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.