"Cave of Forgotten Dreams" dir. Werner Herzog, 2010

Werner Herzog's new 3D film Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a continuation of the master director's search for new images, the "ecstatic truth," and connection with the spirits of the past. In his latest adventure the Bavarian earth-walker takes us to what may be the most awe-inspiring location he has explored and translated through film thus far: the Cave of Chauvet Pont-d'arc in southern France.

Drawings of the Chauvet Cave
Ranking the enormity of Herzog's discoveries is no easy task, considering his last feature documentary, 2007's Encounters At the End of the World, took the viewer to Antarctic depths never before recorded on film. The deep ocean photography alone in Encounters could support an entire film, but as with many of Herzog's journeys, the film features a captivating centerpiece made truly ecstatic by all that Herzog captures and develops around that centerpiece: the voices of experts and outsiders, the bold scoring choices that weave in and out of the foreground, and the unexpected breezes and pauses. Herzog loves those small moments after the interview, after the intended shot, that often reveal multitudes.

Timothy Treadwell and friends in Grizzly Man
Another difficulty with addressing Herzog's work is the use of the word "documentary." The border between fiction and non-fiction is one he takes pride in ignoring. For instance, in Lessons of Darkness (1992) Herzog approaches his exploration of a post-Desert Storm Kuwaiti landscape as an alien, his voice-over script asking puzzled questions about a strange, strafed land. As in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the examination of the focal centerpiece is meditative, searching. Herzog knows the weight of his subject, and allows us to examine his images deeply, often until we have completed a cycle of perception that allows us to see them with new, alien eyes. Herzog does not call Lessons of Darkness a Documentary, but Science Fiction.

Lessons of Darkness
For some, Herzog's disregard for the genre conventions of documentary film making are too brazen, particularly those who have bought into the forms of modern documentary as a conduit for "facts," built on communicating an agenda that Herzog interprets as a facile, "bean-counter's" truth. Herzog does not try to prove through his films, but provoke. For instance, it is not uncommon for him to invent scenes, behaviors, or occurrences within a documentary film to coexist alongside the naturally occurring events he captures. In his 1998 film Little Deiter Needs to Fly, he requested that his documentary subject, former prisoner of war Dieter Dengler, behave as if he were now obsessed with doors and door knobs as a psychological result of his imprisonment. Having developed an agreeable relationship with the film maker, Dengler complied. Likewise, it is not uncommon for Herzog to follow the paths of what is really happening within a so-called fiction picture (as with his wandering fascination with amphibian, reptilian, and free-roaming Coppola-based life forms in his recent oddity Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans). Even though I tend to "cross the line" with Herzog in those moments where many critics throw up their hands and scoff (we'll get to the albino alligators in a moment), I have to say that his most seen film, 2005's Grizzly Man, contains scenes of uncomfortable falseness for me, created by Herzog's drive to create an estranged moment at any cost; those moments where an interview subject appears uncomfortable in their directed role, in many cases apparently re-performing a version of themselves.  Similar moments exist in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, as when he asks Maurice Maurin, a master perfumer, to exhibit his keen knack for sniffing out hidden caves.  Also, there are moments where the gap between Herzog's voice-over script and the profundity of the image are stretched to the max (we'll get to the albino alligators in a moment).  Still, it is this leap of faith across the borders of fiction and non-fiction that makes a film like Grizzly Man one of the most unique and important documentaries of our time.

Franc G. Fallico, Coroner, as Himself in Grizzly Man
In this border-crossing with Herzog, we find some important philosophical differences to weigh when viewing his work. In the 2008 documentary Caprturing Reality, some of the greatest current documentary filmmakers are questioned about such philosophical positions. In the film, Herzog states that "the distinction between narrative feature films and documentaries doesn't exist that much...for me it's all movies." Capturing Reality places this notion of truth in documentary film in direct opposition with another giant of the modern documentary, Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, 1988; First Person, 2000 [a sadly under-seen TV series aired on Bravo]; The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, 2003; Standard Operating Procedure, 2008.)

