Pulling Off the New Vulgarity

Pulling Off the New Vulgarity January 22, 2013

I am cautiously optimistic for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, though, like pretty much everyone, I have some hugely unsettled and queasy feelings each time I watch the trailer below:

The modern music is jarring, and the dancing looks lewd.  But I think that might be all to the good.  It’s hard to manage vulgarity when it occurs in a period piece.  Flapper dresses are so much prettier and more embellished than my jeans and a t-shirt that it’s hard to remember that, in their day, they rankled.

“The past is a foreign country.  They do things differently there.”  And that makes it really hard for us to adjust our expectations of social norms and spot when people are transgressing them (deliberately or inadvertently).  So, filmmakers usually have to cheat.

Either they can use the camera to draw our attention to the offending behavior (a camera pans across a group of ladies sitting with skirts neatly covering their shoes until it comes to rest on a pair of visible ankles — panning up to reveal our tradition-bucking protagonist).  Or they can just telegraph the violation by exaggerating the horrified reaction of all the proper people in the room (tightly knitted eyebrows, audible gasps, etc), even though the magnitude of the reaction is at least as inappropriate as the initial provocation.

Luhrmann’s Gatsby seems to be taking a different approach.  Instead of sticking tightly to period authenticity, he’s going for accuracy of tone.  The jarring music, the modern fast cuts make us feel uncomfortable and as though the whole thing is a little gaudy.  Which seems like an appropriate reaction to the ostentatious, new money Jay Gatsby.

This kind of deliberate discomfort is among the many reasons why I enjoyed the emo-rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.  The opening lines of the show are: “I’m wearing some tight, tight jeans, and tonight we’re delving into some serious, serious shit. I’m Andrew Jackson, and I’m your president. a-ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR!   (The song below comes immediately afterward)

It would be nearly impossible to induce an audience to have a visceral reaction to some of the things that actually offended about Andrew Jackson.  If we watch a man in a suit deliver a campaign speech to a crowd, we’re not going to be seized with a sense of impropriety, but that kind of populist behavior was scandalous at the time.  The show matches how unpresidential and undignified Jackson seems, and has to alter the actions to maintain the same level of revulsion.  (The musical also amps up his immaturity, so it’s not exactly a straight portrait).

These artists are running up against the problem that C.S. Lewis discussed in Mere Christianity, where modesty is a pretty universal virtue, but the particular forms it takes vary across cultures and times.  Using the forms of vulgarity or lewdness can make the historical transgressions viscerally accessible, but there’s one other clever solution, deployed in Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Anna Karenina.

Instead of exaggerating the deviation, he hyper-stylizes the norm.  The film had a dance captain for plenty of non-dance scenes, so the formal city culture of Imperial Russia plays out in a very choreographed, precise way.  That way, you can see when someone goes wrong because they miss a step.  The violation doesn’t mimic modern lewdness, and it doesn’t require the rest of the participants in the scene to exaggerate their reactions, but this misstep is still jarring.

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  • The modern music is jarring, and the dancing looks lewd.

    And it’s Leonardo Di Caprio. That is unlikely to be for the good.

  • Gatsby is likely to be a hyper-stylized, idealized version of the story, in which the bootleg scene is confused with some sort of 21st century nightclub with a jazz/swing soundtrack. The Stoppard/Wright Anna K. was really well done, I thought.

  • Cam

    This is an interesting idea, and tone is definitely used to great effect.

    I don’t agree with your interpretation, however. It’s not ‘lewdness’ conveyed, but perhaps just sexuality and decadence. The notions of uncomfortableness, lewdness, and vulgarity, seem to be something you’re mostly bringing to the table yourself.

    Your interpretation of the concept of modesty- subtly here, more explicitly in the older post linked- has a ‘wrongness’ about it, though I only know enough about the social sciences to recognise it, not properly describe it. Patriarchal policing of female bodies is not something that should be approached from the angle that a woman ‘uses her sexuality as a weapon’. (Ugh)
    In this post (which is otherwise good) you’re passing modesty as an uncontroversial universal concept, rather than an expression of patriarchy that needs to be defeated, or questioned at the very, very least. I cant recall what CS Lewis claimed in Mere Christianity , but to attempt to filter it through Christian ways of thinking: perhaps modesty, and the policing of modesty, should be considered sins, not virtues. Sure, every culture has a form of modesty. All cultures also have forms of violence against women. That something appears in all cultures is not a good argument for moral objectivity, and not even close to a good argument that the thing is a virtue.

