Always Already There: Lost Horizon

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I wrote the following article for the inaugural issue of Topographies Magazine edited by Rowynn Dumont. I’m pleased to be able to share it here on my blog.

Part of the cast of “Lost Horizon.” From left: Liv Ullmann, George Kennedy, Bobby Van, Sally Kellerman, James Shigeta, and Peter Finch. Courtesy Columbia Pictures. © 1973.

George Kennedy, one of the stars of the box-office bomb, the 1973 film-musical version of the James Hilton novel Lost Horizon, died in February in Idaho. He was an iconic character actor who typically played a certain kind of Hollywood hero: unenigmatic, dependable. I remember seeing the movie on television as a kid, and thinking it was amazing: a latter-day Wizard of Oz. In my naivety I saw it as Hollywood meant it to be seen, as a dazzling spectacle not to be carefully scrutinized, in spite of the fact that the film lays on—rather thick—a “philosophical” message about the putative “utopia” of Shangri-La (where white people live in a palace waited upon—or have they been captured?—by Asians). In retrospect, this film is unintentionally postmodernist, although without any sense of irony; our own historical distance from its time make it more “readable.” What it sought to gloss over becomes obvious. The film is greatly entertaining, however, especially if you are an unabashed Burt Bacharach fan like me. Visually, the film is relatively unimaginative, with a too brightly lit Technicolor look, and staid, solid camera angles from the 1940s; but the songs are for the most part irrepressibly upbeat and dynamic, breezy 1970s pop tunes.
If George Kennedy is even by the early 1970’s a throwback to an earlier, seemingly less ambiguous time of manly, gung-ho Hollywood men, his love-interest interest, Sally Kellerman, is suitably beautiful and elegant—but at the beginning of the film in the midst of a Vietnam-era spiritual malaise: pill-popping and suicidal. She recovers, and he, thanks to her love—and Hollywood hokum—becomes more altruistic. I suppose it was—like the visuals and the music—intended as a marriage of Hollywood’s Golden Age and 1970s “counter-culture.” In a marvelous review detailing the film’s numerous failings—but also its definite charms as a “guilty pleasure”—Glenn Erickson tells us:

Initial reviewers of Lost Horizon tripped all over one another to fashion the cruelest put-downs in print. Unfortunately, most of what they complained about is true. The production is tacky in almost every respect, with the High Lama’s palace a poor revamp of a leftover set for 1967′s Camelot. The palace grounds look tossed together by Southern California pool & garden landscapers and the interior sets do indeed resemble generic Holiday Inn décor, with a bland ‘oriental’ theme.

Seeing the film recently I was struck by a sense of nostalgia—as my introduction probably reveals—but also by a sense of the uncanny. In the film a group of what are apparently Brits and Americans find themselves in Shangri-La. Is it real or not? Uncanny in German is Unheimlich—a much more revealing word that translates literally as “un-home-like.” Ironically, I was watching the film at home with my family, but had an odd sort of neither-here-nor-there feeling, a sense of the Unheimlich. I was not sure why. I had in mind (before looking it up) that the “palace” of Shangri-La was on a Hollywood backlot; indeed it was: Burbank. In June I flew in and out of Burbank—my first time in Southern California in many years—so there was a certain familiarity: one can see the smog in the air in the film—worse then probably than it is now. Shangri-La is Burbank—an under-two-hour flight for me. I am almost there already. Yet, there was another more powerful sense of the uncanny: the film opens with an aerial view of the “Himalayas” as the title sequence. A little research revealed that this was the North Cascades of Washington State, my home. Indeed, I think the shot at the beginning of the film is Mt. Baker, easily seen on a clear day from near here. So, this Unheimlichkeit stems from the knowledge that this un-home-like place of Shangri-La—unattainable, a fairy tale—is assembled in my own backyard.
Michel Foucault makes a distinction between utopia and heterotopia. A utopia is literally “without place,” but a heterotopia is a set-aside place, an actual space where things are different from the outside world. For the latter, Foucault uses the example of the religious colonies founded in the Americas. Perhaps Shangri-La means a utopian society in a heterotopia—the Valley of the Blue Moon is the place name in the film—separate from the world but contiguous with it. The film’s setting in the early 1970s makes Shangri-La’s invisibility to the outside world implausible, of course; aerial reconnaissance and spy satellites make the undiscovered place nearly impossible. Yet, what is more interesting is that it exists in the film: various locations on the West Coast are amalgamated—spliced—into something exotic, revealing that I already live there.