Cinema of Disillusionment

Werner Herzog (director). Cave of Forgotten Dreams. 2010.

James Cameron (director). Avatar. 2009.

In early January 2010, just weeks after its release, James Cameron’s Avatar was already on its way to becoming the highest grossing movie of all time, and news outlets were clamoring to proclaim 3D the new standard of Hollywood “realism,” as color once replaced black and white and sound, silence. CNN distinguished itself with a bleaker story: “Audiences Experience Avatar Blues.” “James Cameron’s completely immersive spectacle Avatar may have been a little too real for some fans who say that they have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora,” their website reported. The administrator of the fan site Avatar Forums had created a topic thread entitled “Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible,” and after receiving more than 1,000 posts in a few weeks, had to create another.

CNN reproduced a few of the thread’s greatest hits. “That’s all I have been doing as of late, searching the internet for more info about Avatar,” wrote one user, Elequin. “It’s so hard I can’t force myself to think that it’s just a movie, and to get over it.” Another wrote, “I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora.” “You take off the glasses and you go back home,” the host responded. “Why are people getting depressed over this?” The expert therapist he invited to the conversation replied, “I don’t think that it’s about the movie. I think that people are forced to look at what’s going on in their own lives and if it wasn’t the euphoric dream that they were hoping for, then they end up depressed.” The reporter stuck by her story, however, and her phenomenon even got an acronym: PADS (Post Avatar Depression Syndrome).

The CNN story echoes millennia of cautionary tales about confusing art and life. From Pygmalion, who falls for his statue, to Don Quixote, to all the nice girls who French government lawyers once said would come down with a case of the Bovaries if they, like Emma, read too many paperbacks, the heroes of such stories demonstrate the dangers of attempting to let a sculpture or novel change you too dramatically. The invention of cinema added to the venerable genre, with audiences supposedly scattering in terror before the oncoming train depicted in the popular Lumière Brothers short, L’arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat (1895). But the point of a PADS genre story is not whether a few people actually did flee before the Lumière train, or whether Cameron’s prehensile flora drove any poor soul to suicide. The PADS story creates an object of mockery, or clueless pathos, in order to teach the public to bridle their most ardent desires, even as the movie awakens them. Go ahead! The story says: Take your date or your kid to Avatar! You can even cheer on the hero—an ex-jarhead converted by his experiences on Pandora into an ecoterrorist—as he plunges an arrow into the chest of his former captain. But pity the sad sack who fails to see that the movies are really about creating longing for more movies.

The staggering global success of Avatar over the winter of 2009–10 seemed to herald the arrival of 3D, spurring the major studios to create dozens of films in that format and hastily convert others into it. A Wall Street Journal piece titled “Can 3D Save Hollywood?” reported that, despite investment bank funding having dried up since 2008, studios were still investing heavily in 3D productions. By the summer of 2011, 3D was ubiquitous: Transformers, Kung Fu Pandas, Marvel superheroes, and Smurfs thundered through every movie theater in America; electronics stores hawked 3D television sets and gaming systems; whispered that we could soon expect an iPad 3: 3D. Yet more and more moviegoers chose to resist the consumer imperative implicit in all the buzz. Even Jeffrey Katzenberg, the DreamWorks CEO who for the past few years has been one of 3D’s most avid evangelists, publicly admitted that movies carelessly slapped together to cash in on hype had thwarted the fulfillment of his gospel. “Let me have a show of hands of people that would say the last seven or eight months of movies is the worst lineup of movies you’ve experienced in the last five years of your life,” Katzenberg asked the audience at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech Conference in Aspen, Colorado on July 19. “They suck. It’s unbelievable how bad movies have been.”

By midsummer, the American public had made their decision clear: The Green Lantern just wasn’t worth the $17 ticket. It was a predictable crash: the rise and fall of 21st-century 3D reprised a cycle that has recurred ever since stereoscopic technology appeared in the 1830s. More interesting was how the PADS story distilled an entire century of conversations about 3D movies, although the questions of “realism” and “reality” that the medium raises are less straightforward than the CNN shorthand suggests. Exaggerating what seems to have been a common response to Avatar, the story asks us first to identify with a “naïve” viewer who longs to enter a fiction completely, then to laugh with a wiser self who knows this is impossible. Pulled between our desire for an illusion so immersive that it would replace experience, and a wish, no less strong, to be on the side of the grown-ups, chastened and disappointed when such attempts inevitably fall short, we sense an incoherence that is the key to explaining why 3D has come and gone and come and gone again.

