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.