Monday, April 24, 2017

The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z (2017) is a large-scale, globe-trotting production -- the movie was made in Northern Ireland and on-location in the jungles of Columbia.  (The picture was primarily financed through Amazon Studios, a funding source that rhymes with the movie's subject.)  Indigenous tribal people ensconced in a national park in Columbia play an important role in the film and there are elaborate battle scenes (the Battle of the Somme), colorful formal balls, and a spectacular hunt with a hundred dogs and horses performing for helicopters zooming overhead.  It's a period picture, set between 1906 and 1925, and, when the hero goes to London, the film shows us murky streets crowded with extras, steam, fog, soot and picturesque urban filth.  About a half-dozen vintage locomotives roar through the landscape.  It's impressive, as handsome as can be, but, ultimately, the film feels anachronistic -- it's a throw-back to the sort of movie attempted by David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia, intrepid Englishmen braving the hazards of dangerous terrain.  Conscious of the film's atavistic appeal, the director, James  Gray, and his screenwriter bow toward trendy political correctness -- an important theme in the film is the hero's admiration for the tribal people that he encounters and his desire to prove that their forbears were as civilized as the ancient Britons.  But this doesn't change the fact that the film has a very archaic and stiff upper-lip -- in this movie, a man addresses the Royal Geographic Society with the words:  "The jungle is hell... but one quite likes it." 

Percy Fawcett was a household name within living memory.  My father admired his robust and vivid travel books and his disappearance in 1925 resulted in dozens of rescue expeditions continuing for, at least, three decades.  Fawcett is the hero of the film, an explorer who encountered (he claimed) evidence of an advanced civilization in the Amazonian basin.  Fawcett, who was a tireless self-promoter -- an aspect of his life concealed by the film -- made three famous expeditions into the Amazon to seek a chimera that he called "the lost city of Z" (pronounced "zed" in this film).  The Edwardian era was a great age of exploration -- it was the epoch of Shackleton, Byrd, Perry, Amundsen, and other adventurers who filled in the blank spots on the maps.  Fawcett was among these men, a fellow either preternaturally strong and healthy or fantastically lucky -- Amazon exploration killed just about everyone who attempted it, but Fawcett was unscathed; at least until the end, he seemed to flourish in the green hell of the jungle.  The problem that the film faces is that exploration is intrinsically difficult to dramatize -- the great explorers trudge through wasteland, everyone around them dies, and, at last, they either die or return to civilization to begin the cycle again.  Fawcett went to the Amazon three times with similar results:  people die, the natives attack, more people die and Fawcett fails to discover his lost city although he returns with tantalizing artifacts.   The Lost City of Z is a big, prestigious bio-pic and, generally, follows the outline of Fawcett's life.  But it's almost completely static as a drama -- Fawcett's longsuffering wife (whom he dependably impregnates each time he's back in Britain) grieves and rages that her husband is drawn away from her, they argue, the children wish their father would remain at home, and, then, Fawcett returns to the jungle where he suffers exorbitantly with his men who mostly perish from disease, insects, hunger, and exhaustion.  Fawcett takes a vacation from exploration on the Western Front where all his men are killed around him in a frontal assault on German machine guns and where he is gassed with chlorine and almost blinded.  Recovering from his wounds, Fawcett is induced to make a last attempt to discover the lost city, traveling light with his son, into the Bolivian jungle.  He and his son vanish and are never seen again.  Since no one knows what happened to Fawcett, the movie hedges its bets on this point -- Gray stages a phantasmagoria redolent of the ending of Apocalypse Now with innumerable campfires flaring against he black jungle and huge tripods filled with fire.  A fictional twist at the end of the picture suggests that Fawcett discovered the lost city.  I don't want to spoil the film's final shot, but it suffices to say that it is very beautiful, surreal, and strangely moving. (David Grann's source essay and book involve the writer's modern-day venture into the jungles that swallowed-up Percy Fawcett and his "discovery" of what archaeologists have known for a decade -- there was, indeed, an advanced agricultural civilization in Amazonia, but its monuments, largely involving monumental earthworks and canals, are hidden by the jungle.   Grann's book ends with the writer surveying a landscape that he understands to have been intensely manipulated by pre-Columbian human beings: it is right there in plain sight, but you have to know what to see.) 

A brilliant final shot doesn't equate to a great movie and, ultimately, you have seen everything in The Lost City of Zed before and in better movies.  Herzog's Amazonian movies, Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo (and to some extent Cobra Verde) have covered this terrain far more effectively -- indeed, Gray steals a motif from Fitzcarraldo, the opera performance in the jungle.  (He even casts Franco Nero as the world-weary rubber baron, a nod toward the Euro-trash milieu occupied by the redoubtable Klaus Kinski.)  Gray does a reasonably good job with this material -- in fact, by typical Hollywood standards, he has a made a film to rank with some of David Lean's pictures -- but with a few exceptional scenes embedded in material rife with clich├ęs.  That said, I am sucker for this kind of movie and shed a few tears while, nonetheless, convinced that The Lost City of Zed is pretty derivative and, ultimately, dramatically unsuccessful.  A Russian soothsayer appears mysteriously on the Western Front and tells the hero that exploration is "his destiny" -- the scene is staged in subterranean bunker during a heavy bombardment.  At the end of the movie, the ever-patient Mrs. Fawcett quotes Browning:  "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, else what's a heaven for."  I shed some hot tears for this film, but I'm afraid that you won't. 

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