Adam & Eve Web Series: Some Thoughts on an Old Story, and a Chance at some Funding

A bit of self-serving, shameless promotion for a project I’m part of and believe in very much. But first, some rambling.

I’m fascinated by creation myths and origin stories. I don’t spend enough time with them. One of the most popular origin stories in the Western World is Adam & Eve–the first humans, as told in that familiar-yet-elusive text, The Holy Bible. We know about the Bible, right? Eh, kind of. Often we know it more through how it’s interpreted by people professing it to be scripture from God rather than from reading the text ourselves. Unsurprisingly, lots of Christians don’t spend much time with Adam & Eve, and the basic lesson(s) of the story are told a bit simplistically.

This is different from being simple. Myths, fables, parables, metaphors–often the bread n butter of Biblical storytelling–excel at being complex narratives communicated through simple structures. They’re surprisingly difficult narrative forms. Kinda how comedy, when done well, appears effortless and spontaneous. In effect, easy. But anyone in comedy, either as a critic or practitioner, knows it’s anything but easy. And one of the greatest challenges is to make it appear really damn easy (like making a world through millions of years of natural process appear like it was created from nothing). So, it’s gotta look easy, and it’s gotta convey big, expansive ideas through laughter–also not something we value as much as we should.

Laughter in the Bible? Where? Lamentably, the Bible has the unfortunate reputation of not only being dry and severe, but aggressively unfunny. This isn’t necessarily true (it’s a big book, so some of it is absolutely not funny–some of that Law of Moses stuff, and the mass slaughter of entire civilizations, usually not funny; Jesus baggin on how stupid his apostles often are? Very funny. Job trash-talkin his unhelpful friends, very funny. Watching too many Christian homophobes work their way around David and Jonathan’s hella-gay relationship? Always funny, yet sad, with a history of devastating consequences for so many people). Finding the humor, much like finding the poignancy and layers of meaning, takes a little-to-a-lot of work learning how to read and understand the Bible–though your Sunday School class will undoubtedly assure you that it’s all easy and crystal clear, and often conveniently in line with the class’ already established world view, and frequently confused with Divine Revelation.

There’s a problem though. It’s actually not easy, and believers I think could benefit from seeing the degree of difficulty a little more clearly. For starters, imagine Adam & Eve as a rom com. Why not? You don’t think it was hella weird being the only two people on earth, who had known each other for a potentially shortish amount of time, in a perfect environment devoid of conflict? Yeah, getting along is easy when that’s your world. Especially when God is always there to chat. Life’s pretty good. Perfect even. Plato would be proud. But everyone else is bored to death, except we can’t die, because the Garden of Eden. Suddenly, this isn’t easy; this is damnation–the ultimate Beckett play where nothing happens and everything is as it should be and existence is meaningless. No human likes that. But there was a spark of tension, which ignited into a full-blown atomic blast, wherein Adam & Eve learned some things, gained some perspective, and flunked out of Eternity School. At least, so it seems. Suddenly, God ain’t around and there’s only them, and now they age, and have clothes, and their bodies wanna get down, and everything can die.

Eternity didn’t prepare them too well for this. So you gotta figure it out. Work from scratch, hone your DIY skillz, and figure out whether this person you’ve always been around in a perfect, conflict-free, environment, is still tol’able despite being a perplexing, contradictory, pain in the ass. Oh crap, you mean I gotta actually figure out if I like this person? What if I don’t? They’re the only one here! Nuts, right? A total mess. Think of the most uncomfortable date ever, and then realize you can’t tell anyone about it because the only person to tell is your date.

Wait, what about the telling? We like telling stories. We like telling uncomfortable stories. Good storytellers–even funny, optimistic, kind ones–are masochists to some degree, because most of the time the best stories contain unbearable conflict. Some of the best humor is found in watching other people agonize through the most uncomfortable scenarios imaginable–Miracle at Morgan’s Creek, Bringing Up Baby, Some Like It Hot, Nightcrawler (yes, Nightcrawler is a comedy–the darkest comedy ever made, besides perhaps Heathers). We love watching this stuff, we don’t like living it. But how often have you found yourself halfway over the coals and thought: “this sucks, but it’ll make a killer story later,” or “someday we’ll laugh about this, but today is not that day.” We’ve been there. Hell, it was the only thing my sophomore creative writing class could write about. It was just four months of the most uncomfortable, absurd, and confessional dating and relationship stories ever. All these kids were desperately attracted to and repulsed by relationships and the perplexingly cruel rituals of dating in Provo, Utah; the shiny Sunday School curtain of perfect lives pulled back, revealing the most grotesque and carnivalesque shop of human horrors imaginable. Stories allowed this release, and it was the only release available since these were Mormon kids, who couldn’t get laid. Masochistic, dark-humored narratives of collapse and despair were all they had, an eternal cycle of birth, growth, decay compressed into the week-to-week crucible of singles ward hell.

