Tribes and Tribulation: Colonization of South America in THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017) and THE MISSION (1986)

 

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The Lost City of Z (James Grey, 2017)

 

Indigenous communities in Hollywood films have always had marginalized roles and appearances, especially in those films dealing with Western and imperialist historical topics. James Grey’s The Lost City of Z (pronounced “Zed”) however, might be the first I’ve seen which makes a conscientious effort to reverse this Hollywood treatment. To, in fact, make it a point to say native peoples are actively marginalized throughout imperialist histories, and it’s main protagonist, Colonel Percy Fawcett, as a beholder to their intellect and power.

The main obstacle to Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam) was not to convince England he had discovered a lost tribe, but that it was, in fact, a civilization, one replete with the advancements of cookware, art, weaponry, and buildings that constituted a people of intellect and scientific and engineering knowhow. In a boisterous and argumentative session before the Royal Geographic Society, he makes his case to the horror of many of the “intellectuals” who’s fear of a non-white race achieving civility and discipline shattered their world view.

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Fawcett’s adamant stance on the intelligence and advancement of native cultures is an important counter to our biased views of Western civilization. Despite a more politically correct polish on what used to be incredibly racist stereotypes of the civilized white towards the native barbarian, we still don’t acknowledge in textbooks or discussion of colonization how much more advanced Natives actually were in regards to their understanding of natural and environmental science and food cultivation than any settlers were.

Previous treatments of native cultures contained them as entities having to be “saved” by a Western hero (Dances with Wolves). It was a veil of digestibility for our sake and a continuation of the lies that native cultures never really had an “order” before the Conquistadors or Pilgrims came to settle and command. That there were no rules or governance and thus, the land was essentially for the taking and the people free to be “educated”.

In contrast to such restrictive Hollywood tropes, James Grey’s The Lost City of Z might be considered unique in its “progressive histrionics”. There are conversations regarding women’s roles in society and home, white and non-white race relations, the erasure of cultures, and the validity of scientific findings. The film has quite a clear argument in favor of progressive views of the world, even if its setting is in the old world where such thoughts were considered preposterous or worse, treasonous.

 

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The Mission (Roland Joffé, 1986)

 

Take these views into consideration with Roland Joffé’s The Mission, a critically acclaimed historical epic which uses a very traditional Hollywood construct of native people as a group looking to be conquered or brought to salvation… or both. Joffé’s film also creates a good vs evil dichotomy, wherein its progressive politics are poised as a fight between the peaceful salvation of the Jesuit order and the ruthless slavery-driven economy of imperialist Portugal. There is even a character, Rodrigo Mendoza (a miscast but adequate Robert DeNiro), who spent time on both sides of this fence; a former mercenary and slave trader who corrects his ways and finds God with the help of Father Gabriel (the impeccable Jeremy Irons).

Much like Fawcett’s character, Father Gabriel and Mendoza fight for the dignity and independence of the indigenous Amazonian tribe they befriend, the Guarani. Unlike Fawcett however, their attempts at protection of the tribe, i.e., “conversions” via their mission, is on its head a form of cultural erasure… the elimination of the Guarani’s spiritual and traditional beliefs in favor of the Holy Spirit.

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The Mission is much more politically volatile than The Lost City of Z and thus, much more exciting and entertaining, but also much more unforgiving. But what makes one a tale While Grey maintains his central characters in such a steady and unbending light for “good”, for the true understanding of native peoples in the fact of evil imperialism, Joffé’s story is more about the inevitable genocide of the native, caught between enslavement via the Monarchy or coerced abandonment of their century-old cultural beliefs.

SONG TO SONG and VOYAGE OF TIME: There’s Something Wrong With Terrence Malick

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Song to Song (Terrence Malick, 2017)

When you feel as if an artist you always admired has lost something, what do you do? Do you hold out hope for future projects? Continue to selectively relive their past glory? Review their work chronologically to determine when and where it exactly all went to hell? It’s a troubling thing, realizing that a brilliant filmmaker, painter, sculptor, writer, or whoever cannot create the beautiful works which helped change your life, which helped inspire countless moments of your own burst of creativity.

