Ethnographic spectacle in classic Hollywood cinema: In this shot from King Kong (Cooper, Schoedsack, 1933), “a pastiche film about the making of an ethnographic film,” U.S. director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) leads his film crew warily into the deserted village on Skull Island off the coast of Sumatra.

Aliens as racialized others: In John Carter, after being stranded on Mars, the protagonist leads the Tharks in a war of liberation against the humanoid, English-speaking redmen. The non-human Tharks are coded as primitive and raced through their costume—loin cloths, war paint, jewellery made from bones and leather, spears, clubs and machetes—and their practice of riding elephantine creatures and playing African hand-drums.

Aliens as racialized others: The pre-technological indigenous Na’vi in Avatar are similarly coded as racialized through their dress, speech and culture.

Early cinema’s spectacle of “otherness”: a frame from the Lumière actualité “Indochina: Namo Village, Panorama Taken from a Rickshaw”(Veyre, 1899), a travelling shot through the village.

Authorial self-reflexivity: Herzog on-screen directing the crew within the cave in Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011).

Herzog’s film exploits the properties of the format to depict the painted cave walls with “their own three-dimensional dynamic, their own movement.”

The claustrophobic spatiality of 3D cinema: This frame from Piranha of a cave-diving scientist foregrounds 3D film’s emphasis upon dark, intimate interior space.

Similarly, in this frame from Sanctum, one of the cave divers panics when she becomes wedged in a narrow underwater shaft.

 “The first representation was a wall, the white wall and the black shadow.” Herzog’s film suggests a parallel between cave paintings and cinema by cutting from the shadowy cave interior to a shot of Fred Astaire dancing in front of a trio of shadows.

An archetypal aerial shot of the Ardèche gorge from a “Skybot” camera platform.

“Scientists have mapped every single millimetre of the cave.” An animated map of the interior, exemplifies the cartographic visuality of digital 3D cinema.

Performing prehistory: “Experimental archaeologist,” Wulf Hein demonstrates how the cave-painters may have looked.

The partial image of inter-species congress that signifies the limits of 3D cinema’s capacity to transport us and reveal new perspectives.


Ethnography in three dimensions

In an historical account of cinema’s relation to anthropology, Fatimah Tobing Rony argues that the ethnographic film has traditionally fulfilled a dual function as scientific document and as public entertainment. It emerged within an explosion of Western representations of the colonized and as-yet unappropriated world beyond Europe and the United States:

“At the height of the age of imperialism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the United States and Europe, there was a tremendous proliferation of new popular science entertainments and visualizing the ‘ethnographic,’ such as the dioramas and bone collections of the natural history museum, the exhibited ‘native villages’ of the world’s fair and the zoo, printed representations such as the postcard and stereograph of the carte de visite, popular science journals such as National Geographic, and, of course, photography and cinema” (Rony, 1996, p. 10).

Consequently, ethnographic cinema has an indistinct boundary that encompasses scientific documentation, documentary cinema, travelogues, “racial films,” fiction/actuality hybrids, and fiction films such as King Kong (Cooper, Schoedsack, 1933), which, Rony argues, is

“a pastiche film about the making of an ethnographic film and hence offers a meta-commentary on ‘seeing anthropology,’ one which [...] foreshadows the fear of the postcolonial Other as monster” (Rony, 1996, p. 15).

The classic ethnographic film is characterized by a tendency to reinforce a binary distinction between the Western viewer and an exoticized other both thematically and visually:

“The people depicted in an ‘ethnographic film’ are meant to be seen as exotic, as people who until only too recently were categorized by science as savage and Primitive, of an earlier evolutionary stage in the overall history of humankind: people without history, without writing, without civilisation, without technology, without archives. In other words, people considered ‘ethnographiable,’ in the bipolar schema articulated by Claude Lévi-Strauss, as opposed to people classified as ‘historifiable,’ the posited audience of the ethnographic film, those considered to have written archives and thus a history proper” (Rony, 1996, p. 7).

