RIORI Presents Installment #187: David Gray’s “The Lost City Of Z” (2016)



The Players…

Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller and Tom Holland, with Angus Macfayden, Edward Ashley and Pedro Coello.


The Basics…

Major Percy Fawcett is a cartographer of some repute, however that never gained much attention in his fellow explorer’s social circles. So-called poor breeding does not mean Fawcett is of poor character or courage. Or drive.

In 1906, Fawcett stumbles, literally, onto an opportunity like no other the Royal Geographic has ever known. On assignment to settle a border dispute in the Amazon—demarcating the boundary between the natives from encroaching on the rubber barons’ land and vice versa—Fawcett by pure accident comes upon ancient arfticats, suggesting a forgotten civilization in the middle of the Amazon basin. Undiscovered and untouched by the indifference of time. Incredible.

Now how does a mapmaker, no matter how skilled, convince the upper crust of the Realm’s bravest explorers that there is wonder in the jungle which needs further scrutiny?

Simple. Fawcett drops everything, absconds from the Empire to the Amazon and goes native, immersing into a world of discovery, both personal and anthropic.

He was never heard from again.


The Intro…

Much to my surprise regarding the last installment tackling Ron Howard’s biopic Cinderella Man I received quite a bit of positive feedback. A lot more than usual. A lot more, like chain mail level. I wasn’t planning on getting much feed back if any outside my small circle of subscribers, and since this week’s movie happens to be another historical drama I figured, “Heck, let’s have a few of these curious movies clog my account and see how well they stick.” So I rearranged my Netflix queue to get a mini marathon going. I chose six more varied biopics to roll on down the pike. Lucky seven. Like I said in the Cinderella installment, it’s creative license versus the historical record and how they should blend into good cinema. Let’s see what happens next.

An aside: Yes, I still use disc-at-a-time, and yes I do have access to streaming video. So why use the Triassic version of movie renting as I’ve done for over 20 years? Simple. Two reasons: one, Netflix’s streaming service is still in its infancy. Their digital library is infinitesimal compared to their hard copies. I’ll catch up when they catch up. Two, like why I gave up MMO’s, me having access to all that online cinema at the diff of a nose would render me off world and you’d never hear from my wretched ass again.

Stop cheering.

So then, what’s on the menu this week? Have a seat and put on the lobster bib.


The Rant…

What is it about movies involving discovery seem so sexy?

Slow down there. There’s a quarantine on and the CDC may be in cahoots with OnlyFans. Remember social distancing.

I’m not talking about Indiana Jones-esque movies. Not exactly. I’m talking about those adventure stories that penetrate the subcutaneous cockles of our curious hearts. The kind of films that get our blood pumping about new adventures and exotic locales and treasures to unearth that may end up on American Pickers. Discovery, that’s the ticket. All the best adventure movies have that. Whether it br digging in the Egyptian desert for forgotten tombs, hacking through the triple canopied jungle perusing a legend, or venturing into outer space. Heck, that last one is what Star Trek’s all about, and the latest series is even called Discovery. It’s all about “let’s go!” paired with a healthy dose of “now what?”

Discovery One was the name of the spaceship that took Bowman, Poole and HAL to Jupiter in 2001: A Space Odyssey and beyond the beyond. One of NASA’s shuttles from their now mothballed fleet was also dubbed Discovery. Shackelton’s expedition to Antarctica in 1901 was christened as such. There’s the Discovery District in Toronto, a city within a city exploring the practical medical applications of biotechnology. And also the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based, non-profit think tank to examine the human condition under the auspices of intelligent design. Flaky, but interesting. Who knows what they might discover? Maybe aliens set up shop here once, I dunno.

Why is discovery sexy? It’s very potent. It drives you. Humans like to learn stuff. Scientists live for it. We like to know new things, for good or ill. Recall in 2020 due to the decimating wildfires in Australia, multiple new species of marsupials were discovered. Granted, not the ideal way to a zoology kickstart, but at least it was good news. Why was that? Why in hindsight Down Under was ablaze and fire fighters from all over the world were desperately trying to suppress massive fire lines the liked we…Oh, look! A new, HUGE glider mammal came out to play! Thank you, fire suppressant! Hell, sure beats wanton destruction en toto.

Like tearing open that umpteenth pack of Pokemon cards and finally scoring that holofoil Ho-oh after so many loser scratch-offs. Woo-hoo! My determination (and luck) paid off! Acquiring fresh knowledge invites more, and all the usefulness—again, for good or ill—that it brings. In more fanciful terms, wouldn’t it be cool if we found remains of an ancient Martian civilization? Or developed anti-gravity? Or teleportation? Or even had Cyberpunk 2077 drop bug free? Hell to the yeah.

