I have to admit I was kind of disappointed with my level of disappointment with Baz Luhrmann's film of The Great Gatsby. At least one other critic of my acquaintance has noted that as summer movies go, it's the one that's the most fun to argue about, but I'm not much inclined to join said fun, just because I don't feel all that strongly about this Gatsby. While A.O. Scott avers that the movie is "eminently enjoyable," and good for him, I found it a bit of a slog, although when I cite its slogginess I take care to make it clear that I'm in now real way offended by what Luhrmann "does" with or to the book; as much as I was unengaged, I wasn't affronted either. If anything, I found the enterprise, for all its mammoth-ness, kind of tired. Flappers dancing to Jay-Z did not excite my sense of sacrilege at all; indeed, I found that and other such showbiz fillips as the movie offered entirely expected.
Now when Luhrmann had the cheek to put "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in Moulin Rouge, and have it bellowed by Jim Broadbent, that was my idea of purposeful, almost revelatory sacrilege, and a reminder that an anti-showbiz protest is in fact an irreplaceable staple of showbiz. The anachronisms of Gatsby don't just tell us what we already know, they make points that unduly flatter us, as we intone sentences about how the materialism of the so-called Jazz Age is echoed in today's hip-hop fueled madness for "bling," and man, I just lost a little bit of the will to live merely typing that. The more people have been talking about Gatsby, the less I've been inclined to think about Gatsby. Instead, my thought turn to Julien Temple, about ten years Luhrmann's senior, and I think, why isn't HE allowed to make these sorts of movies anymore. By "these sorts of movies" you might think I mean, yeah, Baz Luhrmann movies, that is, gargantuan-budgeted lavish real-or-quasi-musicals—and think how genuinely sacreligious Gatsby would have been as a real musical, with its lead character, say, rapping about how good it felt to be, well, him; how queasily exhilarating the picture could have been if Luhrmann had risked that sort of ridiculousness and made it pay off—that take years in the gestation and production. Not quite, I'd answer. But in thinking, or not thinking, about Gatsby I also got to really thinking about Absolute Beginners, the musical Temple, a punk-weaned filmmaker who assembled a Sex Pistols feature of sorts before moving to music videos, made in 1986, quite some time before Luhrmann's film debut, Strictly Ballroom. The picture was poorly recieved at the time it came out. Looking at it now, it seems practically prophetic of the whole Luhrmann aesthetic, albeit with some interesting differences—none of which really explain why Temple's career in doing this sort of thing faltered, while Luhrmann's took off. That's not to say that Absolute Beginners is anything like a perfect film, but in terms of its conception and overall "attitude" it's remarkably and often giddily free. Adapted from a Colin MacInnes novel of social upheaval in '50s London, it stays true to its source in its fashion (e.g., a sense of social consciousness/conscience) while exercising a colorful fluidity in most other respects. I looked at it the other day and thought it held up pretty well; not only that, all the things that critics of its day gave it a hard time for—established pop songs lip-synched by the actors/characters within the diegisis, a purposeful carelessness in coloring outside the lines of its ostensible period, and more—are now regarded as, depending on the critic, entirely acceptable devices (particularly when Luhrmann uses them), or no big deal. It's true that Temple doesn't nose around the vicinity of Camp as much as Luhrmann does, and that the relentless Brit-centricness of Absolute Beginners' content might have been as much of a roadblock to its making a wide impact as its formal playfulness was...but all things considered I have to say that Beginners qualifies as a movie that was genuinely ahead of its time, and that Luhrmann came along with an ethos that flirted with the postmodern even as it gave up big fat heartfelt melodramatic frissons in a superelaborate package just when mass audiences were ready for it. Temple's subsequent Earth Girls Are Easy is also way better than its reputation suggests, but doesn't function as well for my case because it's more overtly frivolous.
These days Temple mostly gets to make imaginative, knowledgable documentaries about music and musicians, but his last fiction feature, 2000's Pandaemonium, which sort of makes rock stars of Wordworth and Coleridge, albeit not in a stupid way, showed that he's still in possession of the technical chops and the perspective to make cheekily new the things audiences have become accustomed to thinking of as old. It rather makes one regret that the only filmmaker today with permission to make Baz Luhrmann movies is, well, Baz Luhrmann.