'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' Review - 3D done right by Werner Herzog

Come for the 3D - Stay for an incredible story

I’m not a big fan of 3D movies. I‘m not knocking the technique altogether. It‘s just that, to me, it’s been more about artifice than art - a thin veil for lousy stories and/or effects. Shenanigans.

Lately, however, big budget films have been using the technology for a variety of reasons: to bring in a crowd that might wait for a film to go to home video; to cut down on pre-release and opening weekend piracy; and, to a lesser extent, attract contemporary audiences to re-releases of films like The Nightmare Before Christmas (and soon, the original Star Wars trilogy). While the quality of 3D movies has improved as a whole, and the technology with which to watch them is leaps and bounds ahead of the red and blue cardboard glasses of yore, I have, for the most part, remained unconvinced. For example, there are still issues with image quality. It mucks with the color. I’m a purist.

Herzog mugs with some old school 3D glasses

I say all this because it’s no small thing for me to say that Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (one of the most intriguing films of last years AFI Fest presented by Audi), is the only 3D film I have ever liked. The potential of the technique is fully and properly realized. It’s also a intellectual thrill-ride of sorts in that part of Herzog’s mission statement, evidently, is to pull the audience into not only his narrative, but the visceral rush of discovery itself.

The titular cave is the Chauvet Cave. Discovered relatively recently (1994), it is, without exaggeration, arguably the most significant archeological find of the 20th Century, if not all recorded time. Inside the cave are pristine fossilized remains of prehistoric animals; incredible stalactites and stalagmites; and evidence that at least one ancient tribe used the space for a ritual of some kind in the form of a bear skull on a primitive altar - clearly placed there by somebody with a purpose.

Necessity is the mother of invention - a crew of only four (including Herzog) was allowed with the research team in the cave

However, the galvanizing element for the film -- and the reason for the title -- is that the cave holds the oldest (approximately 30,000 years old), and best preserved examples of cave paintings in the world. Further, not only are the paintings exquisitely detailed and downright beautiful, the contours and chaotic structure of the cave’s interior provided a canvas that, when manipulated with light, or simply walking around the cave, makes the figures depicted on the walls appear to move. So what the 3D technique is meant to accomplish is to give you the sensation that you are there - which it does. Every inch of the cave, down to the grooves in rocks created by bear scratches, looks as if you can touch it.

Adding to the sensation that you are in the middle of the action is Herzog’s creative use of sound space. Obviously, there are going to be more echoes in a cave than there are in an office interior, but, to coin a phrase - wait, there‘s still more! Lest a subtle element be lost in the overwhelming visuals, when the action is inside the Chauvet Cave, it sounds as if there is a four-piece chamber orchestra recording inside the cave as well. There’s even a point where Herzog takes a few moments to simply stop for a moment, and encourage the audience listen to the sound of the cave, without the researchers moving around, or talking. A deafening silence indeed.

An archeologist (left) plays a copy of an ancient flute

Considering the limitations to filming the cave imposed by the French government, Cave… is a technological tour de force as well. Where many filmmakers use expensive cameras -- sometimes even developed especially for a given film -- to produce vibrant, 3D effects , Herzog and his skeleton crew of three, manage to accomplish rich, textured 3D with, as the director puts it, “non-professional video equipment.” Kudos to the post-production team, as well as the crew in the caves. A common element in many of Werner Herzog’s films is a protagonist with grand, sometimes bigger than life, dreams and goals who, in spite of their efforts, rarely achieve them. Much like a “Herzog-ian” hero, as a director, Herzog himself dreams big, and to share his dreams with an audience, he pushes himself to extremes. To see this principle in action, watch Fitzcarraldo(one of five sublime collaborations between Herzog and one of his favorite leading men, the late Klaus Kinski) and Burden of Dreams, a documentary about making it. The former is about a man whose dream to build an opera house in the middle of a Peruvian jungle fails cataclysmically. The latter is about a director trying to push a steamboat over a mountain.

Werner Herzog on the Ardeche River

This is notable because, at the risk of sounding esoteric, if there is a “hero” to the story at all, it may be Herzog himself. As a storyteller, he is inclined to look for motivation in characters. While physically absent, the primitive Picassos who painted in the caves are still very much part of the narrative. However, with no historical evidence to prove that a specific tribe or clan inhabited the area, even the most thorough research, so far, can’t determine the people and purpose behind the paintings. In other words, the what, where, and when are established, the who and the why remain a mystery - and even if it’s only slightly, this does appear to frustrate the director/narrator.

The director searches for clues as to the who and why of the Chauvet Caves

An added boon is that, unlike Herzog’s prior documentarian effort, Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a film you can see with the whole family. At least, for the most part. If you are very, very conservative, be forewarned: the lower half of one of the paintings on a rock which can’t be seen in its entirety, nor accessed from the narrow catwalks in the cave, appears to be a nude woman.

With a crew of four and "non-professional" video equipment, every scene had to be painstakingly mapped

But, before you entertain the idea of bypassing the middleman, and booking a spelunking trip to Southern France, the Chauvet Cave is closed to the general public - mold is already growing on the cave walls as a result of humans simply breathing in the cave over the last decade plus. So until a mockup of the cave opens in a French amusement park (true story), your best bet is to see Cave of Forgotten Dreams while it’s still in theaters. Check local listings for show times and locations.

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