Cave of Forgotten Dreams, part 1
A film by Werner Herzog.
From the little I know of Werner Herzog, he’s a famous cinematographer renowned for his stream-of-consciousness art films. The impression I get from the article or two I read about him was that he struggles to portray the sometimes-insanity of life as realistically as possible in his films. If this is indeed the case, he has sort of succeeded with his most recent movie, Cave of Forgotten Dreams: a film which depicts a slice of life which is at once sublime and ridiculous, full of Herzog’s sound and fury — which drifts into insignificance next to the awe and silent beauty of the paintings he is supposedly highlighting, but on which he spends far too little time.
I suppose this was my greatest frustration with the film, in fact: Herzog had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go into the caves at Chauvet, to film the ancient, unique, irreplaceable, priceless cave paintings there. From what I read, the French government has locked the caves up tightly since their discovery in 1994, in an attempt to keep the paintings pristine — a reasonable-sounding precaution considering the tragedy of the destructive mold spores in some of the other prehistoric caves discovered, such as Lascaux. However, this means only selected scientists and members of the French government may enter the caves. Herzog apparently had contacts within the French government, and so they agreed to hired him for the duration of the time he’d be allowed into the caves — for the princely salary of one Euro. :-)
Let us not forget: these are paintings created by our prehistoric ancestors, the oldest we have yet discovered and over twice as old as the next most ancient cave paintings we are aware of — over 30 thousand years old! The mind boggles when trying to encompass that length of time, and when reflecting upon what our ancestors might have been trying to communicate through these amazing — and likely sacred to them — works of art. So you might think, given such a priceless gift to bring out to the world, that Herzog might spend the lion’s share of time within his film in slowly and carefully panning over the paintings themselves, right?
Ah, well. He did spend some time doing so, at least — although he managed to entirely miss the beautiful horses shown here. I found those by accident while researching for this review. Trying to write logically about this erratic and wandering film, however, has been an exercise in frustration for me… so I finally threw up my metaphorical hands and decided to simply write the way he filmed: an almost pointless-seeming stream of his consciousness, alleviated by flashes of indescribable visual beauty within the caves themselves. A quick note of warning as you read, however: I was scribbling notes to myself in the dark of the movie theatre. I hope I got all the names and information down correctly, but if I have not then you should blame not the movie, but me, please.
Also, the photos I show in this posting are all from the magnificent photography at the Bradshaw Foundation website, where you can learn a bit more about Chauvet and other prehistoric cave paintings. Fair warning: you’ll only read carefully sanitized, approved-by-the-establishment data there… but along with the official (and interactive) French website for The Cave of Chauvet-Pont-D’arc, you’ll find beautiful photos of the paintings, for those of us who will likely never get to walk the caves ourselves.
The perplexity inspired by this film start with the names of the cave itself. Chauvet was part of a three-person team (one female, two males) of spelunkers who discovered the caves. Apparently the first person in, who realized what they’d found, was the woman — but it’s the male “leader” who was rewarded by having the cave named after him. However, despite this accolade, the poor man’s name is cause for confusion, being pronounced in two distinct ways within the film. I’m sticking with ‘shoo-VEY,’ since that’s the one I recall being used the most.
Herzog decided to film in 3D so as to show the caves in all their glory. Several of the critics I read mentioned how this was the only legitimate and truly artistic use for 3D. Honestly, I have no idea what they’re talking about, especially since (as a comparison) I found the movie Avatar such a seamlessly beautiful 3D visual feast. Further, I saw Cave of Forgotten Dreams twice: once in 3D and once in 2D. According to the movie theatre where the film was being shown, people complained so much about the 3D that the management decided to show it in 2D instead.
I’d have to agree with their assessment, as there was only perhaps one spot in the movie where I wondered if the 3D would have been better: while doing a slow scan over some of the deeper alcoves within the cave. Aside from that, 3D offered little, and detracted much. The person handling the camera outside the cave, for example, was clearly just playing around as they walked up to the entrance, and we ended up with what I privately refer to as ‘jerky-cam.’ Worse, there was one point where the camera was swung around so much on the side of the mountain that I ended up closing my eyes to settle my protesting stomach. Once inside the cave, the 3D gave a curious blurriness around humans standing close to the viewer, but in front of a distant backdrop. For a moment, in fact, I found myself wondering if a truly sloppy “cut-and-paste” job had been done, in order to place a human in the picture for perspective. All things considered, I’d have to say Herzog’s decision to use 3D was excessively artsy, and the film worked just as well, if not better, without it.
Entering the Cave
The original cave complex had a large, open entryway which was later closed by a small landslide; this is why the caves were so beautifully preserved, and were found in such pristine condition. Today there is only one entryway: a narrow, close tunnel with a thick, locked, guarded steel door embedded at the end. Entrance is granted to no more than four people at a time, with a time restriction of one or two hours per entry, and Herzog himself was given access for only six days, with only four hours allowed inside the cave each day. If I understand correctly, human breath can contribute to decay of the paintings, so I can understand this precaution, as well as the extremely strict rule to touch nothing at all within the cave.
There is a 2′ wide steel walkway leading through the caves, and entrants are also strictly enjoined to not leave it at any time. Amusingly, at one point a stalagmite juts up from the cave floor, and the walkway is neatly notched so as to not touch it. Heat can melt the cave’s interior, so Herzog’s crew was allowed only three flat cold-light panels run on belt batteries for lighting. This gives a mysteriously dim feel to much of the movie. It is not at all dull, however: the undulating interior of the cave reflects back the most beautiful creamy sparkle to the lights.
Just as we’re starting to descend into the wonderful caves, however… Herzog cuts away for interviews. Archaeologist Jean Clottes, former head of the scientific team for several years, ended up with the most speaking time on camera. He also had the most useful and informative conversation, but the poor man got stuck doing stupid stuff for Herzog on-camera. For example, there was a spear-throwing segment, where Clottes demonstrates use of a spear-thrower. This was aggravating for two reasons: first, no evidence was presented in the movie that spear throwers were actually used in the time frame we were observing (although it is actually a paleolithic tool). Secondly, since Clottes is an older gentleman, he clearly hasn’t the upper body strength of a prehistoric hunter. Under those circumstances, I thought Herzog’s amusedly muttered, off-camera snark was uncalled-for.
The archaeologist was also interrupted several times by Herzog asking what I often thought were really pointless questions — such as did Clotte think Chauvet was the birthplace of the human soul. What?! The sheer impossibility of answering such a question seemed self-evident to me, and Clottes himself had for an instant an expression which said to me he knew he’d been trapped into that nonsense. He was an incredible good sport throughout, however, doing his best to answer rationally and thoughtfully despite Herzog’s best efforts to get a rise out of him for the camera.
All I know of Mr. Herzog is that he read the book “Go The Fuck To Sleep” – a sort of children’s book parody – at it’s launch in New York City. He has an interesting voice. Here’s a link: http://kottke.org/11/06/werner-herzog-reads-go-the-fuck-to-sleep
Not nearly as frustrating as having him diverge from the interesting caves bits.