While there are numerous examples of digital 3D films with characters that are exoticized in just this way, such as John Carter and Avatar, which depict aliens as racialized, primitive others, the articulation of digital 3D cinema’s ethnographic gaze is also evident in its spectacular treatment of space (Bennett, 2014). The space through which the 3D camera moves is presented to the viewer as a novel, richly detailed visual field to scrutinize, navigate and consume. Implicit in the mobility of the camera that cranes over, arcs around, and probes the film’s diegetic space is a desire both to see more and to observe more intimately. Such an exploratory gaze is both actively inquiring and acquisitive, highlighting 3D cinema’s conflation of the tourist’s gaze with the film spectator’s gaze. As Giuliana Bruno argues, in a study of the depiction and mapping of space in the visual arts:

“As in all forms of journey, space is filmically consumed as a vast commodity. In film, architectural space becomes framed for view and offers itself for consumption as travelled space that is available for further travelling. Attracted to vistas, the spectator turns into a visitor. The film ‘viewer’ is a practitioner of viewing space—a tourist.” (Bruno, 2002, p. 62)

This transformation of the cinematic spectator into a tourist who consumes space is compounded by the 3D film image that invests diegetic space with an affective intensity in excess of its narrative function. However, the commodification of space in stereoscopic cinema is highlighted in a separate but direct way by the economics of distribution and exhibition of digital 3D films. Screening 3D films requires modifying cinema projectors and sometimes screens (depending upon the system used), which has driven up cinema ticket prices (Thompson, 2011)—or the use of a 3D TV. Thus, to watch a 3D film involves a more conscious expenditure; viewing 3D cinema is a practice of heightened consumption.

Situating cinema within an intermedial history of representations of urban and natural landscapes, Bruno proposes also that this touristic consumption of filmic space is structured as a specifically cinematic cartographic project:

“Film has absorbed the touristic drive to ascend to take in the larger ‘scape’ as well as the desire to dive down to ground level and explore private dwellings. In such a way—that is, in incorporating a multiplicity of viewpoints—cinema has reinvented the traveler’s charting of space” (Bruno, 2002, p. 84).

The plummeting, unchained stereoscopic camera offers the spectator just such a mosaic of multiple viewpoints. The prurient curiosity implicit in this dynamic gaze is frequently articulated through narratives of journeying and exploration. As a result, an acquisitive desire to inhabit and claim the fascinating spaces depicted within 3D films underscores and motivates the investigative touristic gaze. In this respect, the technological fantasy of immersion and transportation that underlies 3D film’s conceptualization demonstrates the close historical and ideological relation between stereoscopic cinema and other visual media employed in the depiction of terrain and space. Among the pleasures promised by the medium, films like Sanctum offer the spectator the opportunity to move through, colonize, and domesticate exotically remote spaces in the same way that, for example, the actualités of the Lumière brothers transported European viewers through Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. Bruno observes,

“In touring cities, exploring landscapes, and mapping world sites, early film also ‘discovered’ otherness, made it exotic, and often acted as an agent of an imperialist obsession. For cinema emerged at the height of historical imperialism”’ (Bruno, 2002, p. 77).

In its preoccupation with global travel, cartography and otherness, Sanctum reiterates this imperial obsession, demonstrating the way that 3D cinema more generally is dominated by structuring fantasies of occupation and consumption.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams—documentary space

If the critical response to Sanctum was unenthusiastic, the reception of the documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which went on general release a month later in March 2011, was largely positive. The film has typically been held as an example of the aesthetically and intellectually appropriate deployment of stereoscopic cinematography and also an example of Herzog’s idiosyncratic auteur cinema. As Barbara Klinger notes, for example,

“Identifying style as dictated by subject matter and environment, Herzog distinguished Cave as an organic deployment of the technology, offering a clear rationale for its use’ (Klinger, 2012, p. 38).

In this respect, Herzog’s film appears to follow Cameron’s classical principle of organic integration of style and narrative, although it is distinguished from a film like Sanctum by its insistent self-reflexive foregrounding of its status as cinematic representation. For example, while Cave of Forgotten Dreams also has a surround sound track, it seems used less as an illusion of real space or narrative continuity than as a way to intensify the images’ affective impact. The soundtrack’s most striking feature is the prominence of the accompanying music by Ernst Reijseger, who has scored four of Herzog’s films. The music recurs throughout the film, but in several sequences depicting a montage of cave walls, the film drops location sound from the sound-mix so that at some points all we hear for several minutes is the music, occasionally accompanied by the rhythmic thumping of a heartbeat or Herzog’s voice-over. The austere, evocative score uses cello, pipe organ and choir to produce a strikingly reverent mood. But the music’s complex form and its prominence in the sound design means that it competes for our attention with the image, rather than produces a seamless audio-visual combination.

