The Visual Aesthetics of Baz Luhrmann's "Red Curtain Cinema"

Master's Thesis, 2014

87 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Baz Luhrmann and the Concept of ‘Red Curtain Cinema’
2.1. A Look Behind the Red Curtain
2.2. The Genre and Branding System
2.3. Baz Luhrmann as Auteur

3. The Visual Background of Red Curtain Cinema
3.1. Looking and the Male Gaze
3.2. Reflections in Photographs and Mirrors
3.3. The Influence of Advertising

4. Films of the ‘Red Curtain Trilogy’
4.1. Romeo + Juliet: Shakespeare for the MTV-Generation?
4.1.1. Framing and Setting
4.1.2. Looking at Men
4.1.3. Looking at Women
4.1.4. Religion and Media
4.2. Moulin Rouge! The Original Red Curtain Film
4.2.1. Framing and Setting
4.2.2. Looking at Men
4.2.3. Looking at Women
4.2.4. Music and Visuality

5. The Great Gatsby: The Golden Frame of the Jazz Age
5.1. Framing and Setting
5.2. Looking at Men
5.3. Looking at Women
5.4. Religion, Advertising, and Visuality

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

8. Filmography

1. Introduction

The show will be a magnificent, opulent, tremendous, stupendous, gargantuan bedazzlement. A sensual ravishment. It will be spectacular, spectacular. No words in the vernacular can describe this great event, you’ll be dumb with wonderment. . . . And on top of your fee, you’ll be involved artistically. (MR 38:32[1])

With these words, Harold Zidler – the owner of the nightclub in Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film Moulin Rouge! – pitches the idea of a theater play to his financier and the audience of the film. At the same time, he aptly describes not only the key features of Moulin Rouge! but also essential characteristics of an entire film genre called ‘Red Curtain Cinema’. The term, coined by director and showman Luhrmann himself, denotes films with a simple narrative set in a heightened, theatric world. Red Curtain Cinema is a cinema of exaggeration and the primary focus of these films is to entertain, enchant and stimulate their audience rather than to depict everyday reality. Harold Zidler’s assertion that the show will be fantastic and spectacular on the one hand but demand audience participation on the other hand, is what defines Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Cinema and sets it apart from traditional Hollywood cinema.

By using music, dancing, colorful settings and costumes to accompany the dramatic story, these films stimulate all senses and intensify the movie experience to a degree that makes viewers aware of the artificiality and artistry involved. Red Curtain films keep the audience engaged at all times by using theatrical rather than naturalistic cinema devices. This approach of storytelling is a conscious choice that can be attributed to Luhrmann’s comprehensive experience in arts and media. Although he is best known for his visually and symbolically charged films, Luhrmann has also worked in theater and opera – both behind and on stage. In addition, he has produced music videos and worked in journalism and fashion. Thus, it is not surprising that all these experiences influence his current work. Luhrmann’s films are characterized by a theatric style that combines dancing and singing with rapid cuts and editing, giving the impression that one is participating in the live action rather than just sitting passively in the auditorium.

Luhrmann calls his first three films – Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet[2] and Moulin Rouge! – the ‘Red Curtain Trilogy,’ and in each of these films he employs a theatre motif to forward the narrative and engage the audience. In Strictly Ballroom, the protagonists illustrate their emotions through dancing, in Romeo + Juliet, the characters speak in iambic pentameter to communicate the drama and tragedy of Shakespeare’s play, and in Moulin Rouge!, the characters express their thoughts and feelings by spontaneously breaking out into song. However, Luhrmann’s Red Curtain films have a lot more in common than just their borrowings from the world of theater: As will be explained in this master thesis, Luhrmann’s films can easily be recognized as such through a series of narrative structures and aesthetic devices that are especially noticeable on a visual level. Moreover, these structures and devices are not limited to the three movies Luhrmann constitutes as a trilogy; rather, they are a common thread running through his entire oeuvre. Luhrmann’s newest film – an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby – comprises all important narrative and stylistic devices that mark it as a successor of the Red Curtain Trilogy.

The act of naming and defining his work in such a specific manner, gives coherence and importance not only to his films but also to Luhrmann as a public persona. As a director and creator of an entire genre, he can refer to himself as an auteur. However, the question to ask is whether Red Curtain Cinema really constitutes a genre on its own or whether it is just a marketing strategy of Luhrmann and his company Bazmark to draw attention to their work. How do Luhrmann’s films differ from traditional Hollywood cinema and what consequences do these changes entail for the process of film reception? Is Luhrmann an auteur in the traditional sense of the term and how does this affect viewers’ expectations when watching a film directed by Luhrmann? Moreover, what are the visual specifics of these films and how do they reflect on the use of visual media? These are some of the questions that are central to this Master thesis as we take a closer look at the three Luhrmann films Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, and The Great Gatsby.