Although CNN cited the PADS sufferers as evidence that Avatar’s technologies were cutting edge, the idea of using stereoscopy to create a second life in fact predates the invention of cinema by more than half a century. In 1838 the British scientist Sir Charles Wheatstone presented a treatise on binocular vision to the Royal Society of Great Britain, explaining that the brain fuses the distinct data that it receives from each eye in order to produce a sense of depth. When the Daguerre brothers and William Fox Talbot went public with their inventions of the daguerreotype and photograph a few months later, entrepreneurs soon put two and two together, and by 1841 firms in England and France were mass-producing stereo images of real people and settings. You peered into these box-like devices through two apertures to view a pair of photographs taken by cameras at eye-distance apart; perceived together, they appeared to recede in real space.

In 1851, Wheatstone’s rival Sir David Brewster presented his own viewing device at the Universal Exhibition, featuring a giant imago of Queen Victoria. Her Majesty told the press that she liked it, and by the early 1860s, the London Stereoscopic Company alone was selling over a million “views” per year. Inventors soon started trying to combine principles of stereoscopy with those of animation. The 1850s and ’60s saw dozens of patents registered in England, France, and the United States for three-dimensional so-called “peepshows.” Driven by a hand-crank or by electricity, these allowed individuals to peer into a box, with each eye fixed on one of two synchronized flipbooks of “views,” and thus see 3D moving pictures, decades before the first movies were projected.

In June 1859, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., dilettante polymath and father of the great American jurist, published a paean in the Atlantic Monthly hailing the stereoscope as man’s greatest invention to date, precisely because it could recreate “the same sense of infinite complexity which Nature gives us.” Holmes, who would invent but not patent his own stereoscope in 1860, explained its workings through a series of tactile metaphors that elided perception and possession. “By means of these two different views of an object, the mind, as it were, feels round it and gets an idea of its solidity,” he wrote. “We clasp an object with our eyes, as with our arms, or with our hands, or with our thumb and finger.”

For Holmes, stereoscopy offered a powerful figure for his faith that technological progress and economic development could create a second Nature that would replace both the natural world and mere “art,” and that this would bring material plenitude to all. In language that deliberately aligns photorealism with even more hands-on 19th-century colonial practices, he wrote, “Every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us. Men will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins, and leave the carcasses as of little worth.” He concluded his essay with a bold declaration about the ontological shift that photography and other technologies of mass reproduction both signified and spurred on in modern life. “Form is henceforth divorced from matter,” he wrote. “In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer, except as the mould on which form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it. Pull it down or burn it up, if you please.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, Charles Baudelaire did not welcome the stereoscope as the triumph of form over matter, but, depressive utopian that he was, feared that a different kind of materialism would win out over individual imagination. “It was not long before thousands of pairs of greedy eyes were glued to the peepholes of the stereoscope,” he grouched, “as though they were the skylights of the infinite.” The target of this essay, on the Salon of 1859, was the aesthetic ideal that Baudelaire glimpsed behind the erotic stereo daguerreotypes hawked on the streets of Paris. “Each day art further diminishes its self-respect by bowing down before external reality,” Baudelaire lamented, “each day the painter becomes more and more given to painting not what he dreams but what he sees.” He was clear on the causes of this decline: “Could you find an honest observer to declare that the invasion of photography and the great industrial madness of our times have no part at all in this deplorable result?” What Holmes saw as 3D’s liberatory power to overthrow the tyranny of the artist’s viewpoint Baudelaire took to be doubly enslaving. The “skylights of the infinite” that allowed the eyes to reach out and grasp nudes and natives embodied modernity’s central promise to deliver whatever goods you pleased right into your hands—at the expense, however, of surrendering your own native ability to fashion the world. Baudelaire saw that the 3D realism Holmes celebrated for its freedoms came with conditions. In order to let your eyes roam infinitely, you had to set them just so and hold them there.

