Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Werner Herzog's 3-D CAVE OF FORGOT-TEN DREAMS: visuals, yes; narration, no

What a privilege it is to be able to go into Chauvet Cave -- the latest, though probably not the last, in the ongoing discoveries of blocked-off caves containing pre-historic remains and early human art. We owe film director Werner Herzog (shown below) a great deal of gratitude for going there, getting permission to film the place and bringing us with him and his crew -- in 3-D yet -- to take a look. There: I've paid my "grateful" debt; now I can raise a bunch of objections to a film, CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, that had me alternately enraptured and annoyed.

It really is a pleasure to be able to see these newly discovered cave paintings, which seem remarkably fresh and, yes, sophisticated in some ways.  Even if we went to Chavet in person, we couldn't get in: The cave is not open to the public in order to truly preserve the art. (Opening the Lascaux cave to the public has proven semi-disastrous.) And the use of a 3-D camera was at least a semi-smart choice. As usual, with this new 3-D, the image remains a little too dark and a little too... blurry isn't quite the right word: maybe fuzzy. But the 3-D allows us to imagine that we are seeing "around" the images, even if we are not, and because they are painted onto walls that curve and dip and rise, the added dimension makes all this seem more "real."

And yet Herzog really doesn't use the 3-D for all it's worth.  He's too "good," too "classy" to allow images to seem to come toward us out of the screen; something like that might offer a little too much fun. In one scene/interview, his subject picks up a spear and tosses it -- away from the audience. This whole scene, in fact, seems like visual vamping on the director's part.

His "interviews" with various scientists and archeologists are another matter -- particulary one with a young archeologist (below) who tells the filmmaker that he used to be a circus performer (talk about an unusual change of career!). When, later, he tries to explain how and why he sometimes must stay away from the cave, the film for a moment takes on some the mystery and allusiveness (allusivity?) that the filmmaker so loves.

Which brings us to his narration of the movie, which -- were the movie's subject not so damned interesting -- would be the deal-breaker here. Herzog loves his own narrations (he write 'em and speaks 'em), and perhaps the sound of his own voice, which, when they work -- Grizzly Man, The White Diamond -- can do wonders. When they do not -- The Wild Blue Yonder and now this "Cave" -- his films come closer to ridiculous than sublime. There is so much pompous babbling here (did someone feel the need to expand the film to a full 90 minutes?) that you can only wonder that no one close to the filmmaker had the balls to say, "Werner, shut the fuck up!" Well, allow me.

From the film's romanticized, semi-pompous/cliched title (Whose dreams? Who forgot 'em? Who cares?) to his meanderings on "What exactly took place here? Only the paintings could tell us." Well, no they couldn't because painting can't talk. We're going to have to interpret and extrapolate and maybe simply guess, Werner, just like always, when we make "history" out of "art."  Does this man have a need to to create something faintly religious from all of this? Perhaps. Calling this art the "beginning of the modern human soul " seems weird enough, but by the time (film's finish) when the guy begins imagining (at least I think this is imagination) a nearby hot springs complete with albino alligators (as art critics, yet!), the jig is most definitely up.

The audience I sat with during the screening were respectfully silent throughout (some may have been sleeping), but when you see the movie (if you're a cave-art/history buff, you certainly will), you have my permission to giggle now and then.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, an IFC Films release (90 minutes and in 3-D, at some theaters) will open Friday, April 29, in New York City at the IFC Center (in 3-D) and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema (in 2-D). It will certainly be playing elsewhere around the country, but unlike most films from IFC, this one will not be available via VOD (for the time being, at least).

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