All of which makes Adam & Eve a rather relatable narrative. Even a true narrative. But it requires some work on our part, because Biblical language is tricky, and people’s interpretations of that language even trickier. And sometimes, there are gaps in the narrative, where we can speculate on the details. This is fun, and potentially dangerous, and kinda vital. So we appropriate, interpret, translate, and adapt the story to ourselves, our communities, our cultures–just as we do with the painfully amusing stories of our own lived experience. Again, not a bad thing. Quite the opposite, I think this is essential. Storytelling is a kind of redemption, where suffering, forgiveness, and salvation all become possible, through the telling, the crying, and the laughing. Understanding a text is like understanding our lives–God wants us to figure it out, because the easy ride of paradise is over, and now it’s time to get our hands dirty, apply some elbow grease, and troubleshoot this life thing. Essentially, you have to care. About everything and everyone. The boundaries and limits are suddenly so firmly before you, yet the whole point is to get past them, or perhaps more accurately, expand them to include other people who you don’t and can’t know as well as you thought.

Goes without saying: this is a huge pain sometimes, I know. So we do everything we can to make it easy, which usually involves some incredibly creative machinations, which, if they weren’t so stifling, I’d say were commendable. But the creative work of reductionist thinking, where stories and people get simplistic, is talent going in reverse, vain attempts to force ourselves back into the Garden rather than venture forward into Eternity. After all, the promise of eternal life stands as a powerful metaphor for limitless possibility, in which we can take our lives virtually anywhere we want, within certain basic-yet-difficult parameters, summed up by Charlton Heston:

moses-commandments-tablets-be-cool-dont-be-an-asshole-13858055342

To “Be Cool” means going forward with faith, hope, and charity. “Don’t be an Asshole” means to extend those three pillars of Christianity to everyone around you. Which can be hard when there’s only one person around, and they’re always there, and kinda dumb sometimes. Or you’re kinda dumb sometimes. And you know it, don’t know what to do about it, and can’t bury yourself away from the person next to you who also knows you’re pretty dumb. Oh man, existential absurdism taken to the horrible limits, and we’re all alive but dead from secondhand embarrassment.

Did all of that get pretty dry? I think so. Point is: if this kinda stuff interests you, then you might enjoy the charming romantic comedy web series Adam & Eve. If you’ve seen it, good for you! Your indie street cred is on fire! If you haven’t, well, forgiveness and repentance are real; knowing you’ve repented and been forgiven, less real. In any case, I don’t blame you for having not seen it. The show has been cruising under the radar, despite making a nice splash in Utah, where it was filmed, and at several film festivals across the globe. There’s so much to watch out there, and so much of it very good. And this web series was made on the super cheap, from the quietly hard-working married couple Davey & Bianca Morrison Dillard. I’m, of course, quite biased since they are dear friends of mine, and I have been the PA/AC on this project. It has been a joy to work on this series.

I mean, doesn’t this look fun? (It’s fun.)

Now (here’s the shameless promotional part), there’s a chance for Adam & Eve to get a little funding through the Stareable competition, currently running through the end of the month. How does it work? You click on the link to the project you wish to support. That’s it. The clicks are tallied and the project with the most clicks by the end wins a $2000 grant. For a DIY project like this, $2000 would go an incredibly long way to funding future episodes. But it’s only possible with consistent clicking from those interested. What’s better is that you can click once daily, on any device you can find. Meaning, if you happen to find yourself in a room full of computers, tablets, and phones, you can click once from each device, and every single click counts(!). Incredible. Technology has really carried us some places since Adam & Eve stumbled out of the garden.

