Despite some caviling about director Baz Lurhman‘s choice of 3D for his remake of the great American novel, The Great Gatsby, the trailer is breathtaking. Seeing the movie was a foregone conclusion for me, regardless of the trailer, since I’m interested in the story and I admire Lurhman’s visual artistry and moviemaking skill. Nonetheless, the trailer invites critical attention as a demonstration of what you can do when you’ve got the goods (a quality, anticipated release), the stars, the spectacle (cinematic riches, scale, production value), acclaimed directorial and cinematographic flair and a marketing budget big enough to purchase the right music cues from two of the most relevant acts in the business.
At 2:21, the trailer is told through dialogue and scenes, rather than copy or voice over. Gloriously ornate art-deco grill-work designed graphic cards introduce the director and his credits (Romeo & Juliet; Moulin Rouge) as well as the three principle stars (Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby; Tobey Maguire as Nick Carroway; and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan), the distributor and production company (Warner Bros & Village Roadshow), the title and the release date information. While the quick cutting (app. 1 per second, and much faster than that in the climactic moments of the trailer) provides an abundance of visual information and character detail, story elements are schematic and general rather than particular and specific. Presumably, the marketers are counting on all of us (in America, at least) having read the source material in High School, and remembering at least some of the plot.
The trailermakers avoid the chief danger of marketing a movie with everything going for it and which people are already eager to see: telling too much and thereby competing with the imagination of likely audiences. Impression and emotion, style and visual splendor instead are displayed richly, while the explicit relations that obtain between Nick and Gatsby, Gatsby and Daisy, Daisy and Tom, Hazel and her fate, etc., are thematized rather than elaborated. What is emphasizer, however, are the very strengths of the material: glamor, beauty, privilege and mystery from an idealized moment in American History, the Jazz Age/Roaring 20’s, a time of exuberance and excess, opportunity and license, made all the more poignant by its brevity and catastrophic end.
Briefly, the trailer is articulated thus: to the strains of Jay Z and Kanye West‘s recent collaboration “No Church in the Wild,” we open on NYC in the 1920’s. McGuire intones a description of the time and place in elegant, epigrammatic phrases. We see scenes of merry-making and pleasure, prosperity and opulence, as the name Gatsby passes from mouth to mouth as the owner of enormous wealth, giver of spectacular parties and the object of general curiosity.
Gatsby appears as an inscrutable figure of power and discretion to patronize Nick (his tenant, as I know from the book, not from the trailer) and romance Daisy (a socially prominent neighbor), provoking the anger of her husband, Tom (Edgerton.) As Gatsby becomes known, the dance of society that swirls around him (matched, I may say, by the arcing and circling camera work and the pulsing push, pull and scan of the editing) spins every faster until the centripetal force of its motion proves too much for the center to restrain. In a word, events spin out of control, represented in the trailer by the pace of editing as well as by the violence of action, word and movement that succeeds the choreographed, harmonious scenes of the opening.
In the back end, Jack White‘s cover of the U2 power ballad, “Love is Blindness,” provides the musical cue and narrative commentary for the dissolution, when Gatsby’s mystique is punctured and his composure crumbles. It’s as if, when unknown and unseen he is all-powerful, but when met and revealed, descending from exalted solitude to carnal intimacy with Daisy, he unravels. While I am loath to reduce the theme of the novel or the film to the equation of love with blindness, for the narrative needs of the trailer, it suffices. (On a literary note, it’s a great cue not only for the inimitable Mr. White’s soulful singing, but for its connection to the all-seeing spectacles on the billboard for Dr. TJ. Eckleburg, an image and symbol familiar from student essays on the novel, but all the more relevant in a scopophilic medium like film.)
On the question of visual storytelling, watching the trailer repeatedly without sound, made me reflect on editorial objectives and discrete choices. While many, if not most scenes are chosen to represent and develop plot and character–or to demonstrate the film’s visual artistry–there are shots whose purpose I cannot clearly explain. That is not atypical: the density of images and the speed with which one complex shot gives way to the next, defy easy or immediate assimilation, solely in terms of the visual sense. Dialogue, copy and music/sound cues are needed to organize and explain all the visual “data” the editor has given us to consider.
But what about a shot, say, of men swinging pick-axes (at 1:16), shown in silhouette which lasts for all of a second, squeezed between a shot of two persons entering a party in formal attire and a polo pony and rider approaching a grand mansion via elaborate gardens. Is the contrast between labor and leisure, represented as that between black and white and color, that which is being expressed? If so, it’s an awfully small gesture toward the sweat equity behind all this conspicuous consumption. Or later (at 1:29) a yellow convertible coupe drives through a blasted industrial landscape (the “Valley of Ashes”), en route from Manhattan to the leafy precincts of Gatsby’s North Shore estate. We’ve seen this car speeding and careening through crowded urban streets before. Why now should we see this infernal vision of the car in Queens, apart from its graphic match to the shot preceding it? (Tom, played by Joel Edgerton, blows smoke from his cigar and dissolves into the shot of the car driving right to left, in a smokey haze of pollution.)
As you see, both shots can be explained or justified, albeit by issues the trailer hardly foregrounds (labor) and in relation to purely formal, incidental matters (a graphic match to an earlier shot). Neither moves the ball, in terms of story telling or audience appeal. It is said that every shot in a trailer counts, but the definition of counts is what I’m trying to ascertain. This subject to be continued, elsewhere and with respect to other trailers. For the interim, I’ll presume that such shots–such edits–serve a formal, rhythmic and or visual function, that I don’t yet appreciate.
Apart from the quiet, slow scenes between Daisy and Gatsby, obliquely and quietly indicating their growing involvement, the trailer is thronged with people and motion, event and energy. That’s how we think of the Jazz Age, as a time of tireless merry making and activity, I suppose. But, given how little we learn about the actual plot complications, it’s movement for movement’s sake, spectacle for spectacle’s sake, parties and dinner and nightclubs because silence is terrifying and stillness is death. Of course, if Gatsby felt that 90 years ago, imagine how we feel today, and what movie audiences have come to expect from movies by Mr. Luhrman. It appears, from the trailer that he will reward those who admire his visual virtuosity with yet another splendid spectacle. With how much faith for the beloved novel, I cannot say. His real obligation is to the moviemaking tradition, and this trailer shows the respect he has for that duty.
movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.