6 Things That Make Baz Luhrmann An Essential Filmmaker

Baz Luhrmann 6 Things That Make Baz Luhrmann An Essential Filmmaker

What should one expect of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby as it hits theatres today? The film has seen a series of trailers that have undoubtedly divided audiences, from what I’ve been able to gather anyway. I’ve heard responses that state outright that it looks like it could be the best movie or the worst movie of the year. My view is that every trailer released for it so far has been damn good, but this by no means indicates the film itself will actually live up to the standard set by the spirit of those previews.

Trailers are rarely an accurate barometer of how a movie will turn out. What tends to be a far better indicator of the final outcome is what we know of the director and collaborators that put the film together. In the case of Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann is the figure people should look to as a predictor of whether they should see the movie or not. And he’s a bit of a polarizing figure. With his Red Curtain Trilogy, consisting of Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge, dividing audiences and critics alike, one thing is certain: this Aussie auteur delivers movies that are unlike those of any other filmmaker today, or perhaps ever. The Great Gatsby appears as though it will continue in this line of creative style.

Here are 6 unique qualities of the work of Baz Luhrmann that make him indispensable when it comes to cinematic expression.

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1) Visuals you’ve never seen before

Strictly Ballroom 6 Things That Make Baz Luhrmann An Essential Filmmaker

A lot of people went gaga for Holy Motors this past year, including me. But one thing I thought while watching it was hmm, why does this remind me of Moulin Rouge? It may be simply that the use of stunning visuals, not necessarily just great looking images but the combination of light and color and movement that just grabs your eyes and won’t let go, that I don’t recall any movie quite nailing between my viewings of those two strikingly different films. Holy Motors was fairly sparse in what it did visually, while Moulin Rouge was the polar opposite, deliberately overloading all of our sense, not least of which our eyes.

The Great Gatsby appears to be a visual follow-up to Moulin Rouge. Strictly Ballroom showed hints of this unique visual style, Romeo + Juliet had a few more elements of it, and Australia went for a more classical Western look, all the power to it. But Moulin Rouge was absolutely dazzling, purposefully excessive, decadent, showcasing a world that was simultaneously bright and beautiful and also haunting and surreal. It’s like David Lynch staging an opera it’s so surreal. And the light and movement seems like it will never stop, overwhelming us, and just when we feel like we can’t take us anymore, Luhrmann pushes us just a little further, and then strips everything down to a nearly silent shot of Nicole Kidman’s blue face. How is that not absolutely enthralling?

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2) A tone you’ve never experienced before

Moulin Rouge2 6 Things That Make Baz Luhrmann An Essential Filmmaker

It’s the newness that Luhrmann seems to bring to his movies, most notably Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet, that grabs the attention most immediately. In calibrating our expectations for Gatsby, it’s interesting to look at the last classic work he adapted, the 1996 Leo DiCaprio/Claire Danes feature based on the Shakespearean play. A lot of adaptations of Shakespeare’s work try to do what Luhrmann does, reimagining the story in a contemporary setting, and they’re met with varying degrees of success. Even stranger is Luhrmann’s word-for-word retention of the Shakespearean dialogue, resulting in a bizarre juxtaposition of old language and new technology and surroundings.

This is also kind of the perfect story for Luhrmann’s attitude. There’s an aspect to his work that is so obviously his own, unmistakably so. This applies to all levels of narrative but the one that stands tall above the others is the tone of this unique mixture of irony and sentimentality. A good comparison may be Quentin Tarantino, who recognizes the campiness of the B-movie genre but lovingly applies it to his modern work, tweaking it ever so slightly to serve his updated ends. Luhrmann does the same, except with romance. So he tends to celebrate romance while at the same time mocking it. The story of Romeo and Juliet may be the most appropriate one for recognizing the ridiculousness of these kids who think they know what love is but also the sweetness of their bond and the authenticity of their felt emotions. There’s still no one else who handles romance this way that I’m familiar with.

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3) Themes you don’t find elsewhere

Romeo + Juliet1 6 Things That Make Baz Luhrmann An Essential Filmmaker

The tone I was trying to describe earlier fits in with the notion of themes in Luhrmann’s movies. His entire filmography deals in love stories, from innocent true love stuff, to ironic detachment yet appreciation for romance, to laughably naïve yet heartbreakingly sincere, to whatever Australia was. The pervading thread to it all is something about love to varying degrees. The progression of his Red Curtain Trilogy may almost point to a sort of disillusionment or dissatisfaction with the way love is treated in love stories, as a foolhardy endeavor that in the real world would lead only to disappointment and heartbreak.