The film depicts the 32,000-year-old paintings recently discovered inside the Chauvet cave in Southern France. It incorporates interviews with scientists working on the cave, including archaeologists, art historians, palaeontologists and geologists. The film also incorporates footage of the director and small film crew on location—an unreliable sign of self-reflexive transparency characteristic of Herzog’s documentaries. As with Sanctum, the film is concerned with the exploration of a cave system, although Herzog’s film is rather more self-conscious in its staging of the caves as a metaphor for cinema and in its reflections upon the function of visual representation. In fact, the cave—a spatial double of the camera obscura that constitutes the sound stage, film theatre and the analogue photographic apparatus—recurs as a motif in the recent wave of stereoscopic films. The dynamically irregular and complex topography of the cave exploits the haptic potential of 3D cinematography[13][open endnotes in new window] as the mobile camera “feels” its way around the undulating walls and through low tunnels and tight passages. Whereas the Cinemascope frame lends itself to shots of vast expanses of landscape and huge sets, in contrast, the spatiality of 3D cinema is claustrophobic, dark and intimate. Furthermore, this emphasis upon interior space also makes a virtue of the lower illumination levels of the contemporary 3D image, which often occasion complaints about the format.[14] )

The voice-over suggests, “The cave is like a frozen flash of a moment in time”—effectively a photographic trace—and that some of the cave paintings might be considered “almost a form of proto-cinema,” while others are “like frames in an animated film.” As Klinger observes, the film also implies a relation between the Chauvet caves and Plato’s cave, the allegorical space that Jean-Louis Baudry employs as a means of thinking about film spectatorship (Baudry, 1992, p. 310). Discussing the remains of fires within the Chauvet caves, archaeologist Jean-Michel Geneste speculates,

“the fires were necessary to look at the paintings and maybe to staging people around. When you look with the flame, with the moving light, you can imagine people dancing with the shadows.”

Herzog replies, “Like Astaire, Fred Astaire.” Illustrative footage of Astaire in Swing Time (Stevens, 1936) dancing in front of a trio of shadows is inserted while Geneste reflects that

“the image dancing with its own shadow is a very strong and old image of human representation, because the first representation was a wall, the white wall and the black shadow.”

For Sergei Eisenstein, in his discussion of stereoscopic cinema, this remains the material basis of the cinematic illusion, no matter how technologically advanced and “seemingly real”:

“we know very well that they are no more than pale shadows impressed by photo-chemical means on miles of gelatine strip which, in the shape of reels, is conveyed in cans from one end of the globe to another, everywhere amazing the spectators with the illusion of real life” (Eisenstein, 2004, p. 79).

Thus, the setting of the cave prompts reflections upon the ontology of the cinematic representation, the lingering shots of painted images an invitation to the spectator to reflect upon the transparency and muteness of the cinematic image.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams eschews the stylistic sleekness of contemporary commercial cinema, and indeed makes a feature of its limited means, the voice-over drawing our attention to the fact that the film was shot partially with a “tiny non-professional camera rig.” Nevertheless, it shares numerous significant features with Sanctum, the first of which is the unchained stereoscopic gaze. Much of the film is shot with hand-held cameras and lights in continual motion, although the camera movements are less consistently smooth than in the fiction film (in accordance with the conventions of documentary film and television). This mobility is evident in point-of-view travelling shots, following the scientists and film crew into and around the caves. The film opens with a virtuoso establishing shot in which the camera moves along the trellises of a vineyard before rising into the air and sailing above the Ardèche river gorge. climbing up a rock face and past the cave entrance, recalling the helicopter shots in the opening scene of Sanctum. [15]

The mobile camera is also strikingly evident in the probing, haptic shots—a mode of digitally mediated looking that Donna Haraway describes in another context as touching with “fingery eyes”—that feel their way across the surfaces of the cave walls and floor. Such shots, in combination with the continual movement of the hand-held lights, emphasize the irregular surface on which the paintings, scrapings and imprints are inscribed (Haraway, 2008, p. 5). The voice-over suggests that the ridged, pitted, undulating walls have “their own three-dimensional dynamic, their own movement, which was utilized by the artists.” Thus the mobile stereoscopic camera is a particularly suitable means of representing this movement. These irreducibly three-dimensional images are a precursor of 3D cinema, so by implication this cinematic technology is presented to us as the representational telos, a mimetic system that is an inevitable, “natural” and organic extrapolation from these early visual documents.

