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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Is Werner Herzog's new 3-D documentary a huge forward leap or total folly?

September 13, 2010 |  5:00 am

Werner_herzog Werner Herzog is perhaps the world's most unlikely evangelist for 3-D movies. After all, he's only seen one in his life, James Cameron's "Avatar," which clearly underwhelmed him. "I had to take my glasses off several times," he told me the other day. "I felt uncomfortable seeing 3-D images nonstop. It was very difficult for my mind to follow."

On the other hand, Herzog is perhaps the person best suited to give 3-D a much-needed jolt of artistic credibility. If the 68-year-old German filmmaker, best known for such uncompromising work as "Aguirre: The Wrath of God," "Fitzcarraldo" and the 2005 documentary "Grizzly Man," is willing to embrace the medium, then maybe someday it might be recognized as having some benefit beyond helping Hollywood squeeze more money out of moviegoers with sky-high ticket prices.

The true test of Herzog's adoption will come Monday night when his new 3-D documentary, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," debuts at the Toronto International Film Festival. When I visited Herzog at the Dolby Lab in Burbank on Wednesday, the filmmaker was clearly a bit skittish, since he had a deadline staring him in the face and an unfinished film on his hands. He had agreed to give me an exclusive peek at nearly 30 minutes of the film, which as of Wednesday was the only completed footage from the 90-minute documentary. When I arrived at 10 a.m., Herzog's cinematographer, Peter Zeitlinger, was asleep, having worked nonstop all night doing color corrections for the film.

"You've seen 30 minutes more of the film than I have," said Erik Nelson, the film's producer (and frequent Herzog collaborator), who has bankrolled the film along with the History Channel, which owns the television rights to the film. Nelson and Herzog are taking the project to Toronto in hopes of finding a theatrical distributor. "Werner is really out of his comfort zone here. He's been figuring things out as we went along -- there's a lot of go-for-broke technology getting tried out for the first time." To make things even more nerve-racking, the film is debuting Monday at the festival's brand-new Bell Lightbox center, which has never screened a 3-D movie before.

"Cave of Forgotten Dreams" takes us on a visually striking journey back in time, 32,000 years to be exact, to view the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave art in the South of France, which was discovered in 1994 and represents perhaps the earliest known visions of mankind. Until now, no one had been able to document the art on the cave walls, since only a select few scientists have been allowed inside the caves. Judith Thurman, whose New Yorker article triggered Nelson's interest in the film, wasn't allowed inside -- her piece was based on photos and interviews.

As it turns out, when Nelson approached Herzog about doing the film, he was preaching to the converted. As a boy in Germany, Herzog had been mesmerized by a book about cave paintings that he saw in a store window. Practically penniless, he got a job as a tennis ball boy to earn enough money to buy the book. "I'd sneak into the store every week to make sure no one had bought it," he explained. "After six months, I had enough money to pay for it. The deep amazement it inspired in me is with me to this day. I remember a shudder of awe possessing me as I opened its pages."

If you're a fan of Herzog's documentaries, which are often narrated by the filmmaker, you know that this is how he talks all the time. His language is full of gravely described omens and portents, as if he were living in the time of Wagner or Edgar Allan Poe. Happily, his observations are often laced with sly humor. At one point in his new film, one of the cave specialists Herzog interviews reveals that when he was younger he'd performed in the circus. "What were you, if I may ask?" Herzog says. "A lion tamer?"

As luck would have it, one of the biggest fans of Herzog's work was the French minister of culture, who after meeting with the filmmaker and offering fulsome praise for his work, gave him the green light to film inside the cave this spring. To make everyone feel comfortable about the arrangement, Herzog volunteered to serve as an employee of the ministry. "I proposed that they pay me one Euro and I even volunteered to pay the tax on that Euro in Germany," he said. "So I really delivered the movie for free to France."

The logistics for the shoot were complex. Herzog's access was limited to four hours a day for six days. Once his four-person crew was inside the cave, they couldn't leave a narrow 2-foot wide walkway installed to preserve the damp floor of the cave. Herzog had to use lighting that didn't emit any heat. "It wasn't caprice," he says. "In one of the other historic caves, the exhalations of tourists' breath caused mold, which forced the government to shut down any access. Still, it was a challenge. We were shooting in three dimensions, but we could only move in one dimension, since you couldn't step around anyone without leaving the walkway."

The crew -- a cinematographer, sound man, assistant and Herzog, who worked the lights -- could only bring in whatever equipment they could carry in their hands. The 3-D cameras were largely assembled inside the cave. "We have very little time, very little light and very few tools," he explained. "So we essentially built this very complex apparatus inside the cave, with no support from the outside, since the doors were always closed behind us to preserve the cave's atmosphere."

As the film reveals, what Herzog found inside was astounding.

The cave drawings, made largely with charcoal and some ochre, are sleek, supple and surprisingly modern. The drawings of bison hug the contours of the cave, a bulge in the rock serving as the animal's hump. Woolly mammoths are depicted in eight different phases, as if they were frames in an animated film.

For Herzog, 3-D was the perfect tool to capture the drawings, since after all, the cave that held the drawings was akin to a modern-day theater or gallery where primitive people could view, by torchlight, this mysterious new form of art. "Once you see the cave with your own eyes, you realize it had to be filmed in 3-D," Herzog says. "I've never used the process in the 58 films I made before and I have no plans to do it ever again, but it was important to capture the intentions of the painters. Once you saw the crazy niches and bulges and rock pendants in the walls, it was obvious it had to be in 3-D."

In other words, Herzog is only a temporary convert to the 3-D cause. To him, the technology is far more constricting than liberating. "We shouldn't ever have a romantic comedy in 3-D, because we, the audience, have an emotional approach to the storytelling which leaves open lot of narrative possibilities," he explained. "You wonder as you watch -- will the young man and the woman find each other? Fall in love? We start to fantasize, which you could never do in 3-D, where you would be in the handcuffs of the technological effects. With cinema, your fantasies should always be free."

Herzog shrewdly realized that with 3-D, sometimes less is more. He says that when they began the shoot, he told his cinematographer to underplay the effects. "I said, 'Let's deal with 3-D as if we had 30 or 40 years of history behind us. We should be completely casual, as if we weren't trying to impress everyone with the scope of it.'" Of course, nothing is ever casual with Herzog. Judging from the portions of the film I saw, he has offered us a ringside seat to gaze upon the beginning of man's exploration of art. And he has even made a great case for 3-D, since if there were ever a movie that encouraged us to let our fantasies run free, it would be "Cave of Forgotten Dreams."

Photo: Werner Herzog, left, with cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, while filming his new documentary, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." Credit: Marc Valasella 

 

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