29 May 2011

"The Birth of the Human Soul"

At one point in his thrilling, eerie new documentary film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog is interviewing a genial French scientist on a hillside near the caves of the title.  The camera is on the white-haired scientist, a character we have come to respect and enjoy by this point in the film.  We can hear Herzog's gentle German accent asking questions.  

He comes right out with it, out of the blue:  "So, do you think the findings in this cave show the birth of the human soul?"  

It is clear that Herzog does. He uses the phrase several times in his soft-spoken but disarmingly incisive narration, as he does in interviews about the film:  "the birth of the modern human soul."

While quick to caution us on what "soul" might mean, it is clear that to Herzog it is deeply entwined with humanity's deep impulse for making art, which could be said to be the subject of this utterly hypnotic film.  Herzog's camera is an unblinking eye--or really two eyes, since the film is shot in 3D--that gazes endlessly at the prehistoric cave paintings in Chauvet Cave in southern France. We are looking, quite literally, at the world's oldest human art.  Later that eye is turned on some evocative early sculptures, those "Paleolithic Venuses" we might have seen in books as well as renderings of a mammoth and a horse. But Herzog's camera-eye, combined with stark, sculptural lighting and enhanced by the 3-D effect, infuses these objects with a mysterious power.

All this forges for Herzog, and for us (his deeply-felt testament is powerfully convincing) a direct-line connection between the humans who painted mammoths, horses, panthers, and huge-horned rhinoceros ancestors on the walls of Chauvet Cave, and us with our modern forms of representation.  One interviewee brings the circle closed with a telling gesture at the camera, comparing the desire that created the cave paintings with that of the cameraman capturing his image at that moment.

Though Herzog shows us the paintings on the walls of Chauvet Cave almost from the first moment, the film's power builds slowly through a series of interviews with scientists, images of cave exploration, and always those gently-spoken yet  poignant ruminations of Herzog's voice-over.  What starts off feeling like a run-of-the-mill historical documentary slowly takes us to unexpected places.  By the time, well into the film, that Herzog lets sweeping, continuous images of the cave paintings combine in an extended sequence with haunting music that sounds both perfectly modern and utterly ancient, the effect is deeply moving as to be almost unbearable.

It is magnificent, hypnotic, brilliant filmmaking, that makes its point strongly through images and music.  In an interview, Herzog describes the experience of being in this perfectly-preserved time capsule cavern as  "an almost shocking experience."  Herzog's filmmaking is relentless, piling thought on image on music, compounding and re-emphasizing, to where we, too, are shocked by the depth of the experience.

Herzog has said he is "skeptical" about the use of 3-D in films, yet he had no question about using it in this project.  And it works beautifully, serving to immerse the viewer in the experience of the cave, and visually echo the emotional and intellectual depths Herzog unflinchingly takes us to.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a rare treat, taking us to places, both physical and spiritual, that otherwise might have remained closed to us.  Visitors are not regularly allowed in Chauvet Cave.  Herzog and his crew were allowed in on a strict schedule of only 4 hours each day.  They were, perhaps, the last film crew to ever set foot in this deeply important historical wonder.

By seeing this film, we can travel, be awestruck and marvel along with them.

27 May 2011

The Country's In the Very Best of Hands

I woke up this morning thinking of. . .and soon after singing. . .this excellent song from the 1956 Broadway musical Li'l Abner.  

This number is hilarious and brilliant and has not lost one iota of its wry wit and incisive truth.

Listen to these great Johnny Mercer lyrics!!

(This version is from the 1959 film, with Peter Palmer as Li'l Abner Yokum and the great Stubby Kaye as Marryin' Sam.)

22 May 2011

Broken Down Film - by Osamu Tezuka

Museum of Film Damage.

This marvelous piece of animation from Osamu Tezuka dates from 1985.

I remember seeing it at the Ogden Theater in Denver as part of one of their annual "Tournee of Animation" programs.  I'd guess in 1986.

The genius of this film relies heavily on the viewer knowing a bit about the medium of film itself. It strikes me that some younger people might not "get" this movie, since image projection has changed to digital formats since the film was made. And even where traditional film is still projected, the quality of film prints and projection these days is usually pretty high.  So this little gem now acts as a kind of period piece, a museum of film damage.

The home video revolution has also lessened the impact of this film.  It is much more effective seen on the big screen, where this panoply of film distress could actually be real.  

Here, in less than 6 minutes,  we see an entertaining compendium of many of  the ways now-old-timey frame-and-sprocket-hole film could fail, break, and get damaged from overuse.  Not only that, but we see the implied hack work of a series of inept projectionists who splice sections of film in backwards, upside down, and in at least one case, slug in footage from some completely different film.  

In just a quick review, I spot these (brilliantly simulated) film problems:

  • footage spliced in backwards
  • film breaks
  • image full of deep vertical lines
  • scratchy
  • dirty with hairs and fuzz
  • mis-framed
  • bad, abrupt splices
  • film slips off sprocket holes
  • wrong footage spliced in
  • film pieced together from unmatching clean & dirty  prints
  • timing footage slugged in
  • censored footage removed
  • section spliced in upside-down
And that is just the visual aspect. The soundtrack is variously damaged as well.

What is fun and often inspired about this cartoon is how the characters in the film react to and interact with all the damage to their cinematic world.  One of these wonderful moments stayed with me for years:  the vertical lines grow so intense that they threaten to obliterate the image entirely, and become for the characters falling rain.  The cowboy pulls out an umbrella and shields his lady love from the "rain."  Beautiful.

Tezuka's brilliant 1985 short plays with all these varieties of film damage so adeptly that film damage becomes the subject, and thus the title, of the short.

Tezuka was not the first animator to incorporate fake film distress right into his animated world.  Famously, Tex Avery used the "hair gag" in his "Magical Maestro" in 1952.   An  annoying wiggly hair appears on the film frame at one point and continues its wiggling and jumping until a character in the film angrily plucks it off and throws it aside.  The legend is that this and other animated fake damage in Avery cartoons gave some diligent projectionists fits until they figured out the gimmick.

Recently, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodruguez's Grindhouse did an amazingly realistic job of recreating all kinds of film damage in a live-action film.

When I saw Grindhouse, it was hugely nostaligic for me:  all that marvelous old film damage that used to be a typical part of the movie-going experience!  All those bad splices and green lines and chewed up sections of film!  Tarantino and Rodriguez got it exactly right.

But before them, there was Osamu Tezuka's amazing and delightful Broken Down Film.