Terrence Malick is one of my favorite filmmakers ever, and to me one of the greatest artists in American history. His repertoire, much like Kubrick’s, is sparse, spread out, untamed, and utterly brilliant. In the 30 years between 1970 to 2000, Malick made only 3 films: his debut feature Badlands, his most “critically acclaimed” work, a tragic romance called Days of Heaven and after a long hiatus, a film I consider to be possibly the single best movie I’ve ever witnessed, the war epic The Thin Red LineIn the 21st Century, however, his production increased in both volume and frequency, churning out The New World in the last decade, and a whopping 4 features and 1 documentary since 2011, a ratio of output to time-span that shocked pretty much everyone in the cinema world. Something about Malick had changed.

Initially, I thought he had simply had an explosion of great ideas he felt were necessary to put to film. When The Tree of Life released in theaters, I made it a point to revisit and experience Malick’s filmography in chronological order to prepare myself for what many hailed as a decades-long passion project. My roommate Joe and I spent the week watching 1 Malick film each day, starting with Badlands and working our way to The New World. I learned a lot from that experience, especially the historical and technical origins of Malick’s signature voice-over narration that haunts his characters and landscapes like whispers of ghosts reaching out into our world. I saw glimpses of dazzling visuals, lingering tracking shots, and an aching small-town nostalgia within Badlands that would culminate in a tidal wave of personal memory in The Tree of Life. The definition of auteur given by film critic Andrew Sarris boiled down to the idea that there existed a thematic string, a world-view, within a filmmaker, which was prevalent throughout their entire oeuvre, and that made the “auteur”. This string was clear in Malick’s career.

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Has it been cut? If his last three narrative features are any indication, at the very least it’s been weakened and frayed. A few weekends ago I saw his latest offering, a romantic music-centered film called Song to Song. A compilation of all the typical Malickian ingredients, from the dream-like visual work to the understated characters to the themes of love, loss, death and memory, the film felt like it was directed by Malick on autopilot. It was a movie filled with the filmmaker’s most natural instincts and so many of them packed together with no theme that it becomes a self-parody. The style that I used to love, that used to evoke such a deeper questioning to the themes he explored, that added immense depth to a painterly celluloid canvas, now evoked only an eye-roll, a sigh, and a glance at my cell phone to see how much time I had left before I could go home.

Is Malick bored? Or did he just run out of ideas? It seems counterintuitive for a bored and imagination-dry filmmaker to start making movies at a faster pace than he used to.

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Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick, 2017)

Even more perplexing is the other movie I saw from him, a short documentary in IMAX at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum called Voyage of Time was so moving and beautifully composed. It’s is a visual “companion” of sorts to his narrative masterpiece The Tree of Life, and is a representation of human existence told through the creation of the universe. The film has no dialogue and almost no humans aside from a girl standing in a field and two kids playing in the front yard of a colonial suburban home. This film was purely the essentials of Malick’s visual technique. Aside from a beautiful opening scroll that in itself eclipses any inane forced voice-over dialogue from his last 3 disappointing films, the film is just CGI and natural shots depicting the birth of the universe and the world and ultimately, its expansive relation to us and our place within it.  What is the string between this film and Song to Song? Is there any thematic connection? They were made by the same man, a director I have incredible admiration for, but one is comprised of all his greatest tendencies and the other all his worst. One felt personal and profound while the other felt like pseudo-intellectual blabber and faux-artistic posturing.

