James Gray’s The Lost City of Z

Shane Danielsen on James Gray’s The Lost City of Z

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Ifirst met James Gray at the Venice Film Fes­ti­val back in 1994. He was 25, and his de­but fea­ture, Lit­tle Odessa, was in com­pe­ti­tion; it wound up win­ning a Sil­ver Lion. A kind of do­mes­tic gang­ster flick, set in the Rus­sian-Jewish en­clave of Brighton Beach, Brook­lyn, it felt raw and ver­nac­u­lar in the way of other low-bud­get East Coast indies, but there were hints, be­neath the sur­face blus­ter, of its maker’s deeper in­cli­na­tions. The shots were longer than most Amer­i­can films of that pe­riod, and the mise en scène more clas­si­cal. A lit­tle of its melan­choly felt over­ripe, steeped in too much Rus­sian litur­gi­cal mu­sic, but mostly the film seemed vi­tal and lived in, an un­sen­ti­men­tal valen­tine to a par­tic­u­lar New York com­mu­nity.

Gray him­self was some­thing else. He wasn’t rude, ex­actly – more im­pa­tient, seething with ideas and anec­dotes and opin­ions, many re­fresh­ingly im­politic. (There were, I soon dis­cov­ered, an aw­ful lot of his peers’ movies he didn’t like.) Above all, he seemed like a film­maker on the up, pre­oc­cu­pied al­ready by the films he wanted to make.

And why not? He was do­ing ev­ery­thing right. The small-scale in­die de­but, fi­nanced in part off credit cards, lent lus­tre by ma­jor stars (Tim Roth, Vanessa Red­grave) and bur­nished by fes­ti­val ac­claim. The stu­dio devel­op­ment deal. He was tak­ing ev­ery step re­quired to suc­ceed.

And then the script changed.

Al­most a quar­ter-cen­tury later, James Gray has com­pleted his sixth fea­ture. Un­like his close con­tem­po­rary Quentin Tarantino, he’s by no means a house­hold name. Nor has he been es­pe­cially pro­lific; after that early tri­umph in Venice, it took him an­other six years to com­plete his sec­ond fea­ture, 2000’s grim, bleakly beau­ti­ful The Yards. But his half-dozen cred­its amount to a cu­ri­ous and sin­gu­lar body of work, un­like any­thing else in mod­ern Amer­i­can cin­ema.

His largest and most am­bi­tious pro­duc­tion to date, The Lost City of Z (in lim­ited re­lease) is very good in­deed, a re­mark­able re­turn to form after the mis­step of 2013’s The Im­mi­grant. But it’s also mag­nif­i­cent, in a quixotic, damn-the-tor­pe­does kind of way. It ar­rives at a his­tor­i­cal mo­ment when Hol­ly­wood’s stu­dios are com­mit­ted to fran­chises, four-quad­rant block­busters and not much else. Fan­tasy is the thing, now – su­per­heroes and Min­ions and what­ever the fuck Vin Diesel is; his­tory is ir­rel­e­vant. And per­sonal, grown-up film­mak­ing is rarer than a thought­ful tweet from the Oval Of­fice.

So, in these strait­ened cir­cum­stances, what does James Gray do? He elects to write and di­rect an old-fash­ioned jun­gle-ad­ven­ture epic, a genre that slipped out of fash­ion about the same time as the Lindy hop. Or rather, he takes all the el­e­ments of a jun­gle ad­ven­ture – a jour­ney into un­charted ter­ri­tory; a brave, doomed hero; en­coun­ters with blood­thirsty na­tives – and in­cul­cates them with all the stuff that clas­sic Hol­ly­wood movies ei­ther over­looked or ig­nored: no­tions of colo­nial­ism and pa­tri­archy and glob­al­i­sa­tion. Which makes it sound, I know, about as thrilling as a cul­tural stud­ies sem­i­nar. In­stead, it’s a widescreen, old-fash­ioned epic, sen­sual and fine­grained and visu­ally breath­tak­ing – ever the tra­di­tion­al­ist, Gray in­sisted on shoot­ing on 35mm film – that also op­er­ates as a study of in­di­vid­ual ob­ses­sion … on both sides of the cam­era.

