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Cave of Forgotten Dreams
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by Mel Valentin

"Another idiosyncratic documentary from the idiosyncratic Werner Herzog."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 54TH SAN FRANCISCO FILM FESTIVAL: Among filmmakers, Werner Herzog is unique for his ability (and talent) to shift between narrative and non-narrative (i.e., documentary) filmmaking. Herzog’s last narrative film, "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?," a collaboration with David Lynch (Lynch served as producer), received a limited release a year ago December. His second-to-last narrative film, "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," also received a limited release, but became a critical favorite for Nicholas Cage’s over-the-top performance as the title character. As a documentarian, Herzog directed "Encounters at the End of the World," a fascinating, compelling exploration of Antarctica (and the scientists who live there). Herzog’s documentaries combine an eye for visual composition (developed over four decades as a director) with traditional talking head interviews with experts and Herzog’s voiceover narration. His latest documentary, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," is no different.

Herzog wrote, directed, and narrated Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a 90-minute exclusive excursion into the Chauvet Cave in southern France. The cave, discovered in 1994 by three speleologists, Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet (for whom the cave was named), was perfectly preserved by a millennia-old rock slide. In the cave, the explorers found a treasure trove of millennia-old cave paintings. The paintings date back 33,000-35,000 years, the oldest found in France or anywhere else. Due to their fragile nature, the French government immediately restricted access to the cave, allowing only government-approved research scientists access and even then, limiting access to certain times of the year and only for a few short hours. Herzog (as he proudly tells us) petitioned the French government for access, access he unsurprisingly received.

That access, however, was also limited. Initially, Herzog and his three-man crew entered the cave with the research scientists. They were limited to battery-powered cameras and lights. They were also limited to the metal walkways the French government built in the cave to preserve the cave’s delicate floor. The floor still contains traces of animals and humans (as well as bones, all non-human). Humans, however, didn’t use the cave as a home. Instead, they used the cave for rituals (likely religious) and for the cave paintings that have made the Chauvet Cave world famous. The paintings range in sophistication from crude line drawings to elaborate charcoal sketches (with appropriate shading and definition). Most of the paintings use animals as their subjects, but in one, difficult-to-photograph location, a stalactite several feet from the nearest walkway, an image of a half-woman, half-animal hybrid points to the beginnings of pagan beliefs.

Herzog added to the technical challenges faced by filming in a cave for only a few hours a day by deciding to shoot Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D using a modified rig. Herzog wanted audiences to see the shapes and contours of the cave walls, shapes and contours the painters incorporated into the paintings themselves. Initially, Herzog’s decision to shoot in 3D seems like a misstep, especially when Herzog first takes his crew into the cave, down the walkway, and down a ladder, the camera bouncing the entire time (a sure recipe for nausea). Luckily, camera shakiness almost completely disappears once Herzog and his crew enters the cave proper, making the occasional bounce easier to bear.

As with "Encounters in the World" (and other Herzog-directed documentaries such as "Grizzly Man" and "Dieter Learns to Fly"), Herzog includes copious amounts of voiceover narration, some illuminating (if only for Herzog’s digressions), some not (when he tries, but fails, to add profound insight into what we’re seeing). Herzog’s lilting, sing-song voice can have a soporific effect on audiences as well, but the real problem (and it’s not if you count yourself among Herzog’s fans) is his Herzog’s inability to let the images speak for themselves. Sometimes (maybe often), all you need is to let the camera linger across a cave painting, something to be fair, he does in the documentary’s last 20 minutes. By then, however, Herzog has shared his ideas about human culture and evolution thereof, his penchant for asking off-the-wall questions of his subjects (which often leave them at a loss), has partially undermined Herzog’s desire to share the Chauvet Cave’s paintings and the requisite awe they engender with his audience.

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originally posted: 05/06/11 20:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2011 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Berlin International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival series, click here.

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  29-Apr-2011 (G)
  DVD: 29-Nov-2011


  DVD: 29-Nov-2011

Directed by
  Werner Herzog

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