SFIFF – Cave of Forgotten Dreams
There has not been a single recent movie released in the past few years–really my whole life–where the inclusion of 3D technology has cause my interest to be piqued more than usual. Until news broke last year, that Werner Herzog was granted limited access to the Chauvet caves in France to film a documentary that would feature the technology. Although I was not originally sure it would really benefit the film in any way, I was sure about Herzog’s talent as a documentarian. Even those who have found Herzog’s work lacking in the past will have a hard time writing off Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
The cave has been in the news for over a decade for its paintings and the photographs he took there. The images are supposed to date to 33,000 years ago. Nearly twice the age of any cave paintings known before this discovery. The paintings show a remarkable understanding of shading, context, and movement. Fights between animals are depicted, and scientists have discovered things they didn’t know about animals during that time thanks to their depictions on the cave walls. Herzog goes so far as to call the images an early type of filmmaking. He claims the artists may have used the three dimensional surfaces of the cave walls to create the illusion that the drawn animals were dancing about in the light of the torches the paleolithic people would have used. It’s a pleasant image, imagining all that.
Herzog’s documentaries are interesting in that he frequently chooses an interesting subject, and uses it as a jumping off point to really document the people involved in and surrounding that topic. In the spectacular Encounters at the End of the World, much more time is spent discovering the stories of people who have chosen Antarctica as a remote home, than exploring ecosystems and other points of inanimate interest in the frozen region. The same goes for Grizzly Man. I did expect the same to happen in Caves. I was wrong. Interviews with archeologists and other relevant experts are bountiful, but the unexpected subject of the film is a mystical mix of what we know about these ancient European people, and what your imagination comes up with about them. It’s a nearly religious experience watching this movie.
I have personally never seen 3D technology used so well. The images captured by the cameras are remarkable, and show the depressions and texture of the rock that has been untouched for so many tens of thousands of years. Herzog’s quirky and thoughtful narration is funny and touching at the same time. However, as a documentarian, Herzog has an obligation to look at his subjects objectively. He let himself get too close to the project. There is considerable debate about the accuracy of the carbon dating performed on the paintings and on other objects found at Chauvet. There are schools of thought that claim the paintings are old, but not 33,000 years. The film presents the most extreme beliefs and presents them as facts. Not that it’s not enjoyable to hear these things, but they may or may not be true.
Because the production crew was so limited in the time they could spend in the cave, not to mention, the areas they were granted access to were greatly limited, the film had no choice but to introduce things outside of the darkness of Chauvet. This includes speaking to an expert about hunting techniques and the possible lifestyles of cultures 40,000 years ago. While well-intentioned and relevant, it took away from the sacred tone of reverence present at other moments. At the very end of the film, there’s a wildly off subject digression that seemed tacked on at the whim of the director which interferes with an already tenuous pacing.
These complaints aside, the images captured in the ancient cave or mesmerizing, and Herzog and his crew deliver on nearly all counts. I loved it.