Adapted from David Grann’s 2009 best­seller, the film tells the real-life story of Lieu­tenant Colonel Per­ci­val (“Percy”) Har­ri­son Fawcett, a Bri­tish Royal Ar­tillery of­fi­cer in the first decade of the 20th cen­tury, who found both his mil­i­tary ca­reer and place in so­ci­ety im­peded by the ex­ploits of his late fa­ther – a drunk who’d squan­dered the fam­ily for­tune and tar­nished its good name. (As one be­whiskered chap puts it here, with an acid­ity wor­thy of An­thony Pow­ell, “Fawcett has been rather un­for­tu­nate in his choice of an­ces­tors.”)

For Percy, there­fore, the past is some­thing to over­come rather than to cel­e­brate. His gaze is fixed squarely on the fu­ture – on his ad­vance­ment through the ranks, and the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of his rep­u­ta­tion. So when he’s of­fered a com­mis­sion to join a Royal Ge­o­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety ex­pe­di­tion to South Amer­ica, to chart a dis­puted bor­der be­tween Brazil

and Bo­livia, he seizes the chance, even though it means aban­don­ing his wife and in­fant sons for more than two years.

In truth, he’s lured less by the pos­si­bil­ity of mil­i­tary hon­ours than by the sim­ple prom­ise of ad­ven­ture. Con­di­tions, he’s as­sured, will be ar­du­ous, the “sav­ages” mur­der­ous. There will be dis­ease and dis­com­fort. For a sol­dier of the Crown, flush with im­pe­rial pride, it all sounds ir­re­sistible.

That Fawcett’s name was Per­ci­val is one of those strangerthan-fic­tion truths that oc­ca­sion­ally in­trude upon sto­ry­telling, since, pre­cisely like that Arthurian knight, he finds him­self drawn into noth­ing less than a grail quest – the pro­tracted, life-al­ter­ing pur­suit of some tran­scen­dent but unattain­able goal. While trekking through the jun­gle, he hears from one of his en­slaved guides a story about an ad­vanced civil­i­sa­tion ex­ist­ing some­where deep in the Ama­zon, a utopia undis­turbed by the out­side world. The dis­cov­ery, a few days later, of some frag­ments of pot­tery seems to con­firm this ac­count. Fawcett quickly (per­haps a lit­tle too quickly) de­clares his be­lief in the hid­den city, and de­votes much of the rest of his life to find­ing it, re­turn­ing again and again to the jun­gle with­out suc­cess.

As played by Char­lie Hun­nam, he’s a com­plex, con­tra­dic­tory char­ac­ter – ra­tio­nal­ist and mys­tic, scep­tic and be­liever. One mo­ment, a free-think­ing pro­gres­sive; the next, a hide­bound prod­uct of Em­pire. I’ve never rated the ac­tor much, but he’s lit­tle short of rev­e­la­tory here, as much at ease in the sa­lons of Lon­don (evoked with the metic­u­lous de­tail of a 19th-cen­tury novel) as in the ac­tion se­quences along the Rio Gua­poré.

In fact, the film’s per­for­mances are uni­formly su­perb. Si­enna Miller is ex­cel­lent as Fawcett’s wife, Mina, whose suc­ces­sive aban­don­ments pro­vide the real spine of the nar­ra­tive, and so, to my as­ton­ish­ment, is Robert Pat­tin­son, an ac­tor I ac­tively dis­liked be­fore this year. He’s even bet­ter in the Safdie broth­ers’ down-and-dirty crime drama Good Time (soon to be re­leased in Aus­tralia, and also ex­cel­lent) but that may be be­cause he has, in that film, the ad­van­tage of play­ing an ac­tual char­ac­ter. As Henry Costin, Fawcett’s de­pend­able aide-de-camp, he’s too lightly sketched: an acer­bic tongue, a bushy beard, and not much more.

