Review by Ken Burke The Great Gatsby
Luhrmann gives Fitzgerald’s classic a faithful adaptation, not overwhelmed by his usual cinematic pyrotechnics although a bit more of that might have been useful overall.
A marvelously unique offering: a contemporary silent, black and white Spanish film that grafts the story of father-daughter bullfighters onto the fairytale of Snow White.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.]
“Gatsby? What Gatsby?” you might ask as you probe into yet another cinematic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal American novel, written (1925) during the height of the Jazz Age about the high hopes, excesses, and (well-predicted) tragedies of that heady post-WW I period in American life and culture, evolved into almost-universally-required reading in the American academic system, and brought to screen at least 4 times previous to the current Baz Luhrmann version, although the earliest incarnations (Herbert Brenon, 1926; Elliot Nugent, 1949) are essentially lost and the TV movie (Robert Markowitz, 2000) isn’t well-known nor well-embraced so the most likely comparisons are to the original novel and the memorable (although not for positive reasons in the minds of many of its viewers) 1974 adaptation by Jack Clayton, starring Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, and Sam Waterston (script by Francis Ford Coppola, although he claims that his writings are barely recognizable in the finished film—a frequent situation and source of tension between screenwriters and directors). This time, as I’m sure you’re aware by now, the title role belongs to current heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio, just as Clayton’s 1974 Gatsby was equally-desirable Redford, especially with the success of The Way We Were (Sydney Pollack) the previous year. Even though we get our entire understanding of the narrative through the filter of narrator Nick Carraway’s (Tobey Maguire) remembrances of that fateful summer of 1922, the focus of the film is on Gatsby: his mysterious past which has led to his sudden immense wealth even as a young man, his obsession with his lost love Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), his determination to prove that intense dedication to a cause (in this case, reunion with Daisy despite her marriage to equally-rich-but-fierce [“Life is something you dominate”] Tom Buchanan [Joel Edgerton]) is enough of a strategy to accomplish whatever his goals may be (even if that means recreating the past, which “Of course you can [old sport]”), and the tragedy of his idealistic vision crashed upon the rocks of twisted fate and harsh reality. (I hardly think I need to be too worried about spoilers where this story is concerned, but if you happen to be among the few Americans who weren’t required to read this tale of ambition gone wrong in high school you might want to take a quick spin through the novel [no joke, it’s only 188 pages in the Penguin paperback edition that I’ve got] and within those few you’ll find some of the finest prose ever published) before either seeing the current or 40-year-old versions of the films or even reading this review; the book’s tragedy may be familiar to you from similar outcomes that have borrowed its initially-unanticipated turn of events, but you still might want to experience it firsthand before crashing into its awful results, especially as casually dished out to you in a review such as this one—breathlessly brilliant as it may be otherwise.)
So, spoiler alert aside, I won’t recount what is likely very familiar chronology in the plot but will focus more on why this story seems to resonate so well with ongoing generations, at least of readers and literature scholars although not so much with film critics (Luhrmann’s rendition garnered a miserable collection of analytical results—Rotten Tomatoes 49, Metacritic 55, and Movie Intelligence 54 [you can get more details if you like from the links noted below] but Clayton’s version wasn’t embraced by the reviewing community either, with a lowly 37 from the Tomato throwers and a hardly-better 43 from the Metacritics [this older film preceded the Movie Intelligence database]). Certainly, the sad story of how Gatsby recreated himself from James Gatz, dirt-poor dirt-farmer’s son from North Dakota (with acculturation help from alcoholic millionaire Dan Cody but no inheritance to the protégé) to rising-military-hero Jay Gatsby, whose WW I exploits seem to be the real thing even if his supposed Oxford heritage isn’t nor is his fortune something to brag about—not in terms of its size (which must be enormous given the huge mansion that he maintains for only himself in the “new money” community of West Egg, Long Island, NY and the lavish weekend parties he throws there in hopes of attracting Daisy’s attention from across the bay in “old money” East Egg [with the famous ever-glowing green light on the dock]) but in terms of how it was acquired (bootlegging through a series of drugstores throughout the country as well as bonds manipulation on Wall Street)—is the stuff of personal tragedy. Still, despite Gatsby’s public lies about his background and the illicit activities needed to maintain the lifestyle to which he’d like for Daisy to become accustomed (with him, that is; she’s already got a lavish lifestyle with blue-blooded, hot-headed, boorish Tom), he’s the epitome of the Roaring Twenties embrace of quick and easy fortunes, flaunting of both the war-era Prohibition laws and the attitudes that inspired them, and the optimism that came not only from a relatively quick victory against the “Huns” for the American armies in 1917-18 but also that continued from the 19th-century embrace of the Manifest Destiny myth that Americans were essentially the new breed of God’s chosen people with an expectation and a right to claim all that spread out before them to enrich the bounty of their labors—despite the reality that such successful entrepreneurs were only the upper tip of the working classes with the vast majority condemned to a lifetime of hard labor and mediocre rewards, such as with car mechanic George Wilson (Jason Clarke) and his wife Myrtle (Isla Fisher), both desperately looking for a better life, him by moving west and her by latching onto the available, inexplicable luxury offered to her by hypocritical Tom. How Daisy factors into all of this is as the centerpiece of the plot’s actions (just as with the character of Christine in Jean Renoir’s magnificent Rules of the Game , who ultimately generates the narrative elements of the film by her various connections and entanglements with all of the other characters, even though she’s generally passive about what’s happening around her, allowing them to make poor decisions on their parts as they try to find ways of pleasing her), so while Daisy’s not the central character—as the title indicates, that role is reserved for Gatsby—her presence (or the lack of it for the last 5 years in Gatsby’s life) is what drives the other characters into action, with disastrous results for some of them even as she seems incapable of taking command of her own role in the various situations swirling around her.