What Davey and Bianca have crafted here is much more than a simple Bible story. Not that the Bible is simple, as we know–it’s super not. And that’s true here, as well. What appears simple and straight-forward on the surface, is more intricate and complex. There are nuances here, and what attracts me the most is how human and in the world the whole thing is. A lot of Christian religious cinema I think does itself a great disservice by either falling back too hard on easy platitudes that double as advertising, or becoming too vague and impersonal so that everything becomes more conceptual than concrete. Davey & Bianca, and most certainly Becca Ingram‘s performance as Eve, have crafted a tale rooted in experience. The emotions and concerns are fairly accessible and ordinary ones, which makes them rather massive and profound–eternal perhaps? The Christian narrative explored here is quite catholic (you know, the universal variety, not the institutional), and deeply uninterested in whether or not we viewers might literally believe in God or the story of Adam & Eve. The story is the vehicle through which we can examine ourselves, our relationships, and the world we live in. It needn’t be a “true story” to deliver human truths regarding the human condition. If anything, the Biblical narrative speaks very explicitly to our humanness, emphasizing just how vital it is to engage with that world directly and wholely. And therein might we see the face of God: in the people across from us, and the life surrounding us. This is lovely stuff, sincerely and modestly created. It’s not without limitation, but so it is to be human. And tomorrow is a new day.

As you can see, we work very hard on this project:

We would love to keep working on it, and would greatly appreciate your support. The lone and dreary world awaits, and sometimes it’s funny there.

For further info on the project check the following:
Facebook
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DISCLAIMER: Davey & Bianca didn’t ask me to write this, and the ridiculous thoughts herein are my own. I just like them so much and want their project to continue. Go find their own thoughts and words about their series. They’re worth reading.

Julia’s Eyes and Getting Nice Guyed in the Back

Guillern Morales‘s 2010 horror/mystery/thriller hybrid, Julia’s Eyes, is a competently composed and executed work, drawing on Hitchcock, Wait Until Dark, and Val Lewton & Mark Robson’s underappreciated marvel The Seventh Victim. Julia’s Eyes nicely merges classical narrative and visual styles with a contemporary sensibility. In other hands such conscious appropriation of landmark films would come off far more derivative than this does. The film appears to work well, despite shortcomings in characterization, being a bit too long, and–most importantly–a clunky, overly-sentimental finish that kills the narrative and emotional power and relegates our central character, Julia, played marvelously by Belén Rueda to second-fiddle status that runs contrary to the film’s thematic propulsion. Julia’s Eyes could have been first-rate, updating some genre conventions and cultural notions of gender roles and female empowerment, but got frightened by its own assertiveness, and instead cowered back into a tired, subservient space that undermines the entire film.

The premise is intriguing: Julia’s sister Sara (also played by Rueda) has a degenerative eye condition, and is now clinically blind. She is then found dead, in what looks like a suicide, but the audience knows otherwise–“there was a third man!” So immediately we have our Hitchcockian suspense à la Shadow of a Doubt and Dial M for Murder, as well as our Wait Until Dark blind and vulnerable female protagonist, with loose ties to The Seventh Victim through mysterious deaths and suicide. Despite the evidence and every man around her saying otherwise, Julia doesn’t believe her sister killed herself and we know she’s right. So everyone around Julia is now suspect–tension and distrust established. Through a series of twists and turns, wherein most characters are and aren’t who we thought, we’re dazzled by the effective shifts and reveals, staying on our toes and just out of our comfort zone. This is good genre work, a well-wrought yarn.

Adding to the tension, Julia has the same degenerative eye condition as Sara, where overexertion and stress can cause permanent blindness. Her overly-protective husband, Isaac (Lluís Homar), keeps dissuading Julia from her investigation. While acknowledging his controlling over-protectiveness, Isaac claims to be looking out for Julia’s well-being. Unfortunately, this love and care mostly just comes off as overbearing sexist chauvinism, with healthy dashes of suspicious about his motives. So the film and audience stays firmly in Julia’s corner, rooting for her to expose the shadowy killer, avenge her sister’s murder, and also prove to the dudes around her that she was right and fully capable, no thanks to them. Confirming some of our suspicions, Isaac hasn’t been entirely up front, and his explanation comes off as floundering nice guy garbage about protecting Julia. Such What Lies Beneath-level backsliding makes us distrust him even more. It’s a well-executed setup that speaks to the benevolent sexism within too many modern marriages. My wife and I were all on board.

