German cinematic auteur Werner Herzog has made nearly 50 movies in a career that began when he was only 20 years old and has now spanned over 40 years. His work hasn't been much seen on American screens in the last two decades, but in the 1970s he was a legendary figure for the majesty of his enduringly great Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Always eccentric and obsessive, Herzog both enhanced and tarnished his reputation when he endeavored to make a movie about a South American opera buff who dragged a steamship over a mountain. The film medium may be a world of special effects and make-believe, but Herzog decided to make his movie Fitzcarraldo by reenacting his hero's exploits -- only with a much bigger boat. The shoot met with more difficulty than Francis Ford Coppola encountered on Apocalypse Now. Herzog nearly died, and he nearly killed his cast and crew. Reportedly the director and his infuriated star Klaus Kinski once confronted each other at gunpoint. But dammit if Fitzcarraldo isn't a great film.
Herzog's mad struggles to make Fitzcarraldo were brilliantly portrayed in Les Blank's award-winning documentary The Burden of Dreams. So it came as little surprise to the film community when word began to circulate that Herzog had set out to make another film with a documentary crew in tow to capture the story of how the film was made. The odd thing was that Herzog was planning to make a documentary himself. So cinematographer John Bailey was along to document the making of a documentary, in this case one about the Loch Ness monster. Then reports announced that Herzog's film had met with spectacular failure, that boats had sunk and crew members had died. And John Bailey had it all in a film he called Incident at Loch Ness.
Having now seen Incident at Loch Ness, I can tell you without qualification that it isn't a documentary and wasn't directed by John Bailey. Think of it as the Blair Ness Project. Fueled by hype, it's a hoax that tries to wrench itself into the kind of mockumentary that Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind) does with such talent, humor and humanity. But Incident at Loch Ness is as often irritating as it is funny, and it's never endearing.
The picture opens with Bailey interviewing Herzog, and the director talking about his desire to do a documentary about the "enigma" of the Loch Ness monster. He says he wants to interview people who live along the lake and discuss their beliefs with them. He never manages to convince us this would make an interesting film, and maybe that's part of the joke. We watch as he assembles a production team headed by "producer" Zak Penn (who, rather than John Bailey in this puzzle box of a film, is credited as the writer/director of Incident at Loch Ness). After appropriate pre-production meetings and glitzy parties with the likes of Jeff Goldblum in attendance for no reason whatsoever, the two documentary crews head off to Scotland, where the jig is up almost immediately.
When Guest does a mockumentary he makes it clear from the outset that his work is fictional and comedic. Like The Blair Witch Project (which I also disliked), Penn hides his intentions, at least at the beginning. Herzog is dreamy enough that we think he may really want to make a documentary about the Loch Ness monster, and some seem to think that one of those fooled by Penn's and Bailey's shenanigans is Herzog himself. That seems as improbable to me as that Sharon Stone didn't see the camera pointed at her crotch when she uncrossed her legs in Basic Instinct. At any rate, once Penn has hired a boat to traverse Loch Ness, ordered the captain to install a quieter engine and designed a bunch of silly jumpsuit uniforms with misspelled words across the back for everyone, we realize we ain't in Kansas anymore.
Then Penn tries to sex things up by introducing sonar expert Kitana Baker, a former Playboy model whose job it is to strip to a thong bikini and jump into the water with her instruments (pun intended). Herzog shortly outs her as a fraud, but then she reveals that in preparing for her role as a sonar expert she has actually learned a lot about sonar. And so forth. Incident at Loch Ness isn't utterly without its moments. Penn rushes to turn the film into an indictment of Hollywood excess. At the end, after the boat sinks and he steals the life raft, he bemoans his own artistic suffering as rivaling that of those unfortunate crew members who died. But such moments are too few, and the annoyance of the clumsy trick of the entire film is great enough that no one should feel compelled to go see it.