Monday, May 30, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (4/5)

It has become impossible to separate the persona of Warner Herzog from his films. This is perhaps most evident in his documentaries where his distinct accented voiceover never for a second allows us to forget we are being guided through one of Herzog’s obsessive inquiries into what makes us human. Simultaneously donning the guise of all controlling deity and subversive trickster—Zeus and Hermes both—Herzog carefully leads us through his world even as he befuddles us with dizzyingly obtuse, impossible to answer questions.

In many ways Herzog seems like the perfect companion to travel down the winding path between stalactites and stalagmites to uncover pictoral images so old they’ve been lost to human memory for tens of thousands of years. The Cave of Forgotten Dreams mostly takes place in the Chauvet Cave in France, which has housed the oldest known instance of human drawings in existence. These images were first etched into the cave wall nearly 32,000 years ago and were preserved from the ravages of wind, rain, and outside air thanks to the improbable fortunes of an avalanche that sealed the cave opening. The cave was rediscovered in 1994 by Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet, and since then access to the cave has been strictly regulated by the French government, granting access only to a handful of scientists. Even Herzog and his team have had their access curtailed. They are allowed only three filmmakers at a time, meaning each member of Herzog’s trio must take on multiple filmmaking duties, including Herzog himself; they must never step from the manmade platform; and they are limited to no more than a couple of hours of time for each visit.

The Chauvet Cave provides Herzog with a quixotic starting point for him to pose questions about who were these humans who drew these images of ancient horses and rhinoceroses and do they bear any resemblance to who we are in the contemporary world. Does a constant of human nature bridge the yawning gap of 32,000 years between art of prehistory and art of today, or have we transformed so radically over the millennia that the function of art from 30,000 B.C.E. bears little resemblance to the function of art of the 21st century? Of course, it is likely that the viewer is no closer to answering these questions before watching the film than after, but just because a question has no answer does not mean we can’t profit from posing it.

Naturally, Herzog presents variations of these inquiries to the scientists who work on the Chauvet Cave. Perhaps one of the most interesting responses comes in the form of an anecdote regarding Aboriginal painting in Australia. There several Aboriginal drawings have religious significance and over the years, as the elements strip these images of their luster, the local Aborigines touch them up from time to time. An anthropologist once asked one of those restoring the paintings why he continues to repaint the art. He replied that he is not the one doing the painting. The aborigine’s answer may seem quixotic to the ears of an outsider, but it does suggest that there is a larger force at work in an artist, something transcendent that forces us to create. And yet, the disconnect between how the Aborigine and the Westerner sees art makes us question whether we can really connect the art of the Chauvet Cave to the paintings hanging at your local institute of contemporary art. After all, the assumption of a singular author that underlines the Westerners question is a relatively modern phenomenon. As much as this answer illuminates it also obfuscates.

There may or may not be a transcendence that connects the art of prehistoric man with art of today, but that does not mean that Herzog is not going to look for it. Herzog notes that the cramped quarters of the cave make it impossible for them to film without also unveiling the process of filmmaking itself. Cameras and boom mikes are visible throughout the film. Our ability to see the man behind the curtain allows us to realize that as we sit in a darkened theater we may in fact be participating in the same ritual as those who first scrawled those images on the cave wall. Several times during the film Herzog allows his camera to slowly linger on the images themselves, allowing us to bend time and to experience as closely as is possible the viewpoint of those who first saw these images so long ago. As Herzog’s camera forces us to stare intently on the cave paintings, I couldn’t help but remember a similar scene at the end of the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie on medieval icon painter Andrei Rublev. Andrei Rublev is a deliberately paced film composed almost entirely in black and white. But at the end of the film the frame blooms into color as we finally see images of Rublev’s work. Tarkovsky’s slow pan over images of religious icons struck me as strangely reminiscent of Herzog’s similar technique in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, suggesting that each work of art, despite its separation of unthinkable eons, shares a spiritual purpose, even if the term “spiritual” might be too much of a burden for any single word to carry.

If you are lucky enough to see Cave of Forgotten Dreams in theaters then there is a good chance you saw it in 3D. The idea of filming a documentary about cave paintings created with the primitive tools of the time in state of the art 3D is so daffy that it could only come from the mind of Warner Herzog. But unlike most 3D films in the Cineplex, this isn’t a quick scheme to charge higher ticket prices. In some ways 3D is necessary to truly appreciate the artistry of the cave paintings because the artists utilized the uneven surface to suggest movement and texture. The film is also taking us into a place that is so restricted that less than a dozen people have access to the cave at any given time. A film in 3D is the closest any of us will get to actually standing in front of this artwork.

If The Cave of Forgotten Dreams has any downfalls it is that Herzog poses his unanswerable questions to people who are perhaps not the best suited for engaging them. Most of Herzog’s subjects are culled from the field of science and bring great insight into the mechanics of the cave and the art. But when it comes to the larger questions of human nature, culture, and meaning, they seem somewhat flummoxed. It would have perhaps helped Herzog if he had spoken to religion, cultural, and art scholars in addition to scientists. My guess is that these scholars could have not only complicated Herzog’s question but also asked a few of their own.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Django (4/5)

After hearing about the leaked title for Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, I decided to check out the originator of the film title, the original Django. Obviously Tarantino has been aching to make his version of a spaghetti western for quite some time. In fact, he has wanted to make a spaghetti western so badly that when it came time for him to make his WWII film, Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino made a spaghetti western on accident.

