Neither the safety of the hearth nor the anxiety-ridden but possibility-laden frontier of the homestead, The Lost City of Z is an encounter between firm Old Hollywood cinema classicism and the porous potentiality of forward-thinking modernism. Basically, it’s the best kind of semi-mainstream 2010’s cinema, loosened enough from stultifying Oscarbait propriety by its independence from mainstream “prestige” cinema but never fully disarticulated from convention to the point where it barely reads as a narrative drama. Director James Gray’s film is irreparably sturdy but not chaste and never stodgy or conservative in aims, style, or ambition, creating a film that goes down smooth but burns in the throat and can be felt in the stomach. It’s not out of Gray’s wheelhouse; he’s been stripping various epochs of classic Hollywood cinema for parts for almost twenty years now. But he’s among the only directors to nail the ever-elusive sweet spot between, say, the aesthetically and socially empty, non-directed husks of Edward Zwick – indebted to the worst of classical Hollywood Oscarbait – and the too-pristine, over-directed formalism of David Fincher where mechanical rigor trumps everything and anything, including meaningful interaction with theme. Lost City of Z is a conventional film, but it breathes new life into playing the classics.
In the late 1800s, historian Frederick Jackson Turner articulated his famous frontier thesis about the imaginative and rhetorical value of the unknown, historically mobilized to conquer and explore in American culture. This argument reflected the impetus for the Manifest Destiny philosophy that white America was destined to reign sovereign over all the Americas, but it also charted the core of liberal bootstrap individualism so key to what Turner considered the American way. Turner’s tone was ambivalent at best. He was never critical of America’s oppressive and self-aggrandizing worldview, but merely disheartened about the possibility that America no longer had land to conquer after a century of continued expansion Westward that was, in truth, much more central to every major political and social crises of the 1800s than many assume, the Civil War included. America’s solution, of course, was to self-propagate its navy and turn it from a defensive to an offensive mechanism and to extend its Social Darwinist message of “civilizing” the masses to the world.
Set at this modern juncture (one we’ve never really left) where the world is seemingly shrinking and enlarging, Lost City of Z shows that, for Britain, bereft of land, the name of the game was always international. And for Perry Fawcett, it was an almost spiritual call that exceeded the economic dictions of the time. It infected his heart in a decidedly personal and essentially transcendent way, evoking the way in which the ideological and institutional manifest individually and internally. For Fawcett, who ventured to South America in search of a glory and, more specifically, a lost city he names Z, eight times in his life, this is not merely a case of governmental ideology becoming his “mask” for his own personal goals. He isn’t simply alloying himself to Britain’s desires in order to satiate his own individualism. Too many individualistic films misconstrue or devalue ideology, treating the realm of the social as nothing more than a way individuals pursue their own desires, which are construed as pre-social or “innate” in contrast to governmental or national desires foisted upon them. Thus, moving forward in British history, we get Margaret Thatcher’s famously ludicrous “there is no such thing as society,” only individuals and, in a neoliberal copout, families.
In Lost City, though, even when Fawcett mocks his British compatriots, it is well apparent that his nation’s colonial and imperial fetishes, its need to control and dominate and assert their own superiority, are inextricably defining, sculpting, and shaping Fawcett as well. The decorous and dangerous vibes effused from his mental image of the Amazon are mimetic for both the riches his nation seeks within the Amazon and Fawcett’s own quest for personal decoration to overcome his father’s failures that loom large over his desires. His personal ideologies, the film makes clear, are national ideologies. His belief that the people of the Amazon may be more advanced than his countrymen want to admit is always bounded by his need to fulfill a much more fundamental Western fetish for personal success cotangent to “proving” one’s ability to forage and survive in other countries. Or, more accurately, to paradoxically feel as though you are casting off civilization, TE Lawrence style, while still being an instrument of civilization, fundamentally unable to reconcile or even recognize the contradictions looming in your society and in your heart.
