"Bright Wall/Dark Room is an online magazine devoted to looking at what happens when we bring our whole selves to the movies. It’s about the relationship between films and individual human beings, between cinema and the business of being alive. Whether we’re watching in a theater or a living room, we’re each just a brain in a body looking at a bright wall in a dark room. BW/DR is where we go to talk about what happened there."
Bright Wall/Dark Room is a subscription site, and for $5 or more a month, you will receive four personalized movie recommendations every month. These appear to come from actual humans rather than algorithms. My first four recommendations came in, and I chose The Lost City of Z as the first recommendation to dive into. It's a good recommendation, since I might not have found it otherwise. It did poorly at the box office, and did generally well with critics (it's #933 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century), but it's not a standout in either case. I'd seen a couple of James Gray's earlier films (We Own the Night, which didn't do much for me, and Two Lovers, a romance I liked OK), but nothing to bring him to my current attention. The star was Charlie Hunnam, who has been in some movies I liked but who I know mostly from Sons of Anarchy. In short, there was nothing about The Lost City of Z to turn me away, but neither had it caught my attention until BW/DR suggested it. So, as I say, the perfect recommendation.
To get the obvious out of the way, the movie is a biopic about British characters, so the title is pronounced "The Lost City of ZED". No big deal, but it was startling the first time I heard it. It's the story of a British soldier and explorer Percy Fawcett at the turn of the 20th century who goes looking for a lost city in the Amazon. In Bright Wall/Dark Room, Joel Mayward frames his response to the film in terms of family. When Percy goes to the Amazon, he leaves his family behind for years. Percy finds himself in the search, but while he loves his family, they are never enough to keep him home when the Lost City is still waiting to be found. Sienna Miller does a fine job as Percy's wife Nina, and Gray takes care to show how Nina is of her times, a feminist married to a man who claims to be at her side in the battle for equality. But this is Percy's story, not Nina's, and ultimately, Nina takes a back seat. The character is treated with respect, but there is never a feeling that her story will equal Percy's.
Gray is not afraid of showing the darker side of Percy. His obsessions do harm his relations with his family, but while, as Mayward notes, Percy "listens to and believes in the voices and visions of those often not given a platform in his society—women, children, the working class, and people of color. Still, the film is no hagiography, as Fawcett’s dreams of progress border on mirage in his inability to address his own privilege." His obsessions color his views of others; his obsessions are his life, which interferes with a true understanding of others.
Still, Percy is not treated like a crazed man. Just think of Klaus Kinski in Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God to see how far such a hero might go. Gray is not Herzog, Percy is not Aguirre, and The Lost City of Z, for all its beauty and thoughtfulness, is not the kind of film that would allow craziness to take over.