Werner Herzog has directed the perfect film for those who despise 3-D. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, he uses 3-D as a true cinematic technique to enhance and support his content, unlike most Hollywood blockbusters in which 3-D is merely a gimmicky spectacle to distract the audience from sophomoric stories or dull animation. Cinema Chicago held a special screening of Cave of Forgotten Dreams on Tuesday of this week, April 19, but I was lucky enough to see it at the Sarasota Film Festival earlier in the month.
Shot in 2008 and 2009, the film documents the Paleolithic wall paintings in the Chauvet cave, which is located near the Pont d’Arc in southern France. Filled with beautiful paintings of horses, lions, rhinos, ibexes, and other animals, the cave was discovered in 1994 by three scientists, including Jean Marie Chauvet for whom the cave is named. The art work is in pristine condition because the front entrance to the cave collapsed thousands of years ago, preserving and protecting the contents within. According to the film, the paintings are about 32,000 years old, making them the oldest known pictorial creations found in their original setting. Access to the caves is extremely limited by the French government. Only a handful of select scientists are allowed inside for a few hours at a time during certain times of the year. No one wants this discovery to end up like the famous cave paintings at Lescaux (which were made 10,000 to 15,000 later than those in the Chauvet cave). Discovered in 1940, the paintings at Lescaux became a popular tourist site after WWII, accommodating nearly 1,200 people per day. Within a decade, the paintings began to deteriorate from mold and bacteria caused by the breath of humans. The caves were closed to tourism in 1963.
Leave it to Herzog to wrangle permission to get inside the Chauvet cave to make a film, but the restrictions placed on the shoot were daunting. He was allowed a crew of only four people, who could shoot for one hour per day when the project began in 2008. Later, in April 2009, when the scientists were scheduled to work inside the caves for a week, Herzog and his crew were allowed to shoot four hours per day. In a Q&A after the film at the Sarasota fest, Josh Braun, who has worked with Herzog and is a sales agent for the film, elaborated on the restrictions. Because of the cave’s mountainous location, the cameras had to be stowed carefully in backpacks, hiked into the cave, and then assembled inside—sometimes in the dark. The lights, which were attached to the cameras, could not generate any heat. The filmmakers were forbidden to touch anything or leave the metal pathway carefully constructed by the scientists. Listening to Braun, I couldn’t help but compare Herzog’s remarkable film, made under the strictest limitations, with James Cameron’s overblown Avatar. Cameron was lucky to have years of development, hundreds of millions of dollars for a budget, and untold numbers of crew members, and yet came up with nothing more than a bloated kids’ story set in a far-away land populated by unappealing blue people and incredibly ugly critters and varmints.
Herzog , who is no fan of 3-D, has said, “It was immediately clear this was to be shot in 3-D, from the moment I saw the paintings.” Upon seeing the paintings in the cave, I knew exactly why. The original artists were trying to create the illusion of a third dimension by using the uneven, curved, and jagged surfaces in the cave to make their paintings extend into the foreground or recede into the background. Sometimes, the chests and necks of horses or rhinos were configured around a formation jutting out from the wall of the cave, making it look like the animals were coming toward the viewers. Sometimes, a group of animals were painted in the recess of a wall to make them look like they were standing far away. The cave painters and their peers viewed the art via torches, so the light would flicker across the cave walls, creating a sense of movement among the painted animals that accentuated the depth. Though thousands of years apart, both the original painters and Herzog were using the techniques at their disposal to give a two-dimensional art form the illusion of depth to enhance their subject matter, showcasing its strengths and maximizing its impact on the viewer. In Herzog’s hands, 3-D is a true artistic technique, not a gimmick or, as Hitchcock dubbed it, “an 18-month wonder.”
The paintings are not the only images to benefit from the 3-D treatment. The cave’s glittering stalactites and stalagmites create an eerie, fairy-tale-like landscape that is at once beautiful and haunting. The cave floor is littered with giant bear skulls, but the crystal-filled water that has dripped down on them for thousands of years have turned them into bejeweled sculptures that protrude and recede in 3-D. Again, I can’t help but compare the awe-inspiring imagery of Cave of Forgotten Dreams to trailers for upcoming 3-D movies from the Hollywood studios—Thor, Conan the Barbarian, The Smurf Movie. Good grief.
Throughout the film, Herzog draws other comparisons between the cave paintings and cinema. In some of the paintings, the horses have eight or more legs to suggest they are running swiftly. It’s a way to “animate” the still images, an effect Herzog dubs “proto-cinema.” Later, when discussing how the original viewers saw the paintings by flickering torch light, with the play of light and shadow important to the overall impact of the subject matter, he cuts to a production number from Swing Time in which Fred Astaire dances with three flickering silhouettes. Even in the voiceover, Herzog cannot resist using cinematic terms to describe what he sees. He calls the outside the Pont d’Arc area that surrounds the cave “a landscape of melodrama.”
In true Herzogian fashion, the director adds a postscript to the film about the mutant albino crocodiles that live in a biosphere at a nearby nuclear plant. The audience I watched the film with were distracted by the epilogue and tried too hard to directly relate it to the rest of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. While I enjoyed Herzog’s ruminations on these astounding-looking critters, the ending is a footnote that re-creates the sensation of being in the cave, which is evocative—like recalling “memories of long forgotten dreams.” Cave of Forgotten Dreams inspires viewers to contemplate questions regarding art and its meaning to cultures, art and spirituality, or art and its emotional impact on humans. The film’s voice-over in conjunction with its imagery opens doors to these questions. It’s up to us to provide our own epilogue.
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