Friday, November 24, 2017

The Lost City of Z (2017)

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
         -T.S. Eliot

The essential moment in James Gray’s The Lost City of Z arrives when an arrow pierces through a bible Percy Fawcett holds as he tries to make peace with a group of savages in the jungles of Amazonia. Using the bible as symbolic protection, it literally saves his life. Gray cuts to a side-angle close-up of Fawcett holding the book in front of his face, the tip of the arrow sticking through its cover, inches from his flesh. The impact of the arrow against the bible functions as an awakening for Fawcett. Gray uses the moment to cut to shots of Fawcett’s first son’s baptism back in England. Fawcett is a long way from home and he’s searching for what might be called the sublime. I’m deeply struck by the fact that at this moment of near death  Gray seems to suggest that he’s had it all along.
 The Lost City of Z concerns the real-life explorer Percy Fawcett (played here by Charlie Hunham) and his ventures into the Amazonian jungles over a 20-year period in search of an ancient civilization he calls Zed. The jungle is a highly dangerous place, rife with snakes, disease, and violent savages, and yet Fawcett continues to go back (in real life he made a total of 8 expeditions; in the film Gray chronicles three of them). What do these expeditions mean for Fawcett?
Initially the incentive is based on Edwardian England’s societal pressures. Fawcett feels the need to elevate his family name after his father cast a shadow on it by his copious drinking and gaming. In an early scene we see Fawcett prepare for a social event with his wife Nina (Sienna Miller, exceptional): “Well my darling, I will be the only man there tonight in my rank whose uniform is unadorned.” When Fawcett is later offered a chance to go to Amazonia to map the border between Bolivia and Brazil (both countries are feuding over border land rich with rubber), an official of the Royal Geographical Society informs Fawcett that, “the journey may mean your life. But, were you to succeed, such an undertaking could earn you soldierly decoration—and even reclaim your family name.” The journey becomes a means to an end, something Fawcett does not necessarily wants to do, but certainly feels the need to do. Within the movie’s social milieu, to live well one needs the respect of his fellow citizens. “I know this is a sacrifice for all of us,” Percy tells his wife during a farewell picnic in a sun-kissed field. “But it will be worth it.” Worth what, exactly? Percy is leaving in order to improve his family’s life and place in society. The farewell picnic, though, has an edenic quality to it, as the Fawcett’s son Jack plays in the distance and Nina informs Percy that she’s expecting another child. Gray and his director of photography, Darius Khondji, give the scene a soft yellow hue, and there’s an implication that Fawcett is leaving behind something that should be an ideal, but is not due his need to enhance his image in society.
While it’s unfortunate that Fawcett must leave his family, the viewer, as well as Nina, understands that there is something important at stake. The initial expedition, in which Fawcett is accompanied by Corporal Henry Costin (an excellent and almost unrecognizable Robert Pattinson), is successful, but also long and perilous. The jungle, harsh and unwelcoming, is shrouded in an eerie haze that suggests more mystery than grandeur. Worn and tired, Fawcett stares into a campfire one night, as if finally able to ruminate about the nature of his journey: “I see my son’s face in my dreams now.” Gray, who’s become a master at using impressionistic inserts, cuts to a wide image of the son Jack standing in a grassy field, his back to the camera. It’s a deeply sad foreshadowing of how Fawcett’s travels will affect his boy. “What kind of a fool am I to leave my family for this place?” He asks. Fawcett has just learned that his family has moved to a new house, so home, again, is not a physical location, but a concept related to family. To understand the eventual tragedy of Gray’s film, it’s important for Fawcett to acknowledge on this first trip that he truly misses home.
Intriguingly, when Fawcett returns back to England after discovering remnants of a civilization in the jungle (strange carvings and broken pottery), the initial reason for his journey becomes somewhat of an afterthought. Either he forgets about it, or the concern for social status is simply overshadowed by his new obsession with his lost city. And when this interest turns to obsession, I feel The Lost City of Z becomes a deeply sad work. Hunham plays Fawcett as a seriously composed and dignified gentleman, his words always perfectly enunciated, his actions organized, his judgment appearing sound. But such a surface only masks the storm that swells up inside him, the uncertainty and confusion and need for independence that propels him into the unknown.

When Fawcett arrives off his return ship, he receives a hero’s welcome, as a massive crowd cheers his homecoming and commends him with such words as: “Major Fawcett, you are England’s bravest explorer!” Amidst the crowd is Nina, with one son who does not remember his father, and another who’s never even seen him. Fawcett’s initial problems in the film concerning his status have been erased. He’s home, he’s now deeply respected, and he’s reunited with his family whom he clearly missed greatly. And yet his actions upon returning from the jungle suggest extensive inner turmoil still sits restlessly within him.
At a large assembly for the Royal Geographical Society, Fawcett explains not just his belief in a lost civilization, but what this might mean for an English culture stymied by harsh structures and customs: “Perhaps it is too difficult for some of you to admit. We, who have been steeped in the bigotry of the Church for so long cannot give much credence to an older civilization, particularly one created by a race the white man has so brutally condemned to slavery and death.” Fawcett has moved from attempting to gain praise from British society to fearlessly exposing its weaknesses. He’s gone from a man desperate to fit in for the well being of his family to a social outlier paving the way for change.
But Fawcett’s not quite the radical progressive he makes himself to be, either. Nina, a scholar of the ancient civilizations her husband is seeking, asks him if she can accompany him on his next adventure. His response suggests he’s actually caught between tradition and progress: “It’s not a place at all for a woman. Men and women have performed their roles since the beginning of time!” Fawcett demands that his wife keep the family as a structured unit without considering that his absences are breaking it apart.
And this brings us to the crucial second excursion, where Fawcett returns to the jungle again with Costin as well as a renowned biologist, James Murray (Angus Macfayden). When the arrow pierces through his bible and Fawcett gets flashes of his home and family, he’s essentially experiencing an epiphany.
So much discussion around the movie has been characterized by what Fawcett is searching for and the nature of such a pursuit, but there’s less centered on what he’s leaving behind while doing so. For a film that relies greatly on the unknown (“So much of life is a mystery, my boy,” Fawcett tells his son), Gray almost deceptively presents the film’s most beautiful idea in the open. Fawcett is seeking something transcendent the entire film, but that thing keeps eluding him.

