In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog, the filmmaker famed for following his will to unusual physical and psychological places, focuses his lens on protected prehistoric cave paintings recently discovered in Southern France.
The paintings are, according to scientists, the earliest known artistic expressions of the human species -- our forebears. They were painted some 35,000 years ago, and depict now extinct animals and reveal visions and behavior that will be the subject of speculative study by scientists, historians and sociologists for generations to come.
The paintings were discovered accidentally by spelunkers who, while on an exploratory adventure, squeezed into a small opening in a cascade of rock in front of a limestone cliff -- et, voila, a cavern with walls lined with some 400 previously unviewed exquisitely rendered paintings of horses, woolly rhinos, bison and other creatures of the distant past.
Fearing destruction of the treasures, authorities immediately restricted access to the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave, named for Jean-Marie Chauvet, the leader of the group who discovered them.
Enter Werner Herzog, who not only gained access to the caves, but also got permission to film in them -- with special lights that emit no heat. And, he filmed in 3D.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams premiered recently at the Toronto International Film Festival, where IFC acquired the rights for theatrical distribution. It's anticipated that the film will be released theatrically in all its 3D glory at an as yet unannounced date in 2011. The History Channel, which backed the project, will broadcast the film in HD -- not 3D -- at a later date.
Werner Herzog films, whether documentary or narrative, always attract a lot of attention. Reviews coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival of Cave of Forgotten Dreams have been mixed.
On Salon.com, Andrew O'Hehir writes: "Watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an interactive experience, and not in the bogus computer-game sense. I guarantee you will exclaim out loud, ooh and ahh, feel shivers of recognition go down your spine." And, then, "I wish our willfully eccentric German cave guide indulged in a little more of his customary philosophical speculation, and wasn't so easily distracted by former circus performers, fur-clad scientists who can play the Star-Spangled Banner on a vulture bone, and albino crocodiles."
On Cinematical Scott Weinberg comments: "For the most part, yeah, it's a guided tour through one of the most unique cave systems you'll ever see. And while the film was shot on "non-professional cameras," as Herzog puts it, the cinematography does a fine job of bringing this lovely-yet-creepy time capsule to life." Weinberg continues: "But then someone went and got the goofy idea that this documentary should appear in, yes, three dimensions. Apparently the resurgent 3-D gimmick has now infected the realm of low-budget documentary filmmaking -- and the gimmick does this film no favors."
The above quoted reviewers bolster my concerns about several things having to do with this film.
First, when Herzog narrates his documentaries, as he does in Encounters At The End of the World as well as in Cave, his first person commentary filters the audience's impressions of his images through his (rather bizarre, I think) associations of ideas and his (enormously ego-centric, I think) take on things, in general. That doesn't work for me. When viewing astonishing images from Antarctica (and, for the record, I've been to the Big Ice five times and am humbled by its majesty and mystery) or the Chauvet Caves (which I've not yet had the privilege of visiting), I'd prefer to have the freedom to formulate my own association of ideas.
Yes, I am grateful to the filmmaker for the delivery of background information that leads me to deeper contemplation and understanding, to refined identification of place and/or issue -- but, when it comes to the presentation of Chauvet and its paintings or the mighty natural environs of Antarctica, I'd like to feel that the filmmaker stands before them as humbled by them as I have been or would be. I don't get that from Herzog.
Secondly, I'm concerned about the use of 3D in documentary films, in general. Why? I suspect that it may actually distance me from the immediacy of the images, rather than bring me closer to them, or vice versa.
Documentary film is most successful when it makes us witnesses -- to historical events, to a thrilling concert, to the discovery of a place, to the revelation of a personality, to the peace and reconciliation process in Rwanda -- or engages us in the debate of a core issue with which humankind is currently grappling.
Of course, nonfiction cinema isn't reality. It's an art form. And, documentary filmmakers are artists who manipulate images and audio to intensely effect viewers.
So, why shouldn't documentarians go a bit further in make images pop out at their audiences? Precisely because that is then what the film becomes about. Technique, rather than the film's subject comes into focus when I, as a viewer, wonder: How did that extinct wooly bison just scamper by me?
I may completely reverse my take on 3D and documentary when I see a film in which the technology brings me closer to the subject, immerses me in it. Meanwhile, while I fully respect documentary filmmakers who are willing to push the envelope and take risks to reach and effect audiences, I remain, shall we say, dubious about the use of 3D in documentary films.