Essays · Movies

James Gray’s Radical Classicism in The Lost City of Z

To watch James Gray’s The Lost City of Z is to be transported, in more ways than one, to a bygone time.
Lost City Z Trailer
By  · Published on May 23rd, 2017

The film tells the story of British explorer Percy Fawcett, who at the turn of the 20th Century embarked on multiple expeditions to find a fabled civilization in Amazonia. The tale is something of a departure for Gray, whose prior films have all dealt with crime and romance in his native New York. But Lost City’s unfamiliar locale and subject matter belie a deeper formal similarity to the rest of the director’s work; namely, a reverential commitment to classic style.

Though labels such as “classic” and “modern” are necessarily porous and post-hoc, one need only sit through a few minutes of Lost City to notice its dissimilarity to nearly everything else being made today. The film’s stately compositions and patient pacing resemble neither a blockbuster nor an indie flick. Its intensely earnest, goal-oriented protagonist would seem quaint in both a Marvel movie and an art film. Like Gray’s last film, The Immigrant, Lost City feels, at least superficially, like it could have been made forty years ago. In this sense, Gray is a filmmaker profoundly out of step with his time.

And yet much of Lost City also feels not only fresh but subversive. A setup that at first seems like the quintessence classicism’s problems (rich white male ventures into the uncivilized jungle) soon emerges as a subtle critique of colonialism. Fawcett’s obsession with discovering the lost city, which begins as an effort to restore family honor, morphs into a desire to prove his fellow Europeans wrong about the supposed backwardness of Amazonian tribes. His callous abandonment of his wife and children is treated honestly and unromantically. And at the film’s end, it’s Nina Fawcett’s emotions that are left to linger in the viewer’s mind.

Does this subtext undermine the film’s classicism? Hardly. As Gray puts it, “the pursuit of a classical narrative often opens up, not closes, but opens up avenues for greater complexity.” His work singlehandedly falsifies the postmodern notion that classical art’s problematic ideological underpinnings are best undermined by the wholesale scrapping of formal constraints. As many novelists and fine artists have discovered (and many “critical theorists” have not), the trouble with postmodern deconstructionism is that it effectively ends the conversation. What use is making meaning through art when the meaning-making enterprise is considered hopeless? By contrast, if one is committed to a certain level of craftsmanship, there is practically no limit to the variety of meanings one can make.

Gray summarizes his approach thus:

“With this movie, I wanted the story to be [not just] ‘explorer goes down to the jungle,’ but [also] what would it say when we talk about class, of course, and also gender, ethnicity? And what does it mean to be a civilized person, what does it mean to be civilized, what’s civilization actually mean?…So I thought all of this could emerge through a classical style.”

This effort to situate complex themes within the context of a classical narrative is not without precedent. For all the stylistic innovations of 70s cinema, most of the enduring films from that era were more revolutionary in content than in form. Directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, whom Gray idolizes, were not interested in dispensing with the techniques of classical Hollywood so much as expanding them to fit the changing ideological landscape. The Lost City of Z picks up where these filmmakers left off, dispensing with the bathwater of 70s male-dominance but retaining the baby of rigorous craftsmanship.

Gray has long been critical of modern cinema’s lack of craft, for which he blames big-budget excess and low-budget amateurism equally:

“Nobody knows how to write scripts. Go to the movies; they suck…Stories are almost quaint. There’s something backasswards about it. What I see is narrative laziness. I see it from the big movies and I see it from the art movies. I don’t see anything that I like, which is the middle. Not middle-brow, but the middle, where the film is subversive but it’s narrative.”

The notion that narrative stifles subversion goes back at least as far as Jean-Luc Godard, who famously quipped that a film “should have a beginning, middle, and end, but not necessarily in that order.” Godard’s innovations did much to break open cinematic form, but they lead to a premature foreclosure on the possibilities for subversion within the context of a narrative. Even Quentin Tarantino, cinema’s postmodern patron saint and an early Godard disciple, has always displayed a reverence for narrative craft – doubly so in his recent historical films. One of the reasons Tarantino’s many imitators have fallen short is that they’ve mimicked superficialities of his style (non-linear stories, reference-filled dialogue) without matching his narrative and thematic heft.

Gray, for his part, has always viewed narrative as a kind of delivery system for subtext. Though he admires Godard, Gray feels that this subtext can lose its weight when extracted from the context of a well-crafted story:

“If you make a film that is not narratively well told with emotion and elegance, which is the aim, is the alternative a kind of cinema essay of sorts? Well, maybe, and in Godard’s case, he did them brilliantly. But I’m not sure that gives us so much opportunity, or in Godard’s case it was because he believes in beauty and he’s also a genius. But there’s a level which, when we say exactly what we mean, the subtext stops mattering.”

Beauty and craft, for Gray, are ways of redeeming reality and enhancing our capacity to care about it.

As a relatively young art form, cinema has only recently become the subject of the doomsday lamentations that have surrounded literature and the fine arts for decades. Many blame technology and a general decline in taste for this development, but Gray would blame the loss of classic style. He considers the idea that filmgoers don’t want good stories anymore to be “totally elitist. If you feed people McDonald’s every single day and then one day you want to give them sushi…they’re gonna eat it and go, ‘what the fuck is that?’” The psychologist Steven Pinker mounts a defense for classic style from a different angle, noting that it conforms to basic features of human nature. “Ultimately what draws us to a work of art,” Pinker writes, “is not just the sensory experience of the medium but its emotional content and insight into the human condition.” The common refrain that the arts are declining, Pinker explains, tends to emerge when we stray from this purpose.

While it’s too soon to say that cinema has abandoned fidelity to the human condition, much modern filmmaking does lack the sincerity that characterizes Gray’s films and classic cinema generally. The heartfelt wonderment of Close Encounters or Star Wars has given way, on the blockbuster scene, to Marvel’s empty fluffiness and DC’s grim cynicism. Serious indie dramas have migrated to television, where a pared down visual style has allowed for excellence in storytelling craft. Much has been made of the death of the mid-budget film, and of the potential for services like Netflix and Amazon to bring it back. The fact that Amazon is distributing Lost City, as well as Manchester by the Sea and The Handmaiden, suggests that the mid-budget film may make a comeback. But it also suggests that, when the smoke clears from Marvel’s latest explosion, classicism may be what viewers crave.

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