March 13, 2011
Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which premiered at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival and which opens theatrically at the end of April, is as powerful as any film I’ve seen. Leaving a recent screening of the 3-D documentary and gazing upon a Wilshire Boulevard bathed in smog-refracted sunlight, I felt unsettled. It was the same busy throroughfare I’d been on 90 minutes earlier, but it looked different.
I was reminded of seeing movies on the big screen as a young child. After watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at the Merrick Theatre on Jamaica Boulevard in Queens -- I might have been 4 or 5 years old -- I could never look at my mother’s sewing kit, or apples for that matter, as I had before the show. Similar experiences as an adult film-goer have been rare: Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, Bergman’s Persona... a mere handful of exalted masterpieces have been truly transformative for me.
Herzog’s documentary belongs in that elite group. Its intensity is emotional, intellectual and, yes, spiritual. Using 3-D, the director makes viewers feel at once claustrophobic and exhilarated. Stalactites and stalagmites in the Chauvet Cave he explores -- discovered by spelunker Jean-Marie Chauvet in 1994 -- seem within reach, even though they’re literally untouchable. (The French government has imposed many restrictions on access, in order to preserve the site.)
A visual strategy that one tends to associate with “tentpole” special effects movies Is perfectly suited to convey the wonder of Herzog’s exploration. As his 4-person crew (director, cameraman, sound recordist and production assistant) go deeper and deeper into the cave, viewers feel themselves moving further and further into pre-history. Filming only a few hours a day from narrow metal catwalks, with lights that emit no heat, Herzog’s team show the paintings in vivid detail and in relation to their environment.
Looking at these artifacts far from the mouth of the cave, it becomes clear that the paintings in these deep recesses were made by torchlight. Exigencies of production result in an approximation of that same kind of illumination. Small lights on crew helmets moving with each head turn, reflected by wet rock formations, set the ancient paintings aflicker. And seeing them in this state -- close to the way their makers had seen them -- somehow enhances the awe-inspiring nature of the works’ very existence.
Goosebumps, arm hair standing on end, mouth agape in wonder -- all induced by Herzog’s imagery! People... made pictures... 35,000 years ago! Some were made with charcoal from the burnt torches (and, therefore, easily carbon-dated), some with red ochre. All were preserved because a rockslide 20,000 years ago sealed the cave hermetically. And this fortuitous act of nature enables us to connect to our progenitors with an intimacy unimaginable before watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
Interviewed by Herzog, Dominique Baffier, archaeologist and curator of the Chauvet Cave, draws viewers’ attention to something revealed by red ochre handprints on one of the walls: their maker had a crooked right pinky. Thus, looking carefully, we learn something about a man who walked the earth millenia ago that we mighn’t even notice about a co-worker or neighbor. Wow!
Particularly exciting for filmmakers and cineastes is the fact that a number of the charcoal paintings reveal artists’ attempts to create the illusion of movement, 350 centuries before our time. Three such stabs stand out:
A bison illustration shows the animal’s four legs and, faintly, another four; clearly this is meant to suggest the creature in motion. Even more sophisticated, though, is a succession of bison images, each with the beast’s legs in a different position. It’s as though the pre-historic artists made animation cels eons before Disney, Fleischer and others we think of as motion picture pioneers. And Herzog unites film and cave art by playing a delightful clip from Swing Time, in which Fred Astaire dances with shadows on the wall.
The third attempt to depict movement on the cave’s walls isn’t referred to by Herzog as such: A painting of two rhinos facing each other in battle brings to mind the “collision of opposites” formulated by Sergei Eisenstein in his theory of cinematic montage. Viewers feel the same sense of dynamism from this picture that they get from the Soviet director’s films or those of D.W. Griffith.
Indeed, Cave of Forgotten Dreams as a whole brings to mind classical film theory. Andre Bazin, groundbreaking scholar and guru to several French New Wave directors, wrote, in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” (1958), that the origin of representational art lies in the quest to live on after death. “By providing a defense against the passage of time,” he argued, “it satisfied a basic psychological need in man, for death is but the victory of time.” Heady stuff!
But the scholars Herzog interviews are not “all in their heads.” Quite the opposite. Archaeologist Gilles Tosello, for instance, was a juggler before he began to study prehistoric art. Wulf Hein, also an archaeologist, is known for his reconstructions of Ice Age flutes and figurines. And Maurice Maurin, who knows as much about the Chauvet Cave as anyone, is a master perfumer.
In one of the documentary’s more visually arresting scenes, the director shows a laser genrated map of the site. But instead of being wowed by the spectacle, he questions its value. It reminds him of the Manhattan phone directory, the filmmaker says. “4,000,000 people listed. But do we do we know if they cry when they’re alone at night? Do they dream?”
Which brings us back to the title, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Like all artists, viewers realize, these pre-historic painters were dreamers. We’ll never know precisely what was in their subconscious minds. But Herzog makes us wonder if they dreamed about what we might think of them, long after they left their mark.
In a memorable epilogue, the director suggests how people thousands of years from now might perceive us. Twenty miles from the Chauvet Cave, superheated water from a nuclear reactor is pumped into a nearby greenhouse where, now, there reside “radiocative albino crocodiles.” Herzog films and discusses these mutants with the same sense of awe he brings to the cave paintings. It’s as though he's visiting from the future, seeing the strange artifacts twenty-first century humans will have left behind to reveal who we truly were.