INSTANT 3: Documentaries

Keep flipping past the same flicks in your "Watch Instantly" Netflix queue?  The films they have reserved for instant view can be a mixed bag, so here are a few short recommendations for the Documentary category:

1)  Marwencol (2010) -  The less you know about this one going in the better.You might classify it as an "Outsider Artist" picture, along the lines of Jessica Yu's incredible In the Realms of the Unreal, but Marwencol has its own style, featuring some stunning small-scale cinematography.  You may find yourself wanting to freeze the frame from time to time just to savor some of the images, which achieve an expressiveness that is confounding and magical.  Can't say anymore.  Not only  a 
a great documentary about an uncommon artist, but one of the great overlooked
films from last year, period.

Mark Hogancamp in Marwencol
 2)  Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) - Once again, a movie that is better experienced without too much pre-screening information.  Maybe my favorite film of last year (next to the subject of my last post, True Grit).  A great double-bill with Orson Welles' F for Fake (1973), this first film by street/pop artist Banksy upends the documentary form in a similar way, leaving all sorts of questions in it's wake about authorship in art, while simultaneously giving a satisfying overview of the street art movement.

A "Banksy" or a "Brainwash"?
3)   Rivers and Tides:  Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time (2003) - Ok, so all of these Documentary recommendations are films about art and artists, but none of them are as breathtaking as Rivers and TidesAndy Goldsworthy is a pioneer of earth art, working with natural materials
and landscapes to create astounding works of impermanence, some of them lasting only
a few seconds.  In fact, my favorite scenes from this are of his more brief works: the "Red Waterfall" scene, as well as the final shots of the picture, which subvert our desire for a final display of something "big," instead leaving us with this incredible moment of childlike simplicity and joy.
If you haven't seen this one, it's about time.

A Goldsworthy, for sure

"True Grit" dir., Ethan and Joel Coen, 2010

The latest adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel True Grit is a surprising entry in the filmography of the sibling autuers Joel and Ethan Coen, though not surprising in the ways that we've come to expect from the blatant narrative upsets of recent pictures like No Country For Old Men (2007) and A Serious Man (2009). True Grit opts to follow the rules, all the way through to a couple of climatic moments of self-reflexive joy.  True Grit is, perhaps, the most conventional narrative that the Coen Brothers have ever produced, and even though this seems like it might lead to a film whose outcome has less weight than the aforementioned triumphs, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit
In True Grit the Coens are working in a storytelling mode that is simultaneously faithful to the original text, while effortlessly playing like an evolution of their own unique aesthetic.  As in No Country for Old Men, the confines of the literature they are adapting suits their visual sensibility remarkably well.  Credit needs to go here to one of my cinematic heroes: cinematographer Roger Deakins.  Deakin's carefully negotiates the Texas and New Mexico shooting locations of True Grit in a way that does not need to linger excessively, and captures the landscape with stark precision, while moving us along at a sure clip in the hunt through the Western Arkansas hills of the story.  Surely, True Grit ranks among the most memorable of Deakin's work; with the Coens alone that includes the surreal hallways of Barton Fink, the golden lanes of The Big Lebowski, the white expanses of Fargo, and the black and white perfection of The Man Who Wasn't There.  Solely based on those works, Deakin's achievements would be remarkable enough, but add to it the work he's done with an array of other directors over the last 5 years:  Revolutionary Road and Doubt in 2008, and the film that must have prepped him most significantly for the challenges of True Grit, the gorgeous 2007 western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, just to name a few.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
True Grit is yet again a very different type of western than The Assassination of Jesse James, but would still be considered a "superwestern," as critic/founder of Cahiers du Cinema, Andre Bazin would have it.  Bazin coined the term "superwestern" in the early 70's to address the western that transcended through theme the plot conventions of commercial westerns; a western that, as he put it, "would be ashamed to be just itself." Bazin was addressing the post-WWII superwesterns of King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946), Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952), and George Steven's Shane (1953), but the post-Unforgiven superwesterns that lead to True Grit through the 90's and 00's are important to note as well, including Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (1995), Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol.2 (2004), Tommy Lee Jones's The Three Burials of Melquiedes Estrada (2005), John Hillcoat's The Proposition (2005), James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma (2007), and Gore Verbinski's recent surrealist-tinged cinema homage, Rango.  All of these pictures, ironically, seem to contain more actual grit than either version of True Grit.

