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DOC NYC 2010 Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams

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DOC NYC 2010: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is an exploration (in 3D!) of the Chauvet Caves, an area that Herzog identifies, romantically and poetically, as the place “where the modern human soul was awakened.” It would seem like a typically Herzogian grandiose description, if not for its essential accuracy: These caves contain the oldest discovered pictorial depictions to emanate from the human hand. The caves are thus an obvious symbol for the birth of human creativity, for the development of the uniquely human urge to document one’s world and to communicate about it. For an artist like Herzog, this is an irresistible conceit. At one point in this film, a scientist remarks that the difference between the Neanderthal and the more modern, more human successor, the Paleolithic man, was precisely this flowering of creativity in carved icons, cave paintings and even crude musical instruments, like a flute carved out of ivory. Herzog’s film resulted from a rare opportunity to explore these caves, which are jealously protected and sealed off from casual inquiry; normally, only a select few scientists ever get to see the cave interior, and even then only in limited ways.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams would thus be a valuable document even if its only appeal was its unique and intimate footage of these seminal souvenirs of early human creation. The cave paintings at Chauvet are exceptional not only for their age or their historical importance, but for their beauty and grace, the strange window they offer into the development of man’s ways of looking at the world through art. They are in many ways astoundingly modern images: One scientist compares the paintings to Picasso, an apt reference point, and the unusual depiction of animals in motion through multiplying effects and motion lines suggests that the paintings are unlikely ancestors of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. The paintings, carefully preserved by the cave’s isolation, depict horses and bison and mammoths, as well as now-extinct varieties of lions, bears, and rhinos. They are beautiful, and when Herzog’s camera glides along the cave walls, accompanied by the achingly spiritual music of cellist Ernst Reijseger, Herzog’s musical collaborator on many of his most recent films, it’s nearly impossible not to be moved and awed by these creations of man’s long-ago ancestors. And when one scientist uses analysis of handprints to track a single individual to several spots within the caves, it produces a chilling sensation of traveling through time, peering over the shoulder of a Paleolithic man as he paints his simple but evocative illustrations on these walls.

These ideas are at the center of Herzog’s approach to this location. Rather than simply documenting the images and the research going on in this cave, Herzog is after something more metaphysical and existential. He’s interested in the way that such artifacts provide a link with the past, a way to travel back in time in a limited way—though, as he describes it at one point, it’s more like having a phone book listing, with no way to access the deeper thoughts and dreams of the people who made these images. Which doesn’t stop Herzog from being fascinated anyway, wondering what these paintings say about humanity’s understanding of and place in the world. He nudges gently at these themes in his voiceovers—which are not as verbose as they sometimes are; he leaves plenty of space and silence for contemplation of the cave paintings themselves—and in his interviews with scientists who seem especially cognizant of the deeper implications of their work. One young scientist describes being so moved upon his initial encounter with the caves that, after five days of working there, he had to leave, to think about his experiences in the outside world. Herzog’s images of these caves are no substitute for the real thing, but they do go some ways toward capturing just what it is about this place that might elicit such awe and respect.

Another interesting aspect of this film is Herzog’s decision, previously unprecedented in his career, to film in 3D. In some ways, it seems like a choice ingeniously prompted by the material itself. One of the characteristic features of the art in the Chauvet Caves is that the artists crafted it in response to the contours of the cave walls. These images are curved and stretched along walls that are seldom flat or canvas-like, and those early painters took advantage of these uneven surfaces to lend vitality and the illusion of motion, especially when coupled with the shifting shadows of handheld lights, to their static drawings. Herzog enhances this aspect of the cave paintings with his 3D imagery, often filming so that the walls seem to curve out of the screen, not in obvious ways, but subtly, just a moderate shift in the depth of the image. At times like this, the 3D conception of the film is effective, even inspired, as the cave ceiling hangs overhead, increasing the claustrophobic sensation of spelunking, or the camera crawls along the curves and bulges in the walls to examine the images that wind along them.

