Cave of Forgotten Dreams

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August 2, 2011 by Mark Mesaros

I was surprised when I learned, a year ago, that Werner Herzog would be helming a film to be shot in 3D. After surprise came concern about the choice of format and then curiosity, the thinking being that if anyone can do something interesting with 3D it’s got to be Herzog. Shooting a doc on ancient cave paintings, no less. Consider me intrigued back in 2010. Now, having seen the film, only in 3D, ambivalence still reigns. My gut reaction, and it seems I’m not alone among Herzog fans, is that the film could’ve dispensed with it. It seems people are clambering to see it for the first time, or even second, minus a dimension.

While I’m unsure of its total effect on this particular film, I can say for certain that seeing it has helped clear up some unresolved notions about the format; I can more clearly see its strengths, but it also helped to consolidate my arguments against the format, at least for the time being. A Werner Herzog documentary is always partially about Werner Herzog making a documentary; that good-natured reflexiveness so cultivated in Herzog’s nonfiction work helps make clear why 3D, normally a gimmick, fares so much better here. In fiction films, the format is often distracting and unnecessary—distracting because you’re always aware that it’s a 3D presentation (the clunky glasses don’t help) which punctures the disbelief that brought you to see that fictional film in the first place; it’s unnecessary because films by their very nature assume the characteristics of 3-dimensionality in our minds. Minus the credits, our enjoyment of a dramatic film, if it’s remotely successful, is predicated upon our identification with its physics, upon our belief that what’s happening up there is for a couple of darkened hours.

Our recognition of the documentary format, particularly the Herzog brand, means we can sit back and enjoy all that 3D has to offer us without it making itself a distraction. I think Herzog was correct when he realized, upon first accessing this cave, that the images could only be improved by 3D, if the format was ever meant for anything beyond flinging shrapnel and tits at unsuspecting audiences. In this sense, it truly does work. I’ve always had the habit of lowering my specs just to see what effect the 3D is really having; here, that comparative analysis is mostly in the format’s favor. The color loss is still present, and significant, but it really makes some of these images pop, especially the cave paintings which seem to take on a weird motility in 3D, as if they are alive in the walls.

Early on there’s no mistake this is a Herzog take on documentary as he fills us in on the subject matter, what beckoned him to it, and how he plans to go about filming it. In this case it’s the Chauvet cave of southern France, a recently unearthed site of tremendous archaeological importance, containing the world’s earliest extant representative art, and hitherto little recognized by the world-at-large. This is mostly because the site is restricted to researchers, as Herzog tells us, and the few granted access are there to study and make their notes within an hours-long time frame. The French government fears, as has happened with similar ancient sites, that overexposure to our lungs will invite mold or harm the environment in less obvious but equally irreparable ways.

So this crew has been granted one-of-a-kind access to film, though they still have to follow the rules. Herzog and his small crew are only allowed to walk along the mere 3-foot causeway that wends a serpentine path through the length of the cave. This platform is perhaps an inch off the cave floor with no railings for support. Herzog points out to us that ordinary blocking techniques are rendered impossible; there’s no place for crewmembers to hide to get out-of-shot. A limited crew means double-duty as Herzog himself is forced to wield one of the mics. Lack of freedom of movement also means inferior equipment so the first expedition is lensed courtesy of a non-professional handheld DV camera (grainy enough to mar the 3D effect), though later the crew is allowed to return with professional rig. As always, Herzog makes the most of the circumstances with humor as he incorporates the documentation into the document.

After some preliminaries on the origins of the cave and its rediscovery, Herzog takes us inside. What we see is a marvel of prehistory. Cave paintings that look as if they were scrawled yesterday. We see an intelligent, artistic mind, or several, at work in the artifacts. As far as we can tell, these were the earliest homo sapiens who at the time were still competing with the neanderthals. The room of the horses, the room of the lions, the watering hole, the bull-venus—at turns breathtaking, enigmatic and vibrant. It becomes obvious right away that the artist (or artists) utilized the wavy contours of the cave not merely as a canvas but as part of the work itself. Legions of fauna thrust, dive and charge among the silken ripples of the cave walls, a play of movement and light that Herzog describes as “a kind of proto-cinema”. We learn that none of the paintings are located where direct sunlight could’ve hit them, so they must have been made in the shadows, by torchlight.