What further strengthens this film and theme is Rueda’s confident and mostly believable performance. She runs the range of steely resolve, resourceful detective work, and vulnerable uncertainty and sadness. A classically well-wrought genre character. Where it suffers isn’t Rueda’s fault, but due to uneven and under-cooked characterization in the script, which direction and performance just can’t mask. Despite the tension and distrust we hold for Isaac, the film desperately tries to present their marriage as loving and healthy, which never quite passes.

By comparison, the marriage in J.A. Bayona‘s The Orphanage, which bears some character and relationship similarities, gives Laura (Rueda) and Carlos (Fernando Cayo) proper dimension. There she is also a determined mother with a skeptical, resistant husband. She’s determined to find their vanished son, while her husband wishes to move on with their lives, accepting their son lost and dead. The Orphanage offers light and strategically short but substantial characterization and articulation of their respective concerns and personalities which make both Laura and Carlos deeply sympathetic. Carlos’s grief and skepticism resonates, and we sympathize, but his position doesn’t supplant Rueda’s own determination to solve the mystery; this irreconcilable tension keeps us engaged by exposing important, relatable aspects of what it means to grieve and how, despite a couple’s best efforts to support each other in their sorrow, they inevitably must also travel part of that path alone. Your coping strategy might be fundamentally at odds with the strategy of your partner, which is really damn hard to reconcile when grieving the shared tragedy of losing your child.

The dynamic in Julia’s Eyes is different, because it’s Julia’s sister who’s dead, which distances Isaac from this tragedy. So it makes sense that he is not as devastated by Sara’s death and would more easily wish to ignore the sordid details of her death. However, how the script shapes his response falls uncomfortably flat. Isaac mostly tells us he cares, without it evidenced in his actions, which often suggest the opposite (and Julia knows it). Despite these benevolently condescending motives, the film wants us to believe Julia and Isaac intensely love each other, a hurdle Rueda and Homar never quite clear. It’s not their fault; like Jessica Rabbit, they’re just drawn that way. This shortcoming will become particularly problematic in the film’s conclusion, which I’ll address later.

Julia’s solitary truth quest is most interesting when the stress renders her, like Sara, blind. To recover her sight, she must undergo a transplant surgery, which can only succeed if she keeps her new eyes wrapped for several weeks. Through this middle section, the Hitchcockian cinematography uses medium and close-up shots of Julia’s bandaged face that keep her central, with all other characters faceless. Think about it: how much do we rely on looking at another’s face? and how distressing is it for the face to be just barely out of sight, over and over again. This effectively disconcerting technique connects audiences to Julia’s vulnerability, where potential threats could be everywhere and you can’t identify them and might even depend on them; the camera and her blindness as potent metaphor for the lurking and often daily threat of male violence against women.

For viewers, this section comforts and discomforts according to what we can and can’t see, creating a fascinating space where we get the thrill of suspense, complicated by that suspense feeding on a woman both possibly and actually being terrorized. And yet, we identify with that fear, reminded of just how dangerous the world around us can be, and how quickly our capacity to defend ourselves from those dangers can be compromised. Much of Julia’s earlier resolve and confidence is taken away, forcing her to adapt. And thankfully this classic mystery aesthetic has refined its representation of female vulnerability to better convey a woman’s experience, and I would assume that for women who’ve experienced male aggression, this entire sequence might sit distressingly close to home in a way male viewers, like myself, cannot understand. Julia’s fear that her killer could be by her at any moment becomes our own fear, for we don’t know who these people could be, especially not the in-home care nurse helping her daily. The spectacle of female victimization is not as perversely displayed here, and in many respects this is the quietest and tenses part of the entire film, which is book-ended by more familiar spikes and anxiously hysterical cinematic choices with sound, camera movement and performance. But in this sequence, the film shines brightest through controlled tension and deliberate choices that immerses us in the narrative while still consciously aware of our relationship to the film as a viewer, a very subtle bit of Brechtian boundary erosion.

