Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog's new documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" may be the most entertaining history show that you will ever see. It focuses on the Chauvet Cave in Southern France which contains the earliest cave paintings ever known, produced some 38,000 years ago. Just the opening shot of four modern humans looking like terra-cotta soldiers gingerly walking into a Paleolithic era as you hear Herzog's hypnotically charged voiceover will have you wanting more.

Herzog was given access with very strict guidelines to film inside the cave. Special shoes and suits had to be worn under the rule that nothing be touched. The exploratory men look like miners from another dimension, going back in time with their miniature cameras. The scholars, including Herzog himself, stand aghast like grown children. It is almost like the film "Super 8" upside down: these men armed with their small but advanced recorders want to re-imagine the perfect Paleolithic moment, to get anything they can on film.

And when they arrive what a sight it is. Stalactites hang down in huge formations creating pink womb enclosures. Sparkling sediment coats huge areas of wall while the floors are encrusted with calcified bone, be it bear, bird, rhino or wolf. This cave would make Salvador Dali's tongue salivate in pink frescoes of rivalry. But any Surrealist painting would be a poor study in matching the grandeur of this scene. The Chauvet cave does not merely look surreal, it is Surrealism itself: the curving walls, the illusion of movement, the sense that the 38,000 year painting of an animal sexually thrusting upon a female human, could have been painted by Picasso. Once inside the cave, the concept of Surrealism seems old news. The paintings become the original Brut in Art Brut.

Back at the lab, artists and archeologists toil feverishly, a bit like CSI. They work in vain in attempts to discover every bump and bruise, every stipple and scratch. To their delight, the experts deduce that the scratches were made by a bear. And then a tall man added a painting on top of the bear-scratching. Aha! The first inter-species collaboration!

The cave paintings are provocative enough but with the topping of Herzog's comments, we are put firmly in the realm of the Intense and even the comic. Herzog's voice, although dramatic is never distracting. He knows when to hush around the cave corners, listening to heartbeats---his own and the beat of the camera as it moves slowly like a jellyfish recording an ocean off limits.
Like the cave paintings that may have been overlapped upon and added by others decades and decades later, Herzog puts his own narrative stroke on the Chauvet cave with a visit from an eccentric expert and some exotic fauna.

But seeing is believing, so I'll say no more.
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