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Werner Herzog (right) with some ancient-looking guy. (via ifcfilms.com)

Director and filmmaker, Werner Herzog’s latest, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is a strange mix of flighty pseudo-intellectual reverie and jaw-dropping documentary. Filmed in the famously inaccessible Chauvet Cave in southern France with 3-D enhancement, and sprinkled with the usual eccentric Hertzogian locals, the movie cannot fail to entertain and simultaneously irritate — just like the great man himself.

Indeed, it was in instant hit at its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2010 where it was snatched up by IFC Films which now hold rights to all distribution in the US.

Some of the paintings of the wall of the Chauvet Cave. (screencapture via ifcfilms.com)

The cave of Chauvet was closed to the public almost immediately after its astounding accidental discovery in 1994. A treasure trove of jaw-dropping art and crystalized bone fragments, the cave was sealed off in order to avoid repeating the same problems that occurred in the caves at Lascaux where lights and air-conditioning are believed to have caused an insidious mold.

Since the closing, only a handful of scientists have had access to the cave which houses some 300 paintings of mammoths, rhinos, lions, and horses (and a single pornographic pendant of a woman having it on with a bull). Said to be nearly twice as old as previously discovered cave paintings, the art at Chauvet dates back approximately 30 to 32,000 years, making these Homo Sapiens images the earliest recorded works of art, and curiously, placing their creation alongside the simultaneous existence of Neanderthals.

The inaccessibility coupled with the obvious draw of history and art would make any movie that featured the cave, and its veritable underground museum, a slam dunk for any filmmaker. But Herzog, with his inimitable style and cinematic gifts, brings his own art to the project, first by gaining permission to bring a film crew into the protected landmark, and then by producing his film under arduous constraints of time, space, and with limited equipment.

Thriving as he does on difficulty, Herzog has managed, once again, to create an affable, if highly effected movie that uses 3-D (famously scorned by him in the past) to glorious and sometimes comic effect.

First of all, the 3-D adds a LOT to the scenes in the cave, showing off the layered beauty and complexity of the stalactites and stalagmites along with the drama of deep perspective as we look through the cave’s narrow chambers or follow the incredible delicacy of shimmering curtains formed of crystalline structures which hang in thin pleats and swaths like theater curtains. And it also adds verity to Herzog’s patter about the cave paintings, swelling and bending along the cave walls, overlapping and appearing in the lamplights, as he points out, creating an animation like a sort of “proto-cinema.” (Would that he had thought to reproduce the flickering effect of the torch flames that the cave painters would have seen! But, sadly, he didn’t.)

Scenes from the trailer for Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (screencaptures from ifcfilms.com)

The 3-D also makes the viewer feel present within the depths of the cave, and one feels that she can fairly stumble upon the crystallized bones that are scattered for miles along the cave floors.

That said, the film seems to offer a clever commentary on the limits of 3-D effects — the interviews with scientists sitting or standing around come across as silly in 3-D after the breathtaking underground scenes. And the spear chucking demonstration seems downright hilarious with the spear coming out of the screen as the scientist thrusts it at the audience.

Along with his insightful foray into  3-D, and the (for Herzog) de rigeur assemblage of local talent (a perfumer who sniffs the cliff sides for underground passages, a charmingly doofy scientist who clumsily demonstrates a spear sling, an anthropologist who plays a barely passible “The Star Spangled Banner” on wispy bone flute and an explorer who, upon seeing the cave paintings, dreams of lions) there is the matter of incessant speculation and exaggerated wonderment which takes up a great deal of the documentary’s “expert” testimony.

Ernst Reijseger (who has worked with him on other films including “The White Diamond” and “The Wild Blue Yonder”) has created an annoying soundtrack that adds unnecessary heft to frequent interruptions of breathless mysticism.

In fact, the scientists and experts seem to compete with Herzog himself in the arena of spinning wonky riffs on the “dawn of the human spirit.”

Spotting a wolf track next to one which looks like that of an eight year old boy, Herzog asks in his signature drone:

Did the wolf stalk the boy? Or did they walk together as friends? Or were their prints made thousands of years apart? We’ll never know.

Hand prints on the wall of the Chauvet Cave (screencaptures from ifcfilms.com)

Similar speculation about what the cave may have smelled like, and and what the cave’s visitors must have made of their own shadows follows.

Particularly giggle-inducing is Herzog’s rather long-winded afterthought tagged onto the end of the movie like a mistake, wherein he discusses with doomsday insinuation, a nearby nuclear plant where mutant albino crocodiles swim in the warm runoff.