Our narrator, Nick, is essentially passive as well, especially compared to Gatsby and Tom, but he’s supposed to be the moral barometer by which we measure the value of the decisions made by the more dominant males and the accompanying females in this cautionary tale of dashed hopes, seductive dreams turned into lurid nightmares, and human decency rejected in favor of personal necessity. The main addition that Luhrmann makes to Fitzgerald’s original is a bookend plot situation with Nick, returned to the seemingly bland but morally solid Midwest, in residence at a sanitarium where the treatment for his depression and alcoholism is to write out his experiences; this he does, thereby producing the flashback story that we witness as well as Nick being the implied author of the novel that records these heinous deeds from the summer of 1922. With this author/narrator trope in place we are treated to excerpts from Fitzgerald’s words superimposed on the screen at times just as we have film dialogue taken straight from the book including voice-over statements such as this that cut to the heart of what the story is set up to convey, in words that need to be quoted rather than paraphrased because they are too eloquent to be restated in another manner:
“… When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever [*]; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of “the ‘creative temperament’—it was such an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.”
[* This allusion connects to the dangerous WW I military service of both Nick and Gatsby, which further distinguishes them from Tom who apparently did not join in this patriotic combat.]
Yet, Nick has his weaknesses too, allowing himself to be seduced for a time by both the elegant, limitless world of his friendly West Egg neighbor (whose mansion likely had some rooms large enough to hold Nick’s entire cabin, a forgotten rental structure hidden away among the lavish dwellings of the newly-minted upper class, and is the site of those incomparable parties that put the lie to everything that Prohibition was intended to preserve in an imposed God-fearing culture) and the hedonistic, secret lifestyle of Tom, with his drunken afternoon soirées, entertaining mistress Myrtle and their Manhattan friends, even as Nick is constantly aware that this philandering husband is married to his cousin. Yet, Nick shies away from too much of this indulgence, maintaining his attempts at a bond-trading career in the city but not allowing himself the temptation of more risky business offered by Gatsby’s materialistic mentor, Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan), the power-broker behind Gatsby’s nefarious wealth (a manifestation of his “successful gestures” personality that keeps us wondering even to the end as to why Gatsby is the one who’s “all right,” unless it’s all because of the redemptive sacrifice that he unwittingly makes for Daisy). Tom’s shallowness is too intrinsic to his existence for us to have any concerns about what moral standards he might possess, given his blatant “white-man’s-burden” racism (which likely plays into Daisy’s Louisville society upbringing, although she never comments on it) and his absurd need to cheapen his own marriage to a devoted spouse (an inexplicable devotion that will ultimately benefit him rather than Gatsby) with the Myrtle affair, even damaging what little comfort her working-class husband has in his grim life as George is aware that something’s not right with his wife’s afternoon-disappearance behavior.
