“I swear my next project is going to be something really simple and focused and minimal.” — Baz Luhrmann

It’s his birthday today.

“I think what I’m saying is, when you get to where I am in your journey, you just have to start to accept that there’s something inside you that you’ve been trying to get out and will try to get out for the rest of your life, and you don’t even understand it yourself. For some reason, I am compelled towards these tragic romances, the issue of love and all its variances, and also in a kind of cinematic language that now even I have to accept. I’ve tried to get rid of it but I can’t.” — Baz Luhrmann

I know, I know, Elvis is the elephant in the room. Last year was the summer of the Elvis movie – it opened in June and it was still in many theatres in September. Almost unheard of now. Aside from Top Gun, I can’t think of any other movie still around months after it was released. That kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore – or it rarely happens – and it happened with Elvis. For the month of July it was playing at the 100-year-old movie palace literally a 20-minute walk from my (old) apartment. Just down the street. Soooo … I’d be bored and be like “Yeah whatevs, let’s go see it again.”

I’m a fan of Baz Luhrmann, and I recognize – and acknowledge – the reasons why people are put off by him. That’s fine. Critical consensus doesn’t exist for Luhrmann. I, however, think this is a good thing. I distrust consensus. Many critics snark and complain about him – and they complain about the things that are his main strengths. This is so often the case! They want him to NOT be Luhrmann. They use terms like “excess” and “over the top” and “bloated”, etc. But it’s his EXCESS that makes him HIM, and – newsflash – excess is not utilized carefully and cautiously. Otherwise it wouldn’t be excess, now would it.

It’s fine if he’s not your cuppa, but not being your cuppa is … not indicative of anything. Would you “give it to him” if he directed a quiet family drama? Would you then tip your hat to him and acknowledge he knows what he’s doing? It’s ridiculous. At a certain point, personal taste is irrelevant – particularly when you’re a critic. I include myself in this, of course. I have to set my own SELF aside sometimes to see what a movie is doing and why it might be doing it. I still might not LIKE it but I gotta give it up. (Then, of course, there are things that are objectively bad/incompetent. I’ll call it out.) At a certain point you have to just admit, “People get a lot out of this, but it’s not my thing.” Baz, though, gets all this weird commentary … it’s like critics think he should be doing something OTHER than what he is doing with his talent. Why should he try to please YOU, personally? Artists have to please themselves, first and foremost, do I have to do everything around here? On a side note: Baz Luhrmann comes from theatre and opera and it SHOWS. I am speaking as a former Drama Club Nerd, and Theatre Kid, who took tap dance lessons and did jazz hands wearing dorky costumes while performing some horrible “revue” in the high school gym. And then jumped up and down with excitement and adrenaline with all my fellow Drama Club Nerds afterwards. People like this are always mocked – because pure enthusiasm is so embarrassing (and not just in Teenage Land, adults pull the same shit).

If you think of Baz Luhrmann as a grown-up Drama Nerd, it all makes sense. I completely recognize his kind. Stop wanting him to be a different kind of artist.

Moulin Rouge had a huge impact on me, so huge that I distrust my response to the movie. I watched it – on VHS – over and over and over. I can’t even remember what year. 2002? A bad year. I watched it every day. Sometimes twice a day. I don’t know what I saw in it, I don’t know why I clung to it. I did find this really REALLY old piece where I tried to express it. 2005! Damn, I’ve been writing here a long time. It might be interesting to revisit Moulin Rouge – now that the fever passed – and attempt, again, to put into words what I “got” from it, and how it may or may not have changed. I have a feeling it wouldn’t have the same impact. A lot has changed.

Critics pooh-poohed The Great Gatsby. Again, there were complaints about Luhrmann’s “excesses.” Did these people not read the damn book? The whole book is about the excesses of the Jazz Age. We saw where a respectful “non-excess” approach got us with the 1974 version (i.e. NOWHERE). Gatsby is NOT a realistic novel, OR a melodrama. It’s a fever dream of excess. So again: you may not like Luhrmann’s style, but if you complain about his “excesses” then you need to ask yourself: Is the excess in the service of something equally excessive? Critics always talk about form and content. Well, in the case of Gatsby, (and in the case of Elvis), Luhrmann married form to content. It’s the same damn thing.

