Say a prayer of thanks, Lord I am not worthy to be see you but only say the word and I shall be healed, Baz Luhrmann has unveiled thenewest addition to his catalogue of obscenely decadent and pretentious cinematography and in true Luhrmann style he has done so with all the modesty and understatement of a caffeinated silverback. In keeping with tradition the self anointed intelligentsia have greeted the announcement with an incongruous yet unmistakable mixture of approval and nonchalance. They scuttle about hurriedly trying to be seen to identify with the directors so called majesty yet affect a laconic ease whenever they suspect an onlooker has noticed the urgency and desperation that lurks beneath. Luhrmann has become an accessory for the trendy like no other director; he is a statement of fashion among what Gerard Henderson might provocatively-yet-not-unreasonably term the inner city elite. I suspect this is in no small part due to his desire to affect a sort of bohemian elegance so rarely associated with Australians, he is seen as something glamorous and cultured in a land of philistine caricatures. I however would scarcely describe him as bohemian or elegant, reflecting his most ardent admirers I find his works to be vainglorious, gauche and insubstantial. An assortment of pufferies and hubristic flourishes fail to mask the nauseating narcissism that underpins his tacky and synthetic attempts to create art for art’s sake. But to be fair just as no two Baz Luhrmann fans are the same so it is also true that not all his films can be tarred with the same cynical brush. For sure they are all unimpressive but each contains its unique set of shameless faults which deserve to be ridiculed on their own merits rather than lumped in with the greater bundle.
Strictly Ballroom was the first and by far the best member of the Ancient and Most Noble House of Baz. At the time of its creation Luhrmann was not yet an established director and as such he needed to employ a degree of frugality which meant we were subjected to few of his trademark decadent flourishes. The final product was a perfunctory romantic comedy, in many ways it was like Australia’s answer to Richard Curtis but without any of the edge or creativity that Curtis occasionally brings. It’s endearing enough but don’t let’s labour under any delusions that there is anything remotely ambitious about the film. It is fluff; warm, cosy and feel good fluff to be sure but fluff nonetheless.
Unfortunately the commercial success of Strictly Ballroom lead to Luhrmann being granted seemingly limitless budgets for his future films. We can only assume at the time of doing so the producers were unaware of his insatiable appetite for grandiosity. To be sure Romeo and Juliet had redeemable qualities, the dialogue in particular was well written but then it was authored by William Shakespeare and regrettably the impact of Shakespeare’s verse was stifled by a megalomaniac’s fetish for excess. Not even a sublime appearance by the ever flawless Miriam Margolyes could rescue the dialogue from the vortex of nauseating sentimentality and gaudy pomposity within which it was imprisoned. Without hesitation I’m prepared to say that watching Romeo and Juliet was the most undesirable of all my Luhrmann experiences. The words of William Shakespeare carry with them historical and literary importance, they’re to be respected and handled with reverence, by drowning them in his obsessive pursuit of grandeur Luhrmann committed an act of literary butchery akin to casting Adam Sandler to play Austen’s Charles Bingley. Leonardo Dicaprio who otherwise boasts an impressive CV including “Titanic” and “The Aviator” could be forgiven for having accidentally strayed into one of Luhrmann’s vanity exercises when he was only twenty one but he is now a seasoned actor. Whatever respect I might previously have held for him has been undermined by his decision to once again collaborate with Luhrmann as he seeks to drown yet another literary classic in an intoxicating smog of splashy attention seeking.
Moulin Rouge was probably the point where you begin to suspect Mr Luhrmann is actually sending himself up. Whereas Romeo and Juliet seemed to indulgently stray in to poncey territory on an undesirably regular basis, Moulin Rouge is so relentless in its extravagance as to become a borderline parody of itself. Not unlike the Eurovision song contest, if you begin to believe that there is a wry self awareness of the gaudy excess then there is some fun to be had along the way. But knowing Luhrmann it’s difficult to conclude anything other than he genuinely believes this over the top display of cinematographic foppery is truly the most majestic and awe inspiring work of art that was ever created. Fortunately for those not convinced that the film was absurd satirical masterpiece disguised as ostentatious rubbish, the not at all annoying Nichole Kidman is cast in a lead role. In case you haven’t actually seen the film it centres on the life of a frustrated playwright, believe it or not this simple statement says absolutely everything there is to be said about the film.
At this point it behooves me to confide in you reader that I’ve not yet watched the fourth instalment in the Ancient and Most Noble House of Baz but given the derision that Australia incurred from his most ardent admirers I’m inclined to think I might tolerate it a little better than its predecessors. Generally the commentary I’ve heard fits neatly within the parameters of what I’ve come to expect from Luhrmann, a wisp of plot, lots of puffed up cinematography and a sickeningly sentimental overarching message.
Who knows? With a budget more than five times that of Romeo and Juliet it’s possible that Gatsby won’t be the pretentious sack of shit that any person of rational mind would long since have come to expect from this paladin of the second estate but until I hear a compelling argument to the contrary I’ll be steering well clear of Gatsby and clearer still of anyone who is excited by it.