James Gray’s “The Lost City Of Z” (2016)

Notable Festivals: New York (Closing Night), Berlinale

Looking over director James Gray’s filmography to date — a series of hard-hitting dramas set in New York — one could be forgiven for not seeing a David Lean-style epic about exploration and adventure in the Amazon jungle in his immediate future.  Even Gray himself initially didn’t see it; he didn’t understand why Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, had sent him a gallows copy of David Grann’s 2009 novel “The Lost City of Z”. (1)  He had just finished the understated relationship drama TWO LOVERS (2008), and it was still five years before audiences would witness the lavish grandiosity of THE IMMIGRANT’s historical affectations.  Nonetheless, Gray found himself curiously drawn to the story of the real-life adventurer Percy Fawcett and his quest to discover a lost civilization in the Amazon amidst the backdrop of the turn of the 20th century and The Great War.  He was reminded of a sentiment he had applied to all his prior works, espoused by writer George Elliot’s proclamation that “the purpose of all art is the extension of our sympathies” (2).  In other words, THE LOST CITY OF Z invited Gray, through the process of filmmaking, to discover his own emotional connection to the material while venturing far outside his comfort zone.  Indeed, the production of THE LOST CITY OF Z would be filmmaking as adventure, seeing Gray and his collaborators travel deep into the jungles of Columbia with little in the way of infrastructural support systems.  A formative experience in Gray’s artistic development had been his first viewing of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece APOCALYPSE NOW, and THE LOST CITY OF Z offered him the opportunity to chart similar territory.  He went so far as to write to Coppola and ask for his advice about shooting in the jungle, to which Coppola simply replied “don’t go”.  A warning, to be sure, from someone who had famously come close to the brink of insanity while shooting a movie in the dense jungle, but also a challenge– one that Gray couldn’t possibly pass up.  

In detailing the exploits of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s expeditions to the jungles of Amazonia, Gray condenses the book’s eight separate journeys into three, structuring them into tidy narrative acts.  Charlie Hunnam anchors the film as Fawcett, gradually becoming a more distinctive and nuanced character as he grows more obsessed over the decades with the mysterious lost civilization he calls “Zed”.  We first meet Fawcett as a Major in the British infantry in 1905, where his background as a cartographer positions him as an ideal candidate to head up a mission for the Royal Geographic Society, represented by Ian McDiarmid’s Sir George Geordie.  Tasked with surveying the border between Bolivia and Brazil in hopes of quelling a brewing regional conflict, Fawcett is accompanied by Costin (Robert Pattinson; unrecognizable under a bushy beard and spectacles), a fellow explorer fated to become one his closest confidantes in the coming years.  As they travel down the river in a rickety boat and contend with various aggressions from the locals, they become aware of the rumored existence of a lost city hidden deep within the jungle that promises to yield precious insights into human development in the region.  Upon completion of his mission, Fawcett returns home to his family in England– his wife, Nina (played by Sienna Miller as something of a burgeoning Suffragette or proto-feminist), and their handful of children.  Having grown accustomed to the awe-inspiring vistas and boundless freedom of the jungle, Fawcett inevitably finds himself chafing against the rigid conventions of privileged British society.  He organizes another expedition in the mid-1910’s, this time with the intent of finding the fabled lost city of Z.  This particular trip doesn’t prove as successful, and he returns to England just in time to fight in the trenches during World War I.  A battle injury sidelines him for several more years, and it’s not until 1925 that Fawcett organizes one last journey into the beating heart of Amazonia, this time accompanied by his adventurous young son, Jack (Tom Holland).  It is here that Fawcett will face the ultimate test of his convictions and answer for his all-consuming obsession of finding a mythical city that may or may not exist.  

Gray presents THE LOST CITY OF Z as something of an anti-adventure film that’s more concerned with story and character rather than outright spectacle.  That being said, he does indulge in frequent moments of epic, David Lean-style cinematography.  Reteaming with Darius Khondji, his cinematographer on THE IMMIGRANT, Gray captures THE LOST CITY OF Z in the very appropriate format of anamorphic 35mm film.  Gray’s choice to shoot celluloid may seem like an insignificant aspect of the production, but it was undoubtedly a major decision with profound implications for the director and his producing team.  Aesthetically-speaking, Gray felt that celluloid possessed a distinct melancholy or nostalgia apropos of a period epic such as this.  Logistically-speaking, he feared that the overwhelming humidity of the Colombian jungle they would be shooting in would quite literally fry any hard drives or digital equipment they lugged along the way.  This isn’t to say that photochemical film didn’t pose its own unique challenges; indeed, due to their exceedingly remote location and its utter lack of infrastructural support, production had to devise a rickety shipping system that carried the inherent risk of exposed film never making it to the laboratory for processing.  Thankfully, no such issues arose during the shoot, and all can witness the glorious visuals that Gray has committed to film here.  THE LOST CITY OF Z renders Fawcett’s grand adventures in a heavy golden cast not unlike THE IMMIGRANT’s visual aesthetic.  These bold yellow highlights compete for clarity amidst naturalistic earth tones and deep, heavy shadows stained with the slight tinge of teal.  Also like he did with THE IMMIGRANT, Gray draws heavily from the influence of Francis Ford Coppola, fusing the aesthetics of THE GODFATHER PART II (1974) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) to create a stately, albeit gritty, vibe.  He also pulls from Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON (1975) and Luchino Visconti’s THE LEOPARD (1963), seen most immediately in the mise-en-scene of sequences set back in the stuffy social circles of Victorian/Edwardian England.  Gray’s compositions and camera movements mix the classical formalism of vintage epics with the handheld immediacy of his New Hollywood influences, and even utilize swooping helicopter shots for added visual grandeur.  He also incorporates several visual conceits that bear his signature, like the use of natural framing elements such as natural foliage and tree trunks (akin to his framing of his subjects through doorways in his previous work). Composer Christopher Spelman brings musical consistency to Gray’s filmography by returning with an effective (if not entirely memorable) suite of cues that strike a balance between the sweeping romantic strings of old-school epics and a pounding percussion that conveys the throbbing heart of darkness that lies deep in the Amazonian jungle.

