Starting Friday, masses of Americans will sit with 3-D glasses perched on the ends of their noses, carried away by Baz Luhrmann’s magic carpet ride into the ur-myth of the modern age. The 3-D technology works splendidly to sweep us into the material wonder of the 1920s: Sparkling objects whiz by, seemingly close enough to snatch from the air. The dizzying pace of the era’s change comes alive in the kaleidoscopic rush of party sequences; a hypnotic hip-hop beat propelling us through opulent rooms that display Jay Gatsby’s capitalist triumph in all its eye-popping splendor.
That we’re asked to view the Land of Baz through a pair of mass-produced cardboard spectacles ‑ our heads aching slightly as our eyes struggle to reconcile two separate projections of the same image ‑ makes an uncanny kind of sense.
The Great Gatsby, after all, is a novel of double vision. Gatsby is a man who wishes to be seen, and not seen; an exhibitionist eager to show off every aspect of his magnificent wealth but bent on hiding the hustling it took to acquire. Fitzgerald reveals the power dynamics in who gets to look at whom, and the tension between what’s in front of us and what’s moving just beyond our field of vision. The observant author filled his slim book with references to eyes: floating eyes, tragic eyes, aggressive eyes, impersonal eyes. One character is known simply as “Owl Eyes.” There are eyes that approve and eyes that scorn. The motif is so prominent that artist Francis Cugat chose to feature a pair of hypnotic eyes that hover over the carnival lights of a city for the novel’s iconic cover.
Fitzgerald wants us to be dazzled by Gatsby, but not be so blinded that we can’t see the limitations of his viewpoint. With all his strength of vision, Gatsby is not looking for a better world. He’s just looking for acceptance into a corrupt world that already exists — a world rife with racism, exclusion, women reduced to objects and, above all, fantastically expensive stuff. All the sumptuous parties and social graces cover up habitual lying, criminality and degradation. It’s ugly at the top. That’s Gatsby’s blind spot.
The last major film experience of Gatsby was 1974, in the wake of the Watergate revelations that drew back the curtain on political corruption. Still reeling from the mayhem of a Wall Street-driven financial crash, we turn to Gatsby once again for a sense of perspective on our American experiment.