Thursday, June 02, 2016

The Films of 2004: Incident at Loch Ness

Incident at Loch Ness (2004) is a mock-documentary from director Zak Penn that stars legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog. The movie is part comedy, and part horror movie as well.  But like the best of the horror genre, the film goes beyond scary scenes to comment on something really important, in this case, film-making.

Specifically, Incident at Loch Ness involves an important, seemingly eternal debate.

Is film merely commerce?

Or is film something greater. Is it art? 

This question is pondered in the mock-doc through two  primary characters, or more aptly, two personalities. They are mirror images.

Herzog is the resolute, thoughtful artist, a man who makes movies to explore ideas and enhance not merely knowledge, but self-knowledge. His movie within the movie -- a documentary about the Loch Ness Monster -- is conceived by the filmmaker as an exploration of the differences between “fact and truth.” 

For Herzog, the film isn’t about discovering a monster at all; it’s about discovering why the monster’s existence (or non-existence) matters to so many millions of people. 

In other words, Herzog wants to explore what it is about man and his nature that demands the creations of legends like Big Foot or Nessie. 

Why do we believe? Why do we want to believe?  These are the questions that consume Herzog.

By contrast, Zak Penn plays the film’s craven producer, a man who feels that Herzog’s movie can only be bankable if there’s some manufactured drama. 

Thus he casts a gorgeous, busty Playboy model as a ship’s "sonar operator.' Thus he has a prop man create a fake “Nessie” monster for the documentary crew to encounter.

Now, pity poor Zak Penn, because he plays, for lack of a better word, the film’s villain; the individual who wishes to reduce every one of Herzog’s brilliant, cerebral concepts to crass commercialism. 

Since he is the director of Incident at Loch Ness, and he casts himself as the voice for film as commerce here, audiences must assume that Penn is aware that he will be pilloried by critics and audiences as being representative of everything that is wrong with Hollywood filmmaking. 

In fact, Penn is commenting on Hollywood filmmaking. He is using his own name to expose a certain brand of producer, despite the fact that a certain segment of the audience will simply think he is playing “himself.”

He’s actually taking a bullet for the team, and for the movie. But it's a smart move, because Penn's presence (and world-view) brings better into focus Herzog's world-view.

Incident at Loch Ness is presented as a documentary about the search for the Loch Ness Monster, but that surface description tells little of the movie’s style and substance. This is really a film about the gap between independent filmmaking and Hollywood filmmaking, between film art, and film as product, or commerce. 

The film is sharp, funny, exciting, and caustic in its observations about filmmaking. Finally, Incident at Loch Ness reminds us that what some filmmakers deem “reality” may not be real at all. Reality may simply be that which sells best.

“The more time you spend here the less monsters you will see.”

A film crew making a cinematic biography of legendary director Werner Herzog follows him as he embarks on his latest project: a documentary, shot on location in Scotland, about the Loch Ness Monster.

For the first time in his career, Herzog is accompanied by a Hollywood producer, Zak Penn. Penn feels that Herzog’s ideas will prove even more compelling if backed up by manufactured drama, like monster sightings and busty sonar operators in bikinis.

This conflict about the vision for the film creates tension on the boat, the Discovery 4, as Herzog attempts to discern the truth about Nessie.  

While Herzog attempts to remain committed to his vision (and Penn takes every opportunity to spice it up), something strange happens.

A real life sea monster appears, and threatens the ship and filmmakers.

“This study of my life had turned into some kind of horror movie.”

Incident at Loch Ness is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in some time, in part because of the dead-pan approach of all the actors.

Nobody is out to be a showboat, or score points, and the result is a film that, at times, feels alarmingly authentic. 

But here’s the distinction: it feels Hollywood real.

If you’ve spent anytime interfacing with Hollywood personalities, you likely know what I mean.

I remember, a few years back, being on a conference call with a notable “star” and listening, aghast, as he discussed at length -- during a story session -- how he could not be photographed sitting down, or wearing certain attire. 

