Wednesday, 6 September 2017

“The Lost City of Z” and Mozart in the Jungle

A classic, in any art form, is a work that stands out as an authoritative and superior example of its genre, style, production circumstances, or purpose. The quality of being classical is the reliance on and use of well-established principles of composition, traditional forms and techniques, and recognisable approaches to presentation. In a strict and conventional sense, classicism would signify the taking on of the exemplary standards and styles of Greek and Roman architecture, Renaissance paintings, Age of Enlightenment music, either ancient Greek and Roman or Elizabethan poetry (depending on your perspective on literature), or the cinema of the Hollywood studio era that lasted from the 1920s to the early 1960s. James Gray’s new film (and the first that I’ve seen from this eminent director), The Lost City of Z, both epitomises classical cinematic principles and is an instant-classic in its brilliance as a genre film made at a particular time in a particular way — though I would regard it just as highly without the matters of genre, timing, and methods taken into consideration.

Consider first the screenplay Gray wrote, adapted from the non-fiction book The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker. He sets it up in a recognisably conventional way, with a somewhat idiosyncratic officer in the British army, in the bright days of the Empire, who is disdained by his superiors, but recognised for his unique skills and achievements and suitability for a large, risky venture of combined exploration, diplomacy, and arbitration. The most obvious and famous correlate with this set-up is David Lean’s highly regarded queer epic, Lawrence of Arabia. Gray cuts just as abruptly from his officer’s briefing to the far-off wilderness he must confront, and even includes a few cursory, mutedly ostentatious shots of the vast natural wonders at hand, then continues with the exposition of his plot just like the page-turner pulp fiction adventures that so many classic Hollywood films were based on. (Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which spawned many film adventures, was reportedly based on the reports of Doyle’s good friend Percy Fawcett, who is the hero of Gray’s story.) Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is tasked with surveying parts of the jungle in Bolivia and Brazil, with the purpose of establishing their boundary to settle a dispute over valuable natural resources. That mission is cancelled not long after he arrives, though as he tries to continue with it, an Amazonian scout tells him of a mysterious city deep in the jungle, covered with gold, and inhabited by a multitude of people. After encountering a number of life-threatening dangers on his trip and, later, returning to England to great acclaim for his accomplishment, Fawcett finds that he is obsessed with finding the city he has heard of. His long-suffering wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), helps him unearth further evidence of it in archived conquistador texts, and Percy sets off to the Amazon again with the express purpose of finding what he calls “the Lost City of Z,” to signify the last realm of discovery in human development.

Fawcett’s hypothesis is that the supposed Amazonian city is an ancient, advanced civilisation, that could match our own in sophistication, and may well pre-date it. His ideas are met with ridicule and anger when he speaks in London, and the English establishment refuses to accept the notion of any South American peoples who are any more advanced than the gang of primal “savages” they perceive them to be. Fawcett points out that that is a convenient position to take for people who have condemned the race they deride to slavery and death. What is left unsaid, but rings in the overtones heard by any audience watching the film today, is that, when the European conquerors finally recognise that the world’s other races are fully their equals in all innate abilities and worth, they will begin to realise the full extent of the evil and harm they have wreaked across many nations. Lawrence of Arabia never quite got this far in showing the structures of the colonialists’ occupations, but, then, that was never Lean’s purpose.

Gray reminds me of another popular Oscar winner about Europeans who head off into far-off lands, Out of Africa, in one very particular detail: When Fawcett arrives at a rubber plantation, early in his first trip to the Amazon, he witnesses a production of an opera being staged by local performers for a local audience — I wasn’t taking notes in the theatre, but, as a I recall, it was Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. Sydney Pollack’s rather bland film, adapted from Karen Blixen’s memoir Out of Africa, had a scene in which Robert Redford played a recording of Mozart’s clarinet concerto on the gramophone he bought for Meryl Streep, on her lawn in the Kenyan highlands. As Pollack used Mozart, it was a cute — but also cheap — juxtaposition of the refined artistic legacy of Europe with the intemperate, crude beauty of Africa’s natural wonders. Here, Gray’s use is far more abstract, where the local performers are shown to be just as capable as Robert Redford’s recorded musicians of bringing to life a work of great beauty in their own community, and the local audience is just as capable of appreciating it as Meryl Streep. The fact that it’s Mozart they’re performing is incidental (though probably linked to the musical tastes of the filmmaker), and if the music they had sung was anything else that a moviegoing audience would have recognised as equally pure in emotion and exquisite in form, the point of the scene would have rung just as true.

