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.

Personal Shopper

 

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Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2017)

 

The triumph of Kristen Stewart’s highly-touted performance in Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper is both a result of great casting and Stewart’s pressure situation for having the film’s entire plot be dependent on her character’s emotional reactions to situations. Stewart plays Maureen, a “personal shopper” for an uppity French designer. Her monotonous job involves going from store to store picking out outfits that her boss wants for her next runway show. However the film’s meat comes from Maureen’s real reason for being in Paris… finding her dead brother’s ghost. Olivier blends the melodrama of familial relations with a supernatural thriller but the film maintains a fully character-centric focus. The plot chugs only as fast and as slow as Maureen wants it to, making Stewart the center of attention in virtually every moment of the film. This speed conditioning is manifested quite literally in the long sequence in which Maureen receives anonymous texts in riddles. Throughout these sequences our perception of “time” in the movie is dictated completely by the pace at which Maureen responds to the texts. Our emotions are dictated by her’s facial response to each one she receives and the wait-time between the anonymous texter’s responses. Assayas’s deliberate subversion of American horror film tropes also play directly into Stewart’s ability to act. Ghosts, sex, and murder are all siphoned through Stewart and the camera concentrates on her personal encounters with these instances more than the instances themselves.

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The ending sequences concludes with a line uttered by Maureen which explains Assayas’s entire approach to the film as a pedestal for Stewart and her character: “Is it you… or is it just me”. The phantom thumps a “yes”.

From What is Before

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From What is Before (Lav Diaz, 2014)

In continuing with my series on Lav Diaz, a filmmaker who I have just begun to discover and now revere as a modern giant after having seen Norte The End of History, the next film I decided to embark upon was the 6 ½ hour historical epic From What is Before. A solid two hours longer than the already lengthy Norte, this Diaz feature was a bit sparser, a little more dependent on sound and atmospherics of a geographic location and a cultural “whole” than an individual character study. Nonetheless, this film was yet another entrancing offering from Diaz, and his ability to weave so much unspoken socio-political density and insight through silent static imagery of the Filipino countryside, this time in gorgeous and haunting black and white, is something that rivals the cinematic artistry Bela Tarr (who I can only assume had at least some influence on Diaz’s career).

The exploration of The Philippines as a nation, politically, socially, and religiously continues here, but now from a historical context: The year 1972, when military dictator Ferdinand Marcos initiated Martial Law onto the nation. Much like Norte, the specter of political corruption and brutality existed during this time, but we don’t really feel it until we get towards the end of the film. Instead, the Philippines which exists for majority of the movie seems like a relic of the ancients. A hunter-gatherer society, only gradually showcasing its ties to the more modern world with, amongst other things, a saleswoman pitching mosquito tents and electronics, and the small technological gadgetry in the village shacks like a coffee maker and an iron. But this is still a place where clearly, the metaphysical and the spiritual phantoms of a pre-colonial era Philippines that once existed permeate through every frame of the film, be it figuratively through the pitter patter of the rain in the ominously dense and barely inhabited or disturbed jungle, the more reactionary death of livestock and unknown villagers automatically deemed an act of dark magic, or the literal shamanistic chantings of what seemed to me at least, a female witch doctor.

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The characters in the film can be thought of as moving parts connected by a singular rural organism, similar to the communal farmers in Tarr’s Sátántangó. They live, move, and die together and their actions are wholly dependent on the fate of the land they reside in. Several actors from Norte make up the caste here as well, but in very different roles. Sito and his mischievous son Hakob try to make a meager living tending to buffalo for a landlord. They fall on even harder times when some of the buffalo are found dead and Sito is wrongfully blamed. Itang is a hard-working but naïve young woman who is burdened with tending to her mentally disabled sister Joselina, who she believes has the power to cure peoples ailments. She gives people in the village medicines and “magic” from Joselina’s powers to help cure them in exchange for money. The livelihood of the Philippines rural community, throughout the film, is self-sustaining, and although there are clear hardships and deprivations for many of the people there, they still seem to gravitate towards its comfort and a routine way of life they don’t mind living.

Also similar to Sátántangó is the sense of impending doom that that gradually starts to grow more and more real as the film goes on. What is unique about Diaz’s narrative is how our perception of this village community as isolated and in a sense “pristine” in its lack of shackles to any of our modern political weights changes to a realization that even this dense jungle of folks does not go unnoticed for possible blackmail and slaughter by a borderline tyrannical government. In a sense, visually, Diaz forms a timeline throughout the film that slowly shifts from pre-industrialization into a political military state. This seismic shift hits us without our knowing (in six and a half ours, the movie works in small increments like the changing of the hour-hand on a clock), and much like the villagers, it devastates our souls once we realize what has happened. Then, all of a sudden, in one sequence, it is slapped across our face. Just like in Tarr’s film, the nasty schemer Irmiás drops a hammer on the villagers in one devastating scene at a funeral, Marcos’s military encroachment is unveiled in a speech by a lieutenant who implores the villagers that what Marcos is doing is for “the good of the nation” (a claim that we can automatically assume means the opposite).