As for Daisy, she represents an ideal that drives Gatsby into the future, fueled by a determination to repair the past he felt he couldn’t share with her because he wasn’t yet wealthy and socially-acceptable enough for her family’s expectations, yet when the chips are down and she has no reason not to leave Tom she continues to do a Hamlet-level hesitation, seemingly out of some fear that she’s not strong enough to end it all with Tom or some sense of responsibility to him because she did love him early in their marriage (which can’t have been very long if he only entered her picture after Gatsby left in 1917 for the war, then pushed Daisy away through letters while he stayed at Oxford awhile trying to better himself until he found a quicker route through Wolfsheim). Gatsby finds her unwillingness to make the break from Tom astonishing, given that she’s willingly fallen back into her former lover's arms in their own afternoon delights as those summer afternoons rolled on (with a concurrent demise of the weekend parties because all they existed for was as an enticement to lure his long-lost love across the bay from East Egg to its western neighbor, so now the party could occur where it was always intended—in Gatsby’s bedroom). She obviously never lost her feelings for her first true love either, despite accepting the available luxury and stability that came with marriage to Tom. However, Daisy ultimately shows herself to be Tom’s equal in shallowness by not admitting to anyone that she was driving Gatsby’s car when it crashed into Myrtle, allowing him to not only be willing to take the blame if necessary (although we get a clear sense that he was still hoping that Daisy would call him the next day and they could simply run away together for a new life free of all their previous baggage) but to die brutally as a result of George’s anger-driven revenge. All in all, they’re a sorry lot, with life choices that Nick seeks to repent by returning to the land of his ancestors’ less-ambivalent ethics but with memories that still cause him to honor Gatsby rather than his hollow cousin and her social circle.
The Great Gatsby, in its literary and cinematic forms, presents plenty of problems with material excess, whether inherited (as with Tom and Daisy), aspired to (as with Nick, Daisy’s respectable but considerably less-financially-secure relative, having to work for a living in the bowels of urban commerce—although he was constantly aware of the ease of simply being a hanger-on with the well-to-do if allowed to sip from their golden cups, just like the character Octave that Renoir himself played in Rules of the Game, an aristocrat by heritage but one without means who constantly takes advantage of the offerings from Christine and her marquis husband), or illegally acquired (as with Gatsby and his underground connections, including his own servants, such as the thuggish head butler shown with him far above in the first photo of this review). However, Fitzgerald and his accomplished adaptor, Luhrmann, make no pretense about the nobility of the working class either, as exemplified by grease-covered George Wilson who toils away in the environmentally-disgusting valley of ashes where industrial residue piles up into literal hills of waste in this barren stretch of Long Island between the prosperous suburbs of the Eggs and the vibrant life of Manhattan (check out http://www.litkicks.com/InGatsbysTracks#.UZOn1hy7Dd0 for some fascinating information about what likely inspired Fitzgerald’s inclusion of this wretched area—it turns out to be not that far from where I lived for a couple of years in the early 1970s in Flushing, Queens, which explains even more than the obvious about my miserable time in NYC at that point). This “valley” is a wasteland of human occupation (with resonances of T.S. Eliot’s devastating, monumental poem, The Waste Land [also from 1922; you can find it reproduced at http://www.bartleby.com/201/1.html and analyzed beyond comprehension at http://www.std.com/~raparker/exploring/thewasteland/explore.html, exploring the sense of crushed humanity after the destruction of Europe in WW I), seemingly watched over by a pair of giant eyeglasses on a billboard that once advertised optometrist Dr. T.J. Eckleburg but now stand in for the vacant “eyes of God” which still seem to be aware of this Earthly purgatory but offer no “vision” as to how the inhabitants might improve their lot. If being rich in The Great Gatsby leads to ends that justify their means at any cost and/or the loss of human compassion for anyone on any rung of the social ladder, then being a worker shows why the rich yearn endlessly for their escapist luxuries, to be able to race desperately through the “valley of ashes” of so many working lives so as to not even slow down there (even if a few Myrtles must be sacrificed along the way to keep the road open). Tom complains at one point that he doesn’t want to just be known as “the polo player,” as if he has something more significant to contribute to society (although over the course of this film we see nothing to justify that), but at least he’s known at all in financial and society circles, with a virtual birthright in 1920s American culture (even to the point of telling Gatsby that “We were born different from you. It’s in our blood.”—including not just himself and Daisy but even lesser-relative Nick and Daisy’s friend, golf pro Jordan Baker); George and Myrtle Wilson aren’t known as much of anything (except maybe “the grease monkey” and “the whore” [not that either of them are referred to as such, but their circumstances give them little hope of being understood as anything else by those who zip past their home/business stopping only for gas or the demand of an afternoon at the city apartment). The valley of ashes is simply the epitome of the “foul dust” that Nick has come to abhor in his travels to Long Island where all of the Eggs are rotten, East and West, along with the surrounding countryside as well.
Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby is a fine account of the characters and events of the book, showing all of the principals in the harsh light and sweltering heat that they deserve—supported by excellent performances from all involved, even as they show the inherent flaws of the characters: Gatsby’s naïve understanding of the social class he’s attempting to break into and the difficulty of anything more than passing acceptance of his material generosity, Daisy’s easily-swayed convictions that leave her safe and comfortable but with no integrity; Tom’s utter hypocrisies and lack of any conviction that’s not self-serving, even Nick’s slow march to a position of moral certainty which doesn’t fully acknowledge his willing participation in the various crimes of the heart being committed here. There is also appropriate visualization of the lifestyles of these oh-so-rich-and-famous, along with reminders of the longing for successful closure represented by that lonely green light at the end of the dock of Daisy’s (and Tom’s, we should never forget) home, but what’s ultimately missing here is more Luhrmann! (In case you’re not catching this reference, you might want to check out the SNL Blue Oyster Cult “more cowbell” skit at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bNAifAf33KQ, although this is a horrible video version of it copied from another website [that seems to no longer exist] but as the video poster notes you can’t find the whole thing otherwise because of NBC YouTube “supervision” so if you want to see it at all this may be the only way.) What I mean is that even though Baz doesn’t have a long career as a director (only 5 features since 1992) the films he’s known for usually have a strong audiovisual dynamic, especially Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001) which are wonders to behold in terms of flamboyant camerawork and editing, juxtapositions of older story concepts with contemporary locations and/or soundtrack numbers, etc., so you’d expect that from his direction of The Great Gatsby (especially with the razzle-dazzle featured in the trailer) but except for the party scenes at Tom’s city-getaway apartment and Gatsby’s mansion, some fast-zoom traveling shots from Long Island into Manhattan, and the quick but impactful scene of Myrtle’s death, this is a very modulated version of the Gatsby story, paying lots of respect to the source material and investing the characters with the sort of passion (and its accompanying ugliness—or reserve on the part of Daisy, which provides a different sort of ugliness in the end) that many critics felt was lacking in the Redford-Farrow version, but it really doesn’t deliver what you might expect from Luhrmann, especially after he tantalizes you with the extravagant party scenes. Going into the film you have every reason to believe that you’re about to see a classic reconsidered in a cinematically challenging manner (such as I’ve seen regarding Shakespeare adaptations on several occasions, with one of the most memorable on screen being Richard III [Richard Lonchraine, 1995], set in WW II as if England had been taken over by Fascists, and on stage being the current Berkeley (CA) Repertory Theatre version of Pericles, Prince of Tyre [adapted by Mark Wing-Davey with Jim Calder, directed by Wing-Davey; more info at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/season/1213/6354.asp], where we get everything from Batman as a jousting knight to a fire hose drenching the stage to simulate one of the turbulent sea scenes) but the result on screen doesn't fully live up to that dynamic expectation.
Alas, Luhrmann restrained himself from doing a full-blown-less-conventional Gatsby for most of the film but spiced it up just enough to make you wish he’d done more with it—or not hammered home those party scenes so energetically so that the whole thing could feel like a straightforward adaption rather than one that only at very specfic times seems to be seen through Lucy in the Sky’s “Kaleidoscope Eyes.” I don’t mean to imply that Luhrmann must be rigidly stuck to one certain style of flamboyant filmmaking throughout his career, but in a particular work if you’re going to open the door to a certain level of extravagance then stay with it, exploit it, push it to the limit, and deliver a Gatsby that honors Fitzgerald while still trumpeting the fact that it’s made with 21st-century technological processes even if the story is still rooted in the historical context of the early 1920s. At least we get some grand palaces in both the Gatsby and Buchanan homes (the former shown in the photo with the above paragraph, the latter with this one) which give us the sense of grandeur that money can buy (even if the gravitas that might go with it still has to be earned rather than just inherited or stolen) that remind me of the lavish exteriors and interiors of Citizen Kane’s (Orson Welles, 1941) Xanadu, but whether Gatsby’s mansions were studio structures as in Kane, actual locations (the sort of over-reaching spectacle that finally led to revolutions in places like France and Russia), or even computer-generated facsimiles I don’t know, but however they found their way onto screen they’re extremely impressive settings with cavernous dwelling spaces that just echo the emptiness inside the characters who are trying to simulate comfortable living in these homes-today-museums-tomorrow showplaces. Luhrmann also continues to mix musical eras with a very contemporary (for us) soundtrack to his partying set pieces (again, a calculated excess of that in a more dynamic manner later in the film as passions and tensions collide among the principals would have improved the whole affair for me), but given that he simmers down the cinematic assault in the later, melancholy scenes I can’t help but think that if he's allowed himself that sort of a restrained mood on screen he really can’t top how the 1974 version began, with Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” (almost contemporary with the story, composed in 1923) which you can watch at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAES7BhzSDg as we glide through the now-abandoned Gatsby mansion with shots under the opening credits (somewhat reminiscent of Citizen Kane where we glide into this monarch’s mammoth compound to witness his death, but then we get a balancing reversal at the end as the camera takes us away from the closeup of the burning Rosebud sled back out to the opening shot of the “No Trespassing” sign on the front gate) with the tune sung hauntingly by character actor William Atherton. (Luhrmann does dip into the classics, though, with the soundtrack becoming George Gershwin’s 1924 “Rhapsody in Blue” [familiar to anyone who adores Woody Allen’s 1979 Manhattan, which also makes eloquent use of this music as it tells a more modern tale of moral ambiguity in NYC] as Nick and Gatsby meet for the first time, with fireworks lighting up the night sky at one of those amazing parties.)