The clearest distinction I can make between the old and new Malick, is that before, his visuals and his words were dictated by an inner voice that was so clear, making his style a necessary vehicle to project that voice to us. Malickian style now seems like nothing more than a pandering technique for his fans. The weight of his voice-overs is absent, the meaning behind his mesmerizing images isn’t there. Song to Song‘s entire aesthetic could be recreated by anyone with a high definition camera and it wouldn’t lose any of its already flimsy effect. That is sad to say about a filmmaker who didn’t miss a step for almost 4 decades of sparse but masterful filmmaking.

O.J. Made in America

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OJ: Made in America positions itself as a media-on-media critique. It uses interviews, news broadcasts, movie scenes, commercials, sports clips and analysis, and political speeches and reactions to recreate the aura and mythology of its central character, O.J. Simpson. As a black kid from the projects turned football star turned American icon, he was the living, walking, and talking embodiment of the American Dream, and exhibit A for proof that capitalism worked. A man whose figure in the American pop culture diaspora was so magnanimous, it defied definition. As Jay-Z put it, “Not a businessman, but a business… man.” However, all of this was shattered through a court trial that ended up finding him innocent, but fallout that rendered him an outcast of American society. In this, Edelman paints an America comprised of two sides that were always at odds in the fight for O.J. Simpson. A white America who embraced his rise and turned un-apologetically to relish in his fall, and a black America who felt neglected by his apathy towards their social struggle yet embellished in the opportunity to use his trial as a means of social justice. As a documentary, a piece of visual media, it turns its lens in every direction and points it back at us in 2016, facing a similar racially fractured situation which all but intensified post a seminal verdict in the court that is the American presidential election. It points it back at its own storytelling form, the overexposure of an individual, a normalization of his dangerous behavior, a treatment of him as a victim of unwarranted harsh criticism rather than recognizing his actions as inviting and justifying it.

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The social and cultural shifts of American history through time shape and are shaped by its most powerful citizens. Race relations brewed through O.J.’s life, even if he tried his hardest to avoid them. We perceive race as a binary entity. You are either racist or you are not. However, like most ideologies or worldviews, it exists in a blended spectrum that makes it harder for us to judge, and dangerously, harder to detect or realize. Many instances in O.J. Made in America showcase blatant examples of racism. Use of the n-word, beating of black individuals by police, direct violence against blacks by whites. However, there is also deeply rooted systemic racism that the documentary taps into and it is revealed not only in the laws and policies of the nation, but in the everyday lives of people, perhaps unwittingly. As they say, the system isn’t broken, it’s meant to work this way and it ingrained itself in the American psyche to the point of second nature… subconscious reaction to visual signals. Mark Cuban mentioned in an interview several years ago that if he was out at night in the city and saw a black kid in a hoodie he would feel the need to go to the other side of the street(1). We don’t know where such a mental reaction originated from and that’s exactly the issue. Preconceived notions on race are omnipresent in American media as well. In OJ, majority of the violent news footage is consisted of black individuals in urban areas attacking and being “handled” by police officers. These biases exist in everyone and they exist to different degrees. They existed within the rich white circles O.J. Simpson surrounded himself with and then was discarded from once they couldn’t use his stature to their benefit anymore. They existed within Johnny Cochran and his team, who used race-baiting tactics to overcome hard evidence and let a murderer go free. They existed within Simpson himself, who claimed he “never saw race” yet, upon seeing a commotion outside his mansion following his chase down the highway remarked to a white police officer “what are all these n—— doing here?”

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The subject, OJ, of Ezra Edelman’s documentary is amended with a predicate: Made in America. Here lies the power of the story. Where the onus is placed on a culture, a nation, and a history that perpetuated the rise of such an individual, and tore itself apart amidst his demise. The idol worship culture, where the concept of a person being bigger than a person, exists for better or for worse. We elevated Bill Cosby as an all-time comedian. We elevated Tom Cruise as a charismatic screen-stealing superstar. We elevated Donald Trump as a money-savvy outsider who could plausibly lead the most powerful nation in the world for four straight years. Through interviews and news clippings Edelman shows us how our (now social) media-obsessed culture feeds into the mythos of ultimate success and power. We say that America is the place where winners go. You’ll never become as successful and as wealthy and as powerful anywhere else in the world as you can in America. Well, that sword comes with two edges. Capitalism is always coupled with materialism. Fame is always coupled with greed. Power is always coupled with corruption. Only in America could an O.J. Simpson be made. We all made him because we all fed into his myth and his lie. The greatness of O.J. Made in America is in its ability to connect the evolution of a nation with the trajectory of one man’s fame, power, and wealth and the American people’s investment in that story. Something to think about for the next four years.