And yet he goes back to it again and again (it’ll be interesting to see what he does with romance in The Great Gatsby, with the term taking on different yet really interesting meaning in the book). Since I still maintain that Moulin Rouge is actually a rather savvy take on the tropes and silly love songs relating to romance, I see Luhrmann as akin to something I heard Louis CK talk about recently. There are so many obstacles to people “falling in love,” whatever that may actually entail, that it’s sometimes hard to believe that it actually happens at all. But it does, seemingly against all odds. And there has to be something to this, something to explain the strange metaphysical or perhaps merely chemical justification for people acting completely irrationally and forming these loving bonds. It’s a bit of an absurd thing in real life, and so reflecting that absurdity in movies while celebrating it is elusive. But I think that’s what Luhrmann does,

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4) Big risks, big rewards, maybe

Moulin Rouge1 6 Things That Make Baz Luhrmann An Essential Filmmaker

His movies are ambitious. Gatsby is no exception, perhaps even more of a challenge than adapting Romeo + Juliet because people are less precious about a silly Shakespearean romance than they seem to be about one of the most celebrated American novels in history. Everyone seems so preoccupied with what F. Scott Fitzgerald would think about what Baz Luhrmann is doing to his masterwork, and Baz is just like eff F. Scott, I’m making the movie my way.

That’s a decision that’s undoubtedly going to be met, and sort of is already, with a wave of scrutiny, most likely a lot of it fundamentally and unavoidably negative. Purists never like their things to be messed with. And sometimes the objections to people trying to adapt things are perfectly valid. It also takes some serious whatever-the-Australian-word-is-for-cajones to make an unbridled celebration of silly love songs so brazen that you actually include Paul McCartney’s song called “Silly Love Songs” in your love song medley. The biggest risk of all is making movies that are this different and ambitious and weird. There’s always a huge margin for failure, even just perceived failure. The rewards, however, are equally huge, and so there’s a good chance Gatsby could be this year’s Cloud Atlas: incredibly divisive, thoroughly ambitious, equal parts preposterous and sublime.

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5) Controlled chaos

Moulin Rouge 6 Things That Make Baz Luhrmann An Essential Filmmaker

There is an increasing level of madness to Luhrmann’s films. He has a certain taste for depicting chaos on screen, but somehow finding beauty in it. He was able to draw some type of beauty out of the violence scenes in Romeo + Juliet, and the burlesque scenes of Moulin Rouge, despite the fact that there is so much happening that we often don’t know where to look. It would seem there’s a method to all this, however, as I stated earlier, and it comes to light in the moments when he slows things down to focus attention on one thing at a time. The variation over the course of a film shows that he seems to know what he’s doing.

His style is big and loud in a way uncommon to your standard Hollywood blockbuster. It’s the blockbuster chaos aesthetic applied to the colorful musical in the case of Moulin Rouge, or from the looks of it, to the decadent period style in Gatsby. I’d say it’s like Michael Bay doing Broadway but that may be a little crass. The most striking feature of his style is that mixed in with the insanity are little elegant touches sprinkles every so often. I think of the John Leguizamo character in Moulin Rouge as an example of this. It may seem I’m drawing too much from Moulin Rouge, but especially when it comes to the style seemingly employed in Gatsby, it seems to be the most definitive example of what Luhrmann has sought out to achieve in his earlier, smaller pictures. So there.

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6) There’s still heart amidst the cynicism

Romeo + Juliet 6 Things That Make Baz Luhrmann An Essential Filmmaker

It’s tough to be sincere in a culture where cynicism often drowns out well-intentioned self-expression, and Luhrmann’s work could be seen as something of an antidote to this. Think of it as a sort of punk rock rejection of the notion that we must be in existential crisis at all times, realistic about our dismal prospects in life, honest about the fact that love is a manufactured concept meant to sell greeting cards, and in despair about the death of God.

To this, Baz Luhrmann holds up Ewan McGregor, the naïve writer who falls in love with the courtesan that is Nicole Kidman, grasping at the slim hope that they could one day be together. It’s completely foolish of him to think so, but he does it. Maybe he knows that it’s relatively hopeless. Maybe he’s a kind of existential hero, asserting himself in the face of a world without meaning, establishing his own meaning for himself, as one who believes in the power of love, like the Beatles used to sing about. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to recognize how ridiculous remaking The Great Gatsby as inspired by the music of Jay-Z is, but at the same time it should be a subject of admiration, that someone is able to take a grain of an idea like that and flesh it out into something visually compelling and potentially entertaining and even enlightening and inspirational, to essentially hear all the objections from the cynics and turn to face them and just shrug and say eh, what the hell.

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  • darkschoolnight

    6 well-articulated reasons to love Baz even more :) Good article!