In contrast to this collection of modern superwesterns, True Grit is decidedly Sunday matinee fare.  Even in contrast to the Coen Brother's entire filmography, True Grit is probably the least unruly of all of their narratives.  Even O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the film of theirs that sits most closely to True Grit in terms of audience appeal (and likelihood to appear on ABC's Family Channel), is layered in its references and squirrely in its storytelling in a way that makes True Grit seem uncomplicated in comparison.  The storytelling in True Grit is so stalwart and enjoyable that attention is almost drawn away from the subtle ways in which the Coens can't help but frustrate the perfectly calm gallop of young Mattie's quest.  For instance, the Coen's take time to show us Mattie's stern negotiation of the ponies with Col. Stonehill ("I do not entertain hypotheticals...The world itself is vexing enough"), and reveal further aspects of her character through the way in which she body-blocks Cogburn in her first attempt to employ him, all the while rolling his cigarette, and ultimately backing a man twice her size out the door in the opposite direction.  Later in the film, the script strays slightly in a chance meeting with what at first appears to be a brown bear riding a horse, and is revealed to be the reincarnation of Jack Elam (actually, actor Ed Corbin, brother of Northern Exposure and No Country's Barry Corbin), in a scene that  might be considered the True Grit equivalent of the Mika Yanagita scene in Fargo.

Ed Corbin in True Grit
The Coen's often allow us time to get used to the routines and mannerisms of their characters in this same way (think Lebowski), but it's in how they handle the unexpected that we truly come to know them (think A Serious Man).  Rooster and Mattie are cut from the same cloth--the true grit of the title refers every bit as much to her as it does to him, and, as characters, there is not much that alarms them.  Their emotional wells are not deep, and their overall personalities leave something to be desired.  We see each of them work awkwardly toward moments of levity--Rooster's attempt at entertaining Mattie with rambling, growled stories of ex-wives and failed endeavors, and Mattie's attempt at quelling the tension between Cogburn and LaBoeuf by enacting something called "The Midnight Caller"--but never get the sense that they really have it in them.

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit
I have often suspected that if there is a fatal flaw in the Coen's films it's a somewhat cruel detachment from their characters.  It took No Country For Old Men to reveal this aspect of detachment in Fargo for me, but True Grit's characterizations seem perfectly perched between a realm of pulp western and mythic journey, and in this sense the trappings of the genre and the source material suit the Coens perfectly.  As a genre piece, I found True Grit deeply moving (even the third time around).  In the finale of the film's plot, Rooster takes action beyond the want of Mattie's fees to save Mattie from a snakebite, driving her horse Blackie relentlessly into the night.  In a visual move that seems to me a unique risk within the Coen's films, the skies behind the huddled, wounded pair of protagonists are subtly changed to green screen inserts, estranging the tale ever so slightly from the realistic landscapes to which we've become accustomed, readying us for the final passage of the film, which shows little mercy.

Jeff Bridges in True Grit
Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man
 The Coens like to "gang up" on their characters, so to speak.  There may be no better example of this than the slow, brutal build of punishments they dished out to Larry Gopnick in their last film, 2009's A Serious Man, but their films are full of nearly action-less heroes who do little more than witness the events swirling around them; from Barton Fink to the Dude, Ed Crane to Ed Tom Bell.  Throughout all of these films, the Coens are continually interested in subverting classic character and story archetypes, fueled by an obsession with the comedic rhythms of Preston Sturges, the films of Cornell Wilde, and film noir in general.  True Grit ultimately seems most interested in subverting the expectations of those who are expecting the Coens to "perform" like the Coens again.  If A Serious Man is a meditation on the relationship between our moral actions and their worldly consequences, and an indictment of the idea of narrative meaning within the Jewish faith (and the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane), then True Grit is a straight arrow bible story, unfolding with unflinching morality from the fade away of its opening verse from Proverbs:  "The wicked flee when no man pursueth."  (For David Lynch fans:  True Grit is to A Serious Man what The Straight Story is to Lost Highway, perhaps?)