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American Honey

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American Honey (Andrea Arnold, 2016)

The after-effects of watching Andrea Arnold’s latest film American Honey made me feel it etched a defining signature for this generation and era of youth the way Bogdonovich’s The Last Picture Show did for the beginning of the 70’s. It’s a real and raw take of the “seize the moment” youth culture that has seeped into the central theme of several coming-of-age films, most of them tawdry offerings like Paper Towns. What sets American Honey apart however is that it essentially treats seizing the moment as a survival tactic for its protagonists in conjunction with its traditional depiction as a rebellious act of pure free will. Star, an 18-year old dreadlocked girl, jumps ship from her borderline abusive boyfriend and two kids who aren’t even her own to join Jake, a young salesman she catches a glance of through a dingy van window. That split-second eye contact was enough for Star to seize an opportunity to join a ragtag group of magazine sellers looking for a quick buck.

Star’s journey ends up being a crossroads of American culture. Opportunistic capitalism meets the self-discovering millennial. The entire film rides an electric current that transfers itself directly from Arnold’s camera. The shaky-cam is a technique many have grown tired of, but its wandering, untamed eye captures the imagination of the film’s characters and their surroundings. Their dance circles bumping to trap songs have the aesthetic of a music video. Every passionate kiss between Star and Jake goes in and out of focus as the camera tumbles along with them on the grass.  Its akin to many of the things that connect directly with a millennial culture that embraces imperfection, and a spontaneous jubilance for discovery.

Then there is of course, the money aspect. Star’s new job and love are hampered by the presence of Krystal, the leader of the magazine business, and much to Star’s devastation, the one who Jake answers to beck and call. In a pivotal sequence in the film, we see Star on the verge of losing her job and forced to watch Jake apply lotion to Krystal’s bare thighs. As their conversation goes on the sound of skin slapping and lubricant sliding grows ever louder and Star’s body begins to shake with ruin. It becomes clear that the newfound freedom still has its strings. At the heart of the film, thumping on the blood pumped through a carefully meditated playlist of songs including Rihanna’s “We Found Love”, Mazzy Starr’s “Fade Into You” and Raury’s “God Whisper”, the film depicts a camaraderie of a generation, all searching for an individual goal but finding solace in a companionship between equally lost and wandering souls. Despite the fact that their “job” is a sham, that Krystal’s grip of money and power may dampen what should be free enterprise, and Star’s own rollercoaster of falling in and out of love with Jake several times, the characters who populate Arnold’s remarkable story hang their hopes on a feeling, one they get from each other and through the film’s music.

Call it a musical, a coming-of-age drama or even a road movie, but American Honey is a generational film, one which drips with the feeling of growing up in this era, seizing a moment, a glance through a dingy window, riding in a packed van with misfits, never knowing where you’ll end up next, but knowing that they are there, and just as lost as you.  