Movies quickly replaced the stereoscope as the most popular form of visual entertainment, but Holmes’s faith (and Baudelaire’s fear) that technologies of realism would eventually evolve to the point where they could perfectly simulate reality persisted. The first generation of film pioneers perpetuated Holmes’s legacy: nearly every “great” among them took either a practical or theoretical interest in 3D. In the early 1890s, Thomas Edison registered two patent claims for a peephole apparatus capable of showing moving stereographs. In 1915, Edwin S. Porter, who had been one of the foremost cameramen in Edison’s company, premiered the first 3D motion picture camera and projection system to an invited audience. By autumn of 1922, five years before Warner Brothers released their first sound film and seventeen before the Wizard of Oz came out in Technicolor, several competing 3D novelty programs had taken off with a more general audience in New York and Los Angeles, and would travel to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago. (Movies of the Future, one of the most successful was called.) D. W. Griffith told the New York Times that the “stereoscopic effect” will make movies, “beyond any comparison the most powerful medium of expression of which anyone has dreamed.” At their 1939 World’s Fair pavilion, Chrysler presented a 3D stop-animation film of a Plymouth car assembling itself piece by piece around a static engine, not a worker in sight. The advertisement identified 3D with innovation, and went as far as implying that such sophisticated technologies would produce themselves. This early glimpse of the post-human future ends with a whiteout, as a spume of exhaust overwhelms the camera and the coupe takes off.

3D fantasies were not limited to America. When Soyuzdetmultfilm released a 3D Robinzon Kruzo (the favorite character of “bourgeois political economists,” as Marx had it) in 1947, the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein wrote an essay hailing its form as prophetic. “It is as naïve to doubt that the stereoscopic film is the tomorrow of the cinema,” Eisenstein declares, “as it is to doubt that tomorrow will come.” He mockingly quotes an imaginary cacophony of bourgeois skeptics:

What does dramatism of situations gain from this new technical discovery?
Does a three-dimensional comedian find any additional means of expression in this third dimension?
Such as physical roundness?
Will this be the triumph of the fat man?

He then concludes, after a fusillade of exclamations, “The only ones who fail to believe in the victory of the new potentialities of the technique of tomorrow are those who do not believe in tomorrow,” claiming the future of 3D movies and of mankind for Socialism. But Eisenstein retains a key feature of his capitalist predecessor’s thinking: his faith that a phantasmagoria, if it were sufficiently convincing, could supplant the world, and that such 3D immersion represented a promised end for the popular arts. Eisenstein’s language echoes Holmes’s: “The scraggy branches of a tree in the foreground run out at us as if they would scratch our eyes out,” the inventor of the American stereograph had marveled, while Eisenstein rhapsodizes about how “branches of trees hang over the audience,” and “panthers and pumas leap out of the screen frame.” Much as Lenin admired Frederick Taylor for his ideology-neutral advances in management and productive efficiency, Eisenstein saw 3D as a purely technical advance, whose natural home would be under socialism—the society that placed technology at the service of people’s greater access to reality itself, freed from capitalist fantasy and doublespeak.

Of course, the great home of 3D would turn out to be bourgeois Hollywood rather than proletcultish Moscow; and rather than establish a new socialist Eden or the harmless second nature that all those trees and animals anticipate, 3D movies came and went in a series of short booms and long busts that mirrored the ups and downs of the postwar economy in general. When any downturn threatened to puncture the supposedly gullible American’s belief in movies, 3D tried to come to the rescue, to enhance the fantasy and keep people’s eyes off a newly crushing reality. With every new cycle, 3D reemerged to proclaim itself as a novelty, and each time, the swelling 3D bubble would burst, the novelty having worn off more quickly than expected. For it turned out the apprehension of “more reality” in the art of 3D was antithetical to moviegoers’ actual expectations of art. The patent manipulation of the entire 3D apparatus—with the glasses and the inflated ticket price—never manages to establish itself as anything more than manipulation, a reflection of larger manipulations going on to maintain the health of an economy prone to debility. Moviegoers weren’t dummies after all. But it never occurred to Hollywood that their rejection of 3D meant that a different kind of “realist” fantasy was in order. The richly articulated and diverse environment that 3D depicted was disappearing in reality, thanks to the economic system that it helped buffer, and no Pandora could compensate for the suffering that fact occasioned.

The first wave of 3D represented a response to both government regulation and a market competitor. In a landmark 1948 case, US v. Paramount, the Supreme Court had ruled that the studios that comprised “Classical Hollywood” were in violation of antitrust laws against vertical integration and ordered them to divest themselves of the theater chains that exhibited their product. This process sent the entire industry into several decades in the red. Movie attendance was already plummeting as more and more American households acquired televisions. In this context, several perspicacious Hollywood executives recognized the opportunity presented by 3D technologies had improved during the Second World War. The huge stereoscopes that the US Air Force had developed in order to better scrutinize terrain before bombing it, and the massive piles of film stock left at Kodak after their military contracts expired could, the suits wagered, be repurposed to yield a compelling and specifically cinematic experience.

