Directed by: Werner Herzog
Starring: Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michel Geneste, Carole Fritz
There are at least two reasons to see Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The first is that seeing the 32,000-plus-year-old paintings on the walls of Chauvet caves in Southern France in 3D actually legitimizes 3D by capturing the contours the caves on which they were painted. The second is that this is art and history as seen through the eyes and mind of perhaps the most idiosyncratic filmmaker of all time. That said, both factors could be said to have certain drawbacks—drawbacks that will depend on the individual viewer.
Let’s take the 3D first. It’s fine and virtually essential to capturing the feeling of the paintings on the curving walls and protrusions of the caves. The problem is that this only makes up a part of the film. The 3D in the film’s other scenes is neither particularly eventful, nor essential. I’m not at all sure that Herzog hasn’t intentionally worked against the 3D “ethic” in some of these scenes. I find it hard to believe that anyone as savvy as Herzog didn’t realize that he was subverting the use of 3D when he shot a scene where a man attempts (rather amusingly badly) to hurl spears away from the camera. Indeed, I suspect it’s a deliberate joke. All the same, the scenes in the cave that prompted Herzog to use the format are their own justification. When you consider that this may well be the only chance you’ll ever have to see the interiors of these closely guarded caves, there’s really nothing more to be said. And since nothing but seeing these paintings can convey their weird beauty, we ought to experience them the best we can.
And then there’s Herzog himself—the most fanciful, poetic and improbable guide you could hope for. And yet, he doesn’t seem all that out of place in a film where one of the scientists involved is a former unicycle-riding juggler from a circus, where a perfume manufacturer is seen using his sense of smell to hopefully detect other caves, and where another scientist plays “The Star Spangled Banner” on an ancient ivory flute. Can it be that life is stranger than Herzog? Well, no, probably not, but it seems to be trying.
The thing about Herzog, you see, is that he doesn’t exactly see things they way anyone else does. Or perhaps, I should say that his brain doesn’t translate them in any kind of “normal” way. Sure, I can appreciate the kinetic value of seeing shadows on the cave wall as they might have appeared by torchlight. Would it ever occur to me that this is the birth of cinema? Probably not. Would I ever cross-reference this concept with Fred Astaire’s shadow dance from the “Bojangles of Harlem” number in Swing Time (1936)? Not a chance. Herzog does—and the more I think about it, the more I think he’s got a case. That doesn’t mean I didn’t laugh when he cut to Astaire, though.
Now, not everything Herzog brings up plays quite so well for me. I think I’m too cynical to buy into some of his more fanciful notions. For example, his notions that a bear skull perched atop an “altar-like stone” perhaps indicate humanity’s first grapplings with the idea of religion. OK, that rates a maybe, but I can’t help thinking it’s just as likely the result of some bored 5-year-old kid playing while dad was busy painting a rhinocerous on the cave wall. There are just too many instances of elaborate readings of archaelogical finds over the years that have turned out to have quite mundane explanations. But, hey, it’s Herzog’s movie and he’s entitled to imagine anything he wants.
And, yes, that includes the late-in-the-day addition—embellishment, or what have you—of albino crocodiles into the mix. Herzog admitted on The Colbert Report that this is just sci-fi banana oil of his own, so he could ponder how such creatures might regard the paintings. Considering I’d just complained that this movie needed a little boost from Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009)—Nicolas Cage and some hallucinatory iguanas—I’m in no position to question this. Plus, let’s be honest—this is exactly why we like Herzog in the first place. Rated G