Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri May 06, 2011 3:40 pm 
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Dreams you will never understand

The ancient cave drawings are a mystery, and that's why Werner Herzog was the man to make a film about them. The Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave, in the Ard├Ęche, in southern France, contains the most ancient drawings of all, and this is where Herzog and his small crew were given access to go in during a short period when scientists and specialists are allowed in. They had to carry small, light cameras and lights operated from batteries attached to their waists, and they could touch nothing. They could walk only on narrow metal trestles down the center of the cave's chambers.

Whose are the "dreams" in the film's title? Are they Herzog's, the Cro-Magnon artist-shamans', or those of the contemporary archeologists whose work is to document and explore Chauvet and try to tease out its secrets and meanings? Herzog talks to a young Frenchman who confesses he used to do something else. He was a juggler in a circus. Then he visited a cave and the drawings gave him dreams, of real lions and drawn ones, dreams so vivid he quit the circus and studied archaeology. Maybe Herzog is thinking of this young man's dreams in his title.

The film is in 3D to convey the interior spaces of the cave -- strange, rich spaces, with translucent stalactites and stalagmites and sparkly surfaces (many of which came after the drawings were made). The drawings are not on flat spaces, though some of the French experts speak of them being in "panels," which makes them sound flat. "The most common themes in cave paintings are large wild animals," the Wikipedia article, "Cave Painting," tells us, "such as bison, horses, aurochs, and deer, and tracings of human hands as well as abstract patterns, called finger flutings." The drawings have a famous sureness and fluency. They also seem to use multiple overlapping images and multiple legs of animals to convey movement -- the first motion pictures, Herzog says. The drawings tell us more than archaeological remains, in some cases, about the animals that roamed the land freely -- a cold, dry land, with glaciers.

The cave is beautiful and haunting; the drawings are unusually large, numerous, and striking. Be quiet now and listen to the sound of the cave, one of the guides says. And Herzog says they began to feel a presence or presences so powerful the cave became oppressive, and it was a relief then to come back out. Chauvet is very deep in and protected, found only in the early 1990's, because a great wall of stone fell down and closed it in, and this is why it is so unspoiled, and why access to it is severely restricted to preserve it.

There's something about this place you can't get your head around. And that something Herzog -- whose voiceover, as always in his documentaries, for good or ill dominates the film -- states right way in the first few moments of the film: these drawings are 32,000 years old. Though Herzog doesn't mention this, some challenge this figure, saying they are too sophisticated to go back that far. But no matter. They are still tens of thousands of years old. And think about that. In films we are fed doomsday sci-fi stories all the time in which Armageddon arrives twenty of fifty or a hundred years from now. But man -- Homo Sapiens, or in this case Homo Artisticus, or perhaps, as one French archeologist suggests, Homo Spiritualis, goes back 32,000 years. We can't even imagine man going forward one thousand. The mystery of the past is far richer than the mystery of the future. Why don't we have more imagination, and more hope?

Herzog has made a remarkable film about an extraordinary subject. But I confess to finding Cave of Forgotten Dreams frustrating and a little disappointing. The spaces seem inhospitable, and would be even if there were free, unlimited access. Aesthetically, the visuals are unsatisfying. Too often the images are seen only partially, in flickering light. Or some French lady lecturing us about the drawings is standing in between the camera and the drawing so we can't see all of it. It is better to page through one of the lavish books that have been published showing the drawings at Lascaux, which are similar, if later (perhaps much later: estimated to be 17,300 years old), and seem, in the photographs, to be more beautiful, more colorful, with shades of brown and sienna and black, while the Chauvet drawings are apparently done in charcoal and are more monochromatic. (There are said to be red ones and black ones, but this is not clear from the film.)

Is 3D a help or a hindrance? One might appreciate the drawings more as drawings and for their conception flattened out, as in the Lascaux books, instead of having their bumps and declivities emphasized. Moreover 3D remains a crude device, no better than my grandmother's Stereopticon, a jerky and distracting attempt to imitate real depth. And as for the sound, though there's a charming and deliciously silly moment when one of the French experts plays the "Star Spangled Banner" on a reconstructed Cro-Magon flute, Herzog relies on a lot of loud string-heavy New-Agey music that is particularly intrusive toward the end when we should be getting deep into the drawings and instead are distracted from them.

We know people didn't live in the caves. Bears did, and they left their paw and nesting marks in the soft loam of the cave floor. We don't know what the drawings were for or who did them. They might have been done by adolescents (not mentioned here), and many may have been done by women (also not mentioned). They may have been done to evoke powerful spirits, or make the animals multiply ("hunting magic"). They may have been done by shamans in trance states. Not much is said about all this in the film. Herzog likes to dwell on the mystery. Here in the Cro-Magnon caves he finds the same unknowable and unnameable quality that he sees in his scary version of Nature. He may prefer not to dwell on possible solutions. And he may be right there. But he could have told us more about what the hypotheses about the cave drawings are -- and skipped the mutant albino alligators he works in at the end. But then it wouldn't have been a Werner Herzog movie, would it?

Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams was introduced at Toronto in September 2010 and shown at other film festivals in 2011, including SXSW and San Francisco. It opened at IFC Center in New York April 29, 2011.

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