An independent producer-director, Arch Oboler, collaborated with a colonel who had developed aerial reconnaissance maps for General Eisenhower to make the first of the 1950s wave of “creature features,” Bwana Devil (1952). A travelogue that returns to the Holmes era of modernity’s triumphal expansion, Bwana Devil tells the story of two Brits overseeing the building of Africa’s first railroad in Uganda in the early 1900s. When some man-eating lions show up and start knocking off native workers, a great white hunter has to take them out. Fun fact: that photo on the famous Life magazine cover with rows and rows of people wearing anaglyph glasses, which also appears on English language editions of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, was taken at the premiere. Repurposed to illustrate Debord’s lament that “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation,” the Life cover hints at a critical potential latent in 3D. In the process of marketing the stunning realism of its optical illusions, Bwana Devil similarly risks showing its audience their status as the ultimate dupes of commodity culture—a moment of recognition that is also the first step in any revolt.

Bwana Devil inspired Warner Brothers, Universal, and Paramount to release a spate of stereoscopic movies: forty-six features within just two years. And yet the wave soon died out from a mix of excessive expense and technical difficulties. It cost two to four times more to shoot a 3D movie than a 2D one, and there was always the possibility that the two reels required to project it could fall out of sync, producing “ghosting” effects and headaches that led audiences to demand their money back.

When theater chains, which the studios no longer owned and thus could no longer force-feed, rebelled by refusing to rent movies at higher rates, Hollywood found itself without anywhere to distribute its product. 3D disappeared from the mainstream for about twenty-five years. (In the 1960s and 1970s interim, independent outfits used the anaglyph technologies that the studios had cast off to produce a string of low-rent “skinflicks.” A soft-core feature called The Stewardesses (1969) was the most profitable 3D movie until Avatar and, in terms of return on investment, remains one of the most successful theatrical releases of all time, adding evidence to Baudelaire’s intuition about the essentially pornographic qualities of stereoscopic technology.)1

A threat to movie dominance arose again in the recession of the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the studios, regrouped within the vast conglomerates that still own them today, suddenly faced competition from the VCR—a cheaper, easier experience that offered instant access to the glory days of Hollywood’s past.The studios responded by pushing the “stereoscopic” film once again as a premium, uniquely theatrical experience, this time turning the PG “creature feature” toward gory horror. After the moderately successful Rottweiler (1982), Paramount released the third installment in its Friday the 13th franchise in 3D in August 1982. It was the most violent movie ever to play on US screens (in one scene, Jason crushes a teenager’s head and his eyeball pops out and flies toward the audience), and it made a killing. Universal poured funds into its riposte, Jaws 3D (1983), while the independent Orion Pictures released Amity­ville 3D (1983). But excessive production expenses and declining box office returns soon made profits fall off. Once again the fad died within two years, consigning 3D to niche venues like amusement parks and science museums. It would not return to mainstream theaters until Hollywood was once again suffering low box-office receipts, spooked by yet another new competitor in the home, and had an improved range of technologies to choose from thanks to the US military. Once again, the wait was about a quarter century—around the length of the usual business cycle.

In the mid-2000s several production houses—most publicly led by James Cameron and Jon Landau at Lightstorm Entertainment, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg at DreamWorks, and Dick Cook at Walt Disney—started investing heavily in digital technologies for stereoscopic filmmaking. They argued that this time they were going to get 3D right and it was going to save movies from computers and the internet. To improve the odds on their bet that movies you could not pirate or stream online would bring Main Street types back out, they were simultaneously crafting a financial package intended to align the interests of exhibitors and the tech companies that supplied them with the studios’ own. The aim was to prevent the kind of split vision that had confounded 3D during the 1950s and 1980s, when theaters eventually refused to subsidize studios’ upfront production expenses by renting these features at jacked up prices.

