Starring Werner Herzog, John Bailey, Kitana Baker, Gabriel Beristain
Directed by Zak Penn
In movies like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure or America’s Sweethearts, you see a “Hollywood backlot” where Roman centurions mix with cowboys, showgirls, elephants and everything else meant to convince you that Cecil B. DeMille must be shooting at least thirty films concurrently on the lot. It makes you imagine a Hollywood somewhere that still might do something like that – the “dream factories” of the past that don’t actually exist anymore, but we like to be told/implied to that they are.
In the twisted world of Zak Penn’s vastly experimental horror-comedy-mockumentary Incident at Loch Ness, “Hollywoodland” is a series of dinners of the city’s “artsy intelligentsia” – here represented by such divergent personalities as Oscar-winning editor Pietro (Black Hawk Down) Scalia, Crispin Glover, Jeff Goldblum, Ricky Jay, Zak (X-Men 2, Suspect Zero) Penn and cinematographer Gabriel (Blade II, S.W.A.T.) Beristain all hosted at the Wonderland Avenue (yes, location of the gruesome John Holmes-related murders chronicled in the movie by that name) house of famed director Werner Herzog and his wife, Lena. At these dinners, South American yucca roots are experimented with, Jeff Goldblum talks about the mental side of the “unexplained,” and Ricky Jay does a bit of on-camera sleight-of-hand with his ever-present deck of cards. All this is leading up to, of course, the meat of it all – Penn, Beristain and Herzog are preparing to go out and make a movie – The Enigma of Loch Ness – a documentary about the mysterious Loch Ness Monster. A documentary within a documentary, in fact, as an unobtrusive, but acknowledged camera crew is making a documentary about Herzog’s life called Herzog in Wonderland – which Incident at Loch Ness functionally becomes.
But I digress.
I remember when this broke in the trades and I, for one, thought it was an interesting idea. I’d hated Herzog’s last movie, the clunky Invincible, and looked forward to him going back to documentaries as his last few had been quite stunning. As a filmmaker whose movies I found quite profound – particularly Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo – I looked forward to whatever he did, especially if he was going to explore monsters and myth. It was in the trades, as we see in the film it was mentioned on Aint-It-Cool-News and then – nothing.
It turns out that, well, it was all a hoax. Sort of. Sort. Of.
Incident at Loch Ness takes a look at the current state of reality television, documentaries and the national obsession with celebrity and sensationalism in a way that The Blair Witch Project did, but in a far more studied and ultimately more fulfilling (if never scary) way. Though I missed the first season, I was hooked on season 2 of “Project Greenlight” and loved watching the Machiavellian machinations going on behind-the-scenes of The Battle of Shaker Heights, taking sides with one guy first and then another, but almost always siding with, well, producer Chris Moore in the end. With Incident, Penn takes all of these things are turns them on their head (when the sound man utters the words: “Well, on Drop Zone we did this…,” I was like, “YES!!!”).
First off, let’s talk about celebrity. Werner Herzog is a ridiculously acclaimed filmmaker considered one of the greatest living directors. Aguirre, the Wrath of God on its own is one of the most talked about pictures in the history of world cinema just as the making of Fitzcarraldo is one of the most storied. The legends abound concerning Herzog’s “drive” (some would say “madness”) when it comes to telling his stories, culminating in the documentary My Best Fiend that Herzog made about his relationship with his equally “driven” (some would say “coke-fueled”) partner-in-crime, the actor Klaus Kinski who starred in a number of Herzog’s films including the Nosferatu remake Herzog mounted in 1979. The film showed Herzog and Kinski at their most mad and mutually self-destructive, going to the ends of the earth and then beyond – to hell and back – in order to make their movies. Thereby, Herzog has gained this extensive legend, baggage, reputation – whatever you want to call it – that lends him innumerable heaps of credibility and gravitas.
