Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Wanous)

"Cave of Forgotten Dreams"
by Craig Wanous

Art has always been a part of human history and cave drawings are some of mankind's oldest creative expressions. The subject of the documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" contains the oldest cave paintings ever found, dating from 32,000 years ago, nearly twice as old as the next oldest cave art.

Only recently discovered in 1994, the main entrance to the Chauvet Pont d'Arc cave in France was fortuitously sealed by a rock slide some 20,000 years ago, thus preserving the marvelous illustrations for thousands of years.

Named after one of its discoverers, the entrance to Chauvet cave is guarded by a massive steel door and admittance is highly restricted. Director Werner Herzog was granted unusual access to make the film, but had to work under tightly controlled conditions.

He was limited to four crew members, with only battery-powered fluorescent lamps for lighting. And the filmmakers were constrained to a two-foot wide walkway in the cave. They were not allowed to touch anything and if a crew member had to leave for any reason, they all had to leave and shooting would be over for the day.

But once inside, all that is forgotten. The drawings on the cave walls are magnificent. The bold strokes, flowing lines and realistic renderings could be shown in any modern gallery. Near the entrance, there is a cluster of red handprints, all made by one person, a forever-unknown artist with a deformed little finger. Deeper in the cave, that same crooked finger shows up again, almost as if the viewer is following the artist into the darkness.

Horses, bears, lions, wolves, rhinos, and other animals are prominently depicted everywhere in Chauvet cave. Even odd-shaped stalactites have artwork on them. There are burn marks on the walls where flaming torches have been rubbed. And some of the drawings have even answered questions about an extinct cave lion, whose appearance has been debated for years.

Paw prints, bones, skulls and even pieces of primitive musical instruments are scattered throughout the cave, as is the world's longest trail of cave bear tracks. There are bear claw scratches on top of paintings and paintings on top of claw marks. Some overlapping drawings were drawn as much as 5,000 years apart.

This has all been preserved in the sealed cave by the slow, millennia-long accumulation of calcite and concretions. But strangely, there is not a single drawing of a complete human form anywhere in the cave.

Herzog, is an acclaimed filmmaker with several award-winning movies to his credit, including a previous documentary, "Grizzly Man", and the film "Rescue Dawn", with Christian Bale. "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is receiving rave reviews and will likely garner more award nominations for Herzog.

While the scenes inside the cave are mesmerizing and the art is stunning, when the focus moves away from the art itself, the movie tends to drag. Some of the interviews are too academic, off-target and overly long. And Herzog's voiceover sometimes gets a little esoteric, including the line from which the title is derived - "These images are memories of long forgotten dreams." Huh?

I also found the screeching, discordant soundtrack a bit distracting. And the postscript about atomic energy and albino crocodiles is simply bizarre, having little or nothing to do with the art and more to do with the director's views on nuclear power.

But overlooking those minor faults, I do recommend "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." This is a window into humanity's distant past, offering us a fascinating glimpse of the dangerous world in which our ancient ancestors lived. And the art is so beautiful, so awe-inspiring that it really should be seen on the big screen.

Since it probably won't have a long theater run, I urge you to catch it at the Tropic while you can. I was moved by the film and came out of the theater with a renewed sense of optimism. Surely, hopefully, any species capable of such beauty and artistic vision at its earliest beginnings cannot be all bad.

Write Craig at
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