    • deiseach

      Then, if modesty is only patriarchal policing of women, might I ask you, Cam, to give me some sense of what you might consider immodest?

      Men pissing openly in the streets? Nakedness? Naked men and women lolling on the seats in public transport, scratching themselves, belching, and using the corner of the vehicle as a public toilet?

      Is there anything you would consider immodest, or do you think that modesty is always about sexuality? Lewis’ point was that nudity in itself was neither modest or immodest – a tribeswoman wearing a string of beads and nothing else above the waist might be as modest in her culture as a woman wearing a long-sleeved blouse in ours, and equally there would be behaviour considered immodest in that culture as there is in ours, only expressed in a different matter (not through the medium of how much clothing is or is not worn).

      Now, if modesty is a burden put on women alone to express, I agree – that’s an unfair and unmerited imposition. Men, too, have the requirement of modesty. But that tired old line about everything being the fault of the patriarchy – for the love of little green gooseberries, does no-one ever stop to contemplate that matriarchies also have their rules and taboos?

      • Darren

        On modesty

        Within the past two years I watched something vaguely National Geographical about some remote hunter-gatherer society. In that society, the men were stark naked with the sole exception of a thin cord tied about their waist. The men would carefully tuck the ends of their penises under the cord, thus securing them from dangling about (and presumably risk being caught upon an inconvenient bit of underbrush).

        Supposedly, any man of the tribe would have been mortified were he to be seen in public without his penis dutifully tucked behind this bit of string.

      • Cam

        Why, dieseach, do you associate nudity with urination and digestion? I don’t think the category you’re working with is “things dieseach doesn’t like”, or “things not welcome in public”, because then bodily functions would no more suggest themselves than murder or theft. Is it “things dieseach finds unpleasant”? Why do you find nudity unpleasant in the same way as urination?

        What I personally find ‘immodest’, if the word applies, is not that relevant, it’s what I (and you, and the law) /should/ find immodest that is more important. I am just as much programmed by culture and my religious upbringing as anyone, and will recoil from public nudity on a bus as I imagine anyone would. It’s not clear to me that that’s the right reaction though. And it’s precisely because the policing of modesty is primarily of women, by men, and is very oppressive both historically and presently, that I’m so uneasy with calm acceptance of the concept, let alone promoting it as a virtue.

        I’m open to the idea that there is an okay version of modesty that’s not immoral. But throughout history so much terrible thinking has been hitched to the concept – think of rape victims who have their dress scrutinized. Think of cultures where people (read:female-bodied people) have little freedom of dress. Think of cultures where a person’s (read:woman’s) worth and morality is tied to her hemline. There’s no virtue in any of that. The history of modesty is a history of twisted, sick thinking and patriarchal oppression.

    • Beadgirl

      Word, Deiseach. Cam, are you arguing that modesty is always and everywhere bad? That there is so such thing as work/beach/funeral/party-appropriate clothing? Moreover, as Deiseach points out, modesty is not only about sex (the ostentatious wealth of Gatsby et al. is another form of immodesty), and it doesn’t only cover (heh) clothing (actions and attitudes can be immodest, regardless of what one is wearing).

      • Cam

        One form of ‘modesty’ is the policing of the appearance of people, usually women, based on sexuality- this is the sort mentioned in the OP. The word modesty applied to the wealth of Gatsby refers more to humility, is entirely different, and would be subject to different criticisms.

    • Iota

      Cam, ou wrote:

      has a ‘wrongness’ about it, though I only know enough about the social sciences to recognise it, not properly describe it

      The social sciences have given me the impression that they are generally descriptive, rather than prescriptive (i.e they chronicle what people think, rather than say what they should be thinking). Granted I hadn’t read much (a Zygmunt Bauman here, a Thomas Eriksen there) but the idea that “social sciences” can indicate Leah’s ideas about modesty are “wrong” has me scratching my head.

      A particular theorist might disagree with Leah (assuming Leah thinks what you think she thinks), since all theorists usually have some sort of individual agenda and outlook (that’s not a bad thing – a Catholic social theorist has one too, I suppose) but “social sciences” as such? Can you please, possibly, explain how any particular understanding of “modesty” is against what “the social sciences” say?

      • Cam

        Yes, okay. Replace ‘social sciences’ with ‘criticism informed by the social sciences.’

        • Iota

          > ‘criticism informed by the social sciences.’

          “Criticism’ here is a technical term?
          Or does that mean: personal opinions of people who work in/with social sciences?

