The Lost City of Z

jungle

Originally intended for Seattle Screen Scene.

The Lost City of Z has landed in the cinephile community with the kind of impact typically reserved for the most lauded or debated of auteurs. In some sense, this is expected: its director, James Gray, has steadily accrued a small but intensely dedicated following for his character-driven crime dramas and plain dramas like We Own the Night (2007), Two Lovers (2008), and his breakout The Lost City of Z (2013). Each of these films, as described in interviews with the writer-director, is almost self-consciously a throwback to a more classical Hollywood model of filmmaking–complete with a strict adherence to shooting on 35mm–but they are all distinctly American. All of his past films have taken place in immigrant communities in the US, and are inherently tied to some sense of overwhelming longing.

Gray’s latest film continues this sense of “classicism” (a dangerous but somewhat fitting term to use in relation to Gray), though the setting is changed to two locations: London and the uncharted jungles of the Amazon. The film follows the story of adventurer and soldier Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunman), structuring the film around his three expeditions to the Amazon over a period of two decades in the early twentieth century, as he attempted to discover a legendary lost civilization deep within the jungle. Crucially, however, The Lost City of Z is not a film that concerns itself solely with the act of depicting the explorations or distilling it to a descent into madness a la Herzog or Apocalypse Now. Gray’s path, like Fawcett’s, is far more knotted.

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April 2017 Quick Capsules

Two Lovers
Gray seems to be caught in the thrall of two paradoxically reconcilable traditions: the modern (cell phones, a clear sense of diversity, liberated and tastefully explicit sexuality) and the classical. But he continually finds ways to make the two work in tandem, in scenes that say so much with just The Shot. The screenplay itself is quietly effective, but what I’ll remember is the awkward, pained, yet cool movements of Phoenix, the smudged mascara of Paltrow, and the conversations conducted first by shouting, then by phone, across an apartment complex, all of which culminate in a wondrous, totally ambiguous ending. I was hoping that Gray would go the entire film without any overt romantic gestures between Phoenix and Paltrow, but what he did is nearly as heartbreaking.

Double Indemnity (rewatch)
Managed to forget nearly everything surrounding Edward G. Robinson’s and Jean Heather’s characters, which, while perhaps understandable, made my conception of the film just before rewatch largely flawed. There is an ocean’s worth of seediness and dirty laundry here, but there is also a great deal of humanity, and Wilder does wonders in making every character (except, perhaps, Tom Powers’) function as more than just a cog in the inexorable machine that signals Fred MacMurray’s doom. It is a world of hurt and pain, and yet there is some small hope of redemption, at least until it is silenced by a gunshot.

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Entry #1: The Personal

Note: This essay was written without a copy of Silence at hand and based off of recollections from two theatrical viewings, hence there may be more inaccuracies than usual.

It is, of course, conceited and undeniably inaccurate to claim that a film serves as an exact mirror to one’s life journey. Both a great movie and a person are inordinately complex, and it is impossible to truly distill either essence into a relatively uncomplicated and accurate summary. But nevertheless I feel a pull, a certain resemblance of my own experiences with faith and doubt in Silence, one that I think deserves some explication before I dive further into the movie’s many complexities.

I was born into a Christian family, and while I have never lived in Taiwan—the country of my heritage, and coincidentally the filming location for Silence—for more than a few weeks, there is nevertheless a strong sense of culture, both secular and nonsecular, that has been instilled by my family and communities throughout my life. I grew up going to church, first in an Chinese church in Seattle (that I am currently attending) and then, when my family moved to Southern California, to Saddleback Church, the famed megachurch. Moving from a small congregation of roughly three hundred to a gigantic conglomerate of twenty thousand had multiple effects on me, some for good and some for ill.

For one, I feel that I arrived at faith and religion early, probably too early. I declared my faith independently around the age of six or seven, and was baptized at the tender age of eight. As far as I can ascertain, most people are baptized as teenagers, and I can’t help but wonder if this early zealotry made my sense of doubt more acute as I grew up.

And I was, regrettably, a zealot of sorts, perhaps too much invested in the letter of the Bible and too little in the spirit. I went on a few medical mission trips with my family, and while I wasn’t necessarily the most interested in them (I’ve never been one for traveling), I did dedicate myself whole-heartedly while I was there. I was far too public about my beliefs and too inconsiderate of others, and only somewhat recently have I felt true remorse about what I did and how I did it.

All of this is to say that I relate strongly to the spirit, if not the letter, of the padres’ journey in Silence. Like them, I have gone through extreme periods of doubt (though mine are based more on the various cultures and communities I’ve been through), but more important is the manner in which this doubt has manifested itself. It does not lie in sudden moments or public declarations, but instead arises internally over a vast period of time. I am thinking specifically of that magnificent interlude, where Rodrigues prays alone on a grassy mountainside, overcome by loss as he tries to search for meaning in his suffering. To a religious person, the absence of God can feel like a total absence of life, and, as I stand now, religion is more than anything a quest for meaning, a desperate and hopefully fruitful attempt to survive in this world, something that I think Silence embraces as well.

Hopefully, I can refrain from this level of personal exorcism henceforth, but this series will be inextricably bound to my various identities. I (and hopefully you) wouldn’t have it any other way.

April 2017 Capsules

April 3
Lumumba
Lumumba is remarkable largely for me because I saw it after Raoul Peck’s singularly focused documentary I Am Not Your Negro, and watching his similar confidence with fiction filmmaking had its own odd sense of pleasure. But this is solid and immensely well-done on its own terms, remaining immensely lowkey and almost wholly resisting any sense of valorization with regards to its hero. Patrice Lumumba, as depicted by Eriq Ebouaney in an intensely driven performance, is continually stifled in his efforts, and Peck observes with detailed attention as the government slowly but inexorably falls into chaos, but the prime minister remains nobly composed throughout. What lingers most is the sense of specificity and fidelity, one that rejects speeches in favor of actions, even ones that are ultimately for naught.

April 7
The Story of Qiu Ju
There is so much in this that should work, especially with the inherently comical premise, but judging from Zhang’s filmography as a whole and especially this film, his sense of comedic timing is lacking. To break one of my cardinal rules and invoke another film that I found very similar, Feng Xiaogang’s I Am Not Madam Bovary struck me as a far more successful manifestation of the central storyline, somehow functioning as both riotously funny and rather shockingly melancholy. Part of this difference lies I think in the fact that there is very little sense of development or dramatic investment in Qiu Ju’s actual plight, and the sense of repetition (visually and structurally) works more in a foisting of thematics on the film rather than as an interesting narrative device. Plus, for all her obvious talent, Gong Li really can’t pull off the po-faced absurdity that the film requires to be anything close to funny. There are some interesting documentary aspects, but not a whole lot more.

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