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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Werner Herzog’s Cinema of Forgotten Dreams at the Beginning and End of the World

Apocalypse is in the air. People are tense and nervous, their fingers ready to hit the Panic button. Earthquakes, tornadoes, revolutions, tsunamis, Reality TV stars as presidential candidates: the end is nigh. I'll write more about that next week, as May 21st draws nearer, but I bring it up to ponder Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a 3D documentary about the oldest known cave drawings, and use it as a prelude to apocalyptic conversation. Herzog's new film has the entirety of our history in mind, which necessarily relates it to his previous documentary, Encounters at the End of the World. In that film Herzog used the landscape of Antarctica, and the eccentric explorers populating it, as a canvas to think about the conclusion of our civilization as even this faraway continent has now been contaminated with the bacteria of human banality.

Herzog is one of the best cinematic sculptors, in reference to how he shapes his footage not so as to create a documentary of factual truth, but rather poetic – ecstatic – truth, a credo listed out in his famous Minnesota Declaration, delivered at the Walker Art Center in 1999. He is not bound by any verite strictures, and has no qualm about manipulating aspects of his documentaries in order to feed his poetic thrust. For example in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Dieter Dengler's house is designed with portraits of doors so as to symbolically connect with his inability to be enclosed after the trauma of Vietnamese imprisonment. The material that Herzog observantly shoots with his cinematographer (exclusively Peter Zeitlinger in recent years) moves him to personally examine a philosophical direction he wants to explore. The documentary then becomes less of an account of factual reality than pure poetic expression.

Encounters at the End of the World takes personal anecdotes from the "dreamers" and travellers who've found themselves in Antarctica, lustrous underwater videography, safety classes, volcanic footage, 1950s science fiction, and insane penguins, stirring them in a pot that ultimately wants to contemplate our place on the vast canvas of a historical timeline that is impersonal towards our fate. One of the opening speculations by Herzog is played alongside footage of the Long Ranger, asking why it is that human beings seem to always put on masks and feathers in their pursuit for the "bad guys." We chronically conceal our identities with heroics to the edge of absurdity. The original explorers of the Antarctic, like Scott and Shackleton, set up a new standard for conquest where people and nations had to set their flags in the ground to prove their accomplishment. The pattern of the 20th century was the disavowal of the unknown: no land is immune from our gaze and conquest. The goal of heroics has destroyed travel's relationship to dreaming. We see the alternative viewpoint in one of Herzog's subjects, a philosopher who believes that the exploration of the world is akin to the exploration of ideas. The landscape of Antarctica is a terrain that parallels human consciousness, and the dreamers here converging at "the end of the world," where all lines intersect, share in the mystery. Professional dreamers "dream all the time," the Philosopher says, "because the universe dreams through our dreams. There are many different ways for the reality to bring itself forward, and dreaming is definitely one of those ways." The notion of this geographical location being a high symbolic abstraction is emboldened by how the ice is always moving and never static. Antarctica is a breathing world, not simply a large block of ice. Its inhabitants of gigantic icebergs moving outward hold great implications for the peopled world as they slowly move northwards, into warmer waters. "Antarctica is broadcasting news to the rest of the world," a scientist says to Herzog, pointing out the moving ice block entities.

The world beneath Antarctica, whether in the eerily strange life and sounds beneath the water or the volcanos that spew gas and lava above, bespeak for Herzog as much the magisterial quality of life as it does the insignificance of human life. What is mainly on Herzog's mind is our End, and he plays this up by having one of the scientists screen movies about apocalyptic destruction. This same scientist, a science-fiction enthusiast, describes the carnivorous sea creatures that he studies, and how they would make life hell for the other small organisms in the water (and cause enough for humans to evolve and get the hell out of the ocean). We then see the film Them! being screened, where gigantic mutant insects prey on civilization. "Nature," the scientist predicts, "will regulate us," not the other way around, as the conveniences of our gadget-laden society try to assure us. Things are definitely winding down. Herzog narrates, "Our presence on this planet does not seem sustainable. Our technical civilization makes us particularly vulnerable. There is talk all over the scientific community about climate change. Many of them agree the end of human life on this earth is assured. Human life is a part of an endless chain of catastrophes, the demise of the dinosaurs being just one of these events. We seem to be next. And when we are gone, what will happen thousands of years from now in the future? Will there be alien archeologists from another planet, trying to find out what we were doing at the South Pole?"

