Dreaming in 3-D
13.10.2011 - I saw Werner Herzog's Cave
of Forgotten Dreams at the Sydney Film Festival this past
June. The film documents the great German auteur's
once-in-a-lifetime exploration of prehistoric art in the Chauvet
Cave in the south of France - discovered only in 1994, it
counts among the oldest known works of the human hand. It was one
of the best experiences I've had at the movies this year, and
certainly the most unique.
Believe it or not it was the first 3-D film I'd seen in almost 20
years. I've completely missed the current trend of 3-D
blockbusters, fearing the notorious dimming effect 3-D has on film
dampens its very essence.
At first, I was dismayed when I heard the mighty Herzog had
condescended to make a 3-D film. I just didn't know what to make of
it. I thought maybe he'd gotten distracted, maybe he'd sold out.
But then I kept hearing what an amazing artifact Cave of
Forgotten Dream was - kept hearing that if I only saw one 3-D
film, it should be that one. So my boycott had to end.
Well, Cave of Forgotten Dreams does not disappoint. As a
junkie for anything about human prehistory, it combines the
pleasures of long Saturdays of my childhood spent leafing through
my dad's worn copy of Time Life'sEarly Man with
a visual experience that's truly new and visionary. To my mind, it
takes the eccentric passion of someone like Herzog to tap into the
possibilities of 3-D. (The same can be said of another German
master, Wim Wenders, in Pina, the Festival's other 3-D documentary.)
The simple fact that Herzog was allowed in the Chauvet Cave, whose
works of art date back 32,000 years, is astonishing. The site,
which was only discovered in 1994, is closed to all but a handful
of researchers subject to strict regulation. After offering to
become an employee of the French government for the sum of one
euro, Herzog received a special dispensation to be the first
professional filmmaker to enter. The restrictions placed on him
were severe. He was only allowed in for a few hours; he was only
allowed three crew members and limited equipment, and had to use
lights that gave off no heat. The filmmakers were not allowed to
deviate from a very narrow path or touch anything at all.
But in typically adroit fashion, Herzog turns those constraints
into the essence of the film itself. There's a sort of suspense in
watching the crew's preparations, as they suit up, put on their gas
masks and prepare their spartan film gear - knowing that this is
their one shot at documenting this astounding place for the rest of
the world. (What if the camera had jammed?)
And so Cave of Forgotten Dreams is constantly working on
two levels. First there's the wonder of the caves themselves. Then
there are Herzog's reactions to it, in person and in voice-overs -
which are, as you might expect, boyish, exuberant, joyful. He's as
awestruck as we are.
There's a primal simplicity to this shared experience. In some
ways it's as wonderfully naive as the earliest films ever made. The
viewer is simply asked to look at something through the prism of a
new technology and say, "Wow." Because we know we can't have this
experience ourselves - and neither will Herzog ever again for that
matter - it becomes transcendent. In this age of bleak cynicism,
that's really something.
The art itself is dazzling. When you think of "cave art" you might
think of stick figures, but when you really study the swooping
curves and subtle colors of these bears and antelope and horses,
you realize how artistic they are - the result of the
passion and discipline of an artistic mind, and there's something
thrilling about that. In fact, taken together, the Chauvet Cave art
is the Sistine Chapel of its day. The thought that its creators
lived 32,000 years ago is humbling.
Seeing it in 3-D is revelatory. As is made abundantly clear, the
dimensionality of the caves is part of the effect of the art. The
animals are painted across curved or uneven surfaces, and in many
cases they are painted multiple times in overlapping layers. This,
combined with the flickering light of torches - an effect
replicated by Herzog's high-tech but necessarily minimal lighting
- often gives the figures a sense of motion.
Herzog breathlessly declares that these were the first motion
The Herzog touch continues outside the caves, in interviews with
some of the enthusiastic and charming archaeologists and other
researchers who have studied Chauvet over the past 17 years. The
focus is not on cold facts, but instead on the mystery and even the
mysticism of the art. What purpose did this art serve? Did these
early humans worship animals? Do the animals represent something
else? It's significant to Herzog - and to me - that as far back as
people were capable of expressing themselves with material objects,
they were doing it with their imaginations, with a sense of the
beautiful, the sublime, the sacred. What does it imply about
humanity? What yearning does it represent?
What is it to be human anyway?
If only for reminding us of these profound questions - and for
giving us a chance to view this fabulous primal art - Cave of
Forgotten Dreams is a great and singular accomplishment in any
Cave of Forgotten Dreams makes its first appearance in the
Middle East at ADFF on Friday, October 14 at 4:00pm at Marina
Mall's VOX Cinemas. An encore screening will take place on Tuesday,
October 18 at 6:45pm at VOX.