I was so irritated by the critical dismissal of The Great Gatsby. Fine, don’t like it. But don’t DISMISS it, or pooh-pooh someone for having their own style. You sitting behind a desk who’ve never created something from your guts/heart. Try to understand what he’s doing and why. At the very LEAST. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?

So I did what you’re supposed to do when you’re irritated: I wrote a huge piece about Gatsby for Bright Wall/Dark Room:

Riotous Excursions: Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

I think the movie makes some mistakes, which I also get into (Luhrmann loves framing devices. Sometimes they work – sometimes they do not) – but in general Luhrmann’s film is a far more “faithful” adaptation to the book than the 1970s film.

Interestingly enough, my Gatsby piece was completely ignored by the majority of critics, if judging by the Subtweets on Twitter, and the lack of ANY engagement with what I actually wrote. Crickets, in other words. I am not ashamed to say I am proud of the piece: I laid out an argument – just like I was taught to do in 10th grade English when we learned how to write a term paper – and I backed it up with examples from the book and from the movie. I would have loved to have discussions about the piece, people actually reading it, and maybe even entertaining the possibility that I was onto something. If someone I think is a good writer makes an argument, I entertain it. I don’t take it on blindly, but I like playing around with ideas, if they are compelling, or if they hit a blind spot. I don’t like complaining about this stuff – in general I don’t – but the Crickets response to the Gatsby piece was an extremely instructive moment for me. Oh. Okay. Discussion isn’t actually a part of “the discourse”. The consensus has been formed: Gatsby is bad and Luhrmann is ridiculous – and me “sticking up for him” just revealed how credulous and susceptible I was.

Luhrmann understood Fitzgerald’s book on a deep level. He understood its symbolism, and he MAGNIFIED the symbolism as opposed to try to present it in a subtle way. It’s not subtle in the book. The “green light” is not subtle. AT ALL.

Here’s a wonderful quote from Luhrmann’s interview with Interview magazine:

“When I was very young, I grew up in a totally isolated place, in a very small town. I always win the bet with anyone who says, “I lived in a small town”—I grew up in a town with 11 houses, and that was the big part of town. We lived on the outskirts. But the thing is, my dad ran a cinema for a short time and I went to a tiny little Catholic school. There were only three rooms in the school and there were nuns, and I would go up to the library and there would be a bookshelf with about 10 books on it. One of them was called The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, and I opened it and went, “I will never be able to understand that as long as I live.” And a nun named Sister DeChantl said something like, “Oh, he’s one of the greatest writers of all time!” I sort of struggled with Shakespeare for a bit, but when eventually I ran away to the city, there was a guy called Neil Armfield [the Australian film and theater director], who is one of our living treasures. He did a production of Twelfth Night. People were giving out drinks and it was like we were in a Club Med in the Caribbean. There was music and dancing and there was a flash of light, and an actor called Robert Grubb came on in a white suit and said, “If music be the food of love, play on!” The band struck up again and I don’t remember what happened, except I understood every single word of it, and the lights came up and I went, “What was that?” So someone did that for me with Shakespeare and I became a mad Shakespeare nut and quite a bit of an academic on it. I studied it very, very heavily at drama school, and I worked with the greats. But I wanted to do that for a cinematic audience. How would Shakespeare go about making a movie? That’s how Romeo + Juliet was born.”

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9 Responses to “I swear my next project is going to be something really simple and focused and minimal.” — Baz Luhrmann

  1. mutecypher says:

    “Christian, you may see me as only a drunken vice-ridden gnome whose friends are just pimps and girls from the brothels, but I know about art and love… if only because I long for it with every fiber of my being.”

    That scene kills me every time I watch it. If Baz needs an avatar, I’d nominate Toulouse.

    I know you have a million things to write, but I would love to read about how Moulin Rouge works for you now. For me, I still get caught up in it whenever I watch. There is little distancing from the first time.

    • sheila says:

      Mutecypher – interesting. I love to hear you still get caught up in it!

      I feel like it captures what romance and love FEELS like. It’s not ABOUT love. It’s an accurate representation of the FEELING. at least that’s my memory of it.

