Werner Herzog’s new movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams will soon become a staple in the rotation of it is corporate backer The History Channel. Until then, despite some flaws, it makes for a compelling watch. What grates at times is the music. Tonal and discordant classical sounds of European origin are Herzog’s attempt to provide emotional expression to the animal cave art which otherwise would leave a person speechless. The music he chose is just what is necessary when making a statement ie to be unconcerned about criticism. I appreciate that he took a stand. Often I didn’t enjoy it.
Reviewing this movie is daunting. It is like trying to review Humanity. The Chauvet cave filmed here houses these treasures and was only discovered in 1994. The French have learned from the tragedy of the caves of Lascaux not to let many people in at one time. Humidity from too many visitor’s breathe spawned the mold that has ruined much of the “Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art.”.
The Chauvet cave is said to depict the earliest artistic drawings on this planet at 32,000 years old. The simple beauty of the lines, the ability to convey the power of the hunted game, the sense of movement created by multiple images of horses in close proximity leap out at the viewer. However there is only so much the film medium can actually capture. I expect this is true even in the 3d version, although I saw it in 2d.
In 2009 I visited the famed Font de Gaume cave in the Dordogne region of France. Locals knew of it for quite some time but the significance of the cave art’s prehistoric origins dating to 14,000 years ago was only recognized in 1901. It is the only such cave in Europe where the viewer sees the original drawings and not a recreation. Even though it is 20,000 years younger than Chauvet, similar techniques and creative thinking are shared by both.
Anthropologists claim that cave drawings illuminated by flickering torches, must have brought the animals to life for our early ancestors. Herzog amplifies this point by suggesting an additional allure, to wit, that of shadow dancing. It is left to the imagination of the viewer to conjure up a multi species disco scene.
Take that George Lucas. In your face Kevin Costner.
Also alluded to in the movie but made more emphatically during my tour are several other points. Prehistoric people only visited caves. Archeologists note that 55 degrees is a little too much air conditioning for most of us. While not making it their abode, visitors still developed intimate knowledge of the cave’s nooks and crannies.
By studying cave contours, 3d perspective is achieved. The placement of , say, a bison’s shoulder is dramatically enhanced where the cave wall juts out a bit. If there is then an unnatural depression in the adjacent space where the stomach should be, compensation occurs by placing that area in a natural shadowed area. The image rendered appears lifelike under these conditions. If you think about it, it’s most ingenious.
Another point is that the so called Cro Magnons are part of our direct line. Neanderthals existed at the time of the Chauvet cave drawings but as a species they are notable because they left no artistic record. Herzog does not need to spell out the obvious, there is something about artistic/spiritual expression that is vital to our existence.
Another feeling I was left with is that you have to love the French. What other people would have the former chief of their national perfume institute put his sniffer in various fissure in the ground and attempt to detect odorous clues to the existence of other hidden caves, perhaps housing more wonders. Not only that, but when an exact replica of the Chauvet cave opens for tourists, the same expert may contribute ideas to what the original cave may have smelt like. Those odors then will be piped in to enhance the experience. As many Americans who have travelled to Europe might advise, there is no need to add body odor as the locals may already have that covered. Ouch.
I also like the sense Herzog and the French have of poetry. French scientists working on the project develop their own personal reverie with regard to the implications of their findings. Someone once remarked what a difference the U.S. space program may have made if the early astronauts had included poets and artists instead of primarily military pilots. Edgar Mitchell types may have proved to be the rule rather than the exception.
By the standards of certain communities in Northern California there was relatively little reference to spiritual or shamanistic aspects for the people of the Chauvet cave. This is one area where the viewer is free to come to their own conclusions. Herzog is wise to leave us to our imagination and not to be overly suggestive.
Visiting the cave at Font de Gaume was one of the most profound experiences of my life. I teared up feeling an ineffable connection with this place and with these people. Short of a time machine visit, the art of Chauvet caves and the like are as close as we will ever physically get to some of the most profound aspects of our human origins. Herzog has left a visual record that will have to serve until the faux cave opens. A return trip to France then will be a must.