However, for my money (what little there is of it, compared to the fortunes of Gatsby and Buchanan) the most appropriate song for this story and its various filmic renditions is another oldie from The Beatles, “And Your Bird Can Sing” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GG945wq1W6I (from the 1966 Revolver album, with footage here from a Tokyo concert that year), as understood from Nick Carraway’s departing perspective in that winter-bound sanatorium where he’s come to the conclusion, after all that he's witnessed, that “you don’t get me” into your web of deceit and soul-abandonment (because “money can’t buy me love”; OK, one more, here you go at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=venzPNvge18). Actually, if you can play any of this music while reading a final quote from the novel (as with so much of that description and dialogue, also incorporated into the current film) I’d encourage it because even if you’re singing a happy tune while reading you’ll be able to see how well these songs tap into Nick’s final world-weary, melancholy testimony as so eloquently crafted by Fitzgerald (especially if you can put a emerald cast to the illumination in your room while you’re reading):
“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
I hope you’ve now got the vocal adrenaline out of your system, though, because no one in our next film, Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves, is singing anything—or talking for that matter—because this is another honest-to-God modern version of a 1920s silent film, shot in black and white in the old 4x3 format (standard in feature films until the 1950s, standard with video until the recent widescreen evolution), and constructed with intertitle dialogue cards between the visuals, along with the necessity of physical gestures, closeups on faces for emotional signaling, and the energized editing of scenes influenced by the cutting-on-steroids style of Eisenstein’s Soviet montage so characteristic of that bygone era. Oh, by the way, did I mention that the narrative is the traditional Snow White story (hence, the title, for all of you bilingualists) only set in the Seville (or Sevilla in proper Spanish) area of southern Spain with a focus on the matador tradition, even for the seven six dwarfs. This all makes for a fascinating retelling of the classic fairy tale, only with no magic or Disney’s animated animals (the bulls are animated enough; I wouldn’t get in their way) and song interludes (“I’m wishing” … that you’d stop singing and get on with the story—but the only singing in this Spanish version is on the accompanying soundtrack, although even that is “explained” by showing a phonograph on screen playing the music we’re hearing at that point; more on this below, but, all in all, this is a vastly different experience from the version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that was celebrated at San Francisco's Walt Disney Family Museum this spring). As we’ll find out as we go along, Blancanieves isn’t exactly a retelling of the Snow White (or Snowhite as she’s spelled here, accounting for the one-merged-word title of the film) fairytale but a contemporary narrative (contemporary for 1920s Andalusia, Spain, that is) about a famous bullfighter, Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho); his wife, Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta), who dies giving birth to their daughter at the same time that her husband is badly gored by a bull and becomes a quadriplegic; the wicked woman, Encarna (Maribel Verdú), who goes from opportunistic nurse to replacement wife as the bullfighter endures such a time of trauma that he banishes his newborn daughter to the care of her grandmother, Doña Concha (Ángela Molina); the little girl, Carmencita (Sofía Oria), who finally re-establishes a connection with her father and learns the art of the bullring from him; the young woman version of this child, Carmen (Macarena García), who escapes a death sentence from her wicked stepmother only to be rescued by a band of traveling dwarf matadors (although they fight calves instead of full-grown bulls); and the trauma that occurs when Stepmom decides that she must rid herself once and for all of the presence of her interjected stepdaughter, which she decides to do with a poisoned apple.
Yet, despite the obvious similarities to the Brothers Grimm tale that Blancanieves is inspired by, this is still just a story that resembles its famous predecessor, as acknowledged by the dwarfs when they take in their new-found “princess,” stumbling through the woods with amnesia from the attack by her stepmother’s evil (and stupid) henchman, Genaro Bilbao (Pere Ponce), who left her in a pond to die after he assumed he had successfully choked the life out of her. The dwarfs even change the sign on their touring pony-drawn wagon to claim “Blancanieves y los Siete Enanitos” to match the understanding of the well-known fairytale even though this story only has 6 of the little folks (relative to the Disney names it’s clear one of them is “Grumpy”—or Grunon in Spanish if the Disney dwarf names are intended to persevere, but I find no indication in the cast list that they do—because he doesn’t like the intrusion of this young woman into their troupe, but another might have to be called “Tranny,” [no insult intended] based on his lifestyle of dressing as a woman).
