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CIFF Review: Jennifer Lynch Joins Directorial Disasterporn Hall Of Fame In 'Despite The Gods'

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 18, 2013 7:40PM

2013_10_18_DespiteTheGods.jpg We're not sure whether Netflix's algorithm has already generated one of their spookily specific categories for films like Penny Vozniak's Despite the Gods, but we imagine it would be something like: "Documentaries about overly-ambitious filmmakers struggling heroically as their seemingly doomed projects threaten the sanity and well-being of everyone involved." Call it Directorial Disasterporn.

In some cases, like Hearts of Darkness, a film about Francis Ford Coppola's tribulations wrangling the vision of his Apocalypse Now from the nightmare it threatened to become, or Burden of Dreams, chronicling the atmosphere of the borderline insanity that surrounded Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, the director completes his film. In others, such as Lost in La Mancha, the chronicle of Terry Gilliam's disastrous Don Quixote project, the end result is a lot of money, time and effort down the drain.

Despite the Gods lies somewhere in the middle of this pack. Its subject, director Jennifer Lynch, finished her project but her final edit was rejected and re-cut to disastrous results. She ended up completely disavowing the result but the story of her struggle to make Hisss, an U.S./Indian co-production about a man-eating snake goddess, proves to be an entertaining consolation prize.

Several times during this documentary we were startled by the resemblance between director Jennifer Lynch and her rather famous director father David Lynch. She shares his enormous playful but knowing eyes, but their way of speaking breaks the spell. His inimitable Missoula-by-way-of-outer-space earthiness is replaced her very California almost uptight about being open-minded manner. Taking on this very large international production for her third film would be quite a task for anyone, especially something billed as "a comedy/horror/action/adventure/musical/creature-feature/love story." Not rooting for her becomes an impossibility as we watch this recovering addict and single mom attempt to pull it all off, beset on all sides by hostile shooting circumstances (from labor woes to monsoons) and trying to keep it together during a 3-month shoot that turned into 8 months with her 12-year-old daughter in tow.

Though she clearly bonds with her crew, Lynch's working methods seem completely at odds with the Bollywood filmmaking approach she was destined to adopt. This conflict is represented fully in her headbutting with producer Govind Menon, as we witness lots of sparks flying between the two. Lynch's ever-present daughter Sydney provides some innocent continuity throughout the picture, though the tension her presence represented--an enriching experience for her but a potentially counterproductive exacerbation of a borderline disastrous working situation for her mom--actually enhances the documentary's drama.

Early in the shoot when the production is already looking plagued, Jennifer Lynch more or less prophesizes that her third film would be a disaster just like her father's (Dune). It is this historical awareness and the pressure of being one of Cinema's all-time greats that makes this movie something special. Lynch is so clearly at home on the film set, so in love with call sheets and getting the shot right and motivating her actors and everything else, that it's not surprising she thinks it's an appropriate place for her daughter to grow up (perhaps as she did). Thanks to Lynch's volubility and candor, Despite the Gods is an entertaining examination of the difficulty in achieving one's artistic vision in the face of very long odds. A just as enjoyable film for people who don't care about how movies get made as for those who do.

Despite the Gods screens tonight at 5:45 p.m. as part of the Chicago International Film Festival. Director Penny Vozniak, documentary Subjects Jennifer and Sydney Lynch and several members of the film's crew are scheduled to attend. More details and tickets are available on their website.