Arts & Events

Film Review: Ripe Tomatoes: Herzog Doc Gets Second Wind at Elmwood

by Ted Friedman
Wednesday August 24, 2011 - 03:54:00 PM
Promotional shot of Werner Herzog's, 'the Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 2010, showing at the Elmwood in the Elmwood--
Promotional shot of Werner Herzog's, 'the Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 2010, showing at the Elmwood in the Elmwood-- Ooyala

Werner Herzog's The Cave of Forgotten Dreams has been revived for a second run at the Elmwood, Friday, after ending a three month run at Shattuck Cinemas. 

Dreams was billed as Herzog's most conventional documentary when it first opened to higher weekend box-office revenues and more favorable reviews than any other Herzog documentary. It has racked up more than five million in ticket-sales and earned an 8.6 rating (34 critics) at Metacritic, on-line. 

The subject of the film is Chauvet Cave, discovered in 1994 in the valley near France's Ardeche River. The Chauvet Cave contains the oldest cave paintings on record (some of them 32,000 years old), almost perfectly preserved when collapsing rocks sealed off the entrance some 25,000 years ago. 

Inspired by a New Yorker piece written by Judith Thurman (credited here as a co-producer), Herzog became the first filmmaker permitted by the French Ministry of Culture to shoot inside the cave, joining a small archaeological team for a few weeks in the spring of 2010. 

The film is visually stunning—you're getting a rare glimpse into Chauvet Cave, now closed to public view. All that beauty but with none of the world-renowned Herzog misanthropy. In fact the film grows downright tedious. Only 16 feet of the "football stadium" cave floor can be accessed by a narrow metal walkway, which may be why, Herzog, filmed the same artifacts three separate times (they were permitted four days of four-hour shoots). 

You have to look hard for the Herzog touch, although Herzog is hysterically wordy on the narration. The famous director, one of the greatest working directors in the world and pushing 70, manages a few Herzog moves, and at one point I wondered if you could not see a weak stab at Herzogian ridicule. (Some of the scientists he interviews, in segments between back-at-the-cave, might be satirized). 

Unfortunately that seems not to be the case; these breathlessly excited archeologists, paleontologists, and anthropologists are over the top. Sometimes, you'd think these frenchmen (the French Ministry of Culture co-produced) were discussing Jerry Lewis. They are, after all—French. 

The satirical Herzog featured in "Burden of Dreams,"—although directed by Berkeley's Les Blank, a close ally of Herzog's, or the scornful Herzog's (Grizzly Man, 2005), or his obsessional Fitzgeraldo, '82. seems at first view to be missing from the Cave. 

In Burden of dreams, based on Herzog's filming of Fitzgaraldo starring Klaus Kinsky—a real weirdo—and certainly Grizzly Man, and scores of other Herzog films Herzog's life-long artistic mission depicts man's losing struggle with nature. 

You may not see the scientists admitting their lost struggle with nature in the film because they are too busy spinning unsupportable interpretations (eg. the cock-eyed notion that the cave-artists were emailing us or had invented cinema 32,000 years ago; Herzog calls it "proto-cinema"). 

There are a few more Herzog surprising touches I won't divulge. 

Still, if you want a course in excavation and cave art, or just want to see some amazing proto-typical cave-art, beautifully filmed and lit by flashlights, you will be rewarded with a stunning, if tedious, film. 

But then the tedium is worth it with Herzog. And he still may be be messing with us. You just have to look for it. 


Ted Friedman, a Planet reporter on the South side, has been a film-fluff for 35 years, "studying" with Edith Kramer, Marilyn Fabe, and George Pauly. He has attended Film 50 for more than a decade at Cal. Ted Lander, 83, contributed.