Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog offered to make his latest and perhaps most ambitious film for the princely sum of one Euro, before taxes. Granted, he probably had additional compensation arranged, but he really just wanted to get on the set. To gain access to the over 30,000 year-old Chauvet Cave, the unclassifiable auteur offered to become an essentially unpaid employee of the French Cultural Ministry, which controls access to the ancient site. Succeeding where scores of filmmakers previously failed, Herzog brings the arguably most exclusive place on Earth to any and all film patrons with genuine lifelike 3-D in Cave of Forgotten Dreams (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Given the delicacy of the millennia old cave paintings and the stunning geological features, access to Chauvet is tightly regulated. Among other concerns, the simple accumulation of CO2 exhaled through normal breathing could cause significant damage. Strict limits were placed on the size of Herzog’s crew and the amount of time they could spend inside. To accommodate the confined spaces, they even redesigned the 3-D cameras to be smaller and more agile. Yet, even with these constraints, Herzog conveys a vivid sense of what it is like to step foot within the primordial cavern.

Both in terms of form and function, Forgotten is arguably the greatest use of 3-D technology seen in commercial (broadly defined) theaters. Although it has come a long way in the age of Avatar, 3-D has always been more impressive conveying depth than pointy things jutting out of the screen. Obviously, Chauvet has awe-inspiring depth. There are also legitimate educational and aesthetic reasons for rendering Chauvet in 3-D, considering the average person stands about zero chance of ever visiting there in the flesh.

Of course, Forgotten is not filmed entirely within the Chauvet Cave. In scenes that hardly require 3-D photography, Herzog interviews many of scientists involved in the site for geological and anthropological context. In the tradition of 1950’s Hondo, in which arrows were periodically shot towards the camera to prove it was all still 3-D, we even have a scene of one scientist demonstrating the Paleolithic Chauvet peoples’ harpoon-like weapon.  Aside from that little bit of silliness, Forgotten is a classy package, featuring Herzog’s singularly distinctive narration and an elegant classical chamber-chorale music soundtrack composed by cellist Ernst Reijseger, which is arresting in its own right.

If Herzog lays on the metaphysical ruminations a bit thick in the denouement, it is what we come to expect from. In any event, it all looks quite striking through cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger’s (3-D) lens. Some fans might be a bit disappointed we do not get to watch Herzog eat another shoe in 3-D. However, Forgotten is still an informative and artfully crafted film. Perhaps the best application of 3-D technology seen outside museum I-maxes, Forgotten opens this Friday (4/29) in New York at the IFC Center.