Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Produced by Marvel Studios
Directed and written by James Gunn
Distributed by Walt Disney Studios
The Lost City of Z
Produced by Plan B Entertainment
Directed and written by James Gray,
based on David Grann’s book
Distributed by Amazon Studios
Mixed-race romance has become profitably au courant in popular culture today. This is remarkable, given that the subject was verboten in Hollywood not so long ago. Whatever their politics, film studios have always been ideologically committed to profits, and miscegenation, as it was once called, had been decidedly unprofitable, until Sidney Poitier showed up as Katharine Houghton’s fiancé in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1967. When Elia Kazan made Pinky in 1949, he was thought to be bursting the unacknowledged racial envelope. The narrative concerns Pinky, a young Alabama woman played by Jeanne Crain. Of mixed-race heritage, Pinky has been passing for white in the North while training to become a nurse. A good number of theatergoers were disturbed to see black actress Ethel Waters turn up as Crain’s grandmother, sparking attempts to ban the film.
Today, it seems we’ve advanced to the next frontier. The grandly titled Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 features a brewing romance between Earthling Chris Pratt and a green-skinned Titanian played by the elegant Zoe Saldana. I wonder what a geneticist would have to say about such a union. Great for interplanetary harmony, of course, but wouldn’t it produce some perils for the resulting offspring, what with incompatible chromosomes and hostile microbes? Their likely range of skin colors running from viridian to pink might be troubling.
Other than the mixed-race romance, there’s little interesting about this largely witless film. It lacks the first edition’s genial wit. Well, that’s not quite true. Kurt Russell has been recruited to play Chris Pratt’s father, Ego, who, with due modesty, explains he’s a god, but one with a small g. Ego is on a mission to fulfill his purpose, which is to expand his being until he absorbs everything in the galaxy. I couldn’t help wondering whether this was a satiric allegory on America’s current intention to transform the entire world into a right-thinking, democracy-loving version of itself. Wait: Isn’t this Islam’s objective, sans the democracy baloney? Who says movies are just fantasies!
For another cultural loggerhead, we have The Lost City of Z, James Gray’s adaptation of David Grann’s book of the same title. Grann’s work is unavowedly speculative; Gray’s film is truish until it becomes, shall we say, wholly conjectural.
Grann tells the story of Percival Fawcett, the explorer who in 1911 went searching for a fabled city in the Amazonian jungle which he named Z, seemingly to indicate its mystery. Fawcett was a driven man who suffered under class snobbery. His aristocratic father had been a drunk whose various excesses with wine and women wasted the family estate. As a consequence, Percy was often snubbed by his peers. In an early scene, an elderly aristocrat explains that, although Fawcett is an impressive figure of a man, he’s been unfortunate in his choice of ancestors. It’s little wonder, then, that Fawcett became obsessed with expunging the memory of his old man. He planned to do so by building a record of heroic accomplishment in the army. His early postings, however, hadn’t provided what he had hoped would be advantageous opportunities. Then in 1911, the Royal Geographical Society commissioned him to go to the Amazon to map the unresolved border between Bolivia and Brazil, and thus settle the question of what proportions of the increasingly profitable rubber trade the respective countries should enjoy. The assignment was disappointing to Fawcett, until he realized it might afford him his opportunity after all. A year earlier, American explorer Hiram Bingham had located the ancient Peruvian city Machu Picchu, to great acclaim. This seems to have shown Fawcett his chance. He would find a lost city of his own, and thereby put everything right.
Despite the perils involved, Fawcett was to make eight forays into the Amazonian jungle (reduced to three in the film). He had to contend with various tropical diseases, poisonous insects, ravenous predators such as jaguars and piranha. Then there were hostile natives, some of them cannibals. Several of the local retainers he hired succumbed to one or another of these menaces. After each trip, he returned to England with what he considered evidence of his yet-unfound lost city: shards of pottery, wood carvings, and some scattered memories among the Indian tribes. In his eagerness to prove Z a reality, he seems to have coaxed, however inadvertently, these illiterate natives to tell him what he wanted to hear. This was enough to lodge his supposed city in his mind as an idée fixe. On his last quest in 1925, he imprudently took his 20-year-old son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimell. After sending a few letters home from the wilderness, the three were never heard from again.
The Lost City of Z has the ingredients of a great film, but, despite its adventurous subject matter, it unaccountably suffers from a lack of daring. In what seems to be a desire to make of Fawcett an acceptable hero, Gray has left unexplored the man’s loonier notions.
