Cave of Forgotten Dreams

“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.”*

This could happen to anyone. A few ceremonial drinks, a little white dust. It could be New York, 1984. Or Southern France, 32,000 years ago. Whatever. You duck in to get out of the rain, and the next thing you know you’re surrounded by bear skulls. The white powder is the only thing that makes sense. You grab a hunk of charcoal and begin to sketch.

The souvenirs of that night are showcased in an amazing new documentary called Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a film that sometimes feels like a dream itself. Written, directed and narrated by the incomparable Werner Herzog, the movie skirts between fantastic images and speculative theories as the filmmaker attempts to understand what led prehistoric man to camp out in a bear cave and illustrate the walls with the world’s oldest discovered menagerie of drawings. Perhaps it wasn’t quite as Bright Lights, Big City as I described, but it happened more than 32,000 years ago so I can make up a story just as well as Werner can.

The actual evidence is mind blowing enough on its own. In 1994, a cave was discovered in southern France by a group of speleologists. The Chauvet Cave, as they named it, was large with many caverns and rooms, and on the walls they found the earliest cave paintings known to man. But the fact that this was one of the most significant and well-preserved prehistoric art sites in the world was not even the most amazing thing – it was the detail and quality of the drawings that makes this cave so compelling.

Herzog and his limited crew were only allowed to film a few hours a day with special restrictions on equipment and lighting, but they made the most of their time. The decision was made to film the walls in 3D, and although Herzog thought the technique was “a gimmick of the commercial cinema” (he had only seen Avatar before this), the final product is without a doubt the most spectacular and absolutely correct use of a gimmick I have ever seen. The added dimensionality brings the drawings to life: there are herds of running horses, fierce rhinos, snarling lions and reindeer and bears, oh my. The walls have been scraped clean as if the artist prepared the canvas, and the white powdery background sets off the dramatic sweeps of a sure hand. This caveman had mad skills.

Herzog’s narration is fanciful as he tries to conjure up reasons and meanings in the images of the cave, but he ultimately trusts the drawings to speak for themselves. The final minutes of the film are simply the camera panning over the ghostly beasts of the past in a silence so powerful you can almost hear your heartbeat. When was the last time a filmmaker dared to film silence? It’s a powerful statement that is very moving, and then he cuts to some stuff about mutant albino alligators who live in the same area. That wacky German!

I have decided that I hate 3D. I hate the way it hurts my eyes and makes my head throb, at how stupid I look wearing the dumb glasses, at the extra $4 a ticket they charge even if you already have the specs. A few films are enhanced by it, but most of them seem like they’ve jumped on the bandwagon technology just because everybody else has. But Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the only film I have ever seen that I feel would have been significantly less of an accomplishment had it not used the technique. Bring a bottle of Visine and some ibuprofen with you if necessary – just don’t miss this film.

*My sincerest apologies to Jay McInerney – it must have been the Bolivian Marching Powder.

Barf Bag Rating: ONE BAG There is some swooping movement and the camera is obviously hand held, but this is not as bad as one might expect. I think the 3D effects actually make it easier to watch the shaky cam work.

Jalapeno Rating: FOUR PEPPERS If you’re wearing contacts, it’s quite possible they will be fused to your eyeballs by the time you leave. But it’s worth it.

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