Category Archives: Film

‘Gatsby? What Gatsby?’

A new film is upon us from the man who visualised Shakespeare’s Mercutio cross-dressed and gyrating on the sweeping Capulet staircase to ‘Young Hearts, Run Free’ in a white diamante bra and choker. Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ has burst onto our screens with much the same panache and beat as his 1996 ‘Romeo and Juliet’. As Luhrmann revealed in an interview for Sky Movies, he first envisaged creating a film out of Fitzgerald’s classic as he travelled on the Trans-Siberian railway after filming ‘The Moulin Rouge’, enjoying the novel in audio book format as he dozed off with a glass of red wine. Just like the fantastical ‘blue gardens’ and ‘yellow cocktail music’ of Fitzgerald’s imagined world, Luhrmann has conjured up a vision of ‘The Great Gatsby’ that cavorts as if it is haunted by the cancan dancers and clownish entertainers of that infamous Parisian nightclub, born out of train journey slumbers and wine-fed dreaming.

gatsby 1

Luhrmann’s inspiration is apt, as the novel really is all about dreaming. Nick’s dream of Gatsby, Gatsby’s dream of Daisy, Gatsby’s dream of Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s dream of  Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s dream, or perhaps nightmare, of America. Hemingway claimed that Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda used to encourage her husband to drink whilst writing. Perhaps, much like the stumbling narrator Nick , who sits ‘within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life’, Fitzgerald wrote his novel through a haze of ethanol, in a state of wakeful dreaming. He shaped the black ink on the page with a mind blurred and fluid at the edges, at liberty to fantasise, to fashion the synaesthetic party scenes in which the senses queasily intermingle. Even after all the bloodshed, the smashing up, the loss, there is a small place within Fitzgerald’s imagination still enchanted by a faith in dreaming that he has shown to be futile. He is in part charmed by the ‘orgastic future’ that we ‘stretch out our arms farther’ to reach, despite its eluding us ‘year by year’. It is Fitzgerald’s ambivalence that defines Gatsby’s ‘greatness’. Like the sublime, he is a figure who unnerves as much as he attracts, just as his dream is as romantic as it is dangerous.

Gatsby himself, with Luhrmann's flamboyant touch

Gatsby himself, with Luhrmann’s flamboyant touch

It is this instability that Luhrmann fails to capture. He dreams with the carelessness of the party- goers and the wild romanticism of Gatsby himself, and doing so, the caution and nuance of the author’s craft is lost. The word author is etymologically related to authority, seen in the close relationship between the medieval words ‘auctor’ and ‘auctoritee’. The hold of an author over their work has always been problematic from literature’s foundations, with writers such as Chaucer struggling to establish clear power. He prefaced his works with vocalisations of modesty which instructed readers didactically as much as they apologised for any shortcomings and shook off culpability for dangerous misinterpretation. With the invention of the printing press in the 1450s, private manuscripts became available for public readership. Popular anthologies such as Tottel’s Miscellany encouraged a collaborative authorship, with readers actively taking to the page with quills and amending sonnets, circulating new versions and subverting the original poet’s power. Clearly the authority of authorship has always been contentious, but it is difficult to lose ourselves in the film’s contrived and off-piste opening, as a washed-up, bearded and morose Nick talks softly to a psychiatrist as snowflakes dust around the sanatorium. Luhrmann’s portrayal of the story’s narrator provides a painfully unsubtle metatextual experience, as Nick’s words clunkily etch themselves across the screen in typewriter font. Suddenly, the famously unreliable voice careers off with such autonomy that even as Fitzgerald’s powerful cadence draws the film to a close, Nick must wrap it all up in a ring binder and in a moment of casual afterthought asterix ‘the great’ onto the title of his manuscript, ‘Gatsby’. Giving such deliberate power to a narrator who oscillates so infamously between repulsion and attraction in the novel, Luhrmann re-shapes Fitzgerald’s tale with a carthartic neatness, a ‘once upon a time’ frame that counters its original sense of emptiness, negating the force of the ‘foul dust’ and ash that swirls through its pages and drains away any prospect of redemption.

The original 1925 book sleeve, rather less sparkling

The original 1925 book sleeve, rather less sparkling

Of course, it is important to recognise that a film is a work of art in its own right. But for dedicated Fitzgerald fans, Luhrmann’s emphasis seems to usurp the ultimate dreamer, the author. The novel’s greatest moment of loss is given a sense of rose-tinted fatefulness in the film. Gatsby’s death is romanticised by his desperate belief that Daisy is the one at the end of the trilling receiver, a point in the plot that Fitzgerald fashions with devastating sparseness. Nick can only imagine that Gatsby looks up at the ‘unfamiliar sky’, detached from the ‘new world, material without being real’, a man who had ‘paid a high price for living too long with a single dream’. Lying not far away is Wilson’s body and ‘the holocaust was complete’.