On the basis of Luhrmann’s own definition of Red Curtain Cinema, this thesis analyzes how the visual devices used in these three films intensify the viewing experience for the audience and at the same time expose the artifice of the film. First of all, the concept of Red Curtain Cinema will be explained in more detail and both its status as genre and Luhrmann’s position as director will be examined carefully. A closer look at auteur theory will elucidate Luhrmann’s development from an auteur to a ‘post-auteur’. In the next step, visuality will be approached theoretically: Laura Mulvey’s theory on ‘the male gaze’ and an exploration of the superiority of sight over the other senses help to illustrate the importance of looking and seeing. The importance and omnipresence of visuality is further examined in the context of theories on photography, film, and mirrors. Furthermore, a closer look at the influence and importance of advertising is crucial to an understanding of the films, especially Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby. This theoretical approach to visuality is followed by a detailed analysis of visual aesthetics in Red Curtain Cinema. For this purpose, two films of the Red Curtain Trilogy – Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! – are examined closely in order to establish important aesthetic structures and visual devices that define Red Curtain Cinema. The third film, The Great Gatsby, is then analyzed with regard to these aesthetic tools to answer the guiding question whether it can be considered part of this genre. Finally, the conclusion links all three films together and explains how they fit the Red Curtain framework and represent Luhrmann’s auteur style.

2. Baz Luhrmann and the Concept of ‘Red Curtain Cinema’

The following chapters take a closer look at the parameters that define Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Cinema and the director’s status as auteur. Both, the central criterions established by Luhrmann, as well as various other characteristics found in his films, are of interest here. Luhrmann states that he conceptualized the name and style of this genre in retrospect, after having released both Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet, and before the production of Moulin Rouge! (cf. Luhrmann, “Moulin Rouge!” 9). It was on a journey through India that Luhrmann and his wife Catherine Martin first experienced a Bollywood musical in cinema, and were so intrigued by the colorful presentation that they decided to adapt the Bollywood style in their films (cf. ibid. 8). According to Luhrmann, the viewing experience of such a musical is special because “the pretense that what is to be experienced is in any way real is swept away. The audience is constantly made aware that they are always watching a film, not reality.” (ibid.). Despite the fact that this is a musical in the form of a film, spectators are encouraged to participate in and react to the dancing and singing. This is exactly the kind of emotional reaction Luhrmann wants to elicit from his audience by both attracting and alienating them.

In his foreword to the Moulin Rouge! companion book, Luhrmann asserts that it is intended as final Red Curtain film, thus completing the trilogy (ibid. 9). However, as becomes evident during the analysis of these films, Red Curtain Cinema is a cinema of exaggeration, provocation and overcoming boundaries and Luhrmann is a director who wants to confront his viewers with something new and unexpected. It is therefore unlikely that Luhrmann’s later films are free of Red Curtain elements, if he, as a director, strives to constantly surprise and shock his audience. A detailed analysis of The Great Gatsby, thus, illustrates how the excessive visuality and symbolism that are an integral part of Red Curtain Cinema and a trademark of Luhrmann, have returned twelve years after the completion of the Red Curtain Trilogy.

2.1. A Look Behind the Red Curtain

There is a set of rules, established by Luhrmann and his team, that defines Red Curtain style and sets it apart from other genres. Luhrmann describes the central parameters as a “simple even naïve story based on a primary myth . . . set in a heightened interpretation of a world that is at once familiar yet distant and exotic” (ibid.), with each movie containing “a device which awakens the audience to the experience of watching the film rather than putting them into a dream state” (ibid.). In the first three Red Curtain films, these devices are dancing, singing and Shakespearean verse, respectively. In The Great Gatsby this Red Curtain device is the fairy tale and Disney like presentation of characters and setting, which transports viewers into an artistic and dreamlike space.

The myth or simple narrative, which provides the basis for the plot, is easy enough to detect in Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby, which are both based on well-known literary works. While Shakespeare’s drama and Fitzgerald’s novel are familiar to most viewers, the underlying myths of Moulin Rouge! are not quite as obvious. Luhrmann points out that Moulin Rouge! includes elements of the Orpheus myth, La Bohème and La Traviata (cf. Stoppe 28). Most notably, Orpheus’ descent into the underworld to bring back his wife Eurydice is the narrative on which the figure of Christian and the love story between Christian and Satine are based. Furthermore, these myths are then set in a heightened and modernized world viewers can relate to: Romeo + Juliet is set in modern day Verona Beach, Moulin Rouge! takes place in an idealized 19th century Paris and The Great Gatsby is set in New York City in the 1920s, with the focus on how the characters must have experienced life in the Roaring Twenties. The aim of Red Curtain films is to create the same sense of wonder in film spectators today, as the characters have experienced in the face of new inventions at the time.

Luhrmann makes these past times accessible for viewers by adding modern, at times even anachronistic elements to his films. Most notably, they are accompanied by current popular music, which is initially distracting to the audience and clashes with the narrative, but the music in the films is just as modern to viewers of the early 21st century, as Jazz was to those living in the 1920s in New York, or Can-can and tango to those living in 19th century Paris. Consequently, these anachronistic elements manage to convey the spirit and atmosphere of a past time by translating them into cinematic elements that feel as novel to the audience today, as the innovations did to the people at the time. In contrast to traditional Hollywood cinema, Red Curtain Cinema does not attempt to create the illusion of reality by hiding the artifice of the film, rather, it makes viewers part of the film by explicitly including contemporary media to facilitate an identification between spectators and characters.

