Sunday, March 22, 2009

I Don't Know What Hit Us, But it Was Big

What must the pitch meeting for Incident at Loch Ness have sounded like? I imagine Zak Penn sitting down with the suits, rubbing his hands together, and saying: "It's Jaws meets The Blair Witch Project!" To which the suits would say, "Great! Who's your star?" And Penn would have to reply, "Werner Herzog!"

The film has one of the wonkiest premises I've ever encountered: a semi-improvised comedy-horror fake-documentary about a film-within-a-film starring Werner Herzog as himself trying to investigate the myth of the Loch Ness Monster, and accidentally encountering the real thing. With a story like that, Incident at Loch Ness should probably be crazier than it actually is, but it's crazy enough for my tastes, and manages to work on most of the levels it aims for.

The man behind all this is Zak Penn, Hollywood screenwriter (among other things, he wrote X-Men 2). He wrote and directed the film, and how he got Herzog on board, I have no idea. Although, these days Herzog kind of seems game for whatever, so maybe Penn just asked him. Penn is also in the film, playing himself as a shallow, selfish, cowardly and ignorant Hollywood climber. Penn, the character, is the producer of Herzog's Loch Ness documentary, which is to be called The Enigma of Loch Ness. The making of that film is being documented by John Bailey (the real film's actual cinematographer) for a documentary on Herzog, Herzog in Wonderland. Penn is initially unaware of Bailey's project, and is more than a little put out by this other camera crews' presence, because it is Penn's plan -- a plan he tries to hide from Herzog -- to "heighten" the drama, and commercial viability of the Loch Ness film with special effects and actors and Playboy models. Herzog gradually catches on to Penn's manipulations, and spends much of the film struggling to make the film he set out to make.

So it's a Hollywood satire about commercialism versus art, with the brilliant and umcompromising Herzog, that singular German madman, as its hero. Yes, that is what it is, but the film is structured as, among other things, a documentary about the mysterious events and tragedies faced by the crew when they finally make it to Scotland, get on a boat and begin exploring Loch Ness. Because, we learn, two of the film's crewmembers have died. What happened? What killed them? Nobody is quite willing to say, but by the end of the film it's made abundantly clear that Penn's attempt to inject false drama into Herzog's film were completely unnecessary.

Of course, this one of the film's many meta-ironies, because, obviously, this is a fiction film we're watching (though it was originally marketed, Blair Witch-style, as a genuine documentary), and because Herzog has owned up to the fact that he manipulates his own documentaries in order to achieve what he calls "ecstatic truth". He never, to my knowledge, goes so far as to actually make up "facts", but he does stage scenes for visual impact, and ask his interview subjects to restate thoughts and ideas so that they have a more poetic feel.

It's quite possible that Herzog's presence makes Incident at Loch Ness feel, not necessarily better, but more fascinating than it actually is. Near the beginning, we get a brief overview of who Herzog is and what makes him so special, as if we needed to be reminded, with clips from Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo and My Best Fiend, as well as from Les Blank's Burden of Dreams, accompanied by Herzog's familiar ramblings about "ecstatic truth", and, for me at least, this geared me up for a truly unique and unusual film. And it's not that we don't get that, but all that "ecstatic truth" talk, as it pertains to this film, doesn't actually amount to anything. The comedy of the film -- and it's a very funny movie -- cuts that with a fair amount of absurdity, so that, after a while, if we were ever unsure whether we were watching a real documentary or not, that uncertainty doesn't last long. And because the horror film elements are not especially original (other than that they exist in this movie), any exploration of the myth of the Loch Ness Monster is pretty much rendered moot.

But I have to say, the horror stuff does work pretty well. This movie can't have cost very much, and Penn uses that fact -- and this was honestly probably always his intention -- to keep his monster effects very low-key, adding a nice air of mystery, and a fear of the unknown, that so many straight horror films don't even bother with. Much of what we see of the monster could reasonably be explained away in more logical terms, and no one in the film actually comes out and says that it was the Loch Ness Monster who attacked their boat and killed their colleagues, but they, of course, have their suspicions. And there are a couple of truly nice, creepy images that make me wish Penn would try his hand at a real, no-winking horror film.

So the film works primarily as a comedy, and partly as a horror film, and pretends to be deeper than that, but isn't really. In this regard, Herzog's presence might actually hurt the film, because if we're familiar with his work then we know what ecstatic truth is supposed to look like, and in comparison Penn's film can kind of not seem like much. Like it doesn't have anything to say, in other words. If thought about too hard, Incident at Loch Ness looks like nothing more than an elaborate game. Except -- and this is a big exception -- it really is a damn good game.