Up stepped a company called RealD, one of the biggest suppliers of stereoscopic simulations worldwide that counted the Department of Defense, NASA, Boeing, Pfizer, DreamWorks, and Disney among its major clients. In the spring of 2010, RealD concluded a deal with America’s largest theater chains, offering AMC, Cinemark, and Regal stock options, at an unbeatably low price, two months before their IPO. In return, the theaters agreed to use RealD screens, projectors, and polarizing glasses exclusively. The bargain gave RealD the cash it needed to make products to outfit a vast number of theaters at an affordable price. (In March 2009, there had been 2,109 RealD screens worldwide. By June 2010 there were 5,966 and by July 2010 the company had committed to adding 5,100 more.) And it gave American movie exhibitors every interest in hyping 3D so that their customers would pay for it. The first day that it was traded on the New York Stock Exchange, the values of RealD’s shares went up 30 percent. AMC, Cinemark, and Regal, of course, exercised their options. Here was a model that, if anything, was more fully integrated than the robber baron studios US v. Paramount had dismantled.

For a time, it seemed as if Eisenstein’s prediction re: the “cinema of tomorrow” had come true, except that the triumph of the fat man was also the triumph of the fat cat. From summer 2010 onward, 3D was everywhere, and RealD stock kept surging. That year brought Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, How to Train Your Dragon, Tron: Legacy, Toy Story 3, and Piranha 3D, to cite only a few high-grossing titles. And yet, as 3D became more and more ubiquitous, studies by industry analysts confirmed that features released in both 2D and 3D formats increasingly drew much larger audiences for the former. Box office data exaggerated the success of 3D films because in many venues viewers were shut out of sold-out 2D screenings. In addition, the higher cost of a 3D ticket inflated 3D returns overall. After the poor performance of Thor and Kung Fu Panda 2 on Memorial Day weekend, Richard Greenfield of the capital markets firm BTIG, who is one of the most respected movie industry analysts on Wall Street, started exhorting his blog readers daily: “Short Your RealD stock!” “Honk if You’re Sick of 3D!” was an Entertainment Weekly cover story in June.

As they had following the 1950s and 1980s collapses, investors and die-hard fans have lamented the decline of the most recent 3D as the result of contingencies. Sony could have made lighter, more stylish glasses! The Marvel movies did not have to suck so badly! In response to the common complaint that 3D movies caused headaches, advocates continued to suggest that once the tinkerers get the technology right, the art of the stereoscopic film, like that of Pygmalion’s statue, would “lie hidden by its own art”—affect the senses directly, become real. Yet, despite its persistence, the fantasy of a popular cinema that would release its spectator into a brave new world, to roam at will, has remained just that: fantasy.

“You see in 3D all the time,” Jon Landau parried a guest on a talk show in July, who was complaining that his movies gave her migraines. “You don’t get a headache just from walking down the street, do you?” But watching a 3D movie is not like walking down the street. Digital 3D does not set the eye loose in a real space but, like a 2D photo, pegs it to one focal plane, which the filmmakers have selected, and then another. Just try looking anywhere else—at the margins of the frame, for instance, or the audience rapt in their eyewear—and you can’t help but feel queasy.*

Holmes had argued that we could dispense with real objects once the camera seized impressions of interest. Just as industry had freed man from the natural cycles that governed agrarian societies, technologies of reproduction would liberate us from the need to experience anything directly. And yet, a century later, it seemed as if the “matter” of the world that Holmes wanted to dispose of like a “carcass” had returned to take its revenge on the bodies of moviegoers. An art that tried to do away with the pleasure of experiencing it as art was never going to get that far, unless it actually succeeded in inducing a mass hallucination far larger than any single movie theater. “Natural curiosity”—or the self-awareness that the Debord cover captured—cannot be so easily evaded.

Avatar reproduces all the familiar contradictions of the history of 3D, contradictions that the film attempts to contain. Set in 2154, when humans have finished ransacking the earth, the film begins with a big, bad corporation protected by a private militia that has set up camp on a planet called Pandora. Amidst its pre-Colombian verdure, they mine a precious mineral—“unobtanium”—at a huge profit, and face only one problem: an indigenous population of blue humanoids called Na’vi. Like any self-respecting neo-imperial enterprise, the corporation employs scientists to study the territory that they exploit. Cradled in pods that look like MRI scanners, these experts beam through a procedure called “mental link” into hybrid earthling-Na’vi bodies, and mingle with the locals.