Film spectators do not usually question the authenticity of a movie: There is an unspoken contract between audience and film that what we see on screen comes so close to reality that it might actually be true (cf. Stoppe 29). However, when their expectations of reality are not met and viewers are confronted with a film style that is unfamiliar and alienating to them, they need time to get used to it. Red Curtain Cinema is certainly a genre that is opposed to classic Hollywood style and breaks with traditions and rules. The colorful sets, the modern music and the fast-paced cutting are exaggerated and do not comply with reality as we know it. In Red Curtain Cinema, the form, structure and presentation of the story are more important than the narrative itself, which is the reason why the ending is always already revealed at the very start of the film (cf. ibid. 26). By giving away the tragic outcome in the beginning, the focus of the film moves away from the ‘what’ to the ‘how’. What is of interest is not so much what happens in the film but how it is presented (cf. ibid. 25). Therefore, Red Curtain Cinema makes use of an elaborate framing structure that encloses each film in three or more layers of frame. One of these frames is the name-giving red curtain itself – it literally opens and closes the film Moulin Rouge! – which appears in different forms – as a TV set in Romeo + Juliet and as a golden frame in The Great Gatsby. Other aesthetic instruments derive from the world of theater and stage, or the media, especially advertising and references to other movies. The form and presentation of these films is “design-led” (Cook 2) and loaded with symbolism and hyperbole. All these exaggerated visual aesthetics emphasize “the artifice and superficiality of their environment” (Hopgood 408) which stands in sharp contrast to the “authenticity of the emotions expressed” (ibid.) by the characters.

In her extensive and detailed book on Baz Luhrmann, Pam Cook mentions that “Luhrmann exploits the exhibitionist nature of cinema, putting all the elements of the medium on display” (3) and thus drawing viewers to call his style “flashy” (ibid.). It is not an inappropriate description of Luhrmann’s style, which crosses boundaries not only on a filmic level but also in his personal life. Having worked in “theatre, opera, fashion and music production as well as film-making[, t]here is something of the agent provocateur in Luhrmann’s approach to his artistic endeavours” (ibid.). Cook describes him as a “new kind of showman-auteur, a mixture of entrepreneur, performer and artist” (4). As someone who is not afraid of crossing boundaries and polarizing his audience and critics, Luhrmann deliberately focuses attention on the artificiality and technology behind his films and does not naturalize his cinema. At the same time, he highlights his own career and personal life journey, turning his own name into a brand mark and tying together personal and professional life. Cook emphasizes that “branding has become increasingly important in constructing a recognizable identity for a film or group of films” (ibid.). Moreover, branding is not only of relevance in establishing an identity for his oeuvre, but also in reinforcing his status as an auteur who is in complete control of the production and the final product. By promoting his films under the title ‘Red Curtain Cinema’, Luhrmann is actively advertising his genre and driving forward the branding process.

2.2. The Genre and Branding System

How then can Red Curtain Cinema best be described? Is it simply a clever marketing strategy developed by Luhrmann and his Bazmark team to give coherence to his work and create a name for himself? Are Red Curtain films really so different from other films that they constitute a genre of their own? Maybe genre and marketing serve the same purpose, after all, the genre system itself is used to reduce the risks and expenses involved in the filmmaking process and consolidate an otherwise unpredictable film industry (cf. Belton 123). “Genre,” as defined by Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, is “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content”. In cinema, genre is used to describe a group of films that are similar in what they present, how they do it and what effect they have on the audience. By using genre classification and other parameters, such as stars and auteurs, film producers can estimate the success of their films at the box office prior to release. As John Belton explains,

[t]he box-office fortune of one particular kind of film results in the production of another film that resembles it in terms of plot and character type. The film industry assumes that the audience that came to the earlier hit will return to see a film similar in nature to it. (124)

It is therefore of great interest for producers and directors to integrate their films into a larger genre context: Not only will the new film attract spectators who have enjoyed previous films of that genre, but viewers who are new to a particular genre will be interested in seeing preceding films of the kind. Conclusively, the genre system is intrinsically entwined with the process of branding and marketing, as all these strategies serve to attract more customers and sell more films.

Another important aspect of the genre system is the previous knowledge the audience brings to the film. Viewers who have never heard of a particular director or star, or have never before seen a film of this particular genre, will lack the context and awareness of intertextuality to connect what they see to other works. These spectators will still be able to enjoy the particular style of the film, but they are not the target audience of the film industry, because genre or star specific advertising will not lure them into watching a movie. Thus, in order to fully appreciate a film in its context, viewers need previous knowledge about the specifics of the genre and the style of the director. Films such as those directed by Luhrmann, which are self-reflexive and contain references to other media need to be considered in the context of the history of film and media.