Errol Morris at Abu Ghraib for Standard Operating Procedure
Much has been made about the tension between these two documentary greats (going all the way back to a wager that resulted in the 1980 short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe...in which Herzog does just that), and it is true that their techniques are as vastly different as a Realist and an Absurdist. But, like the Realist, Morris finds truth through his relentless conviction that there is a specific, unwavering truth in the events that he is examining; that there is something that happened. And Herzog, as he repeats, re-frames, and re-lights the images of the Chauvet Cave in the final passages of his new film, is the Absurdist who yawns at the idea of the cold search of the Realist, repeating once again the passage we have seen before as a way to, hopefully, see it as if for the first time.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is also a continuation of Herzog's stand against "used up" Hollywood images. In some ways, there is no more truly independent director than Herzog, as what is often called "indie" film making has recently leaned so aggressively into the light of Hollywood conventions and money. Independent film has lost a sense of risk, and commercial film is now far removed from any aspect of subtlety, patience, nuance. Viewers shifting in their seats in response to some of Cave's more lingering passages are, I would argue, only feeling the pangs of a sweet tooth that is poked at by the increasing domination of commercial cinema's tendency toward "movie events." These types of films--often presented in 3-D, IMAX, or 3-D IMAX(!)--have left popular movie going in a perpetual state of sugar crash. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a true event; a film that reaches 30,000 years into our human past, and attempts at all costs to connect the viewer with that common image that links us all.

Drawings of the Chauvet Cave
Throughout the first third of Cave, it is doubtful whether or not this will be as successful an outing for Herzog as his most impressive documentaries (Lessons of Darkness, 1992; Little Dieter Needs to Fly, 1998; My Best Fiend, 1999; Wheel of Time, 2003; The White Diamond, 2004; Grizzly Man, 2005; The Wild Blue Yonder, 2005; Encounters at the End of the World, 2007). It seems that he is more confined in his explorations, literally, as the Chauvet Cave itself is under strict regulations that constrain the filmmakers to only certain parts and paths of the cave. But, these opening sequences are an important part of reading the film overall, as we see how difficult it is for a film like this to take form, and as Cave of Forgotten Dreams emerges as a film about making films. What at first seems like a clumsy excursion is transformed into an unforgettable privilege of sight as the cameras steady, and we, along with the crew, figure out how to really see the cave.

Herzog and crew in Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Some of the most fluid and mysterious moments of the film happen outside the cave, including the opening shot, which takes us along the dry rows of a vineyard and eventually rises out of the vineyard revealing the stunning lakes and rock formations of the Chauvet region. Later in the film a similar shot takes us across those waters and below a natural bridge, the camera pausing mid-air and pivoting below the formations. At a pivotal point toward the end of the film--the moment which most evokes the inevitable allegory of Plato and the cave--we see Herzog reaching up to this camera as it flies into his hands, and the creator of these earlier mysterious images is revealed: a remote-piloted camera plane.

Plato, as Himself
Anthony Hopkins as Odin in Thor
In an age where 3D movie events have so saturated the cinema market, it is easy to overlook the next camera trick that Herzog is trying out here, and the extent to which he succeeds in heightening our understanding of the potential for 3D images as a serious technique of cinema. Herzog is not only showing us the Chauvet Cave images for the first time, he is showing us 3D cinema for the first time, as well, nearly inverting the relationship we have come to expect. The "reach out and grab ya!" formula of 3-D film hasn't really evolved much since its invention. I remember my first experience with it at a screening in a gymnasium in rural Illinois. The film was The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and the moment of the Creature reaching into the boat, and out to the audience, was the one memorable 3D stunner, as I recall. From 1950's creature features to Thor and Green Lantern we haven't come far in terms of what 3D cinema asks of us. In Herzog's exploration of the cave, we are asked not to simply thrill at those images that leap out at us (save one of the funniest moments of the film involving spear-throwing, perhaps an intentional nod by Herzog at the silliness of the 3D phenomenon), but rather to experience the textures and contours of the cave walls that helped to create what Herzog likens to an early form of cinematic movement for our ancestors of the cave. As he allows the drawings to play and dance in the various passes of light, the use of 3D doesn't simply jut out at us, but invites us in, asks us to look closely, to take advantage of this privileged mode of seeing. I can only hope that the future of 3D cinema follows Herzog's trailblazing, taking us to more Chauvet Caves, and fewer Asgards.

And, who but Herzog could have given us the "Baby Albino Alligator" epilogue? To those critics who reduce it to a strange diversion--or worse--a complete cop-out, I can only wonder what they could have expected. For me, it's the moment where Herzog wakes us from our cinema sleep-walking with the spirit of a surrealist. It's his ability to take us to those unexpected places, and in that perfect moment juxtapose a nearly absurd discovery with all that he has shown us previously, that makes Cave of Forgotten Dreams a documentary that radiates meaning beyond the simple, digestible facts. 

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