Tarantino and Luhrmann: Two Tactful Giants for a Less-Than-Subtle World

For some an itch and for others a yearning, but we all like some subtlety. So it’s completely natural to love the movies of Quentin Tarantino and Baz Luhrmann—simultaneously. Some of the most sensitive, subtle material in current American film comes from these two directors.

Draw a line between the subtle and the obvious, and you’ll often cross both out. Subtlety is a layer (or six) down. If you strip away all discernible surface what was subtle is suddenly bare and becomes what’s obvious. Being obvious actually produces the potential for subtlety. Subtlety’s real danger is the cliché. To be sure, inspiration from art or incorporation of others ideas is the stuff which keeps art going. But original thought get trashed into cliché if the idea is carelessly repeated. It’s like wearing all your clothes inside out to redesign your entire look. You’ve just reversed the gesture and it often ends up being another cliché. The trick to being subtle is to skirt around clichés without being cliché.

I’ll test this in the details for both directors.

For The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann had this challenge: the potential snares of period-style pieces. Realistic vintage clothing is notoriously distracting from the actual story. I know several Downton Abbey circles who are “just watching for the costumes.” Luhrman glides through the problem hilariously. The gaudier, more garnish and tawdry his costumes get, the less distracting they are. The costuming—particularly in the party scenes—is similar to MTV music videos. And unlike MTV in recent years, this actually works. Pop culture has a strong visual language of the garish and gaudy. With it, Luhrmann is able to shade off the indications that this is a period piece. He cuts off our associative links to old high school curriculums and Robert Redford by gesturing to the current day. And he does it without turning a single shirt inside-out.

Tarantino’s Django takes a different route.  How are Westerns revived? Joss Whedon’s Firefly and the Cohen Brothers True Grit remake have already broken new ground in visual and conceptual redesign. So Tarantino charts a new course through the soundscape. Right from the first scene—all those spurs, stirrups, bits, guns, chains, and giant springs with a nodding, fake tooth for a plume. They pop as though the editor put less effort in the blending and overlapping process. It’s not an interruption; it’s non-representational dialogue. Then there’s the actual accent of Dr. King Schultz. After all, what’s a Western without all the accents? Wait…which accents? There’s one loophole in the cliché which Tarantino dives into, creating a strong contrast with Calvin Candie’s all-too-familiar southern verbal syrup. And all throughout, the audience is hearing a seamless blend of Gospel and rap, Spirituals and Ennio Morricone. What we tend to separate, genre by genre, Tarantino appropriates into one big bite of cohesive art.

Together, these films both follow a gentle but significant curve away from traditional love stories. Both trace the outcome of men who, desperately in love, turn tyrannical, insisting that any relationship with their women is better than none. As a recently freed slave, Django’s first choice is his choice of clothes. He opts for an azure blue, pre-colonial gentleman’s suit. His partner attributes it to his “flair for the dramatic.” That flair explodes when Django embraces his acting role as a freed-slave-turned-slave-dealer, showering slaves, freeman, and dandies alike with charmless sass. And in a climactic grasp for freedom, he crosses from freedman to outlaw, condemning his wife to be on the run with him for life.

Meanwhile, Gatsby’s gives the overall impression of a man with boundless power, yet he doesn’t have enough self-control to listen to the woman he loves. Nick gets a taste of how limitless Gatsby’s influence is when Gatsby’s servants descend, uninvited, to transform Nick’s humble home for one afternoon of tea with Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby continues to draw near to Daisy on the basis of his endless means. After all, his power seems to sets him free to do anything he wants. The day he wants Daisy to choose him over her husband, he cannot let her be free to do it. He inserts himself to make the choice for her. The story of what lengths a man will go to in order to get a woman has been told. Tarantino and Luhrmann take that and nuance it, giving less room to justify what the man wants and more space to depict how much fear, hatred, and other antithesis of love infiltrate that man’s journey.