When the big reveal comes, it too has a disarming quality that aids the film’s play with convention and comment on sexism in 2010, MRAs and internet beta-males. How the film anti-climactically reveals our shadow villain plays like in Panic Room, where there’s no mastermind Hannibal Lecter/Harry Powell super-villain, but instead a regular dumb guy, wanting to be more than he is. He’s the thriller version of Kylo Ren from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. That moment when Kylo takes his mask off, serves a double function of (1) stepping out of the familiar genre convention of the masked Vader villain we’ve watch a thousand times, and (2) revealing that Kylo doesn’t actually need the mask, he just wore it because he’s a Darth Vader wannabe, desperate to look and walk hard, while being a self-declared faceless shadow (because he’s TOUGH, and also a persecuted man–fragile masculinity is SO HARD). Villains self-branding themselves as victim to justify their rotten actions (MRAs and alt-righters everywhere, I’m looking at you). They seem to misunderstand that Vader, like Mad Max: Fury Road‘s Immortan Joe, needs the mask because he’s physically ruined. It’s not fashion flair, but a lived necessity, which adds to their character in a way that makes the Tyler Durden dude bro posturing even more insulting and childish.

The anonymity of the internet makes shadows of us all, offering masks to hide ourselves. And we all do so. The problem is when we interpret that self-constructed anonymity as persecution from others. “They don’t see me!” “I’m so overlooked!” “Women, why don’t you see me?!” “I deserve to be seen!” (This is often code for “why won’t you sleep with me?”.) But also, don’t see me, because the shadow mask is my Power, and I then can prey upon you via gross manipulation and voyeurism. I’m really a psychotic abuser who thinks they’re a Nice Guy. But, hate to break it to you: you’re neither a nice guy nor a sophisticated super-villain. You’re just a pathetic dude on your basement computer sadistically stalking and trolling women you don’t know but want to control. You’re not cool. You never were cool. And no one owes you shit.

This is good social commentary, updating facets of Wait Until Dark and the satanist cult manipulating Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) in The Seventh Victim, to the present day, while never having any single moment quite as iconic as Wait Until Dark’s famous jump scare, or the devastating/liberating complexity of Seventh Victim‘s conclusion. Yet, like Wait Until Dark but unlike The Seventh Victim, Julia’s Eyes makes the horrid move to contain all this female empowerment. As the trope and life go, a dude has to manspread across the frame and smother our heroine. It’s painfully awkward, glaringly unconvincing, and absolutely unnecessary. This is where the film’s conclusion bottoms out. With aching desperation it insists Isaac was a good person, without ever showing us that he deserves to be so praised. Nothing is earned here, just like when men get mad that women don’t naturally flock to them and swallow everything they say and do.

Remember how Doctor Strange kept telling us Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange was good, but never showed us he was? Same problem. Why this matters? It hamstrings our emotional connection and sympathy, rendering the whole yarn a dull slog that all the visual fireworks in the world can’t make up for. There’s almost no visible proof Strange is a good person, only other characters saying he is. It’s the narrative equivalent of the business man saying “believe me! Take my word for it!” Uh, show me the receipts, dude. That audiences continually fall for this only speaks to the power of spectacle and performance, but distressingly reveals how easily suckered we are, and more distressingly how little we mind being suckered (2016 election anyone?). Morales seems to want Isaac’s goodness to be believed without proof, which, you know, sounds like pretty textbook male privilege.

Movies are amazingly good at persuading an audience while not really deserving it. Kind of how the magnificent cinematics of Stranger Things convinced us some of the very thin and tired characterization and motivations were in fact brilliant–nostalgia weaponized to validate latent biases. In Julia’s Eyes this shallow manipulation is the entire finish and it falls flatter than the psychologist explaining Norman Bates, or the unnecessary and patronizingly abusive moment in Wait Until Dark when Sam Hendrix (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) demands Susy (Audrey Hepburn)–who has just singularly prevailed in a horrendously traumatic experience of male aggression–prove her mettle to her husband, despite having already spent the entire movie showing that she is fully capable of taking care of herself. It’s patronizing, insulting, and sexist.

The closing scene of Julia’s Eyes buries the movie through grotesque male encroachment declaring Isaac the real hero. Rueda, bless her heart, gives it her all, imbuing lines with more convincing substance than they remotely deserve. But it’s not enough, and the finish had me choking up hairballs of disgust. My wife was understandably even more upset than me, which might only expose the gender disparity of experience. I can’t be as upset as her, because she’s the one who soaks this shit up everyday way more directly than I do. It’s especially bad in a film about how women are the fully capable protagonists of their own lives, and beta male dude bros are the worst. How insulting to, after all that skillful dismantling of gender inequality, we have to basically blurt “BUT NOT ALL MEN!!!” and push Julia down a step so her chauvinist husband can be saint and savior. I just threw up a little.

