Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog dates his fascination with Paleolithic cave paintings to age 12, when his imagination was captured by a book about the Lascaux cave. Many decades later, that obsession has paid off for us all. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is Herzog’s trippily reverent exploration of another French cave, discovered long after his childhood, which houses the oldest paintings known to man.

Like Herzog, I'm fascinated by what we can glean from archaeological finds about how people in ancient cultures lived and thought and felt. I even have a similar (though less intense) childhood memory of learning about the Lascaux cave drawings: I remember poring over a New York Times Magazine feature that helped me see them as sophisticated art rather than "primitive" artifacts. But my amateur interest turned out to be more of a drawback than a draw when I first watched Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

I left that screening feeling dissatisfied, grateful for the extended view Herzog had provided of the cave and its paintings but frustrated at having learned so little about the people behind them. Then I did a little reading and got a sense of just how little we know about those ancient ancestors. The second time I saw the movie, free of the obscuring scrim of my own unrealistic expectations, it was an entirely different experience -- and not just because I saw it in 2D, which I actually preferred outside the cave and didn't miss inside it. This time, what struck me was not how few hard facts Herzog turned up but how diligently he dug to get at whatever is there to be gleaned.

You and I will never see Chauvet Cave in person. The French government sealed it off from all but a few scientists upon its discovery in 1994, sparing it the fate of Lascaux, where the carbon dioxide and moisture introduced by an army of visitors fed fungi and molds that have disfigured some of the paintings. Herzog is the only filmmaker ever allowed in Chauvet long enough to shoot a feature, and even he worked under tight constraints. He was limited to a crew of four, granted just a few hours in the cave, and required—like everyone else who enters it—to stay on a two-foot-wide metal catwalk.

The catwalk is there to preserve the animal tracks, human footprints, stalagmites, bits of 28,000-year-old coal, “menagerie of bones,” as Herzog puts it, and other treasures that make the cave’s floor almost as rich an archaeological gold mine as its walls. Perfectly preserved for thousands of years, during which the minerals in the water that seeps steadily in have slowly colonized almost every horizontal surface, the cave is eerily beautiful. The filmmakers give us plenty of time to admire that beauty, passing the camera slowly over stalactites and stalagmites as smooth as plaster casts, still-dripping calcium carbonate icicles, and rippling curtains of glittering stone.

But mostly, they show us the paintings, coming back time and again (maybe a few times too often) to some of the most beautiful. Almost all depict animals that look surprisingly familiar, considering that they were painted 25 to 30 thousand years ago. The bone and ivory flutes Herzog shows us from other digs of about the same time are instantly recognizable too. As one archaeologist puts it, before playing the Star-Spangled Banner on an ancient flute, they even play the same tonal range we use now. No wonder Herzog calls the cave a “familiar yet distant universe.”

The director rarely appears on camera, but the extravagantly rounded vowels of his familiar voice are never far away. His flatly idiosyncratic observations, heard in his intermittent voiceover and off-camera questions, set the tone.

He starts by sharing the elation he felt as he first descended into the cave, the camera defying gravity to flip upside down or float up and over the landscape as we follow him and his guides and crew into the wonderland below. Between visits to the cave, he takes time out to interview a motley assortment of insightful, never self-serious experts. Together, he and they speculate about how things might have looked and smelled and sounded in the heyday of the cave, and how the Paleolithic people who went there to admire the animals might have thought and acted.

Now and then Herzog makes a questionable assumption—how could he be so sure a child's footprint left thousands of years ago was that of an eight-year-old boy?—but for the most part, he’s meticulous about differentiating between knowledge and guesswork, reminding us that most of what we think we know is conjecture, thanks to the “abyss of time” that lies between us and the Cro-Magnons who created the paintings.

Fortunately for us, Herzog is one of cinema’s great speculators. His hypotheses and questions provide some of the film’s most fascinating moments, like when he wonders aloud whether the cave paintings are the beginning of art, and hence of the human soul.

The extra dimension in the 3D version can be dizzying or downright distracting outside the cave, but it emphasizes the strangeness inside, exaggerating the undulations of the walls whose curves the cave painters often worked with in equally creative ways. Moving his lights over the images, Herzog tries to approximate the torchlight by which the Paleolithic people saw them. The flickering light, he points out, may have created the illusion that the animals were moving—an illusion that the artists often encouraged by drawing an animal with two sets of legs or other cues that imply motion. That observation leads to one of Herzog’s most intriguing theories: that the paintings are “almost a form of proto-cinema.”

If art is a way for the past to communicate with the future, as one scientist observes, The Chauvet paintings are powerful art, reaching across that chasm of time to touch something in the roots of our being.

Written for TimeOFF

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