For a story that even Gray himself could not initially see as a proper vehicle for his particular set of thematic tastes, THE LOST CITY OF Z packs in a fair amount of the director’s key artistic signatures. A soaring adventure picture indeed seems to be worlds away from the gritty and intimate chamber dramas that made his name, but Gray nonetheless finds several points of access.  His films are almost uniformly marked by a distinct outsider’s perspective, embodied best by protagonists relegated to the outer boroughs of New York City and forced to gaze at the dazzling lights of Manhattan from afar.  Even the ones firmly inside the island are outsiders, such as THE IMMIGRANT’s Ewa Cybulska attempting to comprehend and assimilate herself into the confusing new world of early 20th-century Manhattan.  THE LOST CITY OF Z retains this perspective by virtue of dropping a British aristocrat into the green labyrinth of South America, forced to communicate with the indigenous peoples who inhabit it.  Even when he travels back to England in between expeditions, Gray casts Fawcett as an outsider in his own home, finding himself increasingly at odds with the privileged circles that can’t comprehend his experience in the wilderness.  His films are also characterized by a fascination with the rituals, traditions and heritage of The Old World.  A distinct Eastern European and Jewish character runs through the narratives of LITTLE ODESSA down on through THE IMMIGRANT, an identity upon which Gray can examine the juxtaposition of these ancient social and familial structures, ethical values, and various religious dogma against the modern melting pot of New York.  In Gray’s films, New York can still be thought of as “The New World”, precisely because it is seen through the prism of the American immigrant experience.  THE LOST CITY OF Z further explores these conceits, depicting Amazonia as a literal New World completely alien to the Old World perspective of Britain during the Victorian/Edwardian era of the early 1900’s.  Gray trades his signature Eastern European flair for insights into Anglo-Saxon culture through their various customs and rituals, seen best in the opening sequences where Fawcett leads a rousing deer hunt on horseback and dances the waltz at a high society gala shortly thereafter.  This approach is also applied to Fawcett’s brush with the indigenous tribes of Amazonia, with several sequences depicting his observation of the natives’ unique ceremonial traditions.  He regards these communal experiences with awe, gaining a sense of connection to their innate humanity while growing increasingly contemptuous of the Old World culture he comes  from.  

Despite being three years removed from its predecessor, THE LOST CITY OF Z asserts itself as something of an informal companion piece to THE IMMIGRANT.  On the surface level, both are handsome, impeccably-shot historical dramas about the search for individual identity amidst an alien environment.  They even share similar ending shots, framing a key character in the reflection of a mirror as he or she walks away from us.  Together they represent Gray’s emergence as a mature director with a timeless aesthetic that promises to install him in the pantheon of great American directors.  Of course, this assertion is dependent on the successful completion of future works at a similar level– something that Gray himself isn’t so sure will happen.  In recent years, he’s spoken at length to the media about his disdain for the current climate of American studio filmmaking, and how overwhelmingly difficult it is, even for someone of his stature and pedigree, to finance the types of projects he wants to make.  Indeed, while THE LOST CITY OF Z was hailed by critics, audiences apparently decided the lack of superhero tights or shared universes in the film was a liability and mostly stayed away.  In the end, the film made back roughly half of its production budget in box office receipts, delivering the kind of financial performance that makes it harder for Gray to command the level of funds he needs to realize future projects.  He could follow in the footsteps of other filmmakers and make the jump to prestige TV, and with his recent foray into commercial production he has already dipped his toe into those waters.  At the same time, his dedication to the art of cinema is so absolute and uncompromising that he very well might view episodic televised content with a fair degree of distaste.  While we wait for news on what form Gray’s next project will take, THE LOST CITY OF Z stands as the pinnacle of his technical achievements.  In flexing his muscles outside of his signature milieu of urban crime dramas, Gray evidences a remarkable diversity in his tonal reach, delivering the harrowing intensity of war and the romanticism of adventure with similar aplomb.  It remains to be seen whether THE LOST CITY OF Z will attain the classic status accorded to the vintage epics from which it derives its inspiration, but it’s already clear that it is stands as Gray’s most ambitious and technically-accomplished works to date.

THE LOST CITY OF Z is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Amazon Studios.

Credits:

Produced by: Dede Gardner, Anthony Katagas, Dale Armin Johnson, James Gray, Jeremy Kleiner

Written by: James Gray

Director of Photography: Darius Khondji

Production Designer: Jean-Vincent Puzo

Edited by: John Axelrod, Lee Haugen

Music by: Christopher Spelman

References:

  • THE LOST CITY OF Z commentary.  James Gray , 2016