By Chris Wallace
The word on the Surry Hills street is that Baz Luhrmann is working at a frenetic pace on The Great Gatsby – so frenetic the crew is having a hard time keeping up. There’s a bit of chatter as well about exactly how he’s managing to keep up that pace.
The word is, too, that real technical excellence is evident in the output but of course that’s the least we expect from Luhrmann – or indeed any filmmaker working on his kind of budget. The real question in the wake of Australia is whether his storytelling ability is back. Such a talented filmmaker, one hopes and prays it is. But when the set chatter is about the frenetic pace, unnaturally long hours and technical excellence of the rushes, one worries The Great Gatsby is going to be an amped up repeat of the problems evident in his previous film. Luhrmann got away with Australia, just. He won’t get away with making two expensive, good looking films with a weak narrative in a row.
Steve Jobs’ premature death this month was a great reminder of how short life is. Just hearing about The Great Gatsby shoot made me glad I’m not in Luhrmann’s orbit right now. Life is certainly too short to work ridiculously long hours serving a director, even a talented one, working nutbag hours propped up on (shall we surmise) very, very strong coffee. It made me tot up a list of other people I choose not to waste valuable time with.
Top of my list is novelist Sigrid Nunez whose book Sempre Susan: A memoir of Susan Sontag was published earlier this year by Atlas in New York. Nunez was initially the twenty-something casual assistant of Sontag and subsequently the live-in girlfriend of Sontag’s son David Rieff when Rieff lived with his mother on the Upper West Side in the mid 1970s. Nunez is initially awestruck by Sontag, as are readers of Sempre Susan at revelations early in the book – notably Sontag making them both a lunch on their first work day of Campbell’s tinned cream of mushroom soup with a can of milk mixed in. Here we were thinking the intelligentsia was busy making art out of Campbell’s soup at the time, not eating it. But no!
The wicked, gossipy shock of this and other surprising anecdotes early in the book is offset by Nunez relating her intellectual hero-worship of Sontag at the time. As the book unfolds, however, the anecdotes mount in their meanness and, while Nunez manages to keep an ever-thinning intellectual admiration going, it’s subsumed under the cumulative weight of nasty revelation by its end. Nunez should have come right out and explained she was in a death-wrestle with Sontag for the soul of David Rieff and that, to paraphrase a saying Nunez says Sontag was fond of using, it was like a baby in the ring facing Joe Louis.
Next on my list is the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. They were brilliant at the Sydney Opera House last weekend but, brilliance aside, the composition of the orchestra is an affront. There were two female musicians in the orchestra. Two. They might have got away with that twenty, even ten years ago, but in 2011 it speaks of a gender bias not rationally explicable. Compare and contrast with the Berlin Philharmonic who played the Opera House this time last year as part of the same World Orchestras Program. It has young and old, women and men – a healthy ecosystem, in other words – and that cannot but be related to the Berlin Phil’s superior creative fire. I’m boycotting the Vienna Phil until they join the 21st century. (Guest conductor Christoph Eschenbach might shout himself a tuxedo too. The collarless black shirt he wore last week is reminiscent of a hotel bellhop, not the conductor of a prestigious European orchestra.)did not match the extraordinary creative fire
AD Miller’s Snowdrops’ protagonist, ex-pat lawyer Nick Platt, is another I choose to spend no more time with, the Man Booker Prize nomination notwithstanding Nick Platt is a moral and physical weed. Platt narrates his inglorious Moscow years to his fiancé who would be mad if she didn’t dump him after learning of his subtle slide into self-seeking collaboration with low grade Moscovites on the make. (We never find out if she does.)
On an up note, one place I do want to spend more time is the Canberra Theatre. It’s 2012 program is terrific – a real step up. If you haven’t got a copy yet seek it out. Even if you haven’t done so before, you’ll want to subscribe this time round.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times, 15 October 2011