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Scott Harris

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By day, Scott Harris writes about movies. But by night, he patrols the streets of his city, clad only in pure justice.

‘The Great Gatsby’ And the History of Art Deco in Film

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Baz Luhrmann’s big budget adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic Great American Novel “The Great Gatsby” opens in theaters on Friday and at the forefront of both the film’s aesthetic and its marketing campaign is the singular artistic style known as art deco. Which makes sense, of course, considering that the period piece is set in the Roaring Twenties, during the height of the art deco movement.

But while art deco reached its zenith over 80 years ago, its influence on cinema remains as strong as ever. And not just in period pieces like “The Great Gatsby,” but also contemporary films — and even futuristic epics. So why is art deco still so vital today when so many other art movements have come and gone?

The answer lies in two very different and surprising genres: Musicals and science fiction.

It may seem counter-intuitive at first to think that our cinematic future should be influenced by a design fad of the distant past. But in the movies, as they say, the past isn’t distant, it’s not even past. After all, when you can watch a century worth of films on your phone or iPad at the touch of a button, that century comes as alive as any of today’s films. And few films of the past are still studied and watched as much as the first and arguably still greatest sci-fi epic of all time, Fritz Lang’s 1927 opus “Metropolis.”

Metropolis-poster

But as relevant as the content of “Metropolis” and its dystopian, mechanical future remain today, its cutting edge art deco design remains even more influential. All one has to do is take a look at the classic poster for “Metropolis” and its iconic robot Maria to see how ingrained the style has become in sci-fi film, thanks in part to Ralph McQuarrie’s design of C-3PO in “Star Wars.” It’s a look recognizable to billions of people around the globe.

And the “Star Wars” franchise is only the most obvious and recognizable instance of art deco in modern sci-fi. From Terry Gilliam’s 1985 masterpiece “Brazil” to the 1997 thriller “Gattaca” to the seminal 1982 neo-noir “Blade Runner,” sci-fi visionaries return again and again to the looks of the past to portray the future.

Blade-Runner-Wallapeprs-Posters

Why? Simple: Because the idea of how the future should look in film was created during the art deco era.

It’s the same for musicals, of course. Sure, many of the most famous and popular musicals are also period pieces set during the jazz era, from 1972′s “Cabaret” to 2002′s “Chicago.” So you would expect those films to boast strong art deco influences. But what excuse do musicals like “Burlesque” have? The best excuse of all — because musicals became a dominant film genre during the art deco period, meaning the style has become ingrained in the DNA of the genre.

And its not just specific genres. The Golden Age of Hollywood kicked off when the talkies came to town, right at the heart of the art deco movement. As a result, it’s impossible to think of Hollywood — from the classic movie marquees to the studios themselves — without imagining it in terms of art deco. Just watch “The Artist” again if you don’t believe me.

artist

Which is why you can expect to see art deco influences in plenty more films to come, not just period pieces like “The Great Gatsby.” Because as long as there are directors like Baz Luhrmann who are students of film and film history, there will be filmmakers paying homage to the great directors who came before them and the great art deco films they made.

After all, tastes may change and art fads may come and go. But thanks to the power of the movies, some styles are immortal.


Categories: Features

Tags: Art Deco, Baz Luhrmann, Metropolis, The Artist, The Great Gatsby

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