More and more, the task of placing a director’s work in context is taken over by the film production team: As head of the Bazmark Productions company, Luhrmann makes use of every communication medium at his disposal to advertise and popularize his work. Amongst others, he gives interviews, publishes production stories online and develops bonus material for the DVD releases of his films. Cook explains that Luhrmann “delights in entertaining others with tales of film-making adventures and misadventures, and in telling his own life story, which he views as inseparable from his creative journey” (14). Work and art go hand in hand for Luhrmann, who does not distinguish between private and work life. Both spheres of his life belong together and influence each other, and Luhrmann’s projects are always personal – not only because they complete his personal creative journey, but also because he works with friends and family on his projects (cf. ibid. 6.). Luhrmann’s childhood friend Craig Pearce writes the screenplays and Luhrmann’s wife Catherine Martin designs the costumes and sets in all of his films (cf. ibid. 19). Furthermore, Catherine Martin and Baz Luhrmann are equal partners in their film production company Bazmark (cf. ibid. 20). Thus, by linking his private and work life together and bringing both to the public, Luhrmann becomes part of the Red Curtain brand: His persona has come to stand for a production company, a genre and style, and the Bohemian way of life. In spite of the credit he gives to his co-workers, it is clearly Luhrmann himself who is the principal author of his films.

2.3. Baz Luhrmann as Auteur

As director, Luhrmann brings a distinct style and specific visual and thematic elements to his films – he can therefore be considered an ‘auteur’ in accordance with Andrew Sarris’ definition of the auteur theory. Sarris, who is an important figure in the theory of film and considered to be the originator of auteur theory explains in his book on The American Cinema from 1986 that in order to be the author of a movie, directors need to display a recurrent style that can be recognized as their auteur signature (cf. Belton 364). Similarly, the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “auteur theory” as “a view of filmmaking in which the director is considered the primary creative force in a motion picture”. Therefore, in film theory the auteur is distinguished from the so-called ‘metteur-en-scène’, who is considered to be competent enough to direct a film but said to lack the creative energy of an auteur (cf. Nelmes 150). As creative catalyst behind the film, the director’s name can function as a sign or brand that offers “an insurance value to the industry and a trademark value to an audience” (ibid.). Similar to the genre system, the director’s name raises certain expectations on a film and attracts viewers who have enjoyed previous films by that director or films of a comparable style. In return, the film industry can be sure that a film directed by an auteur will do well at the box office, because the director’s name alone draws enough film aficionados.

Although it is reasonable to organize films according to common characteristics and credit recurring styles to the work of a director, there is a growing tendency to analyze films in relation to auteur theory and make them fit the auteur framework, even if there is none to be found (cf. ibid. 125). Moreover, there is an increasing pressure on young directors who want to make a name for themselves, to produce movies that are significantly different from the mainstream in order to be recognized as auteurs (cf. ibid. 153). Thus, the process of becoming an auteur has developed from the situation in the “late 1950s when critics constructed an auteur meaning structure out of a body of films put in place more or less intuitively by a director in active collaboration with other creative individuals” (ibid. 156), to today where directors are actively trying to establish themselves as auteurs. Directors have become increasingly self-reflexive and self-conscious in their work and use media to advertise and create themselves in public. This self-promotion can be analyzed in the context of ‘post-auteurism’ (cf. Hopgood 408), which marks the next step in authorship: The post-auteur is not only aware of his auteur-position, but has created it by himself and is continuing to promote his status.

Luhrmann can be regarded as such a post-auteur, because he participates in the process of promoting his films and even creates a genre label for them. As Fincina Hopgood points out, Luhrmann’s invention of the term ‘Red Curtain Cinema’ is “symptomatic of the contemporary post-auteur’s role in self-promotion and direct engagement with cinema scholarship” (408). The arrangement of his first three films as Red Curtain Trilogy gives Luhrmann’s work coherence and connects it both to his personal life and his creative team at Bazmark. But the ultimate sign of Luhrmann’s status as post-auteur can be found in his most recent film The Great Gatsby, in which he has a cameo appearance as maître d’ in a scene with Nick and Jordan (GG 45:13[3]), which literally fuses private and public life together and emphasizes Luhrmann’s assertion that his job is his life and vice versa.

However, Luhrmann not only calls attention to his own relevance as director but also to the importance of collaboration. He gives credit to his team and his contributors and sees himself as the coordinator, or as the

ship’s captain, responsible to initiating the journey or project. Once the other participants come on board, then each of them has a vital part to play in bringing the ship home, but it is up to the captain to keep it on course and not to lose sight of the initial purpose. (Cook 18)

The end product always shows distinct traces and signatures of everyone involved in the project, despite the fact that Luhrmann’s is often the only name mentioned in the media. This collaborative approach to film production illustrates why auteur theory is not always very helpful in discussing film – because the latter is a product of team work and collaboration, with producers, designers, actors, writers, composers, editors, and many more adding their own creative input to the final work. Nevertheless, Jill Nelmes explicates that “[i]n specific scenes the work of one or more of these may be particularly foregrounded . . . but the controlling creative authority and deployment of these contributions is that of the auteur director” (152). Thus, the last word is that of the director, who is ultimately in charge and imposes his style on every aspect of the filmmaking process.