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Diaz is as searingly unforgiving in this film as in Norte, but he is giving us a real context here. For those who don’t know the history of the Philippines, we get a sense of understanding through the fading of village life into a military-controlled hell that there is much suffering amongst the people of this nation that has not yet washed away. Sito is the only villager at the end of the movie who refuses to leave the village, staying in its dense jungle as a lone hermit, a Thoreau for who the Philippines that once was is his own personal Walden to which he is latching on for dear life. Lav Diaz, with From What is Before, makes his case for holding on as well.

Tale of Tales : Fairy Tales for Adults

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Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone, 2015)

From the moment I saw the impeccable world-building that I witnessed in Gomorra, I knew that Matteo Garrone was both a talented and ambitious filmmaker. While his Italian crime drama was signature in its portrayal of the many different facets of the violence and drug smuggling of a single “kindgom” (the notorious Italian mafia Comorra), in his latest feature, one completely stripped from the real world into into its own parallel universe fantasy, Tale of Tales sees Garrone juggling many kingdoms at once. The title of the film is a play on words, it both implies that the particular “tale” this movie tells is comprised of several tales, and also, that its creator, Matteo Garrone, is a bit of a showman, a confident auteur declaring that this particular movie, is one above all.

Well, as they ask in the sports world, can you back up your talk? In the case of Tale of Tales, Garrone more than achieves the magnum opus its title suggests. This movie is a wonder, a horror, a weird and disgusting, but at the same time warm and endearing little bed-time story for grown ups. It follows in the same footsteps as Guillermo Del Toro’s 21st century masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth in that it imbues a world of terrible violence and nastiness of character with a whimsicle child-like wonderment and dazzling visuals that could easily pass for Lord of the Rings. There is nothing cheap about this film, despite its relative obscurity (mainly due to lack of a wide release in the U.S. insofar), and it manages to create terror and mystique in equal amounts, guided by Garrone and company’s off-the-hinges creativity, adapted from European folk-tales collections from the 1600’s, titled Pentamarone penned by poet Giambattista Basile, but also original in its own way of taking these many sources and weaving them into each other to create one tale or many tales.

The movie is structured in 3 different parts.

The first is the story of a Queen (Salma Hayek) who longs for a child. Her husband, the King cannot give her one, so they seek the advice of a Necromancer (dark wizard) who tells the King he must defeat a giant sea-monster, rip out its heart, have it cooked by a virgin and give it to his wife to consume thus she will bear a son.

The second is the story of a pathetic, weak, and short statured king (Toby Jones), who grows attached to a pet flea he keeps and feeds. His attachment to the flea is so strong it comes at the detriment of his own daughter who is left neglected. His daughter seeks a husband to run away with, but the King, a posessive and lonely man, does everything he can to prevent his daughter from leaving the castle.

The third story is that of a nymphomaniac King (Vincent Cassell). He sleeps with many women every night, multiple at the same time, yet feels empty that he has not found a single women who he deems worthy of committing to. He hears a voice one night of a sweet girl, who he is instantly aroused by. Little does he know that the girl is a hideous wench. The wench attempts to trick the King into sleeping with her using only her voice. Their dangerous game leads to unexpected consequences.

These premices are juicy in and of themselves, but Garrone’s ability to tangle them along with each other makes them that much more fertile ground for building a seductive fantasy world. Coupled with lush painterly cinematography by Peter Suschitzky (known for: Star Wars V: Empire Strikes Back, and a bunch of Cronenberg films) that makes you wish these places and castles were real, Garrone’s direction and plotting set up suspense perfectly, like the end of episodes where things are left hanging and switches to a different channel to build that story up, and then goes back to tie things together.

The weirdness of the the film also cannot be just shrugged aside. There are moments of abject horror and strangeness that occur in the movie that border on surreal. It’s interesting though because this film is supposed to be a fantasy movie, yet, in many stretches feels like a period-piece. The juxtaposition of staged historical drama (political power play, family issues, love, sex) with moments of strange other-worldly powers (wizards, giant flees, magic spells, trolls, etc) keeps us on our toes. Unlike Lord of the Rings and more like Pan’s Labyrinth, the film switches between a world which we can relate to stories we’ve heard about empires and kingdom’s past with stories we’ve read in ficitional novels. This keeps both aspects of the film ripe and provides many moments of ample surprises. Just when we think the movie is settling down like a James Ivory character drama, it shakes us up with something out of the worlds of Dante or Beowulf.