In adopt­ing the clas­si­cal id­iom of the golden-age Amer­i­can and Euro­pean di­rec­tors he reveres, Gray oc­ca­sion­ally crosses the line be­tween homage and pla­gia­rism. (One match cut here di­rectly ref­er­ences Lawrence of Ara­bia; an­other se­quence of shots is bor­rowed whole­sale from the end of Fellini’s I vitel­loni.) But the lapidary plea­sures of the film ren­der such nit­pick­ing ir­rel­e­vant. Gray’s images are painterly, all shadow and sug­ges­tion, and he’s aided in this re­spect by the ex­tra­or­di­nary sfu­mato light­ing of the great cin­e­matog­ra­pher Dar­ius Khondji. His wide frames, in par­tic­u­lar, are im­bued with both an ex­tra­or­di­nary com­po­si­tional grace and an ab­ject, pierc­ing lone­li­ness. But no less re­mark­able are in­di­vid­ual shots: a dog stand­ing on its hind legs over an army dress uni­form laid out upon a bed; a bar­racks yard in the pale light be­fore dawn. Or a lone man, on a blasted field, fir­ing a pis­tol blindly at noth­ing. They’re the work of an artist, an au­teur in an in­dus­trial sys­tem – and that’s the prob­lem.

When I said ear­lier that the script had changed, I meant of course the mar­ket, for in Hol­ly­wood the means of pro­duc­tion are in­sep­a­ra­ble from the goods pro­duced. For about a decade, from the mid 1990s to the late 2000s, stu­dios en­cour­aged by the suc­cess of in­de­pen­dents like Pulp Fic­tion sought to cul­ti­vate younger tal­ents – much as ma­jor record la­bels did in the wake of Nir­vana. Thus, ev­ery stu­dio had its “spe­cialty” divi­sion – Warner In­de­pen­dent Pic­tures, Fox Search­light, Para­mount Van­tage – ded­i­cated to smaller-scale, more idio­syn­cratic or grown-up work. In ad­di­tion, there were pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies like Mi­ra­max and Fo­cus Fea­tures, self-pro­claimed bas­tions of “qual­ity” sto­ry­telling. Ex­ec­u­tives were seek­ing out dis­tinc­tive voices, and film­mak­ers like Gray found them­selves briefly courted and sus­tained.

Today, many of those com­pa­nies no longer ex­ist – and if they do, they’ve been bartered and sold and restruc­tured un­til lit­tle re­mains of their orig­i­nal mis­sion. And as the stu­dios have dumbed down, ar­ti­sanal film­mak­ers have found them­selves adrift. This may yet change: Ama­zon and Net­flix are each rush­ing, Medici-like, to fill the void. (Ama­zon, in fact, ac­quired this film for the US.) Nev­er­the­less, there’s some­thing de­fi­antly, thrillingly per­verse about elect­ing to make this par­tic­u­lar movie at this par­tic­u­lar time, a sheer bloody-mind­ed­ness that de­serves re­spect.

There’s a point here, about an hour and 40 min­utes in, when the film ap­pears poised to end; the mo­ment feels en­tirely con­clu­sive and right. But then, un­ex­pect­edly, the story con­tin­ues for an­other 40 min­utes, as its hero em­barks upon one last, hope­less at­tempt to reach his El Dorado. Like its sub­ject, the film goes on be­cause it must – be­cause to stop at a point any nor­mal per­son would con­sider rea­son­able would be to mis­con­strue the en­tire point of Fawcett’s ob­ses­sion, and of his life.

What fol­lows is bit­terly sad; watch­ing, I was re­minded of a line from Rilke’s diaries, about the predica­ment of a man “pow­er­less to do any­thing but wait for the catas­tro­phe to be­come com­plete”. It’s that in­ex­orable pull, to­wards a des­tiny that’s ac­tu­ally obliv­ion, which lends Fawcett’s story its air of fated in­evitabil­ity, and its tragic, en­dur­ing power.

But in this sense, the film is also a lot like Gray him­self – work­ing in the tra­di­tion of Stan­ley Kubrick and John Ford and David Lean, long after those film­mak­ers have died and the in­dus­try has been up-ended, to make an old-fash­ioned epic that (I have lit­tle doubt) al­most no one will go to see. Be­cause, for bet­ter or worse, there’s sim­ply no other way for him to be.

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