Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Lost City of Z (James Gray, 2016)

Lost and found

You wonder looking at James Gray's New York-based dramas where the producers got the idea he was the perfect director to adapt David Grann's nonfiction The Lost City of Z--about Percy Fawcett's quest for a long-lost South American city--into a feature film. You wonder furthermore where Gray got the balls to think he could blithely sail into the same territory staked out by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now, or better yet Werner Herzog in Aguirre the Wrath of God.

Gray's film condenses the book considerably or so I'm told (have not read it): Fawcett (Charles Hunnam) stages three expeditions instead of eight; a companion named Costin (Robert Pattinson, unrecognizably hirsute) is cobbled together from several characters; a straightforwardly linear narrative is fashioned with speculations (What happened to him?), investigations (Does his city really exist?), and the author's own attempt at recreation (retracing Fawcett's journey) all lopped off.

But wait! According to writer-explorer John Hemming, Fawcett may not have been the great explorer we thought he was, that he was incompetent and racist, and that Grann's descriptions of his exploits are largely exaggerated. Gray responds to these charges and yes invokes The Shakespeare Defense ("I will rescind all of my criticisms of the writers of those pieces if they go to performances of Richard III and they boo Shakespeare for his historical inaccuracies"). Gray has a point: a filmmaker should be allowed some measure of artistic license. 

But matters turn stranger still: Jason Colavito notes that Fawcett may have been an advocate of Theosophy, that when he presented his findings to the Royal Geographic Society (a scene depicted in the film) he was jeered not for racist reasons (well not just for racist reasons) but because his theories were considerably more bizarre than either Grann or Gray were willing to depict. For Fawcett, Z was "an outpost of the extraterrestrial gods who came to earth in deepest prehistory, akin to the 'first rock cities' the Lemurians built." 

Listening to Fawcett  you can't help but think him closer in spirit to Herzog's Aguirre than what's actually onscreen. Then again (going off on the limited evidence available) Aguirre was left standing alone and insane on a raft full of monkeys (think Leland's post-election rebuke to Kane) spinning down a river; he had no choice but to express himself in a stream of near-visionary ravings. Fawcett's theories sound more like a cross between Aguirre's rants and the fanciful fabrications of Baron Munchausen--he believed in them (probably) but his beliefs were more (as Colavito concludes) "scraps of myth and legend" dressed "in the language of science."

Gray (in his reply to Hemming and in a Cinema Scope interview) seems aware of this aspect of Fawcett's life (the racism, the outre mysticism), but deliberately downplayed them. Why? Well...

You need (I submit) to look at the film. Hunnam's Fawcett is a strangely subdued character, physically charismatic but without the bugeyed intensity of Kinski's Aguirre. That said Kinski's Aguirre is all intensity; we have little sense of the man beyond what we see riding the waters of the Amazon, when he's halfway towards losing his mind (by journey's end it's gone completely). We know Aguirre is a military officer with high enough rank to be entitled to bring his daughter along, strong enough courage to win the initial respect of others--that's about it. Hunnam's Fawcett however has roots carefully cultivated by Gray: we know his father was an embarrassment to the Royal Geographic Society, we know Fawcett himself was an officer with surveyor's training frustrated at his career's advancement (or relative lack of), we even have a sense of what his family is like, from his wife Nina (a strong Sienna Miller) to his children including eldest Jack (played as lively young man by Tom Holland). 

Where Aguirre is a fire-eating phantasm dragging the weight of Western Europe's sins behind him, Fawcett is--at least as Gray conceives him--a fairly reasonable more-progressive-than-usual three-dimensional figure, both feet planted firmly in soil. Mind you Gray did do some radical pruning to arrive at this characterization...but if he didn't wouldn't Fawcett end up looking like another smaller-scale Aguirre clone (see: Marlon Brando)?

Where Aguirre is an unforgettable condemnation of Western imperialism by mere virtue of the fact that it records with unblinking directness the spiraling descent of a man drunk with his sense of destiny, Gray's Lost City takes an approach not unsimilar to Roberto Rossellini's Journey to Italy--the understated underdramatized portrait of a married couple negotiating the gulf (in Rossellini's case spiritual in Gray's case geographical) that has formed between them.

So Nina in a powerful scene demands an equality Percy is not quite prepared to give (he seems reasonable till his reasoning is questioned); so the jungle exerts a hold the man is unable to shake off, even when he's in World War I trenches facing chlorine gas; so son Jack defies his father in ways the latter can't fully reprimand, because they both know who's really at fault. 

Call Gray and Hunnam's Fawcett a moderate creation--moderately intelligent, moderately imaginative, moderately passionate--who is slowly consumed by his obsession, all the while aware of what said consummation is costing him and his loved ones. 

Call this film a struggle between class-conscious England and tribalist Amazon, between Fawcett's band of tight-knit brothers and his loving (as best they can) family, between 21st century style elliptical narrative and '70s style 35 mm filmmaking. 

Call this in effect a James Gray film, where material has been trimmed and sutured (or if you like hacked and crammed) together in an attempt to form an entirely new creature. In glorious color by the great Darius Khondji (who had previously done Gray's The Immigrant, and worked for Woody Allen, David Fincher, Wong Kar-Wai, Jean-Pierre Juenet among others). 

Call this the result of Gray flinging two worlds together in violent collision (Collusion?), creating a middle ground where both exist in seething uneasy equilibrium. Creative modulation or mediocre hackwork? I say the former but--go see the film, decide for yourself.

The film's final shot is (like The Immigrant's final shot) its most beautiful and most horrifying--where Percy can't get his head out of the jungle Nina can't get the jungle out of her head. They're together at last though physically apart, one soul seeking the other in an endless world of green.

First published in Businessworld 6.22.17

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