Film as Art in The Lost City of Z with James Gray

July 21, 2017
The acclaimed filmmaker on striving for art in cinema.

Every day a director goes to work they put their all into making the best film they can, a film that says something. But none, it seems, more so than James Gray; within his short filmography (only six feature films to date), his attempts to combine his stories with a layer of meaning that speaks to the world we live in have created fascinating, albeit smaller, films, most recently 2013’s The Immigrant.

And his new film, The Lost City of Z, is no exception. Highlighting the history of Percival Fawcett, a turn-of-the-century explorer who dedicated his life to discovering the mysterious titular city in the Amazon, and interweaving it with commentary about similarities between the classical and modern worlds, Gray’s adventure epic is more than meets the eye. And so is the man; sitting down to chat with FilmInk about the film, Gray expressed his beliefs in putting your whole self, as a director, into your films.

“You know, a lot of it is unconscious,” says Gray, when asked about how personal The Lost City of Z is to him. “But what I will say is, it never interested me to be autobiographical. What does interest me is to do something that is personal, whatever you can do to reveal your most intimate impressions, and that way something rich and beautiful hopefully can emerge someday. And, you know, it’s so hard to make films, and so hard to make films that are personal, that one of the most frightening things that I feel as a film fanatic, and a film nerd, is that if you are the greatest director, you’ve really got two or three tremendous works in you. And, in my view, if you ever want to try and be in that realm, the only way to try and do that is to try and reveal as much of yourself as you can in your work, and that eventually, hopefully, you can get there, to where they were.”

And in revealing as much of himself as he could, Gray also revealed something about his ideas on filmmaking; mixing classical style with a “modern approach”, Gray’s belief in film as an art form, despite its popularity and accessibility, and its need to say something and change constantly, is fascinating. “It’s a very complicated relationship that I feel, to what you might call classical cinema. Because I’m a believer in what you might call the modern approach, I think that true ideas of modernism don’t come from the surface of the movie, it comes from fracturing the ideas under the surface. It sounds very pretentious, but if you’re making something, and you can make something in a classical style, which this clearly is, but it can be where the woman’s point of view needs to be heard, where the indigenous people have their own independence, as human beings, and where the movie is a criticism of white hegemony. So, I tried to use the surface style of the film, the classical style, as my way in.

“That’s what’s interesting and subversive about the process,” he continues. “See, the interesting thing about a Brillo Box on the floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art, is that Warhol was putting a consumer product on the floor of a venue for high art; but to put a Brillo Box on the screen, I mean metaphorically, I don’t mean an actual Brillo Box, it’s not an act of subversion, because cinema is still a popular medium, so it’s not really a high art medium. So then the question is, how do you subvert a popular medium? I think it’s then the answer is through subtext, and subtext is achievable through a classical style, it’s not really achievable through making an active, fractured, deconstructionist film – again, some of them are done, and I think they’re amazing, but they always have to adhere to what I call ‘the fantasy’. What do I mean? If you look at Le Mepris by (Jean-Luc) Godard, which I think is a masterpiece, it is breaking apart and deconstructing the form. But – and this is a critical aspect of art, I think – he is still adhering to the fantasy of that relationship, and there is still an adherence to his evident passion. So, the classical structure is what gives us the fantasy, and then the question is, how do you express yourself in a way that is subversive to the fantasy?”

As a man who clearly knows a lot about cinema, he, like many other filmmakers, is never clear where the line between passion and obsession lies. Then again, for Gray, a film is always an obsession when you’re working on it. “It is for me, I don’t think of really anything else while I’m doing it. You know, one time I was making a film and my wife and kids came to visit, and we were leaving the set that night, and I called my wife Joaquin Phoenix’s character’s name. And, at a certain point, that’s when you realise that there isn’t a dividing line, really. But, honestly, when I see the best films, the films that I love – if you look at a great classic, Raging Bull, for example, the passion and obsession that Scorsese brings to that film is so evident because it’s about him, it’s about self destruction, and it becomes more than just a boxing film. So I don’t know, if you asked Maestro Scorsese where the line is, I don’t know if he would answer.”

And yet, as such a talented, clever filmmaker, Gray has never had a big hit. Curbing your emotions and disappointments is crucial in any profession, as is continuing your enthusiasm for it no matter what, but Gray believes in remaining true to your work regardless of reception. “It’s a very difficult relationship we have, because, of course you want a bajillion people to see your movie, and every critic to love it. But I don’t think it can ever be the reason you do it, and if you’re going down the road of needing approval, approbation, great reviews, awards, all that, I think that’s the road to ruin. You want people to see the movie, I’m not saying I don’t care. Of course, when you make a film and it comes out, and people don’t go to see it or whatever, it hurts, but you have to compartmentalise that very quickly, because in the end there is no dividing line, and the flaws in anything I have done, the many flaws, are always connected to the fact that I didn’t put myself in it enough, I didn’t expose myself in it enough. So, the degree to which you want audience satisfaction and approval, I think it gets in the way of achieving a certain kind of honesty, which is absolutely essential to make works of any value.”

The Lost City of Z is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival and is in cinemas August 24

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