Despite the Gods, The Documentary of Jennifer Lynch's Failed Exotic Monster Movie

Despite the Gods is a great documentary for lovers of lost film. Now, the subject of this documentary wasn't quite lost entirely; but like we saw with Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau film in the recent documentary Lost Soul, what we ended up with was very different than what was intended. In this case, we've got a terrific look at the rise and fall of Jennifer Chambers Lynch's third feature, Hisss. This is less of a tribute to what could have been, like Jodorowsky's Dune, than just an unadulterated behind the scenes look at all the problems that befell the shooting, along the lines of 2002's Lost In La Mancha.
The film works as a stand-alone documentary (as opposed to a DVD extra like it was probably intended to be), well, for two reasons. One because Hisss was such an oddity that became a disaster right before its lens. I mean, what we have here is David Lynch's daughter trying to make a comeback by going to India to film a Bollywood inspired monster movie. She takes her 12-year old daughter along and stays there for over half a year, taking a very hard-headed approach to the vast cultural gap she encounters. Hardships conspire against our hero, from huge rainstorms to an extra falling unconscious in the background of a shot, and you're with her every step of the way as she struggles to keep the production on track.
But also two, because Lynch gave Despite's director so much access. We see Lynch's emotional moments at home after filming with her family, and overhear delicate conversations between her and the film's producers. We start out at her home months before she goes to India and come back to her for a "four years later" postscript. We follow her adventures in a foreign country, thwarted ambitions, and even get into the struggles of her love life. We're given a surprisingly complete picture, which is perfect, because Hisss is exactly the sort of film that makes you wonder about every little aspect of what could have gone into the making of it.
Now, I've seen Hisss. It's a disappointing and frustrating mix of some good elements lost within a bad film. A great example of this is the special effects: it has excellent snake transformation make-up by Robert Kurtzman (the K of KNB), but that's often forgone in favor of really cheesy, awful CGI effects like some direct-to-video feature from the late 90s. The movie has great locations and striking visuals at times, but more often looks like a junk SyFy Channel Original. Sometimes they're making corny snake jokes like Halle Berry's cat gags in Catwoman, other times we're watching extended scenes of brutal rape. The updating of the Nagin snake goddess legend is cool, but then they weigh it down with this awful B-movie plot where an evil American industrialist is out to capture her so he can steal her cells (or something) to cure his cancer. The lead actress has zero lines, and so the film's perspective is often passed off to a generic police inspector trying to catch up with the rest of the story.
It's like Lynch just couldn't decide if she wanted to make a dumb B-movie for Beer Night or a sincere attempt at a mature film, and just started shooting it both ways. It's also got sort of a pseudo-Bollywood thing going on, where there's just one big dance number in it, and they half justify it by having it take place during a street parade. So it's just enough of a musical to not work as a credible narrative film, but not enough to actually qualify as a musical. It's just a mess. And yes, the producers took the film away from her and recut it their own way, so you can't lay all the blame at Lynch's feet; but I can't imagine how a director's cut could turn this into a genuinely good film. Maybe it could've been a slightly more interesting mess, though. Honestly, the producers should've just let Lynch finish it her way, because they surely didn't improve their property any, and they could've avoided burning the bridge between them. I mean, I might've actually bought Hisss on DVD, despite the film itself, if it had a director's commentary on it.

But then again, as puzzled as I was by what Hisss was trying to be, Despite the Gods does give us a solid glimpse at the answer. There's a very telling argument where the producer tells Lynch, "this is a 3 million dollar movie, it's going to look like a 3 million dollar movie. We're trying to make it look like a 10 million dollar movie. But we're not going to be able to make this look like a 500 million dollar movie. It's not going to look like The Titanic. And in the effort to do that, you're screwing up the scenes. If you can't hack it, quit!" Hard cut to Mallika Sherawat sensually licking a giant rubber snake.
BrinkVision gave us a pretty straight-forward DVD release in 2015. The film is in what you might call full widescreen: 1.78:1, and it feels like we're looking at the digital footage pretty much just like it came out of the camera. This film was supposedly shot in HD, so it's possible this could look a little better on blu; but it's got a very raw, handheld style that probably translates just as well to 720. Scenes look flatter in low light and high motion gets blurry, but I'm sure that's the original footage. It's anamorphic with no interlacing or anything else I'd consider a flaw in its presentation.

The audio is given a 5.1 mix, but we're mostly hearing native sound spoken directly into the camera, so there's not a lot to play with. There are no subtitles (except a few, burnt in when peoples' voices are unclear or not speaking English) or other options. Just play the single, basic movie file.
And in that vein, unfortunately, this release is essentially barebones. The only extra is the trailer, which is a shame, because I would've been interested to hear the director talk about her experiences on the Hisss set or something that updated viewers on what became of the film after it separated from Lynch, or even Lynch's opinions on the final cut that was ultimately released... although I'm guessing it would be a Herculean task to get her to sit down and watch it. But yeah, I certainly wasn't expecting a packed special edition for a film like this, but a handful of deleted scenes and a little Q&A footage would have been appreciated.
So I wouldn't recommend Hisss, but I'd absolutely recommend Despite the Gods. Especially if you enjoyed the handful of similar docs, like The Death of Superman Lives or Lost In La Mancha. This is as good as any of those, and better than some. And while the DVD is totally no frills, it's fine. The film looks as good here as it's likely to anywhere, and it's inexpensive, so you might as well just go for it. It's an experience.

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