In a movie with so much working, it’s a shame that it so completely collapsed. Naturally we can always find flaws–there are no perfect movies (except Night of the Hunter). And if not flaws, then just different sensibilities and preferences that resonate with some and not others. Frequently, such incongruities and rough edges are as fascinating as the superbly executed/resonant moments. Flaws can enrich the personal connection, interpretive range and reciprocal application available to art. Take the commendable evolution of Star Trek: in each new iteration to boldly go where no one has gone before it continually revises itself to better realize its utopic vision of peace and equality. Often I can forgive a film its biggish missteps (I very much like Psycho and Wait Until Dark), find something redeeming about it or still consider the film, as a whole, a success and worth revisiting. But that can’t happen all the time. Sure, there’s racism lurking in numerous 1930s horror flicks, but The Mask of Fu Manchu is really racist, and Boris Karloff, the greatest human, can’t save it.

Sometimes shortcoming are so large you wonder whether the movie was any good to begin with–was the first half actually good, or did it sucker me? It suckered me a little, because, let’s be real, the budding romance between her and her nurse–so quick after Isaac’s own suspicious murder/suicide–is pretty shallow, out of character, and too long, with some spinning camera work and transforming set pieces that seem the blandest nod to Vertigo I’ve seen in some time. Why is this happening? What, did her womanly nerves get in the way of her sound judgment and the one-two punch of two dead loved ones? The things that seemed otherwise marvelous are starting to unravel. If you, like me, get suckered by the business bro sometimes, don’t feel too bad. The day comes to each of us to ask: has U2 sucked this whole time, or is it really just the post-Zooropa albums that get progressively worse with each release? Now I can’t tell if The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby are brilliant or the same inane posturing, but with better production and less unbearable Bono White Savior bullshit. And even if those early albums are still good, damn Songs of Innocence is a used moldy diaper whose stink has tainted everything. I can’t even enjoy Unforgettable Fire without catching a whiff of that dank mess dumped in my iTunes. Maybe it’s better to just forget that U2 ever happened.

It’s a cruel last irony that, in this woman’s story about overcoming sexism, Isaac’s eyes replace Julia’s, and, with this new vision, her world view becomes but a vacuous cosmic void of nice guy apologism.

Director: Guillern Morales
Country: Spain

Film Review: Here Comes the Devil [2013]

An underwhelming tale of two children who go missing on a mountain apparently believed cursed by demonic forces. The children mysteriously return, now acting strangely, prompting their parents to pursue answers that lead to even more troubles. It’s a predictable exercise in tedium, where its low-budget nature and aesthetic doesn’t pay off.

Here Comes the Devil is, in a word, drab. In more words, it contains untapped potential, stilted tropes, and far too many zooms. A few zooms are good pulpy fun, numerous zooms, however, is just bad form. Much of the cinematography is conventional and unimaginative, even by efficient low-budget standards. The one moment when the camerawork, editing and sound design somewhat shine comes in the film’s third quarter with a flashback sequence of a friend’s nightmarish experience. Some decent work in that sequence, where layered frames and transitions combined with effective sound touches give some much-needed atmosphere and edge to an otherwise lifelessly unfrightening tale.

Bogliano’s script is thin on explanation and motive, while heavy on disconnected elements and loose strands, with blandly undeveloped characters and mediocre dialog. The prologue is too long, and isn’t sufficiently connected to the main story-line. Later sequences, such as the many returns to the mountain, are too long for what they offer, becoming unnecessarily repetitive. The parents (Francisco Barreiro & Laura Caroare largely unlikeable and uninteresting, with the kids (Alan Martinez & Michele Garcianever developed or endearing either. Thus, there’s little dramatic tension or emotional investment in anyone’s plight. Even unlikeable characters can be interesting and multifaceted. This offers neither.