The natural architecture of the cave and the accumulations of age too afford us some unique glimpses. The calcite-encrusted floors and animal skulls, the sudden vaults in the ceiling, the uterine walls for the first time in millenia reflecting the lights of cameras and torches…

As fascinating as all this is, and putting aside the peripheral effects of 3D, this is Herzog’s weakest film in years, by a few metrics. This film lacks the inquiry that the subject demands, opting to focus on the ancient art itself for most of its runtime, to a dulling degree. We’re subject to endless pans of the aforementioned horse collage, the most stunning piece present. These pans are accompanied by strains of classical music (as we’ve all come to expect from Herzog) and initially they’re intoxicating, but, stretched over the course of 90 minutes in a film that has about 30 minutes of substance, they become tedious. It feels like an overlong History Channel episode.1

Missed opportunities abound. For starters, Herzog didn’t think to map the bull-woman out for us, and it’s only later in the film that his crew devises a stick-borne camera to reach the dark side of the suspended artwork; this lasts for a handful of seconds and it’s not enough. I could decipher only the head of a beast with the glimpses Herzog gives us. We’re also given very little to chew on when it comes to facts regarding this particular site and its context within the wider archaeological-historical record. Aside from approximate dates, the research team makes broad conjectures about what must have been happening within this vast prehistorical period, what the vegetation may have been like, what natural forces conspired to shape the site over millennia, and how recovered artifacts, such as pan flutes, indicate what kind of people dwelled in this region. This may sound substantial in writing, but this is nothing one couldn’t glean from a few minutes of library research.

One of the questions, never asked, that plagued me throughout was, “why are thousands of bones and partial skeletons, primarily bear, littering the cave floor?” Obviously the cave was inhabited by bears (the team doesn’t believe humans ever resided there), so when the rock slide sealed its entrance, there must have been many bears trapped inside. But this many? The conjecture of these bones having been conscripted into human rites is raised once, about a skull that isn’t a bear skull, and never again. Another obvious question is, “what materials were used on the walls and how were they obtained?”.

The interviews don’t help. The dialogue with the most interesting interviewee, the young, pony-tailed Frenchman, comes off as new-agey and coy as Herzog prods the young man to delve into a recurring dream he had regarding the cave art. The rugged naturalist who wears ice-age garb and has reconstructed numerous flutes in the style of those found at Chauvet, seems an enticing specimen at first. He’s just eccentric enough to warrant a spotlight in a Herzog doc, but Herzog cuts him off at playing, poorly, “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his toy. The last notable is another eccentric, this one a perfume specialist who believes he can find paths or read the history of a place by its smells and who subsequently aims his nostrils at the cave’s dank bouquet to learn its secrets. We see him sniffing around the woods, then somehow in the cave itself before he too is waylaid by more zoomed-upon cave art panned with swells of cello.

Herzog basically never had a film. At least, he didn’t do much homework on this one. He heard of a fascinating place and lugged a film crew there, thinking documentation of the place and the locals and a few ‘experts’ would be enough. He tries to salvage things a few times. At one point he has one of the lead researchers instruct everyone to remain silent, in order to hear the ‘heartbeat’ of the cave. Herzog introduces a heartbeat into the sound mix, thus breaking the solemnity of the moment for the audience, whom he apparently didn’t intend to participate with the group onscreen. The last-ditch effort, of course, is the albino alligators. I have to admit I fell asleep and missed the entire epilogue. I’ve only heard of it from other reviewers. While it doesn’t seem to have any relevance to the rest of the tale, at least it’s a break from claustrophobic pans with music and weird stop-and-go interviews. I’m sorry I missed it.

Ultimately, the lack of a film, to the detriment of this review, doesn’t really matter. What’s been documented here is so valuable, so relentlessly fascinating that it repels the entirety of the frames so clumsily draped upon it. Until another crew is granted access to Chauvet, this is the public document of this fascinating place. For these stark images alone, fortunately, this is a work of preservation and a film worth returning to and treasuring for years to come.

1 Perhaps the film feels like it has only 30 substantive minutes because it really does; it was completed at the last minute and, according to this article only 30 minutes were completed a week prior to its premiere. I didn’t know this when I first started writing this review, but as it turns out, and is mentioned in the same article, The History Channel helped produce the film and also owns the television rights.

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