The Hole Story
2005Director: Alex Karpovsky
Cast: Alex Karpovsky
here’s a reason why Werner Herzog’s recent spat of documentaries is so tightly focused on individuals, namely single-minded devotees, monastic followers, and all-around nutjobs. There’s no questioning that obsession appeals to Herzog, but he merely uses obsessive folks as a balm to his own cynicism. Who could forget the moment in Herzog’s Buddhism doc, Wheel of Time, when, camera placed before a lone monk prostrating effusively in an empty ceremonial hall, our Teutonic host ruminates on the monk as an emblem of man’s eternal isolation, and the terrible loneliness of being? Herzog needs quixotic dreams like Zoloft; otherwise, he’d be just another grumpy old nihilist.
Considering the January ’05 production of The Hole Story, it’s doubtful Alex Karpovsky saw and modeled his mockumentary on Herzog’s trifecta of docs, which were distributed throughout last year. But if not a misguided homage to Herzog, it serves as an invaluable counter-example of how not to do a Grizzly Man-ish study of determination toeing insanity. Circumstantial differences abound: Karpovsky, in “real life,” tried to shoot a TV pilot (tentatively titled Provincial Puzzlers, and more or less aimed at the Believe It Or Don’t! crowd) in Brainerd, Minnesota, capitalizing on a lake that remained inexplicably unfrozen in the dead of winter. Then “Alex,” played by Karpovsky in The Hole Story, has a distended creative breakdown, and, well, that’s the movie, save a tongue-in-cheek inspirational climax.
The film is assembled as if by the sole assistant cameraman who stays in Brainerd alongside Alex, and the cameraman’s motives remain fuzzy; he’s compassionate but reluctant, and is alluded to only in passing. So, our sole point of perspective on Alex the character is Karpovsky the director, and there’s no telling how significantly those viewpoints actually differ, since Karpovsky refuses to divulge what’s genuine and what’s fictional. (In real life, i.e. the Q&A; at the screening attended by yours truly; stay with me here.)
Since Karpovsky plays Alex’s journey for yuks (e.g. extending the water hole / existential hole metaphor to parody and lingering as Alex weeps for the camera in Blair Witchian confessional mode), we’re made to assume a kind of meta-self-deprecation, a filmmaker criticizing his worst instincts through a fictional self. His bane? Obsession. Herein lies the problem: technique and subject matter are too often one and the same, in no small part due to Karpovsky’s dual roles in the film’s creation. If the batshit determination of Alex and Karpovsky were still in doubt, both actor and director plowed the snowy surface of an entire lake just to make this movie. Alex voraciously searches for meaning within the hole, and Karpovsky is his cheerleader, flailing wildly on the sidelines. To stretch the analogy, Herzog looks like a cursing, beer-guzzling heckler in comparison; this is the rare case where that’s a compliment.
Granted, Alex’s demands are made to look excessive; to paraphrase a flustered crew member: Sure, go ahead and open up the lake, but is a sweeping, panoramic crane shot necessary? Dementia and the contextualization thereof are presented successively, not simultaneously; for every gleeful montage of, say, Alex leading a confused gaggle of mental patients to plow the lake, we get an equally sad montage of the filmmaker gazing dejectedly ahead as his dreams drift farther away. It’s a manic-depressive pattern—perhaps appropriate considering Alex’s mental breakdown midway through the film—but one more influenced by the now-let’s-make-the-audience-feel-this-way principles of faux-inspirational treacle than aware of them.
Some of The Hole Story works. As much as I hate to berate Karpovsky for his idiosyncrasies and herald him for fitting in, his strongest moments bear the markings of European art cinema, not a National Geographic-style enthusiasm for geographical icons. (An unflappable, arbitrary reverence for Paul Bunyan falls flat, simply because its unflappableness becomes a vain effort to disguise its arbitrariness.) The film’s tour-de-force is a long shot of Alex walking deep into the icy distance, jabbering with mysterious girlfriend-cum-financier “Emily” on his cell. Just as far as he wanders off, he wanders back; but for a brief snippet he’s inaudible—too far away from the soundman, naturally—just as he’s on the cusp of an about-face with Emily, navigating from reproach to apology. For a tale of single-minded devotion, Hole shines in those few occasions when Alex’s nerve is overtaken by booze, love or despair—a lot like life.