The finale of A Serious Man
"Fill your hands..."
Rooster Cogburn faces off with Lucky Ned and his men in True Grit

Ultimately, it is the epilogue of True Grit that endows the film with the same weight of questions contained within their previous masterworks.  What we get in those final scenes is Mattie a quarter of a century later, dressed in black as she returns to see Cogburn, who is now a feature in a Wild West Show.  Mattie has now had a part of her body taken away, mirroring Cogburn's condition; this time an arm, in contrast to Cogburn's eye.  It is an uncompromising vision of Mattie that we get in these final scenes.  Her run-in with the ragged Wild West showmen allows us a reassessment of her character, as well as the myth of the "west"-ern, as she turns a quick heel and coldly barks at one of them, "Keep your seat, trash." 
Elizabeth Marvel in True Grit

In those final moments, as we ruminate on the opening verse, are we to read Mattie as a triumphant, transformed hero?  A bitter, maimed spinster?  A quiet rebel, content with her actions and at piece with herself?  A feminist, western icon, or an anti-feminist icon for the religious right?  Will the real Mattie Ross please stand up?


DOUBLE FEATURE: "Baby Doll" dir., Elia Kazan, 1956 + "Sucker Punch" dir., Zach Snyder, 2011

Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams were heating up film audiences and the Catholic church in the mid-50's with a film that holds up extremely well, apart from the tremendous controversy that surrounded it upon release and the landmark it has become in changing the rating system since then.  Baby Doll involves a destitute Southern cotton-gin owner, Archie Lee Meighan, played with perfect, balding, sweaty desperation by Karl Malden, and his soon to be bride, the 18 year-old "baby doll" of this picture, played by Caroll Baker.  Everything is crumbling around Meighan as the picture picks up just days before he can marry his captive bride, and, more importantly to him, consummate the marriage.  Malden's portrayal is perverse in its physicality, and our perception of his perversity is compounded by the structure of the opening scene, which finds Archie Lee peeking a glimpse of Baby Doll through a ragged hole he has made in the already crumbling plaster wall of the decrpit Tiger Tail Mansion.  This is our introduction to Baby Doll, and knowing neither the relationship between her and Archie or why she is sleeping in a baby crib with the slats down (all of their proper furniture has been taken away), this image establishes a rather unsettling tone from the get-go, even for a modern audience.  I can only imagine the ways in which it aroused Cardinal Spellman upon the time of its release.

Francis Cardinal Spellman
From the IMDB:  When the film was released in 1956, it was enormously controversial for its extremely risqué subject matter. The Legion of Decency condemned the film for its "carnal suggestiveness". Francis Cardinal Spellman condemned the film in a stunning attack from the pulpit of St. Patrick's Cathedral two days before the film opened, saying that the film had been "responsibly judged to be evil in concept" and was certain that it would "exert an immoral and corrupting influence on those who see it", and exhorted all Catholics to refrain from patronizing the film "under pain of sin". Cardinal Spellman's condemnation of the film led to the Legion of Decency's first-ever nationwide boycott of an American-made film produced by a major studio. All over the country, almost 20 million Catholics protested the film and picketed theaters that showed it. The Catholic boycott nearly killed the film; it was cancelled by 77% of theaters scheduled to show it, and it only made a meager $600,000 at the box office. The film was also condemned by Time Magazine, which called it the dirtiest American-made motion picture that had ever been legally exhibited. Surprisingly, despite the film's sordid elements, the Production Code Administration gave it a seal of approval, but only after nearly a year of arguments.  After this film, the PCA drifted farther and farther away from its traditional guidelines until it was replaced by the MPAA ratings system in 1968.

Eli Wallach and Caroll Baker in Baby Doll
Make no mistake, Baby Doll is still quite the turn-on.  This is due, in part, to a performer who had mastered Kazan's acting style, who had every twisted, over-heated motivation of his character firmly in his grasp:  Eli Wallach.  Add to that the exceptionally uninhibited reactions of Caroll Baker to Wallach's advances, and the intimate, pressing camera work of Boris Kaufman (who had also worked with Kazan in On the Waterfront), and it's easy to understand why Baby Doll earns its reputation as one of cinema's most memorably erotic pictures. Particularly, Wallach's portrayal of the cotton baron Silva Vacarro is what pulls all of this together.  I imagine there were a lot of options for Kazan in terms of casting, and although Wallach may not leap to mind as the ideal choice, you can't imagine an actor handling this challenging character so well, as he weighs his options of revenge on Meighan, alternately driven by anger and lust as he chases Baby Doll around the abandoned cars, rusty water pump, and rickety swing set of the once prosperous plantation mansion yard.  Having sent Archie on a wild goose chase, the dance of Silva and Baby Doll around that lawn is the true heart of the picture.