But what about the last stage in the process – the reception? After all, meaning is only created once viewers have watched and accessed the film – in other words, the film is merely a meaning potential unless someone decodes it (cf. ibid. 155). Can we talk about the ‘death of the director’ and the ‘birth of the spectator’ in accordance with Roland Barthes’ ‘death of the author’ and ‘birth of the reader’ (cf. Barthes)? To a certain degree, the viewers remain the deciding instance in the film production and reception, for if the audience has no knowledge of the auteur, “the auteur structure will not be read at all – it will be a meaning ‘potential’ left untouched by the reader” (155) as Jill Nelmes puts it. Thus, viewers who have not seen Luhrmann’s earlier films, will not recognize his style and aesthetics in The Great Gatsby, they will, however, still be aware of the film’s divergence from traditional realistic cinema. Conclusively it can be said that the difference of Red Curtain Cinema lies not simply in the fact that it is the signature style of an auteur, but also and especially in the visual aesthetics that set it apart from other genres.

3. The Visual Background of Red Curtain Cinema

The three films analyzed in this Master thesis make ample use of techniques and structures that emphasize the close relationship between the medium of film and the sense of sight. The play on visuality in these films is highly self-reflexive and illustrates the possibilities of using visual aesthetics, while at the same time criticizing the growing influence of visual media. Looking is represented as an ability that is both essential and enjoyable, but also problematic and deceivable. It is primarily through the sense of sight that Luhrmann’s films reveal themselves in full brightness and color to the audience, but it is also through looking that viewers discover the artificiality of these films and feel overwhelmed by an excess of visual stimuli.

Visuality is a central aspect of Red Curtain Cinema, which becomes evident in a close analysis of Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, as all three films critically address the topic of visual media. Photographs and advertisements are accepted at face value and their validity remains unquestioned by the characters in the film, leading spectators to mistrust their own eyes in order not to be misled as well. The films employ reflective surfaces such as mirrors and water to illustrate characters’ thoughts and emotions, but also their duplicity and unreliability. Current visual media, especially advertising, television, and journalism, are shown to be omnipresent and influential in the everyday lives of the characters. This media influence is strongly criticized through a depiction of its negative impact and the characters’ gullibility and naïvety towards it. Last but not least, the importance of the sense of sight is illustrated through the act of looking: A naïve look can turn into an objectifying or possessive gaze; often, a look can express thoughts and emotions better than words; and a direct look at someone, or a direct look at the camera can unsettle the person being looked at, for instance the audience. In cinema, the sense of sight is of special importance since it is through looking that the film can be experienced and its artifice exposed.

3.1. Looking and the Male Gaze

Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey is best known for her 1975 influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in which she argues that classical Hollywood cinema communicates patriarchal power structures through a set of visual manipulation techniques that enable viewers to experience visual pleasure as they become involved in the world on screen. One of these techniques is based on hiding the film’s artifice and presenting a narrative that is as naturalistic as possible. Thus, traditional cinema is often regarded as a ‘narrative machine’ because viewers remain unaware of the process involved in manipulating them, and they are under the impression that the film is spontaneously developing in their presence, for the sole purpose of their pleasure (cf. Belton 22).

Mulvey elaborates in her writings that cinema contains three sets of different looks that create visual pleasure: The camera’s look at the actors, the audience’s look at the film, and the characters’ looks at each other within the diegesis (cf. Mulvey 25). In mainstream cinema, the first two looks are denied so that the camera does not interfere with the spectator’s viewing experience (ibid.). This generates the impression that one is taking over the point of view of the characters on screen, without being seen oneself. In addition, this effect is reinforced through the environment of the film experience: The cinema auditorium is characterized through the sharp contrast between the brightness on screen and the darkness in the room, which conveys an illusion of separation to its audience (cf. ibid. 17). Although, the film is overtly presented as a narrative to be looked at, viewers are under the impression that they are looking in on an intimate world, thus, the setting of the film experience alone plays with viewers’ voyeuristic fantasies and encourages them to forget who or where they are (ibid.).

Evidently, traditional cinema is very different from Red Curtain Cinema, which is not characterized through its separation from the audience but by its direct address and inclusion of the same. The illusion of witnessing a real and private event is abandoned by means of two strategies: On the one hand, the spectator participates in the action and is not merely a bystander, and on the other hand, the films do not claim to be realistic but emphasize their own artistry and style. The viewer according to Mulvey’s definition turns into a voyeur, whereas the viewer in Red Curtain Cinema becomes a participant. Red Curtain films do not negate the camera’s look at the actors or the audience’s look at the film – in fact, both perspectives are emphasized through dramatic camera movements that draw attention to the camera as active participant and the process of watching the film.

However, despite these differences between traditional Hollywood and Red Curtain Cinema, certain aspects of Mulvey’s theory can still be applied to Red Curtain films. Among others, her views on the voyeurism involved in watching a film fit the visual structure of the three films analyzed. Mulvey explains that a film which successfully conveys the illusion of immediacy, offers two kinds of visual pleasure for the spectator – both of which are based on an initial fascination with looking at the human form (cf. 16ff.). One is the pleasure in looking, called scopophilia, and it requires a separation from the images on screen; the other is narcissism – the pleasure in being looked at – which relies on the identification of the ego with the characters on screen (cf. Mulvey 18). Mulvey elucidates that scopophilic pleasure is based on “using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight” (ibid.), in particular, a person who is not aware of being watched, since this gives the viewer the illusion of power or control. She also points out that scopophilia can lead to a fixation, “producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other” (ibid. 17). According to Mulvey, these voyeuristic and objectifying strategies are inherent to traditional cinema, which lures spectators into sharing the camera’s uneasy gaze through a process of identification with the main character.