      • mutecypher says:

        //It’s an accurate representation of the FEELING.//

        I agree. I think of the end of the Elephant Love Medley, after the explosion of lights when Satine and Christian switch from Heroes to I Will Always Love You, and the camera moves past the red windmill to Toulouse sitting alone. Drunk and tearfully singing “how wonderful life is now you’re in the world.” Is he singing to Christian? To Satine? To their new love? To himself, a heartbroken and happy voyeur? The audience gets to wonder about all these things and, with him watching over the romance, it allows enough separation (along with the whole “This is a story about a time… about a place”) to be about the feeling of love and romance and heartache. And then “one not very special day” it can be written about. What it felt like. Like the end of Gatsby with the “And one fine morning… So we beat on…”

        • sheila says:

          For me, it’s one look on his face – when she’s singing the “secret song” – it’s a rehearsal, later on in the film – like I said, it’s been a long time” – and she’s singing to him – there are lots of people around – so it’s basically a secret code they have – and he sits, glowing, knowing she’s singing to him. It’s such a simple moment but it’s the openness of McGregor’s face – the moment just has that feeling.

  2. Kent says:

    It is a little like getting lost in a library here and just pulling a book, any book, off the shelf. So please excuse this random intrusion, I’ll leave this one here. I’ve been wondering how you felt about Baz/Elvis? Lots of possible discussion, but I have enjoyed that Baz conveys the feeling and meaning of Big E, especially in peformance with a million intimate connections to audience, the shared exprience. His Gatsby affected me the same way, in that Baz seemed to be conveying the feeling of Gatsby and the roaring ’20s, sown to the sound of Deusenberg exhaust. I appreciate that he has been capturing and presenting American greatness, especially Fitzgerald and Presley, above all. It is a very nice gift in 2022.

    • sheila says:

      Kent – // His Gatsby affected me the same way, in that Baz seemed to be conveying the feeling of Gatsby and the roaring ’20s, sown to the sound of Deusenberg exhaust. I appreciate that he has been capturing and presenting American greatness, especially Fitzgerald and Presley, above all. //

      I so feel the same way. I was in such a minority in re: Gatsby that I was really irritated and eventually wrote out my feelings on it for Bright Wall Dark Room. He REALLY understood that book.

      And Elvis. :)

      • kent says:

        Indeed. Thank you, Sheila. I think Baz also read “The Crack Up”, hence Toby frameworked from the institution, non?
        And in Elvis the pinpoints of my personal Bigger than Elvis, Most Reverand Richard Wayne Penniman. Plus, Big Mama Thornton. Sister Rosetta Tharp, BB King+ were so brief, immaculately etched, yet struck deep.. These were extraordinary characters in American life, in the real life of Elvis/Memphis, in cultural history, and in the biopic form.
        Will seek out your writing on Gatsby. It was a strange pehnom in that it just flew by, fucking fast in theatrical terms, but it haunts.
        Secular America generally regards the deep faith of Southern performers as a sham hustle, rather than granite bedrock. Having never seen Elvis in live performance, it was wonderful to witness his birth, and frequent rebirth, singing gospel. I don’t believe he lived a lonely life, though he had many deep trials of loneliness. His foundation was spiritual faith, and the images of him ascendant on his private bird felt perfect, far beyond any film biography, and sadly beyond all the characters surrounding Elvis. This is mainly why “If I Can Dream” was perfect and far, far beyond any Tin Pan Alley celebration of Christmas and Sainty Claus, as Baz FULLY illustrated so beautifully.

        • sheila says:

          // Secular America generally regards the deep faith of Southern performers as a sham hustle, rather than granite bedrock. //

          This is really really true. They don’t get it.

  3. Kristen Westergaard says:

    It took me a little time for me to appreciate Baz Luhrman. I was in college when Romeo and Juliet came out and I originally found it too baroque , too pop, too big, too fun? A friend pointed out that in the time of Shakespeare his plays were meant to be a big tent, an exciting show for everyone, so Luhrman had actually done something that made Shakespeare appealing and accessible for a big crowd, not just the “educated”. She was right and totally changed my mind. Gatsby I loved right away. He helped me get the book in a visceral way. As you say, the excesses matter. Finally saw his Elvis last night and was very moved. I can’t wait to see your thoughts- I may have missed them, I’ll keep hunting!

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