On the surface, Lost City of Z is less bold than the thematically kindred Embrace of the Serpent, but it is also less trapped in its own symbolism and more fluidly and dialogically able to critique Western mindsets without encasing them in a shroud of specimen-like mystique. Or, worse, feeling the need to overtly criticize them in every moment to prove its liberal credulity. For me at least, Lost City of Z uses its style to more immanently critique and explore Western adventurer mindsets, as well as the oppression these adventurers can condition and be complicit with even, crucially, when they are themselves swayed by thoughts of “respect” for the “others” they confront. Lost City is also more quietly radical in its style, and it mobilizes its form to slightly more pointed purposes, as a scalpel into Fawcett’s imperial-non-imperial mindset, an exploration of how he can embody both at once.
How, exactly? A dialectic construction, Gray’s film, on the surface, is astonishingly efficient, bracingly cinematic in its edits which bend time and space and recall the superior ‘30s adventure serials over the more lugubrious ‘40s and ‘50s ones the film might have on its mind. That earlier era – brandishing films like the sweaty, sultry Red Dust – boasted films of a tightness and a deceptive intelligence unknown to the later era, when showing off the scenery took over the role of cutting in order to tell the tale at hand. And, in Lost City, the cuts do cut, mind you, sometimes right into the heart of European egotism. Consider a cheeky match-cut where alcohol fuels not only the quasi-delusional dreams of these adventuresome sorts but the masculine momentum of a train, the locomotion of which Britain perceives as the ultimate monument to its manly industrialization and its globe-trotting, space-conquering conceitedness. This sly murmur of thematic irony is itself akin to many early adventure serials, nominally imperialist but beset with a deep vein of formal skepticism and dialectical curiosity about the limits of their philosophy. But, in this mode, Lost City also seems to recreate the imperialist mindset while critiquing it in minor or exclusively subliminal ways and within contained borders, as though fundamentally limited by its own fundamental prettiness and ethereal recollections of classical cinema, its desire to entertain as a film, to succeed at the box office. Thus, the first part of the dialectic: the part where the film embodies Fawcett’s mild disdain for British imperialism while still embodying it or weaponizing it in service of his personal entertainment. Much as many early British films do mobilize imperialism for cinematic entertainment even when they critique it, Fawcett enjoys imperialism functionally, despite his personal rhetoric against aspects of it, thereby inadvertently fulfilling its mission anyway.
At the same time, a great madness of Gray’s is his willingness to create such a bracingly inefficient film, a film which diffuses and denies classical narrative entertainment, which is where his film’s more fundamental interrogation of the efficiency or the poetry of imperialism, and imperialistic cinema, comes into play. A deeply episodic narrative, Lost City hovers slowly on moments and then jumps forward in time without a moment’s hesitation, as though daring the audience to attune to how deeply dysfunctional this man’s life is. Or how astonishingly incompatible with a tidy, fulfilling conventional three-act structure the herky-jerky, never-fulfilling march of his life actually is. The arrhythmic quality of the film, intentionally unsatisfying at the level of set-up and pay-off or rising and falling action, is at its best when boon and bust are immanently identical, when the film is exploring how its emphasis on certain features of British society preclude others. Which is to say, the film, boldly and humbly ensures that it is always partially incomplete and unsatisfying even in its successful ventures, and how men like Fawcett pick their progressive ideologies and use them to excuse other failures. For instance, Nina (Sienna Miller), Perry’s wife, mentions gender once and then never again. Whether this is a flaw of the film or a flaw of the society it depicts – a society and a protagonist unwilling to afford any more time to his wife at the expense of his permanently unsatisfying, masculine, capitalistic venture to permanently greater glory and achievement – I cannot say. But that the question can be asked is testament to a film worth seeing.
As the film continues, myths of a long lost golden city tempt Fawcett with increasing affect and presence. It would be easy for the film to tumble into a climax here, stoking a dramatic fire to obvious “satisfying” conclusion, fulfilling the impulse to entertain. But Gray’s off-kilter rhythms ask Fawcett (and us) to return to Europe and back to the Amazon several times, disrupting any catharsis and diffusing and delaying conclusiveness to his venture. A venture the film stylistically posits is not only an intentionally self-fulfilling prophecy but a self-mitigating one, a deadening circularity of motion to and from that leads to not only the colonization of the non-Western world, but the colonization of Fawcett’s mindset such that any idiom of humanity lived outside imperialism is illogical and impossible. As the film lurches along then, it increasingly precludes an belief that Fawcett will ever be truly satiated by the flow of his life, the temporal construction of imperialism and personal adventure. Imperialism, along with the equally foundational masculine itch to live a life dedicated to vainglorious personal heroism and individualistic achievement, becomes a life-sucking venture into a bottomless, unending abyss.
