Talking Movies

March 22, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3-D

Werner Herzog uses 3-D technology to show off the cave-paintings of the Ardeche region of southern France in his straightest documentary in years, but some characteristic madness still shines through…

The Pont d’Arc-Chauvet cave-paintings, discovered by the intrepid Chauvet in 1995, are 32,000 years old; more than twice as old as any previously discovered cave-paintings, but because of a collapse in the cliff-face thousands of years ago which sealed the cave they remain as startlingly fresh as if the artist had just ceased work five minutes ago. The impressionistic stampeding buffalo, the fearsome lions and rhinos, and the centaur originating merging of woman and bull in one fertility image offer testament to its cultural importance, which is why the French government has closed access to the cave and treats it extremely delicately. For that reason you should watch this film in the cinema as you will never get a chance to see the real thing and 3-D for once actually earns its keep by allowing you to grasp fully the texture of the cave interiors, where the artists have used rock formations to add effect to their sketching.

Having uncharacteristically praised 3-D let me add an important rider; it is a wonderful innovation for scenes inside the cave but unbearably awful outside. You would be well advised to shut one eye during any outdoor scenes as foliage and hand-held 3-D camera-work make for a terrible viewing experience, not to mention the demented sequences shot by a miniature camera on a radio-controlled toy helicopter. Aside from that latter eccentricity the film finds its groove of ecstatic madness with the continuing phenomenon of any and all craziness in the universe gravitating towards Herzog; only he could find the sole serious archaeologist in the world who had previously pursued a circus career as an unicyclist. And that’s before he meets Wulf Heine, experimental archaeologist (whatever that may be), and then an embittered perfumier, before commanding another archaeologist, wandering off to demonstrate how to hunt with a spear, “Stay where you are”, which will bring down the house down as it recalls Alan Rickman’s delivery of “Remain seated” in John Gabriel Borkman.

That last archaeologist claims we should be dubbed Homo Spiritus not Homo Sapiens as we do not know; all philosophy tells us uncertainty is our lot, but we have always striven for the eternal. Carl Jung claimed that civilisation was an inbuilt human instinct, one which we always turn to immediately after we satisfy our most basic needs. Heine even plays ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ on a replica of an 8,000 year old musical instrument to demonstrate how far back our liking for tonality goes. In the Chauvet cave Cro-Magnon man started to dream; about his soul, his purpose in the world, and he expressed his need to celebrate both, and perhaps tangibly grasp immortality, through his art. Herzog’s enigmatic postscript visits a nearby alligator farm, created to re-use coolant water from its neighbouring nuclear power-plant. Predictably any alligators born there have a mutation, they are all albinos. Herzog thus muses on how unrecognisable we would be to our ancestors. We arrogantly think we know everything, they knew they did not, and so venerated in their art powers beyond their grasp.

Given events in Fukushima, perhaps we could use their humility.

4/5

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