“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” & “Submarine”

A rare treat for our family yesterday:  the Roxy Theater in Saskatoon was featuring two movies I’ve been anxious to see.  God bless the Roxy, they even offer Saturday and Sunday matinees; so we made the short drive in to the big city, paid our six bucks (each) and treated ourselves to an afternoon of fine entertainment.

My reviews follow:

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)

Written & Directed by:  Werner Herzog

There are astonishing, breath-seizing moments in “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”.  As the flickering lights sweep across the walls of the glistening grotto, they reveal an ancestral gift, an offering made 40,000 years ago and placed there for safe-keeping.  It is a record left for us by people enough like us to want to be remembered.  What they saw, the animals they hunted and killed (and sometimes, in turn, killed them).  There is an unforgettable image of a formidable cave bear skull, placed on an altar-like formation of rock, clearly a gesture of reverence and honor.  The act of a conscious, spiritually oriented being, someone with a strong sense of symbolism.

The single most affecting moment for me was when Carole Fritz, a specialist in paleolithic art, points out one artist who was determined to, literally, leave a mark of their presence.  This person repeatedly stamped his/her hand on the walls at two points in the tunnel complex.  We know it’s the same individual, because the little finger on the hand in question is bent, leaving a distinctive signature.  Here was someone who had self-awareness, an egoistic desire not to merely fade away, anonymous and forgotten.  A thoroughly human gesture.  Defiant and futile and courageous.  Doesn’t that about sum up the best and worst aspects of our species?

Those are the high points.  But Herzog, as much as I admire him as a director, has his aesthetic shortcomings.  His attempts to manipulate his “documentary” films using staged scenes, playing with the conceits of reality vs. fiction, seem increasingly intrusive and dishonest.  There’s an episode in “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” when one of the scientists calls for silence, to give everyone an impression of the true meaning of the word…and Herzog superimposes the sound effect of a heartbeat.  It’s cheesy and uncalled for.  There is also a needless postscript involving albino crocodiles inheriting the earth and discovering the cave paintings and…well, I won’t get into it.

I believe the director and his longtime cameraman Peter Zeitlinger entered the Chauvet caves with the best possible intentions.  I think we have been granted a glimpse and, unfortunately, little more than that, of a site that belongs to us all and yet so few of us will ever see.  We, as viewers and direct descendants and heirs of those timeless renderings, would have been better served by more footage of the art and less time devoted to Herzog’s odd ruminations and narrative digressions (ex. the introduction of the French perfume expert).

Despite restrictions against filming and the potential harm it might have on such a fragile environment, I hope there will be other, more comprehensive attempts to reveal the majesty of Chauvet.  I’m recalling that stubborn ancient, slapping a crooked, stained hand against a white wall.  “I was here,” the artist is still proclaiming four hundred centuries later, a reassuring celebration of the resilience of the human spirit.  We live in impermanent, disposable times but some things remain universal and wondrous even to jaded, modern eyes.  They touch places deep inside us, submerged caverns where mystery still resides.

ΩΩΩ  (Out of 5)

Submarine (2011)

Written & Directed by Richard Ayoade
(Based on a novel by Joe Dunthorne)

Do we really need another coming of age film?  Aren’t these things a dime a dozen?

The correct answers, of course, are “No” and “Yes”.

Which makes “Submarine” confoundingly good—the portraits Mr. Ayoade draws of stumbling, inept youth, the stirrings of first love, are authentically rendered, acute and endearing. The performances are, without exception, exemplary but newcomers Craig Roberts and Yasmin Page really do shine in complicated, demanding roles.  Sally Hawkins, as the protagonist’s bored, uptight mum, gives another perfect, seamless performance.

I have to confess I thought the ending was a bit of a cop-out, a concession to viewers who had grown attached to the odd couple at the center of the film.  That being the case, it still didn’t spoil the movie or cause undue resentment.  For close to a hundred minutes I was held, enchanted, by a new release that didn’t insult my intelligence or subject my cerebral cortex to eye candy and bombast.  A small, tidy effort, “Submarine” highlights the continuing appeal of a good story, quirky characters and a directorial style that is subtle, knowing and non-intrusive.

Mr. Ayoade’s debut as a film-maker is not merely promising, it is a revelation.  “Submarine” is tightly edited and perfectly paced, words and images slavishly devoted to telling the story of Oliver Tate, a fifteen year old Welsh kid who frames his life as a movie and yearns with all his heart for something resembling a happy ending.

ΩΩΩΩ  (Out of 5)

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About Cliff Burns

I'm a literary writer, specializing in slipstream/ alternative/surreal/science fiction. My influences include Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, David Cronenberg, Rene Magritte, any artist who defies convention and busts open genres, attacking the status quo.
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