Friday 25 March 2011

Early works: "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" and "The Eagle" (ST 27/03/11)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (U) 90 mins ****
The Eagle (12A) 114 mins **

Roll up, roll up. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog’s latest documentary-exploration, qualifies as both a journey to the centre of the earth and a voyage back to the dawn of mankind – in digital 3D, no less. Its subject, the Chauvet Cave in Southern France, was discovered in 1994, having been sealed for aeons by a rockfall that preserved the treasures lying within: evidence of several long-extinct species, and Man’s earliest recorded cave paintings. An understandably snooty gallery, the Cave operates certain restrictions. You or I probably wouldn’t get in; those that do are confined to an hour’s tour along a steel walkway, so as not to disturb the immediate environment. There doesn’t appear to be a gift shop.

The paintings are a remarkable spectacle in themselves, notable not just for being the first of their kind, but for their relative sophistication. Much of the fascination stems from the relation they bear to their surrounds, with their trompe l’oeil effects suggesting movement: that of individual frames of celluloid, or – with equines especially prominent – Muybridge’s experiments in recording motion. “Proto-cinema,” Herzog describes it, and the paintings display an evident fluidity of form. The female body is spliced with that of the wide-hipped bison, a link to such Stone Age carvings as the Venus of Hohle Fels – herself an obvious inspiration for the dancing chickens in Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” video.

As ever, Werner strays as much as he wanders. The second half ventures in search of varyingly engaging eccentrics (mock Inuits, albino crocodiles, a master perfumer perpetually sniffing at holes), while ear-splitting choral music occasionally inhibits the images from speaking for themselves. Yet what Cave loses in focus, it gains in dimensionality. Herzog’s cinema – the upriver sequences in Aguirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo’s boat-vs.-mountain business – has long strived for a strong, atmospheric you-are-here sensation. 3D allows him to better define the contours and cascades of the rockface under scrutiny – to allow us a heightened feel for the canvas involved.

For this director, 3D specs aren’t blinkers fostering an escape from the world, but goggles, eyepieces – vital kit with which to peer in the direction of our dim and distant ancestors, and contemplate the mysteries that loom out at us. Within the cave, an eight-year-old’s footprints are found next to those of a wolf. Was the latter a tribal pet, or tailing the child as prey? In framing such questions, Herzog invites us to visualise what our planet was like 28,000 years ago, to hang flesh and detail on the bare bones and markings of the Chauvet floor and walls. The result may be the most overtly philosophical application of 3D yet – which is to say, you just don’t get this with Gnomeo and Juliet.

Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle adapts Rosemary Sutcliff’s revered novel The Eagle of the Ninth with the same dour whiff of Sealed Knottiness that sank Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. It’s fine if you need to know what Romans ate for supper or the approximate consistency of mud in second-century Scotland, but as an action piece, it doesn’t move so much as retreat to a dusty library corner with a scholar in Celtic tongues.

As Marcus Aquila, the young centurion trying to restore the honour taken from his family when his pa disappeared – along with the titular standard – behind Hadrian’s Wall, Channing Tatum boasts impressively Roman physiognomy countered by Victor Mature-like thespian limitations. Poor Jamie Bell, as sidekick Esca, has only to huddle morosely around a series of campfires before a limp homoerotic squabble over his co-star’s sword that constitutes the film’s one shot at the camp of TV’s Spartacus.

Indeed, The Eagle is all men, no women, and one longs for a lissom dancing girl or conniving empress to break up the visual monotony of earnestly furrowed brows and overly scissored battle scenes. One advantage even the dreariest old Roman epic had over Macdonald’s film is that nobody gets to die properly in the movies any more: instead of the lingering throes of a Caesar, the warriors so drably memorialised here have their limbs severed and throats slit with indiscriminate stabs at edit-suite buttons.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams opens in selected cinemas from today; The Eagle opens nationwide.

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