The real interest of the story doesn’t seem to me the city itself, which almost assuredly doesn’t exist, but rather the storm of celebrity that Fawcett incited over the course of 15 years as he continued to return to the jungle to fulfill his obsessive quest. The British and American press couldn’t get enough of him. The truth is that Fawcett was a rousing example of Edwardian monomania, the kind Kenneth Graham lampooned in The Wind in the Willows in the person of Mr. Toad. Fawcett behaved as though the world existed solely so he could explore it. His older brother, Edward, also toyed with this kind of solipsism in his philosophical speculations and science-fiction stories. The brothers together fell under the influence of Madame Blavat sky and her Theosophical Society, quite persuaded by this charlatan’s spiritualist blather. Like their friends Arthur Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard, they were fascinated by the occult. During the Great War, Percy even used a Ouija board on the battlefield to determine where the Germans were going to attack next. Given these interests, it’s not surprising that his contact with the odder beliefs of the Amazonian Indians should have worked to dislodge whatever remained of his Christian faith. Like many another Englishman of his time, he turned to mystics and primitive notions to make sense of the world. He assumed that ghosts, fairies, and seers were truer guides through life than the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Although Fawcett turned away from his childhood faith, declaring it to be narrow-mindedly presumptuous, it doesn’t follow that he became the liberal cultural relativist that both Gray and Grann portray him to have been. This is merely today’s politically sanitized thinking at work. Gray has gone further than Grann in this cause. He’s indulged in some convenient Hollywood myth-making and made of Fawcett a multiculturalist hero who fits our enlightened contemporary expectations. In his own travel account, however, Fawcett contended that his city must have been the work of “white Indians” of European descent who somehow made their way into the Amazon many centuries earlier. He refused to believe the ancestors of the indigenous Indians would have been capable of such an enterprise. This of course, is shamefully incorrect.
Spoiler ahead: Gray concludes the film with complete conjecture. Fawcett and his son are captured by a tribe that initially does not know what to do with them. After due deliberation, their chief finally makes his decision. He tells his council that, since the men are neither enemies nor Christians, he’ll have them sent away on their own journey. With that the Fawcetts are drugged into insensibility during an impressively solemn ceremony. They are then wrapped in sheets, put into canoes, and left to drift on the Amazon to their own destinies, whatever they may be.
This is Evelyn Waugh territory. Waugh, who had traveled in the Brazilian wilderness himself and gained some acquaintance with its Indian population, used Fawcett’s story in his 1934 novel, A Handful of Dust. At the end of the narrative, he consigns his protagonist Tony Last to a fate grislier than the one Gray imagines for the Fawcetts—at least on the spiritual level. Tony is a well-meaning but fatuous aristocrat. Like everyone else in his circle, he has no convictions regarding anything beyond social manners, family connections, and railway schedules. Although he subscribes to conventional piety, questions of religious belief never trouble him at all. But then his complacency runs upon the rocks. While searching for a lost city in the Amazon, he falls into the hands of Mr. Todd, an illiterate half-caste who is addicted to the works of Charles Dickens, which he has heard read to him several times over by earlier captives, including a black missionary. (And you thought Waugh a racist.) Now that his former readers have passed on, Todd plans to have Tony read the complete works to him again and again. Waugh’s conceit is ingenious. The liberal agnostic finds himself in thrall to a primitive who takes the Western tradition, including its belief in God, quite seriously. Such are the consequences of unthinking agnosticism.
Was the real Fawcett an agnostic? Difficult to say. Swedish anthropologist Erland Nordenskiöld seems to have understood the man. Having met Fawcett in Bolivia in 1913, Nordenskiöld declared him to be “an extremely original man, absolutely fearless,” who suffers from “boundless imagination.”
It seems F. Scott Fitzgerald got it right when he had Nick Caraway remark that “life is much more successfully looked at from a single window.” Less room to flounder.
Shot on location, the visual aspects of the movie have much to recommend them. The acting is another matter. As Fawcett, Charlie Hunnam is all wrong. He’s the standard issue square-jawed hero we’ve come to expect in film adventures. He’s stiff, stolid, and painfully inexpressive. His wife is played by Sienna Miller as the neglected woman who longs to be at her husband’s side fending off bestial predators and hungry cannibals. Well, maybe. The movie looks good, but is little more than a fantastical National Geographic outing.