The aliens will find a frozen sturgeon, completely without context, and pictures framed with popcorn. They will wonder about what we were dreaming and how the world lived through us. The Exploring Philosopher quotes Alan Watts: Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself, and through our ears the universe is listening to its cosmic harmonies. And we are the witness through which the universe becomes conscious of itself. At the end of the world, of the entire human race, Herzog does not feel fear, but an indescribable awe which has been related to the same longing that moves throughout his entire body of work, his camera lingering for elongated moments on objects as if it wanted to possess and understand them absolutely. Our consciousness is so terribly insignificant, and yet suggests that the sublime outer landscapes act as its own mirror and double.


Cave of Forgotten Dreams goes back in time, to the beginning of our civilization when we were first entering the dream of our existence or maybe waking up from nothingness and needing to communicate and remember the dream that only could be recalled in the glimmer of a spontaneous moment. Encounters at the End of the World equates coarse landscape to the mystery of consciousness, the human sensibility conveyed through ATMs and ice cream machines. The Chauvet Cave in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, on the other hand, is our preserved infancy as we animate and dream with the terrain in which we coexist in nature. It refers to a time before an established Self, or when humans still had not solidly defined the Self as being distinct from all other beings. The drawings we see on the walls reveal the animism of our ancestors, who believed that the spirits inhabiting the lions, bears, and rhinoceroses outside were of the same substance breathing through human life. There was one breath of life. Like the dreamer in the morning whose foggy cognition still has not compartmentalized the unreal specters of his slumber from the daily signifiers of individuality found around his bed, the artisans who inhabited the Chauvet Cave were standing in both the day and the night of a deep Self that was still not opaque. Going to these caves, discovered by accident in 1994 and twice as old as all other known ancestral caves (estimated at 32-40,000 years old), is not a mere anthropological experience for Herzog and Zeitlinger, but an immersion into the mystery of the Self.

Herzog speaks about the "dreams" of the cave dwellers, just as he thought about the dreams of the Antarctic explorers and misfits. Herzog wants to contemplate the world from their eyes, his camera lingering on their art and environment within this perfect time capsule so as to walk through time, sharing the space with people who walked with extinct mammoths. He wants to bridge the great gap of our history, empathetically tying us to these souls so far away from the world of ceaseless white technological noise. And yet that he attempts to do this with 3D cameras and graphic displays, the most advanced contraptions of our technology, beautifully conveys how the drawings in this cave were the very first inflections of how modern tools of cinematic entertainment work on us.

The cynical among us may scoff at Herzog's exhortations, of which we cannot help but emit a chuckle when played against the archaeological seriousness of the scientists he interviews. Though he has one of the best, offbeat senses of humor I've encountered in movies, Herzog claims that he does not understand irony. No matter, being that Herzog's natural disposition aids his interest in excavating the ground concepts of what it means to be human, something too few filmmakers are interested in, even as they work in a medium perfect for its contemplation.

It's that contemplation, bridging reflections on the universe to cinema, which captures Herzog's fancy here, and is an added element that makes his use of 3D cinematography meaningful aside from its necessity in capturing the crammed quarters of the cave. The animals that are drawn in Chauvet are not rough renderings, but are rather very sophisticated constructions, taking advantage of the rocky cave textures to enrich their purpose. Herzog imagines how the drawings looked to their artisans and original viewers, playing in the light and shadow generated by torches. The multiple legs of a bison, for example, suggest a moving creature, "a kind of proto cinema," says Herzog. The drawings often seem to work like frames in an animated motion picture. Herzog reiterates this idea by cutting the cave footage alongside Fred Astaire dancing with his shadow.