Karl Malden in Baby Doll
The climax of Baby Doll falters a bit, as Archie returns and slowly realizes that Silva's seduction has fully taken hold of Baby Doll.  Here is where the picture should really kick into gear--the first third has belonged to Malden and Baker, the second third to Wallach and Baker, and now we get the three leads of the film together, not to mention the creepy, vacant portrayal of Baby Doll's Aunt Rose Comfort by Mildred Dunnock, occasionally getting involved from her kitchen post (in a great bit of business early on in the film where we are introduced to Aunt Rose, we learn that the Meighan's have a telephone, but cannot rely on Aunt Rose to answer it as it tends to frighten her, sending her running about like a frantic bird).  In the final scenes of Baby Doll the film reveals itself most as a farce, climaxing with Archie waving a pistol and chasing Silva outdoors and into the trees.  The film is redeemed with its unsettling and somewhat ambiguous ending, though it is hard to tell what the overall intent tonally was for Baby Doll.  Kazan would go on to make a true masterpiece the next year, a sort of prototype for Sidney Lumet's Network featuring Andy Griffith in the role of his career, 1957's A Face in the Crowd.  Even though all of these pictures share themes that would play off of one another nicely, I can't help but bounce Kazan and William's Baby Doll off of a chance cinematic encounter with a more recent Baby Doll:  Emily Browning in Zach Snyder's meta-cinematic mainstream skull-fuck, Sucker Punch.

Emily Browning in Sucker Punch
It's impossible to talk about a film like Sucker Punch with the same critical language as Baby Doll.  Baby Doll is subversive and sensual and engaging in a way that Sucker Punch is not.  Sucker Punch is deliberately disorienting and engaged in post-modern pastiche in a way that turns Baby Doll into just another obscure footnote.  Although both films are aware of our cultural obsession with dangerously youthful sexuality, Baby Doll roots that obsession in the primary male characters, whereas Sucker Punch is clearly throwing that obsession back at us for analysis, and doing so in a daring narrative manner.

I can't say that I have seen all of Snyder's previous work, or liked any of it, although what I have seen has always contained some successful passages.  In his remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), featuring a memorable performance by the stellar Sara Polley, he starts off with a bang, but ultimately muddles what makes the original the most successful of Romero social allegories.  And his version of graphic novel purist Alan Moore's The Watchmen was entirely too bloated and wrongheaded in Snyder's choice to maintain the static nature of panel-based imagery, although, like Dawn, you can't deny it has a captivating opening sequence. (I won't get into the number of papers I read on his cartoonish-looking 300, which seemed to be the go-to macho movie for my male film students to write about even years after its release).  Likewise, Sucker Punch thrives most fully on the thrilling shifts of perception that it drags the audience into without warning that exist within the first 40 minutes of the film.  Once we catch on to the narrative trope of how we escape into the fantasy sequences, they lose some of their mystique.

 What then becomes fascinating about the film is the way in which we get to those sequences, and what it suggests about us culturally, particularly the ways in which we avoid serious narratives about violent abuse and exploitation.  Snyder's Baby Doll character is never framed in a realistic manner; in Sucker Punch  we are always in a fictive realm, but the truth the film is trying to uncover always seems to be one pull of a curtain away...just past the Tim Burton movie, or the Gilliam sequence, or the fantasy epic...  Even the opening Warner Brothers logo is layered on a theater curtain that opens to reveal the first "stage" of the film, containing an image of Baby Doll that slowly transitions from a clearly computer generated image into a real actress.  This initial camera movement brings to mind the ideas of the great German Theater maker Bertolt Brecht, and pushes them into the realm of modern screen culture as we literally travel through the 4th wall of a computer animated image, only to have it close behind us, leaving us with flesh and blood.  But Sucker Punch is slippery--even though we are initially flung into what appears to be a dangerous situation of parental abuse, Snyder is always reminding us how removed we are from the very real consequences of that violence, turning the entire incident into a music video, evoking pop nostalgia, fetishizing in slo-mo every move of a revenge fantasy so familiar that we never even question the horror of how easily we go along with it.  Like Brecht, I suspect Snyder wants us to reflect on that aspect of our own mode of spectating, as he continues to jerk the yolk that he so gently dresses us with in the opening passages, leaping from fantasy to fantasy, always hinged upon something truly frightening, and always concealing either an act of exploitation (Baby Doll's hidden dance) or a horrific act of violence (Baby Doll's lobotomy).