Another device common to both films is the use of digital animation to provide the spectator with a coherent map of the caves, visually confusing spaces that are difficult to light and shoot in a topographically clear way. Just as in Sanctum, Herzog’s film addresses this by an early sequence that demonstrates the layout of the caves. In this shot, which lays bare the immaterial composition of the digital image from mathematical data, the virtual camera moves through a three-dimensional computer-generated map composed of millions of dots that mark spatial co-ordinates, and is labelled with captions identifying key features of the cave. The motif of the digitally animated three-dimensional map crystalizes the cartographic project at the centre of both films. In addition, it crystallizes the cartographic potential of stereoscopic cinema, condensing into a single mobile image a motivating fantasy of the 3D film.

The focus of Herzog’s film is divided equally between the cave and the scientists who study, document, and map the cave. These individuals belong to the group of adventurers, explorers, inventors, scientists, mendicants and displaced people that populate the director’s body of work across a consistently blurred boundary between fiction and documentary. We are invited to regard the film as an authored text through such elements as the voice-over, written and delivered by Herzog, the director’s appearance onscreen, his audible presence as an off-screen interviewer, and the typically eccentric epilogue which shows albino crocodiles swimming in a nearby glass house, and asks whether we are any more capable of understanding the images than they are:

“Are we, today, possibly, the crocodiles who look back into an abyss of time when we see the paintings of Chauvet cave?”

What is emphasized in reading the film within this authorial frame is that this is a film that is similarly concerned with the transgressive passage into and exploration of remote, exotically strange and alien spaces. In this respect there is a clear continuity between Herzog’s documentary, subterranean adventure films Sanctum and Journey to the Center of the Earth, and outer-space science-fiction epics such as Avatar, John Carter and Prometheus (Scott, 2012).[16] At the same time, Herzog’s personal documentary also belongs to the tradition of the classic ethnographic film, in which newly “discovered” space is rendered as exotic and spectacular. As Eric Ames observes, a consistent feature of Herzog’s “documentaries” is the affective mythologization of landscape—wherein the films construct

“a cinematic terrain that is largely detached from the referential world and oriented toward the inner world, instead. Herzog’s ephemeral vistas open up a paradoxical space of imagined interiority, which is also a representation of the physical world that we inhabit” (Ames, 2009, p. 51).

Just as in a fiction film, the landscapes of Herzog’s documentaries function as expressive and allegorical narrative space.

In Herzog’s film, as in Sanctum, movement through diegetic space—the penetration of caves, the movement from light to darkness, from air to the medium of water, from exterior to interior—involves the passage across an interface or boundary into a wholly other space. Herzog observes of the discoverers of the Chauvet cave, “They descended into the unknown,” while the cave-divers are investigating equally exoticized, alien, or sacred spaces. Spatial movement in these films also involves a temporal and historical transition—the passage back through time to a prehistoric, a-historic, or “primeval” environment. This is signified by the figure in traditional dress in Sanctum, and it is treated with blank irony in Herzog’s film through the counterpart figure of “experimental archaeologist,” Wulf  Hein, who appears in prehistoric drag. Dressed in animal skins to demonstrate how the cave-painters might have looked, Hein plays the “Star-Spangled Banner” on an ivory flute modelled on fragments found in the cave.

What distinguishes Herzog’s film from Sanctum is the scepticism with which it treats the desire for unlimited mobility that structures these narratives and underlies the fantasy of stereoscopic cinema. For example, the past’s inaccessibility is stressed at several points so that, as one of the archaeologists explains, “we will never reconstruct the past’;  as the director’s voice-over commentary observes, “we are locked in history and they were not,” restating again the binary distinction between the ethnographiable subject and the historifiable that constitutes the ethnographic gaze.

This historical immobility and restricted comprehensibility is reinforced in the film with another trope of Herzog’s documentaries (albeit a device that recurs in some of the director’s fiction films). An event or sublime element of the mise-en-scène is apparently unrepresentable on film and so is teasingly withheld. This motif signifies both the semantic, expressive limits of the medium and the potential, colonizing violence of a representational system that demands total visibility, total, undifferentiated exposure.[17] The Chauvet cave contains a stalactite bearing a drawing of a woman’s torso that is fused with or is perhaps being embraced by a bull-headed creature. But since the film crew is confined to a narrow metal catwalk to preserve the delicate cave floor, the reverse side of the stalactite remains hidden from view. This partial image of interspecies congress is a sign of 3D cinema’s limited capacity to transport us, make space newly visible and comprehensible, or reveal new perspectives.

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