Monday, October 04, 2004

Incident at Loch Ness

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 3 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Let's get something out of the way: This isn't a documentary. Normally, I try to avoid giving too much away, and I'll play cute to try to avoid blabbing plot developments that, truthfully, would only annoy me if I saw them in someone else's. But go that route with Incident of Loch Ness, and you've got a review that's nothing but playing cute, and I don't know how useful that would be.

So, this is a comedy, a satire of the Hollywood machine. It happily blurs fact and fiction by purporting to be culled from the footage of "Herzog in Wonderland", a film about director Werner Herzog (playing himself, like most of the cast). As this documentary's director John Bailey starts shooting, Herzog is about to start shooting a movie of his own, a documentary called "The Enigma of Loch Ness", where he proposes to examine "the difference between Truth and Fact". Producer Zak Penn, however, doesn't want to leave anything to chance.

The movie does a great build, starting by just tweaking documentary conventions and goofing on Hollywood parties, working its way into cryptozoology and filmmaking itself. The cryptozoologist, Michael Karnow, is particularly funny in his apparent fervor to believe anything, the more ridiculous the better, wanting to be shown the "non-evidence". The rest of the cast of characters have a delightful willingness to be laughed at, whether it's Herzog for being considered crazy, or difficult, or pretentious, or cinematographer Gabriel Beristain and soundman Russell Williams making the shoot difficult with their demands even as the crew shooting the Herzog documentary on digital video apparently is able to do just fine with their digital video cameras. Truth be told, it's the obviously augmented centerfold, Kitana Baker, who comes off as the most down-to-earth and reasonable. And while Herzog is billed as the "star", he is most often the straight man who makes Penn seem even more craven and insane.

And maybe that's part of the point. The audience can come into this movie, not knowing who Herzog is (I personally feel ignorant, considering how many Harvard Film Archive screenings of his work I've passed on) and get a funny mockumentary about the making of a movie gone horribly and hilariously wrong. But the more they look at it, and the more they examine the details, the more facets it reveals. You notice how inflexible even a great filmmaker like Herzog has become over the years, how tied down he is, and how even his choice of subject - the Loch Ness Monster - is a tired cliché that everybody knows by heart, while the new breed is able to adapt, put together a totally different movie than they started out with.

There are a lot of movies that reward close viewing - often, with comedies, it's hidden jokes in the background that emerge. Incident at Loch Ness, though, is a bit more ambitious - it's a very funny comedy that has themes emerge as one examines it more strenuously, that becomes a commentary on its medium and itself. The Zak Penn behind the camera has put together a movie which the Zak Penn in front of the camera couldn't conceive.

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