John Hamm in Sucker Punch
So, why wasn't this an art-house release instead of an I-MAX release?  I guess because Sucker Punch isn't Sucker Punch if it exists outside of the mainstream.  If it did, it would have to be called something like...Fair Warning.  Ultimately, there are going to be enough critics and audience who will write off Sucker Punch as a misogynistic failure, at worst, or an inept attempt at cheerful exploitation, at best.  I think it's clear why it wasn't so well received as commercial product:  it has a brain.  Not unlike Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009), that brain is firmly wrapped up inside a love of movies, but also takes very seriously the impact that movies have on the attitudes of a culture that is saturated with them.  Snyder even reaches beyond the realm of movies with this work, evoking multiple aspects of mediated cultural experience, particularly video-game culture.  But, enough shots have been taken at "fan boys" and "video game nerds" in critique of this film, shoving the movie off onto them, as if it were their fault.  I think Snyder casts his criticisms beyond that demographic. Sucker Punch is looking back at all of us, lobotomy spike firmly in hand, asking a really good question.



"The Tree of Life" dir. Terrance Malick, 2011.

The best way for me to speak about Malick's The Tree of Life is to speak to what I suspect will always be my favorite film of his, The Thin Red Line.  A foolish premise, perhaps, considering that The Thin Red Line did not strike me as anything special upon seeing it in the late 90's.  My guilt about this stands among the worst cases of critical guilt one could have about a movie (Did I really just find it "kind of uneven"?  Did I also comment afterwards on how the themes of naturalism were played out?  Who was that guy?)  Watching The Thin Red Line 11 years later was a revelatory experience.  The scenes of war themselves, considering that Malick was not particularly interested in shooting those segments and had never shot any kind of action/violence sequence of that scale prior to working on the picture, are astonishing and horrific.  In comparison, they make Speilberg's much hollered about opening sequence in Saving Private Ryan seem garish, sensational.  Also, the performances in The Thin Red Line are among the finest work of an amazing collective of actors, particularly Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Jim Caveizal, and John Cusack.

The Thin Red Line
I'll stop there, as I tend to get a bit overzealous when it comes to Malick's great war film, but as I see it I'm trying to make up for ten years plus of not recognizing it's brilliance.  And, I hope to come around to The Tree of Life in the same way, although I think my assessment of why it doesn't move me in the same way that Line does is not dismissive of what is momentous about The Tree of Life.  And, The Tree of Life is momentous.  Critically, it puts me in the odd position of praising it for what it attempts rather than what it actually achieves, and this seems to be a trend among even the film's most staunch supporters.  (Listen to the Slate Magazine Spoiler Special:  http://www.slate.com/id/2295596/.  This review is a good example of a trend in discussions of this film:  it's a masterpiece that is mostly going to leave you discussing the ways in which it fails.)  I adore The Tree of Life for what it attempts, what it longs for, for taking what might be the most ambitious leaps of faith attempted across cinematic time since Griffith's Intolerance in the teens, and Bunuel and Dali's Un Chien Andalou in the 20's.

The Tree of Life
 But, I wasn't moved.  I wanted the characters to be allowed the same kind of breathing room they were given in The Thin Red Line; I kept waiting for those gripping passages of dialogue to pin down the dramatic conflict and allow us to take flight through the more imagistic, reflective movements to come.  I worried that Penn's character was simply "bouncing off the walls" not only within the film, but in relation to an actor capable of great depth. I felt the emotional balance achieved between character, story, and image was thrown a bit too severely out of whack...which is what I usually long for most filmmakers to do!  (Whack away, please!)  Granted, it is unfair to critique Malick based on how much I wanted his new film to work like a film he made 13 years prior, and, ultimately, I think that The Tree of Life is every bit as successful for what it attempts as The The Thin Red Line is for what it achieves.

