Saturday, April 2, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Dreams of albino crocodiles 

Werner and the pied piper
Of all the borderline psychotic maverick avant-garde directors out there, Werner Herzog is likely the most lovable. Obviously he's made a vast number of surreal, memorable and often hilarious fiction films which are incomparable with anything else. Yet as well as the director of masterpieces like Acquire: The Wrath of God and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (amongst the great comedies of the last decade) he's also a documentarian of great worth. Mainly because he rarely plays things as expected: while his non-fiction work is obviously more grounded a lot of the time, it's the ever bizarre obsessions and curiosities of the German auteur that make his documentary films every bit as unusual and outrageous as his fictional work. Anyone who recognises the picture below will know what I'm talking about.

A picture that speaks for itself. Source.

What has defined much of Herzog's recent documentary output has been Herzog's obsession with probing human behaviour and nature - from the ultimately fatal compulsions of Timothy Treadwell to the scientists who isolate themselves in Antarctica through wondering what really goes on in the head of a wayward penguin. The result is often the deeply eccentric Herzog often focusing on deeply eccentric characters. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is somewhat different in that regard - the number of oddballs is toned down a notch. There's a bizarre character or two - a Master Perfumer who seeks out caves by scent alone, or the pipe playing 'experimental archeologist' - but Herzog's thick but somewhat comforting German accent is most certainly the nuttiest voice in the film.  Yet a preoccupation with humanity and nature still makes this a distinctly Herzogian documentary.

Oh, I've gotten two paragraphs without mentioning French cave paintings! In short: there's a lot of them here. Or more specifically there's a few, and we see them all four or five times. No doubt they're stunning, and it's amazing to have the rare opportunity to view them. The 3D adds a depth to the images that is certainly a welcome integration of an often redundant technology. The paintings are remarkable in their complexities when you consider their age. The interplay of light and shadow remains impressive in these basic works, and the vividness of their portrayals of wildlife, motion or sexuality is surprising. It's a fascinating insight into the early days of humanity.

And yet the reality remains that you're looking at a fuck load of wall paintings of animals on screen for an hour and a half. Around the fifty minute mark, I'd be lying if I didn't find it a little repetitive. Towards the end - in chronological terms, once Herzog and his crew got more in-depth access to the caves after some initially technologically limited explorations - there are really, really long pans of these paintings. They're beautiful and profound, but honestly seeing them two or three times was enough. Herzog pushes it with the amount of time spent focused on each. Yet actually getting to see them in the first place is a remarkable thing altogether, and although stretched the detailed look at these paintings is most definitely worth the ticket cost.

It falls to Herzog's social ruminations to lend the film a little bit of weight, then. And weight it does lend. Herzog's droll voiceover wonders many things, and it's almost dream-like. As he and his interviewees ponder what the people who painted these images were like, what they did, what their world was like. Bear skulls and footprints littering the cave provide vivid hints. It's fascinating stuff at times, easy to get drawn into the enthusiasm of the scientists and Herzog himself. Naturally, Herzog often makes the interviews a notch weirder than most, and there's a bizarre laugh or two to be had. The question of whether Herzog is a mad genius or a comic genius remains. I'd wager a bit of both.

The film ends with a truly unusual - one might say 'redundant' - postscript involving albino crocodiles. Don't ask. It's a typically unexpected tangent, almost completely unrelated to the material that came before it. And yet it sort of makes sense in context. A strange sense, granted. But a Herzogian sense. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is not always as outrageous as would be typical of a 'Film by Werner Herzog', but it most certainly is the work of the great auteur. There are moments of great beauty alongside pretentious ponderings on the nature of humanity and nature. It's an engaging documentary which arguably could have done with a bit more variety. It almost feels as if it would have worked better as an hour long TV documentary. But then we wouldn't have experienced one of the most pleasant executions of a third dimension to date. It's simply a film hard to describe without actually seeing it: beautiful, meandering, unusual, funny, overwrought. Or: a Werner Herzog film.

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