Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

The bureau chief dislikes 3-D as, apparently, does Werner Herzog who none the less used it in his film, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams", in order to make the most of a special opportunity. Herzog was anointed by the French government to make a cinematic record of the Chauvet Cave in southern France, the location of the oldest known paintings by humans. The cave will never be open to the public because people's breath would destroy the delicate 35,000 year old works of art. It is only open to scientists for a very limited time every year.

The film begins with the camera moving through rows of grape vines in what appears to be a Steadicam shot but then rises up and flies above the vineyard (at the end of the film we see that the camera is mounted on a model airplane). As it soars above the landscape it reveals the central problem with 3-D. The trees and vines below don't look real, they look hyper-real, as if we are looking at a diorama or an architectural model. Smart people have pointed out that 3-D actually diminishes the power of a panoramic shot, minimizing the perceived vastness of it. This was not an issue in the confines of the cave where the filmmakers had to stay on a two foot wide walkway and were not allowed to touch anything. The prehistoric artists had incorporated the bulges and curves of the rock in their painting and 3-D allows the viewer to appreciate this.

The paintings are amazing. They are not stylized but very realistic, very observational, like pages torn from a Renaissance artist's sketch book. At one point it's mentioned that the paintings were done over a 5,000 year period before the cave was closed by a rock slide. 5,000 years is how long we have had writing, in other words, recorded history. This allows one to appreciate the magnitude of 35,000 years, back when our forebears coexisted with our cousins, the Neanderthals.

Herzog documents the paintings extensively and interviews the Paleontologists, who are a charmingly quirky bunch. At the very end of the film there is a Herzogian moment. The director learns that there is a nuclear power plant within a 50 mile radius of the cave and that an entrepreneur is using the warm waste water of the plant to raise tropical plants and albino crocodiles. He can't resist the opportunity.

This is a very cool film.

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