Tuesday, May 17, 2011

BURDEN OF 3-DREAMS. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is for sure a Werner Herzog joint and has much in common with other loopy Herzog non-fiction films from Fata Morgana to Bells from the Deep. But it is also a major 3-D event -- the showing I attended on a drizzly Monday evening was packed -- made in association with Arte France, the French Ministry of Culture, and the History Channel, and documents a world-class cultural treasure: The prehistoric paintings, mostly of animals, in the Chauvet Cave.

I doubt there was any official interference with Herzog's vision, or that he would tolerate any such interference. But the enormity of the subject and the exceptional circumstances of its filming have a definite impact on the movie. To an admirable extent, and in clever ways, Herzog works this into his plan; his narration refers frequently to the importance and rarity of access to the cave, and he often uses this to buy extra attention (as with his references to the difficulty of getting a camera positioned to record a stalactite decorated with a sexual image).

But there is no getting around the fact that the paintings themselves are the stars; they're incredible, not only because they remain in such good condition, but because they're so beautiful. If the film had been made by competent hacks it would still be worth attending just to see them. They're like Chagall, but infinitely simpler and more eloquent. Made when Neanderthals still roamed the earth, they have no trace of mannerism; they are what the painting of centuries built upon, and what the moderns tried to recapture; they are, no exaggeration, the very essence of art. It feels like a privilege just to look at a holographic representation of them.

What can even a master like Herzog do with this? Philosophize, with his camera or his words. This he does pretty well, in the manner we've come to expect. Herzog interviews a number of people associated with Chauvet, and it struck me as I watched that anyone he interviews, whatever the circumstance, inevitably becomes a Herzog character, much as anyone in a Bresson film becomes a Bresson character, natural in a slightly awkward way. Herzog follows a "Master Perfumer" who sniffs rocks for evidence of cave breezes; later we see the perfumer inside the cave, gaping and stretching to take advantage now that he has been put so close to the prize. Even the academics Herzog questions seem at least as interesting as what they have to tell us.

Herzog talks quite a bit about the mystery of the paintings, their creation, circumstances, preservation, and possible meanings. Sometimes it sticks and sometimes it doesn't. The subject is bigger than God's Angry Man, or even Timothy Treadwell, and tends to dwarf Herzog's observations. He gets a chance in the end to add a gloss by visiting a bizarre nature preserve enabled by the warm runoff waters of a nuclear power plant near the cave; there, albino alligators flourish. Herzog puts us eye level with these alligators -- inscrutable freaks, like the smoking monkey in Echoes of a Somber Empire -- and invites us to imagine them confronting the Chauvet paintings, and one another as "doppelganger mirrors." It's ludicrous and poetic, a pleasantly puzzling exhibit on our way out of the cave. But in the main: Come for the auteur, stay for the awesome.

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