So, although this film has the consistent look and attitude of one from the 1920s it presents that era from a bit more of a 21st-century perspective in terms of acceptance of diversity and the active challenging of traditional gender roles, especially when understanding the motivations of the strong-willed Blancanieves. Where the patrons of the bullfights are concerned, the dwarves as toreros are essentially a comedy act, a diversion, but when the girlhood persona of Carmencita fully acknowledges her newly-understood maturity and comes into her own as Carmen/Blancanieves, the matador, her father’s heritage lives though her as she demonstrates a talent that cannot be denied by the audience despite the challenge to tradition to suddenly find a young female gladiator alone in the ring with the fiercest of bulls (thanks to a devious switch of opponents as maneuvered by “Grumpy,” who still doesn’t accept this “outsider” into the dwarfs’ extended family). But everything that young Carmen has learned about bullfighting comes from her illustrious father, who takes great pride in his daughter (once he’s finally able to acknowledge her rather than continue to blame her for the death of her beloved mother). Villalta is like a national treasure to his fans, but his life turns into a living hell under the command of new-wife Encarna, a devious schemer who simply wants to bilk him of his fortune from so many successful years in the famed Seville bullring. Given his severe disability as the result of a belligerent bovine who got past his guard, he’s how completely at the mercy of his cruel wife who forbids him contact with his daughter and carries on an affair of sorts—or at least an S & M relationship where she dominates her chauffer, Genaro—as she spends her days spending her husband’s money and ignoring his needs, until one day she tires of his presence and pushes his wheelchair down a staircase so that his “accidental” death will result in her full control of his resources and her complete disconnection from the stepdaughter who has come to live with them after the sudden death of Abuela (grandmother) Doña Concha. Soon after, Carmen is sent into the woods with Genaro to get her out of the way as well, but (as we all know), she miraculously escapes her death sentence, goes into hiding in the forest, and resurfaces as a memory-afflicted toreador whose unique presence with her equally unique companions proves to be an audience favorite, resulting in her whole troop getting a long-term, high-paying contract in Seville (although she remembers nothing of her former life there).
In this historical-time-capsule version of the Snow White story we spend more time with our featured protagonist as a girl than other versions of the tale have allowed, so we see her in her formative years with her grandmother, a woman who passes on her love of flamenco dancing (one of the great cultural treasures of southern Spain, a region I was privileged to visit in 1992 for the grand Seville World’s Fair) to her granddaughter, in a clip noted at the end of this review in reference to appropriate musical links for this film where we not only see the flowing motions of the dance (which unfortunately ends with the sudden death of Abuela, possibly from an exertion-based heart attack or just from the command of fate) but also a clever use of juxtaposition of image and soundtrack given that most of the music of this otherwise-silent film is what would be called non-diegetic, in that it doesn’t originate from the environment of the story itself to be heard by the characters but instead is mechanically linked to the flow of the projected images to provide emotional guidelines for those of us in the audience. In this scene, however, what we hear is seemingly the same music and song (including scratches on the record at the start and end of the scene) that provides the rhythm for the on-screen dancers (with a further twist that the accompanying hand-clapping that we seem to hear on screen is actually coming from the record, not the dancers’ supportive audience, because we continue to hear it for a bit after Doña Concha collapses before the record runs out). Following the demise of her previous caretaker (complete with the irony that the record player that provided Abuela’s death dance was a gift from the granddaughter’s long-isolated father), Carmencita is forced into the lavish home of Antonio and Encarna (not as fully sumptuous as Gatsby’s but either party wouldn’t have minded a time-share trade, except that their local obsessions didn’t allow for the diversions of travelling); however, the girl who previously yearned for any appearance of her father is now forbidden direct access to him on the second floor of the villa, while her own quarters seem to be a coal cellar and her status as the daughter of this local hero is undermined by her wicked stepmother who confines her to a constant life of labor-intensive-yet-menial tasks (taking us a bit into Cinderella territory) so as to not be distracted by this intruder while she’s busy draining her husband’s bank account on frivolous luxuries and carrying on with Genaro to satisfy her kinky tastes (whether he’s into the role of the dominated or just enduring the necessities of being a kept man isn’t clear, but he essentially comes off as her compliant pet weasel). Even though little Carmencita finally breaks the second-floor taboo to find her father and establish a warm connection with him that she’d previously never known (and learns bullfighting skills during their secret sessions in the process) her happiness is short-lived because her father’s time is also limited, given Encarna’s decision to put him away for good (including the strange cultural practice of clothing his corpse in full matador dress so that family and friends can pose with his body for final remembrance photographs); years before that we had the wicked scene of Stepmama inviting Carmencita for a rare dinner invitation, only to find that the main course was the girl’s pet rooster—as icy-heart fiends go, Encarna is hard to top.
