Strictly Ballroom

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You Can’t Repeat the Past, Old Sport: On Leo, Baz, Gatsby, and Me

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Seventeen years ago, when Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet hit the scene, I was in eighth grade, mouth gleaming with metal, hair rusted with Sun-In, and so randy for Leonardo DiCaprio that I watched him gambol and die three, or maybe four, times on the big screen. After one particularly fraught viewing, my best friend and I wrote his name in popcorn on the sidewalk. “Leo,” formed the lips of the concerned passers-by.

Three years prior, I had demanded that my parents take me to see Strictly Ballroom (again) on my birthday, with classmates in tow. The brooding Paul Mercurio paved the way for Leonardo lust, at a confusing fifth-grade time when I just wanted to do a coltish paso doble in front of a Coca Cola sign, but was also strangely agitated by the sight of glistening chest hair against white tank. Fast-forward to college, when I spent stretches of my freshman year listening to the dance remix of “Come What May” (from Moulin Rouge!) while playing a computer game called Snood and smoking cigarettes until my index finger turned yellow.

It’s safe to say that I have kind of a thing for the films of Baz Luhrmann.

I had basically forgotten this thing until the meditative days leading to the release of The Great Gatsby, when, it is equally safe to say, I got into a kind of weird place. That I had arrived at said place was clear when I decided to listen to the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack for the first time in many years and, upon hearing the jangling guitars of Everclear’s “Local God,” burst into tears at my desk.

There were several factors contributing to this outburst, but part of it was the appearance of residual shreds of feeling, artifacts from a time when sights and sounds and Leonardo–the Baz Luhrmann trifecta–went straight into the viscera.  (You had better hope you don’t spend your teen years taking in total garbage, because that’s formative garbage.) When I read San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle opine recently that Romeo + Juliet was “too contemptible even to be called a desecration,” I know that he never lay in virginal bed with headphones and discman, listened to Thom Yorke utter the eternal invitation “I’ll be waiting, with a gun and a pack of sandwiches,” and just felt so much.

I have been waiting for The Great Gatbsy.  I have been waiting, and listening to Des’ree sing the theme from Romeo + Juliet (and weeping), and admiring the new film’s fabulous geometric gold-and-black title credits. I have been basking in the surge of enthusiasm for Art Deco, which happens to be my favorite among the Arts. In the past several weeks, I have seen a lot of commentary about not liking The Great Gatsby (the novel), followed by a second wave of tweets saying that saying you don’t like the novel makes you seem like a douche.  And I felt very above it all, because I have a void where the strong feelings about The Great Gatsby should be. A novel that all school-children read is a public benefit, like a park — anyone can have a concert there or rent it out for a wedding.

I love movies, but always forget to see them, and usually end up making some miscalculation where I miss every single good one and then see Fast and the Furious VI in the theater (or recently, the appalling Trance). But I was ready for Gatsby, ready for abandon and riots of feeling. And I went to the movie, even paid the extra dollars for 3D (I have never seen a 3D movie and had some anxiety about it, but really trusted the vision of Baz), and I left dry-eyed and just a little bit disappointed.

Baz Luhrmann is so faithful to the text, in his way, and all the huge sets in the world cannot expand the essential narrowness and economy of Fitgerald’s novel. By the time Daisy and Gatsby got together, I knew there weren’t going to be any more parties.  And as they neared the end of their doomed affair, I was actually sort of bored. I became resigned to watching Leonardo’s strange orange glow and the stunning curve of Carey Mulligan’s eyebrows.  (For the record, I loved Carey Mulligan, and not just for her bewitching eyebrows and flawless skin.  I liked Toby Maguire too–he achieved a good level of flaccid goodness and faint corruption.)

There is such a thing as too much fidelity.  What I enjoyed the most in the movie were the anachronisms and departures (which, of course, are largely embodied in the music). Is that Frank Ocean I hear? Yes, please. Is that Amy Winehouse as sung by Beyoncé and André 3000? Vibe, while Lothrop Stoddard rolls around in his unvisited grave. But I think Luhrmann’s extravagant style needs something really sentimental at the back of it, and The Great Gatsby is a totally unsentimental story full of unsympathetic people. If there aren’t going to be a lot of feelings, I needed more spectacle, more choreographed dance scenes (and ideally, fewer shooting stars and floating letters). As Fergie counsels on the soundtrack, “a little party never killed nobody.” I still don’t really understand what the 3D glasses were for.

I did two things on an impulse today. I spent money (silly money, all things considered after the popcorn and aforementioned 3D tickets) on The Great Gatsby soundtrack, and I spent the afternoon at work shimmying and experiencing the terrible majesty of Lana Del Rey: “All that grace, all that body. All that face makes me wanna party.”  And then, back at home, I watched Romeo + Juliet again. Nothing in my life thus far has made me feel my age quite the same way–has made me feel that staid, ungenerous phrase, “I’m a married woman”–as that first glimpse of an absurdly young Leonardo DiCaprio. It made me go slightly cold, like realizing that I had experienced lustful thoughts for a Bieber.

O, Leonardo! Of all the boy gamines whose faces I tore out of Seventeen and put around my room, only he remains on the screen, year after year. A candle still burns for him, in the dark windows of my heart–but not for his curiously bronzed Gatsby. As a character, Gatsby is unconvincing. As a Gatsby, Leonardo is unconvincing. I’m not certain whether that means he was successful or not.  But I was not feeling it.

Re-watching Romeo + Juliet, it amazed me how much I remember about that movie , how I recognized even the minor characters as old friends. When Leonardo or Claire Danes cocked an eyebrow, I knew all about it, because my best friend and I once catalogued all of their facial expressions and gestures.  Thanks to that movie, I can today quote select words of the Bard with 100 percent more accuracy than from any other work of his I might name. You can’t repeat the past, but at the end of the movie, I cried. Who knows if it was those rogue adolescent icebergs breaking off and ramming the oceanliner of adulthood, or if it was that deathless story, or the fact that Baz Luhrmann did a bona fide super job making it come alive. I kind of think all three.

I cannot make an objective assessment of this new film, because the Season of Gatsby found me in my rowboat, attempting bold experiments in time travel and sensory recollection.  But you have to save some sensations for the next generation.  I made it through Gatsby with nary a tear shed. When the lights went up at the end of the show, however, the two girls in front of me turned to one another.  One said simply, “That was emotional.”

And so we beat on.

Surprise Me!