Doc of the Day: Cave of Forgotten Dreams Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Posted in Days of Docs by - December 18, 2011

Werner Herzog explores art and human identity through the earliest works of art in existence.

Dir. Werner Herzog, 2011, 90 min

Art is one of the things that makes us human. It allows us to articulate spirituality and philosophy and experience and emotion and all of that other big, heady stuff. One smart person in this documentary (I can’t remember what exactly it is he does; the movie features a litany of Smart People who are Smart in a variety of things) posits that the taxonomic designation of the human species shouldn’t be Homo Sapiens but Homo Spiritualis. If Art separates us from the ape, then can we mark where that separation occurred as the time when early humans first made art? That’s the idea Werner Herzog examines here, in a way that only he can.

The Chauvet-Pont-D’Arc Cave in southern France contains the oldest known cave paintings in the world. The drawings were done around thirty thousand years ago. The artwork mainly depicts animals: oxen, mammoths, lions, rhinos, horses, and more. There is also a drawing of a Minotaur-like woman/bull thing, and a stone face covered in red hand prints. There are bones of many bears but no humans; people did not live in the cave, they only used it to paint, and possibly for some religious purpose. The cave is also rich in dazzling geological features. There are currents of solidified minerals, some of which have flowed over and lacquered bear skulls. There are paper-thin hangings of multicolored rock that look like curtains. There are ultra-thin stalactites that could be made of sugar, and are just as delicate. The whole complex is an intoxicating array of natural and human-made beauty, and the photography of the film brings that beauty out fully.

The art survives today in pristine condition because a landslide sealed the cave off from the outside for most of its eons-long existence, until the cave’s discovery in 1994. The atmosphere inside is fragile, and visitors must wear specialized clothing and to never venture off a set walkway. Herzog had to go in with just three members of his film crew, doing the lighting himself. This makes the film’s visual bravado all the more impressive. I never though I would ever say this, but I wish I’d seen this movie in 3D, as it was shown in theaters. The paleolithic painters used the contours of the cave walls as part of the artwork, their figures run with dips in the surface and are foreshortened with bulges. I don’t think 3D is essential to the viewing experience, but it would have added an intriguing dimension (pardon the pun).

Herzog has a particular challenge here. He has to use the immediacy of film to bring to life people of whom we have only extremely distant artifacts to attest to their existence. But he pulls it off, which is just one more feather in my cap of “Herzog is one of our greatest living filmmakers.” He uses a few disparate techniques to do it: he has art experts explain the methods used by the ancient artists (such as drawing extra legs on an animal to signify movement), he has archaeologists demonstrate how the small detail of a crooked finger in a hand print allows them to identify the work of one artist among all the other pieces in the cave. Mostly, though, he simply lets the art speak for itself. By first using segments demonstrating what life was like for early people to give context, and then showing nothing but shots of the paintings, he leaves it to us to interpret what may have gone through the artists’ heads. It’s dizzying to think about it, that you’re linking your mind to that of someone else with thirty thousand years separating the two of you.

The art itself is also consider. Herzog thinks that the artistic stylization to make a horse seem to be running is like a “proto-film,” but really it’s a comic book. Scott McCloud goes over the subject in-depth in Understanding Comics, so you should take his word on this before mine, but people were drawing comics long before Superman or political cartoons, before anyone was intentionally making what we think of as the form. The cave drawings are sequential art; pieces that don’t stand alone but which gain context and meaning only as part of a series. That’s a comic book! So really, the graphic story may be the oldest surviving art form in the world (people may or may not have indulged the oral tradition at that point, but I don’t know if we have any evidence of it).

The fact that Herzog is able to make the paintings’ makers immediate doesn’t come so much from his power; he’s merely exploiting the inherent power of Art itself. It is our channel of understanding ourselves and our world. Even eons later, it still works. We will only fail to instinctively comprehend the cave paintings on any level after we have evolved into something else entirely (assuming we don’t blow ourselves up first). Herzog has crafted a testament to Art so moving and involving that I found it spiritual. I’ve always felt God in film far more strongly than anywhere else, and that’s a sensation I felt while watching this movie. Believe it or not, I don’t think that should raise anyone’s expectations too highly. This is very subjective stuff I’m talking about, and I’ll fully cop that some could find the extended sequences of nothing but drawings boring. At one point even I heard a Monty Pythonesque “GET ON WITH IT” in my head. But if you believe in the value of Art, you’ll find a wonderful sense of validation here. It’s a film both humanistic and beatific, and I loved it.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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