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Arts & Culture

Film Review: 'Incident at Loss Ness'

"Incident at Loch Ness"
Twentieth Century Fox
"Incident at Loch Ness"

The infamous Nessie meets the notorious German director Werner Herzog in a documentary about things that are not what they seem, Incident at Loch Ness (playing for one week only at Landmark's Ken Cinema beginning November 19).

Incident at Loch Ness begins with a body floating in the water and then cuts to playful music as a narrator, documentary filmmaker John Bailey, explains that he's making a film about German filmmaker Werner Herzog called Herzog in Wonderland (Wonderland in this case referring to the street where the infamous Hollywood murders took place). Herzog is just beginning production on his own documentary, Enigma at Loch Ness that will explore "the origin and necessity of the monster" and not seek out Nessie herself.

Herzog's pre-production begins with a dinner party at which he serves an Amazon delicacy that might be toxic. Then he moves his crew to Scotland where he encounters a series of problems that ultimately force him to shut down production. The incomplete footage from "Enigma of Loch Ness" plus the footage of Herzog in Wonderland combine to make Incident at Loch Ness. But since the theme of all three is essentially the relationship of myth and fact, you will quickly be asking yourself what's really real and what's not.


"Incident at Loch Ness" breezes along nicely for about a half hour and holds your interest because Herzog is a fascinating person. He's so serious and intense that the idea that he might be playing along in a spoof of himself is intriguing. But you quickly realize that this film is more faux than real. Yet there are moments-whether real or made up-that do seem to capture Herzog's personality. As when he scolds the filmmaker who's shooting him buying razors and tells him "don't shoot such banality." But then Herzog challenges the image that the media has painted of him as a crazy, obsessive director who supposedly held a gun on his actor Klaus Kinski and threatened to murder him. He ponders why myths are able to take such hold be they about a filmmaker's methods or a mysterious creature living at the bottom of a loch.

In the early goings, the film has a "Spinal Tap" sense of humor that tweaks reality just enough to make it funny. But then the real maker of this whole enterprise, Zak Penn, lets things spin too absurdly out of control. Once we know that what we are watching is fake, the humor and the interest completely evaporates. If Penn were a more clever filmmaker he would have realized that ending his film earlier-even if it is only after 30 minutes but while viewers were still considering the possibility that what they were watching was real-it would have been the smart move. Leave viewers wanting more. But Penn is not smart, just smartalecky. He also thinks he's funnier than he actually is and that's lethal for a comedy.

Pulling off a mock documentary is tough because the film needs to work even after the gimmick is revealed. If it doesn't, then the whole thing feels very thin and unsatisfying. Spinal Tap worked because it imitated the rock documentary so brilliantly and twisted it just enough to make us laugh at the conventions of the genre. And it was funny whether it was real or not. Peter Jackson's "Forgotten Silver," a faux doc about a New Zealand film pioneer, worked because it showed how easily people can be duped in this era of reality TV and technology that can create false documentation. He was also smart enough to keep his film short and ending it before his gag had worn out.

Penn, on the other hand, doesn't realize what his film's strengths and weaknesses are. If he had kept the notion of myth and reality in his sights, then this film-within-a-film-within-a-film could have offered witty commentary on our obsession with myths and legends, and the media's occasional inability to separate fact from fiction. Another strength is having someone as serious as Herzog willing to mock himself and his methods. There are also moments when Penn could have made some savage comments about the film industry itself. But rather than go for the intelligent satire, he goes for mindless spoofery of things like "The Blair Witch Project." Penn repeatedly ignores any potential strength and instead can't resist dumb gags that never pay off (like a sexy "sonar expert" who's made to jiggle about in a string bikini).

"Incident at Loch Ness" (rated PG-13) teases us with an entertaining open but then goes nowhere very quickly. But you do wonder what could have resulted if Herzog rather than Penn were in control. Herzog is a true filmmaker. Penn is merely a hack with a gag rather than a filmmaker with an idea.