Friday, 15 April 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and Submarine

I remember when 3D films were those at the tackier end of the cinema market, Jaws 3D to name one such product. But now everyone seems to be getting in on the 3D act, most recently revered director Werner Herzog. His Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary about the Chauvet caves in southern France. These caves, named after their discoverer, Jean-Marie Chauvet, the explorer who stumbled across them in 1994, are a prehistoric wonderland of cave paintings dating back almost 35,000 years.

Herzog was given privileged access to the caves in order to make this film, but could only use a camera crew of four and minimal lighting rig. The film's stars are as much the archaeologists, art historians and paleontologists who are researching the cave as the paintings themselves. The 3D effect is a bit of a distraction at first, especially since the paintings themselves are two dimensional. All that really looms out from the screen are the scientists as they poke around in the caves.

The floor of the cave are littered with the bones of animals, but strangely none of humans. The theory is that people did not live out their lives there, but used the walls to record their impressions of their world, perhaps as part of religious rituals. All that remains to identify any single artist are the myriad red palm prints which dot one of the walls. It's possible to trace the path of this artist through the cave, his print is unmistakable due  to a slight deformity in his little finger.

The palette of the documentary is a sombre one, of muted autumn shades (or perhaps there's a flaw with my 3D glasses). The paintings themselves are ochre and charcoal, beautiful images of horses, lions and rhinos. The best part of the film is the section near the end where the camera roams lovingly across the images to the haunting accompanying music.

There are some lovely light comic moments, courtesy of the scientists, particularly the one, clad head to toe in animal skins, who plays the Star Spangled Banner on the remains of an old bone flute found at the site, and his colleague who demonstrates his ineptitude at spear throwing. They make archaeology look such fun.

Herzog's output has been remarkably diverse over the years, from remakes such as Nosferatu, through narratives such as Aguirre Wrath of God, to documentaries such as his latest offering. Amidst this diversity it is possible to discern repeated ideas that preoccupy the film maker though, primarily the question, what does it mean to be human? Sometimes he explores this question by examining those who live at the fringes of, or who are completely alienated from, human society. For me, sometimes his explorations work, as in The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and sometimes they don't ( The Enigma of Kasper Hauser). But I'm glad that he keeps on asking the question.

The thing about rites-of-passage/coming of age movies is that the audience has to empathise in some way with the protagonist in order for them to work. Their dilemmas have to have some degree of universality to make us understand their struggles with life. I had considerable difficulty relating to the the problems of the teenage boy, Oliver Tate, whose story is the stuff of this movie. It made me realise how seldom these movies are about girls/young women (please do let me know any you can think of).

But his grandiose, narcissistic fantasies are amusing to watch, most memorably the opening scenes of the imaginary outpourings of grief that would attend the hero's tragic demise. Weeping teenage girls, flower and candle filled shrines and all night vigils, are the kinds of tributes Oliver imagines as his due.

Oliver is a literary genius in training, and records his life in obsessive detail. His every act is one of consequence. He's obsessed with a girl, and trying to prevent his parents' marriage imploding due to the malign attraction of their next door neighbour, a former boyfriend of his mother.

The film is beautifully realised, particularly the fantasy sequences such as the freeze frame effect as an unfortunate, bullied girl is pushed into a pond. There are apocalyptic images of rubbish dumps and deserted rail tracks that make the Swansea setting look like a waste land. Interestingly, the time period the film is set in is not obvious, there are no popular songs of the era to underline when this is set. It only struck me near the end when I realised there were no computers only type writers, and Oliver's dad had given him a souvenir cassette tape rather than a CD. The young actors are also extraordinarily watchable, and the lead, Craig Roberts is certainly no one trick pony, given the difference between this and his role as a horny teenage vampire in Being Human/Becoming Human.

But one last disparaging word about the music. Alex Turner, what were you thinking? I heard on the radio that Turner wrote the music without actually seeing the film, and I can well believe it. Such maudlin drivel you've never heard in your life. Get back to the Arctic Monkeys where you belong, and stop trying to be John Denver.