Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a film Werner Herzog had to be talked into shooting in 3D. The film, a record of the cave paintings at Chauvet in France doesn't sound like the sort of thing that you'd expect to see in 3D. Cave paintings are flat right? Actually no, and it wasn't until Herzog saw them that he realized that the film needed to be in 3D.

Okay, let me step back and start again. This past Saturday night I had a ticket for a talk with Werner Herzog that was being held as one of the events at the New Yorker Festival. This is a festival held in Manhattan once a year where all sorts of interesting people come to town, under the sponsorship of the New Yorker Magazine, and are interviewed by many equally clever people. There are panel discussions, walking tours and scavenger hunts. Its generally a lot of fun. Over the years I've seen Clint Eastwood, Ricky Jay and a kick ass panel on acting in Shakespeare with Ethan Hawke, Liev Schreiber, Martha Plimpton and Kristen Johnson.

Waiting on line outside the Directors Guild Theater a person from the festival told us that the movie would be 90 minutes or so. It was in 3D and that we would have to give the glasses back. We were also told that there would be a very brief Q&A afterward. This confused everyone on line since none of us knew anything about a movie. As for the 3D part I remembered reading about a film going into production but I couldn't recall what it was suppose to be about.

Inside I ended up sitting 2 rows behind Mr Herzog. I wanted to say something to him but there was a din of activity around him and I never got the chance.

The project, to make a film record of the cave paintings at Chauvet, was suggested to Herzog by the producer. Herzog said that he instantly said yes because he knew that this was probably going to be the one time the paintings would be filmed (they are behind a bank vault like door and access is restricted. )They had only four hours on each of five days to actually film the paintings and had to follow certain strict rules: stay on the 2 foot wide path, use only a crew of 4, use only non-heat producing lights, and a few others.

Herzog starts the film with lo-res video footage of the first trip into the cave. They had exactly one hour to go in and see what was there so they could make plans. The 3D footage here is a bit odd due to its low quality, there is an occasional odd bending of the image, however that is a minor annoyance since we are instantly in the cave and marveling at the sights. Pristine paintings are on the wall and it's as if they were painted yesterday. They are truly beautiful.

Herzog introduces us to some of the scientists studying the paintings and artifacts. And he cuts back and forth between this first trip into the cave and interviews outside of the cave. As time goes on a certain tension is built up as we begin to ache to really see the cave and the paintings in their full glory, since during these early scenes we only getting brief looks at the art.

Then finally this "first" trip is done and Herzog says that he was then allowed to go in and film. From this point the images spring to life in beautiful high resolutio, and if you're like me your jaw hangs wide open at the magic.

Horses, Rhinos. Mammoth. All sorts of creatures line the walls. There are no people (well there is a half human creature), just animals in motion.

What master artisans these people were. The beauty and wonder of what was put on the walls makes us, as Herzog wishes as to, wonder at what point did we, as a species, become human? At what point did we develop the need to create? The paintings here 30 thousand years old and possess a clarity and a vision and a use of space that wouldn't really be matched for thousands of years.

Seeing this film in 3D blows you away because the paintings are not on flat surfaces, the walls of the cave protrude out or bow in and by moving the 3D camera you get a better idea of what the walls really look like. Added to that is the fact that Herzog moves his lights around as if they are torches so we see the images closer to what they would have looked like in torch light. It's amazing and makes the case for a scientist's suggestion that some of the paintings are a sort of "proto-cinema".

I don't know what to say.

This film just blew me away with what it showed. The beauty of it all really moved me. Its as if we are reaching back 300 centuries to hear a small voice in the wilderness... and I think that 3D was the way to go simply because it makes us feel as though we really are in the cave.

My feelings toward 3D are mixed. I really love the effect, but at the same time I know that its rarely used correctly. Almost never is it used to add to a film, rather its used like a sideshow gimmick. That's not the case ;here the film needed to be in 3D because it's documenting a real place that isn't 2D. This is one of the few rare occasions where the effect of seeing the film in 3D or 2D will be different (at least I think so).

Werner Herzog isn't a fan of 3D. During the talk after the film he admitted to seeing Avatar, but he added that" porno films should be in 3D but romantic comedies shouldn't" because the the 3D takes away a layer of engagement and doesn't allow our imaginations to fully connect to the film we are seeing. He feels we play along less with a film in 3D than a 2D one; we don't full engage with it since the extra dimension takes away the desire to ponder where it's all going. (I'm explaining it badly, forgive me his explanation took up a large portion of the post film talk and my trying to get it into two or three lines which doesn't do it justice.) I think Herzog used 3D here because there was no story to get short circuited, its simply real life.

I'm floored by the film. Its not that its perfect film, it's not, it's probably ten minutes too long, rather its a film that makes you wonder at man and life and the world we live in. There is a form of "ecstatic truth" that Herzog aims for in his films. This truth is a greater truth beyond the images and the films.

Frankly this is a film that should have been at the NYFF because its one that breaks boundaries and forces us to think and consider and really experience something.

See this film. See it in 3D if you can, in 2D if you can't. This was produced by History Films an off shoot of the History Channel so I'm guessing it will be eventually on cable. I know it's the opening night film at DOC NYC in November so look for it after that.

Herzog admits that he's played with things a little bit, adding that he always plays with things since he picks the shots, chooses the music (which in this case is hauntingly beautiful) and everything else. He says that he is looking for a greater truth. To that end he openly states that the asking for quiet scene was staged for effect. He also said the end piece about the a albino crocodiles isn't true. The place is real but they are albino alligators from the US and are used with his comments for effect and to get at his truth.

I mention this because the question of what is real and what isn't is raised during next weeks week long look at the some of the documentaries of Werner Herzog.

And in the interest of full disclosure on my part the week was prepared way in advance, long before I sat in the theater seeing Cave. To that end keep in mind that when I mention not covering Herzog's films before that I really meant it at the time. It was only a happy accident that allowed me to see and review this film.

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