Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
A few days ago I blogged about the Norwegian film “Troll Hunter,” a combo of faux documentary and horror spoof that I thought was pretty amusing. I enjoy the faux documentary format in general; I think it speaks to the mercurial, recursive qualities of contemporary culture, and it seems that many young filmmakers are interested in playing around with its possibilities. (They take to it as naturally as they do irony or jittery handheld camerawork.) The format is especially common on television, where outfits like History and Animal Planet routinely air programs which strain wild ideas, stories, and theories through carefully-constructed sieves of objectivity. Sometimes the sciency feel of these shows is so persuasive, their employment of computer-generated imagery so precise, that audiences are happy to buy into the reality of what they’re watching. (Here’s one extreme example.) Hey, maybe this trend has something interesting to tell us about how we’ve come to view our relationship to the truth, to media, and to entertainment. But as much as I love to speculate about such things, that’s probably a blog post in and of itself. Here I want to focus on one fauxdoc in particular, an Australian one called “Lake Mungo,” which struck me as especially sharp and well-composed.
Written and directed by Joel Anderson, “Lake Mungo” is a ghost story that uses the faux documentary framework to explore how the contemporary mediascape informs our relationship with the past. The narrative concerns a family that has recently lost a daughter, Alice, in a drowning incident. While on its surface the event does not seem mysterious, the tone of the film preps us for something ominous, and since a documentary is supposedly being made about the incident we know there’s a kicker lurking somewhere in the story. (It’s a good example of a movie’s format being employed to satisfy genre expectations: our familiarity with the conventions of documentary helps to generate the movie’s atmosphere of dread.)
A mystery does gradually emerge, but it’s centered on Alice the person rather than on her death. First evoked in words by interviewees, then in still photos, audio tape, and finally in grainy home video, Alice’s presence informs the movie in the way that Laura Palmer’s did “Twin Peaks.” (It was only after writing this piece, while looking at IMDb, that I learned that Alice’s last name is Palmer. So the reference is explicit.) Like the townspeople in the David Lynch series, the characters in “Lake Mungo” are attempting to cope with the void left by a loved one’s disappearance. But they’re also attempting to reconcile their personal and mechanical images of Alice with the fact of her existence, to resolve (and quarantine) the idea of her in their minds. The faux documentary format is here once again vital in that it highlights the gulf between reality and fiction by adding a layer of supposed objectivity. The interviewees are assumed to have known Alice as a genuine corporeal presence, whereas for those in the movie audience she’s approachable only through the rabbit hole of media. For us, she remains as grainy and unprovable as the dead body in “Blow Up,” a movie Anderson references liberally.
Throughout “Lake Mungo” Anderson mixes tones, styles, and chunks of narrative with the skill of a collagist. The sitcom banality of the documentary family contrasts perfectly with the nudginess of the digital “found” footage, and each seemingly disparate piece of the puzzle neatly informs the others. It’s an admirably fluid piece of work, and it gives full expression to the movie’s themes of experience, image, and memory. By the time we finally see and hear Alice speak, in a video recorded, fittingly, by a professional psychic, it’s as though a specter has materialized — and it’s doubly revelatory because we suddenly recognize the deftness of Anderson’s technique. (The trick recalls the moment in Chris Marker’s “La Jetee” when the wakening girl is brought to “life,” Galatea-like, by the gradual quickening of still images.)
It’s terribly trite to call “Lake Mungo” a ghost story for the twenty-first century, but I think that’s what Anderson has achieved here. Aren’t we all haunted by the hodgepodge of media left in our wakes? People walk out, even die out, of our lives, but then there they are five years later, staring out at us from Facebook or Youtube or Flickr. How do we manage to live in the present when our past is all around us, when the natural process of forgetting — of organically reformatting our brains — has been rendered impossible by ghosts in the form of recorded sound and images? Like no other movie I can think of “Lake Mungo” gets at this dilemma, and it does so from a variety of angles, with Anderson continually tweaking the material to generate new shades of meaning.
Near the end of the movie Alice’s mother begins to realize that her inability to comprehend her daughter’s ghost is a proxy for her failure to understand the girl while she was living. And at that point you realize the movie’s a sort of tragedy — that it’s about the impossibility of ever really knowing another person; that it’s saying that all of our perceptions are mere representations. The final shot shows the truncated family smiling happily in a photograph. They’ve just moved out of their old house, which is visible in the background. The camera zooms in on a window; it’s seeking something. It’s debatable whether the face of Alice is recognizable, but there’s a version of her back there somewhere, and it’s unreachable.