Friday, 25 March 2011

BFF FILM REVIEW: Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (plus Werner Herzog Q&A)

This is the first time I've done a film review where I've felt like a fool. Let me just make clear now that I am big fan of Werner Herzog's documentaries: if you haven't seen Grizzly Man yet then I don't know what's wrong with you, and similarly (but I suppose, not as infamous) Encounters at the End of the World is also definitely worth a watch - for the Antarctic landscape alone. So I've really been looking forward to Cave of Forgotten Dreams - so much so when I saw it was premiering at the Bradford Film Festival I snapped up tickets immediately. The Q&A afterwards with the man himself (a satellite link up I may add, he wasn't actually in Bradford) was a bonus treat.

So what do I go and do? ZZZZZZZZ through most of it.

Yes yes, the shame is there. Heap on some more.

I could go on about the long day, how warm and comfortable it was in the cinema, blah blah blah but I won't, and only because I enjoyed the Q&A so much and was fully alert throughout. The problem then: *whispers* I found Cave of Forgotten Dreams achingly boring.

It's my own problem, no-one else's. Werner Herzog is the first filmmaker ever to be allowed (unprecedented) access inside the Chauvet Cave: discovered in 1994 accidentally by explorers in the Ard├Ęche area of South West France and containing what is thought to be cave drawings and paintings that are 35,000 years old and due to a freak miracle of geography remain in a fresh, pristine condition. Herzog is allowed to take a very small crew in with him, and the film captures what they see and experience inside the cave, helped by knowledgeable archaeologists, geologists and paleontologists who can offer background and scientific findings to what the audience is seeing. To flesh out the documentary Herzog also interviews others who have studied the cave, finding out astonishing calculations such as when a drawing was started and finished, the pattern and movement of the painters, and even how tall they probably were. His, now famous, 'postscript' where he ponders on all that has gone before also introduces albino crocodiles and how they offer insight into the power of perception.

From the get-go I was skeptical. I opted to study History at A Level, but that doesn't mean I get relentlessly excited about it. I had faith that Herzog would make it deeply interesting to watch and was buoyed on by reviews claiming it was "utterly engrossing" and "magical". But once the initial viewing of the cave had taken place, I found myself slowly beginning to disengage and nod off. It's not that I don't realise it's amazing, buuuuut... to me they were just cave paintings. I tried to emit and soak up the awe, the wonder, the grand sense of history and the past but I just couldn't. I wasn't moved at all.

The other thing which bugged me was that in the Q&A afterwards Herzog so often referred to himself as a 'storyteller', but here there was no story. Perhaps it was down to his deliberate decision not to discuss and decipher why the drawings had been made, and instead focus on straight, closed up facts. There was a really intriguing moment during the interview when he talked about being alone in the cave, and of having a sense that the artists of the drawings were all there with him, in his presence, watching him from a corner inside the cave. He then went on to say other scientists and historians who have explored the cave have experienced a very similar feeling - of not being alone. Why on earth didn't he expand on this in the documentary? He didn't have to make it veer towards the supernatural/spiritual - Herzog doesn't strike me as the type - but it would have added a story, a human element to the film which was sadly lacking. I do wish the Q&A session had been before the film: it may have done more to whet my appetite.

The music was also very intrusive - and minutes and minutes of it droning on while we focus on the paintings just felt very stuffy to me, and verging on religious (which is never pleasant).

I have decided that I prefer when he focuses on people (or just one oddball person) as his subject, and not something like art: art I have never been able to immerse myself in, and have never found it remotely fascinating. People however, who live with bears or who live in remote extreme surroundings and watching how this has shaped them - now that interests me. His next project - focusing on People on Death Row in America - sounded just like my kind of thing.

I tried and failed with Cave of Forgotten Dreams (although an afterthought on the 3D: very well used, you feel like you are actually pushing shrubbery aside on the walk to the cave entrance) - hopefully you'll all have more positive things to say than I have.

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