Consequently, what we’re given doesn’t justify the film’s 90 min length. Horror films often excel from concision. Naturally there are exceptions, but as a rule, tighten things up as much as you can. Horror of Here Comes the Devil‘s variety needs efficiency. Establish simple and strategic elements of character, world, and problem that will drive themselves (e.g. Rec, Texas Chainsaw MassacreGreen RoomThe Hills Have Eyes). The nature of the genre often forces characters to be a bit thin, and yet an audience will still care when characters have clear personality and motives proportional to the established boundaries of the film. Likewise, the Big Bad in these films often functions according to pretty straight-forward principles, which doesn’t mean motives or origin are clear, but the Big Evil’s actions must adhere to the logic of the world and make a clear sense, even while the source and scope remains elusive. The trick is to find the sweet spot where simplicity doesn’t lapse into underdeveloped evasion and/or vagueness. It’s a peculiar process of proportion, which, in this case, eludes Bogliano. A more justifiable length would be 75 minutes, or even less. If Val Lewton can blow our minds in under 70 minutes, then 90 minutes or more should bring something pretty important to the table (e.g. The RingThe WailingPulseThe Descent). I tried to hang on, but by the halfway mark I was impatient, and the ending (what a let down) couldn’t (and didn’t) come soon enough.

Director: Adrián García Bogliano
Country: Mexico

Film Review: The Lost City of Z [2017]

James Gray’s adaptation of David Grann’s nonfiction book (itself an adaptation of true events) hearkens back to classical Hollywood adventure cinema with competent cinematography from the skilled Darius Khondji, full of nice colors, good lighting and frames, and a narrative that is predictably familiar and light on guts. Gray’s film—as a cinematic work—is far too calculated and safe, never venturing into challenging, let alone uncharted, territory; disappointing for a film about early 20th-century British explorer Percy Fawcett’s obsessive hunt for the mythical city of Z in the Amazon jungle.

Fawcett is the center of this story, an overlooked and undecorated soldier whose family name is tainted by a history we learn little about. Yet he has the chance to redeem the family name, and obtain much-desired recognition and accolades by accepting an exploration assignment to map the border of Bolivia and Brazil. In doing so, he also uncovers artifacts he believes come from the lost city of El Dorado, which he calls “Z.” With that, his obsession is off and running, along with a romanticized notion of colonial exploration and male achievement.

Along the way, we get some brief-to-the-point-of-obligatory nods to colonialism, racism, and sexism in early 20th-century Britain that are never given the proper space they deserve, and are instead always subservient to the movie’s adoration of Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam). And yet, Fawcett himself is not a particularly multi-faceted, dynamic character. Instead the script and Hunnam’s performance place him in a comfortably narrow range that is easy to follow and understand. It’s a rather soft-boiled addition to a heritage of cinematic characters that include mystifying and complex figures like Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence, and Klaus Kinski’s Don Lope de Aguirre and Brian Sweeny Fitzgerald. Hunnam’s strangely sage and hushed performance has all the gestures, facial expressions, and intonations of an actor insisting the character has real Vision. Consequently, both actor and character are predictably desperate to be liked (by us viewers most of all), creating a stale portrait of restless yearning for their version of the Unknown (which happens to be another culture’s known, but more on that in a moment). Hunnam plays Fawcett like he just watched Morgan Freeman’s Nelson Mandella performance from Invictus on repeat, a perfect template of the prophetic explorer, a testament to England’s enlightened heritage (White Savior anyone? But minus the saving). And yet, for a film “based on the best-selling true story” (whatever that might mean) it never comes close to the vividly dynamic, captivating characters in documentaries like Meru or Herzog’s short doc The Dark Glow of the Mountains. Or even the luminous, contemplative awe of PBS’s Salt, about photographer Murray Fredericks: a short doc that does in 30 minutes what Hunnam and Gray can’t manage in nearly 2.5 hours.

The length is further disgruntling because individual scenes tend to drag, while the whole narrative feels too rushed and cramped. At no point did the movie breathe and move at its own natural pace, instead the hovering presence of studio and producers, clock and list of to-do boxes in hand, is always there, just off screen, declaring: “time’s up! Check! Moving on!” Certainly, a strange feeling when several scenes are too long for what they give. The length brings a hollow weightiness to the whole affair, every scene pregnant with imposed Meaning and Significance mainlined into our eyes and ears through trundling dialog deliveries and lingering slow-motion camerawork of such heavy-handed force that I can’t help but think James Gray, or perhaps the studio, considers the audience not too bright.