With Incident – like the ultimate form of stunt-casting – Penn manages to capitalize on all of that to create his mockumentary. Think for a moment of the reasoning behind Jerry Lewis’s casting in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. A stunt, yes, but one that works brilliantly. Movies cast all the time in a way to subvert or play into a star’s public image (Jack Nicholson in Something’s Gotta Give is a prime example) and with Herzog in this part – ostensibly playing himself – it would’ve worked on its own.
Then Penn surrounds him with such A-talent as cinematographer Beristain and Oscar-winning sound man Russell (The Sum of All Fears, Training Day – won back-to-back Oscars for Glory and Dances With Wolves) Williams and that – coupled with Penn’s own reputation having written on a number of projects from X-Men 2 to Behind Enemy Lines to Osmosis Jones, it’s not like we’re being made fools of. These aren’t some Project Greenlight nobodies – these are Herzog-quality folks who are coming on board to a legitimate movie.
But, it’s all a hoax, remember?
That said, never forget the “sort of.”
The plot of the film is simple – these filmmakers head to Loch Ness, it becomes obvious that Zak Penn is up to something (this is the plotline that works the least, actually), and Herzog gets pissed. It turns out that Penn is trying to “sex up” the movie – not only by hiring Playmate Kitana Baker to play a “sonar operator,” but also by staging “recreations” with remote control “Nessie’s.” Herzog wants to quit, but he doesn’t want to wreck a movie with his name on it as he knows full well that the entire story won’t ever be told in the trades and it will just read that “troubled” Herzog fucked up another picture. So, they plow on.
Then the real Nessie shows up, The Blair JAWS Project breaks out and things go absolutely fucking BANANAS as we watch filmmaker Werner Herzog act in a mockumentary horror project along the lines of Blair Witch-meets-the-third-act-of-Jaws in a remarkably philosophical manner.
There’s a great scene early in the movie where Herzog is talking about what he needs for the picture with producer Penn and says he needs an on-screen “cryptozoologist” (the kind of scientists who chase down the myths and realities/non-realities of critters such as the Jersey Devil, the Abominable Snowman or the Loch Ness Monster). The characteristics for the man Herzog wants are very specific – “driven” yet “credible.” A man who will obviously pursue this thing with a passion, but who the audience will always – always – find redeemably credible no matter how weird things get.
One can imagine when casting Incident, the exact same thing being said about the role Herzog is meant to play. But then, Herzog and Penn created this together.
Is this a creature movie? I don’t want to explain too much away, though a jaunt over to IMDB will likely turn you onto KNB EFX’s credit on the picture, so I’ll let that explain itself – though it really isn’t a monster movie at the end of the day. Or is it?
On the surface, Incident is like a bizarre crossover of “The Surreal Life 3”, The Blair Witch Project, “Project Greenlight” and a less-deadpan Best in Show. Underneath all that, however, probably the strangest thing of all is that in the characterization of Herzog himself and his reaction to what he’s facing in Loch Ness, you see a number of themes the filmmaker has always expressed in his own work coming to life. As Herzog faces the unbelievable and has a fervent desire to document it, find out more about it, find a way to satiate his unquenchable curiosity, how unlike Aguirre is he as the mad conquistador searches the Amazon over in his neverending hunt for gold?
While no, Incident at Loch Ness probably isn’t for everybody, it’s still a fun and enjoyable movie with a few missteps (if Penn just hadn’t gone for the stupid “wouldn’t hurt a fly” joke that makes no sense a few reveals later, et. al.), but overall, a wild and crazy experimental flick about the unknown, the strong and the weak, the nature of celebrity (if you begin to think about how the nature of Nessie’s celebrity is subverted throughout the movie as well it’ll really cook your noodle!) and what it means to make a movie with Werner Herzog. Not something you’d necessarily expect from Zak Penn as a director, but hey, if this was his dream project – to one-up My Best Fiend and Blair Witch in one breath – I feel he succeeded.