Gray understands that Fawcett’s mind is in the wrong place, that his wife and children ultimately represent the sublime that Fawcett seeks. It’s such a simple idea, yet in showing a man go to such magnificent and terrifying lengths to reach this conclusion is Gray’s stroke of genius. Gray does not simplify the matter though by reducing it to a lesson Fawcett learns and uses to improve his life. After he returns from his second voyage, he’s enlightened, yet the jungle still seems to be latched on to a part of him. As he reunites with his wife outside their home, the grounds seem overgrown with thick weeds and bushes, while the house itself is covered in vines. It’s as if Fawcett has taken the jungle home with him. Part of the man is still in the wild, as if it’s fastened to his psyche and won’t come undone.

A vital aspect of Gray as a filmmaker is that he relies heavily on subtlety but is never ambiguous. He prizes a kind of narrative clarity all too rare in contemporary filmic storytelling. His characters are deeply complicated, but he never shies away from clearly explicating their complexities. The Lost City of Z allows us to witness Fawcett fully understanding the nature of his soul’s yearning.

In the film’s final third, Gray takes a brief stop in WWI, where Fawcett is aiding England in the fight against France. In the trenches before battle, a fortuneteller visits and prophesizes Fawcett’s return to the jungle:  “Your soul will never be quiet until you find this new place. With it you will illuminate the world.” Gray’s camera slowly pans across the faces of the soldiers listening in a kind of subdued awe. Fawcett shakes his head, as a tear slowly drips down his face. The background of the tent they sit in becomes Amazonia, a stylistic gesture that could have been corny if Gray was not so completely committed to Fawcett’s interior world. “Our world has set itself a fire,” he laments. “I must look elsewhere to quench the blaze.” The very next scene shows Fawcett speaking to his brigade in the trenches before battle. His version of a motivational speech is a summation of his interior journey as a man: “When I was young, I ventured all for king and country, for place and rank. I believed that to be the makings of a man. But my travels have taught me such ambitions are mere phantoms. I know in our hearts, we fight for our loved ones, as we should.” B just when we think Fawcett has come to terms with fact that the jungle will not provide him an answer to his soul’s yearning, he tells Nina while in the hospital recovering from his war wounds that he’s dreaming of Amazonia. “I must go back…” he tells her, weeping. Fawcett seems cursed with a need for this lost city, and at this point it understandably pains him that he still feels the need to return to it.

Gray is also dealing with an historical figure, and while he takes liberties with elements of his biography, his ultimate fate must be acknowledged. The Lost City of Z has a triptych structure built around three of Fawcett’s jungle quests. The last of these includes the eldest son, Jack, who has evolved from a resentful child to a young man with the same vigor and passion for Z that his father initially displayed. The journey does not begin without Fawcett first trying to persuade Costin to join him a final time. Costin declines, reasoning that he has a wife and child to care for. While not denying that the city in the jungle exists, he expresses doubt “that Z can provide all the answers you seek from it.” Costin essentially is the man that Fawcett has wanted and needed to be all along. Initially we wonder if Fawcett goes back because he loves his son, or if he’s using it simply as an opportunity to perpetuate the remnants of his obsession with Z. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Fawcett and his son never returned, and in the film, we see them captured by a native tribe as they succumb to a spiritual ceremony that we suspect will result in their death. “We know so little of this world,” Fawcett tells his son. “But you and I have made a journey that other men cannot even imagine. And this has given understanding to our hearts.” In this moment of reckoning perhaps Fawcett is making a final attempt to justify his actions. He is not wrong in doing so, but his conclusion is false. He has not found his city. He recollects a moment after his son’s birth when his wife reads a letter she has written him, and finishes with a quote from a Browning poem: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” I find this a deeply moving notion, and it does seem to provide Fawcett with a sense of closure. Yet he finds this, again, through a memory of home, where he ought to be but cannot be.

There’s undeniably something skewed and tragic about Fawcett’s perspective. He does not know what he wants, and the journey for Z is his way of finding that. His pursuit is sustenance for his soul, and it becomes beguiling and maddening. The viewer sees it lucidly, while Fawcett oscillates between moments of clarity and confusion. The further one gets from home, the stronger our need to return to it. When we manage to get back to it, we lose sight of its importance and leave it again. As long as we can keep returning to it, we shall be okay. For Fawcett, he made one too many trips to Amazonia. 


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