Django stands out as an early spaghetti western that helped establish the tone and themes of the genre. In fact the film became so popular that studios started slapping the name Django onto all of their westerns, which resulted in hundreds of unofficial sequels that really had nothing to do with the original Django. Franco Nero inhabits the iconic titular character who manages to match Clint Eastwood’s disquietingly monosyllabic man-with-no-name character. The plot borrows elements from A Fist Full of Dollars (which in turn borrowed elements for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which in turn borrowed elements from Dashiell Hammett’s novel, Red Harvest). I won’t hold the fact that Django is a twice told tale against it, since most of these films trade in homage and bricolage anyway and because director Sergio Corbucci brings an economic style that marks the film has wholly his own.

Early in the movie, the titular hero, Django, who appears to drag a coffin with him wherever he goes, saves a woman, Maria, from being flogged to death at the hands of an unruly mob. He brings her back with him to a nearby town that is nearly abandoned except, naturally, for a whorehouse, which happens to employ Maria. The residents of the town have been trapped between two warring factions, a rogue contingent of the Mexican army and a gang of Southern white supremacists. Django appears disinterested in these small town politics at first—a position reinforced by Nero’s minimalist performance—but we eventually come to understand that Django carries around more baggage than that old coffin.

As for what is inside the coffin, I won’t ruin the surprise, although the trope has been borrowed often, specifically in the space-western anime, Trigun, that you likely have a good guess already. I will say, however, that the item in question becomes an all purpose device, serving as means for Django to carve a way out of a corner he has trapped himself in and, later on, as a macguffin to drive the plot forward. Of the two gangs, the ex-Confederate, white supremacists are the most menacing. These men wear red, pointed hoods that are obviously reminiscent of the KKK and capture and release Mexican farmers so that they can shoot them down like pheasants. Naturally, they don’t take kindly to the Django’s Union uniform.

The film itself is decidedly low rent. We are told that the town Django stumbles into is deserted because of the warring gangs, but most audiences know that the town is deserted because extras cost money. Unlike some of Sergio Leone’s westerns, Django doesn’t transcend the genre (it’s less Raiders of the Lost Ark and more The Rocketeer). At times the commanding score by Luis Bacalov appears to be the only thing keeping the flimsy sets standing. And yet it’s impossible to hold all of the films B-movie trappings against it, and not only because the filmmakers do a tremendous job with so little. One of the joys of the spaghetti western is that the genre has been emptied out. All of the weight of American myth, the trappings of manifest destiny, the world wearied job of nation building, have been dropped in favor of the truly essential elements of the genre, and then the filmmakers proceeded to push these elements to the breaking point. Unlike John Wayne and John Ford who became responsible for galvanizing the country around symbols of America, Carbucci and Leone had no such responsibilities. They saw the western genre for what it was: a fiction. They have not lied to themselves that these stories are anything other than movies removed by centuries, an ocean, and a few tropes from their source material. Spaghetti westerns are less concerned with the American west than they are with American movies.

I suppose this is why spaghetti westerns have captured the imagination of contemporary filmmakers like Tarantino, Takeshi Miike, and Jee-Woon Kim. Spaghetti westerns are movies about movies, the sort of meta-narratives that appeal to film nerds who have consumed the entire repertoire of whole directors. It is also the reason why Django feels light footed, making its way from scene to scene without the burden of history. It is also why, as much as I love some of the work by Ford and Hawks, when it comes to stories about stoic men with a fast draw, I’ll take Leone, Carbucci, Eastwood, and Nero every time.

Oh, and the film has one hell of a theme song:

Friday, May 13, 2011

Local H - Local H's Awesome Mix Tape #1

Local H – Local H’s Awesome Mix Tape #1 (5/5)

The joys of the cover song are many. Live, cover songs can be a way to hear an old favorite with the sort of bursting energy that can only be witnessed in a tight, beer drenched space. On an album, however, it’s a little trickier. For an optimum cover, a musician needs to uncover something new and surprising in the original while maintaining whatever made that song great in the first place—a tricky proposition for any band. Local H is no stranger to covers. They have recorded several over the years that can be found on various singles and E.P.s. (My favorite is their cover of Guided by Voice’s “Smothered in Hugs.”) And yet even for a band well versed in turning in great covers—they managed to do a cover of Britney Spear’s “Toxic” without making it feel like a novelty track, after all—the prospect of an all covers E.P. can be worrisome. Local H’s last album, 12 Angry Months, was arguably their best (or, best since Pack Up the Cats, depending on how you crunch the numbers), so why would they potentially tarnish that triumph with what could potentially end up as Scott Lucas doing karaoke?

Fortunately Local H came up with a diverse range of songs to cover and a unique tact for engaging each one. From the Brooklyn indie darlings TV on the Radio to the eighties hardcore punk band Agent Orange to British tabloid star Pete Dougherty, the representative bands and musicians are an intriguing stew of rock and roll music from the past four decades. The ensemble cast of artists forces Lucas to vary his approach to each song. After all, it’s redundant to do a faster version of the original when the song’s already at breakneck speed. Perhaps the most surprisingly successful song on the album is TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me,” a track that, in the vein of Blur’s “Song 2,” managed to be perfectly polished ball of energy. Lucas may not have been able to outrun the original’s pace, so he instead dragged it through the mud, scuffing up the song with a squealing intro and plenty of feedback. Lucas seems just as comfortable taking over vocal for Johnette Napolitano of the band Concrete Blondes for their 1990s hit “Joey” as he does for any male vocalists. Instead of coming across as self-conscious cross-dressing, the performance is absolutely sincere, suggesting that a great pop song transcends gender. The trickiest cover may have been a rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Time,” a great song that has been nearly destroyed by its ubiquitous presence on your uncle’s favorite classic rock radio station. Local H institute a scorch earth policy on the original, napalming its storied place within the rock and roll canon with a brutal series of guitar solos. In the end, Local H’s Awesome Mix Tape #1 serves as a reminder that Local H have turned in great music all these years because they know what great music sounds like.