Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)

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ANDREW LIKEI was wandering through a cemetery with a friend a few years ago.  She was looking at one of the gravestones and said, "If they can still sense us in any way, they must like that someone still cares to visit."  The best aspects of Werner Herzog's latest documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, ennobles this perfectly.  It has the carefree sensation of a spirit wandering around the visitors, ecstatic that someone can try and piece together the story that their art tells.

Herzog's predilection toward the fringes and "weirdos" of society led him to this particular project.  In 1994 a group of speleologists (or more simply, cave scientists) happened upon a cave during an expedition around the Ardeche region of southern France.  When they entered they discovered paintings on the walls of the cave (then named Chauvet Cave for the discovering group) that, to this date, are the oldest known artistic reflections of our early species dating back almost 32,000 years, with some of the paintings made almost 5,000 years apart from one another yet sharing the same space.

Herzog and his crew had to obtain special permission to enter the caves for two specific reasons.  The first being the natural conditions inside the cave were nearly perfect for the preservation of those paintings.  The second is that the cave contains such high levels of carbon-dioxide and radon that anyone venturing into the cave risks death if they are in there for more than a few hours at a time.  That Herzog and company ventured in as much as they could should come as no surprise since this is the director that dismantled and transported a boat over a mountain and filmed a whole movie from a rickety wooden raft.

The strange make the world evolve. People that hang out in deer skins playing flutes made of vulture bone definitely fit that description.

That dedication to art and this, the earliest story known told through art, pays off in some particularly lovely sequences.  The first expedition into the cave is filled with a hushed awe and Herzog allows the camera to flow lovingly over each of the drawings as he just allows us to take the sight in.  But it wouldn't be much of a Herzog documentary if he didn't find some way to connect us personally to the caves.

In a beautifully staged sequence and montage he allows their guide to request a silence so that we can hear our heartbeats echoing throughout the cave.  We watch as they sit in silence, then their hearts slowly come alive as the camera lingers over two of the researchers holding a picture of the cave drawings, and then focusing on the bones around the cave.  So do we produce, so do we express ourselves, so do we hope that someone will find our art when we are gone.

Sadly, it's not all as hypnotic and wonderful as those sequences.  It's clear Herzog loves these paintings but he returns to the same drawings time and time again with little to distinguish the return trips from each other.  Eventually what was once hypnotic and reflective just becomes boring and redundant.

At it's worst it's nothing better than an overlong filmed version of an article that you might read in National Geographic.  The somewhat-frequent fact finding excursions outside of the cave are much needed and remind us of the limitations Herzog faced going back into the cave.  Then there's the decision that Herzog made to film his excursion into the cave in 3D.  That, unfortunately, is where you are going to need to gauge your own physical tolerance to the technology.

I see a painting of two herds coming together peacefully. How about you?

So while I left Cave with quite the headache but I have to admit that his decision to film in 3D was the right one.  The glistening crystal around the cave sparkled and shone in a way that would not have been as tactile in standard 2D, and the drifting nature of the camera is that much more loving and, in a way, lonely as it curves around the contours of the rock walls.  So while I still wish the majority of films would eschew 3D this documentary (and the equally amazing but for different reasons Step Up 3D) really showcase that the medium can be put to good artistic use.

This is all perfectly encapsulated in one scene toward the end where Herzog uses silence and dancing lights to show us what it all might have looked like to the original cave dwellers.  He uses the pictures to tell a story while the illumination dances and fades to give the sensation of movement and action.  The story that you pull from it may not be the one I did (which, for the record, was about a group of horses who come together to try and stop a pair of feuding rhinos destroying the mating grounds of some lions) but the trust that Herzog has in the audience to make up their own story is astounding and pays off quite well.

Cave is essential viewing for anyone who defends 3D as a viable platform for art in movies.  Then as a Herzog documentary it's wonderful if occasionally long in the tooth.  Overall I was left with a sensation of comfort in my own art and the bits my friends produce.  Even if we're unaware, our stories will be told long after the ash our bodies descend into has been recycled back into nature.  The message is not gone.  We loved, we wanted to share why, we wanted to tell you our adventure, and thank you for listening.

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Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)

Directed and narrated by Werner Herzog.

Posted by Andrew

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