CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS
directed by Werner Herzog
directed by Tom Shadyac
by Ian Pugh The introduction to Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams is unforgettably right. Ever the inquisitive narrator, Herzog tells us that, upon its rediscovery in the mid-'90s, France's Chauvet Cave did not appear to be of unique significance, "other than being particularly beautiful." But, say they hadn't found the prehistoric cave paintings within (the oldest on record, with some dating back 32,000 years)--would that 'particular beauty' have been enough to inspire Herzog? What is it about this specific cave that made it, and makes it, such a hotbed for creativity? So begins anew our search for mankind's place in the universe and, moreover, a human imprint on nature, even where one isn't readily apparent. The skeletons contained in the cave (all animal bones, none human) beg further questions to that end. Was this an altar, perhaps? A refuge for ritual sacrifices?
We'll never know for sure, which is precisely Herzog's point. The filmmaker sees a kindred spirit in these ancient artisans, who painted their animals with extra legs in a mimicry of movement Herzog calls "proto-cinema;" engaging in a deep conversation about what might be discovered and harnessed through art, he seizes the opportunity for introspection, as always. His decision to shoot in 3-D indeed offers an enlightening view of the cave's contours and how the artists utilized their canvas, but more importantly, it emphasizes the essential artifice of cinema and how its attempt to catalogue life will always wind up woefully inadequate. (Pay close attention to how Herzog tries to paint three-dimensional portraits of his subjects: while interviewing one researcher, he gets the man to tell a few dream anecdotes and reveal his erstwhile occupation as a circus performer.) As he turns his attention to other archaeological discoveries from other lost civilizations, we come to understand them as the fractured memories of strangers, hopelessly without context--and yet, we are convinced, they hold some insight into ourselves. It's not a critique of history but rather a thorough analysis of human perception.
Bound by time limits and hemmed in by narrow walkways, Herzog seems a little irritated by the fact that he can't freely explore the cave (plans to construct a life-size replica of the cave for tourists strike him as oddly as the faux-civilizations of Encounters at the End of the World), though he also understands that preservation efforts are the very last thing preventing him from getting a complete picture. Time itself proves the most insurmountable barrier: thousands of years' worth of minerals and resin have coated the floor and walls along with the various footprints and bones, altering our perception of the cave today and precluding a precise chronology of events. What's most fascinating to Herzog is how we reinterpret that timeline in the modern day. A discussion of the cave painters' use of shadow leads to a brief mention of Fred Astaire's Bojangles dance in Swing Time, and Herzog touches upon something universal about how humans create. Later, we're introduced to a perfume specialist who helps analyze the odours of the cave, and we realize just how far the influence of the distant past (and the desire to understand it) can reach. As the title implies, individuals and their intentions will be lost to history, but from contemporary speculation comes inspiration and endeavour. Herzog leaves you with the thought that civilization, in all its forms, may have been built on a series of misconceptions. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.
Tom Shadyac's docu-sermon I Am arrives at similar conclusions in its effort to convince viewers that the essential nature of mankind is one of cooperation and friendship. Using his own life story as a launching pad, Patch Adams director Shadyac goes on a journey that involves interviewing philosophers, scientists, and philanthropists, hoping to suss out "what's wrong with the world" and "what can be done about it." His research determines that greed and violence are taught, not inherited, and that the only way to fix this is to stop valuing selfish competition above everything else--the impetus for Shadyac's decision to give away his Hollywood riches and live a humbler lifestyle in Malibu. You can't call I Am an ego-fest, exactly, because the Shadyac onscreen exudes a kind of charming naïveté that's difficult to resist. The questions he asks, however, are just too big to allow the piddling responses (heavily condensed for mass consumption?) to stand without legitimate counterpoints. Reducing Shadyac's spiritual rebirth to the sort of cutesy animated graphs that Bowling for Columbine and Super Size Me popularized in the early part of the century, the picture ultimately delivers the same obvious messages as any of Shadyac's big-budget sentimental comedies. Although I Am was made with the best of intentions and a genuine desire to do good, it's precisely the sort of simplistic morality play that would drive Herzog crazy. Originally published: April 29, 2011.