Film freaks don't just love Werner Herzog because he makes good films. It's also because he makes lots of very different films, and quickly, too. Looking at only the past several years, one realizes that this filmmaker has delivered movies as wildly disparate as 'Rescue Dawn', 'Grizzly Man', 'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans', and 'Encounters at the End of the World'. Documentaries on obscure subjects, fact-based war dramas, oddball sequels, and random miscellanea. If the guy has an actual "career plan," I'd love to read it -- but I think the endlessly fascinating Werner Herzog simply snags whatever project seems interesting to him when he has a free month or two. I admire that in a filmmaker.
Herzog's latest (and his second film of the year after 'My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done') is called 'Caves of Forgotten Dreams', and it's a quiet, mellow, and mostly captivating documentary about a prehistoric cave in Southern France that A) has only recently been unearthed, B) houses the oldest cave paintings ever discovered, and C) has never (ever) been recorded on camera before. The setting is France's Chauvet Cave, your narrative tour guide is Werner Herzog, and the resulting film will absolutely make for a very comfortable screening once The History Channel gets around to airing it.
The film is ... the inside of a cave, basically. That's not entirely fair; Herzog's crew is spelunking alongside an elite team of geologists, paleontologists, and a few other -ists, so of course we'll get frequent sidebars from those people on the history, context, importance of these frankly dazzling cave paintings. But for the most part, yeah, it's a guided tour through one of the most unique cave systems you'll ever see. And while the film was shot on "non-professional cameras," as Herzog puts it, the cinematography does a fine job of bringing this lovely-yet-creepy time capsule to life.
But then someone went and got the goofy idea that this documentary should appear in, yes, three dimensions. Apparently the resurgent 3-D gimmick has now infected the realm of low-budget documentary filmmaking -- and the gimmick does this film no favors. Even using the finest cameras in the world, 3-D has proven itself to be an inconsistent film companion at best, but given the cameras that Herzog's crew are using ... it just doesn't work. When the camera holds still and simply focuses on one of the concave walls on which are emblazoned massive horses, the 3-D gives us a little extra depth and detail -- but when the camera starts moving the 3-D becomes a consistent annoyance. Fortunately the film was produced by The History Channel, which means you'll soon be able to see it at home in "plain old" high definition.
And that's where I think 'Caves of Forgotten Dreams' will play best: from the comfort of your own couch where you can, if you want, slowly nod off to the film's dulcet tones, relaxing pace, and hushed whispers. The Chauvet Cave will undoubtedly be explored by other documentarians somewhere down the road, but it's pretty amazing how Herzog got there first -- and the pictures he now has to offer are nothing short of mind-boggling.