Both of these directors understand that making movies which build up raw and spectacular awe inside of us requires a subtle touch. Christopher Nolan and his predecessor, the Wachowskis, have delivered films with refined, intellectual design and they work well enough to generate conversations and deeper thinking. But the subtlety of Luhrmann and Tarantino sets them apart. Their subtlety is a force that pounds past your head, your boredom, and your wariness and into those secrets—sensual and violent and vulnerable—which aren’t always visible to your mind. In this way, their subtlety brings our peripheral vision into focus, either to strike us with new beauty or indicate places of possible self-deception.

Seeing Jesus in The Great Gatsby

Last month the hotly anticipated adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece novel, The Great Gatsby, hit theatres. Before seeing the film, I had my reservations about Baz Luhrman being at the helm, as well as misgivings about some of the casting choices (Tobey Maguire continues to ruin my life with each appearance of his puppy dog face). I was totally on the money about both of those aspects– Luhrman succeeds as usual with the frenetic party sequences but doesn’t know quite what to do once he gets to the meat of the story; Tobey Maguire looks as though he’s on the verge of tears throughout the entire movie, like the milksop child he is (perhaps he realizes that he is far too old to play Nick). However, with all its faults, buried under the boatloads of confetti and Lana Del Rey love songs, the film still struck a chord when it came to the presence of the titular character, Jay Gatsby. Played with vulnerability and wit by Leonardo DiCaprio, Gatsby is lively and achingly hopeful onscreen, just as he is in the novel. We are fascinated by his mystery and engaged in his attempt to reach the green light.

Our sympathy, along with the fact that this star-studded adaptation exists and hauled in a whopping 51 million on its opening weekend, is a clear indication that there must be something relevant about Fitzgerald’s creation, no matter how many years have passed since the novel’s publication in 1922. So, what gives, Gatsby? Why does this story appeal so much to us, and why has it done so for so long?

The simple answer, as it has occurred to me, is Jay Gatsby himself. His earnestness, his purity, his (seemingly inexplicable) one-track desire for Daisy’s admiration. He loves unceasingly, and we want to see this earnest devotion returned. Why would anyone love so much? It’s almost beyond our comprehension– it is, of course, Christ-like. In fact, the parallels between Christ and our Great Gatsby fall neatly into place. Other than his traits of tenderness and generosity, Gatsby is also depicted as a mysterious man of hazy origins whose sudden appearance in West Egg generates many followers. He creates a veritable kingdom of his own, one to which everyone in the vicinity is welcome (but few are actively invited). It is his own paradise on earth, the Garden of Eden, his promise of a new world. Gatsby does not so much partake in the parties as enjoy the view, delighting in the pleasure that others take in his creation. Nick describes him as having a smile evoking “eternal reassurance” (the film stands in agreement, doing its best to add significance to DiCaprio’s winning old-sport smile with bombastic music, explosions, Tobey Maguire’s soppy voice-over, and other strange things). In the novel, we first discover Gatsby with both arms outstretched above the water (his barrier to Daisy), in what Nick calls “a curious way” that conjures images of crucifixion. He also dresses in white (symbolizing purity) for his reunion with Daisy. If that’s not enough to convince you, Nick flat-out calls it by making a direct comparison in the text, stating that, in his own context, Gatsby is about his “Father’s business” like a “Son of God.”

Gatsby intends himself to be a savior to the fragile and fallible Daisy. In his past incarnation as a soldier, Gatsby knew Daisy, and once he fell in love with her, as God did with mankind, he committed himself to her completely. It is here that he seals his fate to die for the sin-stained humanity that Daisy represents. He even writes a letter asking her to wait for his return–much like God’s promise of salvation–but Daisy disregards this and instead weds Tom Buchanan, a character in line with the ways of the world and Daisy’s unbreakable bond to them. Throughout the story, Gatsby remains fixated on “the green light,” arguably a representation of Daisy’s soul. As we know from scripture, our God is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5), desiring nothing more than the adoration of those He loves (humanity), and so it is with Gatsby. Once reunited, Gatsby demonstrates to Daisy that everything he has built is for her; everything he has done has been for her satisfaction. All of this and his one request of her is that she renounce her relationship with Tom. He demands that she tell Tom she has never loved him, much like Jesus requests that we give up our sin and declare that He is The Way, The Truth, and The Light–and Him only (John 14:6). Even as Daisy wavers in her fealty Gatsby remains steadfast in his affections, even to the point of literally dying for Daisy’s crime. By taking on the blame for another’s actions, Gatsby manages to protect Daisy from just punishment for what she’s done and takes a bullet as a result. He eagerly offers up all he has to the very ungrateful, suffers for these pains, and is murdered, all without losing his “extraordinary gift of hope.”

