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A monstrously charming mockumentary

September 17, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"Incident at Loch Ness" is an amusing mock documentary that spends considerable energy artfully trying to make you believe it's real as real can be. The movie is transparently a fake, but its counterfeit nature is the heart of its charm.

Directed by screenwriter Zak Penn from a script that was largely improvised, it's kind of an art-house "Anacondas," a search for a legendary monster done as a clever sendup of all kinds of features, from cinema verite documentaries to adventure films to the works of one of its stars, director Werner Herzog.

"Loch Ness" is so archly conceptualized that some explanation is necessary. While everyone in the cast is a real person, they are all engaged in playing fake versions of themselves. "Loch Ness," like some intricate Chinese box puzzle, has us observe these fake real people as they make not one but two fake films. Fortunately, it's all a lot easier to enjoy than to explain.

Fake No. 1 is a cinema verite documentary allegedly being made by cinematographer John Bailey and called "Herzog in Wonderland" after its subject, a filmmaker certainly worthy of that level of attention.

The director of 40 to 50 films (the man himself says he's unsure), Werner Herzog is best known, as he ruefully admits, for "getting myself into dangerous situations, making quote-unquote adventurous films," most notably two epic Latin American productions starring Klaus Kinski, "Fitzcarraldo" and "Aguirre: The Wrath of God."

Herzog turns out to be not only a celebrated director but a first-class actor as well. He brings an invaluable conviction to playing the fake version of himself, displaying a genuinely invigorating and unconventional mind as well as the willingness to gently mock his own serious image as a seeker after truth.

The second fake film is the one Herzog himself is supposedly directing, "The Enigma of Loch Ness," produced by a man named Zak Penn and not so much a search for the legendary Scottish monster as, in typical Herzog fashion, an exploration of the creature as "a figment of our collective dreams and nightmares."

In real life, Penn is a successful screenwriter ("Suspect Zero" is his latest) who wanted to direct. So he came up with this story and cast himself as a writer who wanted to produce. That role allows him to say things like "We need to talk" and "I respect that" as he pushes people around and in general has considerable fun sending up behaviors his day job forces him to deal with on a regular basis.

So off to Scotland go Herzog and his crew, including real-life veteran cinematographer Gabriel Beristain and soundman Russell Williams. With Bailey and his crew watching every move this crew makes, there is plenty of time to photograph people like the amusing Michael Karnow, a self-described crypto-zoologist who specializes in investigating animals that don't exist.

"Incident's" joke-within-a-joke is that producer Penn has a much cheesier film in mind than his director does. Penn tries to get everyone to wear identical jumpsuits (with the world "expedition" misspelled on the back) and employs Kitana Baker, a fetching veteran of Miller Lite "Cat Fight" commercials, as a sonar engineer so he can include shots of her in an abbreviated red, white and blue bikini. Naturally, we are privy to everything because people who have secrets to tell conveniently forget to close doors all the way.

Meanwhile, in the depths of the loch, a monster waits. Or does it?

While this tongue-in-cheek structure has playful charms of its own, "Incident" has side benefits as well. We get to see Ricky Jay perform a classic bit of mind-bending close-up magic and hear Herzog, a great raconteur, tell stories and raise questions about everything from the nature of truth to why all people abducted by aliens are overweight and Western. While Zak Penn has his character exclaim "how much cooler the truth is than fiction," this film takes pains to prove just the opposite.


'Incident at Loch Ness'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief strong language

Times guidelines: monster attacks

Werner Herzog ... Werner Herzog

Zak Penn ... Zak Penn

Michael Karnow ... Michael Karnow

Kitana Baker ... Kitana Baker

Released by Eden Rock Media. Director Zak Penn. Producers Zak Penn, Werner Herzog. Executive producers Thomas Augsberger, Jay Rifkin. Cinematographer John Bailey. Editors Howard E. Smith, Abby Schwarzwalder. Costumes Annie Dunn. Music Henning Lohner. Production design Jackie Smith. Art directors Careen Todd, Katherine Ferwerda. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

At the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.

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