You might be asking me if I would care to listen: what was that about exploration movies being sexy? Good question.

In a soft science kinda way, exploration and discovery are sexy. Proving a theory. Going against the grain out of principle and being rewarded for it. Unlocking that secret level on your latest JRPG acquisition. All of that results in an almost exultant feeling of “Eureka!” mixed with “I told you so!” Heck, you’d run around Athens naked after unlocking that side quest about matter displacement, without NeoSeeker and shampoo still in your hair. Drinks all around. Reaching that “a-ha” moment feels pretty damn great, be it understanding algebra to creating a recipe to mastering stick shift. Discovering, and later being an adept can be an awakening. Mind clearing. All is well. I can impress a girl at a bar now with this knowledge, or maybe ace that physics exam. You’ll discover what’s a better chance.

Discovery is always a personal experience, but you know you have to share it with someone. Without a curious audience to maintain, your a-ha moment would be no more than a curiosity, afetish. Think about Watson and Crick, or the Wright Brothers, or Jobs and Wozniuk. All of their strange work proved successful. Eureka! Which is why it’s so damned hard to convince the cynical public that what these folks figured out might aid the greater good! It’s personal, meaning it’s precious to those who seek it and often some arcane hoodoo that flat-earthers just won’t buy into.

That’s often the trouble with discovery. Since it’s an inner elation, it’s rough to share without a context. It’s like the old saw that says the problem with getting something done right the first time is that others never appreciate how difficult it was. Time takes time, like how Hawaiians figuring out how to Spam actually edible. The guys in Northern Africa discovering how razzed their goats got after eating berries applied the scientific method and learned what the goats learned on their own: this coffee tree bears fruit that gets you hyped! How long do you think that brewing the stuff and drinking it caught on? Hundreds of years. Those goatherds were onto something, but precious few listened. They were only nomadic Ethiopians, not nutritionists. Vaccines, a round planet and pushing Betamax as the superior format (two out ion three ain’t bad) took some time even being backed by informed enthusiasm. Where’s your mask?

Discoveries can be tough pills to swallow, often annoying the status quo. A lot of great discoveries gestated for far to long until they saw the light of day, mostly kept in the dark by skeptics, folks without imagination and the business-minding having no easy way to find a way to make a buck off a new find. For example, the Wright Brothers first successful flight was reported by the press was relegated to the back page; no one could believe man powered flight could truly exist, even with photos available and Photoshop decidedly not. There were the “Two Kids From Cleveland” Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster who created the first and best superhero Superman. The Man Of Steel back in the 30s almost never got published because the guys at DC publishing said no one could believe a man can be faster than a speeding bullet etc. According to Business Insider in 2017 the property of Superman had a net worth over $1.9 billion. Hell, even that life-saving gear the parachute had to be demonstrated, if front of God and everybody, by the inventor of the modern design we use today. Franz Reichelt had to jump from the Eiffel Tower to make his point. Good thing all those discoveries had happy endings. Read: eventually profitable. Up, up and away!

No matter how gracious we claim to be, there is always the secret joy of “I told you so” when your discovery bears fruit or not. To paraphrase Galileo after being unfairly sweated by the Roman Inquisition after his astronomical studies, “All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.” It’s sinful pride of a very low degree, but still delicious. Sticking up a psychical middle finger to all those would doubted you out of ignorance or lack of vision. Being able to tout your hard-earned research and earning some respect? Ha, that can feel very sexy indeed. Having the last word, proving your mettle and perhaps even earning some concessions from the lowly one who doubted and mocked you for your fanciful notion of “Ah-ha!” Hopefully we’ve all been there at least once. Edison must’ve had that feeling weekly. Ever hear of that Spanish proverb, “Revenge is a dish best served cold” (now you have)? The point I’m reaching here is not about getting even, but being vindicated. I prefer the one about the monk Dom Perignon after he perfected his method for champagne: “…I am tasting the stars!”

Exultant. That is what sexy feels like beyond the bedroom and the beach. Tantalizing. Revelation. Not sexy per se. Glamourous. That’s what it feels like to be at the right time in the right place. All eyes on you, and you were both steadfast and lucky that your discovery eventually attracted an appreciative, respectful public.

Or not, nor ever. Their loss.


The Story…

In the early part of the 20th century, the British Empire still held sway over most of the civilized world. To be understood that Britannia was not the conquering, civilized race it once was, but they still were the dominant political power on Earth. The British were known far and wide for their explorations of the world and what influence they spread—for better or worse—but even now at the turn of the century acquiring huge swaths of land in the name of King and Country was not as vital as maintaining a presence on a global level.

