Annoyed and Bored by Lazy Anachronisms in The Great Gatsby Movie

I just watched the recent Great Gatsby movie. I didn’t care for the use of modern hip-hop music, though I can accept it as a director’s choice to appeal to modern audiences — like the added narration about the stock market and prohibition. But with all the money they put into the costumes and the CGI camera effects (swooping across the bay between Gatsby’s pier and Daisy’s green light, like the eye of Sauron creeping up on Frodo), I’m surprised they used phones and cars from the 1930s and a ball-point pen from the 1940s. These weren’t just random props, they were all featured in close ups that were integral to the plot  (though the pen is only integral to the added framing narrative).

At one point, Nick casually turns on the radio; but in 1922, radio was experimental. The first commercial AM radio broadcast in New York did not happen until a few years later. Gatsby might have had a radio as a toy, but seeing one in poor working stiff Nick’s rented cottage changes my understanding of Nick’s character. In 1922, a radio would have been an excessive yuppie purchase.

It was jarring to see a room full of professional dancers (who are supposed to be random drunken socialites) perform the Charleston in perfect synch with each other. The dance was actually popularized by a 1923 Broadway musical; “everyone” wouldn’t have been able to do it at that level of precision in1922. Of course, I recognize that the party scenes were filmed like a fantasy sequence, and that we are seeing it all through Nick’s memory after the whole thing is over, but the anachronism still hurt my willingness to suspend disbelief.

My dissertation explored representations of technology in American drama from 1920-1950, so I looked up the importance of the radio Stanley throws out of the window in A Streetcar Named Desire, the car Willy Loman drives and the fountain pen Biff steals in Death of a Salesman. I appreciate when a filmmaker goes to the extra trouble to get the setting right — and I notice when the filmmaker doesn’t give a damn.

I did like the casting, and though I disliked the framing narrative, I recognize the screenwriter’s need to compress scenes and create new dialogue to dramatize scenes that were only loosely described in the narrative (it was clever to lift lines from other Fitzgerald works). Still, I’d have rather seen this as a play — the CGI and the added car chases and the on-screen textual gimmicks (words from letters floating in the air a la the text messages in Sherlock, or words fluttering away like snowflakes) were part of the world Nick rejected as shallow and meaningless, but they are part of the very fabric of the storytelling that’s supposed to captivate the audience with spectacle.

5 thoughts on “Annoyed and Bored by Lazy Anachronisms in The Great Gatsby Movie

  1. I haven’t yet read the book, but I also just watched this last week for the first time. I had the exact same complaint concerning the music choice. I was excited to hear old time music and was thoroughly let down. All-in-all, it was entertaining and makes me want to make the fifth attempt at reading the book.

  2. I have a friend who is obsessed with The Great Gasby. So much so that you can ask her what page in her copy of the book a certain character says a certain phrase, and she can answer accurately. We saw this together, and she explained that Fitzgerald was obsessed with everything modern, flashy and trendy, and at the time in which the story is set, it was jazz music. But to us in 2013, jazz was seen as retro and vintage and too classy to fit Gatsby. So if they had used jazz throughout, it would have made the movie feel dated, but by using mashups of more modern genres and artists, it gave it that modern, flashy, trendy feel that Fitzgerald meant to convey in the book.

    Here’s a great quote from Baz Luhrmann about the music choices:
    “While we acknowledge, as Fitzgerald phrased it, ‘the Jazz Age,’ and this is the period represented on screen, we — our audience — are living in ‘the Hip-Hop Age’ and want our viewers to feel the impact of modern-day music the way Fitzgerald did for the readers of his novel at the time of its publication.”

    • Since Rhapsody in Blue (1924) is featured so prominently in a scene set in 1922, I can make myself believe that all the music, even what seems to be happening in the world of the actors, was overlaid as a cinematic device, just as most movies add musical soundtracks for pure emotional impact, and nobody bothers to ask why there’s suddenly an orchestra playing in the middle of a battlefield. When I teach the Fitzgerald short story Bernice Bobs Her Hair, I have to remind my students just how shocking a bob was in those days. I used to give the example of the long-haired celebrity starlet of the moment walking into a barbershop and asking to be shaved bald, but then Britney Spears went and did actually did that, so now I compare it to Jennifer Lawrence walking into a tattoo parlor and asking for the word “bitch” to be tattooed on her upper lip as a mustache. So, yes, I can understand the director’s choice, though as I noted I didn’t care for it. Jazz music still seems wondrous and lively and endlessly creative to me.

    • The ironic thing about linking Scott & jazz is that there’s very little jazz in his work, Gatsby in particular. Popular music, yes; jazz, not so much. So sadly Lurhman might have a point.

  3. Well, you have totally discouraged me from watching the 2013 version of The Great Gatsby! :) Also, 2h 23min is about half an hour longer than my attention span…

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