          I work in the academia, I’m not trying to diss the fact scholars have opinions and put them in their work (in my discipline decoding the underlying opinions and axioms is half the fun I get from reading academic papers). But fundamentally, they are still opinions and, as such, don’t have to carry weight for people who disagree with them.
          Also: it might help, in talking about this with Catholics, to know that modesty is sometimes a different way of referring to the virtue of temperance, which includes other things besides skimpy dresses and, yes, – includes flashing wads of money at people, overeating or even displays of anger and covetousness (which leads to theft). True, lots of people wouldn’t not intuitively say that getting yourself drunk is immodest, but if you think of modesty as an easier and more known synonym for temperance that statement does make sense.

          By that definition the environment depicted by Fitzgerald in Great Gatsby was immodest on at least a few counts. Including obscene wealth and alcohol abuse.

          Of course the sexual modesty in dress part applies mainly to women in modern western societies, but I’d assume that’s mostly because men don’t draw attention in that particular way. But a man’s dress can be immodest in the same sense. It’s just that it rarely is. It’s more often flashing money.

          And, for example, the scene with the dancers when Nick is introduced to Meyer Wolfsheim is probably supposed to be an “upgraded” speakeasy. Since just being able to drink alcohol probably wouldn’t give the modern viewer the right impression of how “naughty” that was (Meyer is after all some sort of gangster), they probably upgraded it to a kind of club. In those kinds of places, dancing, I’d assume, is supposed to be “lewd” by a given culture’s POV. (i.e. to commodify sexual appeal). If you really think it isn’t “lewd” (you can use a different word to describe this), then it kind of means they failed to deliver.

          The parties thrown by Gatbsy weren’t meant to be five o’clock teas either…

          I can get the fact some people have an instinctive reaction against certain words or phrases. But temperance is a useful concept, although it might be abused. And breaches of sexual temperance are also real. If they didn’t happen (and the only bad people were people policing other people’s modesty), we wouldn’t have trade in humans (mostly women, less often men) for forced prostitution, to give a pretty extreme example…

  • I’m torn about this…the trailer also unsettles me. It looks like it took the basics of Fitzgerald’s novel and then sort of Moulin Rouge-d it. I don’t really think the story needs much embellishment, it’s got enough going for it as it is.
    I need to see Anna K., even though I generally hate Kiera Knightely in everything.

  • Mike

    Compare flapper dresses to that video Christina Aguilera put out a couple of years ago! eek!

    I can never buy Leo in a period piece for the simple reason he always looks 14 to me. I don’t know what it is about him but he just alwasy looks too young for the part. Remember him in Gangs of NY? He looked like a little boy with that knife in his hand.

    Can something lewd ever be not lewd? Is this the question Cam is really asking? It seems to me it might be. Sexuality can be portrayed as lewd and decadent as well as just decadent or just lewd can it not?

    PS Sorry about my comments on your marriage posts; I got swept away.

    • deiseach

      Leo di Caprio looks like my youngest brother: my little bro has brown eyes, not blue, and his hair is a darker brown, but otherwise, he’s uncannily like him. To the point when his face was plastered all over magazine covers at the time of “Titanic”, it was most disconcerting for me – I’d keep catching sight of this face out of the corner of my eye and thinking “What is *brother’s name* doing here?”

      So I’ve never been able to have an unbiased opinion on is he good-looking or a good actor – I keep getting distracted by his resemblance to my baby bro!


  • I’m looking forward to Gatsby, and though I can take or leave Baz Luhrmann (Romeo and Juliet, yes; Moulin Rouge, no) I feel like the trailer at least is accurate to the atmosphere of upheaval and decadence of the Roaring Twenties. Leo is a bit old to play Gatsby, I think, but he’s also one of those actors who’s become more interesting as he’s aged, so I’m going to give him a pass. Also, Carey Mulligan.

    • Mike

      But he does have an awesome sounding name, BAZ LUHRMANN!!

  • This is an excellent piece. Makes some really good and enlightening points.

    In the 1940s, Dorothy L. Sayers went for the same effect with “The Man Born to Be King,” letting some of the people around Jesus talk in slangy ways. It’s instructive — and amusing — to see some of the horrified reactions she got.

  • I think you make a good point. The lewdness in Anna Karenina was understood because, by comparison, the “norms” were highly stylized. I thought this was better able to capture something about past’s subjective experience of “lewdness” that the present no longer has. The problem I guess, is that it was subtle. The audience doesn’t want to do the work of appreciating something more nuanced, so I suppose it’s easier for movie-makers to make the taboos of another time and place OUR taboos. But on second thought, I do think there was some pretty grimy lewdness behind the social norms of many an aristocracy, let alone the lower class…