Saturday, August 11, 2007

Review(?) of Incident at Loch Ness

“Incident at Loch Ness” (2004) is a strange film for a lot of reasons, even in the notoriously outrageous oeuvre of German filmmaker Werner Herzog. I won’t review the film in the traditional sense, because to some extent the less said the better. However, I will provide a little introduction and review of the DVD features in hopes of pointing potential appreciators to its unusual charms.

In 2004, internet buzz begin to murmur about Herzog’s newest project, an exploration of the Loch Ness monster myth to be filmed on location and titled “The Enigma of Loch Ness” (probably a mild reference to his groundbreaking “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” (1974)). Documentary director John Bailey decided to follow Herzog around on the shoot for a planned biopic. Herzog’s audacious, trouble-fraught projects had already been filmed several times before, most notably in “The Burden of Dreams” (1982). Bailey called his film “Herzog in Wonderland.”

Neither film is actually made. “Incident at Loch Ness” begins with Bailey’s footage of Herzog throwing a quiet party with several of his friends, famous and not. We meet the producer, Zak Penn, the screenwriter behind the X-men sequels, “PCU,” “Last Action Hero” and “Behind Enemy Lines.” If that doesn’t sound like a promising track record, you’re right. It becomes immediately obvious even at this early stage that Penn plans to commercialize Herzog’s project. We also meet the DP and sound man.

Some knowledge of Herzog’s personal life and professional work is required to appreciate the film, particularly “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” (1972) about a mad waterbound journey into chaos and madness and “Fitzcarraldo” (1982) with its jaw-dropping scene of natives pulling a steamship over a mountain (filmed without special effects).

Once in Scotland, it becomes clear that Penn wants to sensationalize the myth and “entertain” the audience, while Herzog wants to explore the social phenomena and psychology behind the legend. They butt heads immediately. It doesn’t help that Penn tries to outfit the crew with uniforms, hires playboy model Kitana Baker as a “sonar operator” and switches their boat engine for a lower power model to reduce the noise (it breaks on the second day).

[Some SPOILERS: skip the next paragraph for maximum first time viewing effect]

As the shoot mounts into an outright disaster, it becomes increasingly unbelievable. This is fully intentional. Viewers should immerse themselves in the playful confusion, excitement and humor. The beauty of “Incident at Loch Ness” is not in solving it (whether you find it trivial or convincing is only a single facet of its potential), but in experiencing its textured realities and appreciating the hilarious interplay of the crew. Werner Herzog and Zak Penn are both brilliant in the movie, but for very different reasons and with entirely unique, even opposing, styles. David Davidson also deserves a special nod.


That is basically all I want to say about the movie itself. I would like to spend some time mentioning how much I loved the DVD. The two-sided disc contains some great deleted shots and behind the scenes material. There is plenty to enjoy amongst the selections made overtly available. However, with at least twelve Easter eggs (that I found), in the form of hidden Nessie (Loch Ness monster icons), one can easily eat up an entire evening (as I did).

There are a full three commentary tracks, each with Zak Penn and a variety of other people. My favorite is the unhidden track, in which Zak Penn and Werner Herzog attempt to provide commentary despite hating each other and pending litigation over their grievances. After fighting for fifteen minutes, and explaining essentially nothing, Herzog storms out and Penn cuts. He resumes (apparently recording two weeks after the first session) with a minor crew member who is utterly unhelpful in providing commentary. After the guest criticizes the film several times and mentions that he was never paid, Penn cuts again.

He resumes with the DVD commentary supervisor (who hasn’t seen the movie) as his partner and then later with a film buff literally pulled off the street. Things turn ever more desperate, culminating with Penn inviting his wife to help with the commentary, despite their being in the middle of a divorce. In the pathetic finale, a studio man takes over the special feature and tries to describe the onscreen action without having seen the film and without the volume on. He is confused, and soon quits in exasperation. The commentary track is dead air for the remaining half hour.

And yet, there are still two more commentary tracks waiting to be unlocked!

While not perfect or terribly consistent, few commentary tracks are so interesting or witty. Soderbergh’s “Schizopolis” (1996) comes to mind as perhaps my favorite example. I will say that I rarely bother checking out the special features with any serious excitement, but found myself eating up the playful tone and banal trivia. Then again, Herzog’s films are always worth the time for the commentaries, since he is so articulate and insane.

Walrus Review: 8

PS: I encourage everyone to go see Herzog's latest film, "Rescue Dawn," in theaters now (2007). Shamefully, I have not yet watched it although I attempted to get into two advanced screenings. I will enjoy it this weekend.


Mad Dog said...

I enjoyed Rescue Dawn, but was waiting for a DVD to get screenshots. I think you'll be surprised by one or two of the supporting actors in the film. And of course, a cast member from LOST shows up. I think they're turning into some kind of Hollywood mafia.

Anyways, is Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo really required to see this movie? It sounds really interesting, but I don't know if I can even find those two movies easily, and if I can't I don't want to watch this if I'll be seriously handicapped.

FilmWalrus said...

In terms of finding either movie, it shouldn't be too hard. "Aguirre" is considered a classic these days and is available in two DVD editions, sold at Best Buy (occasionally) and also in the foreign collections of many Hollywood Videos. "Fitzcarraldo" is a little harder, but I found it at a public library on VHS and have since seen it available on DVD at Borders and at large video stores.

I think it helps to seem them. You won't get some of the more subtle situational humor and visual nods otherwise. There is a short primer with clips from the original films at the beginning of this documentary which helps but doesn't give much context. I would hold off on watching "Loch Ness" for the time being, because the first-time impact is fairly important.

Patti said...

I absolutely loved this movie. I almost gave it a 10 before realized the esotericism might be a bit much. As something of more than just a casual Herzog fan, I loved the in-jokes and I felt like I picked up on the mood really well, but an outsider would have a pretty hard time getting most of the idea.

And the commentaries, too! Oh, those were great.

Anonymous said...

brian, watched this show last night. i'm assuming the whole thing, including the feud during and after is a put-on?


jlv said...

Brian, you have to write a book! dad

FilmWalrus said...

Yeah, all the feuding is entirely fake. Most impressively, is that Zack Penn came up with the idea for the whole movie and even scripted most of it (including villainizing himself).

As a side note, I saw "Rescue Dawn" finally and was only mildly impressed. It doesn't really add much to "Little Dieter Needs to Fly."