This went on and on, as he promised to give “110 percent” to the project…so long as he wasn’t seated, I guess.

You get to Hollywood, and achieve a certain level of success, and you start to feel entitled to make selfish (and weird) demands like that, I suppose. Demands that don’t necessarily concern the project (the art), but rather your image, your career.  In Incident at Loch Ness, Penn brings in "acting" personalities who are like that: a model and an actor who are looking to get screen time and further their individual careers.  For them, the project isn’t really about art, or about ideas. It's about leveraging a credit to maximum profit.

Penn plays the kind of producer that, fortunately, I’ve read about, but not encountered on any sets. 

When he discovers that a boat’s engine is too loud for filming, he demands either a new boat, or a transplanted engine that will be less noisy.  The poor ship’s captain who must accommodate -- or be fired -- has about a day to perform that switcheroo.  Penn bullies him into compliance. 

And when the ship’s radio proves too noisy too, Penn orders an underling to have it removed from the ship, despite the fact that the radio is a necessity in case of a crisis on the water.

Nothing, in other words, will stop Penn from getting his way.  And his way includes renaming the ship, assigning the crew uniforms (with the word expedition misspelled), adding T&A in the form of the ship’s sonar director, and staging false Nessie sightings.

I distorted things so they would be more dramatic,” Penn reports, when things go disastrously awry on the expedition.  He even retreats to the stance that cinema consists of mostly “lies,” but clearly he has misunderstood the amazing career of Herzog (whom Penn holds at gunpoint during one sequence).  

Herzog may stage a “lie” in a (fiction) film to get at some point or deep truth, but Penn wants to lie in a documentary to make it more bankable. He’s incapable of seeing the difference between those two approaches. He doesn't strive for authenticity.  He isn't trying to make a point.  He wants the movie to be a hit.

Herzog proves to be a great and powerful presence in the film. He exudes gravitas and authenticity because we all know what he has gone through -- and put others through -- to achieve his artistic vision.  

Again, when Herzog pushes people it isn’t for more money, or for fame, it’s ostensibly because he is exploring something. It’s because he wants to discover or know something.  

There’s something terribly ironic, and indeed Hellish, about his journey here. Herzog suffers not in the pursuit of art, but for commercialism, at the hands of Penn. Perhaps this is why he sees the documentary, during its final moments, as a horror show; as something "doomed from the beginning," that "didn't want to come to life."

Incident at Loch Ness is clever too, in the way it proves self-reflexive. Herzog opines, early on, that mankind “need monsters.”  This movie provides us not one, but two monster.  First, there’s Nessie – which attacks the ship -- and secondly, there’s Penn himself.

Movies need monsters too, the film suggests.  We could not appreciate Herzog’s character if we did not see it in direct comparison to Penn’s. We need Penn to take that bullet for the movie, and to play the worst, most craven and crass producer imaginable.  We couldn’t understand, perhaps, the value of a “typical Herzog-ian moment” if we didn’t have the anti-matter representation of its opposite, symbolized by Penn.

It’s also quite ironic that Herzog is described, in the film, as having a reputation as a “dangerous” filmmaker for exploring worlds and ideas that are uncomfortable (and difficult to capture on celluloid). 

Because what Incident at Loch Ness proves so adeptly is that it is actually the film-as-commerce voice -- Penn -- who is truly dangerous. To make money, he risks everybody’s survival. People die because of the choices he makes on the documentary.  Cinematographers may not be “cowards” according to Herzog, but that rule does not apply to entitled producers, apparently.

This review likely makes Incident at Loch Ness sound ultra-serious, but the truth is that the movie is both funny and tense, and finally a little scary and sad. It’s one of the best mock-documentaries I’ve seen outside the canon of Christopher Guest, and it suggests what might happen if the film-s commerce-voice overpowers dramatically the film-as-art voice.

The result? A life gets turned into a horror movie. Fortunately, not a “vulgar and pointless” one, as Herzog fears during the film’s conclusion.  Rather a supremely entertaining and thoughtful one.

1 comment:

  1. I need to knuckle down and watch this soon.