Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: Grade B


Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michel Geneste; Writer-Director Werner Herzog.

Iconic director Herzog somehow gained permission from the French government to film the painted walls inside the famous prehistoric Chauvet cave discovered in southern France in 1994. This 3D documentary is stunning as a technical achievement and because of the cave drawings themselves. The drawings and etchings on the cave walls were made by humans living at the end of the ice age, about 32,000 years ago. There are horses, reindeer, rhinoceroses, bear, lion, mammoth, bison, hyenas, and much else. It’s difficult to imagine that world, with all those animals living alongside humans in France at that time.

Some of the drawings, made with charcoal, are incredibly sophisticated and beautiful by any artistic standard. The 3-D effect gives you a compelling sense of place. In all, the headache is probably worth it, because this film is really about the artists who made the pictures, not the pictures themselves, so you want to have a feeling for the spatial layout of the cave, which the 3D gives.

On the down side, the tone of the documentary is academic but not very scientific, so the information given, mostly in Herzog’s voice-over, is mildly interesting but not too informative. There are interviews with scientists who show what the ancient humans wore, how they hunted, and how they played tunes on a tiny, carved ivory flute that was found in the region. But there is little scientific information about climate, diet, trade, migratory patterns, housing, ecology, and so on. There is not even much technical information about how the pictures were actually made.

Instead, Herzog shows a nearby heated biodome housing albino alligators and suggests that maybe they are not really alligators but ghosts, mere reflections of the real alligators, just as the cave paintings are reflections through time of a way of life we can no longer understand. That’s a stretch, but I indulge it, because he is Herzog. So even though I am grateful to glimpse inside the Chauvet cave (which is sealed up to avoid the kind of damage that occurred at Lascaux), I would have better enjoyed a proper scientific documentary, as opposed to this sentimental approach which tries to convey the eerie mystery of our prehistoric ancestors. Still, there’s no denying that the cave is mysterious, and the drawings are incredibly beautiful.

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