Being a devout technophobe and burgeoning curmudgeon, I’ve avoided 3-D filmmaking for as long as possible. In my imagination, it is not some fantastic spectacle, but rather something more like an oversized shoebox diorama where the drawings move. Too bad the bastards have discovered my weakness for Werner Herzog’s ecstatic, pseudo-mystic documentary reveries. Michael Bay better stay the hell away from my eyeballs, but I’ll at least let that Teutonic weirdo take a crack at them.
This is my way of offering a disclaimer. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog’s much-heralded documentary excursion into 3-D, is my first experience with the technology. Does it compare to Avatar, the supposed benchmark of the form? Does it even matter? Herzog is such a sui generis filmmaker that comparing him to others is futile. He’s always existed somewhere on his own personal plane of reality. What’s one more dimension at this point?
The endearing eccentricity that has turned him into a cult figurehead of late is still on display here, albeit muted. Perhaps that is due to the constraints of the filming. Given a rare opportunity to film Chauvet Cave in France, Herzog was working under tight restrictions: a small crew (himself and three others), a few battery-powered lights, jury-rigged cameras, and only a few hours a day to film, spread out over six days. Herzog narrates and interviews, throwing in the usual mystical ruminations and digressions, but he gives much of the film over to the cave’s most stunning feature: the breathtaking 32,000-year-old paintings that cover the walls.
Depicting numerous animals—from horses to rhinos and extinct creatures like cave lions and mammoths—the paintings offer a tantalizing glimpse into the Paleolithic past. Only one human figure appears, that being the bottom half of a fertility goddess. But it is the animals that rule this cave, with their calcified skeletons lying beneath the vivid portraits that depict them in full vigour. Their mouths are open, braying and howling and panting, while the ancient painters draw multiple legs to suggest movement. The walls are scraped white, resembling the bones of some giant beast. Someone says it feels like the cave watches you. No kidding.
Now 3-D might sound like a perverse choice for a documentary dedicated to filming cave paintings, but it proves to be an inspired touch. The cave walls do not offer a level canvas. They are sheets of stone billowed by time, sometimes sharp and sometimes round but never even. The 3-D captures that fluid surface, offering a distinct and subtle sense of the way the paintings occupy space. These are not flat drawings, and cannot be filmed as such.
Who would have thought there could be subtlety to 3-D? If ever there was a film technology built in defiance of nuance, this is it. Even Herzog cannot avoid all the expected gaudiness of 3-D, what with the occasional spear or stalactite jabbing the viewer in the eye. He even has a bit of fun with the technology at one point, staging a first-person shot so that it appears hands are taking off our glasses (ha ha, good one, Werner). But the cave drawings, thankfully, do not jump off the screen. They seem to writhe on the cave walls, riding the contours of the cave as they would the hills of a landscape. If this technology lets us feel as if we could reach out and touch the screen, then these paintings remain hauntingly beyond our grasp.
Amusingly, 3-D may not even be enough for Herzog. In one of those touches that could only be called Herzogian, he pauses to film the silence of the cave, allowing us to take in the drips of water, that ominous slight whooshing noise—in short, a sense of a place that can, and for centuries did, exist without a human presence. And in another oddball choice, he invites a master perfumer into the cave to smell the air. Was smell-o-vision ever on the table as a possibility?
Never one to pass up an impossible quest, Herzog has found a grand one here: attempting to comprehend human minds some 30,000 years dead. It is, as he notes, much like trying to understand the hopes and dreams of everyone in New York using only the phonebook. Far removed from our ancient ancestors, we’re mutants from the future staring into the past, trying in vain to see a reflection of ourselves. And fittingly enough, we have our own mutant form of cinema to help us along.
One of the greatest absurdities of 3-D is that a technology supposedly meant to take film into the future instead looks constantly to the past. An old novelty made new, we’re supposed to be awed by something that was discarded decades ago. But its goals are noble, if misguided and finally corrupted by the commercial desperation of studios foisting the technology on an audience jaded by decades of familiar mediocrity (at least it offers filmmakers a new way to bore us). It wants to restore some sense of wonder to the audience, and take us back to the origins of cinema, when the spectacle of images on the screen was always enough to delight and amuse.
Consider one of the legends of early cinema: audience members leaping from their seats in shock at the sight of a train coming towards them in the Lumiere brothers’ Arrival of a Train at a Station. Equally notable, if less known, is the fact that the Lumieres would remake the film in 1935 in 3-D. That train keeps coming at us, and we struggle more and more with every passing decade to feel the initial revelation that first roused us. After a certain point, you just give up and lie down on the tracks. What does it matter? It’s never going to arrive anyway.
Fortunately, Herzog does not give in so easily, and still strives to find new ways to stir us cynical audiences out of our detachment. In the film’s moving climactic sequence, Herzog falls silent and gives the film over to the paintings and Ernst Reijseger’s score. He pans slowly across the animals and lets the lights flicker and fade, evoking the torches that would have lit those images long ago. The combination of the 3-D and the shifting light gives a semblance of motion to the images. The animals prowl again in the half-light, if only for a moment. In these scenes, Herzog succeeds in taking us back to the origin of things—of film, of art, of what he terms the human soul. The cave becomes a primal cinema. The audience’s capacity for wonder, deformed by time and abuse, briefly flutters back to life.