The pace, structure and sheer number of allegedly significant places and scenes leaves the book ever-present, lurking in the background, dictating what the film should be and where it should go—at least in terms of plot. World War I? Sure, it’s fine. Again, it’s a nicely staged, presented and executed scene. But also totally irrelevant. Cut the damn thing. I doubt we’d lose anything in the story, but we’d gain plenty in time and focus. This is a common problem with adaptations trying to cover more of the book than is necessary or feasible (think the first two Harry Potter films). Thus, what we get is a film spread too thin, while going on too long.

The only relief from this pace and tone come from the laudable supporting cast. Robert Pattinson‘s Henry Costin and Angus Macfadyen‘s James Murray breathe a bit of dynamic life into their roles and their scenes. Macfadyen, while a conventional stock antagonist and convenient deflection away from more important issues (more on that, too), still manages to offer some tonal shifts that alleviate the weighty seriousness saturating Hunnam’s Fawcett. Pattinson is also a measured and competent presence, never contending for more space than is necessary (the film wouldn’t give it to him anyway, so this is a smart move on Pattinson’s part). Unfortunately, both characters are too overtly placed in order to elevate Fawcett. In the end both are a bit unfairly torn down. This is also true of Nina Fawcett (Selina Miller), whose confidence draws out some of Percy’s egotistical flaws, yet the film eventually quashes this and comfortably places her in the proper subordinate position. She doesn’t begin as the weepy housewife stereotype, but that does seem to be where she ends.  Alas, the supporting cast is solid, but compromised.

This adoration of Percy Fawcett, along with the film’s slavish need to hit all the right bases problematizes and impedes the movie’s approach to gender politics and colonialism. If we’re not going to spend much time with disparity between the sexes, then giving the subject mere cursory attention—a line here, an argument scene there—is just hollow dramatics masquerading as depth and dimension. It’s a calculated nod to 21st-century sensibilities, with the filmmakers fishing for complement: “see? We’re addressing The Issues.” But this is them tackling the issues the way many of my relatives over fifty do: often poorly and always already outdated, denying both past and present a fair shake. Similarly, racism and colonialism never become fully-developed aspects of the film; they’re minor plot points hoping for unearned dimension. The film shallowly, but no less desperately, claims our protagonist is pretty enlightened about Natives, just as we, the filmmakers, are very enlightened. See? Here are some basically mute exoticized Natives from the past; thank goodness Fawcett’s very enlightened brain discovered that they’re not savages (I’m very convinced, and Natives everywhere are thanking you).

To seriously tackle the colonial foundation and engine of British exploration, rather than deploying the James Murray character as cheap deflection and evasion, would call the entire film and narrative into question. Frankly, taking Fawcett’s role in colonial enterprise head on would have made a far more interesting movie, and one more relevant to our global, cultural moment. After all, the British colonial enterprise is what brought us to our present situation, where the Amazon is (still) being completely plundered and extinguished, now home to giant, vacant World Cup stadiums and vast industrial plantations, that turn healthy, diverse ecosystems into sterile monocultures. Lost cities indeed. The Amazon and its inhabitants have lost plenty to U.S. and British interests. But to highlight such things (as Roland Joffé’s The Mission does) would undercut why the film wants us to care about Fawcett’s story at all, thus exposing some of the crasser motives behind the film existing for our consumption.

Interrogating gender and colonialism properly would but foreground how Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (an obvious inspiration) is a beautifully crafted piece of white dude-bro shit, where women, domestic life, and familial responsibilities hinder men from realizing their potential and dreams through manly adventure and warfare (against nature and humans equally). Whatever complexity either of these topics are offered early on is easily sidestepped and overcome later in the film. Our wife acquiesces, our justifiably disgruntled children agree with us, World War I was, er, noble?, the natives vanish into exotic faceless obscurity, so our protagonist can launch into mystical oblivion. Platitudes abound, and the entire thing becomes an exercise in nostalgia for a simpler time when white men of Western Imperialism were free to go where they like when they liked—because that was what gave life meaning.

There’s certainly a story here worth exploring, but James Gray either couldn’t or wouldn’t bring it. The Lost City of Z sits in the company of high-profile films like In the Heart of the Sea and The Revenant as another droll adaptation that successfully turns a fascinating, inherently cinematic piece of history into a laboriously uninteresting tale. Hardly the stuff of adventure. If this is what the spirit of exploration looks like I’m not sure how the British ever made it off their own island. But now I better understand why the Amazon is ruined.