The Tree of Life does achieve what only the finest experimental works can claim (and, make no mistake, it is an experimental film, grand scale):  allowing us to journey within ourselves through the world of the work of art.  Added to that, the film allows us to reflect on the many films it evokes while remaining wholly original in a way that can only be claimed by the likes of Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Lynch.  In fact, The Tree of Life had me cross referencing the most disparate array of styles that I can ever remember a single film evoking.  Initially, I thought of Stan Brakhage, the great journeyman of light and grandfather of American experimental film.  

Stan Brakhage's Night Music 
Malick begins The Tree of Life with an image that flickers into being like a psychadelic campfire, hovers above the audience for a moment, and then disappears.  Like the best of Brakhage's experimental, hand-made films, it leaves the audience with their attention oddly displaced.  Malick has us first noticing ourselves with the first pass of this strange, warm, abstract image, which will soon become a primary refrain of the film; he reflects the light and the focus of the film back on us and, with a minor nudge (soon to become a unapologetic shove), puts us on the edge of our seat.  With this image, like the barber Bunuel, Malick parts the collective eyelids of the audience.  Ready or not, here it comes. 

Un Chien Andalou

The Tree of Life continued to evoke for me the the more avant-garde figures of film history, and reminded me that it is important to read Malick's sensibility through the lens of the experimental and poetic.  There are touches of Maya Deren, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Dennis Hopper (The Last Movie, anyone?) lingering in the film, particularly as we reach the more desolate landscape of thresholds that Penn's character stumbles through late in the film.  

When we finally reach the beach with Penn, what we find is most commonly referred to as a representation of "heaven," but reads more to me as an evocation of Maya Deren's beaches in At Land (1944). 

 There are those that will want to read Malick's beach through a singularly Christian lens, but the cold, confusing nature of that beach may ultimately be more of a critique of Christian belief than a reiteration of it. As in the Coen Brothers A Serious Man (2009), another recent experimental film to reach a fairly wide audience, Malick wants to raise the questions of faith and meaning without answering them for us.  Certainlyif going to the cinema to grapple with the spiritual or cosmic aspect of our lives is not appealing to you, then The Tree of Life may not be for you.  But, Malick's film can't help but remind us how frequently we engage passively with movies.  Malick demands an engagement beyond traditional understandings of character and plot, and leaves behind those who are not willing to engage with the way in which the characters and their actions reflect the aspects of grace and compassion in the world, the temptation of violence, and our relationship to the spiritual realm.  How many churches can claim that same level of engagement? The Tree of Life reminded me how much modern church-going shares with the state of modern cinema-going:  we show up, we endure, we wait for something to happen....  The Tree of Life, like the greatest of Brakhage's films, is what church should be:  challenging, engaged, dense, and exhausting.


Two quick addendum:  
1)  Malick is most likely the most revered filmmaker with the sparsest filmography, including only 5 films as a director between 1973 and 2011.  There are other films that Malick has worked on as a writer, but the primary film of note among these is the disastrous Pocket Money directed by Stuart Rosenberg in 1972, starring Paul Newman and Lee Marvin, two actors who have been in some of my very favorite films (Newman in The Hustler (1961) and Hud (1963); Marvin in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Point Blank (1967), and Hell in the Pacific (1968).  I only saw Pocket Money after seeing The Tree of Life, and I was just astounded at how three artists that I truly adore (oh!--throw in the great Strother Martin and cinematogrpaher Laszlo Kovacs!) could make such a monumental turd.  Also fascinating in its failures, but in an entirely different way.

2)  The article I really want to write about The Tree of Life is one that explores it's similarities to the dreadful auteur Coleman Francis's endure-a-thon The Beast of Yucca Flats, featuring Tor Johnson (some may remember it from an epsiode of Mystery Science Theater 3K).  TBOYF features a similar, sometimes confusing use of voice-over as TOF.  Also, elements of naturalism creep in at the end, as an unscripted bunny rabbit sniffs Tor's radiation saturated corpse.   



"Cave of Forgotten Dreams" dir. Werner Herzog, 2010

Werner Herzog's new 3D film Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a continuation of the master director's search for new images, the "ecstatic truth," and connection with the spirits of the past. In his latest adventure the Bavarian earth-walker takes us to what may be the most awe-inspiring location he has explored and translated through film thus far: the Cave of Chauvet Pont-d'arc in southern France.

