Monday, May 30, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (4/5)

It has become impossible to separate the persona of Warner Herzog from his films. This is perhaps most evident in his documentaries where his distinct accented voiceover never for a second allows us to forget we are being guided through one of Herzog’s obsessive inquiries into what makes us human. Simultaneously donning the guise of all controlling deity and subversive trickster—Zeus and Hermes both—Herzog carefully leads us through his world even as he befuddles us with dizzyingly obtuse, impossible to answer questions.

In many ways Herzog seems like the perfect companion to travel down the winding path between stalactites and stalagmites to uncover pictoral images so old they’ve been lost to human memory for tens of thousands of years. The Cave of Forgotten Dreams mostly takes place in the Chauvet Cave in France, which has housed the oldest known instance of human drawings in existence. These images were first etched into the cave wall nearly 32,000 years ago and were preserved from the ravages of wind, rain, and outside air thanks to the improbable fortunes of an avalanche that sealed the cave opening. The cave was rediscovered in 1994 by Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet, and since then access to the cave has been strictly regulated by the French government, granting access only to a handful of scientists. Even Herzog and his team have had their access curtailed. They are allowed only three filmmakers at a time, meaning each member of Herzog’s trio must take on multiple filmmaking duties, including Herzog himself; they must never step from the manmade platform; and they are limited to no more than a couple of hours of time for each visit.

The Chauvet Cave provides Herzog with a quixotic starting point for him to pose questions about who were these humans who drew these images of ancient horses and rhinoceroses and do they bear any resemblance to who we are in the contemporary world. Does a constant of human nature bridge the yawning gap of 32,000 years between art of prehistory and art of today, or have we transformed so radically over the millennia that the function of art from 30,000 B.C.E. bears little resemblance to the function of art of the 21st century? Of course, it is likely that the viewer is no closer to answering these questions before watching the film than after, but just because a question has no answer does not mean we can’t profit from posing it.

Naturally, Herzog presents variations of these inquiries to the scientists who work on the Chauvet Cave. Perhaps one of the most interesting responses comes in the form of an anecdote regarding Aboriginal painting in Australia. There several Aboriginal drawings have religious significance and over the years, as the elements strip these images of their luster, the local Aborigines touch them up from time to time. An anthropologist once asked one of those restoring the paintings why he continues to repaint the art. He replied that he is not the one doing the painting. The aborigine’s answer may seem quixotic to the ears of an outsider, but it does suggest that there is a larger force at work in an artist, something transcendent that forces us to create. And yet, the disconnect between how the Aborigine and the Westerner sees art makes us question whether we can really connect the art of the Chauvet Cave to the paintings hanging at your local institute of contemporary art. After all, the assumption of a singular author that underlines the Westerners question is a relatively modern phenomenon. As much as this answer illuminates it also obfuscates.

There may or may not be a transcendence that connects the art of prehistoric man with art of today, but that does not mean that Herzog is not going to look for it. Herzog notes that the cramped quarters of the cave make it impossible for them to film without also unveiling the process of filmmaking itself. Cameras and boom mikes are visible throughout the film. Our ability to see the man behind the curtain allows us to realize that as we sit in a darkened theater we may in fact be participating in the same ritual as those who first scrawled those images on the cave wall. Several times during the film Herzog allows his camera to slowly linger on the images themselves, allowing us to bend time and to experience as closely as is possible the viewpoint of those who first saw these images so long ago. As Herzog’s camera forces us to stare intently on the cave paintings, I couldn’t help but remember a similar scene at the end of the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie on medieval icon painter Andrei Rublev. Andrei Rublev is a deliberately paced film composed almost entirely in black and white. But at the end of the film the frame blooms into color as we finally see images of Rublev’s work. Tarkovsky’s slow pan over images of religious icons struck me as strangely reminiscent of Herzog’s similar technique in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, suggesting that each work of art, despite its separation of unthinkable eons, shares a spiritual purpose, even if the term “spiritual” might be too much of a burden for any single word to carry.

If you are lucky enough to see Cave of Forgotten Dreams in theaters then there is a good chance you saw it in 3D. The idea of filming a documentary about cave paintings created with the primitive tools of the time in state of the art 3D is so daffy that it could only come from the mind of Warner Herzog. But unlike most 3D films in the Cineplex, this isn’t a quick scheme to charge higher ticket prices. In some ways 3D is necessary to truly appreciate the artistry of the cave paintings because the artists utilized the uneven surface to suggest movement and texture. The film is also taking us into a place that is so restricted that less than a dozen people have access to the cave at any given time. A film in 3D is the closest any of us will get to actually standing in front of this artwork.

If The Cave of Forgotten Dreams has any downfalls it is that Herzog poses his unanswerable questions to people who are perhaps not the best suited for engaging them. Most of Herzog’s subjects are culled from the field of science and bring great insight into the mechanics of the cave and the art. But when it comes to the larger questions of human nature, culture, and meaning, they seem somewhat flummoxed. It would have perhaps helped Herzog if he had spoken to religion, cultural, and art scholars in addition to scientists. My guess is that these scholars could have not only complicated Herzog’s question but also asked a few of their own.

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