Although I firmly believe that movies should be viewed the way God intended – at home, alone or in select company, on the biggest screen you can find – I occasionally still trek out to movie theaters. I used to spend quite a lot of time in them, but that was in the primitive days when if you wanted to see a movie, you could only see it in a theater – and if you missed it there, you had to wait around for a revival house to schedule it, and hope you were free that day.
I was lured back this time by my desire to see the 3-D version of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which is about the prehistoric paintings in Chauvet Cave in southern France.
The paintings were done by an unknown person or persons 30,000 or 32,000 years ago; there’s some dispute about the date but in either case it is so long ago that the exact number is basically incomprehensible and therefore sort of irrelevant. These are considered by far the oldest paintings in the world (and yet they look astonishingly modern in style). The cave was sealed off by natural landslides thousands of years ago and was only rediscovered on December 18, 1994, when a group of spelunkers led by a man surnamed Chauvet stumbled across an entrance. (Those experienced at this sort of thing move close to the ground, waiting for a cooler shift in the air that signals the presence of an underground cavern.) The paintings looked so fresh that there was some thought they might be recent forgeries, but slow-growth crystals had gradually formed over them, offering a geological guarantee of authenticity.
The paintings are, even outside of their sheer beauty and skill of execution, deeply moving in the way of anything that is both extremely fragile and tenaciously long-lived. The Lascaux caves had to be closed because the breath of visitors brought in molds that were starting to destroy the paintings. Tree roots reach down into Chauvet and exude gases toxic to humans. Water seeps into the caves from underground rivers. There’s a nuclear power plant glowing and smoking just a few miles away. The French government almost immediately sealed off the cave in order to protect it, so this film is realistically your only chance to experience what it’s like to be inside there.
Herzog and a minimal crew were allowed in for a limited number of hours for a very limited number of weeks. The crew was so small that everyone had to help holding cameras and lights. (In fact I keep forgetting this movie is called Cave of Forgotten Dreams because I keep thinking of it, in tribute to Gertrude Stein's play Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, as Werner Herzog Lights the Lights.) The hand-held lights have the advantage of recreating to some extent the flickering torchlight that originally illuminated these works for whoever painted or viewed them. The filmmaker's path was restricted to narrow metal walkways laid down by the archeologists studying the cave (who themselves have restricted access), so that they don’t destroy the fragile evidence of ancient life: the tiny bits of charcoal, the random footprints of ancient animal or child. It’s not a place for the claustrophobic, or even the clumsy.
The paintings are mostly of animals – rhinos, lions, bulls, horses – along with abstractions (though who knows if they were abstractions to the creators) made by palm prints. The drawings often follow the contours of the cave: hence the 3-D. The cave itself has a strange presence, with pale almost-glowing, almost-translucent stalactites and stalagmites staggered and dripping around us. But of course some of those would have been created drop by drop in the millennia since the paintings were made (others have been there long enough to be incorporated into the paintings).
I half-expected to be handed one of those cardboard glasses with one red and one green lens that used to be used for 3-D. I guess the technology has improved because my $14.25 admission included what looked like a regular pair of glasses, which fit easily over my actual regular glasses. They were not a pain to wear the way I thought they might be. The 3-D effects themselves, on the whole well worth the hassle of going to a movie theater, vary from OK to astonishing (though there was one brief moment at the end when they were so bad I had to take the glasses off).
It’s not only the cave that benefits from 3-D; there are some startling very low-to-the-ground shots where you feel you really are snaking along below the rows of grape vines near the sealed entrance. There are moments when you see things staggered in space, but those things – trees or people – themselves look flat, without the solidity that artists like Giotto or Picasso could achieve in two dimensions. But for most of the film the 3-D is so effective that, semi-ironically, you stop noticing it and it’s just as if you’re right there.
Speaking of Picasso, he seems to have tapped into whatever consciousness produced these paintings; not only did their ancient creator add different aspects of an image to the same image, somewhat in the style of cubism (as in a drawing of a horse that has multiple legs, mimicking a gallop, though Herzog calls that "proto-cinema"), but the colors of these paintings – the black on pale gray-whites and rusty browns – look remarkably like the limited palette Picasso used in his early cubist works. And the one human image in the prehistoric paintings, the lower half of a woman placed in conjunction with a bull, is similar to the Spanish artist’s many depictions of minotaurs or bulls with women.
Herzog in his husky narration reminds us of such continuities, and not only from what might be called high art: we see various prehistoric "Venuses" and he points out that their imagery of exaggerated breasts reappears in Baywatch. It reminded me of being in the Asian Art Museum with a friend who said, after examining several temple sculptures from India, "I guess people have always liked big boobs."
Not surprisingly the archeologists who study this specialized field are themselves an offbeat lot: one man (I think he was identified as an “experiential archeologist”), was dressed in the furs that would have been worn back when southern France was a prehistoric land with a lost name, mostly covered in glaciers. One intense fine-boned fellow was originally a circus performer, specializing in juggling and unicycle, before he became an archeologist. Another demonstrated his recreation of the spears and their hurling devices that ancient hunters might have used. Herzog austerely avoided the classic 3-D move of having the spears hurtling directly towards us; instead we watched them sail somewhat feebly into the field of grape vines. The hurler assured us that ancient hunters would have been better at it.
Then there was the middle-aged woman (I think she was the chief archeologist at the site) who was talking about being able to follow one of the painters through the caverns, because his crooked little finger kept recurring in palm prints. She kept saying “homme” and at one point her associate, another woman of about the same age, smilingly corrected her with “personne” and the other woman smilingly accepted the correction, but just once, and went back to referring to the painter as “homme.” I thought this was kind of amusing. There is no real reason to assume the painter was male; the archeologist did say that the painter was at least six feet tall (though I don't know how they know he or she wasn't moving a rock or stump around and standing on it), and maybe the larger size argues for a man, but there's really no reason a woman couldn't be that tall. I was reminded of a New Yorker cartoon from several years ago showing a cavewoman pausing reflectively halfway through painting a buffalo onto the cave wall and saying to another cavewoman, “Have you ever noticed that none of the really great artists are men?”
We simply do not know and cannot know who made these paintings or why – it’s even misleading to refer to him/her/them as an artist, because who knows if this was considered “art” in any sense in which we understand the term – this might have been religion or ritual or just some strange expression from one or two anomalous individuals. Artist, shaman, eccentric, who knows. Even if only rare individuals possessed the talent to create these drawings, it seems their society respected what was created, and even if we are viewing these works with completely different eyes, we too are awe-struck before them. Man is the animal who decorates.
This movie is a visual feast and offers food for thought too. I’m curious to see how it looks when the regular non-3D DVD is released. It’s worth seeing in either case. Until then I will ponder the wild Herzog coda, comparing humanity to the albino alligators swimming in the artificial jungle created with heat from the nuclear power plant.
(Blogger didn't like the length of my title; I meant to include the passage up to "the only immortality you and I may share. . . .")