Many years in Carmencita’s life are linked through a simple dissolve beginning with the girl hanging laundry out to dry, then transitioning to her as Carmen, now a young woman about to face her own ordered death, except for the incompetence of Genaro as a hitman. But, as we soon understand (assuming we previously haven’t been able to translate the title or understand the allusions to the Snow White story), life is about to get better for our besieged hero (I don’t like the diminutive word “heroine,” unless it’s referring to a female character cast in a subordinate position for plot purposes, clearly not the case here with strong-willed Carmen, who’s now grown into the adult version of her name, thereby reclaiming a sense of her same-named mother in carrying on the memory of her parents’ former happiness and her father’s professional skills, although both of those desires only come into focus briefly in her major bullring test in Seville as her blocked memories suddenly come flooding back to her when she’s recognized by an old family friend) as she’s taken in by the traveling dwarf bullfighters and incorporated into their popular show.
It’s in the final act that this Snow White tale as transported to 1920s Spain takes an unexpected turn. Encarna is unintentionally thwarted by rising-star Blancanieves (the stage name she’s adopted, given that she can’t remember her own past, after her near murder at the hands of Genaro [literally, as he thinks he’s choked her to death, then left her facedown in a pond]) when her story is given front-cover placement in a popular magazine that Encarna had planned to be the main feature of, showing off her lavishly-redecorated dwelling and glamorous wardrobe. When the Stepmom from Hell (who’ll soon be taking a return trip there) recognizes her supposedly-dead step-daughter she realizes she’ll have to finish the job herself (after first showing that she knows how to drown someone by disposing of incompetent Genaro in the swimming pool) so she heads out to the bullring with a poisoned apple (not dipped in some magic potent but simply injected with a lethal substance, just as she goes through no transformation into an ugly witch but simply offers the deadly fruit to Blancanieves, seemingly as a peace offering during the grand celebration of her toreador triumph, bravely out-maneuvering her fierce hoofed and horned opponent). As Blancanieves finally takes a bite of the apple and collapses the dwarfs know that Encarna was the culprit so they do some maneuvering of their own, including “Grumpy,” who has a sudden change of heart, trapping her in a stall where she’s destined to find life-closure from the wrong end of an angry bull. It’s at this point, though, that the fairytale-come-to-life shows the contemporary consciousness of its 21st-century existence, not just in the calculated-but-well-crafted recreation of the structure, look, and feel of an old silent movie (one that truly could have been made at the time that it depicts with no historical self-consciousness such as what we saw in the silent-world-transitioning-to-sound in Michael Hazanavicius’ widely-loved-but-traditionally-romantic The Artist ) but even more so in the final twist where we’ve been led to believe that true love’s kiss will break the coma spell and rescue the “princess” from her eternal slumber. However, director/screenwriter Berger isn’t so accommodating to our happy-ending desires, as were Hazanavicius and Walt Disney, because his ending is more like something from Tod Browning’s 1932 Freaks (set in a circus featuring many physically-deformed or otherwise unconventionally-appearing performers who take chilling revenge on one of their gold-digging “colleagues”) where Blancanieves’ body ends up in a carnival attraction’s glass coffin as patrons pay a fee to kiss her to see if she’ll revive (with no luck for any of them). No “Prince Charming” has been established in this film, although one of the dwarfs is heavily smitten and has stayed around in hopes that she’s not truly dead. He even sneaks into the coffin at night (just to sleep near her, you perverts), but his hopeful kiss draws no response either, except for a single tear from the eye on the other side of her face from where he lies.