The artists here were not simply drawing the things they saw in a kind of visual mimicry. This art was ritualistic and ceremonial, geared towards telling stories. And so as with cinema, stories do not fascinate or deepen the viewer's understanding if they are mere plot or simple conveyances of outer landscapes and concrete concepts. The animals there are representative of inner landscapes. The geography of the caves gave these images a harmony of contrast and shape with which to play into an ecstatic meaning, the same way the ocean footage works in Encounters at the End of the World. An archeologist in Cave of Forgotten Dreams admits that after first studying the drawings, he dreamt about lions for days. "I needed time to relax, to absorb it." The concrete, bare fact of the lion drawing is not important. On the contrary it is the dream, what the lion suggests, what the artist was dreaming and thinking while drawing it, and finally how the viewer dreams of and relates to the artifact.

We can never fully recreate the past. This is an aching truth that cinema nevertheless attempts to do again and again, because it must. Cinema is fascinated with history, and Herzog as much as anyone seems to want to absorb and contain history, the past, the fleeting moment, in his celluloid. We too, Herzog is saying, should pay dutiful respect to the rendering of the past and the ungraspable moment that is always moving and never static, time being like the unfathomable neutrinos that ceaselessly pass through human bodies. The filmmaker wants to contain a temporal moment as perfectly as the Chauvet cave was preserved by glacial rock. This is a futile ideal, and yet this is the longing implicit within so much sensual moviemaking (Herzog, Wong-Kar Wai, Malick, Michael Mann), and directs to the very allure of Film. In its purest form, cinema communicates memory. A credo of the filmmaker is, "I have seen things that no one else has seen, and I want to make these things visible." Perhaps he never can, as no one can, though the new cinema of the graphic designer, CGI, and immersive 3D moviegoing, aims to wholly translate by artificial means the landscape of the mind without the hardware of a physical landscape. Something, I feel, gets sorrowfully lost in this communication.

One of Herzog's interviews features an individual contemplating this idea of communication and its sanctity, "with this camera, for example," he says. Encounters at the End of the World briefly ponders the gradual but accelerating extinction of human languages, though lame posturing and banality propagate to no end. However, the syntax of images, Herzog shows, can communicate more plentifully than spoken words, because they can suggest that which can never be wholly grasped. The early cave artisan is the filmmaker's ancestor. But whereas the filmmaker is locked in history, the cave artisan is at the opening of human experience and reflection. We have a web of simulation that acts as an obstacle in our pursuit for the raw, pure experience of the historical moment. The Chauvet Cave itself has an amusement park closing in nearby, along with the residual effects of a nuclear power plant. The world is opened to erosion with our action, whether at Chauvet or in Antarctica. Albino crocodiles are the object of Herzog's final images in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, looking at themselves in the glass. Is that reflection another being? Or merely a mirror? Cinema, like any art, begs its viewer to dream with it. The piece that completes the puzzle and the dream is what the viewer brings to it, realizing that we all dream and have been so dreaming for eons. This is why art is important. "Why are you painting?" an artist is asked. "It is not I who paints," he answers. A spirit is acting through his hand.

"A wall can talk to us," is another observation uttered in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. And too often tourism and moviegoing are placid and dull experiences where we bathe in the novelty or escapism of it. You must take the dream with you, like the archeologist, in order to complete the picture. The secret truth of Cave of Forgotten Dreams is that its title not only refers to Chauvet, but also to the dark room where the audience sits, looks, and travels outward though inward, through a prism of dreams, sensations, and experiences. We are that prism into which consciousness shines and spreads its array of colors. They may not last, and nor will we, but they concentrate with us in their meditative prayer of "I was."

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