The Lost City of Z (USA, 2017)

Directed by: James Gray. It’s a sad comment on the state of movies when the first assumption I made on seeing an ad for The Lost City of Z was that it was a zombie movie, probably part of the World War Z franchise. But after ignoring it for weeks, I was looking at the showtimes of a theatre in Brussels and I decided to read up on the premise of this movie, and it struck a few little chords with me, so I saw it. I could tell even there, in the theatre, that this would be one of those movies that stays with me for the rest of my life, even though it’s technically not that great. This movie isn’t the best thing I’ve ever seen, and it’s not the best movie made this year, and it’s no more inventive or remarkable than anything else really. But it is basically well done, it’s not amateurish or sub-standard in any way (except one or two weird things I’ll mention). But for me, this was just a really remarkable story. The story itself is transparently just a really intriguing story, which is always a good start to a “based on true story” story. There’s the element of questioning why we need another story about white colonialism, and this movie has to tread a tightrope a bit, but I thought it did a good job it, demonstrating how it was a fundamentally racist, colonial world that Fawcett came from. It’s a pretty weak excuse, but as far as white Western colonial explorer men intruding into foreign lands with their own agendas go, the Fawcett of this movie is the least racist person in the room, and his agenda includes establishing evidence to contradict centuries of chauvinistic British ethnocentrism. And the really interesting nugget for me was that I remember scanning across some article a few years back showing how researchers had found, with sonar penetrating the dense jungle, evidence of massive cities in the Amazon, and it turns out, they were in the area that Fawcett was looking—modern science vindicating the wide-eyed fantasies of this guy, the last of the intrepid explorers (or unfortunately, not the last, because many died going to find him, against his wishes). Now, of course, the movie does re-create some of that enthnocentrism, if only in the sense that about 100% of the speaking roles are white people, with really negligible time spent on the Brazilian and Indigenous guides without whom I’m sure none of these British Gentlemen would have hacked it for a fucking day in that jungle.

Like most movies that make an impact on me, there’s a strange, elusive, little spark about this movie that’s difficult for me to describe, but which lends this film a kind of weirdness, makes it off-kilter in a really interesting way for me. If this film were “better”, it would be so much less remarkable, and it wouldn’t stay with me. Maybe it’s the good looking modern actors playing these austere, severe Victorian gentlemen—certainly seeing Robert Pattinson in this chameleonic performance, but so sparsely used that you’re not sure if we was really there, or just a part of your imagination, contributes to this unsettling feeling. The “worst” part of the film is the scene where Fawcett addresses the Royal Geographic Society. Any scene in films like this, where we have a room full of old, white-haired, white men in black coats, nearly identical, is always somehow eerie and surreal. Seeing Charlie Hunnam up there, in his Macklemore/Peaky Blinders haircut, explaining that white society might not have the monopoly on ancient civilizations, only to be met with outrageous boos—that was one thing. But the following exchange, where Angus Macfadyen is the lone voice of support, and between the two of them, within seconds, they flip the room of indignant men to their cause, ending with the room cheering his praises, all but huzzah-ing. This scene is a pretty transparently poor moment of filmmaking, it’s written in a very brisk way, the pace is too fast, for this room of entrenched colonial racists to just flip their position and support the expedition within seconds, under a very flimsy excuse, and to embrace it so wholeheartedly after that, the effect was actually comical. For a moment, it felt like I was watching a Mitchell and Webb sketch. That’s the most egregious moment of the film, but to me it didn’t make it a bad film, it just made it a weird film, somehow not smooth, and that kind of shit sticks with me longer than an unremarkable film. I could list all the elements of the film that were remarkable to me, but we’d be here all day, but suffice to say, that WWI sequence, with the palm reader who belongs in another movie entirely, and the scene where the war bunker turns into the jungle, that kind of shit is pretty cliche, but I love it. What a weird movie! And the ending is perfect, the bare facts of the case make it Hollywood-proof, and also doom this movie to not do nearly as well as everyone hoped it would. This isn’t a perfect movie, but I can’t wait to see it again.

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