25 August 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Written & Directed by: Werner Herzog
Full credits at IMDb

Notice it's not called "The Cave of Pretty Pictures." Herzog's documentary, about the earth's oldest known paintings in France's Chauvet Cave, is a philosophical, poetic examination—in three dimensions!—of these primitive-yet-sophisticated illustrations; it grapples with the mysteries that linger after science has established bare fact. OK, they're 32,000 years old—but did their creators weep at night? Herzog's focus is scattered, even drifting toward what the cave might have smelled like (anticipating post-3D smell-o-vision?), but that's understandable: he and his filmmaking team were given unprecedented access to the cave—which is hard to reach even with permission, and where even human breath can contaminate the specimens—that won't likely be granted to anyone else any time soon, so you can't really fault his impulse to cover every conceivable angle.

His camera glides over the uneven bumps of the stone walls, the significance of the artworks that decorate them presented in the director's unmistakably Teutonic-inflected English. (The crew prowls along, illuminating its path by flashlight like criminals—almost like they're the explorers who invaded the pharaohs' tombs.) Herzog expounds on how the early examples of figuration unite Paleolithic man with his modern counterpart, establishing a throughline from cave painting to camera; in fact, he sees in the cave paintings suggestions of the illusion of motion, making them a kind of Muybridgean proto-cinema. Herzog connects the paleolithic to the present: shadow dancers to Fred Astaire, the fusion of women and animals to Picasso, depictions of the female body to Baywatch, the attribution of melodramatic beauty to nature to the German Romantics. A crude bone-flute from a nearby region can be used to play the melody of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Herzog is so fascinated by the past because he looks at it and sees himself. Some things change over the course of millenia. But others, like the torch-ash swiped 28,000 years ago that looks freshly fallen, don't. "We are locked in history," Herzog says. "They"—the cave painters—"were not." Grade: B

Watch the trailer:

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