Nick is a man who is glad to compliment Gatsby before he dies as better than the ‘rotten crowd’ he associates with. But in all the glitz and glamour, we must not forget that he is also a man who freely admits in the same sentence that ‘I disapproved of him from beginning to end’. Dreams are not always beautiful, but they are always enigmatic. This is what Gatsby is, how Fitzgerald writes, how Nick observes. It doesn’t seem to be how Luhrmann directs.


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A Night at the Opera

With her deep upturned pout, ragged blouse and tangled locks, intertwined in the French flag as black and white bleed into red and blue, the face of Cosette is instantly recognisable. Les Misérables’ ceaseless popularity is testament to a particular musical taste that has been fostered since it first opened in the West End in 1985. Victor Hugo could never have imagined that his novel would be seeing in the new year of 2013 with the release of Tom Hooper’s much anticipated film of the stage musical. What is it about this French revolutionary drama that has so captivated the minds and hearts of the world? The catchphrase of Hooper’s film catalogues basic human passions: ‘Fight. Dream. Hope. Love’. For me, this very aptly encapsulates the essence of the musical. There is little more harrowing than Fantine’s impassioned and desperate reminiscence of a life that could have been in ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, a performance  delivered with much raw sincerity by Hathaway in the teaser trailer of Hooper’s film.


Yet personally, these four words of ‘Fight. Dream. Hope. Love’ are equally relevant to a form of theatrical music that glows much more dimly in the vivid forum of world entertainment. And that is opera. Whose voice can be more dreaming than Madame Butterfly’s in ‘Un Bel Di’? More full of love than Isolde’s in her ‘Liebestod’? More hopeful than ‘Nessun Dorma’, an anthem so inspiring it was used as the theme for the 1990 FIFA World cup?

Why is it then that comparative to musicals, we seem to be less roused by opera? Perhaps it is because we associate it with the velveteen hues, cut glass chandeliers and gilt of an expensive night out at the theatre. Zachary Woolfe’s article (@zwoolfe) in ‘The New York Times’, ‘How Hollywood Films are Killing Opera’, notes that it is only the use of famous divas in America that guarantees audiences. This prompts us to ponder whether the quality of operatic music in itself is no longer enough to secure profits. Woolfe also points out that the Hollywood glamorisation of opera has done little to help its credibility as an artform. Citing Vivienne’s trip in ‘Pretty Woman’ to see La Traviata as an example, his point becomes crystal clear. She is taken on a glitzy date escorted by helicopter, peering out of the box with her opera glasses, a bold vision of diamonds, white gloves and a full, sweeping red gown. Much as she is moved by her experience, it seems superficial and frivolous: all she can say is  ‘It was so good I almost peed my pants!’ Julia Roberts’ fame, beauty and cinematic presence inevitably leaves the impression that a night at the opera is an elite evening of entertainment enjoyed only by the glittering and the fabulous.

Vivienne indulging in the opera

Vivienne indulging in the opera

The use of opera in the advertising world is similarly problematic. Two recent adverts for Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male aftershave shows a changing room of half clad athletic men pouting, perfuming and preening as they change into sharp tailored suits, no doubt preparing to attend a decadent party. In the second, a man and a woman in a similar state of undress awake in a sumptuous boudoir. The male, playing the quintessential ‘man in uniform’ as a sailor,  mysteriously disappears, leaving only his scent to linger in the love nest. By coupling opera with such scenes of modellesque beauty, rose tinted light, silk and indulgence, we cannot help but feel it exists in a world of perfection, a world of high fashion. It is not something that we can immediately relate to.

The mystique surrounding opera frustratingly veils it from stirring emotions within us just as powerful, if not more so, as any resounding chorus of an Andrew Lloyd Webber classic. Certain companies and productions are working hard to unclothe opera of its supposed pretensions, stripping it down to accentuate best its movingly human qualities. Opera North’s 2011 ‘Carmen’, for example, set the saga in the mellow grounds of a Spanish wine bar complete with fairy lights and rickety tables. To the audience, it was a scene not too distant from a favourite Mediterranean summer holiday. As a classically trained singer myself, I was a member of the chorus of Leeds Youth Opera for four years. In my time there, I was a Germanic huntress in Weber’s ‘Der Freischütz’, a medieval crusader and harem girl in Verdi’s ‘I Lombardi’ and a Greek wench in Mozart’s ‘Idomeneo’. As a company, we always aimed for diversity and to challenge our audience’s expectation. With this in mind, Hades in our production of Offenbach’s ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ was transformed  into a seedy underground nightclub and the sopranos, myself included, played burlesque dancers in fishnets and platform heels. Finishing off the party in the final act was a drunken performance of the famous Can-Can dance to disco lights, as energetic and frolicsome as a girly hen do.

