Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Aside from being something of a Herzog fan I chose to catch this film at MIFF because this is likely the only time in which the technology required to see it properly would be available; Herzog shot the film in 3D you see and chose this topic in particular as his first use-age of the technology. So it was with some irony that the screening succumbed to massive technical difficulty – no thanks to that pesky digital projection – including but not limited to sound out of sync, not just with the picture but also to our current method of time; Herzog had been reverse-chipmunked and that’s not a pleasant experience for anyone – him or us the audience- to have to undergo. It’s hard then to say whether or not Werner’s execution of the 3D segments was successful, because any and all flaws may well be due to poor projection on the part of Hoyts (last time MIFF partners with those guys) rather than the man himself.
This kind of roughness and uncertainty permeates the entirety of the movie itself. Filmed in France’s Chauvet caves, a recently discover system that contain the oldest artworks known to man thanks to a freakish natural occurrence that sealed them in a virtual vault for thousands of years. Maintaining that same level of preservation is paramount to the two guards and curator who are allowed to enter the caves’ single entrance as any kind of disruption, such as the breath of tourists, could ruin the site for future generations and so there are obviously a whole lot of obstacles in the way of Werner’s filming. Unfortunately this shows, Herzog has very limited access to the contemporary intricacies of the site and is only able to get so much footage, so that by the time we come to the end of the experience we have seen the same paintings up of six or seven times.
The point of the picture comes across as similarly slapdash, as if Herzog had to improvise his narrations on the spot. He leaps from one philosophical gambit to the next without any real sense of relevance or necessity and so comes off as incredibly pretentious; when a MIFF audience laughs at your high minded questions you are doing something very wrong. His subjects are thrown in with just as much abandon; none are presented to us as characters and none really shed any new light on the system, they just happened to wander along at the time. Werzog’s past efforts have succeeded in their humanity, despite his best attempts to paint the subjects as aliens, and there is very little to care about here; he is the closest thing to a character and that there is a problem.
There are also innumerable moments in which he asks a question simply to say, ‘ We will never know the answer,’ and while this is likely the case we as an audience need more than that, we need some content to grab a hold of and this he doesn’t provide. Had he simply posited some theoretical answers then the film would have been able to better hold our interest, but again he seems too much on the back foot to even do that and so we are left with nothing more than a handful of answer less, ambiguous questions. So structurally then, this film is very much a mess.
Some of this can be forgiven as the subject so strongly resists documentation. That he got as much as he did out of those caves is probably a miraculous achievement and given that they will soon be sealing up the system it is likely an important one at that. This however doesn’t make the movie any more of an enjoyable experience now. It is more a good virtual tour than a good film. Thankfully then the caves them-self are rather fascinating and though I was nowhere near as enamored with the art as those exploring it in person – it didn’t speak to me, nor move before my eyes – there is still something very special down there and this is really the only way that we, the common people, are ever going to be able to see it and for that I am thankful.
Herzog is a very distinctive kind of documentary film-maker one that requires a similarly distinctive topic and I don’t think he had such here. Whereas something like Grizzly Man allowed him room to shape and experiment, the tight confines of Chauvet are far too limited for his singular style and so the film itself comes across as stilted. As for that 3D? There are occasional moments where it lends new depth to the drawings – which are known for making stunning use of the cave’s natural crags and contours – but mostly it just gave me a headache. A good idea executed with good intentions that eventuated in a less than exemplary result.