One of the more unexpected stylistic moves in Werner Herzog's batty 2009 film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans comes when Herzog cuts from a murder investigation to a long, loving close-up of an iguana. As the lizard placidly stares into space, you half expect to hear Herzog's highly enjoyable, easily parodied Germanic English musings burble up from the soundtrack.
Herzog's new documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, also contains a sudden appearance of a lizard and more of his cosmic ruminations about humanity and the past inspired by his tour of the magnificent Chauvet cave in southern France.
Because the French government wanted to protect Chauvet from the damage done to the Lascaux caves by tourists, this archaeological landmark, which contains cave paintings over 32,000 years old, remains off-limits to all but a handful of researchers and other professionals. Herzog and his three assistants thus recognize that their footage is a rare and valuable part of a larger historical record. Their footage needs no words, and at its best the images on the cave walls speak for themselves.
In addition to these nearly silent stretches, there are a few clips featuring Herzog interviewing "experimental archaeologists" and other dotty talking heads. But the film is a fairly human-free affair that unfolds like a Forbidden Caverns tour led by an especially spacey guide. Herzog admits to feeling like a trespasser who's somehow intruding on the work of those long-gone artists, but he's the dominant aesthetic consciousness in the film. Early on, his observations about the paintings (is the artist's depiction of a rhino with many legs an early attempt at motion-capture?) can synchronize with your own so smoothly that he feels like a benevolent Professor X inside your head.
Sometimes, though, he won't shut up. At its worst, Herzog's ramblings about "humanness" contaminate the visuals, depriving you of the headspace needed for meaningful communion with the past. Near the end of the film, Herzog and crew give the cave one last once-over, slowly moving their battery-powered lights over the paintings in an obvious yet affecting imitation of cave torches while avant-cello stylings rumble in the background. I kept wondering whether these potent, primal animal images would have benefited from a less fussy soundtrack. Still, in spite of its pretensions, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the most thoughtful G-rated film of the year.
Opening Friday, June 17th