But if Gatsby is a representation of Christ’s love, why is his story a tragedy? In the end, everyone carries on with business as usual, with the exception of the now very mopey Nick (who, if you believe Tobey Maguire, expresses his grief with over-narration). What’s up with that? Great as he may be, Gatsby cannot complete his own metaphor. Of course, there are the obvious reasons; Christ is not found at the bottom of a swimming pool; Christ is not corrupt, while the West Egg parties are undeniably debaucherous; Christ does not wish to break the bonds of marriage, and Tom and Daisy have a child together. But more importantly, Gatsby’s intended salvation can never be fulfilled, and there is no resurrection. Gatsby could even be used as a stand-in for faith, a great and promising gift that is eventually deemed too naïve or “sweet” or unappealing in the wake of the whirlwind of distractions and disappointments of our daily life. If we are to be preoccupied with something other than ourselves we would much rather have something numbing, like a Gatsby party, rather than something real, like Gatsby himself.

Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby as a commentary on what he thought was the hollowness of his generation. This soullessness is nowhere more apparent than in Daisy, the one whom Gatsby desires to save, and the one who, like the world rejecting Christ, rejects Gatsby. Though her love for Gatsby is declared, she cannot renounce her life with Tom and all that comes with it, just as many self-professed Christians cannot break their ties with the world of sin. Scripture cautions us to be a friend of God rather than a “friend of the world” (James 4:4), something Daisy ultimately cannot do. At the start of the story, Daisy makes the devastating remark that the best thing one can want to be is a “pretty little fool” a title she strives to live up to. More strikingly, Daisy declares in passing that she is “pretty cynical about everything.” Whether or not Daisy was once a woman who could love Gatsby with her whole heart, like many of us who claim steadfastness in our faith she simply cannot make that commitment. She has become too absorbed in Old Money, the offering of glitz and parties and meaningless exchanges. She belongs to a world that does not love her back, but even still her deeply cynical heart will not allow her to part from it. Though Daisy likes the idea of running off with Gatsby, she can’t promise eternity to him. Gatsby never could have saved Daisy. Or Tom, or Nick, or any of them for that matter, because they have all allowed cynicism to swallow them whole.

Christians, young Christians especially, find themselves nearly necessarily immersed in the negative aspects of our generation’s culture. Unless you choose hermitage, it is impossible to escape from the over-saturation of apathy and destructive behavior. It’s difficult to find time to even devote thought to God, let alone our hearts. In Gatsby, our hero’s love and “purity” cannot survive. Our faith undergoes the same threat daily as we attempt to be steadfast in a world that longs to make us cynical.

Our goal as Christians is to make a world where Gatsby could survive and Daisy may be saved; do not let the threat of our culture’s apparent hopelessness–and even the hopelessness found in Fitzgerald’s dazzling story–leave you cynical. The Bible urges us to not be conformed to this world, but to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind, in order to prove by you what is good” (Romans 12:2). If anything let us take hope from a story of defeat, and caution ourselves from becoming “pretty little fools.”

Katrina Barnett holds a BA in Film and Screenwriting from Loyola Marymount University and resides in Dickinson, North Dakota. She writes postmodern Western scripts mostly, but can be caught in the act of publishing the occasional short story. She can be found reading voraciously at her day job at an Alzheimer’s facility (from which she shamelessly lifts dialogue) or smuggling snacks into her depressingly three-screened local movie theatre. She has been told she’s relatively well-adjusted for a former homeschooler.