Saturday, May 14, 2011

Love: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

One day in fourth grade I entered the art room at my school and the lights were off. The windows had been sealed with black paper and cardboard, and only a tiny candle flickered in the middle of the room. The walls had been covered with brown paper, and my class of eight year-olds sat in awed silence at the change in our routine, excited to learn just what we might be doing that day. The teacher handed out small branches, sticks, and leaves with a cup of black paint, and instructed to us watch the shadows made against the wall, to imagine, to sit in silence and listen. She told us that we were in a cave, and had us close our eyes and feel the cool texture of the cave floor, to smell the dampness on the rocks. She held up posters of cave paintings and told us stories about the animals and why they were there. And then she let us loose on the walls.
Werner Herzog attempts a similar invocation of primitive imagination in his new work, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The film, sponsored by the French Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, follows a team of scientists and the filmmakers into the Chauvet cave, the lesser known but better protected cousin to the Lascaux cave, which has now been closed to the public due to the formation of mold on its walls. The Chauvet cave walls are perfectly preserved, the exquisite 40,000 year old paintings of horses, rhinos, mammoths, and lions bright and alive beneath a layer of protective deposits on the walls. Bones litter the floor, some now morphed into blobs of sparkling white crystals as stalactites and stalagmites form on top of them.
Herzog’s camera lingers on the images repeatedly, a nice change from similar films that jump around without ever letting you get a good look at the subject. Even without the ability to bring in the right equipment due to space and preservation constraints, the lighting is perfect as it sweeps slowly across the paintings hypnotically until it feels as if the painter’s original torch light is revealing his finished work all those years ago. This film is particularly suited to 3D and makes use of the technology to suck you into the virtual experience. The soundtrack, reminiscent of but more bare boned than Philip Glass, bolsters the otherworldly aspects that Herzog so desperately wants us to feel.
But that desperation is the downfall of what could have been an incredible experience. Once Herzog got the permissions and worked through the technology challenges, his job was an easy one. The paintings themselves are beautiful and haunting; enough of an existential nudge to any viewer of the film to take a step back and examine the world and their lives. But Herzog doesn’t let it go. He tells instead of shows. He peppers the film with lingering camera shots on the scientists looking forlornly at the camera. He inserts the sounds of beating hearts in melodramatic fashion. There is little history, science, and philosophy pulled from his group of experts, their only contributions so uninformative that I can’t even remember a detail to share with you here, the narration so leading that it often feels as poorly researched as an episode of Ancient Aliens (History Channel films also had a part to play in the production of the film).
Herzog narrates the film, his rhetorical questions about the nature of dreams and the meaning of the paintings often nonsensical and shallow, as if he were a first year philosophy student wrangling with material he’s struggling to explain. This is most painful in the “postscript” to the film, a diatribe against nuclear power that focuses on a crocodile park in France that is heated from the steam of a nearby plant. You expect him to report that the steam is creating an environment in which the paintings cannot survive downstream. But instead he shows pictures of albino crocodiles, and asks what the crocodiles might think about the paintings once their enclosed zoological habitat will expand to reach the caves (it seems highly unlikely that the French government would be interested in doing such a thing).

The mire of meaningless  babbling about spear hunting and nuclear crocodiles aside, the paintings speak enough for themselves. The film is stunning to behold, a chance to see something that few, if any of us will ever have the privilege of experiencing, brought to us by a filmmaker who even at his most pretentious knows how to manipulate light, space, and camera to make magic.
~M 

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