This back-and-forth also allows the film to inductively confront the similarities and differences between the Amazon and Britain, and to expose the alternately lurching, oppressive formality of British society and its negative mirror image in the disastrous calamity of WWII, a violence in Europe that far exceeds any supposed murderousness among the so-called “savages” the British stereotype. At one point, a crucial sequence also casts Fawcett’s parliamentarian debate, to convince the British upper-crust of his viability, as a drunken, off-kilter verbal brawl that tests the limits of British propriety and superiority, of “reason”. Sure, Fawcett frames the possibility of a civilization in South America that predates Western society as a great humbling venture with radically dissociating possibilities for British society, a direct threat to their immanence in the world. But the film undercuts his progressivism with how easily these arguments entangle with the roiling macho-bravado of this white man’s belief that it is his God-given gift and right to discover this society. It’s almost as though the progressive and regressive arguments were developed in tandem as co-constituent rather than opposites. (“Almost”, except historically they often were). Throughout, Lost City consistently confounds arguments that Fawcett’s quest can be so readily placed on a linear trajectory from “backwards” European to “enlightened” liberal precisely because the film is keenly aware that enlightenment and racism are not antithetical. Fawcett, more or less, suggests that the possibility of a better civilization in the world beyond Europe is reason enough for Europe to “prove” its own mettle, not only by finding this location but by paradoxically proving Britain as a civilization can overcome the very racism that is so clearly at the heart of its desire to overcome in the first place. In this sense, Lost City is hardly a defense of Fawcett’s character as the lone sane man within a deluded civilizationist asylum.
So Gray’s film is a thematic contender, but it’s also a formal mystery that flexes Gray’s cinematic grey cells, dropping us in an altogether cosmic and fittingly existential location that is equal parts reality and hallucinogen, pressure and release-valve for Fawcett. In a coup of sound mixing, the diegetic and non-diegetic sounds frequently swirl together in a whirlpool of cacophonous uncertainty, a formal embodiment of the merging of the worldly and the transcendent Fawcett seeks in this, crucially, both ethereal and quotidian South American landscape. Befitting the film’s dazzling but tucked-in style, with image and sound as complement to rather than foundation of theme, Darius Khondji’s cinematography is radiant but never self-importantly so. It is hardly ever a showpiece ballroom shimmering with its own decadence or self-importance. The film cultivates equal moods of desperate gloom, lustrous chaos, untouched beauty, and destroyed and collapsed possibility in equal measure. The beauty is hardly auxiliary.
And, to ensure I don’t forget, Fawcett is played with understated vulnerability by a surprising Charlie Hunnan to match the equally understated mordant humor provided by an equally surprising Robert Pattinson as his aide de camp and only real friend Henry Costin. But Fawcett’s essential respect and lack of caricature merely marks him as an enlightened man of his time, not a man out of time. And 1906, not unlike today, was a time where “enlightenment” often coexisted with oppression. Fawcett treats the natives with his version of respect, but this is coterminous to his complicity in a wider system of oppression that he probably feels superior to. In this sense, and in its back-and-forth flow that routinely compares and contrasts various geographic and mental spaces, Lost City fittingly disarticulates conventional assumptions about Europe – and classical European film style – as the intellectual, political, and aesthetic center of the world. It does not treat Fawcett’s adventures as free-time escapades into the colonies relegated to mere peripheral toy-boxes for the Western world to play with when bored with life at home. Without an answer, the film instead imagines European adventure as a brew of escape from an ideal and sublimation to it. At the center of it is a Lawrence of Arabia for the 2010s, a restless man unfulfilled by Western society who gallantly looks for any other way of life to satiate him. His trouble, and Western society’s, is that he only leaves the Western world physically, never mentally. Even when he thinks he is escaping, he is not self-aware enough to realize that his only idioms are derived from Western life. And, tragically, that no idiom in the Western vernacular can possibly complete him.