Locarno Review: 'Where is Rocky II?'

Where is Rocky II?
(France/Germany/Belgium, 93 min.)
Written and directed by Pierre Bismuth
Featuring: Pierre Bismuth, D.V. DeVincentis, Anthony Peckham, Mike Scott, Robert Knepper
Photo courtesy of Mongrel International

Filmmaker Pierre Bismuth finds himself between a rock and a hard place in the ingenious hybrid film Where is Rocky II? Bismuth, who won on Oscar for his work on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, shows off some meta-movie skills as he follows the peculiar story of American artist Fred Ruscha and a piece of art that allegedly belongs to his body of work, but leaves no trace in the catalogues, museums, or collections of art lovers around the world. Ruscha’s work is a giant fake rock said to be made out of resin, papier-mâché, or other materials (it depends who one asks) that he reportedly used in a photo shoot and documentary. The rock, named Rocky II after the unfortunate Sylvester Stallone movie, sends Bismuth and a cast of characters on an eccentric quest for truth.

Rocky II is a distant cousin from the Maltese falcon in The Maltese Falcon or the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. The thing at the heart of the action is almost completely irrelevant to the movie since Bismuth and company want to talk about the fake rock, but they really want to tackle something else. The topic here is construction, myth-making, and the overall Hollywoodization of life.

Where is Rocky II? offers three parallel narratives that explore the origin and hiding place of the titular rock as private investigator Mike Scott leads a supposedly authentic inquiry into as he follows the clues to the rock. Scott tracks down art world figures, filmmakers and producers involved with the film in which the rock appears, and at least one guy who had a hand in the actual shoot. There are some glaring questions and red herrings here, since two of the producers whom Scott interviews evade his questions and distance themselves from the film, while Ruscha himself never seems to be on the sleuth’s list of essential subjects. If the rock is supposedly out there, it seems logical to start with its creator.

Finding the rock doesn’t seem to be on Bismuth’s agenda, though, since the “How?” is more important than the “What?” is here as the process of inquiry forms the heart of the film’s investigation. Bismuth enlists the help of fellow screenwriters D.V. DeVincentis (Lay the Favourite) and Anthony Peckham (Sherlock Holmes) and they bandy about some ideas for a potential drama on the topic. As the screenwriters brainstorm, ask a series of “What if?” scenarios, and extrapolate from the shards of evidence in their possession, their speculation essentially brings them along the same path that Scott travels.

Here’s where the film gets really interesting. Detective work and documentary filmmaking are two prongs of the same fork as Bismuth shows by crosscutting footage of Scott in action and the screenwriters in their flurry of creativity. Both require an aptitude for storytelling—Scott understands motivation and character just as much as the writers do, while the scribes know how to interpret evidence like a gumshoe with a fine nose.

The downside to the doc is that Bismuth lays everything out in the opening title cards with a quote from Ruscha that positions Hollywood as both a noun and a verb. Where is Rocky II? offers its thesis and proves its argument rather well, but for a film with so many ideas and so much formal dexterity, Bismuth’s effort to Hollywoodize documentary and perceived reality would be even better if one approached it with a blank slate. With each layer, though, Where is Rocky II? enacts a convincing performance.

The film also adds a film within a film as snippets of a Hollywood action movie Monument One, which is the story that DeVincentis and Peckham create, appear fleetingly throughout the doc. The most candid non-fiction elements of Where is Rocky II? might ultimately be the footage of the filmmakers in the creative process. One hilarious scene with fellow writer Mike White (The Good Girl), which ends with everyone popping Adderall, draws out the cinematic sleuthing that parallels the detective’s quest, but with a rare vantage point of a fly on the wall as Hollywood’s shady underside enters the frame.  As the writers riff, Where is Rocky II? signals that the fabrication of a good story underlies any creative endeavour whether it positions itself as fiction or non-fiction.

As the filmmakers discuss the narrative process, the supposed documentary elements become increasingly unreliable. Scott, for one, has an inherent dramatic flair that plays very well to the camera, while the range of coverage of his investigation looks too refined and seamless for footage shot on the fly. The variety of shot/reverse shot conversations mean that either Bismuth had a large team of shooters on the investigator’s trail, who managed to avoid getting in every shot, or he had Scott and his witnesses do multiple takes of their conversations. The latter trick is more likely, but the film’s continuity positions documentary as another arm of drama. Where is Rocky II? perceptively undermines the authenticity audiences believe to be at the heart of documentary filmmaking by drawing attention to the acts of storytelling, embellishment, and creative license.

Where is Rocky II? screened at the Locarno International Film Festival.