But the 3D cinematography is also distracting and aggravating—in ways that have little to do with Herzog’s particular approach to the medium and everything to do with the inherent limitations of the technology. Outside of the caves, the 3D not only fails to be compelling, but actually turns relatively prosaic sequences into exercises in disorientation and annoyance. When the scientific team Herzog is travelling with treks to the caves for the first time, the camera tracks along with them as they walk along a narrow trail, and though there’s no 3D effect to speak of here, the jumpy camerawork is headache-inducing, particularly when Herzog decides to turn the camera upside-down to get a skewed perspective on the researchers as they walk. Frequently, the outdoor scenes are dizzying in the worst way: blurry and dimly lit. It’s a neat effect when, while filming a gorgeous vista, the flies in front of the camera buzz around overhead within the theater, but it only seems to work on gnats: When Herzog tries a similar trick with some birds in flight, they’re turned into indistinct blurs that are actually painful to look at. In other scenes, the background is dark and bland, as though seen through a filter, while a few selected objects stand out in the foreground as though fixed by a spotlight. Herzog’s sweeping vistas are ill-served by 3D. A big part of his aesthetic is the observation of the natural world, and in Chauvet he finds some gorgeous locales, like a giant rock arc towering over a shallow river, but 3D makes these landscapes less, not more, exciting, detracting from their natural scope and breadth.

Some of Herzog’s most interesting applications of 3D, on the other hand, involve his human companions: The technology seems better suited to small-scale touches than to grand vistas. Herzog of course can’t resist a good visual gag about 3D’s usefulness for depicting things jutting out at the audience: He interviews a scientist who demonstrates how the hunters of the Paleolithic era would have used their spears to take down horses, and one senses that Herzog only filmed the sequence so he could indulge his playful use of the kind of spear-flying-at-the-audience moment that’s a staple of action and horror 3D. Even better is a composition where Herzog places a woman, a researcher, at the right of the frame, her head jutting out of the screen, her eyes shyly looking up at the camera and then darting away, as though she is profoundly conscious that her head is going to be blown up and bulged outward at cinema audiences. It’s a great moment that implicitly acknowledges the artificiality of the 3D medium, which despite claims to greater immersion is, with its clunky glasses and unconvincing gimmickry, a less immersive and realistic medium than the 2D cinema.

It’s a gimmick that is, by and large, unnecessary for a film that is as entertaining and thought-provoking as any Herzog documentary inevitably is. Cave of Forgotten Dreams begins as a straightforward evocation of a scientifically and anthropologically important place, and it expands from there to encompass fundamental questions about humanity’s need to create art, about the changes wrought in human life over long periods of time, about the human relationship to nature. As usual for Herzog, raising the question is more important than providing the answer, a fact that becomes especially clear in a bizarre “postscript” offered as a coda to the cave exploration. In this postscript, Herzog abruptly detours to a nuclear power plant that, he reveals, had been lurking just over the hills from Chauvet, unseen and unsuspected throughout the film. This industrial complex, spewing smoke from giant towers, is contrasted against the unspoiled, carefully protected natural state of the Chauvet Caves, where researchers and filmmakers are prohibited from walking in most places in order to preserve the fragile beauty of the place.

The reactor, Herzog reveals, fuels a nearby tropical biodome with warm water runoff, providing an unlikely environment for crocodiles to thrive, producing mutated albino offspring. It’s a sequence that resonates with the weird reptile fixation that ran through Herzog’s recent Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, as well as an opportunity for Herzog to discourse in his typically apocalyptic manner on time, change and the mystery of art. It’s obvious that Herzog sees, in the cold stare of the lizard and the crocodile, a perfect metaphor for his view of nature as a cold and alien habitat in which humanity exists only provisionally. The Chauvet Caves, in one sense, provide a powerful counterexample of humanity’s extraordinary perseverance across the millennia. So Herzog’s final voiceover, in which he whimsically imagines the crocodiles encountering the cave art and wondering at its meanings, much as Herzog and the scientists he interviewed had throughout this film, is an attempt to reassert a cosmic scale where humanity with all its art and accomplishments is but a faint blip in the darkness.

As usual for Herzog, it’s bleak but shot through with dark humor, reflecting the playfulness that had led him, earlier in the film, to interview a man who dresses in reindeer skins and plays “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a bone flute, or to linger with a perfume maker who believes his trade qualifies him to sniff out the scents of hidden caves. Few filmmakers are as attuned as Herzog is to the absurdity and the poignancy of human endeavor, and thus few filmmakers are as well-suited to dealing with the very origins of human creativity and its enduring expressions. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, even weighed down by its unnecessary 3D gimmick, is a worthy addition to Herzog’s vibrant documentary oeuvre.

DOC NYC will run from November 3 - 9. For more details, click here.