Film of Forgotten Dream—Musing 3-D

When Herzog's torch-beam is illuminating the interior of the Chauvet Cave throughout his new 3-D adventure, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), the effect is not unlike surveying the prehistoric rock paintings on the wall through an iris, a long-abandoned cinematic vocabulary which was much more in use during the infancy of the medium (it seems that the technique can only be occasionally spot in films by cinephile-directors like François Truffaut after that period). While the German filmmaker further contemplates the 'proto-cinematic' tendency of these paintings in his usual idiosyncratic voiceover commentary, the film seems to possess a self-reflexive subtext. Nevertheless, more than tracing cinematic imagination to the remote era, Cave is also a belated anticipation of the technological advent of stereoscopicity (of course the film is not solely about these issues and they are hardly Herzog's main concern). In other words, the film revisits the past but tells more about the future.

Commenting on 3-D films in 1922, the American filmmaker, D.W. Griffith, believed the technology was necessary for cinema to develop into an art form. Nevertheless, he was sceptical towards contemporary stereoscopic films as they were aesthetically inadequate—the industrial part of cinema was far more advanced than its artistic part. Thus it was relegated to a mere novelty or what Tom Gunning termed, 'the cinema of attraction'. The pioneer concluded that 'a period of preparation' was needed for the audience to adapt a new form of movie watching and reducing the technology from spectacle to popularity which might 'take many months, if not years'[1]. Almost ninety years past, this prophetic remark is uncannily all the more relevant. Audience are getting used to the technology alright as we can see from the list of top-grossing films last year[2]. However, the recent curious tendency of marrying 3-D to digital cinema (Avatar is arguably the exemplary film of the trend) epitomizes the hollow use of stereoscopicity within the mainstream-they either aim to provide visceral experience or present themselves as spectacles. Apart from offering an entertaining and sensual ride, 3-D seems to add no artistic merits to and can hardly justify its existence in these films. Thus, the central enquiry is: what is a healthier and more productive use of the technology?

Herzog suggests a tentative solution, if not a most satisfying one, in Cave. In an interview with Sight and Sound, the director states that although he has doubts about the technology, 'it was absolutely clear it [the film] had to be done in 3-D, no question, no discussion about it' when he first saw the cave[3]. The reason for the decision, I believe, is to break the 'fourth wall' and invite the audience into the inner space of the Chauvet Cave. Through the use of 3-D, the film creates a plausible depth extending from and beyond the silver screen which unlike the objects-jumping-out-of-the-rectangle experience in mainstream stereoscopic films. With long takes, close-ups and minimal camera movements, it is easier and more comfortable for the audience to explore the irregular contours of the rocks, crystals and animal remains in front of them. This appropriate adaptation of 3-D by exploiting the spatiality of the subjects to create a sense of verisimilitude is what the film advocates. While mainstream stereoscopic films primarily aspire to provide pleasure and entertainment, Cave recalls the initial impulse of the motion pictures to reproduce the real.

In The Myth of Total Cinema, André Bazin writes, 'the real primitives of the cinema, existing only in the imaginations of a few men of the nineteenth century, are in complete imitation of nature'[4]. And he believes this desire to record the reality is the raison d'être of cinema and precedes the invention of the medium. Echoing this Bazinian notion, Cave fulfils its potential to create a credible 'reality' which is different from the 'heightened reality' observed in Hollywood 3-D films. Apart from acknowledging this long-forgotten realist impulse, the documentary also concerns the actual reality amongst the audience. While mainstream stereoscopic epics are sometimes nauseating and disorienting with their frantic editing and over-the-top visual effects, the audience-friendly yet plain aesthetics of the film reminds us that a technologically perfect film should be at the same time well-adapted to the subject matter and offer a comfortable viewing experience to its audience.

However, while Bazin's argument leaves out the fantasy/artistic impulse of the medium (the so-called Méliès tendency), Herzog's film also only suggests a partial answer to the use of stereoscopicity. If a new aesthetic model for 3-D documentary is successfully proposed by the film, we may well ask, how about feature films? Does the model relevant to them? Should filmmakers go for spatiality and realism in these films as well? With almost no artistically-acclaimed feature 3-D films by the moment, the future of the genre seems unclear. But I think we can again seek help from the old masters. As Eisenstein and others advocate a 'contrapuntal use of sound' (a dialectical interactions between sound and image) against what they termed 'the canned theatre'[5] during the advent to sound, I wonder is there possibility for the contrapuntal use of stereoscopicity? We will see.

[1] New York Times. 'Stereoscopic Films.' November 5, 1922, sec. Amusements.
[2] The two top-grossing films, Toy Story 3 and Alice in Wonderland are both available in stereoscopic format.
[3] Sight and Sound. 'Out of the Darkness.' April, Vol. 21, Issue 4, BFI.
[4] Bazin, A. (1967) 'The Myth of Total Cinema', in Andre Bazin, Hugh Gray (trans), What Is Cinema?, Vol. 1, London: University of California Press Ltd, (1967), pp. 21.
[5] Eisenstein,S., Pudovkin, V. & Alexandrov, G. (1988) 'Statement on sound', in Richard Taylor and Ian Christie (eds), The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents 1896-1939, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 234-5.

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