Red Curtain films, too, invite viewers to identify with the main character’s point of view, however, not by giving spectators the impression that they are looking through a keyhole, but rather via breaking the fourth wall that separates viewers and actors. Various characters in the three films take a firm stand on the topic of looking – in The Great Gatsby, for instance, Tom Buchanan taunts Nick Carraway about his voyeuristic tendencies. “I know you like to watch, I remember that from college. . . . Now, do you wanna sit on the sideline and watch, or do you wanna play ball?” (GG 17:54), Tom asks Nick and at the same time looks directly into the camera, thus, posing the same question to the audience. Since film is a visual medium per se, watching movies is always already a voyeuristic activity. The particularity in Red Curtain Cinema, however, lies in the fact that spectators are made aware of their voyeurism, and just as the audience of the film is directly addressed by characters in the film, the characters themselves feel watched. More than once, Nick has this “distinctly uneasy feeling that Gatsby was watching me” (GG 22:20), hence, alluding to the negative side of watching. The look can be enjoyable only as long as one is actively looking, but not when one is being looked at.

In her essay on the male gaze, Mulvey also mentions this dichotomy of active and passive looking: There is always someone who looks, and someone who is being watched and in the process objectified (Mulvey 19). The act of looking is closely tied to power structures and, as Mulvey observes, gender dynamics: She finds that the split of looking into active and passive is in line with the division into male and female. According to Mulvey, traditional cinema always places the man in the active position of looking, while woman “stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other” (15) and remains a “silent image” (ibid.) on which men can project their fantasies. Mulvey uses the term ‘male gaze’ to define this kind of objectifying, possessing, and commanding look men exert on women. In this respect, women become objects of the scopophilic male gaze, which then projects its voyeuristic fantasy onto the female figure ‘to-be-looked-at.’

This objectifying male gaze can be found in all films discussed in this Master thesis. Upon seeing his love for the first time in Romeo + Juliet, Romeo wonders “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight. For I never saw true beauty until this night.” (RJ 28:00[4]), thus emphasizing the power that lies in just one look. In accordance with Mulvey, the films discussed depict women as erotic objects not only for the characters on screen but also for the male spectators in the auditorium (cf. Mulvey 19). This is most obviously the case in Moulin Rouge!, where Satine is a courtesan who dances in front of men and earns her living by letting men watch her. In the course of the film, Satine plays many roles from the unattainable sparkling diamond, to the seductress and femme fatale – and all of her roles are designed to spark her audience’s desire. Taking into consideration that Red Curtain Cinema encourages its viewers to participate in the action, it is understandable that spectators of the film feel just as drawn towards Satine as her audience in the dance hall. Harold Zidler repeatedly invites not only the men in the film, but also the audience of the film to join him because he wants to have a “real show in a real theater, with a real audience” (MR 18:04). In order for that to happen he not only needs the Duke’s financial support but also the film audience’s participation.

In spite of the audience engagement, Mulvey argues that the pleasures to be seen on screen are those enjoyed by a male spectatorship within the diegesis (cf. 20). The question therefore remains – are only male viewers meant to experience visual pleasure by looking at the women on screen? According to Mulvey, the man is the one driving forward the narrative and representing the power of the look (ibid.). Moreover, by means of identifying with the main male protagonist, the male spectator, too, can fulfill his fantasies through the gaze of his screen surrogate. The spectator feels a “sense of omnipotence” (Mulvey 21) as he shares the power of the male protagonist to control the woman and the narrative. Mulvey points out that in contrast to the female star, the male movie star is not an erotic object to-be-looked-at, but a more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal ego. Initially, the male protagonist and the male spectator have a shared desire to possess the woman on screen, but as the narrative evolves, the woman eventually loses her notorious appeal and her sexuality, falls in love with the hero and thus becomes his possession – and by extension the possession of the male spectator (ibid.). Thus, Mulvey suggests that women are only desirable as long as they are out of reach. This idea is reminiscent of Jay Gatsby’s perfect image of Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby: His longing for her is symbolized in the green light at the end of her dock, but the light is hidden in fog and storm as soon as he holds her in his arms. Nick comments on this by saying that “[p]ossibly, it had occurred to Gatsby that the colossal significance of that light had vanished forever” (GG 1:03:23), thus hinting at the fact that Daisy was only desirable as long as Gatsby was able to dream of her.