Drawings of the Chauvet Cave
Ranking the enormity of Herzog's discoveries is no easy task, considering his last feature documentary, 2007's Encounters At the End of the World, took the viewer to Antarctic depths never before recorded on film. The deep ocean photography alone in Encounters could support an entire film, but as with many of Herzog's journeys, the film features a captivating centerpiece made truly ecstatic by all that Herzog captures and develops around that centerpiece: the voices of experts and outsiders, the bold scoring choices that weave in and out of the foreground, and the unexpected breezes and pauses. Herzog loves those small moments after the interview, after the intended shot, that often reveal multitudes.

Timothy Treadwell and friends in Grizzly Man
Another difficulty with addressing Herzog's work is the use of the word "documentary." The border between fiction and non-fiction is one he takes pride in ignoring. For instance, in Lessons of Darkness (1992) Herzog approaches his exploration of a post-Desert Storm Kuwaiti landscape as an alien, his voice-over script asking puzzled questions about a strange, strafed land. As in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the examination of the focal centerpiece is meditative, searching. Herzog knows the weight of his subject, and allows us to examine his images deeply, often until we have completed a cycle of perception that allows us to see them with new, alien eyes. Herzog does not call Lessons of Darkness a Documentary, but Science Fiction.

Lessons of Darkness
For some, Herzog's disregard for the genre conventions of documentary film making are too brazen, particularly those who have bought into the forms of modern documentary as a conduit for "facts," built on communicating an agenda that Herzog interprets as a facile, "bean-counter's" truth. Herzog does not try to prove through his films, but provoke. For instance, it is not uncommon for him to invent scenes, behaviors, or occurrences within a documentary film to coexist alongside the naturally occurring events he captures. In his 1998 film Little Deiter Needs to Fly, he requested that his documentary subject, former prisoner of war Dieter Dengler, behave as if he were now obsessed with doors and door knobs as a psychological result of his imprisonment. Having developed an agreeable relationship with the film maker, Dengler complied. Likewise, it is not uncommon for Herzog to follow the paths of what is really happening within a so-called fiction picture (as with his wandering fascination with amphibian, reptilian, and free-roaming Coppola-based life forms in his recent oddity Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans). Even though I tend to "cross the line" with Herzog in those moments where many critics throw up their hands and scoff (we'll get to the albino alligators in a moment), I have to say that his most seen film, 2005's Grizzly Man, contains scenes of uncomfortable falseness for me, created by Herzog's drive to create an estranged moment at any cost; those moments where an interview subject appears uncomfortable in their directed role, in many cases apparently re-performing a version of themselves.  Similar moments exist in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, as when he asks Maurice Maurin, a master perfumer, to exhibit his keen knack for sniffing out hidden caves.  Also, there are moments where the gap between Herzog's voice-over script and the profundity of the image are stretched to the max (we'll get to the albino alligators in a moment).  Still, it is this leap of faith across the borders of fiction and non-fiction that makes a film like Grizzly Man one of the most unique and important documentaries of our time.

Franc G. Fallico, Coroner, as Himself in Grizzly Man
In this border-crossing with Herzog, we find some important philosophical differences to weigh when viewing his work. In the 2008 documentary Caprturing Reality, some of the greatest current documentary filmmakers are questioned about such philosophical positions. In the film, Herzog states that "the distinction between narrative feature films and documentaries doesn't exist that much...for me it's all movies." Capturing Reality places this notion of truth in documentary film in direct opposition with another giant of the modern documentary, Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, 1988; First Person, 2000 [a sadly under-seen TV series aired on Bravo]; The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, 2003; Standard Operating Procedure, 2008.)

