Cave of Forgotten Dreams ***
Directed by: Werner Herzog.
I don’t much like 3-D films, but having seen Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams on DVD, I wish I would have caught the films in theaters when it playing in that format. If ever there was a documentary that screamed out for the 3-D format, it is this film about the oldest cave drawings ever discovered. They were unearthed in France in 1994, and have been dated as being 32,000 years old. Perhaps even more surprisingly, there are drawings in that cave that are as recent as 25,000 years old, suggesting that this was a spot where people returned to for generations to do their drawings, and tell their stories. Ever since the paintings were discovered, they have been shut off from the outside world. The dangers of the atmosphere and of human contact are too great to risk losing this most important of discoveries. Director Werner Herzog was granted access, along with a three man crew. They were only allowed in for five days, four hours a day. They have one camera and a few old lights, and have to remain on the steel sidewalk set up inside the cave. There are areas where even he isn’t allowed to go. The result is a fascinating look at the earliest artwork known to man.
Director Werner Herzog is one of insane geniuses of film, who for 40 years now, has drifted back and forth freely from narrative to documentary filmmaking. His best narrative film work starred Klaus Kinski, perhaps the only person more insane than Herzog to find success in film, and in films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcaraldo find the insane spirit of their title characters. Since Kinski’s death in the late 1980s, only in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans among Herzog’s feature work captured that same spirit – because he found another collaborator willing to go insane in Nicolas Cage. It is his documentary work – including his best, Grizzly Man, about Timothy Treadwell who wanted to protect the grizzlies, and ended up being killed by one – where his mad spirit mostly comes out these days.
And therein lays the reason why I may not have liked Cave of Forgotten Dreams as much as some of his other recent documentaries. As gorgeous as the artwork is too look at, as much as Herzog gives a sense of time travelling to an earlier time to see the origins of art (including a few typically Herzogian voiceovers about the nature of art) Cave of Forgotten Dreams doesn’t quite tap into that same mad genius quality that Herzog’s best films do. When he tries – like a side trip with a perfumer who sniffs out caves, or in the final scenes of movie involving albino alligators (who else would even think to put albino alligators in a film like this?) – They seem unnecessary and distracting. In a film like this, the images are the star, and you really don’t need anything else (like the distracting score). They speak for themselves.
Which brings me back to my regret at not seeing this film on the big screen in 3-D, the way Herzog intended it. He apparently doesn’t like 3-D anymore than I do, but felt that it was appropriate for this film. He was most likely right. So, if you still have a chance to see this in a theater, I suggest you go. The home viewing experience, as fascinating as it was, feels somewhat incomplete.