Dir. Werner Herzog, Canada/USA /France/Germany/UK, 2010, 90 mins, in English and German.
Cast: Werner Herzog, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michel Geneste, Nicholas Conard, Charles Fathy.
Review by Robert Barry
Over the last few years, the number of Hollywood fantasies projected in 3D seems to have been growing exponentially. But, as with colour cinema three-quarters of a century ago, the new system will never become the norm until it starts to express not just the magic of another world (as in Tron, Avatar, Clash of the Titans, and countless animated films aimed at younger viewers), but the reality of this one. Over the next few years we can expect to see Hollywood struggling to make the argument that, as we perceive the ‘real’ world in three dimensions everyday, the natural language for realist cinema should also be 3D.
In this sense, Werner Herzog’s new documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, looks both forward to what may be the future of 3D, as well as to its past in terms of short documentaries on spectacular subjects restricted to projection at theme parks and international expos – one example being Transitions, the first IMAX 3D film, which was a documentary on changing communications technologies created for Vancouver’s Expo ’86. What makes this film’s arrival all the more intriguing is its simultaneity with another 3D documentary project, directed by Herzog’s old rival from the New German Cinema days, Wim Wenders. Both the Herzog film and Wenders’s Pina are concerned with artists as their subject; both use the most sophisticated and advanced technology available to treat an apparently primitive, ‘unadorned’ art form, and in so doing make an argument for the deeper sophistication of their subject.
The Chauvet caves were discovered only a decade and a half ago, near Vallon-Pont-d’Arc above the former bed of the Ardeche River in the south of France. The paintings within are thought to date back to the Aurignacian era, 30-32,000 years ago. Several times during the film the point is made that these designs, mostly animal figures, may be not just some very primitive drawings but in fact the very beginning of art as such. At the same time, with its emphasis on the sense of movement in the drawings, we are prodded towards seeing there a family relationship to the work of the Italian Futurists – even to the art of cinema itself.
Herzog’s film crew are the first to be allowed into the caves, and may be the last. The Lascaux caves to the west in the Dordogne were closed to the public several years ago due to the growing presence of a black mould blamed on exposure to too many visitors. Herzog even had to become an employee of the French government in order to obtain access. Under such circumstances the desire to employ the best equipment possible, in order to get the most comprehensive view of what’s down there that modern technology can offer us, is understandable. And this is evidently nothing if not a labour of love – reward perhaps for a series of rather pointless Hollywood films (Bad Lieutenant springs immediately to mind).
For all that, and despite an almost hypnotic sense of immersion to the film, it is difficult to see what is really gained by putting this into 3D. The thing about 3D cinema is that it has a sort of convex quality to it, whereas the thing about caves is that they are inevitably rather more concave. As such it is much more the guy standing in the middle of the shot waving a stone-age spear about that leaps out of the frame than any sense of texture to the cave paintings.
What is becoming increasingly apparent is that no film director has yet worked out how to make 3D cinema half as effective as the 3D advertising that precedes the films at the cinema. The product that literally leaps out at you and hangs tantalisingly in mid air, forever just out of reach, has an allure that the 2D can never match. And so when we ask ourselves why this film had to be made in 3D, we are reminded inescapably of the old joke about the guy on a bike crossing the border between West and East Germany. The customs official is sure the guy is smuggling something, but no matter how thorough his search he never turns up a thing. Years later, after the Wall has come down, the cyclist and the customs official run into each other again. Now that it makes no difference the former can admit to the perplexed former official that all along he was really smuggling bicycles.