May 04, 2011

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The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the latest documentary from artiste/showman Werner Herzog. It features the world’s oldest known cave paintings, discovered in 1994 at Chauvet Grotto in southeastern France and immediately locked up to protect the stunning drawings of imposing beasts.

The French government allowed Herzog to make the first documentary about Chauvet because he is a major auteur. His long career depicting energetic lunatics includes 1972’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, in which a 16th-century conquistador searches in vain for a city of gold amid Brazil’s fever swamps.

You and I will never be allowed in Chauvet. That’s because the most famous Old Stone Age art caverns, Altamira (discovered in 1868) and Lascaux (1940), both had to be closed to tourists due to respiration’s dire effects on Paleolithic paintings. Chauvet’s pictures, dating back to 30,000 BC, are about twice as old but of similarly superlative draftsmanship, with some shading and even a little perspective.

“€œHerzog’s goal is to be more trippy than informative, but his film falls in the middle.”€

In later cave art, game animals predominate. Yet the Chauvet artists devoted much of their attention to animals now extinct in Europe that were too scary to hunt with spears: lions, cave bears, and rhinoceroses. The ferocious subject matter seems very masculine although not terribly adult. Today’s summer blockbuster audience of teenage males would have thought them awesome if they had lived 30,000 years ago. Conversely, if the caveman artists were alive today, they”€™d probably like Vin Diesel in Fast Five.

By shooting Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D, Herzog allows you to experience what it is like to walk through Chauvet…assuming your eyeballs are on long stalks on opposite sides of your head. My eyes are set only a few inches apart, so the stereoscopic effect in current 3D movies strikes me as absurdly exaggerated. (More realistically, 3D transforms Cave of Forgotten Dreams into an event to get people out of their TV rooms and into the theaters.)

The interaction of content and director, however, is less than ideal.

Herzog is terrific at depicting eccentrics, such as in his 2005 documentary Grizzly Man about how failed actor Timothy Treadwell wound up being eaten by a bear. But when his subjects are more levelheaded, as in his 2007 documentary about scientists in Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog tries to provoke his subjects by acting like a madman himself. To fans of the 68-year-old filmmaker, there’s an amusing note of self-parody in his hammy narration. Herzog managed to frighten one South Pole zoologist unfamiliar with his oeuvre by asking, “€œIs there such a thing as…insanity in penguins?”€


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