Like Bwana Devil, as well as Holmes’ colonial stereographs, Avatar piques the pleasures of bad conscience. Of course Cameron, who by all accounts is a committed environmentalist, wants to believe that technologies that aid exploitation can also be agents of revolution and salvation. So it proves in Avatar. The visual world conjured by Cameron’s immense resources is almost impossibly fertile, exploding with extreme, hallucinatory colors and lush with gigantic plant life, throbbing with animals and ringed by an inexhaustible forest canopy—the sort of world that its viewers know only from Discovery Channel specials, or perhaps their fantasies of the late Cretaceous. Cameron’s Pandora is warmly, slickly enveloping; its sheer mass of verdure suggests nothing so much as the “fresh green breast of the new world” that Nick Carraway imagines appearing to Dutch sailors in The Great Gatsby. Pandora, like America, is a civilizational second chance waiting to be botched. When military technology (the kind that RealD’s customers, Boeing and the DoD, purvey) threatens the landscape with destruction, Avatar asks you to forget that it’s the very same technology that has animated the primal life force of harmonious Pandora. Longing to divide good uses from bad uses of technology, much as it wants to divide a good America from a bad one, Avatar remains stuck at an impasse.

In the end, however, Avatar closes off the world that it has used these flashy visuals to conjure. This ostensibly anti-imperial, ecolovefest ends with a legless Jake leaving behind his maimed body in order to reside permanently in Pandora. Cameron ultimately confines his hero’s resistance to a merely virtual space, a Garden of Eden turned neural network, a 21st-century ecological multiculturalist’s idea of heaven. For the actual Earth and actual bodies, he leaves no hope. In this respect, despite its progressive themes, Avatar remains deeply conservative: it denies that the “mind-link” technologies that it glorifies could instigate the kind of meaningful social and political change, in the here and now, with whose specter the script baits us. As Baudelaire had pointed out, much 3D tends to treat the substance of the world it summons as inherently unobtainable.

A more interesting 3D cinema would resist positing a Second Life and then closing it off. Rather than repress the fact that it is ultimately our eyes and brains that make these images, better movies would acknowledge the viewer’s role and make it productive. Rather than awakening, then failing to make good on, the promise of another world, such a cinema might make the artifice of its own medium its subject.

Out of the recent wave of 3D cinema, Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Cave of Chauvet-Pont d’Arc in Southern France, comes closest to suggesting a way out of what have been 3D’s traditional predicaments. Discovered by three speleologists in 1994, Chauvet contains the earliest known manmade images—hundreds of figures of animals, mostly carnivores, some estimated to be 32,000 years old—as well as other traces of Paleolithic life. In ninety minutes, Cave of Forgotten Dreams takes us through Chauvet, interspersing views of the paintings, the rock formations, and human and animal remains with a series of interviews with archaeologists, art historians, geologists, and other aficionados of the prehistoric. Like Cameron, Herzog mingles the futuristic with the immemorial, using 3D to evoke wonder at, and longing for, a lost world we cannot enter. But his film ultimately proposes a very different theory of image and interactivity—one skeptical of myths of progress or salvation through technology.

While many reviewers rhapsodized about feeling enveloped in Chauvet’s limestone crenellations, the film isn’t actually as visually striking as many of Herzog’s flat documentaries. Budget constraints may have forced his hand; History Channel funding is no match for Cameron’s abundant sources of unobtainium. However, Cave of Forgotten Dreams manages to profit from the relative poverty of its images by making them the starting point of a dialogue about, among other things, the same digital issues that Avatar raises. Like Herzog’s other films—which famously eschew special effects, and therefore have required him to do things like kidnap several hundred monkeys and haul a steamship over a mountain—the works of art in the cave were not made merely to record what exists, but to act upon and transform it. As the camera focuses on a bear skull that appears to have found its way onto what might have been a rock altar, or an accidental still life organized by time itself, Herzog relates a hypothesis that all the paintings were used for ritual purposes. He also dwells on a partially visible image of what might be a woman copulating with a bull, or might be a creature that is half woman, half bull. Whatever these are, or were meant to be, they are not merely images of external reality; if they ever were, that reality has long since vanished. Rather they are sources of spiritual power for whoever made them, as they remain sources of spiritual power for some of us. In the conversation that gives the film its title, one young researcher remarks that after seeing the paintings of the lions, “Every night I was dreaming of lions . . . of both [painted and real].” Rather than offering a compensatory fantasy of the past, Herzog entices his viewers to develop, in their own imaginations, whatever content lies embedded in the fossils he presents.