Thus, we’re left with a gloomily ambiguous state of affairs with many questions unresolved: If there’s no magic in the apple’s poison why isn’t Blancanieves just plain ol' dead? Nothing else about this film has been metaphysical before the end so why is there any thought that some random kiss will revive a corpse? (Even a corpse that seems to have not yet shown any signs of rigor mortis.) If she’s under some sort of magic spell then why has the kiss of a decent man not broken the spell? Is it because, despite her friendship with this particular little guy, he’s not really her true love so some part of her cries a tiny bit that she’s not able to return his love even though it would mean freedom from this ongoing inertia? Is it because she really does love him but somehow this spell, whatever it is and however it happened, isn’t breakable—even with the kiss of true love—so that she’s trapped in this seemingly unconscious state for … forever? Berger has confounded us and raised the conceptual quotient for this film considerably in this final, heartbreaking scene. However, for me, this is the most compelling aspect of the whole enterprise, because once you get past the curiosity factor of this film being made in true silent-movie mode with no clever breaking of the rules of such a limited production (although he plays with it nicely in the flamenco scene noted above) the story itself shows the limits of all but the very best of these early cinematic manifestations (mainly Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Eric Von Stroheim, the German Expressionists, and the Russian montagists, but others here and there also) to get past the broad physical actions and facial expressions needed to tell an effective story with only the occasional intertitle to provide some linkage of descriptions and dialogue. What we see is executed well in terms of easily telling us what’s going on in the increasingly sad life of the Villalta family, but as a narrative it’s limited by the fairytale-foundation of its events, the broad-stroke good and evil of its characters, the use of period-appropriate-but-still-a-bit-comical melodramatic music throughout most of the film, and the rather simple exposition of the traumatic events of the younger Carmen’s life. Blancanieves truly works well as a facsimile of a 1920s silent, black-and-white movie, with excellent attention to detail of how these well-produced cinema stories looked when not badly preserved in our time with horribly-scratched prints or improper projection speeds, but within that accomplishment it merely looks just like the average well-produced but not particularly intriguing silent movie of that time. (If you want something that really probes into the human condition, uses exquisite cinematography, and virtually doesn’t rely on intertitles to clarify itself [so that there’s very little German that needs to be translated] I recommend F.W. Murnau’s 1924 The Last Laugh or, if you’d prefer an historically-based story, there is none better than Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc with Renée Falconetti in the title role delivering one of the finest performances ever put on celluloid, her only major film appearance.)
I’m more impressed with it as a successful experiment in historical recreation (sort of like with those scientists who are trying to clone a Woolly Mammoth from eons-old DNA—more info on this at http:// phenomena.national geographic.com/2013/ 03/12/ mammoth-deextinction/) than I am as a film per se, although the emotional arc of Carmencita/Carmen/ Blancanieves is effectively moving, the whole experience is quite entertaining, and the ambiguous ending suddenly makes it all more intriguing. If achromatic silent movies don’t normally draw your attention at least this one is exotic enough in its storyline to provide interest (After all, how often do you get bullfighting, dwarfs, and a flamenco-laced soundtrack all in one place?), but if this all just sounds too weird for words (possibly the reason why it’s silent) then maybe you’d like some dialogue and a musical interlude from a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs movie where a prince does come (the 1937 Disney version with David Hand as overall director and 5 others for specific sequences, vocals by Adriana Caselotti) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0niwn2pOEno (now there's a heroine by my above definition; far too much of one for my non-subordinate [or is that insubordinate?] wife, Nina, who could barely stomach the sweet little displaced princess when we saw the animated classic again at the previously-noted Walt Disney Family Museum—but we both really loved the marvelous, endless exhibits in the rest of the place) or the aforementioned dramatic flamenco dance scene from Blancanieves at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcCrgPMascs (or, if this silent movie concept doesn’t sound all that bad then here’s a nice dramatic use of music to introduce Antonio Villalta on the day of his last encounter with a bull at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RS48gdwrOC0). However, if all of this music doesn’t sooth the savage beast in you (your own bull, so to speak), then I’d advise you to at least expose yourself to the stream of great literature that you’d find overlaying the screen and infusing the dialogue in the current offering of The Great Gatsby. This is another story that you likely know already, but if you need contemporary cinematics and more nuanced acting to justify a ticket price I’d give Luhrmann the edge over Berger here. Even better, see them both if you’re willing because they’re both worth a look, but the hidden insurance salesman in me says to consider bargain matinee prices for either of them because neither one may fully live up to your expectations. To end on an expectant note, though, check back here next week to see how the new Star Trek adventure is living up to its hype, successfully I hope.
If you’d like to know more about The Great Gatsby here are some suggested links:
http://thegreatgatsby.warnerbros.com/ (by the time this thing downloads you could walk to Long Island—even if you live in California—but it’s a well-designed, informative website)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIewKn6EnAs (if you don’t care to see the film you might just watch this trailer after you’ve read a summary of the plot; it’ll probably show you everything you might want to know)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-SGqutpxc0 (I was determined to show you a trailer from the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby for comparison purposes to the current one. I’ve seen that film a few times over the years, but I can’t say for sure what the trailer looked like, despite this one claiming to be the official version from Paramount, although it feels odd for a trailer even from that far back because it seems more like an after-the fact collage of mostly stills rather than clips—maybe it’s the real thing, maybe not, but at least it uses a lot of imagery from the film [although in a squeezed format of the original widescreen] so that you can get a reasonable idea of what it looked like and it’s a lot more likely as the real trailer than other claimants that I viewed. For now I’ll just say I accept it as what audiences saw in preview mode almost 40 years ago.)
If you’d like to know more about Blancanieves here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_oKCvcjRqM (almost completely different shots from the other trailer just above so that you get a nice blend of the entire film from the combination of the two)
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.