Saturday, May 7, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS 3D                    B-                   
USA  Canada  France  Germany  Great Britain  (90 mi)  2010  d:  Werner Herzog 

While the recent discovery in 1994 of these remarkable Chauvet caves in Southern France is a revelation, preserved in pristine condition due to a rockslide during the Ice Age which closed the cave opening, kept intact for 35,000 years, the use of a 3D camera to photograph them is more a stunt than a necessity, especially in the close ups of the oldest cave paintings on earth.  However, the innate claustrophobia of being enclosed in an underground cave and the accompanying uncomfortable nature of wearing 3D glasses, which produces a tunnel vision effect, as if the rest of the world is totally shut out, does seem to be a natural match.  Described by Herzog as “one of the great discoveries in the history of human culture,” denied access to the public and one that only a few scientists had ever been allowed to enter, the film is a gateway into our past, with perfectly preserved prehistoric charcoal drawings on the walls, the earliest known example of human art, where the quality is so high that it appears they were drawn yesterday.  Shot at a distance, especially through the narrow openings into another cave corridor, the contrasting fields of vision are spectacular, especially seen through illuminated stalagmites that sparkle in the light.  But the crawl space is so limited that most shots of the art on the walls are from extreme close range, where the 3D has no effect whatsoever.  Herzog attempts to suggest the 3D offers the illusion of movement, as if the pictures themselves don’t already contain that capacity.  The film however, filled with the points of view of various scientists, does inherently feel like an educational project, so in that respect, Herzog suggests he’s simply advancing the science of the possible uses of 3D.     

The gorge river area surrounding the cave is utterly gorgeous, where scientists discovered the cave by closely examining the unusual rock formations in the vicinity searching for signs of unusual air drafts, which suggest the presence of a cave.  The wall drawings are twice as old as any previous findings of human art in existence, yet these are the best preserved anywhere on earth.  A nearby cave was open to the public, but had to shut down when human breath was determined to be the cause for mold growing on the cave walls.  As a result, there is a single door entrance which opens and shuts like a bank vault, with restrictions on allowed time, levels of light, where one can not veer off a constructed metal walkway.  In truth, one does not need to spend excessive time in the restrictive confines of caves, as after awhile, like being stuck in a submarine, getting out feels like a relief.  The one problematic element of the film, which is likely purely subjective, is Herzog’s choice of music, which is usually nothing short of superb.  Drawing upon the music of a longtime collaborator, Dutch cellist and composer Ernst Reijseger, Herzog attempts to blend the ancient past with the future, using what might be termed serial music, a combination of atmospheric, atonal cello music that adds the soprano voice occasionally in an overly atmospheric sound, something others might call mood music.  Used successfully in previous films, such as THE WHITE DIAMOND (2004) and especially in THE WILD BLUE YONDER (2005), the music provides an otherworldly sound which perfectly matches the onscreen subject matter.  But here, the oldest known example of human art on the planet is not in any way enhanced by music that eventually feels irritatingly repetitive, not nearly original enough to capture the unique nature of what’s seen onscreen.   

Shot by Peter Zeitlinger, who has worked with Herzog since LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY (1998), and with Ulrich Seidl before that on some astounding Austrian documentaries, there is no question he brings a level of artistry into the project, especially considering the restrictions on distance to some of the drawings as well as the allowed levels of light.  The viewer gets an exquisite view of what’s inside this startlingly unique cave, but Herzog may go overboard in his attempts to explain his findings, as all the commentators are academics who speak in a dry professional vernacular.  Only one amusingly confesses he once worked in the circus, but other than that, they offer little personality to speak of.  The perfumist brought in to hunt for signs of an interior cave smell in the nearby rocks was admittedly off-beat, as was the man dressed in caveman clothing, or the guy playing “The Star Spangled Banner” on a fossilized flute, but they were more clownish than believable.  Herzog offers a few choice zingers of melodramatic overreach in his narration, but otherwise this feels more like a Visitor’s Center lecture than a film, where Herzog and his colleagues are so immersed into the pertinent scientific aspects that they forget how to humanize the subject matter with a more interesting presentation.  When Herzog adds a postscript, which includes the close proximity of a large nuclear power plant, which uses its runoff steam and water to power a greenhouse full of tropical plants and albino alligators, suggesting a public theme park using a replica of the Chauvet caves will soon be built nearby, it borders on the ridiculous.  All of which suggests the visualization is excellent, but the accompanying music and narration, usually Herzog’s strong points, remain out of balance and are among his weakest in years, which sadly undermine the power of the discovery.     


  1. Fruitlessly commenting on a ridiculously old posting, but reading the above was such a bewildering experience. I enjoy your laboriously in depth analysis always, but in this case there is a strong sense of you seeing a different movie altogether - a film I saw only a month or so ago. And thought was a masterpiece. Strangest thing is that the movie I saw had the best 3D effect I have ever seen. Inside the cave anyways. Not for a moment did I question whether the 3D in this movie was just a gimmick: on the contrary, it seemed to me the only reasonable choice. I also found the use of music astonishing, on par with anything Herzog has accomplished on that area of film making previously. When the cameras are inside the cave, the film is (among other things) a meditation on the birth of art, or, the birth of the brain that imagines and creates. The cave is a time capsule which Herzog uses as a tool of sorts to comment on modern times. That is why the postscript is a much needed extra layer. I also had no problems listening to the scientists, possibly because of the general atmosphere that had completely grasped me. Well, anyway, I want to thank you for the Cannes postings. Best regards from Finland.

  2. Comments are never fruitless, no matter the passage of time, especially when they have to travel across an ocean. Comments are always appreciated. Other friends felt the same way you did, and while the cave sequences themselves were scientifically and visually unique, I was more impressed by the initial shots inside the cave where the camera peers through distance, where the look and shape and odd dimensions of the cave itself is a bit mind boggling in 3D, including the sparkling illumination of the rocks. But I didn't buy for a second his premise that 3D offers a unique view of the cave drawings, suggesting they offer the illusion of movement that would not otherwise be possible, calling it "proto cinema." The drawings themselves suggest movement, as the animals are usually running. Werner seemed impressed by the implementation of extra legs on the animals, so attributes movement with a 3D camera. Personally, I don't see it. Also, most of the filming of the drawings was either much too close or too far away for the 3D to have any noticeable effect, so while the drawings themselves were in spectacular condition, surviving 35,000 years as if it was just yesterday, I didn't see the need for 3D other than Werner's insistence that this is his contribution to the advancement of science, backed up by the views of (likely fake) academia interspersed throughout his film.

    I've seen 22 of his films, so by now I know the shtick, as sometimes it's hard to distinguish between the material being presented and Herzog's own megalomania, where after all these years, he still comes across as something of a snake oil salesman trying to sell the product. However, if I know anything about Herzog, the experience of seeing his films can be transporting, where he has a way, at times, of creating not only dazzling images but almost transcendental feelings. Herzog does have a way of inspiring, which is all for the good.

    Thoughts of Finland, Einar Englund's Blackbird Symphony #2 remains one of my all-time favorites, where you have to just love that piano.

    Thanks for chiming in.