One prevailing history of the visual arts has tended to relate a tale of disenchantment, as cult paintings and objects became frescoes and altar pieces, then portable canvases, then photographic reproductions, which lack even the aura that being singular would have conferred on them, and finally, computer files, which are utterly disembodied. At several points, as if in contrast to the paintings themselves, Herzog’s film shows us computers generating data maps of the cave and other 3D simulations. These models are not “representations” but blueprints for possibilities, tracing a parallel between the wish-fulfillments of the animal drawings and the magic power of these simulations. He makes a bid to reenchant his own medium.2

While the audience of Avatar undergoes a quasi-religious experience, the audience of Herzog’s documentary is drawn into a dialogue about the moral and even political potential of the fluid continuities between “reality” and the virtual truths of the imagination. Cave of Forgotten Dreams does not, like Avatar, put on a fireworks show of ecological devastation, but the Ice Age does loom in its background. The landscape of the Valley Pont d’Arc, where the Chauvet cave is located, was scoured into its extraordinary shapes by the retreat of long gone glaciers. Over panning shots of its rock formations, Herzog muses that at the time the Chauvet paintings were made the sea level was three hundred feet lower; their painter could have walked on foot to England. The themes of death and extinction that the drawings inevitably bring to mind—how strange to think that lions and rhinoceroses depicted on the cave walls once stalked the European landmass—concern their makers as well. The humans who made these paintings could be said to be extinct, and all the 3D images in the film only take us to the threshold of a world that is forever closed to us.

The movie is so steeped in an awareness of loss, of paintings that can scarcely be breathed on, lest they decay, of epochs so distant they can only be imagined, that it’s impossible to get depressed over it. The “postscript” to Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which many otherwise favorable reviews shrugged off, or lampooned as incongruous, seals this point. With a single inter-title as segue, Herzog leaps from Chauvet to the Cruas Nuclear Power Plant a few dozen kilometers upriver. The brief shots of its steaming cylinders remind us how patently wrong any idea of nature as separate from human activity now is. At Cruas, Herzog hurriedly explains, water used to cool the nuclear reactors has been diverted to create a tropical biosphere in which (for reasons he does not clarify) alligators are bred. The alligators reproduce at extraordinary rates, but given the proximity of the plant, the director implies, their population contains many mutants. For the final minutes of the film, Herzog cuts to a baby albino alligator. “There is no reality, nothing is certain,” his voiceover declares, as we watch the freak paddle, refracted by the water line, reflected by nearby glass planes. “Does this animal look at us as we look at the Paleolithic people? Would we seem this strange to them?”

If we can produce such radical changes in the environment and even in ourselves, Herzog seems to suggest, we might also repair what he has often called “the embarrassed landscapes of our world.” This applies no less to the history of 3D: A cinema that has embarrassed itself in the rapacious search for a perfect virtual realism, might, with a bit more humility and thoughtfulness, add a provoking depth to the realities of the world we must continue to live in.

  1. During the same period, a group of avant-garde filmmakers gathered in New York to produce what the critic Jonas Me- kas dubbed “Baudelarian cinema.” Mekas had coined his phrase after Ken Jacobs’s Baudl’arian Capers (1963), to describe the filmmaker’s fascination with detritus of mass culture and his sense that artists might take up and transform such trash. From the 1960s to the present, Jacobs has made a series of 3D films and videos. His methods are low-tech. Using flimsy anaglyph glasses, a spinning propeller whose blades block the projector, or other throbbing lights, telling his audience members to block one eye with a square of polarizer affixed to a chopstick or to hold one index finger in front of their faces, Jacobs produces sensations of depth whose startling vividness implicitly reproaches Hollywood for the expense and inscrutability of its special effects. Yet, rather than follow the conventions of realistic cinema, Jacobs undertakes formal experiments that force his viewers to re-perceive banal scenes from new angles. He has also incorporated stereographs into his short films as found objects. Far from “bowing down” before these “skins of reality,” Jacobs’s Baudl’arian cinema uses editing to dissect and remake them. (His recent Capitalism: Slavery (2006) and Capitalism: Child Labor (2006), for instance, make 19th-century stereocards shudder with a sense of the profound wrongs that Holmes omits from his story of American progress.)  

  2. Such reflectiveness is not only possible in such a frugal documentary. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) offers a more commercial example of how 3D technology might be used to explore a real setting, in a fiction film—as well as a version of nostalgia, this time for early cinema, that awakens us to our own dreams. 

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