“Are we,” he muses, “truly the crocodiles who look back into the abyss of time?”

Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is playing across New York, including in 3-D at IFC Center, Cobble Hill Cinema, BAM Rose Cinemas and Kew Gardens Cinema.

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Cat Weaver

Independent curator, Cat Weaver is the Brooklyn-based writer and editor of The Art Machine, a blog that covers the art market in all of its gossipy glory....

9 replies on “Has Werner Herzog Made the First Art Stoner Flick in 3D?”

  1. A description ( and rather fascile one at that) of the film with “Art stoner” in the headline and a “giggle inducing” reading of the filmmaker’s big picture conclusion? Really, what was this writer smoking?

    1. Honestly, have you seen a Herzog film and not laughed at the uber-seriousness of it all? Another friend just mentioned on Twitter that he feel asleep during the film. Seems to have reactions of all types.

  2. I saw it just yesterday, having gone in with some skepticism (3D etc). I think Herzog is a romantic in the end, and I’d be happy to argue that his brand of it is hard won. So, from that “perch”, I don’t understand why anyone would laugh, except to be cynical. 

    There were funny moments, for sure (he does have a sense of humor) but I do think he takes these endeavors seriously,  so it’s a little anti-intellectual to point the ‘nerd’ finger at him and giggle for his  ‘uber-seriousness’. Look, he’s 68, has done his time and brings all of that to bear with every new picture. So I think  there’s a solid place for Serious in his take on things. 

    Well, I  thought it was a pretty moving piece of film would definitely not say it’s for everyone; you do need a little (necessary) patience with it—as is the case with art generally—and…not everything should be summed in 140 characters or less. Perhaps Hangover II is the alternative to that.

    1. Don’t get me wrong, we all love Herzog and to be honest I thought stoner flick was a good thing. It represents to me a journey through a type of sensory experience that expands your mind. Herzog is unique and he transforms whatever her touches. I plan to see this film ASAP … I felt Cat’s review convinced me to see it. I wasn’t sure if I would. But come on, 3-D footage of cave paintings just sounds sooo trippy!!

      p.s. I hate the whole Hangover 1, I don’t think I could survive #2. 

    2.  I thought my review was mixed, but overall positive: I enjoyed the movie and, as Hrag says, “we all love Herzog.”

      I don’t exempt the artists I love from my critical view: Herzog is indeed sometimes funny (and not always on purpose <– which is even funnier); the times when he expounds about the dark nature of things, when he asks clearly absurd questions like "Are we truly the crocodiles..?" and even his monotone drone, these things have inspired laughs for some decades now: if you've never sensed the humor in any of that then your compass is off.

      Anyway, you should check out the link from giggle-inducing and see if
      you don't also losen up a bit.

      1. I know the Curious George bit, it’s funny…for half a second, and not because I’m all insensitive to the whole accent thing either.  There was no argument about Herzog’s sense of humor (but now mine is apparently being challenged? lovely! 🙂 ). 
        My take was that your piece (maybe) had some requirement to be at least X% funny but it didn’t have to happen at the expense of the artist in that way. So I just didn’t get that bit. 
        Look, Herzog isn’t a sacred cow of mine, but when someone drops that much time/effort on a film project and comes away with a decent personal story, and then a writer writing about it peppers their “balanced” review with terms like like “patter” and “affable, if highly effected” (affected?), a reader might say “condenscension what?”. But hey, maybe that’s just your style. I guess I’ll have to read more to find out how to “loosen up”.

        1. A lot of time can be put into a very good project which also has its flaws and its vulnerabilities. Herzog has his style and it can be taken as lightly as we want to take it! I take it lightly when he asks goofy questions and waxes morose and seriously when I see how he can still manages to approach cinematography with insight and flair.

          My style is irreverent: always. My REVIEWS and ESSAYS are not “balanced”: one does not read opinions for balance. My ARTICLES, though, are (I hope)  fair and balanced –although I never shun opinion — I take pains to be thorough when I write them.

          BTW: IS it “affected”? Doh! I thought affect was the verb and effect the noun… but I suspect you are correct.

  3. I definitely felt different coming out of the theater than I was going in. I’d be curious to see your take  on it after you’ve checked it out. The 12:45 matinee is definitely the way to go. Yeah, not a fan of Hangover either. 

  4. A review of Hangover, (Spoken in Herzogian drone) Surely these men have found that the bounds of freindship are sadly no defense against the indifference of chaos. In choosing to fling themselves into adventure, and discarding the rule of civilization their manifest libidos, unleashed on the universe, came back to them, free and violent. How were they to know?

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