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Culture Warrior: 3D Stops Being a Gimmick in Herzog’s Cinematic Caves

By  · Published on April 26th, 2011

I am not a fan of 3D. Even in the most technologically adept cases where the 3D landscape has layers of depth, even in those most “Cameronesque” of instances, I am unable to get past the gimmickry in the mode of viewing. As a human being, I’m already trained to perceive two-dimensional images in three dimensions, why would I need to attach cumbersome glasses to my face to show me a pronounced version of what I already perceive? I had never encountered a situation in which the forced depth of 3D actually added to any depth in content of the film itself.

That is, until I saw Werner Herzog’s The Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Disbelief Suspension

3D for me forces a different kind of suspense of disbelief, that is: none at all. The added depth proudly carries an artifice to it so, ironically, 3D actually prevents me from “immersing” myself in a film. The interesting thing about using 3D for a documentary, then, is that most nonfiction films don’t require the same kind of engagement as narrative films do – they often require thoughtful critical inquiry and observation, but not disbelief suspended for fictional narrative delivery, as the very status of “nonfiction” already carries with it (at least initially) an assumed authoritative connection to reality. So a self-reflexive awareness of the technology that produced the film does not in such cases interfere with the film itself.

But what does 3D actually do that is essential to telling a particular story that is simply unable to be told the same way in 2D? In this case, it tells a story, through both form and content, about the history of cinema.

3D is justified, if not essential, in Cave of Forgotten Dreams in order to better understand the subject of the film’s observation: not just the caves, but their textures and their geography; how the space in the cave is coordinated, and thus how the ancient images within them function together.

This film reminded me in many ways of Herzog’s previous nonfiction effort, Encounters at the End of the World (2008, a film that likewise toyed with exhibition technology through its limited IMAX run), a film that also put a magnifying class on a particularly fascinating and important place in the world as well as the idiosyncratic experts that occupy that space. Herzog has an uncanny ability to inspire his human subjects to reveal themselves personally beyond the expected documentary role of well-informed talking heads, and he digs in (so to speak) to uncover unusual characteristics that make them both empathetically human and singularly unique. To watch a Herzog documentary is to examine a subject as mediated through the eccentric director’s signature personality, so a contract is definitely made between audience and filmmaker that this is not just going to be a film about an interesting subject, but about Herzog’s interpretation of that subject.

However, Herzog’s role here is significantly different from the documentary trend of the past decade in which the documentarian is ultimately the subject of the documentary (e.g., the films of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, who are neophytes compared to Herzog), because while Herzog is ever-present in the film, he’s also consistently present is his tangible enthusiasm and fascination with his subject. And as the subject is filtered through Herzog’s own personality, this fascination, along with Herzog’s ability to locate idiosyncratic traits in his subjects, can be contagious. The people interviewed, and even the cave itself, become Herzogian (when one of the cave’s scientists reveals that he was formerly a circus performer, despite the fact that this is part of the subject’s life and not Herzog’s, this detail comes across as exactly what one would encounter in a Herzog film).

Herzog’s World

That said, the individuals whose job it is to explore the cave is not the subject of this film the same way the Antarctic scientists were the subject of Encounters. Their contribution is illuminating and interesting, but the stars of the film are the contours and etchings on the cave. As such, the only instance in which the 3D seems superfluous is during these interviews (notably the ones that are filmed outside the cave).

But the trade-off is well worth it, for in the three dimensions of the cave we are not only provided ancient remnants of the history of human expression, but a demonstration of the history of understanding the world around us through moving images. Someone much smarter than I am pointed out after the screening that Herzog used the newest technology in personal expression to capture remnants of the oldest technologies of personal expression. To even think of cave etching as technologies (though, in their context as a means for expression, innovation, depicting narrative, and gaining understanding, they certainly were) is revealing in terms of understanding their use. Though I take issue with the implied assertion here that 3D itself is one of cinema’s “newest” technologies, in terms of the 3D being manifested through images captured by tiny digital cameras, this is certainly the case.

Throughout the doc, Herzog makes observations that draw parallels between the content of the caves and the functions of cinematic representation. He points to several cave drawings that depict animals in motion, even though the images are still, which is analogous to how the human eye would come to perceive a series of still images as movement. He discusses the function of light that would emanate in the cave as its inhabitants would move through it – that this too would create – or, in movie terms, project – motion and life onto still images. Like cinema, these images come to life through a play between light and shadows.

New Lenses

An analogy Herzog thankfully avoids is Plato’s Cave. Plato’s story of individuals isolated in a cave who come to accept shadows on walls as reality has been a favorite of cinephiles who see in this example the origins of the idea of cinema, but the analogy falls apart when one takes into account that, unlike cinema, the experience of the individuals in the story of Plato’s Cave is one of false reality, not of willing suspense of disbelief, and the latter – that is, the fact that we willingly indulge in what we know to be merely representations of what we understand to be reality and not reality itself – is a far more interesting aspect of the human experience of “moving” images.

And that’s what’s so fascinating (and warranted) about Herzog’s cinema analogies throughout the film: they allow us to understand that these ancient peoples possessed the same capacities as us for distinguishing and experiencing an artificial representation of reality and using it to better understand reality itself. In sitting in a movie theater, we are having a quite similar experience to the original purveyors of the caves: stories told through light and shadows. This is why Herzog’s employment of 3D is so essential to this film, in that it reveals the etchings on the caves not only to be two-dimensional images, but two-dimensional images manifested through a three-dimensional plane of view. As these etchings are made along the vast contours of the cave, they hardly take on only two-dimensions (just like our mind’s ability to perceive many two-dimensional images – a painting, a photograph, a movie – in three dimensions).

What Herzog’s camera is capturing here are two-dimensional images on a three-dimensional surface through a technology that forces us to perceive three-dimensional depths within images projected two-dimensionally. In other words, 3D in this case helps us understand the multidimensional function of bi-dimensional images. Thus, looking at two-dimensional images (the drawings), through a technology that manifests three dimensions seems like the only way this film should have been made. That’s why the best moments of the film are when there is no presence of a human entity or voice, but simply, in sequences that drew parallels to the ending of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, prolonged examinations of the contours of the cave accompanied by Ernst Reijseger’s haunting score. In examining “ancient cinema” through the means of contemporary cinema, and in examining old artistic expressions through new expressive devices, we get moments of a uniquely Herzogian pure cinema.

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D opens in limited release this weekend.

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