Richly layered and illustrated, Garrone’s Tale of Tales is the best fairytale for adults I have seen since Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth plus one of this years greatest cinematic marvels, and its creativity and immensely beautiful world-building is worth investing your time into. It is confrontational, and its weirdness and uniqueness of character can surprise you if you are expecting your typical Hollywood fantasy movie, but that’s what makes this tale, of many tales, worth remembering.

Foxcatcher

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Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 2014)

I’ll admit, you really have to be a particular type of cinephile to enjoy Bennett Miller’s cinema. With Moneyball it was a lot easier for more mainstream audiences to sink into the story because it dealt with a topic which was culturally relevant. Sabermetrics had become a fascinating subject about sports, particularly baseball, and adding a Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill coupled with the “will they win/will they lose” suspense of sports dramas and a feel almost ESPN 30 for 30-esque helped the film penetrate through Miller’s deliberately paced direction to capture audience’s attention.

Foxcatcher is more like Capote, Miller’s incredible debut film. It moves at a pace which impatient viewers and modern “instant-gratification generation” jittery movie-goers could call comatose… but for those who prefer their cinema with a bit of heft and who consider patience to be a major virtue in the appreciation of storytelling, Foxcatcher is a dark and emotionally resonant marvel of a movie. The story is a true story about infamous killer John du Pont of the famous du Pont family (yes, the ones of the same fame as Du Pont Chemicals industry). A rich, anti-social person, John du Pont vies for his mother’s approval of his “success in life”… though he never accomplished anything. He starts the Foxcatcher Farms Wrestling Team, which builds young men for the Olympics. Enter Dave (older) and Mark (younger) Schulz, two gold-medal winning brothers. John du Pont finds a prodigy in Mark and treats him to luxury to win a gold medal in the Seoul Olympics. He realizes that Mark isn’t exactly a leader so he gets his older brother to train his team. John of course, acts as if he’s training and coaching everyone himself, constantly seeing if his mother is watching his antics while wasting away in the giant du Pont mansion.

The fancy chandelier in this mansion of course is Steve Carrell’s much talked about acting performance. Its a revolutionary role for him, and his transformation both physically and psychologically for the part is on full display. Carrell breaths intensity throughout the film… his long dead stares, his awkward gestures of acting as if he knows anything about wrestling (clapping and yelling nonsense acting as if he’s “coaching” the wrestlers) and his pathetic attempts at gaining favor from his disapproving mother all culminate to create one of the most vibrant and deadly performances of the year. Tatum is also brilliant as the wayward wrestler Mark Schulz who’s confused as to what he really wants. The scene where he trashes his hotel room is incredibly gutting because we realize how much wrestling means to him and his descent into a self-loathing and self-harm state after losing a match really hits you and makes you feel bad for him. Ruffallo as the older brother, Dave, is the guy caught in the middle and his ever-pleasing attitude towards everyone makes it even more of a tragic affair when you realize that he’s in a no-escape rat-hole stuck between his brother Mark’s obsession and with being the best and John du Pont’s sociopathic megalomania.

Bennett Miller’s direction is beautiful in its simplicity and its pace. A story which reliies so much on the day-by-day repition of its characters… wrestlers train in a monotonous routine, John du Pont observes and takes it in little by little… requires its direction to act in a structured methodology. What may be a small lacking in the film is that there aren’t any “wow shots” that you usually see in a Miller film (the wheat fields, the court room, the girl shot dead in her room in Capote or the Oakland A’s stadium in Moneyball), the scenery in Foxcatcher is very mundane. Perhaps that also adds a bit to the shock and awe of the films fire-cracker moments. Miller may lull you to sleep for stretches, but they are all interrupted with a loud BANG of a moment where you jump out of your seat and the story takes a dangerous shift. What works throughout Foxcatcher is the ability of every facet of the film to keep you on edge about its characters next reactions. They are all volatile beings, even Dave Schulz who continuously fights to find a place for his family to “settle” cannot seem to get any footing, and grows frustrated juggling his home life with his desperate brother and the estranged du Pont.

Foxcatcher remains a film in which patience is duly rewarded. Bennett Miller is not for everybody, but if you give him a chance, you’ll see a film which is impeccable in its structure, beautiful in its volatility and electrifying in its acting, and will give you a chance to get a glimpse of the dark and treacherous story of what exactly happened at John du Pont’s Foxcatcher Farm.