34 comments:

Marilyn said...

I really like this film - so funny. Espeically like when Penn is shooting Herzog shaving, and Herzog tries to direct him, "You should not shoot such banalities." It gets everything right about the exploitative nature of solving mysteries. It's really a very knowing film about film, but I think it's more than an inside joke.

bill r. said...

I agree that it's a knowing film about film, but I feel like Penn was trying to achieve some form of "ecstatic truth" -- in a small way -- and didn't get there.

But I really liked it, too. Maybe I sound mored negative in the review than I intended, but I was trying to have some perspective. I've seen it probably four times now, and never get tired of it.

Marilyn said...

You've seen it four times. Why have some perspective? You love it! So do I.

bill r. said...

Well, maybe. I mean, I do love it, but having seen it four times has made it clear, to me, at least, that a attempt to dig up profundity in the film probably won't get you anywhere. I love it for what it is, though.

Ryan Kelly said...

Well, I agree that it's important to get distance from something you have a fondness for. For instance, I seem to be the only person who loves My Blueberry Nights. I know it's a saccharine, sappy film with painfully obvous metaphors, but it still speaks to me in a way that I have trouble putting into words.

Though, then the question becomes, how much distance are you supposed to get? At what point does your fondness for something equate with greatness? It's a constant struggle.

Krauthammer said...

I go by the simple rule that if I like it then it is an irrefutable masterpiece for all time with deep philosophical meaning.

Rick Olson said...

No, Ryan, you're not the only one who loved Blueberry Nights I did too, and wrote about it over at mi casa last summer.

I have to see this one, I've been meaning to, but netflix queues just lead on forever ...

bill r. said...

At what point does your fondness for something equate with greatness?

Ryan, that's kind of what I was thinking, but I think I ended up getting too much distance. I like Incident at Loch Ness a lot, but anyone just reading the review and not the comments probably won't get that. I've failed!! Again!!

Krauthammer, I think you probably have the right idea. Screw perspective.

Since the bad reviews first hit, when My Blueberry Nights played the festivals, I've noticed more and more people saying very positive things about it. I haven't seen it myself, and I disagree with Rick on most things, but I'll have to give it a shot some day.

Queues are long, though. I do agree with you about that, Rick.

Arbogast said...

I'll be the dissenting voice here. I found Incident at Loch Ness to be a miserable, stupid movie that asks you to pretend you've never seen a Christopher Guest film. No more vanity projects for Zak Penn, please.

bill r. said...

Well, hermf. Did Christopher Guest invent the genre? Even if he did, why can't someone else play with the form?

But I don't suppose any of that will convince you that the movie wasn't miserable or stupid.

Word verification: uraniump.

Ryan Kelly said...

No, Ryan, you're not the only one who loved Blueberry Nights I did too, and wrote about it over at mi casa last summer.

Rick, I certainly didn't mean to imply that I was literally the ONLY one, I just still feel like there's a lot of hate for that particular picture. And part of me understands why, perfect it is not. But I still see something of myself in it, for whatever reason it speaks to me. But yeah, it has its supporters, our own Dennis Cozallio being among the most vocal!

P.S., I tried linking to your casa, but couldn't figure it out to save my life.

Ryan, that's kind of what I was thinking, but I think I ended up getting too much distance. I like Incident at Loch Ness a lot, but anyone just reading the review and not the comments probably won't get that. I've failed!! Again!!

Oh, don't be so hard on yourself, Bill, it's not all that bad. I got the impression you liked it with reservations before reading the comments!

Reviewing is a tricky thing, and while I enjoy the format there is something constricting about it. I reviewed The Dark Knight and Burn After Reading for my college paper, and if writing a review on the internet where length is not an issue can be constricting, doing one for a paper where you can't really write more than 850 words is really difficult. Anyway, reading those reviews, it comes off that I was much more negative about TDK than I really was, and it came off as I was much more enthusiastic about the Coen Brother's film than I really was. When you review, you kind of have to establish a tone and go with it.

That's what comment threads are for!

bill r. said...

I suppose so. But I felt like I wanted to say one thing about the film, and then when I was done I didn't feel like I said it. So chalk this one up as a miss. That's okay, I don't mind!