In her writings, Mulvey mentions further reasons why men can lose their interest in the woman on screen. She points out that the woman as object ‘to-be-looked-at’ and embodiment of male sexual desire can pose a threat of castration and emasculation. Consequently, men have two possible means of escaping this threat to their masculinity: They can either demystify the woman through devaluation, punishment or rescue of the woman in question, or they can turn her into a fetish object, disavowing her castration and overvaluing her physical beauty (cf. Mulvey 21). The latter option is fetishistic scopophilia, whereby the appearance of the woman becomes satisfying in itself and the woman is seen as reassuring rather than dangerous (cf. ibid.).

To a certain degree, all three female protagonists are fetishized and overvalued by men: Most noticeably, Satine is the object of male desire for Christian and the Duke. She moves, speaks, and dresses in a way that emphasizes her physical appearance. Furthermore, the camera objectifies her by closing up on her blue eyes and red lips (cf. MR 14:06). In Romeo + Juliet, Benvolio advices his cousin to forget about the sorrows Rosaline has caused him “by giving liberty unto thine eyes. Examine other beauties” (RJ 14:36), while standing in front of the drawing of a pin-up-girl on the wall – the latter pointing towards the objectification and fetishization of women. Daisy, too, is not seen for who she is but for what she represents: the material girl, in need to be taken care of and buyable. As an engagement gift, Tom buys her “a string of pearls worth $350,000” (GG 46:33) and as he puts the necklace on her, he directs his male gaze at her – no longer a desiring gaze, but a possessive one because she is now his like the necklace is hers. Furthermore, the necklace is a means of increasing Daisy’s status, for if she is to be Tom’s possession, she has to have an appropriate ‘object value.’

While fetishization and overvaluation is a common means of portraying women on screen, punishment is a strategy more common in film noir, which presents women as femmes fatales – willful creatures intent on castrating or otherwise emasculating men and destroying the sacred institution of the family (Belton 235). In Moulin Rouge!, Satine can be considered a femme fatale because the first time she is seen in a memory of Christian, she is portrayed in black and white, in the half-shade, with only her eyes and the cigar in her hand visible (cf. MR 03:47). She plays many parts in the film, and one of them is the deadly femme fatale. Moreover, she is deadly in two meanings of the term: fatally dangerous for men and dying due to her consumption. In this regard, all three protagonists are literally fatal for the men who fall for them: Romeo poisons himself after seeing the seemingly dead Juliet and Gatsby is killed for protecting Daisy until the end.

Taking this further, the fact that all three women can be considered fatal in one sense or the other, suggests a certain activity in the portrayal of their characters. Maybe these women enjoy a certain freedom of action after all, even if secretly. Is it possible that the act of looking is not necessarily related to masculinity? Is there a female gaze to be found in the films? There are indeed moments which suggest that women do return the gaze. More than once, Daisy mentions Gatsby’s good looks and his good taste in clothes, indicating that she is looking at him with the same objectifying look he gives her. However, not only women direct their gaze at men – men also direct their gaze at other men. The split between active/male and passive/female can no longer be upheld with regard to these Red Curtain films: Mercutio’s look at Romeo is filled with jealousy, Gatsby is constantly watching Nick, and Nick returns the gaze. The act of looking remains crucial in a film genre that is so reliant on visuality and plays with the gaze not only on a diegetic but also on an extra-diegetic level in relation to the audience.

3.2. Reflections in Photographs and Mirrors

The sense of sight is regarded as the most important of the human senses, because it is said to be the freest and most neutral (cf. Jonas 507; 516). Looking does not require physical contact with the object or person being looked at, which makes it the ideal far distance sense, but at the same time it makes our eyes more susceptible to manipulation than other senses. Looking is different from touching, which relies on the sensation of pressure and contact to gain knowledge about the respective object or person, and it differs from the sense of hearing, which depends on sounds that are outside of the percipient’s control. Looking can happen simultaneously, immediately and independently of the environment: Eyes can wander wherever they want to, but we cannot control what we hear (cf. ibid. 509). Thus, the sense of sight is not only used because it is efficient and helpful in everyday life, but also “for its own sake” (ibid. 507). Looking is a deliberate act and can entail the experience of visual pleasure.

This pleasure of looking is exploited by visual media in all its forms: Illustrations, photographs, films, advertisings and billboards vie for our attention and exploit the audience’s fascination with the human form. Mulvey suggests that this strong interest in watching other men and women on stage, on screen or on pictures, can be traced back to Jacques Lacan’s definition of the ‘mirror stage’ (cf. 17). According to the French psychoanalyst Lacan, the ego is established during childhood in the so-called mirror stage, when the child first sees and recognizes itself in the mirror (cf. Chaudhuri 34). The child experiences jouissance in identifying with its mirror image, however, this recognition is based on misrecognition because the mirror image represents an ideal ego, complete and in control of its body, which stands opposed to the uncoordinated and helpless child. Lacan elaborates that this misrecognition illustrates how our “ego, which we think of as the core of identity or bearer of reality, is actually illusory” (ibid. 108), and thus leads us to constantly try to redefine our identities in relation to other ego ideals. According to Mulvey, the star system in cinema mass-produces these ego ideals and the actors offer a center of “likeness and difference” (18) on screen that viewers can relate to. Similar to the power relations involved in looking at the characters on screen, or characters looking at each other within the diegesis, power structures are disclosed upon looking in the mirror. Here, however, the struggle is often within oneself.

