The Age of Decadence


As Luhrmann’s anticipated ‘The Great Gatsby’ storms the cinema, the nostalgia of The American Dream and the Roaring Twenties is once again permeating British culture.

Whilst critics are somewhat apprehensive about the film’s twenty-first century soundtrack, I must hand it to Luhrmann for maintaining the relevance, modernity and originality that was the defining quality of the era in the first place. Jazz and champagne parties were bizarre, new-fangled and sensational, and their cinematic repetition would not now have the desired effect. Jazz is no longer brand new. In order to continue the Gatsby age of consumerism and fastness, it is necessary to re-invent the original sensation of modernity, with our modernity. We can celebrate the old by marriage of the old and our new.

Perhaps, however, whilst we can attempt to create an accessible soundtrack, the Gatsby age will forever be locked in a cinema screen. The richness, and feeling of invincibility that haunts the novel, including the ‘voice full of money’, is arguably a hazy and surreal dream which today’s society is unable to access. The glitter, booming commerce, and wider ownership of vast property, has essentially fallen to dust. But further, Gatsby’s determined innocence, and profound desire to recreate the past, is a tragically acknowledged impossibility.

The sequined silk gowns, fur wraps, headdresses and hysterical laughter, whilst gorging upon champagne, and kicking off the heels to dance all night upon rooftops and in fountains is a far cry from anyone’s lifestyle that I know of. It has a fragility and temporality about it, as developed by Fitzgerald in his tragic suggestion of Daisy’s lack of morality, and Gatsby’s unsustainable idealism. The novel and era are perhaps so very haunting because of the unrealistic and uncultivated, indeed almost animal behavior. The characters gorge upon life itself; they lap it up and then smash their glass upon the table.

And yet, we cannot tear our eyes away – decadence, though easily critiqued by Fitzgerald himself, was passionately romantic, desirable and magical enough to be continually infiltrating our popular culture. Lana del Rey has re-introduced the Hollywood-esque thirties to fifties music; offering an escapism to a microcosm where fast cars tear at the seams of our existence; money falls from the sky, and the sun is always shining. The high-street stores are stocking the flapper dresses that represent progressive female liberty, as introduced with the abandonment of corsets, and introduction of short female hairstyles in the twenties. The fifties dresses, and men’s white suits all harken to the glamour of the by-gone American decadent era. Perhaps they represent an attempt to keep the luxuries alive – to stem the extinguishment of Gatsby’s flame.

The film itself is a masterpiece.  Philip French, of the Observer, claims that Luhrmann’s adaptation tramples over the subtleties of the F Scott Fitzgerald classic. I find the critique itself rather unsubtle. The film is indeed hyper-real, kaleidoscopic and a whirlwind of commodities and crazed parties, but it also stands still – it juxtaposes this rich frenzy with moments of intensity, passion and tragic hopefulness. Di Caprio’s performance is heart breaking in its vulnerability, whilst the ambiguity surrounding his persona is played to perfection. I disagree with the harsh biting critiques of Luhrmann’s choice of fantastical colour and display – the era itself was a mirage of vivaciousness and decadence. All the richness of life was squeezed into the condensed book – where I think every sentence reads as a poem within itself. The rich tapestry of the roaring age is depicted within the poetic language, which is re-played beautifully in the cinematic version, as Luhrmann hauntingly echoes the familiar lines over the top of Lana Del Rey’s pulsing melodies.

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