Leeds Youth Opera's chorus for 'Idomeneo'

Leeds Youth Opera’s chorus for ‘Idomeneo’

It is staging and costume that prove vital tools to ground opera in a way that all audiences can access and enjoy. Indeed, as part of Cambridge’s Festival of Ideas, a newly composed opera ‘Lost’ was performed in the Fitzwilliam Museum. It involved both audiences and performers moving through the galleries parallel to the narrative’s progression, becoming themselves lost and immersed in the art work. It is this sort of intelligent innovation of operatic performance and reception that inspires and fosters emotional and intellectual connections between the listener and the music. The passions of ‘Fight. Dream. Hope. Love’ are allowed liberation from the cobwebbed traditions of more conventional theatrical performances and simultaneously escape the romanticised associations of the media and film industry, invigorating a diverse multitude of people. Opera is supposed to be a dramatic work set to music. And so we must keep experimenting with where that drama can take us.

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From Russia with love?

‘You can’t ask why about love’.

This is the catchphrase for Joe Wright’s new vision ‘Anna Karenina’, which is his third collaboration following ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Atonement’ with Academy Award nominee Keira Knightley. Much like the velvet hues, sombre snowfall and shadowy onion domes that embellish the website, the film is a visual and textural delight. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran’s work is masterful. A dazzling array of sumptuous furs, crushed satin, marble ballrooms, Siberian hay meadows and pristine topiary mazes collide to create the rich canvas behind Tolstoy’s famous love story, carrying moments along when the young actors seem overwhelmed by the gravitas of their tragic roles. The film effectively condenses the epic into 130 minutes of Imperial Russian glamour and decadence, conveying the stifling duties of the multitude of society’s ‘princesses’ to glitter more brightly than any other.

Yet whilst we may not be able to ask ‘why’ about Anna’s tragic decisions, we can certainly ask ‘why’ about the choices Wright made with set. Perhaps the most interesting and ultimately most impactful aspect of the film is its unfolding within the confines of a theatre. Actions develop both on stage and off stage. The claustrophobia of shadowy corridors and tangled ropes builds on the crucible-like feel of the plot, culminating in Anna’s dismounting a train before her final tragic performance onto a platform that becomes the rafters of a theatre full of waxwork models. It is not just setting that is theatrical, but gestures also. The opening moments in which Oblonsky has his face shaved has a farcical Sweeney Todd-like ambiance. Such absurdities continue; Levin and Kitty’s love declarations are played out between them as a game of painted children’s alphabet blocks. Princess Betsy’s party with the tableau shots of seated belles and tightly choreographed fanning seems more like a musical or pantomime than a pivotal scene for the lovers. To an extent, the omnipresence of the theatre infuses the film with melodrama that has the potential to make the final moments all the more devastating. There is something inauthentic about the theatricality that cleverly evokes the insincere and shifting nature of the society that Anna must find acceptance in.

The glamorous heroine

Yet for me it is the innovation of the setting that ultimately proves to be the film’s undoing. The sense of fantasy as the plot evolves detaches the spectator from the true significance of specific moments. The first dance between Vronsky and Anna plays out in a tightly choreographed crowd contorting with a ballerina-like elegance. Yet the effect of this is that the sense of scandal surrounding their ballroom frolicking, as well as Kitty’s overt pain and chagrin, is lost. Similarly, Vronsky’s tumble from his horse as it races across the wooden stage,  coupled with Anna’s shrieking from her plush box left me feeling more bewildered than it did empathetic. The issue lies in the layering of perspectives; film and theatre are both forms of artifice and both require the audience to suspend disbelief. The problem with Wright’s ‘Anna Karenina’ is that we are continually detached by our awareness that not only are we watching a film, but within this performance we must also respond to theatrical display. Unlike similar works that make use of the dynamics of theatre, such as ‘Moulin Rouge!’, the characters are not aware that they are actors in a production. Theatre is their only reality.

Vronsky’s horse race amidst the theatre setting

Thinking about Brecht’s theories on theatre seems appropriate at this moment. His ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ promoted overly self conscious theatre to divorce the spectator from feeling empathy, whilst encouraging them to remain critically engaged so that the experience becomes more thought-provoking. Alongside this, Gestus, meaning gestures, something Wright’s production is particularly rich in, were emphasised as important in the process of alienating the audience and increasing cynicism. Perhaps Wright desired a more unusual way in to Tolstoy, and whilst we should celebrate films that are willing to experiment, the effects the theatrical setting had on my empathy was surprising. Anna’s death in its backstage and clinical waxwork surround seemed so surreal that for a moment I wondered if what we were seeing was merely the product of her bruised and paranoid mind. Her death is of course foreshadowed by the gruesome loss of a random rail worker testing the wheels of a train at the start of the film, and yet perhaps a more natural setting of ice, coal and clanking metal would have pervaded the moment of Anna’s death, the tragic climax of the film, with what it needed to move me instantly. As Peter Bradshaw in his Guardian review points out, creativity has affected the film’s pathos.

Kitty spells out her emotions through childhood games

The film certainly entertains. However, its promise to explore the capacities for love and feeling in our hearts is unfulfilled, as it left my own more cold and detached than I expected or desired. Perhaps we can ask ‘why’ of love in Anna Karenina’s world, and the film is certainly worth seeing if not just to explore spectator psychology and ask ‘why’ of our own emotional response.  With just a bit more snow and ice, this would have been a much warmer film.

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