Steal from the Best

Really enjoyed James Gray’s THE LOST CITY OF Z — I’m not sure how much it amounts to, but as an impressively classical, slow-moving adventure and as a bold departure from his usual genre, it deserves praise.

Three swipes.

An abandoned boat calls to mind AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD, though Gray doesn’t go so far to have it wedged in the branches of a tree, hovering above the waterline. That would be too much.A WWI battlefield sports a damaged statue of Christ on the cross — clearly a nod to the opening scenes of Sam Fuller’s THE BIG RED ONE, though this figure isn’t minus an arm. Again, that would be going too far. And, when Charlie Hunnam leaves on his final mission to the jungles of Bolivia, he leans from the train window and Gray cuts to shots filmed as if from his POV, tracking rapidly through the bedrooms of his wife and children. A blatant borrowing from the ending of Fellini’s I VITELLONI, a favourite scene of mine. I’m sufficiently impressed by the cheek shown, the obscurity of the reference, and its aptness, that I’ll allow this. Though I think Fellini’s decision to use train noise throughout his sequence is superior to Gray’s choice to score the scene orchestrally.

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4 Responses to “Steal from the Best”

  1. I like James Gray a lot and I wish the world for him, but I was disappointed with the film. There are parts of the film that are excellent. The whole parallel montage between the Amazon and the London scenes achieves the defamiliarization effect of making us see the England of the Edwardian-Late Imperial era as a “lost civilization” in its own right, especially in the last scene. And Sienna Miller continues to prove that she really is a good actress.

    I don’t think Charlie Hunnam is a good enough actor for this part and the Aguirre citations do not help. The other thing is that the movie is a total whitewash of the real Percy Fawcett, a hack explorer and racist whose incompetence got himself and his son killed (https://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/04/the-lost-city-of-z-is-a-very-long-way-from-a-true-story-and-i-should-know/). The real guy was known for beating up children of tribes-people and being the worst tourist in the Amazons while posing as an anthropologist. The movie doesn’t go into any of that.

    This doesn’t bother me on principle if the rest of the movie makes up for it but to me the cloying sentiment, and faux-class angst (i.e. he’s part of the white working class…which recent events have made very problematic), and general validation that this guy really was on to something and not some blunderer undercuts everything the film is trying to say. The citations of Aguirre don’t help because Herzog and Kinski whatever their other faults don’t try and make him palatable and likable. Likewise, John Huston made many films of the same theme, like The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and The Man Who Would Be King, Under the Volcano, and he never let his characters off-the-hook with fake sentiment either.

  2. The truly disappointing and shocking thing for me is that this is a project Gray was set on. It wasn’t some Hollywood thing. He actually sat with this for years and went out of his way to make it…and the result is, well it does suggest some hard limits to Gray’s talent and vision. Like he can’t really go beyond American and Hollywood narrative, which he does well in all his previous films and especially The Immigrant (his best film) made before.

  3. I’ve actually never seen a Gray film before! This was interesting enough to make me want to see the early, funny ones, but your criticisms certainly draw blood.

    I wasn’t convinced that Fawcett was being portrayed as from the working class — the line about him being “unfortunate in his choice of ancestors” could simply refer to his father’s alcoholism and gambling, which we hear of later. If he wa sworking class, Hunnam wouldn’t have had to strain to do a voice. Mind you, we can be grateful Brad Pitt didn’t play the role as originally planned, though that kind of casting is about the only thing that could make this movie commercial.

    Double-bill in with The Mountains of the Moon, is my advice.

  4. Agree that The Immigrant is Gray’s best film. It was the first of his I liked, anyway, with a stronger-than-usual female character (though, as already noted, Sienna Miller did wonders with an underwritten role in The Lost City of Z), skilful pastiche Puccini score, and a breathtaking final sequence (that last shot!)

    A shame The Immigrant never got a proper theatrical release in the UK. Was this down to the obnoxious Weinstein approach to distribution, à la Snowpiercer?

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