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Neither the safety of the hearth nor the anxiety-ridden but possibility-laden frontier of the homestead, The Lost City of Z is an encounter between firm Old Hollywood cinema classicism and the porous potentiality of forward-thinking modernism. Basically, it’s the best kind of semi-mainstream 2010’s cinema, loosened enough from stultifying Oscarbait propriety by its independence from mainstream “prestige” cinema but never fully disarticulated from convention to the point where it barely reads as a narrative drama. Director James Gray’s film is irreparably sturdy but not chaste and never stodgy or conservative in aims, style, or ambition, creating a film that goes down smooth but burns in the throat and can be felt in the stomach.  It’s not out of Gray’s wheelhouse; he’s been stripping various epochs of classic Hollywood cinema for parts for almost twenty years now. But he’s among the only directors to nail the ever-elusive sweet spot between, say, the aesthetically and socially empty, non-directed husks of Edward Zwick – indebted to the worst of classical Hollywood Oscarbait – and the too-pristine, over-directed formalism of David Fincher where mechanical rigor trumps everything and anything, including meaningful interaction with theme. Lost City of Z is a conventional film, but it breathes new life into playing the classics.In the late 1800s, historian Frederick Jackson Turner articulated his famous frontier thesis about the imaginative and rhetorical value of the unknown, historically mobilized to conquer and explore in American culture. This argument reflected the impetus for the Manifest Destiny philosophy that white America was destined to reign sovereign over all the Americas, but it also charted the core of liberal bootstrap individualism so key to what Turner considered the American way. Turner’s tone was ambivalent at best. He was never critical of America’s oppressive and self-aggrandizing worldview, but merely disheartened about the possibility that America no longer had land to conquer after a century of continued expansion Westward that was, in truth, much more central to every major political and social crises of the 1800s than many assume, the Civil War included. America’s solution, of course, was to self-propagate its navy and turn it from a defensive to an offensive mechanism and to extend its Social Darwinist message of “civilizing” the masses to the world.Set at this modern juncture (one we’ve never really left) where the world is seemingly shrinking and enlarging, Lost City of Z shows that, for Britain, bereft of land, the name of the game was always international. And for Perry Fawcett, it was an almost spiritual call that exceeded the economic dictions of the time. It infected his heart in a decidedly personal and essentially transcendent way, evoking the way in which the ideological and institutional manifest individually and internally. For Fawcett, who ventured to South America in search of a glory and, more specifically, a lost city he names Z, eight times in his life, this is not merely a case of governmental ideology becoming his “mask” for his own personal goals. He isn’t simply alloying himself to Britain’s desires in order to satiate his own individualism. Too many individualistic films misconstrue or devalue ideology, treating the realm of the social as nothing more than a way individuals pursue their own desires, which are construed as pre-social or “innate” in contrast to governmental or national desires foisted upon them. Thus, moving forward in British history, we get Margaret Thatcher’s famously ludicrous “there is no such thing as society,” only individuals and, in a neoliberal copout, families.In Lost City, though, even when Fawcett mocks his British compatriots, it is well apparent that his nation’s colonial and imperial fetishes, its need to control and dominate and assert their own superiority, are inextricably defining, sculpting, and shaping Fawcett as well. The decorous and dangerous vibes effused from his mental image of the Amazon are mimetic for both the riches his nation seeks within the Amazon and Fawcett’s own quest for personal decoration to overcome his father’s failures that loom large over his desires. His personal ideologies, the film makes clear, are national ideologies. His belief that the people of the Amazon may be more advanced than his countrymen want to admit is always bounded by his need to fulfill a much more fundamental Western fetish for personal success cotangent to “proving” one’s ability to forage and survive in other countries. Or, more accurately, to paradoxically feel as though you are casting off civilization, TE Lawrence style, while still being an instrument of civilization, fundamentally unable to reconcile or even recognize the contradictions looming in your society and in your heart.On the surface, Lost City of Z is less bold than the thematically kindred Embrace of the Serpent, but it is also less trapped in its own symbolism and more fluidly and dialogically able to critique Western mindsets without encasing them in a shroud of specimen-like mystique. Or, worse, feeling the need to overtly criticize them in every moment to prove its liberal credulity. For me at least, Lost City of Z uses its style to more immanently critique and explore Western adventurer mindsets, as well as the oppression these adventurers can condition and be complicit with even, crucially, when they are themselves swayed by thoughts of “respect” for the “others” they confront.  Lost City is also more quietly radical in its style, and it mobilizes its form to slightly more pointed purposes, as a scalpel into Fawcett’s imperial-non-imperial mindset, an exploration of how he can embody both at once.

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