Rock of Ages

Pierre Bismuth, Where Is Rocky II?, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 93 minutes.

A TEASER, says screenwriter Mike White midway through a manic cameo, should tell you exactly what you’re going to get. Where Is Rocky II?, the directorial debut of artist Pierre Bismuth, is a slick, evasive splice of reality TV, documentary, cinema verité, Hollywood spoof, and collateral art history. Real Hollywood. Real artwork. Fake rock. Inspired by a true story: the hunt for a little-known and never-seen work by Ed Ruscha—a fiberglass boulder that has been tucked among the Mojave’s endless spread of granite ones since 1979.

There was almost no story at all—but Bismuth directs by withholding, until the tracks of his confused cast begin to resemble a plot. He enlists real Hollywood writers Anthony Peckham and D.V. DeVincentis to work their magic on the facts while at the same time retaining Michael Scott, an actual private investigator, to hunt down that fake rock. Scott sets out with a name—Ed Ruscha—and a production still from a 1979 BBC short that is the sculpture’s only(?) extant documentation. It’s a good clean laugh when he pulls into a tire shop on Route 62, photo in hand, and asks if anyone has seen a rock. An art-world audience gets a snicker too when Scott starts Googling and then interviewing LA principals from Connie Butler to Eli Broad, who, well—yes, they’ve heard of Ed Ruscha. Everyone’s having such a good time on this madcap side project that they would rather defer the obvious: a simple clue from Ruscha (mercifully reticent) would have cleared things up posthaste.

Especially these days, when the truth is so sorely used, it would be a bit of a spoiler to admit that sometimes mystery is the victim, and that some truths are better left unfound. Yet there are those for whom the mere rumor of art is not enough; the detective needs to nab his man and, as for the screenwriters, if something is hidden, there must be something inside. (“The body of his first dealer, in a cube of resin . . .”) Scott finally tracks down Jim Ganzer, a Malibu surfer who inspired the Dude in Big Lebowski, palled around with the Ferus boys, and, oh yeah, once back in 1977 helped Ruscha fabricate a certain artwork. A map is produced. They set off on the rock’s cold trail. In a tender shot-matching homage, Bismuth’s 4K footage nestles into the BBC’s 16 mm: Scott and Ganzer’s late-model SUV crests unpaved roads and fades into Ruscha’s rock-laden pickup. But it’s too late. By now we’re in deep desert at the golden hour, enveloped by total cliché. A woodpecker jabs a Joshua tree, a little dry grass rustles in the bottom-right edge, and the cheesy music swells. It really is beautiful out there. It really is.

Where Is Rocky II? had its US premiere January 13 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.