2015 Capsule Reviews Part III

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The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)

The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)

For a movie with such a palpably tense premise, The Martian is almost devoid of any real peril. Let me say that I did not read the book, but from everything I’ve heard about it from various sources, it’s a very well-written piece of work. So you can imagine my confusion when, as I am sitting through Ridley Scott’s latest venture into sci-fi, a genre he is usually very successful with, I am slaped around with an endless constant stream of wise-cracks from a snarky Matt Damon who is stuck with limited oxygen, food, and survival equipment on another freaking planet, and acting like he’s trying to survive a week-long house-arrest inside of a mansion. There isn’t a single moment in which I truly believed Mark Watney was in any serious danger, and that’s a problem because he was stuck millions of miles away from human civilization. The groundwork of this premise lays the foundation for an incredible sense of dire hopelessness for the central character, yet Ridley Scott provides none of this in his movie. Even the camerawork amidst sandstorms and life-threatening plot-points on the planet are shot in such a vibrantly beautiful and meticulously efficient manner that it seems like we’re looking at a high-rendered computer simulation via NASA’s website instead of a cinematic work of art and emotion. As if Watney is inside of such a simulation the entire time, robotic and fake. It seems that Mr. Scott has trouble conjuring up much drama when there aren’t horrifying alien creatures lurking about looking to feed on the main character.

 

Everything Will Be Fine (Wim Wenders, 2015)

This is going to be a quick review, because this film was atrocious. I am still trying to search for what the hell Wim Wenders, Germany’s most overrated filmmaker export (Wings of Desire, Paris Texas, both dreck), was trying to say here, and what possessed him to believe any of the so-called “acting” that we see on screen was adequate for anything more than an ABC Family original movie.

 

Time Out of Mind (Oren Moverman, 2015)

More personal performance piece by Richard Gere than anything else. Time Out of Mind documents Richard Gere as a homeless man, estranged from his daughter and permanently separated from his wife. Gere opens the piece with him lying inside a bathtub and acting disoriented saying some woman is coming to get him and everything is okay. Throughout the film, Gere’s character behaves in a way which directly confronts our fears, irritation, and genuine negative attitude towards the homeless. He is pathetic in many cases, spending what little money he can panhandle to buy a six pack and sit on a park bench, making belching noises and feeling sorry for himself. It’s easy to hate this character, and that is the point. He finally seeks help at a homeless shelter and it is here that we see the “system”. For all of the rudeness and complete lack of consideration that Gere’s homeless individual displays the social workers still treat him with respect and do what they can to retrieve the information they need to get him help. It is important for Gere to express his character as one without any identifying marks; no ID, no license, no proof of birth. He embodies the our version of a homeless man. Faceless, nameless, a category of not-quite-human on the street to avoid eye-contact with. Eternally non-existent, at least, aside from that split second we pass them by. In this sense, Gere’s acting performance and experiment overall is important because it forces us to try to like his character, to notice him, to see ourselves by his side. We resist through majority of the film, but eventually, there is a growing sense of comfort. The film succumbs to sappy clichés once or twice, mainly with the annoying side character of Dixon, as well as a scene in a coffee shop where Gere tries playing the piano with a beautiful afternoon light glowing directly in his direction. These scenes are an unimaginative plea to turn Gere into a “character”, but that rings false. The greatest strength of the film is when Gere is at his worst because that confrontation challenges the best in our ability to empathize with his situation.

 

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson, 2015)

When I first heard about Roy Andersson, he piqued my interest mainly because of people’s complaints about his sparse and challenging comedy. I like movies that are hard to digest in terms of their artistic approach because it proves that the filmmaker is at least attempting something unique. In this sense, the movie can never outright fail because as Woody Allen says “98% of success is just showing up”. Well, Andersson technically showed up, but then died right at the doorstep and left me flabbergasted as to what to do. Pigeon is a weird movie for sure, but it is also one where its weirdness, sparseness, and supposed quirk is equivalent of the kid in the corner snorting with a cold, pulling out his snot, examining it, and then eating it. It’s not the kind you want to be associated with to examine from anything close than a safe 20 feet away. There is no charm here, just a deadly slow showcase of mannequin-like characters doing their worst impression of deadpan humor. The two salesmen, the “hook” of the narrative if you will, display their ineptitude from the get-go, reducing themselves to pointless downers. We know they’re not going to sell anything, so why are we watching them? In fact, why the hell are we watching this movie?