Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Lost City of Z (2016) New York Film Festival 2016

James Gray's film of the LOST CITY OF Z is not the book. If you are looking for either author David Grann's journey to find the path taken by his subject Percy Fawcett or the absolute truth  of what happened you are going to be disappointed. Gray has refashioned the story of Fawcett into a tale that is a weird mix of Werner Herzog, Joseph Conrad and Francis Ford Coppola, but with a twist all it's own.

The film is, more or less, the story of Col. Percy Fawcett a soldier in the British army. Sent to South America to map the border between Brazil and Bolivia  because there is dispute that will effect the rubber trade and the two countries want an impartial outsider to do it. While traveling Fawcett hears the story of a lost city deep in the jungle. He thinks the tales are fiction until he himself finds evidence of civilization in the jungle. The possibility that the stories might be true hangs with him and over the next 20 years he makes several more trips to the jungle to try to track down the city.

Gray's film is a kind of conundrum in terms of modern cinema. More a throw back to grand old days of epic films that flourished in the 1930 until the 1980's than a modern one, the film presents a real life human spectacle that we don't see any more. Today epics are fantasy, science fiction or comic book in nature and aren't about real human endeavor. This is the real story of a real man filmed in a real jungle. It is not filled with explosions and epic action sequences or endless computer generated shots. What will modern audiences think?

What I love about the film is that it is deceptively simple. Nominally a straight forward tale of exploration Gray has crafted a film with a great deal going on. There are levels beyond the exploration, beyond the obsession. I need to see it again to get a better handle on all of the ideas I suspect are floating around.

In an age where every action is criticized if it's not from the right political view point Gray has fashioned a film that doesn't pretend to take a holier than thou position. We are not looking back at the world with more enlightened eyes, instead we are viewing Fawcett and his achievements from the stand point of the earliest part of the twentieth century. Gray  is clearly amazed at what Fawcett did , and rightly so because regardless of what his motivations were it's hard not to see them as something amazing. He managed to map and record a large portion of an unknown territory and survive among populations that should have killed him as they did each other. His maps and writing would be the reference standard for decades after.

But the film is not about exploration. Instead it is  about what happens when we latch onto something and chase it to the bitter end. This is the story of something consuming one man, his life and those around him. The film is not gospel history, Gray has slightly altered what happened in order to tell his story, which just sort of parallels Fawcett's. It's a story similar to the work of Herzog and Conrad but where those earlier works show how the madness destroys the man at the center, this film shows the human cost to everyone around him. Fawcett's wife is left to rely on the kindness of strangers and is broken by events, his children barely know him, reputations are ruined and people die just for being near him. There is a terrible cost, even beyond Fawcett's end. It is something that Fawcett's friend Costin recognizes before that final trip when he refuses to join the expedition. He has a wife and child he doesn't want to lose. Fawcett is too blind to it and it will cost him not only his life but also his son's.

The point at which the film truly parts ways with history to become it's own story is the final section. Here the question of whether obsession is worth the cost is pondered in the explorers final moments. Gray creates a mystical ending for the explorer and his son. Fawcett is accepting of the end, his son less so.  Fawcett finally understands Costin's notion that what he has found may not be what he expected and is okay with that, his son isn't, and it's clear from the look in his eyes in those final moments he is only being brave for his father's sake (everything has always been for his father's sake). One has to applaud Gray for making an ending that is both truthful to history and to the story he is telling.

While not something you would know if you don't know the story or hadn't read the book, is the fact that Gray does a wonderful job of paring down the story. Where other filmmakers might have been tempted to open up or rewrite events, Gray sticks reasonably close to the facts. He pulls out the basic narrative and those facts that flesh out the tale he is telling but doesn't do the one's he leaving out any injustice. Where other people might have been tempted to have all sorts of scenes of life back home, Gray does so sparingly. We see enough to get the gist and he always does so in a manner that keeps us connected to Fawcett.  We always remain focused on the man as if he is our own lost city. Its a gambit that pays off for while it reduces the screen time of characters such as his strong willed wife, it produces an emotional resonance at the end when we see her alone and clutching at straws that maybe, perhaps, her husband is still alive. It is the only time we see her without her husband  and it breaks our heart.

In keeping things simple Gray never really explores what Fawcett was looking for other than the truth behind a tale. Where other filmmakers might have grafted some reasoning into the film, Gray doesn't. Fawcett is simply looking for a city.  It could have been any sort of McGuffin. There is nothing beyond that and no implications of any sort. It is his obsession we don't need anything more than that. This straight forwardness to the story frees the film up from any sort of post modernist reconstruction or criticism of history or the film because there simply are no hand holds to do so. Gray is so straight forward that it is only some time after the film ends that we might be tempted to take a step back to ponder if we should be at least somewhat critical of the story beyond obsession. However there really is no way to, since it would require us to find things that aren't there and graft our prejudices on to the story, much like the real Fawcett who was so  looking for a great stone city that he walked right by the very thing he was searching for.

This is a film that also manages to be nicely free of major problems with the treatment of the indigenous population as far as Fawcett is concerned. Fawcett's behavior in the film is clearly atypical in his world with his speaking out against slavery (and reporting it to British authorities), letting his guide go when the job as done and treating the people he meets with respect when "society", as represented by Mr Murray, belittles them and flees into the jungle. While not covered in the film, because it isn't germane to the tale being told, the real Fawcett survived for as long as he did because he treated the local people well, Though if one wants to ponder or question if he should have been doing what he was doing consider that in the end  the very people  he was traveling among ultimately made it clear he should never have been there.

From a technical stand point the film is first rate. I can't say enough good about the filmmaking on every level, which is a beautiful marriage of all that goes into making a film. You really must see this on the big screen because you will fall into it.

I also need to say that the cast is incredible and everyone disappears into their roles with Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller and especially Robert Pattinson completely disappearing into their parts. Pattinson is so good that when he showed up at the New York Film Festival press conference several writers around me had no idea who he was in the film.

This is an amazing film from top to bottom. It's a glorious return to classical style filmmaking but not classical story telling. It manages to be a wonderful mix of old school adventure and new era thoughtfulness. It is unlike any that's come out of Hollywood for decades and we are so much better for it.  Highly recommended

THE LOST CITY OF Z premiered at The New York Film Festival, is due for a trip abound the festival circuit  before getting released to theaters in the US April 21, 2017
The cast and director at the New York Film Festival press screening.

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