I think it’s pretty obvious that I, like many other film people, really hate the 3D fad. That it’s anything but at this point seems like a stalled discussion, as audience attendance at 3D screenings seems to fall and the number of people depending 3D productions slowly dwindles. The best you can manage, if you’re lucky, is a begrudging ‘hey, at least the 3D wasn’t shit.’
We’re a long way from Pandora. Whatever James Cameron’s vision for the 3D future would have been, it seems likely that it will utterly stall out before he can even make his next entry into the argument for the ‘new format.’ And maybe that’s for the best. Revisiting Avatarin 2D doesn’t really make it a lesser film, outside of the seams in the shoddier CG bits that 3D covered up through blur and bluster.
So I found myself several weeks ago going into Werner Herzog’s latest film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, with something approaching bemusement. My experience with Herzog is limited, I’ll admit, but I think I kind of have an idea of what to expect and learning that he shot a documentary in 3D firmly set me in the mindset that I was going to see something strange and potentially straight-faced hilarious. Certainly Herzog would have some meta-critique on 3D in films within this documentary, even if it didn’t jive with the subject matter.
What I found instead was easily the best legitimate use of the format I have seen, and (for me) the first compelling argument for its continued use as movies go forward in this brave new century of cinema. And also a completely straight Herzog documentary. Which is maybe completely beside the point, really, but is also the heart of my argument.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is about the Chauvet cave in southern France. The cave, discovered in 1994, contains cave paintings dating back 30000 years ago. Yep, you read that right, 30000 years. While the cave is often sealed to prevent tampering and contamination of the site, Herzog was given access to enter with a crew of four, including himself, to film what might be the greatest example of early human art.
Herzog chose to complicate his task by filming in 3D, an idea that was probably as mad in conception as it was brilliant in execution. Because with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog made me consider the implications of 3D films without ever bothering to try to make a commentary. It is simply self-evident in the film
The Chauvet cave is a great archaeological site, but the problem with such sites is their remoteness. One can go and visit similar sites that aren’t protected, but that is something that requires significant expense. It is both art and history locked away experientially to most people, simply because of the difficulty of obtaining it. It is art that will never be accessible to most people outside of pictures and film.
Which is fine if you’re taking pictures of a museum, of paintings carefully framed and lit. But it’s not okay for cave paintings, ethereal depictions reaching out of the very walls of the cave, portrayals of life as understood by people so incredibly remote from us its hard to actually comprehend the time frame rippling across the rock face.
Which brings us back to the 3D. With the technology, Herzog has presented the Chauvet cave as close to the real experience as possible. The crew was limited to a very thin walkway erected over the site, and so with the viewpoint locked we’re granted as much access as the researchers and visitors themselves had, of the art in its natural form, working with the uneven surface of the rock. It’s a fusion of art and nature that is dependent upon the perception of depth, on the sense of scale and distance and dimension.
I can honestly say I have never had such an eye-opening experience to the potential of a medium I had so easily discounted.
Which raises all sorts of questions. Herzog’s use of 3D is stunning, revelatory (at least to me) in how it makes the remote immediate and allows the presentation of something designed to exist in the real world to capture some part of its essence through the multiple real and metaphorical lenses of cinema. But where does that leave 3D? Certainly it could be put to great effect in the filming of objects for the sake of documentation. I would love to see more explorations of space, of sculpture or even architecture, that used 3D to give a sense of space and scale and dimension that film can often flatten, even in the hands of a great cinematographer.
But when we slap 3D on every blockbuster that gets kicked out the door, it cheapens not only this new tool but the perception of it. How many people roll their eyes the moment they’re told something is going to be in 3D? I know I certainly do. And whenever a movie is released in 3D I invariably seek out the 2D showings at my local theaters. Because the gimmick isn’t cute anymore, and there’s no new ground being broken.
Yet if Cave of Forgotten Dreams has shown me anything, its that there’s a future for this new way to create art. I don’t know what the answer is, because it’s so difficult to suss out what it provides to the experience. We’re so used to film as it is, the rules of cinema so codified, that the potential of 3D as a medium might never actually be genuinely explored before its abandoned to its misuse.
I’m not sure what narrative impact it could have in a non-documentary space, but I’d very much want to find out. I would love to see some radical departure from the ‘poke shit out at you’ gimmick and move somewhere where dimension is used in a way the film is built around. Someone once broke ground on zooming in the camera lense. Moving the camera. Crane shots. Sound. Color. Widescreen. Maybe someday someone will break the new ground on what 3D can bring us.
Or not. Herzog has said he has no plans to use 3D again, that this was simply because it was the perfect way to showcase his subject matter. Which is understandable. It’s a tool, like any other tool in the filmmaking repertoire. But like the caves of Chauvet, it seems doomed to the obscurity of the past, a footnote on the onward march of art and humanity.