Another mythologizing animal sharing a spark of intellectual passion!
From the discussion of the little bone flute, we then shift to an outside shot with Wulf Hein, an "experimental archaeologist" who is wearing a fur suit of reindeer skin which he made himself, in order to try to experience how folks lived and used tools back then. I was a bit confused to see he had the fur on the outside, though — wouldn't it be warmer with the fur turned inward to trap body heat? He also discussed flutes, producing a little instrument he'd made from a vulture radius bone which he said was naturally pentatonic — and then playing the "Star Spangled Banner" on it! From there things just got weirder: we're introduced to a perfumier named Maurice Maurin, who talks about how sealed prehistoric caves develop a different scent than one finds outdoors, so he's wandering around outdoors on the mountain, sniffing for caves.
Talking later to the friend who attended the movie with me, I was quite wroth at this part of the film — why was Herzog wasting our time with this crap when he could be showing us more of the cave paintings?! He'd been given an unprecedented four hours for seven days in the cave to film! Even if we assumed half of those 28 hours were lost in futzing around with gear and trudging around in the caves… and that another half of the remaining 14 hours of filming was of unusable poor quality — that's still eight hours we could have of the gorgeous prehistoric paintings! He could have made a stunningly beautiful film out of that — so what was he doing with all that time?!
My companion agreed stream-of-consciousness was really awful for this particular subject, but argued convincingly that the perfumier with the strange eyes could have been a much better part of the movie had Herzog simply categorized more effectively within his film. A section on how people were searching for more such caves, and the interestingly varied techniques they were attempting, would have added to the film's impact, he thought. I could agree to that… if only Herzog had done so. Ah, well.
At this point in the movie we jump back to the caves, while we are informed that a related theme park for tourists is in planning for a few miles away — which I thought could be quite cool, especially if it keeps the cave pristine and is a faithful copy which allows more people to admire our ancestors' beautiful art. As we're being informed of this, the camera pans over astonishing cathedral swoops of milky stone hanging in cloth-like, lovely striated waves from the ceiling… all created over the millennia after the cave-in closed the original entrance. It is indescribably lovely, and for all that I am intensely aggravated at Herzog at this point in the movie, I consider myself privileged to get to see this stunning beauty.
Unfortunately right about then is when the aggravation factor ramps up again. The 3D effects are confusing and distracting, and the constant monotonous chanting/singing in the background is starting to get annoying. Simultaneously the narrator portentously informs us that off to the side of the cave, where the camera cannot film it, there is the footprint of an eight-year-old boy next to the footprint of a wolf. As we are asked the hypothetical question, "Did they walk as friends? Or were they separated by a thousand years?" I find myself stifling the urge to irritatedly yell back at the screen: how do they know either that it's a boy, or what age the child actually was?!
I don't know if I can accurately depict the cognitive dissonance this film inspires. The modern day parts are often almost astonishingly banal. The few scientists are either stuck in anachronistic assumptions, or are plagued by Herzog with questions more suited to philosophy jams by stoned and giggly freshmen. Yet just as the film nearly begs you to write it off… they show us Chauvet again.
Compared to what Herzog has jammed in willy-nilly from modern-day, the caves are nearly heartbreakingly beautiful. Huge, soaring chambers dripping glittering stalactites, paved with shining bones and boulders and skulls; tightly clustered alcoves like a bunch of grapes, curtained with shimmering ivory waves of calcite frozen in time and space — and weaving through it all: the paintings. I don't know how to describe their wonder. Imagine our ancestors standing there with red ochre and charcoal and scratching stones to hand, the weakly flickering torchlight barely pressing back the warm and womb-like darkness, creating startlingly accurate and beautiful renditions of the animals which inhabit their environment — including the dangerous cave bears which frequent the very cave they stand in — and all this occurring unimaginable thousands of years ago… I don't have the words to share.
Even in the movie some of that unwitting reverence was visible, when they talked about how some of the chambers were so huge that people felt dwarfed. In underground spaces that large, the narrator said they felt a sense of wariness, of being watched, as if the ancient painters were still there and were simply silently, patiently waiting for the modern intruders to depart, so they could return to their art. More than one person noted it was a relief to re-surface, in fact.
I was fascinated to realize, as I peered intently at the beautiful painted images flashed on the screen, that this sort of art would teach its viewers to look hard for more than just the central characters. Almost always there are faint other traces trailed nearby or lightly crossing heavier lines, tantalizingly hinting at other half hidden, partial creatures within the artwork as well. I found myself wondering: was this a form of visual training for the harsh realities of life outside the cave, where animals (both potential food and predator) are often camouflaged and very hard to see? Curiously, there was a high percentage of the possible food animals which appeared pregnant, as well: ibex, aurochs, wisent, horses, and rhinos. I don't recall any pregnant lionesses, though. Could this be a visual prayer for the fecundity necessary for survival back then?
Bestiaries depict mythical, moralizing animals, but are also potential allegorical sparks that can bloom into brilliant mental bonfires. My bestiary is this mythologizing animal's fascinated exploration of beauty & meaning in the wonder of existence -- in the hopes of inspiring yet more joyous flares of intellectual passion.
Help yourself & me too!