Errol Morris at Abu Ghraib for Standard Operating Procedure
Much has been made about the tension between these two documentary greats (going all the way back to a wager that resulted in the 1980 short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe...in which Herzog does just that), and it is true that their techniques are as vastly different as a Realist and an Absurdist. But, like the Realist, Morris finds truth through his relentless conviction that there is a specific, unwavering truth in the events that he is examining; that there is something that happened. And Herzog, as he repeats, re-frames, and re-lights the images of the Chauvet Cave in the final passages of his new film, is the Absurdist who yawns at the idea of the cold search of the Realist, repeating once again the passage we have seen before as a way to, hopefully, see it as if for the first time.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is also a continuation of Herzog's stand against "used up" Hollywood images. In some ways, there is no more truly independent director than Herzog, as what is often called "indie" film making has recently leaned so aggressively into the light of Hollywood conventions and money. Independent film has lost a sense of risk, and commercial film is now far removed from any aspect of subtlety, patience, nuance. Viewers shifting in their seats in response to some of Cave's more lingering passages are, I would argue, only feeling the pangs of a sweet tooth that is poked at by the increasing domination of commercial cinema's tendency toward "movie events." These types of films--often presented in 3-D, IMAX, or 3-D IMAX(!)--have left popular movie going in a perpetual state of sugar crash. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a true event; a film that reaches 30,000 years into our human past, and attempts at all costs to connect the viewer with that common image that links us all.

Drawings of the Chauvet Cave
Throughout the first third of Cave, it is doubtful whether or not this will be as successful an outing for Herzog as his most impressive documentaries (Lessons of Darkness, 1992; Little Dieter Needs to Fly, 1998; My Best Fiend, 1999; Wheel of Time, 2003; The White Diamond, 2004; Grizzly Man, 2005; The Wild Blue Yonder, 2005; Encounters at the End of the World, 2007). It seems that he is more confined in his explorations, literally, as the Chauvet Cave itself is under strict regulations that constrain the filmmakers to only certain parts and paths of the cave. But, these opening sequences are an important part of reading the film overall, as we see how difficult it is for a film like this to take form, and as Cave of Forgotten Dreams emerges as a film about making films. What at first seems like a clumsy excursion is transformed into an unforgettable privilege of sight as the cameras steady, and we, along with the crew, figure out how to really see the cave.

Herzog and crew in Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Some of the most fluid and mysterious moments of the film happen outside the cave, including the opening shot, which takes us along the dry rows of a vineyard and eventually rises out of the vineyard revealing the stunning lakes and rock formations of the Chauvet region. Later in the film a similar shot takes us across those waters and below a natural bridge, the camera pausing mid-air and pivoting below the formations. At a pivotal point toward the end of the film--the moment which most evokes the inevitable allegory of Plato and the cave--we see Herzog reaching up to this camera as it flies into his hands, and the creator of these earlier mysterious images is revealed: a remote-piloted camera plane.

Plato, as Himself
Anthony Hopkins as Odin in Thor
In an age where 3D movie events have so saturated the cinema market, it is easy to overlook the next camera trick that Herzog is trying out here, and the extent to which he succeeds in heightening our understanding of the potential for 3D images as a serious technique of cinema. Herzog is not only showing us the Chauvet Cave images for the first time, he is showing us 3D cinema for the first time, as well, nearly inverting the relationship we have come to expect. The "reach out and grab ya!" formula of 3-D film hasn't really evolved much since its invention. I remember my first experience with it at a screening in a gymnasium in rural Illinois. The film was The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and the moment of the Creature reaching into the boat, and out to the audience, was the one memorable 3D stunner, as I recall. From 1950's creature features to Thor and Green Lantern we haven't come far in terms of what 3D cinema asks of us. In Herzog's exploration of the cave, we are asked not to simply thrill at those images that leap out at us (save one of the funniest moments of the film involving spear-throwing, perhaps an intentional nod by Herzog at the silliness of the 3D phenomenon), but rather to experience the textures and contours of the cave walls that helped to create what Herzog likens to an early form of cinematic movement for our ancestors of the cave. As he allows the drawings to play and dance in the various passes of light, the use of 3D doesn't simply jut out at us, but invites us in, asks us to look closely, to take advantage of this privileged mode of seeing. I can only hope that the future of 3D cinema follows Herzog's trailblazing, taking us to more Chauvet Caves, and fewer Asgards.

And, who but Herzog could have given us the "Baby Albino Alligator" epilogue? To those critics who reduce it to a strange diversion--or worse--a complete cop-out, I can only wonder what they could have expected. For me, it's the moment where Herzog wakes us from our cinema sleep-walking with the spirit of a surrealist. It's his ability to take us to those unexpected places, and in that perfect moment juxtapose a nearly absurd discovery with all that he has shown us previously, that makes Cave of Forgotten Dreams a documentary that radiates meaning beyond the simple, digestible facts.