No. It’s now no long quantity but quality. Resources instead of colonizing. Do not disturb the locals and how they conduct business. Get them to work for you. However first things first in this new capitalism, get the lay of the land, then set up trade.

Enter one Percy Fawcett (Hunnam), a seasoned and well-respected cartographer, as well as a card-carrying member of the Realm’s Royal Geographic Society. He has been fortunate enough in his life to be around the upper crust of his fellow royal explorers, but nary an accolade to befound on his jacket. Centuries old antagonism still clutters the minds of proper Britons, and Fawcett being Irish? Well, it’s been a polite uphill struggle to earn some honest recognition from the Society. Whether it may ever come, who knows?

Well, have you ever heard about how opportunity comes disguised as hard work dressed in rags? Percy has been assigned some hard work, and already feels quite rough shod and ragged. Turns out there is a border dispute in the Amazon. The rubber barons stake claim on one side of a river and the natives the other and none the twain shall meet. Unless a skilled mapmaker like Fawcett can literally draw the line. The Kingdom needs its rubber with as little grease as possible, so the Society dispatches Fawcett and his partner by proxy Henry Costin (Pattinson) to the Amazon basin to lay down stakes, once and for all.

No sooner do Fawcett and Costin approach the end of their trek—well deep into hostile native territory—does Percy literally stumble onto something curious: pottery. In the depths of the jungle. He knows the natives know nothing about throwing pots, so what are this shards doing here? As well as those curious growths of trees in symmetry, suggesting agriculture? Those smooth stones, they didn’t just fall into order. Someone once must have placed them there. Long ago.

Could Fawcett and crew have accidentally discovered a lost city in the middle of the jungle? He’s not certain, but if perhaps if so hen he returns to the Society after his work is through and reports a potential discovery he may not be considered…so “Irish” anymore.


The Breakdown…

I read all the dripping with caramel reviews of The Lost City Of Z—both the book and its film adaptation here—and for the life of me I just didn’t see what the hoo-ha was all about. All the praise, all the accolades, all the nominations from indie film fest from around the globe. All of it. I’ve learned after all these years on blogging to not watch the chosen movie in one sitting. It’s not a race. Depending on the film’s length and my free time I on average stretch the viewings over three evenings, and not necessarily consecutive evenings. Why? Despite the time crunch, I’ve found I need a little time in between to digest what I’ve seen. You kinda miss things in movies when you watch it beginning to end in one swift marathon dash to the coast. At least when you’re trying to both enjoy and dissect said movies. It was like when I caught Scorsese’s apology Best Oscar film The Departed. My friends and I walked out of the theater scratching our heads, trying to make sense of the last scene. We left in separate cars and doubtless both my friends and I were having a synchronous inner monologue trying to decipher how Mark Wahlberg REDACTED Matt Damon. It dawned on me by the third light, and there they were waiting. I flagged them down.

“It was his REDACTED!” And they nodded with enthusiasm.

It finally made sense, but only after 30 minutes in the car ruminating over the movie I had just watched. Thus being said, I now need time apart from a RIORI selected flick to actually “get it.”

Get it?

After finishing Z I appreciated my way of scrutinizing movies. Better well done than half baked. It took me a few days to “get” Z, but not without some confusion and letting some hubris get in the way.

I did not see what the big deal was with Z. As far as this blog is, the movie fit The Standard. Its budget was $30 million, but only netted about $20 million worldwide. The Tomatometer certified it fresh at 87%. Audiences felt differently at 57%. Critics loved it, while the average janes and joes either took it or let it alone. That being noted, I have a theory as to why Middle America didn’t much take a shine to Percy Fawcett’s exploits, and of course it fits in with my discourse. Let it be known that for the first time here at RIORI I sympathize with the popcorn heads. Shock and awe with conclusions to draw. Stay tuned.

At first I found Z to be a bit of a bait-and-switch. Recall what I said above about discovery and its lusty charms? Right, well that was what I was expecting: a hale and hearty period piece all about perils and pleasures of discovering the unknown, like with classic adventure films like Gunga Din or Lawrence Of Arabia. Action, adventure, globetrotting, terra incognito, treasure hunting and the like. That pair are period adventure pieces like Z, out of their time but still designed to take any audience elsewhere. Anywhere but here, but here you will stay, in your armchair, nachos at the ready and let the movie be your guide.

Just like Z? As the Brits say, “Quite the other thing.” Shocker. Can I have some nachos?

