James Gray’s unendurable The Lost City of Z tells of a white man’s folly. British military officer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), wanting to improve his social status and family name, explored South America in 1925, searching for the fabled lost city of El Dorado in the jungles of Brazil. After several dangerous, unfruitful expeditions, Fawcett was never seen again. His disappearance remains one of the mysteries of Western history, but it also has a genuine connection to classic adventure fiction by H. Rider Haggard and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose The Lost World reportedly was based on Fawcett’s field reports from the Amazon.
But Gray’s odd, uninspiring account of this true-life story is no mystery. Its lack of wonderment — also absent political confession such as Rudyard Kipling’s concept of the white man’s burden — typifies our obtuse contemporary movie culture. This includes reviewers who are so unfamiliar with both world and film history that they praise Gray as a new visionary. This glum adventure movie, tracing the follies of the British Empire, panders to those who readily curse colonialism.
The storytelling in The Lost City of Z is so inept in terms of shot-by-shot craft that it seems unfelt. (Fawcett, on the prow of a boat, never looks toward what we see.) But this is where Gray’s usual flimsy-moody style reveals its cultural and political bias. Gray cannot critique European imperialism — the topic David Lean grappled with in Lawrence of Arabia and that fascinated Werner Herzog in both Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo – because hopelessness is part of his own post-imperial moment.
Do this film’s reverential critics have no recall of John Boorman’s breathtaking rain forest in The Emerald Forest or his remarkable race down the rapids in Deliverance? Movies used to offer the thrill of revealing newly seen worlds — even Eli Roth’s modern-day The Green Inferno found vivid political satire in scenes of underdeveloped South America. Gray is twice as “serious” but boring. He doesn’t bring together history and anthropology as did Amma Asante in A United Kingdom, a post-colonial history in which personal and national narratives were contrasted, alongside appreciation of familiar and unfamiliar (European and African) places. Even better, in 2013, Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg made a visually splendid dramatization of Thor Heyerdahl’s documentary Kon-Tiki.
Fawcett’s doomed excursion into the Third World depresses but doesn’t inspire — the ultimate effect of Western guilt.
The Lost City of Z harms Gray’s reputation as The-Man-Who-Would-Be-Coppola. While shamelessly imitating Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (which already copied Herzog’s Aguirre), Gray exposes his similar movie-brat narcissism, making an adventure movie intended to nullify other adventure movies. But Coppola’s critique of the Vietnam War in Apocalypse Now paid tribute to drug-generation solipsism; film-geekiness today is compounded by PC-era apathy. Scenes crosscutting Fawcett’s debacle with the activities of his wife (Sienna Miller) on the home front indulge privileged-class miseries. (It might as well be the Hamptons.)
Unlike Coppola, Gray is a dull megalomaniac. Compare this film with Criterion’s new Blu-ray version of Coppola’s Rumble Fish – full of cinematic showing-off even though its social and filial themes never connect emotionally as they did in Coppola’s companion-piece The Outsiders. Kino’s new Blu-ray release of Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge, one of the great visionary feats of the late 20th century, contains an extended scene of Bastille Day fireworks on the Seine that is still astonishing (reality enhanced by imagination) in ways Gray cannot approach. As Fawcett’s doomed excursion into the Third World becomes increasingly un-cinematic, it depresses but doesn’t inspire — the ultimate effect of Western guilt. I registered complaint with the quickness of my feet.
Matt Tyrnauer’s Citizen Jane: Battle for the City shares some of James Gray’s folly. Instead of a documentary about Jane Jacobs, writer of the 1961 book The Death and Life of American Cities, Tyrnauer fashions a screed against contemporary urban society in the West. Presenting the modernized New York as a lost ideal city is not unlike what Gray does in giving us his privileged view of colonialism. First sentimentalizing Jacobs as a feminist warrior (alongside Betty Friedan and Rachel Carson, with special mention of Margaret Mead and Susan Sontag), Tyrnauer eventually honors her for “sharing tools of propaganda, local organizing, and civil disobedience . . . a movement that now seems simple common sense.”
Citizen Jane contrasts Jacobs’s “hypersensitive antennae” to the rapaciousness of NYC commissioner Robert Moses. Without exploring the background of either Jacobs or Moses, Tyrnauer just simplifies them as hero and villain. The cant repeated most often is “diversity” vs. “cancer” (the 2016 presidential election is this film’s obvious subtext). What’s missing is a greater sense of human nature as manifested in different forms of civilization and recorded artistically by Dickens, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City, and even Isaac Julien’s extraordinary museum installation on globalism and architecture, Playtime (2013). Tyrnauer’s talking-heads method (he’s from the Vanity Fair school of agenda-driven celebrity profiles) paves over the art of the documentary.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.