I’m not really sure if dreams can be either forgotten or remembered, or if the best we can do is extrapolate on some lone fragment caught in the mind’s net as we ascend from the depths of sleep. Mere shadows. Such extrapolation lies at the heart of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which had its world premiere last night at the 35th Toronto International Film Festival. The power went out in the entire building twice during the screening, causing the movie to suddenly vanish before our goggled eyes and only after some minutes pick up again. I don’t know that these technology-defying interruptions hurled any of us back into the Stone Age exactly, but it did somehow feel part of the show, bringing the fleeting nature of our viewing experience into relief by weighing it against Herzog’s haunting, at times unspeakably moving images of 30,000 year old cave paintings. It also gave Herzog an added opportunity to work his customary showmanship, standing up during one of the pauses to assure us all that this was the first time the deluxe, ultra-modern Bell Lightbox, which opened only the day previous, had ever projected in 3D! He was also quite proud of the fact that the movie had apparently been finished only 15 hours previous.
The 3D is actually fairly subtle in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and I wonder if the movie wouldn’t be just as stunning without it, but it’s nevertheless the finest use of the technology I’ve seen, partly because the depth of field is already fairly limited once we’re moving through the narrow cavities. Though in many ways it picks up from where Encounters at the End of the World left off, using images of landscapes most of us never see as a way to contemplate time on an overwhelmingly vast scale, the movie feels somewhat closer to straight documentary for Herzog, perhaps because of his humbling reverence for what it is he’s been able to see and capture. He was given a very limited number of hours to work in the Chauvet Cave, which holds what are by a long shot the world’s oldest painted images, and which the French government rightfully offers few people access to. The space was such that he and his crew had to assemble their own custom-designed 3D cameras, sometimes improvising them right there on the spot. There are paintings that overlap each other that were made 5,000 years apart. There are images of bison with eight legs and rhino with multiple horns, which for Herzog resemble a kind of proto-cinema in their suggestion of movement. Not unusually for Herzog, the movie takes a decidedly meandering path, yet there’s nothing in its path that you’d want to rush. Ernst Reijseger’s gorgeous, silver-smoke music lulls us into a spell of looking, dreaming, forgotten who were are. Herzog interviews a scientist and former circus juggler who confessed that after his first experiences in the Chauvet Cave he had dreams every night of lions, both real and painted. They were so overwhelming he had to take a break from his work. Perhaps if enough of us see this landmark work we’ll all be having the same dreams, whether we remember them or not.