Cave of Forgotten Dreams Dir. Werner Herzog

[Creative Differences; 2010]

Styles: documentary
Others: Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World

Discovered in 1994, Cauvet Cave is the site of paintings from somewhere in the vicinity of 30,000 years ago. The paintings are incredible, as are the animal tracks and bones and calcite formations. You can conduct a virtual investigation at the French Ministry of Culture website. But we don’t need a film about Cauvet Cave, especially not one directed by an especially exuberant and hackneyed-phrase-making Werner Herzog.

The film isn’t gnarled/loopy/knotted/heavy enough. It’s in 3D, which is a waste of the difference in ticket price. It’s repetitive. The soundtrack is of the automatic emotion variety. The film as a staging of an encounter at the site of encounter is devoid of real drama (beyond what you could imagine yourself looking at photos on the web), so Herzog invents conflicts: overemphasis on his crew’s restriction in number, mobility, time, and gear. There are interviews with scientists (and a perfumist), but none with art historians. [Correction: my partner assures me there was an art historian in the film. You’ll understand if I don’t apologize for the error.] The film reaches its climax in an overplayed image of a bull eating out a woman, or something.

Recently, writers on the Tiny Mix Tapes forums stressed the imperative of precision in negative reviews. I’m falling far short, but it’s difficult (tedious, at least) to take surgery seriously when the staging is superfluous. (I just tried to turn this review by introducing a figural image, casting the production of a film in an allegorical role with respect to the patient and the operating table. In place of this parenthetical, one can imagine any number of imaginative critical excursions that achieve their effect through a discerning and motivated use of finer- and coarser-grained in(tro)spections. [This by way of a tip to the 70-year-old director.] In the postscript to Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog presents and narrates first a nuclear power plant, then a nearby experimental greenhouse facility populated by albino alligators. He muses on the impending ecological catastrophe and the alligator’s relationship to culture/humanity/futurity/the mirror. I slash those terms because Herzog doesn’t take any of them up with the right kind of seriousness. Nevertheless, this concluding swerve is the only move that tilts the film out of its destiny on the History Channel.)

On IMDB, Colin George writes in his user review, “Not every one of his digressions proves equally illuminating, but you can’t really complain about Herzog being Herzog in a Herzog documentary.” That’s exactly what we should complain about. It’s a bad sign when an aging artist knowingly or half-knowingly knocks off his own earlier achievements/parodies his own style/forges his own signature. Maybe the problem isn’t so much that Cauvet Cave doesn’t deserve a film, but that the one director to whom the French government granted access wasn’t responsible to the opportunity. The cave deserves engagements as complicated and obscure as its origins and its future.

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