Thursday, May 26, 2011

A (Way-overdue) review of Cave of Forgotten Dreams

(Cave of Forgotten Dreams/ Creative Differences, 2011)

           The Chauvet cave in the south of France is an odd place. Located on the side of a cliff like an accidental puncture, it was undiscovered and almost impossible to access until three French archeologists turned it up in 1994, after noticing gaseous fumes emanating from the rocks. Those three explorers were Jean Marie Chauvet, Christian Hillaire and Eliette Brunel, all to whom Cave of Forgotten Dreams is dedicated. What they uncovered was a cave filled with the oldest paintings known to man. Paintings of horses, bulls, female genitalia. In frozen motion.
            The cave of Werner Herzog’s career is no less odd than the Chauvet cave, but it has been in its dullest, most recyclable phase for the past decade. The most positive summary that may be given to Cave of Forgotten Dreams is that it is a welcome reprieve from this phase. With Invincible, Herzog resorted to making another Holocaust schmaltz-epic; with Rescue Dawn, he re-made his own documentary, and morphed it in to a hulky piece of Americana action; with Encounters at the End of the World he encountered nothing new in a place he seemed to be visiting simply because he had not shot a film there yet. Nobody can accuse of Herzog not exploring new territory this time. The film is shot mostly in and around the cave, establishing the clearest sense of space Herzog has given us in years, and glittering with the palpable mysticism and romantic possibilities that he has been desperately trying to reconnect with. The inside of the cave looks what you would expect the inside of a cave to look like, but even darker and weirder. Bones litter the ground, the stalactites are massive and look alien with their shiny whiteness, and the paintings—but we should stop here. The best way the paintings can be described is in Herzog’s own words; “almost a form of proto-cinema.” The best way they can be seen is to look at them. This film has us look in 3-D.
(Fred Astaire dancing in Cave of Forgotten Dreams/)
            Herzog’s comments about the suggestion of motion in the paintings of running bulls—the proto-cinema comment—are actually the key to this film. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is almost a form of film criticism. In its best moments, it is playful art history. Herzog compares the paintings to the romantic impulse in the music of Wagner and the German romantic painters and, despite his tendency towards pretty hyperbole, we believe him this time. He interviews art historians and follows an archeologist in to the cave, who gives us a guided tour of one man’s handprint, distinguishable by a crooked finger, that appears on stones throughout the cave. He gives us isolated close-ups of artifacts found in other caves and compares them to the material in Chauvet. He follows around Michel Phillipe, one of the heads of the cave preservation effort, in spear-throwing excursions and in to archival safes. Herzog is a quietly ambivalent filmmaker; on one hand, he shuns analysis, preferring to have use gaze at the cave paintings again and again, following the arc of a flashlight that scans them. On the other hand, he is a master scrutinizer, a semi-critic. Anybody who has read the fascinating Herzog on Herzog knows that he is not so bad at this stuff. Why else would he have built up one of the more idiosyncratic bodies of work in documentaries? Herzog and his interview subjects see art, speculate on it, make connections to the romantics, Picasso and Fred Astair, and, only towards the end of the film bring us back to the elephant in the room; the camera. If all these cave paintings were the beginnings of an ongoing movement up to and including cinema, then what of the dolly shot that ends in a crew member (possibly Peter Zeitlinger, Herzog’s late-period DP), cupping his hands over the lens? Cave of Forgotten Dreams suggests to us that all creation becomes uncertain at some point, and that all art must be, to some degree, incomprehensible.
            The hands cupping the camera should have ended the film. We could have done without a tedious epilogue about crocodiles. But what those critical hands and Herzog’s trance-ish Bavarian drawl cannot fix is the 3-D. Despite the sudden adjustment to this new gloss on film, 3-D here does exactly what it does with any other film, which is distract us. The cave paintings may “jump out” in 3-D, but why can’t Herzog be content with them jumping out in our memories? He may have become so agitated by the uncertainty of the paintings—they date from thousands of years apart, by estimations—that he felt the film had to be at least aesthetically certain. But the 3-D in this film is like an aesthetic buzzing fly in too many scenes. We don’t need to see actual interviews in 3-D. Nor do we need to see a spear being thrown of the fantastic mountainous landscapes with any enhancement. These images are already justified as a part of the story. All that the 3-D even artificially enhances are the cave paintings. When it is not artificial, it is just a drag on what is otherwise a piece of speculation and sympathy. Were Herzog the disciplined, more cynical filmmaker still around, such a technique would not have been considered. 
(Cave of Forgotten Dreams/Creative Differences, 2011)
            But this is 2011, and the German New Wave is over. Wim Wenders, another German new-waver, is taking the same 3-D route as Herzog with his documentary on Pina Bausch. There is seemingly nothing more German film-giant than moving to California, which is what Herzog did in the mid-90’s, as did Fritz Lang and F.W Murnau in their day. But it is good to see that he has set aside America as a place where romantic ecstasy might be found, and returned to the ancient strangeness of Europe. It is good to see Herzog tramping the ground of phenomena, dreams in motion and unforgiving nature again.  A scene with an “experimental archeologist” who dresses in deerskin and plays The Star Spangled Banner on a wooden flute is a cousin image to the  men on rocks being slashed by the sea in Heart of Glass (1976), or Bruno S. performing in a Berlin alley in Stroszek (1977). Herzog has insisted that all his films are somehow Bavarian, but Cave of Forgotten Dreams feels, to this American, the closest he has come to equating his earlier German films in many years. So it is such a pity that it has to fall short of Herzog’s earlier work, by falling prey to gloss. “The lives of filmmakers have frequently ended badly,” Herzog told Paul Cronin in Herzog on Herzog. “The strongest of the animals have been brought to their knees eventually.” If we substitute work for life, then we sadly might get a picture of the later part of Herzog’s career. Perhaps he saw it coming. Thank god his overall body is still one of the wonders of cinema.
(Cave of Forgotten Dreams/ Creative Differences, 2011)