Mirror imagery is abundant in the three films discussed: In Romeo + Juliet, for instance, Juliet’s mother Gloria Capulet is admiring herself in the mirror as she praises Paris’ beauty (cf. RJ 17:31), thus, referring to her own appearance which she recognizes as ideal in the mirror. Romeo, too, is seen standing in front of the mirror: In the bathroom scene at the Capulet ball he takes off his mask and looks in the mirror, but only briefly, for he is distracted by the aquarium behind him (cf. RJ 24:51). It can be said that Romeo is not interested in discovering his ideal ego in the mirror, because he is more fascinated with Juliet’s looks and sees himself mirrored in her eyes. In Romeo + Juliet, mirrors are not the only reflecting surface of importance: Juliet and Romeo are often seen in water and Romeo even hides in it after escaping the Capulet mansion. Juliet looks back at Romeo, who has fallen into the pool, and exclaims “O god, I have an ill-divining soul, me thinks I see thee now as one dead in the bottom of a tomb” (RJ 1:19:43). What she believes she sees while Romeo submerges, is both a mirror of her emotions and worries and a foreboding of Romeo’s impending death. In this sense, water can be regarded as a mirror as well – after all, it only shows a reflection and not reality. A character that is repeatedly seen looking at herself in the mirror, is Daisy Buchanan. The first thing she does upon entering Nick’s house is check her appearance in the mirror (cf. GG 53:33), and whenever a reflective surface is near, she is quick to sit in front of it and admire herself. Daisy’s many reflections illustrate her flippancy and indecisiveness and are best visualized in the triple mirror in Gatsby’s bedroom (cf. GG 1:04:56). She is mostly interested in herself and enjoys being the center of attention. Therefore, Daisy is the ideal target audience for visual media in all its forms.

The use of technical gadgets like photography and the camera is a recurring theme in The Great Gatsby: Set in the Golden Age and at the heyday of new inventions, the film illustrates the growing influence of visual media on the characters. At the time, photography had become significant in the everyday lives of the protagonists – Myrtle’s neighbor McKee takes pictures of the party guests in Myrtle and Tom’s apartment (cf. GG 18:47) and Nick is seen filming and photographing Gatsby and Daisy (cf. GG 1:00:36). Most notably however, photography is illustrated as influential enough to be accepted at face value: To prove his stories and adventures, Gatsby shows Nick a medal from Montenegro and “something I always carry with me, a souvenir of Oxford days” (GG 37:54), he says and pulls out a photograph from his time in England. He explains that it “was taken in Trinity quad. The man on my left is now the Earl of Doncaster” (GG 37:58), in the knowledge that a picture tells more than words and that Nick needs photographic evidence if he is to be persuaded.

Gatsby knows how easily photographs can be manipulated, but he still uses them to explain the world. In accordance with Susan Sontag, Gatsby uses photography as an “instrument for knowing things” (in Becker 3), and places himself in “a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and therefore, like power” (ibid.). Photography is used as proof and is said to be better at capturing the real event than the human eye. This is accompanied with the common belief that the event captured by the camera has in fact existed as such (cf. Sontag 11). Sontag remarks that early photographers regarded the camera as a copier (cf. 87): The photographer merely had to operate the machine while remaining a neutral observer. André Bazin, too, considers photography to be objective and contrasts it with the subjective work of a painter (cf. in Stoppe 33). Despite the expectation that photographers remain neutral and uninvolved bystanders, different photographers never take the same picture of the same object. Consequently, photographs can never be entirely neutral because they always depend on the perspective of the person behind the camera. The fact that Nick still believes Gatsby’s photograph to be true, illustrates his naïve trust in Gatsby and in visual media. “What could I say?” Nick tells the audience, “The photograph was undoubtedly authentic. Could it all be true?” (GG 38:01). Nick’s readiness to believe what he sees is judged by the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, a huge advertising sign looming over Nick and Gatsby as they drive by, and overlooking the growing influence of visual media.


[1] Here and hereafter, the abbreviation “MR” and single time specifications in parentheses refer to: Moulin Rouge!. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Perf. Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo. Twentieth Century Fox, 2001. DVD.

[2] The complete title of the film is William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet but for reasons of brevity this Master thesis uses the abbreviation Romeo + Juliet.

[3] Here and hereafter, the abbreviation “GG” and single time specifications in parentheses refer to: Der Grosse Gatsby. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan. Warner Bros. Pictures. 2013. DVD.

[4] Here and hereafter, the abbreviation “RJ” and single time specifications in parentheses refer to: William Shakespeares Romeo + Julia. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo. 1996. DVD.

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The Visual Aesthetics of Baz Luhrmann's "Red Curtain Cinema"
University of Mannheim
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Baz Luhrmann, Red Curtain Cinema, The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge, Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare, Visuality, Male Gaze, Laura Mulvey, Jaques Lacan, Genre, Auteur, Photography, Advertising
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Anett Koch (Author), 2014, The Visual Aesthetics of Baz Luhrmann's "Red Curtain Cinema", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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