Arbogast said...

Did Christopher Guest invent the genre? Even if he did, why can't someone else play with the form?

Waiting for Guffman Beatles
Incident at Loch Ness Cowsills

Ryan Kelly said...

Your failures have more entertainment value than most people's successes. If you don't mind, I certainly don't!

bill r. said...

Waiting for Guffman Beatles
Incident at Loch Ness Cowsills


Well yeah. I don't actually disagree with the core of your analogy, as I think Waiting for Guffman is probably the best comedy of the last 20 years or so, but a good time's a good time, and I think that's what Incident at Loch Ness is. A good time, I mean.

Ryan - thank you very much. I really appreciate that.

Arbogast said...

Incident at Loch Ness struck me as a cinematic equivalent of one of those guys who goes around to conventions having his pictures taken with famous people. Every time Zak Penn appeared onscreen with Herzog I could sense him thinking "Look, it's Werner Herzog and me in a movie! Together!"

I heard he originally wanted Lou Ferrigno.

Arbogast said...

And Bill get off your own ass. Your write-up was a way of working through your feelings about the movie and I appreciate that honesty - one of your great virtues and strengths as a blogger - more than I do that kind of film criticism that bottles itself up in a slick, glib package. If I wanted that, I'd read my own blog.

Word verification: disho

bill r. said...

But I love Herzog, and I love his performance in the film, and the whole crazy idea of it. I even like the cover of the DVD, with its ominous image of a boat on the water, and then, above the title, the name "Werner Herzog". Like "Bruce Willis" or "Treat Williams" or something.

Arbogast said...

Werner Herzog is great and I got a couple of laughs off of him in this - but I felt the use of him was dishonest and finkish. I feel the same way when people tell me 30 Rock is a great show because Alec Baldwin is funny on it. Maybe we're just living in an age of creative importing.

Have you seen Bowfinger? I feel that that movie gets at what I find so troublesome about Incident at Loch Ness and the mania in Hollywood to appropriate integrity.

Greg F. said...

Waiting for Guffman Beatles
Incident at Loch Ness Cowsills


This will be my new rating method for movies. Here's my first:

Deep Impact - The Who
Armageddon - The Doodletown Pipers.

Greg F. said...

Unforgiven - The Kinks
Young Guns - Gerry and the Pacemakers

Greg F. said...

The Godfather - The Rolling Stones
Mobsters - Wang Chung

bill r. said...

I have seen Bowfinger, and I thought that one, while funny in parts (Murphy really is great), the absurdity of it all, and the film they're making, was just too much. The satire wasn't very sharp, to me.

It wasn't just Herzog in the film, either, by the way. I thought Penn was funny, as was Michael Karnow, the actor Penn hired to pretend to be a cryptozoologist. I love when he gets annoyed with Herzog (who doesn't know he's an actor) for stepping on his improv: "You're not yes-anding me!"

And I like 30 Rock, too. Not just for Baldwin, either.

I really need to buy a copy of Deep Impact. That's a good movie, and damn those who disagree.

Volcano - ELO
Dante's Peak - The Moody Blues

I don't really know who wins that round.

Greg F. said...

Bronco Billy - Bob Dylan
The Greatest on Earth - Styx

Greg F. said...

That second circus movie should be The Greatest Show on Earth. Boy, I feel just like a Doodletown Piper.

And by the by, I liked Bowfinger but like Bill, I felt the movie within the movie was too stupid to work on a satirical level. Same with The Pickle.

Arbogast said...

I didn't mean the effect of Bowfinger so much as the idea.

Trading Places Wings
Bowfinger Paul McCartney

Greg F. said...

Dr. Strangelove - Miles Davis

Best Defense - Kenny G.

bill r. said...

They should put these things on the SATs.

Arbogast said...

The Thing From Another World Duke Ellington

The Thing Charles Ives

Fox said...

Christopher Guest - Hitler (and an overrated Hitler at that).
Zak Penn - who gives a fuck.

bill r. said...

Fox, I do not understand your analogy.

Krauthammer said...

I believe he is referring to the brutal chilean dictator Hoogivz Afuk.

You seem to have a bit of trouble with your spelling there Fox.

Fox said...

I've always been really bad with analogies (it's cuz after I see "anal" I start laughing and forget to read the definition of what it actually means), but thanks Krauthammer for trying to dig me out!

Arbogast said...

Zak Penn - who gives a fuck.

Not me!

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