Fawcett searches for Z not with the ambition to discover gold and win glory for himself (as was suggested in the reviews by Grethe Kemp for the City Press, by Tymon Smith for the Times, and by Leon van Nierop on RSG); he is in search of an anthropological discovery for the era, and physical proof to confirm his anthropological, even philosophical ideas. In this, the pure essence of the quest, I see Gray’s art reflected in Fawcett’s story. Gray himself, as a classicist and also a creator, views art in search of meanings and perspectives to support his own worldview; he observes the world at hand and his own experience of it to arrive at that worldview; and he both discovers and invents ways of representing and expanding that view in his art. Like an explorer who searches appointed areas for artefacts from and evidence of human histories, with the aim of new knowledge and a broadened understanding, Gray films his appointed cast with a fresh and spontaneous openness, looking for the outward representations of vast inner histories in each of them. His cast, in fact, is brilliantly appointed, and Miller in particular gives the impression of a full, varied, and mysterious person beneath the few lines of dialogue she is given to utter. Her character is a conspicuous construct of the script that requires a talented actress to bring it to life, and she plays it with an awareness of the conscientious and artificial front that a woman in Edwardian society had to carry in public. Gray looks for treasures of spontaneous life and full vision in his filming, hoping for the riches of experience and wisdom they would bring, and he dramatises that process of looking in Fawcett’s search for similar riches. Even the breaks in Fawcett’s expeditions — the times when he is forced to return to London and endure the bitter cynicism and bickering of the officials he encounters there — resemble breaks in production and the long development periods that unfortunately beset many of the best director-driven cinematic projects, including The Lost City of Z (Gray was first hired to make the film in early 2009).

Gray’s film swells with emotion, even as his images swell with visual music, which befits the opera whose production he depicts. Compare the experience of watching this film with that of, say, Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant, in which similar hard voyages through an American wilderness are depicted, but where the emphasis is on the physical hardships the characters endure, and, indeed, the physical hardships the actors themselves endured in acting it out, rather than on any depiction of and consideration for the inner experiences and interior life of the people being represented onscreen. Gray emphasises the strength of his characters’ emotions and the moral force of their ideas, and, from that, a complex web of feelings, thoughts, and experiences arise, so nuanced and personal they appear to tint the natural surroundings being filmed. Gray doesn’t pretend to find any nobility in physical toils, and the contrasts between the Amazon and England are not between difficulty and convenience or scarcity and luxury, but between the morally neutral dangers of nature’s wildness, and the savagery of the equally dangerous and lethal society — here, western society, in particular. With a sureness in the openness of his filming, Gray displays this savagery openly for much of the time spent by Fawcett in England, as in the English people’s bigotry towards the Amazonians, their strident focus on commercial interest, their contempt for individuals with unfortunate family histories, no matter how accomplished or gallant those individuals may be, and even in the reference to World War I, which is as good a reminder as any of the absurdity and savagery of Europe. The Amazonians, Gray suggests, are not necessarily less cruel or ferocious a group of people than the British (his film is shot through with streaks of misanthropy), but they hold knowledge and experiences that are as valuable and as worthy of recognition as human advancements as those held by the British. The film’s conclusion is open-ended, as much for the search for and appreciation of old glories of human creation are. I’ve heard complaints about the film to the effect that, if Fawcett really had arrived at something important, we would have heard of him; that fact that we haven’t means that the story is a waste of time. It’s true that Fawcett and his supposed discoveries (as well as hopes for more conclusive discoveries) are not a part of the popular official record of history; we haven’t heard of it, just as we haven’t heard of a multitude of painters, composers, poets, sculptors, choreographers, film auteurs, and photographers who have either been lost to history or whose works have been pushed to the margins. Fawcett couldn’t say how much we may have lost in the disappearance of Z, nor how much we could gain by its discovery. Gray suggests answers to those questions in his art.

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