' Cinema Romantico: The Great Gatsby's Perfect Shot

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Great Gatsby's Perfect Shot

No, this isn't the shot.
“There are eight million stories out there and they’re naked.” This is what hip hop virtuoso - and "Great Gatsby" executive producer - Jay Z espouses in his generally iconic “Empire State Of Mind.” His line, of course, was an ode to the famed lines in the 1948 noir “The Naked City” recited in memorable monotone that go: “There are eight million stories in The Naked City. This has been one.”

Well, eight million stories……I mean, that’s a lot of stories. Right? How can you possibly convey eight million stories? In their song “8 Million Stories”, A Tribe Called Quest managed to squeeze in – roughly – twelve tales of woe before, of course, the song had to end. So, by that estimation, they would have needed to record about 667,000 songs to completely encapsulate all the stories out there in the naked city. This is why it is necessary to follow “The Naked City” template. In order to tell these eight million stories, we must tell them one at a time. Everyone has a story worth telling, don’t they? Isn’t that another semi-noted idiom?

Of course, there is a reason why this phrase has become affixed to The Apple. Whenever I’m in New York City, I can feel the brunt of those eight million stories with an almost ineffable lucidity. It’s like this: I leave my apartment in Chicago and I’m on my block, which is a very lovely block, and……that’s it. I’m on a block with houses and apartments and parked cars and trees. I leave my best friend’s apartment in Brooklyn when I visit and I’m immediately in the midst of a mystical energy, of lives being lived all around me.

Maybe it’s because everything and everyone is so close together in New York. We’re close together in Chicago, too, sure, but it’s a different closeness – in New York it’s all just right ON TOP of each other. You walk around the city and wherever you go, whatever you do, you see a story or hear a story or sense a story. You leave a Kylie Minogue show and realize the two gay dudes walking directly behind you are in the midst of hooking up (Godspeed, gentlemen). You talk to a bartendress at some random Times Square pub you duck into to get out of the heat and away from the people and have her explain to you, frazzled, how she is in love with a co-worker but could never tell this co-worker she loves him because, well, she’s obviously too frazzled. You see a bewitching redhead that kinda resembles Jenny Lewis at an East Village tavern and realize that for the rest of your days you will wonder: what was her story? (And wonder: was that Jenny Lewis?)

I live in Chicago and I love Chicago and sometimes I think I don’t ever want to leave Chicago but I sometimes get in arguments with friends in Chicago about why I believe the New York City skyline is so much better than Chicago’s. Perhaps Chicago’s skyline is more aesthetically pleasing, as I’m often told, but the Manhattan skyline? That skyline TALKS to you. When I visit my best friend and I cross the Pulaski Bridge to catch a train to the city it affords a view that's not so much a view of buildings as a view of a stage. You look at Chicago's skyline and think: architecture. You look at New York's skyline and think: joy and grief and madness and all the lives lived amongst those buildings that have passed.


This long-winded wind-up brings me to my main point - that is, a specific shot in Baz Luhrmann’s flamboyant telling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, just released theatrically in 3D that sort of makes it seem like you’re showering with champagne.

One of the early scenes involves Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the aspiring bond salesman, tagging along with rough and gruff Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) to a booze-filled party with him and his married mistress (Isla Fisher) and a few of her garish friends. It’s a scene that really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with anything in the bigger picture – aside from establishing Fisher's character so later on she can......eh, never mind – but on its own it’s a genuine marvel. Andrew O’Hehir of Salon was struck by it too and wrote: “(T)he entire sequence is an out-of-body mini-masterpiece that blends sex, jazz and liquor – the great trifecta of the Roaring ‘20s – into a potent cocktail that kicks like a horse.”

It concludes when Nick drunkenly traipses to the window. Across the way is an apartment building, another building - that'd be the Empire State - standing in exaltation to the left of the frame, and each window is romantically lit with an inhabitant peering out at the city and its infinite wonder and terror below. And then……


Then Luhrmann’s camera looks in on Nick from the outside – an omniscient spectator – and employing CGI in the best way possible it pulls back and pulls back and pulls back, faster and faster, taking in all the buildings and all the streets and all the lights of that decadent metropolis. It’s still a stage but we are no longer on the outside looking in – we are in the play, we are mixing it up. For a few dizzying seconds this isn’t just Nick’s story, it's the story of each of those people at the windows gleaming in Nick’s eye and everyone else in all the buildings and on all the streets and beneath all the lights as the camera whirs past.

There are eight million stories in The Naked City. And for once, it feels as if they are all being told at the same time.

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