Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Werner Herzog's Cave Of Forgotten Dreams

As we walked out of the TIFF Lightbox, where Cave Of Forgotten Dreams was playing, my wife sighed rather happily and said, “I love Werner Herzog — he's a real character. But there's almost always a point in his documentaries when I think, 'You are so full of shit.'”

Some documentaries more than others, I might have added. As he's aged, those moments are fewer, but he still retains his capacity to test a viewer's bullshit-meter. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams is no exception.

The movie is an intriguing and worthy exercise: escort a limited crew into the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave, get footage of the paintings and bring it back — rendered in 3D — to a public for whom this will be their only exposure; keep the pace languid, add some vigorous neo-classical performances to the soundtrack, interview witnesses and professionals and be sure to keep the camera rolling to catch the occasional eccentricity; keep personal commentary to a minimum; then cut and paste it in the editing room and release the final product to a grateful audience.

Does it work? The results are mixed. On a surprisingly primal level, the film is a success. The 3D rendering is the most excruciating I've experienced since the days of blue-and-red paper spectacles, yet it reveals aspects of character in the paintings which a traditional presentation would keep hidden. The lingering camera, the soundtrack's sacred keening and Herzog's wheezy monotone induce a dreamlike state — a desired effect. My wife noted how the commentators all resorted to English as a subsequent language, which brought a blunt simplicity to their analysis — also a desired effect.

At other times, when it seemed like the contours of the cave warped in an unintended reversal, the artifice of the presentation was impossible to ignore. I wasn't in the cave — I wasn't anywhere near the cave. I couldn't smell its mustiness, I couldn't feel the texture of the stalagtites and stalagmites. I was entirely at the mercy of the technology and the crew that employed it. Open the film with a statement like, “We will be the lest people to see these paintings, be-foah the cave iss closed — foah-effah,” and repeat it a couple of times, for emphasis, and resentment becomes part of the viewing experience as well.

I had to wonder if that wasn't also a desired effect. It wasn't as if an excursion to the Chauvet Cave had been a long-standing item on my bucket list, but geez-louise: greater souls than mine have chaffed under sentiments like, “I em hee-ah, where you will neffah be.” Herzog's post-script, in which he ponders just what a herd of albino alligators might make of it all, comes as very welcome comic relief.

There is something profoundly unsettling about these paintings. The mook who slapped his red-painted palm to the cave wall probably had an ego as big as Ozymandias' — or Werner Herzog's. Against all odds his statement has remained intact for over 30,000 years, placed in stark juxtaposition to the awe-inspiring portraits of the thundering forces that surround it. Like Herzog's films, it is as petty, bold, tragic, and comic a statement as anything humanity has put on canvas. God knows you've gotta be pretty full of something to pull off a stunt like that.

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