direct than the man that turned Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into a two hour music video. I know that Moulin Rouge has a strong following and I respect that, however, all I can remember of the film was noise and colors. As for his film Australia, I remember nothing at all, except that it seemed to never end. I feel like I may still be watching it, there’s no way of knowing. When The Great Gatsby started I was immediately distracted by the constant cuts, the editing was so rapid fire quick that I wanted to shout at the screen to slow down, let me look at all the colorful things and stuff you obviously want me to see. I think that the idea is to infuse the picture with a sense of kinetic energy but doing it immediately from the start is jarring, the audience is still trying to become familiar with the visual language and the resulting opening comes off as more frenetic than kinetic.

Once I caught up to what was going on, I found myself enjoying the story and the style on display. Where I thought I would be irritated by the narration and direct usage of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose, I was pleasantly surprised that it supplemented the story well. I also realized how much I missed the book and his writing. Like most people, I was assigned this book in high school English but unlike most of my classmates, I discovered about halfway through that I really loved the story. Gatsby’s sense of isolation and loneliness as well as Nick’s inability to acclimate to the excessive affluence and irresponsibility around him were very familiar ideas to me at the time. I did have trouble with the method that was used to introduce the book to us. We were assigned one or two chapters at a time and then would discuss in class the themes and symbolism being used. This was good to an extent because at the time I had no eye for those things yet (I think I still owned a few shoe boxes full of Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine at that point) but I became impatient and had to skip ahead of the assigned chapters; I was invested. Everyone reads and processes things differently, but this teaching method I liken to going on an amazing date but stopping every half hour to talk about how great the last half hour had been. Either way, the novel spoke to me at the right time in my life, as the real classics often do.

One of the strongest things that this film has going for it is the casting. I’m usually not a fan of Tobey Maguire, mostly for what he did to Spiderman (that’s petty, I know, but alongside those shoe boxes were stacks of The Amazing Spiderman….I may or may not still own a few of those) but he is the appropriately youthful and wide eyed moralistic choice to portray Nick. And for DiCaprio, I’m getting really tired of liking that guy as much as I do. I continue to be surprised at how startlingly effective he is at playing aloof and lonely for someone so damn handsome. But the real prize goes to the leading lady: Carey Mulligan was genetically engineered to play Daisy. At this point in her career she should be paid royalties for the usage of the Wounded Angel character, she must have it trademarked. Her ability to emote with her eyes is remarkable and damning, after seeing her do the same in Drive, I simultaneously want to fall in love with her and beat up who ever is making her cry, immediately. I wish that someone, somewhere would please cast her in a romantic comedy, I’m tired of seeing her cry all the time.

There was apparently some hubbub raised about the use of contemporary music, specifically rap and hip hop, in a film that takes place in the 1920s, and for once, I am on Baz’s (Baz’? Baz’z?) side of the argument. In order to express a time period and its excessive hedonism to a generation that has no concept of anyone’s hedonism outside of their own, what better way to communicate that than with the pop music of today. Which, like the pop music of any young generation, projects the boundless energy of optimism found only in youthful drunken immortality. The Roaring Twenties were feverish with this energy and I think it’s a novel and ingenious way to communicate that to a modern audience.

I found myself, while watching DiCaprio’s performance, reminded of the first film interpretation I’d seen starring Robert Redford as Gatsby. This was a version we’d watched in high school after finishing the book and, even back then before I had any kind of vocabulary for film or insight, I knew right away that it was awful. Probably not by the standards of when it was made but it was far too loyal to the source material, making for a dull, melodramatic movie with no real passion or substance. The story itself is good but it’s the prose that makes it great, and a loyal but tame adaption is only going to turn into a Cliff’s Notes version of the book; supplementary and without a soul. There was, however, something about the two lead’s performances as Gatsby that I realized had similarities, things that I probably missed the first time around because I didn’t understand the source material. When both characters are introduced there is a woodenness to their mannerisms, a kind of hokeyness. As a kid, I thought this was just bad acting (forgive me, I didn’t know who Robert Redford was back then), but seeing it again in DiCaprio I realized that it was all part of his act. Gatsby was simply always performing in a role that he never truly nailed. I know that it was obvious that he was affecting the personality of a well born aristocrat but on the page this performance is one thing, seeing a gifted actor like DiCaprio or Redford literally acting poorly is disorienting at first. The constant ‘old sport’s become grating and obvious as the movie carries on, but, fortunately, at least in this modern retelling, when Gatsby’s true emotions and characteristics slip through, they are performed with beautiful veracity.

In the emotional denouement, Tom Buchanan provokes Gatsby to the point of losing his temper; his facade slips away into rage and confusion for a moment and, in that moment, he loses the game he has been playing all along. Much like Oz the Great and Powerful, his air of mystery and cool confidence is ripped away and it is fitting that this is the exact moment in the film where Baz Lurhmann’s own curtain is lifted. Where the garishness and energy were appropriate prior to this moment, the real emotions come out on display from this point on in the story and this is where the director’s failings become unavoidably apparent. Unlike the extensive visual hues used in the film, when it comes to the more subtle and nuanced emotionality, this storyteller is only capable of painting in primary colors. If people are mad they are screaming, if they are upset they are weeping, and where I wanted to be invested in all the conflicting pathos that were intersecting on screen I couldn’t concentrate because there was so much noise going on, literally and visually. Not to mention the symbolism simply stops being symbolism when you come out right and describe exactly what the symbol means. I get it. Stop zooming in on T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes with the voiceover reminding us that they are like God’s eyes, watching over everything. I got it the first time the inference was made earlier in the movie. I got it fifteen years ago in high school when my teacher pointed it out. And I’m not even going to started on the green light at the end of the dock.

That aside, I did enjoy seeing this. I’m glad I did, if only to be reminded in a new way of the source material. All due credit to Baz Luhrmann for the direction he took it in, but in the end, like Gatsby, he may have only been affecting a more talented and gifted filmmaker than he really is.