Toronto: Werner Herzog’s 3-D cave movie

The German madman's new film is a spectacular tour of a 33,000-year-old art gallery. Mind blown!

Topics: Toronto International Film Festival, Archaeology, Documentaries, Our Picks, Movies,

Toronto: Werner Herzog's 3-D cave movieA still from "Cave of Forgotten Dreams"

TORONTO — Something like 20,000 years ago, a rock slide sealed up the entrance to a large cave set into a limestone cliff above the Ardèche River in southern France. No human being entered it again until 1994, when a trio of explorers wedged themselves through a tiny aperture and made one of the most extraordinary discoveries of cultural history: Chambers upon chambers of spectacular prehistoric art, both figurative and abstract, including images of many extinct species of Ice Age animals. You and I will never see any of this, except with the help of Werner Herzog’s strange, flawed and mesmerizing 3-D film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday night.

Let me go over that again briefly: Yes, Werner Herzog has made a movie in 3-D that’s largely set inside a cave full of Stone Age art. His producer, Erik Nelson — who is a friend and an occasional Salon contributor — says that Herzog is the first director of the new 3-D wave to use the technology for good, not for evil. Secondly, yes, the art is beautiful, even stunningly accomplished, and these images are breathtaking — unlike anything you’ve seen before or will see again. And thirdly, yes, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” will become a classic drug movie almost immediately, although the experience is mind-altering enough without any augmentation.

What’s now known as the Chauvet Cave (after Jean-Marie Chauvet, leader of the exploring party) was promptly seized and sealed by the French government; more people have visited the summit of Everest since 1994 than have seen the interior of the cave. Much of the struggle for Herzog and Nelson was getting in there in the first place. Beyond the 400 or so Paleolithic cave paintings in pristine condition, and the important artifacts and fossils (cave-bear skulls! cave-bear scratches!), Chauvet has far-reaching implications for the study of cultural prehistory and the birth of human consciousness. These paintings are roughly twice as old as any other known examples of pictorial art. (The earliest of them may go back 33,000 years.) They’re as close as we can come, at least for now, to the dawn of art.



If you had to nominate one filmmaker to explore this astonishing underground world for posterity, then the legendary cinematic madman and visionary who once ordered a passenger ship pulled over a mountain might well be your choice. Herzog has never been daunted by logistical challenges, and from his early career in Germany through documentaries like “Encounters at the End of the World” and “Grizzly Man,” his work has been infused with what you might call an atheistic spirituality. He’s always fascinated by the kinds of unanswerable questions about human nature and the human soul that Chauvet seems to pose.

Getting into Chauvet and out again with these amazing pictures is really quite enough: The overlaid quartet of horses! The pair of battling woolly rhinos! The running bison, flowing with the contours of the cave wall! It’s a gift to humanity, one that all on its own places this among Herzog’s most important films. Watching “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is an interactive experience, and not in the bogus computer-game sense. I guarantee you will exclaim out loud, ooh and ahh, feel shivers of recognition go down your spine.

I’ll leave a fuller consideration of “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” for another time, since it has no distributor or release date. For now, I’ll merely add that I wish our willfully eccentric German cave guide indulged in a little more of his customary philosophical speculation, and wasn’t so easily distracted by former circus performers, fur-clad scientists who can play the “Star-Spangled Banner” on a vulture bone, and albino crocodiles. (You think I’m kidding about the crocodiles.)

Scientists are supposed to avoid guesswork and supposition, but filmmakers aren’t. To me Herzog’s claim that the world of Chauvet is lost and unknowable simply isn’t true. (In other words, his title is wrong.) OK, we’ll never know what language they spoke in 31,000 B.C., or hear the stories they told around the fire. But what makes Chauvet so striking, I think, is that on a species-instinct level, we recognize it immediately. It’s the place where those stories got shaped and told, the place where one generation passed along its symbolic understanding of the universe to the next. My first thought was: It’s the first cathedral ever built, and the ones in Chartres and Salisbury are just later versions of the same thing. You might prefer to call it a theater or an art gallery or a dance hall instead; I suspect it comes to the same thing in the end.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>