Sunday, April 3, 2011
Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3-D
Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3-D (2010) dir. Werner Herzog
A documentary featuring Werner Herzog
By Blair Stewart
The Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in the south of France was an early turning point in human expression, intuition and endurance when you factor in the climate during the Upper Paleolithic period (32,000 years ago, or when most of Europe was a continental ice cube). In 1994, a team of speleologists followed an air draft down into the untouched cavern that preserved the oldest cave paintings in recorded civilization, which provided incredibly vivid detail.
Beyond piles of outwitted predators' bones from prehistoric rituals, the paintings were found etched with a three-dimensional perspective. A horse with an outline of eight legs flowing across limestone that was radiated by dancing firelight would have the illusion of movement, no doubt a source of joy, long before Muybridge's mark was due. Because of the fragile existence of the unearthed treasures, the French government has kept public viewing of the cave under tight restrictions.
Enter Werner Herzog, one of the leading figures of the New German Cinema movement encompassing both fiction and documentary. World traveller, opera director and a deadpan old-kook to boot, Herzog was granted limited access to Chauvet for an excursion into 3-D filmmaking. The turquoise beauty of the Ardèche river region certainly pops in that format, but the billowing details of the actual paintings themselves sadly can't translate well in the muted glow of the handheld camera lights and necessary cinema glasses. The imagery captured despite the limitations of 3-D are still striking. A preserved child's footprint seems freshly laid if not for the elapsed time, the red handprints of one caveman share space with the clawed graffiti of extinct cave bears, and everywhere stalactites hang rudely in the frame like a dog's drool.
The cave is a film's dream setting, and yet I found myself drifting into slumber despite my eagerness for Herzog's documentaries due to his many triumphs, from 1974's The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner to the 2007 Oscar-nominated Encounters at the End of the World. The mixture of a heavy cello score, Herzog's unhelpful monotone voice-over and the dim image was too much for my wits. The director's patented curveball-logic questions during his geological/archaeological interviews about the dreams of the long-dead artists detracted from the subject, as did the blatantly obvious written moments for his scientists (Herzog's best fictional work has the quality of fact, while many of his documentaries have meddling fingerprints somewhere among the pre-planned set pieces) and an ill-suited coda involving crocodiles.
The lingering questions that remain from the paintings will mostly be left unanswered, and while it's important to ask about their intentions and praise their achievements, it's mostly futile to put words in a dead caveman's mouth.