Alex: The latest documentary from the prolific, ingenious, maddening, wildly inventive Werner Herzog is Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a 3-D exploration of the Chauvet Cave in France, which was discovered in 1994 and which contains the oldest known cave paintings in the world.
Herzog’s recent documentaries (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World) have been more interesting than his recent fiction films (Rescue Dawn, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans). The docs give him permission to be bluntly existential. One of the pleasures of Cave is Herzog’s interviewing technique: as he introduces us to scientists and archaeologists he mixes in questions of spirituality and human expression with the more mundane questions about the actual work they do and how they do it. As a result he and his subjects philosophize — what does the cave mean? — without apology or embarrassment. I love it.
The 3-D works beautifully, although the scene near the beginning when they descend into the cave nauseated me a little bit. (Too much realism? I can’t handle it!) One of the analyses of the cave art shows us how the painters incorporated the texture of the cave walls into the paintings, and seeing that texture in three dimensions drives the point home. It’s really beautiful.
But as with every Herzog film I’ve seen, fiction and nonfiction, I’m not always able to make his mental leaps. He often makes connections between ideas that seem forced or just non-illuminating, like the kid in your college dorm who seemed really really super smart but in fact he was just kind of babbling. In Cave I’m thinking particularly of the epilogue, which I won’t describe here, but it made me go, “Whaaaa?”
The vividness of the 3-D also made me wonder if we’re entering a phase that will echo the period when filmmakers had to choose whether their films would be in color or black-and-white. (Christopher Nolan, for example, has said the next Batman installment won’t be released in 3-D.) How will all this 3-D technology influence creative decisions? Will there soon be separate Oscar categories for 3-D and 2-D cinematography? (As there were for many years for color and b/w photography.)
No doubt Werner Herzog will find a way to make a movie about it. “3-D: the Movie. In 3-D!” Ouch, my brain.
Aaron: Alex, dear, the more you use your brain when you watch movies, the less it will hurt. It’s like going to the gym… or other things that hurt at first but get better with practice. I wrote a lot about this movie on my own blog (hurray for self-centered cross-promotion!) – in a rather academic sorta thing, because I think this is a really smart and interesting movie.
Your analysis of the film is right-on, but you are not going far enough. I think what’s wonderful about the recent Herzog docs is that they can be read on two levels: as pure scientific examinations and documents; and as existential meta-texts illuminating issues of human existence and the cinematic form.
You’re right to say that in the years to come, directors will choose whether their films will be 3D or standard, but you’re wrong about that decision here. Herzog uses the 3D format to highlight the arbitrariness of the film medium and how we think something is “more real” or “more life-like” in 3D (at least that’s what people who love Avatar said… I don’t know those people personally), but it’s just as much a distant window as standard “2D” film is.
He’s pointing out that as much as we yearn to understand the cave people who made those paintings, we can only guess about their motives and their lives. He could have shot this in black and white, but he chose color; he could have shot this in 2D, but he chose 3D. All these directorial decisions are influenced by his vision of the story, just as how many scientific ideas of these people are influenced by the modern world the scientists live in.
This is most clearly illustrated with the immersive anthropologist who lives like a cave person from 30,000 years ago to try to understand them better. At one moment, when mugging for the camera, he plays the Star Spangled Banner on a bone flute. (The amazing thing about the scene is that Herzog is a German man shooting another German man in an outfit made of reindeer pelts, they’re speaking English and the guy plays the American National Anthem on a prehistoric instrument. Wonderful.). Of course this is silly, but it shows that he is a man of our world and his references are those of the present day. He might stumble on some scientific truths, but he also might be off on an unrelated tangent.
Finally, a note on what you call “the epilogue,” but what Herzog calls the “postscript”. I think this is an important differentiation here, because the epilogue would relate more directly to the text, while the postscript takes ideas from the film and rolls in a slightly different direction. You’re not the first person I spoke to who doesn’t love it, but I do. I love how daring it is and I think it really relates to some of the existential and contextual points I made above. It’s pure Herzog (it’s about crocodile freaks) and it’s a perfect end to the film.