What follows is not a complaint about the quality of Z. Not at all. I found precious little flawed with this period piece…once I finally “got it.” Took a long time to get there, too. Like a week. At first glance—the first act I watched proper—Z felt nothing like your typical period biopic adventure. It rather felt like a British parlor novel, telling the tale of a well-to-do riding on their success (or family’s success) as status while “lesser” folks sally forth on their own questionable path to success, whatever that may be. The movie read like the “White Man’s Burden” in reverse. Meaning the (racist) drive of white men to civilize the natives got turned around as role reversal. It read as a shade jingoistic. My mind wandered. Sure, the historical “record” was elegant and intriguing, but there was a serious lack of tension over the next two-plus hours. This normally would’ve been a major issue on my side. My usual lighthearted nature would be rankling and eventually I’d calm down and doze off with the disc spinning, losing the chapter number, waking up to a day I didn’t know and an empty pint of Ben And Jerry’s melting into my shirt. Like I’ve said before, no tension, no story, no attention. Hand me a paper towel or three. I got nacho cheese on my knees.

BUT…

There was a story here and, hear me Middle America, patience would be rewarded. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t the flavor in Columbus. Yes, the pacing was languid, but that may have been the point; a storytelling device. Perhaps director Gray knew what folks wanted in a historical adventure movie and decided to turn it on its ear. For instance casting Hunnam as Fawcett. Most of such films always have to have some sort of Alan Quatermain kind of hero, full of derring-do and arcane knowledge of lost treasures. Think Indiana Jones or…well, Alan Quatermain. Hunnam’s a versatile character actor, with roles as diverse with Cold Mountain to Children Of Men to Pacific Rim. All somewhat modern roles, to which I found Hunnam as a historical figure—albeit not a very famous one—hard to back. Especially considering how overall reserved he played Percy. I never considered him an actor of nuance. I didn’t buy him as Percy, but I cashed in on him portraying Percy or any other unsung adventurer. Again, wait until the next act.

In fact, all the major players here are pretty comfortable in their own skin, despite what treacherous unknowns the Amazon might have in store for them. Might’ve been the stereotype British stiff upper lip, but I didn’t get that impression. Another reversal of expectations. The cast themselves were patient, as was the film, as how one should watch it. I insist over several evenings. Gray’s direction was very methodical, ensuring you understood the story over the money shots. Hunnam and especially Pattison (who was still grandly shaking off the shadow of Edward) have an easy chemistry, with carefully measured dialogue. Barring the courtroom scene, words are just useless replies to one another, bookending wonder and fear.

I just implied Pattinson further digging deep away from being a viable property, which is a good thing. Hunnam may not be a household name yet, but he truly demonstrate he can carry a movie, with all the top emotions on healthy display with Z. Again I never pictured Hunnam as the leading man type. He had a dire elegance at play here, and therefore a lot to digest as to whom Fawcett was, besides a man at ease with Nature. I was pleasantly surprised by his performance.

This was not your usual fare regarding both biopic and adventure story. Z was carefully measure, frame for frame. There we precious few surprises. Everything flowed. It was a story first and a movie second. It was akin to a live action article from NatGeo, and I believe most folks read that magazine for the photos. The cinematography was nothing less than smart. The music was a polite afterthought; the sound effects served as a better backdrop than any Horner score. After a few nights Z felt perfect, but there was still a nagging feeling that I had been had. I hadn’t, but I suppose I got duped by the collective what an adventure film should be. Sometimes such flicks should not be all whiz-bang. Sometimes you need to stretch out and understand the adventure—the discovery—should lie between you ears.

In the endgame, Z played like the book the film culled from, but I never read the book. It just felt that way. This was the difference three evenings at home made rather than two-and-a-half hours in an impersonal theater or melting into the couch with a stream. Z was a patient movie that tried audiences’ patience. Mine included. When I slowed down and took my time I discovered—again, get it?—a lush adventure story told at the end of the Victorian Age of exploration, and a man’s search for truth, within and without. Also we should understand the story was never about finding a lost city. It was about the ideal. The thrill of discovery.

And to my surprise, I made it back in one piece.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. A solid adventure film, despite the Merchant/Ivory-esque execution. Don’t watch it in one sitting, especially with a bag of Cheetos. You jeans will thank you.


The Musings…

  • “Someday you and I will go hunting together.”
  • It must’ve been odd, if not a relief, to stumble onto opera in the jungle. A “taste of home,” per se.
  • “We might be too English for this jungle.”
  • Why is the lighting so soft in the first act? It is because the hardest is yet to come?
  • “Welcome to the inner circle.”
  • Racism takes many forms.
  • “That bugger wishes he was back on the South Pole.”
  • “Savage” is a relative term. Especially paired against the “sophisticated” combat of the Great War.
  • “A green desert.”
  • For the record, it’s Zed, not Zee. It’s a British thing.
  • “I must go back.”

The Next Time…

Sir Anthony Hopkins plans to take The World’s Fastest Indian motorcycle for a ride into history, Agent Starling. Fly fly fly!


 

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