The Reel Deal


A Reel Deal Film Review

Film Insight by Tyler Malone

May 2011

Reel Rating: 5 out of 5


There are only a handful of filmmakers who have managed to succeed in making both exquisite fiction films and documentaries. Just because you’re good at one does not mean you’ll be good at the other. The few who succeed at both are just a select group of talented film auteurs: Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Chris Marker and Werner Herzog. There are probably a few more, but those were all I could think up off the top of my head. But, if you’ll notice, every filmmaker in that list, save one, may succeed at both, but is definitely more a master of one than the other. Martin Scorsese–like Orson Welles amd Jean-Luc Godard before him–is one of the cinema giants in the world of fiction films, but he has managed a great documentary or two as well. Agnès Varda may have started in fiction films, but she really found her stride and made her mark in her late life documentary career. Chris Marker is a weird one because he makes films that kind of exist as both documentaries and fiction films: think Sans Soleil and La Jetee (but he is generally seen as a documentarian). The one on the list who is as important, in my humble opinion, to the world of fiction films as he is to that of documentaries is Werner Herzog.

Werner Herzog proves that a great filmmaker is a great filmmaker, and that documentaries (or “non-fiction” films as he prefers) and fiction films aren’t really different at all–not even different sides of the same coin, but actually entirely alike. He explains that he cannot think in terms of fiction vs. non-fiction filmmaking: “Even my non-fiction films are pretty much fiction, or at least close. But we shouldn’t wrestle with categories. It’s all ‘movies’ for me. I never have searched for a subject. They always just come along. They never come by way of decision-making. They just haunt me. I can’t get rid of them. I did not invite them.”

When he says something like “even my non-fiction films are pretty much fiction,” one has to wonder if his films should even be called documentaries at all. But it isn’t as though he lies to his audience, it is that he doesn’t care for what he calls “the accountant’s truth” of the cinéma vérité documentary style. He suggests: “You see, what cinéma vérité tried to do was to present just the accountant’s truth. They were too fact-oriented. I have always postulated that we have to find a new way to deal with reality. It’s not so much facts that interest me, but a deeper truth in them–an ecstasy of truth, an ecstatic truth that illuminates us. That’s what I’ve been after. And in order to find it, you have to be imaginative. You have to invent. You have to stylize. There’s absolutely no danger in that. The danger is to stupidly believe that depicting facts gives us much insight. If facts were the only thing that counted, the telephone directory would be the book of books.”

Herzog has mastered the art of both styles–which like I say he doesn’t even see as two different types of filmmaking–and he managed to make both fit into his personal style so that every Herzog film, though different from all the others, has an unmistakably Herzogian quality. The films he’s made: Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre, Wrath of God, Grizzly Man, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, La Soufrière, Rescue Dawn, Encounters at the End of the World, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, etc. They’re all different. And yet common threads can be found that link them. One such is his fascination with man’s interaction with nature. This is perhaps best seen in Grizzly Man, but the man vs. nature conflict is present in every Herzog film I can think of. There is also a fascination with dreams, with creation, with consciousness, with reality, with communication, with chaos. And, perhaps most importantly, with asking questions. Interesting questions arise in Herzog’s movies–not to be answered, but to be pondered. Just as the cliché states that it is the journey that is more valuable than the destination, so too it is the question that is more valuable than the answer. And so in something like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Nicolas Cage asks, “Do fish have dreams?” There isn’t supposed to be an answer, but the question is meant to haunt you for a while. And it does. Likewise in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog’s new 3D non-fiction film, we hear a similar question when he again uses the phone book metaphor (this time in relation to the cave of the title): “4,000,000 people listed. But do we know if they cry when they’re alone at night? Do they dream?”

Herzog’s newest film Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an exploration of the oldest cave paintings in existence. Herzog was given unprecedented access to Chauvet Cave in France, but the import of his access did not make his approach any less personal and quirky. This is not merely about cave paintings, though it may appear that way upon the surface. Just as the the cave itself was hidden just below the surface for thousands of years, so too are Herzog’s true fascinations hidden just below. Though it gives us plenty of facts about, and beautiful images of, the cave drawings, the film explores Herzog’s own questions about humanity. And it does so with his trademark Herzogian style in search of the ecstatic truths. He, as always, manages to find odd characters and tease out uncanny connections. Using the cave paintings as a tool, he paints his own portrait of the human need to create, to express and to converse. For that is what art is: it is a conversation (between creator and viewer).

The conversations I’ve had with Herzog, through viewing his films, have been continually enlightening. He does not give the accountant’s truth, but allows a story to whisper its own ecstatic truth.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a film written and directed by Werner Herzog. Werner Herzog gains exclusive access to film inside the Chauvet caves of Southern France, capturing the oldest known pictorial creations of humankind in their astonishing natural setting.

Written by Tyler Malone

Image Courtesy of IFC Center

Design by Jillian Mercado

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