The whole point of going to a movie is to see things you’ve never seen before; to be shocked, scared, informed, entertained, or simply to experience a new perspective, a different way of looking at the world. We have come to expect such unusual depictions – even peculiar ones – from the director Werner Herzog. For example, in Fitzcarraldo, he dragged a boat across a hill using its own power, which surely is something you don’t see every day. Herzog’s latest film is Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which falls into this category. It is about an excursion into the Chauvet cave in Southern France, and the art found there. This is a good movie, and I recommend it, subject to several qualifications.
First, the movie is mis-titled. One of Herzog’s main points is the continuity of existence and dream-like memories that persist over time. The inhabitants of the valley where the cave was found, Herzog argues, are not that much different from you and I. In particular, they share a need to express themselves, to think symbolically, and (in the case of certain talented individuals) to act creatively. This is a universal theme – one of identity, not difference, to borrow a phrase from Heidegger. The dreams have not been forgotten, rather, they have been remembered. The movie should be called “Cave of Remembered Dreams,” or some such.
Second, the movie feels disjointed. It comprises segments of interviews with scientists; a history of Herzog’s expedition into the cave; pictures of the cave art; and a chilling allegory at the end of the movie about nuclear waste and albino crocodiles. Herzog jumbles these all up. It would have made for better continuity had he arranged them into discrete segments. The best pictures of the cave art come at the end. These should have come at the beginning, possibly with a coda or a reprise. This would tend to draw one in more to the underlying theme of the film, and expose the amazing art for what it is, thereby attracting the viewer’s attention. As it is, one is introduced to the cave art in a haphazard fashion, using jerky camera technique, which Herzog even admits was filmed using amateur equipment and is deficient. I am not objecting to the interviews with the scientists and other personnel charged with safeguarding the cave, or demonstrating various techniques such as primitive spear throwing and how to play musical instruments made out of bones. They comprise an important part of the overall story. It’s just that it would have been better to assemble these into separate informational segments, somewhere in the middle of the film.
Third, the 3D effect is dispensable, except towards the end of the film when Herzog finally focuses on the paintings themselves, and the stalactites and stalagmites surrounding them. Then, they blend and meld astonishingly into the rocky contours of the interior of the cave. Before then, all you really see are talking heads in the foreground with dusty cave walls in the background, which made me dizzy. Herzog also could have made better use of 3D. For example, I expected some kind of effect where the paintings lift off the walls of the cave and literally become alive, or somehow become animated. Given the current state of 3D technology, this would not have been hard to achieve.
Finally, a word about caves and the astonishing art this one contains. There is something interesting about humanity’s relationship with caves. Pharaohs were buried in caves (albeit man-made ones) in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in caves around Qumran in Palestine. Caves are enclosures, places of isolation and containment. It is surprising that, given his philosophical musings, Herzog did not mention this primordial, archetypal (ala Jung) aspect.
Aside from its great antiquity, one of the most interesting aspects of the art is how contemporary it is. Art from ancient peoples sometimes is criticized for its lack of perspective and dimensionality, or at least it is juxtaposed against Renaissance-era art that employs perspective and dimensionality with greater facility. It is “flat” and opaque. It is alleged that, because of this, it does not draw one into the work. The work is an object to be regarded, most likely at a distance; it does not absorb one, or in effect become an extension of the viewer. Commentators sometimes observe that “primitive” people were incapable of thinking in terms of spatial metaphors.
This simply isn’t so. The Chauvet paintings reach across the years and are compelling. Even without the contours of the cave walls, they are layered and show differential-phase movement, in the manner of an impressionist painting. Herzog briefly makes the connection between this attribute and more modern painters, such as Picasso, but could have dwelt on it further.